Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Day 43: Onwards on the Outback Way

December 27, 2010

This final leg of the Outback Way is known as the Kennedy Development Road, probably named such by some unimaginative civil engineer. But on our map, in brackets, we see it’s also known by the more poetic “MinMin Byway”. Apparently, for the past hundred years, people have been seeing strange lights hovering over the land in this area – dubbed the Min Min Lights. Some call it a natural phenomenon, yet as far as we can tell there’s been no scientific explanation posited. Others call it a supernatural phenomenon – aliens, angels or, because they’re said to originate in the cemetery, ghosts.

We don’t see them, but are delighted to see an exotic array of birdlife on the last leg of the journey to Boulia. We stop the car when a flock of long-legged Brolgas fly low over us, then watch as they glide higher and higher into the distance, riding the thermals. We get out the binoculars. A pair of forked-tailed kites appear in the foreground, searching for prey. Zebra finches and stints flutter around, excited by the flush of the wet season. Ducks and spoonbills prance around in a nearby swamp. A stunning white egret swoops down, lands, then fans her wings and alights again. The car is parked in the middle of the one-lane highway while we survey the skies and the waterholes with our binoculars for the next twenty minutes. We haven’t seen another car all morning.

I’m hoping to investigate the mysterious light phenomenon in the Min Min Museum in Boulia, but we’ve forgotten that Monday is a holiday, due to Christmas and Boxing Day falling on a weekend this year. Everything’s shut except the petrol station so we fuel up. My ears prick up when the attendant answers my query about the Plenty Highway – the next section of the Outback Way to Alice Springs. He thinks it’s open. Best thing is to call one of the station owners to find out the condition of the road.

We’d intended to head north out of Boulia, back to the main highway at Mount Isa as the RAC website still shows the Plenty Highway closed. The last unchartered section of the Outback Way would have to be forsaken. But this recent bit of information has raised our eyebrows. Johan rings the number provided in our guidebook for Glenormiston station, 116kms in. The helpful station owner says we shouldn’t have a problem in our AWD – the road’s dry and the forecast is good for the next few days. Whoopee! We’ve just got the all-clear to finish the Outback Way!

There’s not much between here and Alice Springs, 800kms due east except a few stations, massive enterprises of up to 1.5 million acres. The sparse herds of cows look parched and heavy in their thick leather coats. The landscape is a vast endless plain of natural grasses, perfect for the pastoral industries that established themselves here in the late 19th century. No one else could survive.

We’re grateful that the first 20kms of the road is paved but when the bitumen stops the road is rocky, rutted and wearing on the nerves. We stop at a Telstra tower at Boulia to look for a cache. These 100meter high towers appear every hundred kilometers or so and provide outback residents access to information, electronic commerce and health and education services. They don’t provide mobile phone coverage; these separate towers are only located in towns – of which there are none between Boulia and Alice Springs.

The GPS reading leads me to a small breakaway where I have to clamour over loose rocks to find a series of holes and ledges in the rock. As I’m nearing the coordinates reading for the cache, something loud and large scampers out of my way. I look into a hole, about where the reading says the cache should be located, and see a wary yellow eye situated in a huge striated head glaring out at me. Back of this head is a fat spotted body the size of a small seal. It looks like a dragon.

It’s actually a Gould’s goanna, one of the largest lizards in Australia. I can understand why Aboriginal people like to eat them; this one looks like he has ample amounts of juicy meat on him. I’ve never heard of human’s being endangered by goannas, but I’m not keen to push my luck. And I’m even less keen to stick my face in this lizard’s cubby hole to see if my cache is within. He’s probably eaten it by now anyway. This one gets ticked “Unfound”.

The Georgina River is where the RAC website located the problem area on this section of the Outback Way. This flat land is called “channel country” because rivers can extend up to 20kms wide in the wet season with a series of thin channels that snake through the land. A water mark shows the river rose to over 10meters high in 1974 and has flooded to lesser degrees every few years since.

But the cloudy brown water is safely below the concrete bridge as we pass over it, relieved that the one potential hazard in this section is easily traversed. We pitch camp at a shaded site overlooking the river and watch the abundance of birdlife flickering up and down the open corridor created by the river. We’re back in intense heat and sun – the day peaked at 39˚ -- and the night doesn’t cool much. Rampant mosquitoes drive us indoors just after nightfall. We read for an hour, cooling wet cloths draped over our bodies and the sound of flicking insects beating against the sides of the tent, hoping for an entry.

Outback cows

Gould's goanna protecting a cache

Water marker next to the Georgina River

Georgina River camp

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