Tag Archives: outback

Australia from 35,000ft

The first pattern to catch my eye. So like and aboriginal painting

Yes, I know I’m not finished with Europe yet. I’ll get back to it soon. But I’m just back from a week in Perth, catching up with old, old friends and a brief visit with relos, and I want to share a few posts about that, first. For a start it was much better fun, and the weather was great.

Perth really is my “home town”. I wasn’t born there but I spent much of my life there – all my education, all my formative years. I was supposed to go back for a fiftieth high school reunion three weeks ago, but I was ill, so I couldn’t make the trip. But a few weeks to recuperate from my European sore throat and sniffle saw me back to my sparkling best. Although I missed the reunion, I got to catch up with the most important people who would have been there – friends from my primary school days – one I hadn’t seen for close on fifty years, and her sister, who was my best friend at primary school. I stayed with my BFF and her family and we went off to places I’d remembered to see the changes in the twenty years since I moved Over East. I’ll talk about that in later posts.

For now I want to share the marvellous photos I took of outback Australia as the plane flew from Perth to Brisbane. They’re not bad, but they ought to be much better. Sometimes we older ladies can be a bit… um… stupid. I was playing Solitaire on my tablet, trying very hard to avoid striking up a conversation with the woman sitting next to me. Yeah, I know. But I’m an introvert and chatting with strangers doesn’t come easily. This woman and her husband were not, I guessed, frequent air travellers. She’d brought up the flight info screen that show you where you are, air speed, height, outside temperature etc, and she spent a lot of time reading these details out to her husband who (of course) had a similar screen.

“Ooooh look, Darl. We’re nearly at Kalgoorlie.”

“That must be South Australia now. About a third of the way.”

“Gosh, minus fifty outside.”

You get the idea. Anyway, I glanced out the window and saw a nice pattern outside, so I activated the tablet’s camera, pressed the device up to the window and took a photo. I did that several times, often requiring a fair bit of contortion in the seat so as not to lean on the woman beside me. Bear in mind that I had my camera bag, containing my Canon 70D with 18-200mm zoom lens, set up to take photos in raw format, on the floor at my feet. It remained there for the entire flight.

You may kick me now.

So… here are the photos. I suppose they’re not too bad.

That’s space at the top, and the edge of Australia where the cliffs of the bight give way to the beach

Sand ridges

Don’t know the name of the river

The Flinders Ranges

More Flinders Ranges

Just taken off over Moreton Bay Brisbane, heading North

Over Brisbane and a canal suburb

Nearly home. Inskip Point and the edge of Fraser Island.

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans 2

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans 3

Love the colours of the land and the salt pans 4. And there’s a road

This is just like a painting

More Flinders Ranges

That might actually be water in the salt lake

Just like the Mandelbrot set

A river, and even some human straight lines

 

Geology and rock wallabies

5V3A5106It’s day 6 of our Lake Eyre adventure. If you’ve missed the previous episodes, here’s day 1, day 2, day 3, day 4 and day 5.

We’re in Wilpena Pound resort. It is situated a short distance from the gap into the pound itself and offers a number of walks of different distances and fitness levels. But before we did that our intrepid guide took us on a drive through several gorges. The Flinders Ranges are ancient. A visit to Brachina gorge presses home the point with a series of information boards indicating the age of the rocks you’re seeing at various locations. It’s like a time tunnel. This website has some fabulous photos and information for visitors. Well worth a look.

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Brachina gorge with streaky clouds

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Clearing clouds and folded mountains

5V3A5152This rugged landscape is simply stunning. Unfortunately, the weather in the morning was overcast, so conditions weren’t ideal for photography, but the day did eventually clear. Meanwhile, the clouds put on their own show, which they so often did on this journey.

The other thing you’ll find is the elusive yellow-footed rock wallaby. They skip around on the reddish rock faces, blending in so well with their surroundings they’re very hard to spot. The picture of Brachina gorge up there is the kind of place you find them, up on those hillsides.

There's a rock wallaby in this shot.

There’s a rock wallaby in this shot.

See?

See?

Spot the wallaby

Spot the wallaby

Hiding in plain sight

Hiding in plain sight

Here's a back vire, showing the long yellow-striped tail

Here’s a back view, showing the long yellow-striped tail

The Flinders Ranges are simply wonderful. The national parks people are working hard to reduce the number of feral goats and cats to help preserve this amazing place. It’s great to see that conservation efforts have saved the lovely little rock wallaby from extinction. May they thrive and prosper.

This was more or less the end of th5V3A4651e trip. From here, we headed back to Adelaide, stopping for lunch at a Clare Valley winery. We enjoyed a magnificent dinner at Adelaide’s Playford hotel, and left for home the next day. It had been a full-on, very busy trip. We covered a lot of territory, and I ticked off three items on the bucket list – Kati Thana-Lake Eyre in flood, Birdsville, and Wilpena Pound.

Oh – I should add this was a small group (20 people max) tour conducted by APT. We rode in an air conditioned Mercedes 4WD truck (DON’T call it a bus) while our guide, Sam, told us all about what we were seeing. I’d recommend the trip to anyone.

 

 

 

Marree to Wilpena Pound

MapIt’s day 5 of our Lake Eyre adventure. If you’ve missed the previous episodes, here’s day 1, day 2, day 3, and day 4.

We landed back at Marree after our final flight over Lake Eyre and boarded the truck for the next part of our journey. But first we saw a couple of Marree landmarks. One of them is the MCG. It’s a little bit different to the one in Melbourne, but it has the same initials. (I mentioned the outback sense of humour, didn’t I?) Another is the start of the Birdsville track, but I showed you the other end last time.

Marree from the air

Marree from the air

The MCG (not the Melbourne Cricket Ground)

The MCG (not the Melbourne Cricket Ground)

We were off to Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheater in the Flinders Ranges and another of my bucket list items. Most of the ‘mountain’ ranges we saw on our travels were part of the Flinders Ranges, although some have local names. The formation of the ranges is fascinating. Unlike many other ranges like the Himalayas, the Flinders wasn’t formed by tectonic plates bumping into each other. Rather, a geosyncline was formed when two parts of a continent split apart. The resulting chasm was filled with debris, which was later thrust up, twisted and buckled. This article does a pretty good job of explaining the geology. It’s one of the planet’s oldest mountain ranges, and home to some of the oldest animal fossils ever discovered. Although the ranges aren’t very high, when they were formed 540 million years ago the mountains were the height of the Himalayas. Erosion is a powerful force.

On our way south we came across some amazing cloud formations. We could have been forgiven for mistaking them for space ships. Cue X Files music.

Alien invasion

Alien invasion. The flat-topped pile on the right is material from the Leigh Creek coal mine which is on the point of closure.

A close up of the space ships

A close up of the space ships

I loved the Flinders Range. Apart from the spectacular scenery, it’s full of river red gums and cypress pines, and home to lots of wildlife. Here you’ll find eastern grey kangaroos, the big red kangaroos, euros, and the lovely little yellow footed rock wallaby which has been rescued from near-extinction. If you’re not familiar with the many different species of ‘roos, this article will help. The big roos are in no danger of extinction. They have benefited from humans through pasture lands and water supplies such as dams. The smaller marsupials are in very great danger from loss of habitat, and predators such as feral cats. I like cats – but not in the bush.

Red kangaroo. They can be grey, as it happens. But reds have a different head to the eastern (or western) greys

Red kangaroo. They can be grey, as it happens. But reds have a different head to the eastern (or western) greys

This is a grey kangaroo sitting outside our room at the Wilpena resort.

This is a grey kangaroo sitting outside our room at the Wilpena resort.

That formation that looks a bit like a uterus is Wilpena Pound

That formation that looks a bit like a uterus is Wilpena Pound

We would spend two nights at Wilpena. But on this, our first evening, we drove to a lookout to see the walls of Wilpena Pound. The name ‘pound’ in this context means an area where animals are kept, as in ‘dog pound’. There’s only one way into the formation, so it’s a natural stock barrier. In fact, there was a station in there. But although it’s pretty, it’s harsh country, subject to the cycle of drought and flood so common in Australia, and after one flood too many, the property owners gave up. Read more here. There are grazing properties still in the Flinders Ranges, but they work in with the national parks people to try to preserve this natural wonderland.

The walls of Wilpena Pound

The walls of Wilpena Pound with grass trees in the foreground. (We used to call them blackboys, but that’s no longer politically correct)

Birdsville and more Lake Eyre

It’s day 4 of our Lake Eyre adventure. If you’ve missed the previous episodes, here’s day 1, day 2 and day 3.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

Birdsville from the air. All of it.

The Birdsville pub

The Birdsville pub

We landed in Birdsville and I get to cross another entry off my bucket list. Birdsville is probably THE hottest place in Australia. The official highest recorded temperature is apparently 49.5 – but that’s in the shade.

It was Good Friday, one of the few days of the year when everybody shuts up shop. The pub’s front bar was closed, but since we were guests we got to use the Lizard Bar. This is another tiny outback town which has made a name for itself. People come here from everywhere on the 1st September for the Birdsville Cup, a gazetted thoroughbred race. The population swells from about 160 to eight to ten thousand. Then they all go home and it’s over for another year.

I was a little bit bemused at learning we were going to be taken for a half-hour bus tour of the town. But it actually turned out to be a heap of fun. We were shown the race course, and the permanent lagoon (part of the Diamantina river), and the nearby camping ground. Our guide explained that the influx of visitors for the Cup puts a strain on the town resources, especially the rubbish tip. The burning of rubbish is forbidden (OH&S) but as it happens the Birdsville tip seems to be struck by lightning every Wednesday at 2pm. Act of God, know what I mean? We saw the standpipe where the town’s water supply comes up steaming from the artesian basin. The water goes through a cooling tower and filters before it’s pumped to houses, but it’s never really cold. We were taken to admire the new street lights in a housing area at the edge of town. No houses, but nice lights. Our guide explained that there are about 4 rateable properties in Birdsville, so most of the town’s money comes from grants from drought or flood. The lights were from one grant, the streets were added later from another grant. They’d like a flood, please. They’ve had enough drought for now. Then we popped into the Birdsville Bakery for a chance to buy a curried camel pie and other tasty goodies.

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The racetrack

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The Birdsville Track, made famous by Tom Kruse on the longest mail run in Australia

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Birdsville’s town water supply comes up from the Great Artesian Basin

    The Birdsville Bakery. And that gentleman with his hands on his hips is Trevor Wright, dictator of William Creek

The Birdsville Bakery.

Our guide epitomised the kind of people you get in the outback – tough, resilient, with a wicked sense of humour. They have a cultivated disdain for bureaucracy, which is understandable. Rules and regulations dreamed up by clerks sitting at desks in air conditioned comfort in Canberra or Brisbane just don’t make sense out here. Practicality is the name of the game.

And then it was back into the planes for another look at Lake Eyre before we met out trusty guide at Marree. This time we also flew over the part of the lake where Sir Donald Campbell broke the land speed record in Bluebird in 1964. This flight I was even more impressed with the scenery as aboriginal art.

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This is a cattle station with a serious airstrip

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There’s algae in the salt, hence the pink colour

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The water won’t last long

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Reminds me of the Nazca plain

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Chaos theory in action

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lake Eyre to Birdsville by air

lake EyreIt’s day three of our journey to see Lake Eyre in flood. If you missed day 1 you’ll find it here, and day 2 is here. Today we leave Marree and travel along the Oodnadatta track to William Creek, where we’ll catch a plane.

We’re really in the outback now, surrounded by barren plains with maybe a range of low hills on the horizon. It’s dry out here. Marree’s average annual rainfall is 160mm (6.3″). The vegetation is tough. There’s a lot of salt bush, and plants with leathery, greyish leaves. But there’s water, if you know where to look. Australia is host to the largest artesian basin in the world, and the road we’re following is there because it follows the water. Many towns up here have ‘wet’ words like creek or well in their names, places where water can be found. We stop in a particularly desolate area to look at the mound springs – places where the mineral-filled water bubbles up to the surface. Over thousands of years the minerals were deposited and the mounds built up. You can see from the pictures that around such springs the ground is lush with plant life. These springs have had to be protected from cattle, which trample the edges and muddy the flow.

Maybe they need to be protected from people, too. The settlers didn’t understand this country. Read the story on the information board and you’ll see what I mean. The aboriginal people called these places home, and they looked after them. Water, after all, is life.

This barren country is where you find mound springs

This barren country is where you find mound springs

That's a mound spring. It's a long way to the top

That’s a mound spring. It’s a long way to the top

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This spring is known as the bubbler. You can see why.

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

Read the story on the left next to the blue map

But it’s not just humans who need water. We crossed a creek full with recent rain. It teemed with little fingerlings all fighting for a chance to get to lake Eyre. And surrounding this crossing were hundreds of silver gulls. The nearest coast is at Port Augusta, around 450km away. How the gulls knew the water and the fish were here is a mystery.

Silver gulls in the desert. There's a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

Silver gulls in the desert. There’s a little fish stair to help the fingerlings cross the road.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

The tranquility of water in the desert. Soon it will be a dry bed again.

We arrived at William Creek (population 12) just before lunch, served (of course) in the pub. The owner, Trevor Wright, basically owns the town but he doesn’t like to be called king. He reckons he’s more of a benevolent dictator. He’s a big man with a shock of white hair and he operates the planes we’ll use over Lake Eyre. He likes to talk, too. One of his pilots came in to give him a hurry up call. The planes and the pilots were waiting.

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William Creek

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All you need to know about William Creek

Six of us 5V3A4771(including the pilot) crammed into a Cessna 210. I was in the last of 3 rows of seats and I won’t pretend it was comfy. The outside temperature was in the late 30’s and the cabin wasn’t air conditioned. We took along bottled water and frozen wet towels to keep us cool. I found the best way to avoid dwelling on discomfort was to watch what was going on below. It’s 450km as the crow flies from William Creek to Birdsville – and a bit more when you’re sight seeing. The journey took about two and a half hours and I don’t mind admitting I was pleased to stagger out of the plane at the other end.

The following day we did it all again, flying from Birdsville back to Marree, where our driver picked us up. There’s a lot to say about Birdsville, but I’ll do that in another post. For now, let’s take a look at Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre.

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Heading towards Lake Eyre

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water

The sky reflected in shallow, calm water

 

More reflections

More reflections

Flocks of pelicans. That's why we're up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we'd end up being permanent residents

Flocks of pelicans. That’s why we’re up at 500ft. If we hit one of them we’d end up being permanent residents

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

Pelicans floating on the water. Nobody knows how they know the lake is full

The Diamantina flows into the lake

The Diamantina flows into the lake

Trevor said he'd never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

Trevor said he’d never seen the desert so green. This is the Diamantina

The desert. It doesn't look like the Sahara - but there are sand dunes

The desert. It doesn’t look like the Sahara – but there are sand dunes

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

It looks like fabric, or an aboriginal painting

Red sand of the Simpson desert

Red sand of the Simpson desert

This is 'Big Red' a sand dune 30m high.

This is ‘Big Red’ a sand dune 30m high.

Coming in to land. That's the plane's shadow on the ground

Coming in to land. That’s the plane’s shadow on the ground in the middle of the picture

 

 

Crossing the Flinders – the Pichi Richi pass

Lake EyreWe’re on our way to see Lake Eyre in flood. Last time, we left Adelaide and travelled to Port Augusta at the head of Spencer Gulf. From Port Augusta we travelled north, crossing the Flinders Ranges via the Pichi Richi pass. We’re following the old railway line built for the Ghan in 1879. You’ll find the history here. These days, the line and its steam train offer a tourist service. Press ‘home’ on that website to find out more.

We’re headed for Quorn, which used to be an important railway town. In 1917 it was the junction between trains travelling east-west or north-south, but eventually it was bypassed. Now the railway station houses a rail museum, and it’s where tourists can board the Pichi Richi steam train for an authentic look at the Flinders Ranges.

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Opposite the railway station at Quorn – two pubs. Typical.

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The parrot was eating grapes on the vines growing on the pub veranda in the previous picture

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The platform at Quorn station

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Old ore cars in the rail yard

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The Prairie Hotel at Parachilna

20160324_121054Lunch was at Parachilna’s Prairie Hotel. It’s the only substantial building in “town” (population 15), but this little place is typical of the resilience of the outback people. They’re reinventing themselves by offering an experience you can’t get anywhere else – Australian bush food. They call it ‘feral’ (see website under ‘restaurant’) because some of it is – camels and goats are introduced species. We were served a tasting platter of kangaroo mettwurst, emu pate, camel salami, goat cheese, quandong chutney, bush tomato chilli jam, (and some chicken) with what looked like home baked sourdough bread and a salad. It was seriously yummy and I’d go back in a moment. You can find out a little more about Parachilna itself here.

 

imageFrom there we went to what our guide described as a semi-ghost town called Farina. It seems a semi-ghost town is one where not all the houses are abandoned. I’m sure I’m not the only one who wondered why anybody would want to live in a place like that, surrounded by crumbling remnants of past lives, but some people evidently do. Farina is close to Farina station (what the Americans call a ranch, not a railway station). Having said that, like most of the towns we visited, it started off being all about the railway. But we were just passing through.

And then our guide did something wonderful.

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Not too many people lasted out here.

Bush-bashing

Bush-bashing

She didn’t go back to the highway the same way she’d come. She knew there was another way, so she took us bush-bashing through the scrub at the back of the Flinders Range. I lost count of the dry creek crossings we negotiated, all of them studded with magnificent river red gums. All the while, we drove in the shadow of the Flinders, following the remains of the railway back to the blacktop. Even in an air-conditioned 4WD, I got a better idea of what it was like for the poor innocents who tried to conquer this country. You don’t. You just don’t.

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Marree Pub at dawn, with a nearly full moon

And then on to Maree, (population 60), deep in the desert and not far from Lake Eyre. This is another town which has had to reinvent itself. Phil and Maz Turner turned their backs on the bright lights of Canberra and bought the pub in 2011. Phil’s a big man with a big beard and he’s happy to talk to travellers. He told us he wanted a change from being a business consultant, so he bought the worst pub in the best town and hasn’t looked back. He has developed motel style accommodation and small but functional cabins for tourists like us. Phil has enormous admiration for pioneering outback legends like Tom Kruse (pronounced the same way as the plonker in Hollywood – and that’s where the resemblance ends) and has set up an exhibition in the pub. It was a great evening. We bought drinks at the bar from a black Canadian guy, got to meet the pub dogs, and ate a simple but tasty meal in the pub restaurant.

Marree is home to the Lake Eyre Yacht Club. Yes, it’s real – even if they can’t go boating all that often.

Next blog we’ll be going to William Creek to catch a plane for a flight over Lake Eyre and on to Birdsville.

 

Australia’s inland ‘sea’ – one more off the bucket list

Lake EyreI’ve always wanted to see Lake Eyre in flood. I’ve just returned from a one-week group trip to visit the lake, and it was truly awesome. Australian readers will know Lake Eyre (these days known as Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre) is in central Australia, in the northern parts of South Australia. It’s the lowest part of the continent, with the deepest point −15 m (−49 ft). The larger, northern lake is 144 kilometres (89 mi) in length and 65 kilometres (40 mi) wide, and Lake Eyre South measures 65 by 24 kilometres (40 by 15 mi). You’ll find all the details here.

We flew into Adelaide on a Tuesday and hit the road on Wednesday, heading for Port Augusta at the top of Spencer Gulf. Like the rest of Australia, the population of South Australia huddles around the coast. Of South Australia’s 1.7 million inhabitants, 1.3 million live in Adelaide, and most of the rest are in the small towns in the southern part of the state. We were going into the outback, where people are few and far between, and camels are common.

Port Augusta was set up as a (wait for it) PORT to service the farmers of the region. But it soon became an important hub, connecting the west of Australia to the East coast, and the south to the north via the telegraph line. Railways followed. The Ghan used to start in Port Augusta, and the Indian Pacific arrives there from Perth. We would be following the railway line laid for the Ghan – the train is named after the Afghan cameleers who came here from northern India with their camels to help explore Australia’s vast arid heart.

From Port Augusta. That's Spencer Gulf with the Flinders Ranges behind

From Port Augusta. That’s Spencer Gulf with the Flinders Ranges behind

The old jetty at Port Augusta

The old jetty at Port Augusta

From Port Augusta we’re heading north, up through the Flinders Ranges and into the desert. It’s harsh country out there. Although there are plenty of river red gums, the old settlers didn’t try to use them to build houses. Instead, they used local stone. You’ll see beautiful stone buildings everywhere in South Australia. Those in the photo below were part of a township called Kanyaka. Here’s the story.

Kanyaka ruins

Kanyaka ruins

And here’s the creek bed and some of the marvellous river red gums (Eucalyptus Camaldulensis) common in the area. Hard to believe that one of the station owners was drowned in the creek.

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The creek behind Kanyaka

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode, where I’ll share a little more of our journey north.

The never-ending plain

landscapeWe rolled out of Winton at about 8am, having decided the local bakery (the only shop open in town) didn’t offer much in the way of breakfast. Kynuna was only about 175km away. A couple hours drive. While Pete hosed down the Pajero at the truck stop I got a few photos of the pink and grey galahs gathered for the morning warmup before heading out to forage.

Pink and grey galahs warming up at dawn

Pink and grey galahs warming up at dawn

The general feeling hereabouts is a big lot of nothing. The horizon is soon flat in every direction, the ground a rocky pale red, cred earthovered with mounds of spinifex, the tough, spiky native grass which epitomises the north. No road kill, no black kites. Mind you, there’s life out there; it’s just that the animals are small, hiding from the sun in the spinifex. Every now and then we’d encounter a greener stand which included ghost gums. There’d be sure to be a creek or river – a dry bed. But the water is there, down below the surface.

The sight of a range of hills on the horizon is a major distraction. It’s sobering to think that was once a mountain range, worn down by eons of weather. Once or twice the road goes through one of those ranges. That’s where the road kill is, in areas where the kangaroos have some shelter and feed. Naturally, the kites and crows are back, too.

Kynuna

A brolga admires its reflection in the road house door

Kynuna turns out to be a road house and a caravan park. It seems 600 people used to live there. Now, the population is 12. And three tame brolgas, tall birds of the crane family. The look down sharp beaks at the human visitors and examine their reflections in the road house door. Breakfast was true trucky-style – poached eggs on toast was on the menu. Three eggs, thick chunks of tomato and two slices of toast arrived. (I didn’t eat it all) I’m glad I didn’t order steak and eggs 🙂

Seymour range

The road through the Seymour Range

Then it’s off to the Isa via Cloncurry.

Driving from Cloncurry became much more interesting, through the rugged hills of the Seymour range. This is a mining area. Mt Isa has a rich silver/lead/zinc mine right in the middle of town. The abandoned pit of the Mary Kathleen uranium mine is off to the right. Road trains of coal get in the way, slowing the traffic down between the overtaking lanes. On the radio we hear about a gold processing plant being set up in Cloncurry, which will spark a mini-gold rush around the Cloncurry area. Don’t do it in summer. It gets hot hot hot out here.

So here we are at Mt Isa, a large and bustling mining town. We booked in to a nice motel, did a spot of laundry and I washed my hair.Then we went to a local club for dinner and a quick flutter on the pokies. Pelican Pete paid up for me, and I turned $5 on Sumatran tiger into $35. It’s a mug’s name, but a bit of fun isn’t bad.

From here we’re venturing into the Northern Territory.