Tag Archives: travel

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.

Getting there is half the fun. Isn’t it?

I’ve been on a river cruise. Up the Danube from Budapest, then via the Danube-Main canal into the Main, which flows into the Rhine, which empties into the North Sea, but has a canal to Amsterdam. It was fun and I took a lot of photos. But Budapest is not where the journey started. That was when we stepped out the door and locked it. You could call it a prequel, if you like. So… let’s go there.

IMG_0907Out the door onto the Dash 8 for the flight from home to Brisbane, and then onto a Qantas Airbus 330. It’s quite an aeroplane, newly refurbished and very comfy. The food was great and the inflight entertainment first class. I watched Jurassic World (nice effects, basically a remake of the original), Jupiter Ascending (didn’t do much for me story-wise – but yeah, nice SFX) and Despicable Me 2 (fun). Not bad, since I’m not a great movie watcher. And then we arrived at Hong Kong.

I’d never been to the new airport which replaced the unforgettable Kai Tek some years ago. No hair-raising ride between the sky scrapers in the shadow of the mountain. This was just another landing, on a man-made platform among the islands scattered around Honk Kong. But it isn’t just another airport. This  place is H-U-G-E. And they have these helpful little signs on the moving walk ways. The mobile phone is everywhere.

IMG_0909 IMG_0910We were here for 6 hours, due to leave for Helsinki on a Finnair flight at around midnight, so we kicked our heels in the lounge. A drink here, a nibble there. Read a bit more of the book. When a gate number finally appeared beside our flight at around 11pm, I felt a flood of relief. I hadn’t even noticed I’d been concerned. But it was gate 65 – a loooong way from the lounge we were sitting in. We decided it would be best to start walking, so Pete went for a last minute ablute. While he was away a Chinese gentleman approached me. Were we on the Finnair flight? Yes, we were. So sorry, flight delayed until 8am. Someone from Finnair will come to talk to you.

Well, shit. When Peter returned I told him the good news. Nobody from Finnair appeared, but the same man who’d spoken to me earlier collected all the flight’s passengers in the lounge and took us down to the transit counter – manned by one (1) little Chinese girl. It was now around 11:40 and there were at least ten other people already there, with more joining the end of the queue. This poor little girl had to either find space on another flight for the affected passengers, or give them an accommodation voucher. That’s something like 300 not very happy people. And not everyone was prepared to accept she was doing the best she could. One irate American stormed up the head of the queue and banged his fist on the counter. “This isn’t good enough. I’m a priority passenger!” When half the queue told him we were also priority Passengers (ie business class) he shut up and slunk off back to his place in the line.

What the hell. It wasn’t the clerk’s fault and she was doing the best she could. After a long wait, we got our hotel voucher and slouched off the to airport’s Hilton for what remained of the night. It was about 1:30 when we finally closed the door behind us, and we would have to be up at 5:30 for an 8am flight. We bet each other the plane wouldn’t leave at 8am, but if we were wrong…

It’s hardly necessary to say sleep wasn’t the best. We went back through security and checked the departure boards. Delayed until noon. Oh goody. We’d both won that bet. Need I say we had time to kill? As it happened the cheap nasty faux leather jacket I’d bought a couple of years ago for a trip to Europe had decided to disintegrate. The vinyl was flaking off the collar and back, looking decidedly tacky. So we went off to buy a replacement. I could have bought something in the designer label stores, but several thousand dollars for a coat I’d hardly ever wear at home didn’t quite cut the mustard. I now have another faux leather jacket made for Asians, not Europeans. Which is to say, it fits around my tummy but the arms are too long. The old one we gave to one of the attendants in the lounge. I’m hoping it has a new life somewhere, with maybe a new collar.

To our huge relief the Finnair jet took off more or less on time. We drank each other’s health in complimentrary champagne and settled in to read. But it wasn’t going to be quite so easy. The flight we were on was supposed to be a late night service. If that plane had left as scheduled, the cabin crew would have whipped around serving dinner, then collected the trays, as soon after takeoff as possible. Then we would turn in to sleep our way to Helsinki. The fact that this was actually a lunch time flight was completely ignored. The crew conducted the service as they would have at midnight and after they’d collected the trays they closed all the window blinds, FFS. And offered us breakfast for our arrival at Helsinki at around 4pm.

What the hell. We were just grateful to be on our way. And it seemed we’d be able to make Finnair’s evening flight to Budapest, which was due for takeoff a few minutes after we were expected to arrive. We were told they’d hold the flight for us. Someone would meet us on arrival and take us to the Budapest flight. Well, that sounded good.

Judging by the anxious faces clustered around the plane’s exit door after landing, it seemed we weren’t the only people wanting to get onto a connecting flight. No one met us on arrival, so we made a dash through immigration, where we encountered a po-faced Finn with no sense of humour. How long was I staying? he asked. I’m not, I replied, there’s a plane waiting for me, I’m in a hurry.

He looked down his nose at me, and spoke a little louder. “How long are you staying in Europe?”

Oh, fuck. “Um… 15 days.” That was the length of the cruise. Behind me, Peter said, “17 days.”

“Twenty days,” he snapped, shoving my passport back at me.

We ran, dodging past the amblers and the booze in duty free and skidded to a halt at a very empty gate 23. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck.

The Finnair service counter is directly opposite gate 23.  Like us, the nice Finnish ladies seemed to think the plane was waiting for us. We gestured behind us to the deserted gate. By now the fatalistic refrain of ‘it’s not their fault’ was wearing thin. Try as we might, the incompetence and lack of communication had become a force of its own which we had to work hard to suppress. We discovered that even if we’d made the flight, our luggage wouldn’t have. But still, it wasn’t their fault and they did what they could.

We were booked into a superior suite at the airport Hilton with vouchers for dinner and breakfast, and seats were booked on the next Budapest flight leaving around 9am next day. We emerged into a Helsinki evening to breathe fresh air for the first time since we entered the international terminal at Brisbane. And it was bloody cold. Pete refused to leave his credit card details at the check-in desk. He reckoned Finnair could stump up for any mini-bar entries. As it happened, we didn’t use the dinner voucher, just drank a couple of bottles of scotch and vodka and ate the cashew nuts in the minibar. I reckon Finnair got out of it cheap.

We rang reception for a couple of toothbrushes and a razor. I wished they had a pair of panties I could buy. Pete had had the brains to bring a spare pair of jocks, but he’d used them up at Hong Kong. We crawled into bed, grateful that we’d scheduled two nights in Budapest before the cruise. Otherwise we could have missed the boat.

 

Back ‘o Bourke

Part of the outer facade of the motel

Part of the outer facade of the motel

It’s an old Australian saying. Back o’ Bourke there isn’t much. You’re right out in the scrub, beyond all hope of redemption. But as it happens, that’s not how it worked out for us.

We decided to head for home once we arrived at Port Augusta, which meant we avoided the south east corner of Australia altogether. Well, we’d been there, done that, and we’d been away from home for a while now. So we drove by day, stayed in motels by night, up through Broken Hill and on to the Mitchell Highway, which would lead us to Charleville, then home.

On the road we encountered the Darling River. It’s the second half of the Murray-Darling system that flows down from Queensland, forms the border between Victoria and New South Wales and flows into the sea at South Australia. It’s Australia’s largest and most important river system, providing irrigation and transport to the south-east corner for a couple of centuries, Even now, the Murray supplies Adelaide with its drinking water. Mind you, Adelaide has the reputation for having the very worst drinking water in Australia – but that’s another story.

I would not have imagined that river traffic would have come so far inland, but it did. We decided to stop overnight at Bourke, which is on the Darling River and had its own riverboat port. This time, instead of staying in a typical traveller’s motel on the highway, we booked into a place which was renovated buildings dating back to the nineteenth century. The owners had done a wonderful job or renovating a row of old shops and cottages and making them into self-contained motel units with a heap of character. Here are a few pictures.

The toilet is hidden behind a screen

The toilet is hidden behind a screen

An old fashioned bath with a modern shower fixture

An old fashioned bath with a modern shower fixture

Beautifully renovated and furnished

Beautifully renovated and furnished

A four poster bed

A four poster bed

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The bath and shower were olde worlde, the toilet cubicle was only for best friends. The TV and modern tea and coffee making equipment was hidden in the cupboards. All in all, it was lovely, the buildings set in lovely gardens overlooking the Darling. The old river port was a few hundred metres away. I watched the sunset, hoping to see the birds go to bed. But this is the best I could do.

A pink and grey galah flies off above the river

A pink and grey galah flies off above the river

 

Chasing rainbows

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance showing the Recherche Archipelago

Esperance is down on the southern West Australian coastline, an absolute jewel for those willing to take the time to visit. Showers accompany us along the road from Albany and rainbows appear – on both sides of the road. By this time the Pajero’s windscreen resembles the surface of Mars, with a sprinkling of craters and two cracks that inch a little further every day. It has also acquired a patina of insect bodies but even so, this rainbow is a jewel.Rainbow 1

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

The full arc of the rainbow through grubby glass

We’re staying with friends I haven’t seen for twenty years, but we reconnected via Face Book and I’m looking forward to the visit. Needless to say, our sat nav isn’t much help to navigate to a farm but we follow the instructions given on the phone and find the farm entrance just on sunset. Yes, this is the right track. Well graded gravel, even the zig-zags between the wide puddles. It has been wet wet wet here. A couple of kilometres from the gate we find the third house and I get out to check we’re at the right place. We are.

The canola crop is ruined.

The canola crop is ruined.

We stay for three nights. Joe and Charlotte and their eldest son farm 23,000 acres where they plant canola and raise cattle and sheep. Their machinery shed is mind-boggling. They have headers and bull dozers and road trains and ploughs and I forget what else. The big machines cost close to a million dollars each, mostly high-tech with computer controlled functionality and air-conditioned cabs (the headers, anyway). Pete is fascinated by the sheer scale of the operation. It costs $3 million to plant a crop, and they might make $5 million. If they get to harvest. This season will be poor. Australia runs in cycles of flood and drought, and this year has been the wettest for decades. The canola stands in shallow lakes, the yellow flowers reflecting prettily in the water.

There’s always work on a farm and Pete goes to help the boys bring in sheep while Charlotte and I go off to do the tourist thing at an area called Duke of Orleans. The scenery here is breath-taking. The granite outcrops are just as spectacular as they are in Albany, but the rock seems more colourful. The sea is turquoise blue, and the beaches are brilliant white, full of silicon. The sand literally squeaks under your feet as you walk. The islands of the Recherche Archipelago dot the ocean, steep granite mounds, such a contrast to the pancake-flat platforms of the Abrolhos Islands. It’s late in the day, and the showers have stopped, although clouds still drift across the sky in groups and the wind is fresh, whisking up the white caps. I manage a few reasonable pictures and then we head for home, talking all the while.

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Next day, Joe takes us out to a granite outcrop at the top of a hill to see if we can find some orchids. It’s quite an adventure. The paddock we cross is waterlogged and despite High rock Esperance1the four wheel drive, Charlotte is not the only one who wonders if we’ll be pushing the car. Oh we of little faith. We’re a little bit early for the orchids but a few have shown their faces. These outcrops are baking hot in summer. Only the toughest plants, like the dryandra, can survive. The delicate orchids wait their turn with the mosses and lichens, responding to the first rains. Charlotte tells me her oldest son was married here, overlooking the land. What a place for a wedding.

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

Flowers on the rocky outcrop

While Joe and his son move another mob of sheep, Pete fixes Charlotte’s ride-on mower and Charlotte and I drive out to Cape Le Grande. You’ve probably noticed the French place names. The French poked around the Australian coast many times, in lots of places but they seem to have left their mark especially around that southern coast. Bruni d’Entrecasteaux visited this area in 1792, and named both Esperance and Recherche after ships in his expedition. The weather is stunning, with blue skies and light breezes, an absolute invitation to climb on the rocks and walk on the beaches. We admire the scenery and the wild flowers, and encounter a kangaroo fossicking around on the beach. She seems untroubled by our presence, apparently grazing on something. We have no idea what.Esperance beachA roo on beach

Looking over the sea at the islands I’m reminded of a story I read somewhere, that a black American pirate operated out of here. My recollection is correct. Here’s the story of Black Jack Anderson Australia’s only known pirate. And here’s a link to a book about him.

From here we’ll be heading for home, east across the Nullarbor. Join us, won’t you?

Heading for the hills

Back in the car again we head for the hills. Literally. Perth is hemmed in to the west by the Indian Ocean and to the east, the Darling Range, an escarpment which rises abruptly, if not very high. We aim to stay a night in Albany on the south west coast, cutting off the bottom corner of Western Australia with its tall stands of temperate forests, boutique wineries, wild surfing beaches and spectacular limestone caves. I have fond memories of those places, but I’ve been there many times and this is, after all, a whip around Australia.

Canola in the foreground and behind grazing sheep

Canola in the foreground and behind grazing sheep

The landscape changes quickly, replacing the coastal sand dunes and limestone with gravel and rounded granite outcrops. Taller eucalypts form dense forests. This is the home of jarrah, a beautiful, fine-grained hard wood found nowhere else in the world. It’s heavy wood that when cut almost glows with the deep red of dying embers. When I was a kid the timber was used for fruit boxes and fences – and at our place, speargun handles, the shape roughly sawn and then carefully sanded by my older brother. Now, the trees are protected from logging but they are under threat from the soil born fungus phytophthora cinnamomi.

I spent many a happy hour in those forests. The climate here is mediterranean, with almost all the rain falling in winter. In summer the bush endures intense heat and rainless months. The trees shut down, leathery leaves hanging from branches, conserving precious moisture. It’s a time of survival where even the locals don’t budge until nightfall. But in winter, the hollows in the hills fill, the many streams begin to flow, and the run-off feeds the dams that supply water to Perth. It’s a magical time for children. While my father collected fallen timber to take home to burn, my brother and I would explore the streams gurgling through rocky beds softened by bright green moss brought to life by the rain. If we were lucky, we’d find rapids where the water chuckled and clattered over stones smoothed over centuries, or a deep, silent, shadowed pool. If we were even luckier Mum would have brought sausages, which we’d cook over an open fire and eat in a slice of bread. With billy tea, of course.

Albany from Google Earth

Albany from Google Earth

The forests give way to farmland, wide hectares of canola and short, arid-tolerant wheat interspersed with sheep and cattle. Sometimes we find a small town, almost always next to a river. The road is good, and despite the increasing showers, we reach Albany by lunchtime.

It’s a pretty little place with a spectacular natural harbour formed by low granite hills. Two islands in the outer harbour (King George Sound) protect the town from the pounding gales of the southern Indian ocean. I note with interest that the narrow passage into the harbour is called Ataturk Entrance. The reference is historical. Troop carriers loaded with Australian soldiers left for WW1 in 1914 from this port, for many their last glimpse of home. Those soldiers went to Egypt to train for the campaign against the Turks at Gallipoli – where the Turkish army was led by Kemal Ataturk. The name was given in 1985 as part of a reciprocal arrangement with Turkey to honour the dead on both sides of that pointless conflict. Nice.

Granite rocks line the edges of Albany Harbour

Granite rocks line the edges of Albany Harbour

The weather still threatens but the breaks in the clouds allow for some great photo opportunities, the water silvered by sunlight. In the distance, ocean rollers crash against the outer islands. The seas are rough, and rich.

The sun, shining through breaks in the clouds, silvers the water

The sun, shining through breaks in the clouds, silvers the water

Whaling was a major industry here, and indeed, was a reason the area was colonised. It’s sobering to learn that the last whale was taken as late as 1978. Now, whale watching has replaced whale hunting but I can do that in the warm, calm waters of Hervey Bay at home. There’s a whaling information exhibit where they used to process the whales, along with the last whale chaser, Cheynes II.

Rather than risk getting wet trying to find a place for dinner, we book into a motel with a restaurant. Dinner proves to be less than a foodie’s delight. It can sometimes be hard to get as many vegetables as we’d like when travelling, so we order the soup of the day, which we are told is minestrone. Except it is shredded chicken and mashed vegetable. We eat it, but point out the error to the wait person, who explains that he simply told us what the chef had written down. Uh-huh. For main course I order the chicken caesar salad, correctly described in the menu. But the kitchen used iceberg lettuce, not cos, and there is no chicken. Pete is unimpressed with his pork chops and even less impressed with the soggy vegetables and salad offered in the help yourself bar. I can’t help but feel that our complaints are seen as a nuisance more than anything else, although the cost of the soup is removed from the bill.

That’s one hotel crossed off the places to stay list. Never mind. Tomorrow night, we’ll be staying with friends.