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

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

.

 

 

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

 

Crossing the Nullarbor – beware of tourist traps

After a few memorable days at Esperance, it was time to head East, which meant a detour north to meet the Eyre Highway at Norseman. The locals call this trip across the bottom of Australia “crossing the Nullarbor”. The Nullarbor plain takes its name from the latin – no trees. Which is true, but if you’ve been following the trip, you’ll know that happens in a lot of parts of Australia. In fact, the road doesn’t go through much of the Nullarbor at all, because it follows (more or less) the coastline with its towering limestone cliffs. The late, sadly lamented Douglas Adams wrote a wonderful essay about Australia, giving his notion of how the Bight was formed. Do go and read it. I’ll wait over here, shall I?

That was fun, wasn’t it? He’s wrong about the spiders, though. We don’t hold the record there. The snakes are alive and well, by some counts ten of the ten most deadly snakes in the world are Australian. (It depends on what you mean by ‘most deadly’.)

Moving right along. The railroad does go through the Nullarbor Plain and one of the great rail journeys of the world is the trip from Perth, at the Indian Ocean, to Sydney, on the Pacific shores. If you really think about it, you might be able to work out why the train is called the Indian-Pacific. We’ve done that trip and after the train leaves Kalgoorlie, you’d better have a good book with you. A piece of trivia for you – it includes the longest dead straight stretch of track in the world – 478 kilometre (297 mi). We encountered the train further along our journey. Here’s the loco.

Mind you, the road trip isn’t much more interesting than the train trip. It boasts a 146km dead straight section. Although I have to say the food is more regular on the train and you don’t have to stop. A few hardy souls run road houses along the highway’s length, knowing they’ll have a steady clientele. We booked overnight accommodation ahead at Border Village, right on the WA/SA border, a good day’s drive. We don’t drive at night – there’s camels, roos and emus out there, not to mention the min-min lights.

The plain is flat and featureless. For me, what makes it stand out from other places is it’s on limestone and there are no rivers or creeks. I don’t mean ones with water in them – just dry gullies. I’d guess that’s because of the limestone. The rain – what there is – just soaks through and joins the caves and aquifers. Some of you might have heard of the famous caves at Cocklebiddie. If not, there’s your chance.

Not far from Eucla we encountered about the only dip in the whole road, driving down an escarpment. It soon became evident that we were now driving along what used to be a beach, with the limestone coastal cliffs on our left. The real coastal cliffs were a few kilometres over to our right. Eucla itself is one of the few actual towns on the Eyre Highway. The original signal station at Eucla is a short drive away, being swallowed up by a sand dune you can see for miles. It might have been worth a detour if we’d had time.

We crossed the checkpoint from WA into SA and rolled into Border Village at (you guessed it) close on sunset. All I could see was a road house and I suggested we’d better drive on a bit further. But no. WYSIWYG. Please read the sign.

The accommodation at Border Village is small, simple, clean and entirely adequate. It’s a shower, a bed for the night and a roadhouse for dinner and breakfast. Outback places like this are full of characters and Border Village is no exception. We spent a pleasant evening in the pub, downing a beverage or three, bantering with the locals about the football and talking with some fellow travellers. The conversations are always the same.

“Hi. Just got in?”

“Yep. Heading East.”

“Oh, yeah. Where’ve you been?”

And then it’s their turn.

Next day we were planning to stop at Port Augusta. We had a bit of time up our sleeves so we detoured a couple of times to admire the mighty cliffs along the Bight. The second time a road led down to the Head of the Bight, where a sign proclaimed one could also indulge in a spot of whale watching from a platform. Off to the right (west) waves dashed against the cliff. To the east the more civilized beaches began their march around the coast. However, if you wanted to use the platform, you had to pay $15 per adult. This was to walk along a dirt path to the edge of the cliff where a viewing platform had been constructed. Thirty bucks to stand on a deck and maybe see a whale if you’re lucky? No way Jose. I think that sort of thing’s a rip-off. There are two other places you can admire the cliffs for free – and as for whale watching, I can get a much better view at home. So we drove off in a flurry of dust, snorting in affronted disbelief.

We reached Port Augusta at – can I hear you – sunset. Just a little after, actually, which was unfortunate. The town lies at the base of the Flinders Ranges which are spectacular in the last light of afternoon. Oh well. I saw that when we took a train trip to Alice Springs. But that’s another story.

Chasing rainbows

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.

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.

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.

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 the 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The world has continued to turn

Coastal scenery north of Perth

It’s always interesting returning to a place you knew very, very well. You have a picture in your head, a deep memory in glowing technicolour. The beach, sunset on the river, summer days, winter storms, road junctions, how to get to places. But it’s a moment in time, a photograph. Since you recorded those memories the world has continued to turn.

That’s how it is with me and Perth. I grew up there, lived there, worked there until I finally left in 1996 and haven’t been back since 2005. Even then, it had grown, creeping up and down the coastal plain between the Darling Ranges and the Indian Ocean. So we head out of Geraldton along the coast road, into increasingly familiar territory. Down there, the red sandstone gives way to limestone covered in bright white sand. Grass trees (black boys in my day – politically correct can be so inane) share the scrub with cycads and low, gnarled banksia trees. Spring is beginning and the yellows and purples of early flowering species brighten the drab grey-green of the tough Australian bush.

The ocean is as I remember it. Reefs and low islands line the coast, providing safe nesting sites for sea birds, rich grounds for fishermen – and a deadly snare for one Dutch ship. We drop into the small fishing village of Leeman for a comfort stop. There’s a story in that name – I’ll tell it to you later. But even here, the whisper of the approaching, encroaching city is in the air. Properties for sale for half a million? Out here? In the scrub?

We have fish and chips for lunch at Jurien Bay, sharing the last chips with the seagulls. Back home in Hervey Bay the ibises are the scavengers, but here the sea gulls hang around, awaiting their chance. A pile of chips disappears under a squawking, screeching flurry of grey and white wings. But only for a few seconds. The food gone, they disperse.

On to Lancelin and Two Rocks. Back when I was a girl, coming out here was a bone-shuddering odyssey through farm land to a deserted beach where the spear fishing was good. Not anymore. Suburbia has created a beach head. The freeway and the railway follow close behind, providing the logistical feed from the city by the Swan.

We swear a lot at the god-awful GPS in the car which seems to think we give a rats about what servos there may be near the freeway to the extent said information covers half the screen, with no findable option to turn the feature off. Because we want ROAD DIRECTIONS we resort to an old, printed map and sign-reading to avoid the city. We only just manage to avoid having a major, in-car war but sense prevails and we make the eastern suburbs without spilling blood on the car seats.  I’m coming down with a cold. What bliss. Being ill on the road isn’t nice, and I have no wish to share my germs with my relatives, who are in complete agreement.

Sunday is with us. I try hard to stay in bed and rest but I’m not sleeping and the antihistamines are masking the worst of my symptoms so we head on out. If I infect anybody, they won’t know it was me. The city to surf ‘fun run’ is on, so we avoid the city and King’s Park. I have to wonder why they’re called fun runs. This one claimed two lives. Anyway – off to Fremantle, Perth’s port.

My dad worked there when I was young, a grimy, sleepy, industrial port with some lovely old buildings nobody noticed. Then Alan Bond won the America’s Cup and Freo became all the rage. The old buildings were cleaned up, the markets became a Mecca, boutique breweries, quaint shopping precincts in quirky lanes, all kinds of restaurants rose up to support the pre-existing fish and chip shops at the fishing boat harbour. I wonder how much the years have changed her.

I’m pleased to see that Freo is all of those things, only more so. The city is packed with people enjoying the day, despite (or maybe because of) the threatening clouds on the Western horizon. We buy coffee at the fishing boat harbour, which now boasts sit-down venues with fancy fish tanks. Back in the day, you bought your chips wrapped in paper and took them back over the walkway to the park to eat them on the grass under the pine trees. They cost a lot less then, too.

We go and visit the Maritime Museum (what a surprise) and see the mortal remains of the Batavia’s hull on display with its ballast cargo, a portico destined for the fort at Batavia.

And here I encounter an old friend, a skeleton I first saw when I was about ten, the victim of Jeronimus Cornelisz’s thugs. I recalled that long-ago meeting when I explained why I wrote To Die a Dry Death. I also think about my recent visit to the site of the tragedy, the Abrolhos Islands just off Geraldton. This man died far from the green fields of his home land.We are too late to get on board the replica of the tiny yacht Duyfken but we can at least marvel at the size of the ship which had arrived on Australia’s northern shores from Amsterdam in 1606. Wow, those guys were tough.

And those threatening skies? They provide me with a perfect photo opportunity.