Australia

October 16 - 31, 2014

 

October 16, 2014

Blue skies and sunshine this morning as we continued our drive south on the Cobb highway, keeping an eye open for emus on the empty plains on either side of the road. We were rewarded with four sightings of a dozen or so birds and one that was close enough to the road, that Annette was able to get photographs.

emu sightingThe Black Swamp and Headless droverThe Long PaddockAustralian SkyRoad Hazards

The route along the Cobb highway followed portions of a stock route called the “Long Paddock” that was established around 1840. We stopped at the “Black Swamp” to view a roadside sculpture of the headless horseman. The “Black Swamp” was a watering hole for stock and a local butcher is said to have terrified the passing drovers by wearing a cloak and frame on his shoulders to appear that he was a headless man riding a horse. He would scare both cattle and drovers so that he could make off with a few. He supposedly was smart enough to limit his thefts to a lowish number so as not to attract law enforcement. The sculpture by Geoff Hocking depicts the resulting cattle stampede and fleeing drovers pursued by the headless specter.

The weather stayed fine as we passed through through the towns of Deniliquin and Moama, before crossing the Murray River into the State of Victoria and stopping for the night at Echuca. In 1853 Echuca was the largest inland port in Australia and the wharf brought a steady stream of steamships, carrying goods to be transferred by rail to the port of Melbourne. Several of these steamships have survived and we booked a passage for tomorrow on a side paddle steamship, the P.S. Pevensey, for a tour of the Murray river.

We are staying for the night at a riverside caravan park, close enough to walk into town and we walked along the bank of the Murray towards the old wharf. There were many house boats moored "stern to" the bank, as well as a couple of steamboats tied up. I noticed that the steamboat's smokestacks had heat and fumes rising and I asked a deckhand what kind of fuel was being used for the boilers. She indicate a pile of cut logs on the bank and noted that these ships are of the few that are authentic wood burners (just like the African Queen!) - not propane as I would have assumed.

It has been cold for the past few nights and Annette's day was truly made when for $8, she found a thick hooded dressing gown in the clearance rack at at "Big W" - sort of Australia's equivalent of Wal-mart. She will be a warm and happy camper tonight.

October 17, 2014

This morning I worked on our travel arrangements to Tasmania. When we tried to book passage on the car ferry boat, the “Spirit of Tasmania”, the internet informed us that they were fully booked throughout October AND November for vehicles over 2.1 meters height. Our bus is over a meter taller than this limit and so for us, this is not going to work. We telephoned the booking office and they confirmed what we had already observed but agreed to add us to a standby wait list in the event of cancellations. Grumpily we abandoned this effort and headed into town to check out the multitude of tourist gift shops and the soothing interior of the Shamrock Pub.

Golliwogs are back in fashionSS EmmylouThe Big WheelSteam Engine100 pounds steam headOn the wharf

With ready access to both firewood and water, steam engines were commonly used in these parts and as we wandered through the old town section of Echuca, along the banks of the Murray river, perhaps a score of these old engines were on display, some working and some not. It seems like everyone in Australia must have had a rusting chunk of iron in the back paddock. An active and working boiler on the wharf-side provided steam for several engines demonstrating the functions of the lumber mill that had been located here in the 1800’s. Steam winches would drag the logs up the bank from the river, so that they could be cut into usable chunks by huge powered reciprocating saws before steam driven radial saws would produce the various needed sizes of cut lumber.

I was surprised at how quiet the whole operation was and the absence of clouds of polluting smoke. Admittedly the boiler was only running at 20 psi instead of the 100 psi that would probably have been used for real production and the saws weren’t actually cutting the logs. Where I grew up in Birmingham, England, the nearby steam locomotives at the freight marshaling yards were noisy and produced prodigious amounts of dirt in the form of soot and ash. As I compared the two, I realized that whereas the Echuca steam engine was fueled by fairly clean burning wood, the British steam locomotives of my youth were coal burning and the exhaust steam was vented into the chimney stack, thereby increasing the air draw on the firebox and creating the characteristic “puffing” sound of a steam locomotive. This process would near guarantee that they also vented lots of unburned carbon in the form of coal soot plus ash particles, both the bane of women like my mother, desperately trying to dry laundry on a clothes line in the few minutes between British rain showers and before it became dirtier than before it was washed.

We had booked a river trip on the P.S. Pevensey, a vessel built as a barge in 1910 and then converted to a side paddle steamer in 1911 at nearby Moama. She weighed in at 130 tons, length of 112 feet with a 32 foot beam. The 20 h.p. wood burning engine could propel her at 8 knots and her draft of two and a half feet ensured she could transit much of the Murray river system. We saw several other steam powered paddle wheelers on the river but most were of recent manufacture, some with modern engines but some using restored and antique steam engines. The Pevensey is one of only two authentic vessels still extant.

I was interested to see how she was turned in the river and watched as the master skillfully rang in the engine changes, turned the big spoked wheel and let river current do the rest. The side paddle wheels aren’t independently operated as I had imagined but turn on a single shaft. The paddle boat moved surprisingly swiftly and silently up and down the river and at 6 times heavier than our S/V DoodleBug with its 85 H.P. turbocharged diesel, has a similar top speed thanks to the low flat hull shape.

This was a very enjoyable way to travel and Annette and I sat on fake cotton bales on the bow, sipping cold beers and were quite ready to continue down the 1800 or so kilometers to the mouth of the Murray in Adelaide. Unfortunately our one hour passage was over and we were dumped back on the wharf where we met Brian Carter, a self styled “troubadour, spruiker, poet, bard, singer and juggler”. What attracted Annette’s attention was that he performed on demand, Kookaburra imitations, both the morning version and the more common territorial warning. Annette has been practicing her call and was an apt pupil for any hints from a master. I have tried but I can’t even come close. My efforts are more Orangutan than bird.

October 18, 2014

We headed south from Echuca and at a rest stop, remembered to fire up the computer to sign up for a Melbourne toll pass. We had to perform this task for Brisbane, Sydney and now Melbourne. Last year we were burned with a $140 fine for unpaid tolls in Melbourne, after I had been incorrectly assured that the Brisbane account would also include the Melbourne toll roads. Since we intended to return to Australia, I broke with tradition and paid the fine, grumbling as I did so. The authorities use video cameras to scan license plate numbers and this information is used to compute speeding offenses, toll usage and failure to pay for vehicle registration (the registration fee also includes liability vehicle insurance). The speeding is not much of an issue for us, since the Coaster doesn’t go that fast anyway. Just think, in another hundred years, the USA might use the same technology.

Ed and DavidWe stopped for the night at the home of my (Ed’s) cousin David and wife Kathie and enjoyed catching up with family stories and a fabulous meal at a nearby restaurant. This was one of those “menu fixee” deals where they keep bring courses until you are ready to explode. A great visit.

October 19, 2014

It was late Sunday morning when we left eastern Melbourne to travel down the southern Mornington Peninsula to avoid the week day traffic. As it was, there was construction and road closings to contend with and at one point, the GPS had us on a gravel road. A cold, grey day with a spattering of rain and at the caravan park, we nested in our bus for the evening, watching movies and eating popcorn.

October 20, 2014

This morning we met Ed’s first cousins Anne and Geraldine and walked the seafront, exploring the gift shops in the hamlet of Mornington. Cousin Una with her husbandEd, Anne, John, Una, Geraldine John joined us for brunch and that afternoon we briefly visited kids and grandkids. It was so exciting to meet the extended families of distant relatives that are distant only in miles.

We chatted with Geraldine’s husband Jerrod and he regaled us with tales of leaving a house and job in Ireland in the 1970’s and traveling to Australia with his wife and five children to start all over to make a new life in Melbourne. In my opinion, few people could give up their security blanket of an established family life to do that. Geraldine had lots of family pictures, including pictures of my father as a young man and Anne brought her family albums to the gathering. We sent out for “take-away” and naturally Annette and I leaned towards the “fish and chips” option, since we don’t get this at home. Another great visit.

October 21, 2014

Last year we had the bus serviced in Cairns and the mechanic had reported “exhaust system leaks”. We had finally arrived at the point of actually doing something about this and drove over to a specialist exhaust repair shop to have the system inspected and repaired. The mechanic searched underneath the bus for several minutes and then said, “That is nothing. I wouldn’t bother with it – take another look in six months”. OK then, we continued west, skirting Port Phillip Bay, the huge body of protected water that fronts the port of Melbourne and headed back south to the seaside resort town of Torquay, “surfing capital of Australia”. Certainly surfing is big business here and we stopped first at the “Surf Museum”. There were movies of idiots surfing 50 foot waves and what was as impressive as the fact that these fools deliberately put themselves under a moving, towering wall of water, was that they were towed into position by “dudes” riding jet skis and were being photographed from a small helicopter. The helicopter was so close to the surfer that the pilot had to lift each time a wave went by since he was filming from below the crest. Another film clip was an interview with an expert surfer who was describing rescuing a “wipe-out” victim when he noticed they were both being circled by a large shark. Great sport!

A letter homeBoards through timeThe southern ocean

Annette searched the museum for her 1964 Hawaiian made board, a present from the creator, her older brother and last used in Talofofo Bay in Guam. She remembers the Guam waves as not as gnarly as the Torquay waves, dude. The museum was fun and we were obviously the most senior attendees.

We continued west along the Great Ocean Road that hugs Australia’s southern sea cliffs. The road twisted and turned, rose and fell steeply and to our left was white sand beaches with blue water. Lots of surfers but no 50 foot waves and no visible shark attacks. We arrived at a near empty caravan park at Kennett River, parked amongst the trees and were immediately surrounded by brightly colored parrots and ducks (plus ducklings). The parrots obviously expected to be fed and perched hopefully on head, shoulder or whatever. The parrots on the bus roof threatened to crap all over the solar panels and so we paid the necessary shakedown with handfuls of the wild bird seed that Annette carries for such emergencies.

Koala just hangin'Koala just hangin'Koala moving!free-loadersEd's ear inspected

Some ten paces from our site was a tree with a large male Koala asleep in the branches, perhaps 15 feet above us. He roused himself eventually, peed and then began making a loud barking and growling sound that we recognized from previous lectures to be the mating call. Sure enough there was another Koala a few trees away. How cool! This was like parking in a zoo!

October 22, 2014

We continued our drive west along the Great Ocean Road. The road was built by returning servicemen from World War One, as it was a determined by the local pols to be a “shovel ready project”. Apparently there was little machinery available and much of the construction really was pick and shovel work. The scenery is truly spectacular, with clear blue ocean turning to white foam as the waves break upon a rocky foreshore. The rocks are then rimmed with a sandy beach, like a necklace on the cliffs of the Victoria land mass. Add to this today’s blue skies and sunshine and it was hard to concentrate on keeping the bus on the twisting and bucking road as it clung to the cliff-side. Unfortunately Annette was beginning to get motion sick, so turned inland at Skenes Creek to head through the Otway Range into the interior of Victoria. Now we were climbing through rainforest, with giant ferns tucked between dizzyingly tall gum trees. The road was sometimes shaded as we climbed a drainage and sometimes with speckled sunshine through the leaves. Steep drops and broad green vistas as we topped the crests. On one bend I simultaneously spotted an echidna Echidna crosses highwaywalking up the roadside, right next to a place to pull over and park. We had seen one of these creatures yesterday but at the time there was no place to stop. Todays echidna had disappeared into the grass but obligingly wandered back into the road where it was petted and thoroughly photographed from all angles. The total absence of any traffic enabled both the photographer and her subject to survive. On the far side of the range we dropped down towards Colac, the road bordered by broad green pastures. There were now miles of dry stacked stone walls outlining the fields. This type of barrier is labor intensive, slow to construct and therefore quite expensive. They looked just like the walls in northern England built centuries ago. The English walls were supposedly built by POW’s from the Napoleonic Wars, right after the Inclosure Act of 1800. Who built the Australian walls and why? For the past two days we have seen plaques commemorating and referencing the “Discharged Soldiers Settlement Act”. After both WW1 and WW2, attempts were made to settle returned servicemen on grants of land, in order to encourage settlement in the more remote areas. The coast road construction was to improve access to these remote areas. Of course many soldiers had no expertise in farming and so their budding enterprises were abandoned, the project a “mixed success”. Were these ex-soldiers employed in building stone walls? Some references indicate that the fields themselves were rocky, needed to be cleared and so the use of stone for walls was logical, because it was readily available and cheap. But dry stone wall building is a skilled process and these wall have a neatness and “professional” look to them. The other quoted reason is that the walls were an attempt to make a rabbit proof barrier. I find this even less believable and the stone walls of Victoria remain an attractive and interesting puzzle.

Multiple warningsWe stopped for the night in Hamilton and at the town limits there was a traffic sign warning of bandicoots. Bandicoots? The lady at the information center said she had lived her whole life here and had never seen one, since they are both nocturnal and rare. She showed us a picture - basically a rat with stripes but the girlie bandicoots are alleged to have a pouch. We spent the night at a riverside caravan park and after dark went out with a flashlight to look up in the trees. We soon found a possum who growled at us. Do bandicoots live in trees?

October 23, 2014

We continued our drive through rolling green pastures, cutting north from Coleraine through the tiny hamlets of Pigeon Ponds, Harrow, Edenhope and Booroopki. The pastures contained some cattle but lots of sheep. On previous visits to Australia we had marveled at the near total absence of sheep, contradicting years of force fed, elementary school geography lessons. Now we see the answer – they keep them all down here in the south. We crossed into the state of South Australia at the town of Frances, approaching along an empty single lane road that made us wonder if we had somehow missed a turn. Our destination was “Bordertown” (Not “Bartertown” - that was the post apocalyptic community of “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome” fame) home of the white kangaroo wildlife park. These animals are not albinos but a genetic strain of the Western Grey kangaroo and they are BIG. We stopped at the park fence while Annette took several thousand photographs through the chain link fence. They had several other species in the park, peacocks and other birds but we have seen these all before. We glanced at them so their feelings wouldn’t be hurt but we had come to see the white kangaroos.

White kangarooWhite kangarooWhite kangaroopeacock

Bordertown is a pretty little town and we stopped at the grocery store to replace our honey plus all the fruits and vegetables we had to dump on the Victoria side of the state line, in order to comply with the agricultural quarantine laws. We had gorged on our blueberries, mangoes and oranges with our lunch and are near bursting with vitamin C. Over at the information center, the lady warned us to avoid Adelaide this week-end, as everything was fully booked in anticipation of the Rolling Stones Concert. Even the concert is fully booked and tickets unavailable unless you know Mick Jagger personally. You cain’t always get what you want.

October 24, 2014

Today our destination was Adelaide and after leaving Bordertown, we drove on a good, fast highway with light traffic. The only wildlife excitement consisted of single live snake, sunning itself on the roadside. As we neared Adelaide we crossed the coastal “Mount Lotty” range of mountains. A long downhill in low gear with the exhaust brake engaged and the freeway dumped us unceremoniously into downtown Adelaide, with lots of stoplights, roundabouts and near incomprehensible lane changes. This reminded me of travelling through Houston, Texas in the early 70’s, before they hooked the freeways together. Our goal was to visit a consignment broker for the eventual sale of our motorhome. “Camperagent RV Center” offers “real” consignment services and is a family run operation that have been around for years. They seem genuine people and we left with a good feeling. We were directed to a nearby caravan park and although it was early afternoon, we grabbed one of the only two sites left due to the impending Rolling Stone’s concert at the Adelaide Oval.

We have now changed most of our clocks to account for the half hour time difference between Victoria and South Australia. Half an hour! Why bother to change times by half an hour and then change this by a full hour, twice a year for “daylight savings”! When we cross the state border into Western Australia, we will need to move the clocks back by two and a half hours.

October 25, 2014

We left our bus at the campground and headed for downtown Adelaide to see the sights. First challenge was an “on foot” crossing of a major highway with three lanes of high speed traffic in each direction. Remembering to look left, my jay-walking skills, learned as a child in inner-city Birmingham, kicked in and we survived the first obstacle. Naturally we had just missed the bus and had to wait a half hour or so. We spent the time chatting with a grandfather who was taking his one year old grandson for ride on an electric scooter, built for the “mobility impaired”. He wasn’t disabled, he said, just bought the scooter really cheaply. Annette held the baby who promptly went to sleep in her arms, whilst grandfather and I talked about his recent trip to the Philippines where he had bought a vacation home. When he is not vacationing, he cooks and sells doughnuts at the Sunday Adelaide farmers market. Annette returned the sleeping baby to his arms, right before the bus pulled up – just as well as the kid was getting heavy.

The bus ride to the railway station was a tedious affair as there were traffic circles or “safety” chicanes every 50 yards or so, just in case you thought of driving above jogging speed. There was ample evidence of frequent tire contact with the various curbs, indicating that not all drivers were as skillful as ours. The train for downtown was clean, modern and considerably more crowded than the near empty bus. We observed that the week-end travellers had very similar demographics as Toronto, Canada – probably the last time we took a train. These categories were the “young and broke”, students and drop-outs who can’t afford a car; the elderly, who except for us are traveling for free and immigrants from China, Philippines or the Middle East.

Downtown AdelaideDowntown AdelaideArt museum paintingArt museum paintingNullarbor meteoriteAmbryn, Vanuatu slit drumTrading canoe

Bluey Roberts at workBluey Roberts artBluey Roberts art

The train whisked us to the center of Adelaide where we visited the South Australia museum, war memorial, art museum and “Tandanya”. The latter is an aboriginal art gallery, featuring (amongst others) local aboriginal artist Bluey Roberts who was present in the gallery. Bluey brought up the subject of alien kidnappings and we thus began to compare Australian flying saucers to the ones we keep at Roswell in New Mexico. Unfortunately the aboriginal lady monitoring the gallery began to get upset at the conversation so we had to break off the discussion. It seems that in South Australia as well as New Mexico, you don’t kid around about such serious matters.

In late afternoon we began the reverse procedure to see if we could find our bus again. The bus we had used this morning runs every hour on a Saturday, so you don’t want to miss the connection. We indeed made it back to our camp-site safely and were left with the the thought, that public transportation is fun and everyone should try it every few years - just for the experience and to see where your tax money goes.

October 26, 2014

We awoke to a cold, grey, rainy day. What a contrast from yesterday! While Annette was repairing her hair in the ladies facilities, I serviced the cassette toilet; that is, I emptied, flushed and reloaded it into it’s bus-side locker. The Coaster was parked across the road from the “Sullage Point” (the place where you dump stuff you don’t wish to sully your hands with) partially blocking passage and forcing the other campers to squeeze past me on their exit. I stepped back, knocked over the bottle of toilet chemical I was using and now have one white sock and one rather damp blue one. Following a brief change of footwear, we set off northbound from Adelaide for Port Augusta. This was a four lane divided highway for the first hour or so, before inevitably deteriorating into a two lane blacktop with occasional “passing lanes”. We drove between broad wheat fields that stretched to the horizon and caught occasional glimpses of the sea as we transited the east side of the Spencer Gulf. At Port Augusta we refueled and then with shopping list in hand, discovered we had forgotten it is Sunday in Australia and everything is closed. We found a small general store that was somehow open and paid a fortune for a few items, sorta like shopping at Quik-Trips. Although it was still raining half-heartedly, it was noticeably warmer when we turned north towards Alice Springs and headed up the Stuart Highway. John Stuart made his sixth attempt to cross the continent from south to north in 1861. His party that comprised 10 men and 71 horses, reportedly made its first camp while still within the city limits of Adelaide, about where we spent last night. As we headed north on the trail blazed through the wilderness by men like Stuart, I could not help but try to imagine what it must have felt like. The landscape is still barren and undeveloped and yet I am seeing it at 60 mph in an air conditioned cocoon. The road ran in a near straight line, mile after mile, with red sand seen briefly between heavy brush. A perfect place to be ambushed by suicidal kangaroos. Then the world opened out into a barren plain before again heading into brush.

Salt PanRuby

We stopped for a break at a roadside parking area with a startling view of “Island Lagoon”. Here in the middle of the wilderness is a small island, seemingly planted in a white inland sea or salt flat. Island Lagoon was the location of a deep space tracking station that NASA established in the 1960’s as part of the Gemini program. Our interest was however distracted by our fellow traveller, Ruby, a girl from Northampton, England (www.rubyrideon.com). She was sitting eating a snack next to a bicycle, the latter loaded for self-contained touring. So as not to scare her, Annette asked her if she needed any water or food. In fact she was near out of water, following an earlier mistake of filling her water bottles with brine from an un-tasted and un-tested bore. Ruby is attempting to cycle solo around the world and had been fighting a vicious headwind since she had left Coober Pedy. We filled her up with drinking water, canned tuna, chicken and a little fruit and sent her on her way. She was a pleasure to chat to, friendly, outgoing and seemingly unaffected by the myriad flies who had joined us. A fellow adventurer.

Our goal for the night was the remote town of Woomera. This is the Australian ”Los Alamos”, the place that in the 60’s was second only to Cape Canaveral for the number of rocket launches. I had heard the exotic name “Woomera” many times as I was growing up in England. The movie Apollo 13 even has a clip where Tom Hanks looks out of his space capsule and sees what looks like sparks in the vacuum of space, passing the capsule window. The next clip shows aborigines sitting around a huge fire, with sparks flying up into the night and the unearthly sound of a didgeridoo to compound the mystery. Such are the images conjured up by the place we are heading for.

The reality of Woomera lacked the active aboriginal corroboree and was more like a deserted overseas airbase, everything laid out at military right angles. The manager of the caravan park had told us that the live weapons testing range, which is huge and occupies near one sixth of the State, is still active and they often hear explosions.

We walked into the town through empty streets, no traffic and no pedestrians, past near identical homes, some with cars parked outside but many looking unoccupied. We passed the community center, hospital, swimming pool and grocery stores, all shuttered and deserted. There was musak playing at both the swimming pool and the grocery store with its empty parking lot, the music accentuating the eerie, empty feeling, even allowing for Sunday afternoon in rural Australia. This reminded me of those cold war movies when you suddenly realize that you are in a test village with homes full of dummies and they are about to explode a nuclear device nearby, just to see the effects on suburbia. There were no nuclear explosions as we walked past the rocketry museum and headed over to only establishment that was open and might feed us.

The Woomera MuseumSteve and ChristineThe Woomera RV park

At the hotel we met Steve and Christine from Keighley, Yorkshire. They had taken a cruise ship from San Francisco to Sydney and had then rented a car for a walkabout across Australia. Steve owns a taxi business in Skipton, Yorkshire and they were a fascinating couple to chat with, married a year longer than Annette and I, and providing us with an insight into the challenges of being self-employed in England. Together we “closed down” the bar and with Steve and Christine staying at the hotel, Annette and I walked back to the caravan park through the darkness, lit by the occasional street lamp and the flickering light of a huge electrical storm nearby. It was perhaps a fifteen minute walk through the town, undisturbed by the crash dummies, sitting in their identical boxes with their plastic, frozen smiles, forever watching their 60’s sitcoms.

October 27, 2014

This morning we drove back over to the rocketry museum to discover that it doesn’t open until 10:00 a.m. It was just after 9 so we drove around the town, good for maybe five minutes and then met Steve and Christine from last night, who were also leaving. We stopped and chatted for half an hour and after touring the grocery store - with lots of attention as we were the only customers, it was now past 10:00 a.m. We returned to the museum to find it still closed. We called the phone number listed next to the door and got a recorded message saying they didn’t open until after 8:30 a.m. Oh well, we saw the outside exhibits and saved the $4 entrance fee.

Onwards northbound to Coober Pedy with Annette playing a variant of her “wave at the oncoming vehicles” game. Her final score was 80 returned waves, typically celebrated by a victory dance, plus 48 no-waves, usually accompanied by an “asssshoooole” from the front seat passenger. The victory dance, a sort of muppet hula mix, is limited by the seat belt and depends on the number of people who wave back and their level of enthusiasm. Other statistics were 26 dead ‘roos, 3 dead emus, 6 dead cows and 4 dead sheep. Whoever thought that road trips were boring?

The Stuart HighwayThe Stuart HighwayThe Stuart Highway signOutback dirt

During this time we had passed between Lake Gairdner to the west and Lakes Hart and Hanson to the east. These bodies are dry salt beds but appear with such stark whiteness against the ochers and greens of the bush, they just don’t look real – more like heavy morning mist hiding dark water. In mid afternoon we arrived at our destination of the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. First stop however was the hardware store where I bought a 50 cent “O” ring so that I could install the new sink faucet that we had luckily found in Adelaide. The “old” faucet had been leaking badly and we were anxious to retire it to a dumpster. About an hour after we had moored for the night at a caravan park, we had our new faucet installed and fired up. Then a perambulate into town looking at jewelry stores selling opals before locating the underground restaurant. I should have ordered the lamb chops, which Annette judged as excellent, instead of the shoe leather tough barramundi that I finished up with. Fortunately I was able to make up for the imminent protein deficiency with sticky date pudding and ice cream.

October 28, 2014

Our first stop of the day was to visit The Coober Pedy Catholic church, a small and intimate church built underground, as are most homes here with some 60-70 % of the local population living “underground”. The surface rock is sandstone, easy to cut and safely holds quite large spans without props or support beams. Opals were discovered here in 1915, and this was soon followed by an influx of WW 1 soldiers, returning from the trenches of the Western Front and upon arriving in Coober Pedy to mine opal, began to make “dugouts”. These “dugouts” were both cheap and practical with summer temperatures here exceeding 110 F combined with cold winters. The desert environment and deep water table means the “dugouts” remain dry and comfortable year round, without the need of additional heat or air-conditioning.

Catholic_churchCatholic_churchCatholic_church_grottoStation of the cross

We wandered around town visiting the stores selling opals and gemstones but near 12 o’clock we arrived at “Josephine’s Gallery and Kangaroo Orphanage” to witness the noon feeding of several rescue / rehab kangaroos, plus the feeding of a six month old Joey. Kangaroos may not be the earth’s smartest creatures but in captivity they are docile and the Joey’s are captivating. We are biologically programmed to nurture babies anyway and this Joey was wrapped in towels inside a large diaper bag while being bottle fed. He was then gently ejected from this artificial pouch so that he could practice hopping, just as his mother would have done. When tired he dove head first into a pillow case, leaving his long hind legs sticking out. I might say that Annette wants one but you already knew that.

walking a kangaroofeeding a Joeyexercising the Joeyexercising the Joey

In early afternoon we were picked up by Ned, a former opal miner, in his Toyota Coaster bus for a four hour tour. It is always eerie to ride as a passenger in the same model vehicle we are driving and I searched carefully for parts I wanted off this one. We drove through the town with Ned providing a running commentary, a mix of history and current practice, passing the water desalination plant, and power generation plant. Power comes from diesel generators and the nearby, single, politically correct windmill, that is alleged to be capable of 4% of the town’s power needs, had it’s blades stilled in mocking salute.

The golf coursewater supplyBoot Hillmine tailingsSurface mining eqipmentclaim markers

We next toured the mine workings which were signposted everywhere with warnings of abandoned shafts, the entrances undercut by erosion. There are hundreds of thousands of these, as the prospecting method uses both the cheaper eight inch drill holes and holes wide enough for a man to descend to examine the opal bearing deposits directly. These holes were supposed to have been filled, or at least covered when discarded but as individuals, partnerships and companies went broke, they just walked away, even leaving heavy machinery behind. The opal extraction technique is completely different from Lightning Ridge with its “hobby” mines, “lean to” shacks and eccentric miners camping on their claims. This is more industrial scale mining with huge mechanical tunneling machines or open pit excavation. Big expensive machines with huge fuel bills. Ned told us that this mining approach produced huge mounds of excavated material and the machine operators could “miss” up to 30% of the opals. There is a company that is reworking these now abandoned claims and has been for the past eight years. They dig the “waste” and load it into a “rumbler” – basically a type of cement mixer with wire screen instead of the mixing drum. As the drum rotates, loose material is sifted out leaving the larger “stones” – recall the “waste” had already been drilled or blasted from a mine. A conveyor belt then carries these larger stones into a truck mounted cabin with the interior lit by UV light. Any opal present would fluoresce and is easily identified and removed.

When a miner wants to work an area he makes a claim at the government office and may lay claim to two 50 meter by 50 meter blocks. These become his when he “stakes a claim” – that is marks each corner of his claim with a labeled stake, bearing his registration number. When he is done with an area, he must “pull up his stakes” before he can stake another claim. The tailings reprocessing outfit can roam at will over the opal field as long as they are not operating on a “staked claim”, that is literally a claim with stakes present.

Australia produces the bulk of the world’s opal and nearly all Australian production comes from the Coober Pedy area. This is not the only local industry however and we were surprised to learn that more than a dozen movies have been made here in the opal fields. Such movies as “Priscilla Queen of the Desert”, “Mad Max” and “The Red Planet” – in fact, I noticed several scenes from the US Mars Landing program here and am pretty sure I spotted the flag from the Apollo 11 landing, looking a little bleached now from the harsh sun.

BreakawaysBreakawaysBreakawaysBreakawaysDog proof fenceDog proof fenceDog proof fenceclimbing Dog proof fence

Our next destination was the “Breakaways”, a couple of low hills that have broken away from the Stuart Range and provide an amazing vista from an overlook. The desert colors run the entire spectrum from dark chocolate, through cream colored rocks, yellow and ochers. This place has been used in various movies and advertisements and is a popular destination for sunset viewing. The overlook we visited is adjacent to the “dog-proof fence”, whose construction was begun in 1880 and finished in 1885. It has near 6 feet high posts supporting what looks like chicken wire and its purpose is to separate dingoes from the sheep herds. So this is why we hadn’t seen the any sheep up north! They would have been on the dingo side! The fence is still in operation and the biggest maintenance problems are the herds of wild camels up north that are able to push it over. At 3,488 miles in length, the fence is longer than the Great Wall of China, although the latter has proven more effective at suppressing dingoes and is also camel proof.

Opal minehauling rockscutting rockopal seam

Returning to Coober Pedy we visited an underground home that had been staged, showing the progression of room to room furnishings from early miner through modern times. When I asked about plumbing issues, Ned pointed out that the first rooms you pass through when entering are usually the bathrooms and kitchen. A large hole is dug for septic and if that fills up, you just drill another one. An interesting day and altogether a great tour.

Serbian churchSerbian churchSerbian church

October 29, 2014

This morning we headed out of town to find “Crocodile Harry’s” place, an underground home that was described as “weird”. Harry’s home was used in the movie “Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome”, as the lair of the aerial bandit who stole Max’s camel powered vehicle at the start of the movie. We found the place a couple of miles from the pavement and Crocodile Harry was certainly an eccentric. His property was decorated with sculptures constructed from “found objects”, as they are called in the art world. The place was deserted except for two dogs, a huge pit bull type mastiff that never stirred but movement of its chest indicated that it was breathing and a puppy that playfully nipped both Annette and me and drew blood on both occasions. If it had been my dog I would have whacked the crap out of him. Inside the “front door” was a can with a note asking for $5 admission on an honor system. The interior of the home was heavily decorated with personal notes and memorabilia left for Harry. Either he threw a lot of parties or the movie people camped there a long time.

Crocodile Harry's placeCrocodile Harry's placeCrocodile Harry's placeCrocodile Harry's placeCrocodile Harry's placeMiner's grave

Back in town the store Annette wanted to visit was locked up tight and calling the advertised number just got a recording. We toured the cemetery on the edge of town and noted that many of the graves are simply marked with a wooden cross and a name, no other information and we assumed these to be the graves of unknown opal miners. The most elaborate headstones and gravesites were those of the Serbian community and there was another in particular, that used a beer keg with raised welded inscription plus empty beer bottles and cans decorating the grave. We found Crocodile Harry there too and he has been camped in this underground location for the past eight years. He was 82 years old at his death and obviously a really fun and interesting character.

That afternoon we split Coober Pedy, heading back south and stopped in a rest area near Lake Hart. There was an unmarked trail that seemed to lead to the lake and we locked the bus and headed downhill. Unfortunately we had forgotten about the persistence of outback flies and had neglected to equip ourselves with face nets. The trail we were following led to a railway line and we crossed this in full certainty that this was legal in Australia. From the tracks the trail ran across a soft sand beach and then we were walking on the lake surface upon a hard layer of dried salt. The white lake surface was near blinding in the sunlight but allowed us to see the flies when we connected with one, so if it fell we could with great satisfaction stomp it. Amazingly, two trains passed by the line we had just transited, the first we have seen. We waved at the engine driver and he tooted the horn for us, well worth an extra point in Annette’s “wave” game.

Stuart Highway southemus crossingtrainsalt pansalt princess

The hike from the lake back to the bus was now uphill in the heat, about a mile in total round trip. Continuously hazed by flies, we debated whether it was our legs or our hands that got the most workout. We approached Woomera in now late afternoon and passed a score of live emus, on, about and crossing the highway. There were ample emu corpses on the pavement to indicate that this is not the safest environment for them. The Woomera campsite hosted us for another night and we vowed to make a second attempt at the museum on the morrow.

October 30, 2014

We dawdled this morning since the Woomera rocketry museum claims a 10:00 a.m. opening. When we arrived at the museum site, a contingent of Chinese tourists were milling around, looking at the military hardware in the forecourt and it was now near 10:30. Nobody had showed up to open the building and I noticed an obscure sign on a window, perhaps 30 feet from the entrance, warning that the facility was “volunteer operated” and would be closed “until 2014”. The fact that 2014 is ten twelfths gone is a pretty clear indication that we have struck out again.

museum still closedStuart Highway southKeeping track

We continued our drive south spotting a single live emu and one rather shocked lizard, perhaps eighteen inches long, pink head and yellow body. He was attempting to cross the highway and we missed him by inches. It might have been a frilled lizard but at 60 mph, identification is tricky.

We restocked our bus with beer, drinking water and groceries in Port Augusta but after an argument at the drive through bottle shop as to why USA credit cards don’t have PIN numbers, I forgot to refill the fuel tank. The latter was showing just over a half tank of diesel before we set out west towards the Nullarbor plain, passing through dense brush with noticeably taller trees than those of the interior, before the landscape opened up into vast wheat-fields. We stopped for the night at the Kimba roadhouse, with the fuel gauge needle on empty and with a resolve not to repeat this unnecessary excitement.

October 31, 2014

Near overflowing with diesel we set out again to the west. The roads straight and the wheat fields unending. The few trees look African, bare branches below with a Mulgas?flattened crown. I kept expecting to see giraffes or at least a pride of lions. To date we haven’t identified them but we will keep trying (Mulgas, Wattles, Acacias?).

For the next three hundred kilometers we were to see no road kill and we postulated that the posted kangaroo crossing warning signs were just to excite the tourists. One Shingleback Lizard we swerved to avoid and we think he made it. We waved at the passing cars, caravans and trucks and they mostly waved back. Those that didn’t will surely share the fate of the Jackdaw of Rheims.

As we entered the town limits of Ceduna, there was a police barricade for an “inspection point”. An officer asked me to blow into a breathalyzer, the first time in my life this has happened. He made no comment regarding the reading and I was not too surprised since in an unusual act, I had chosen to drink fruit juice for lunch today instead of my customary beer. He then asked for my driver’s license and showed his first element of surprise when he said, “Texas”. “Yes”, I replied, “the big one, not the one in Queensland”. What excitement!

We continued a very pleasant drive and we arrived in mid-afternoon at the information center in Ceduna. Our goal here was to sign up for the Nullabor Links, aka “the longest golf course in the world” – 18 holes that begin in Ceduna with the finish 1,365 kilometers later in Kalgoorlie. Since Annette and I are such expert golfers, we bought a couple of used clubs at $10 each and a half dozen balls for $3. Seems like enough. The last two holes in Kalgoorlie require advance reservations and the dress code excludes blue jeans, flip-flops and collarless shirts. We believe we have this covered and we should have practiced for 16 holes before we get there. The fifth hole is a par 5 and players are warned that there is a crow that steals the balls and the eleventh hole includes a warning to beware of snakes. I think that the course is a par 72 and the highest recorded score around 450. This is our target to beat.

We pulled into the Foreshore Caravan Park for the night and the stern of our bus overlooks Murat Bay and the Southern Ocean.