While I haven’t posted on this blog for a while (though have tried to keep my other blogs going, especially Midwest Maize, since that’s actually connected to how I earn a living, while this one is just done for love), I’m not gone forever. Two things have kept me from having the time to keep this going. I’m caring for my mom, who has dementia. And one of my Australian friends–Richard, who played such a big part in all my return trips–died of a heart attach last summer, and that just sort of took the wind out of my sails. But I still have information and a few adventures to share–including, alas, my last adventure with Richard. So I’ll be back. In the meantime, there are nearly 500 posts on this blog, so you should be able to find something interesting about Australia. Or you can check out my other blogs. But I shall return.
Category Archives: Thoughts
It has been a while since my last post — and may still be a few weeks before the next post. I have just moved house, so everything has been chaotic for a while, and will be for a while longer — because getting back up to speed on the activities that pay the bills (writing and speaking engagements) has been my highest priority. But once I dig out from all this, I’ll be back with more tales of my adventures in Australia. So stay tuned.
We’ve decided to stay where we are, since it’s a nice little cabin and quite near the Flinders Ranges. But first things first. After a hearty breakfast, we jumped in the ute, took our damaged trailer to the repair shop, and spent a couple of hours immersed in insurance forms (though I was just there for moral support—Nikki and Richard did all the work). But that out of the way, we headed for the mountains.
On the far side of Pichi Richi Pass, with stopped in Quorn, to buy train tickets for tomorrow—because Pichi Richi is not just the name of the pass, it’s also the name of the railway that was built from Port Augusta northward. The Pichi Richi Railway, opened in 1879, was originally intended to stretch all the way to Darwin, though that never happened. However, it did make it to Alice Springs by 1929, and it became an important route, especially during World War II. Service on this line ended in 1957, but that was not the end of the railway. Local train enthusiasts formed the Pichi Richi Preservation Society and, since 1974, the rails have carried historic steam trains filled with visitors to the area. (I wondered if Pichi Richi Pass was named before or after the train reached Alice Springs, where Heavitree Gap, the break in the mountains that gives access from the south to the Alice, is also called Pitchi Richi, with the added “t.” It was explained to me on my first trip that Pitchi Richi means “break in the range,” which is certainly also appropriate for Pichi Richi Pass, so perhaps it was geology rather than the connection that led to the similarity.)
We drove across the Willochra Plain, passing the Kanyaka ruins, which we visited on my list trip. Showing nothing of the harshness that led to the ruins, the plain today was very green, with orange, yellow, purple, and white wildflowers running riot over the rolling terrain. Birds were everywhere, not just here but throughout the day: galahs, corellas, kites, eagles, kestrels, magpies, Port Lincoln parrots, and more.
We stopped briefly in Hawker, where Richard was greeted warmly by friends from his days as a guide in this area. The roadhouse at the center of town had a display of souvenirs and photos from the making nearby of the film “The Lighthorsemen.” One of Richard’s friends pointed out the locals who had bit parts in the movie—all much younger in the photos than they are now, as they movie was made a while ago. But it was a remarkable bit of history, and I have no doubt taking part in reproducing it would be a memory not readily given up. (If you have any interest in the history behind the movie, as well as a clip of the key battle, I posted about it after mentioning a monument to the Light Horse that I had seen in Western Australia. You can see it here.)
The beauty of this land is such that, even though we had just traversed this section of road a few hours earlier, I was still absolutely delighted by it. The graceful, curving trees, the green and blue brush, the wild flowers, the red dirt, the mountains a purple ripple rising in the distance captivated me. Among the trees, there were a few gums and acacias, but the majority of the trees were the casuarinas known as black oaks. As we drove by one tree, a wedge-tailed eagle lifted into the air. The sky was remarkable, filled with towering cloud formations.
Going back over the site of our mishap, it was easy for Richard to see more clearly exactly what happened. Sheared off bolts were scattered about the place, and our swerves, as Richard fought for control, were carved into the soft edge of the road.
We began loading gear into the new trailer and discovered that the rental place had forgotten to include the handle for the winch. (Needed the winch to pull the damaged trailer up onto the bed of the new, larger trailer.) Richard tried to use a wrench to work it, with Nikki and me pushing the wrecked trailer. Finally, Richard (who is, fortunately, a pretty big guy) just grabbed the front of the trailer, and the three of us used brute force to get the camping trailer loaded. We then loaded everything else, covered it with a big tarp, and headed back down the bumpy road toward Port Augusta.
It’s a good thing Richard is such a good driver. We discovered next that the brakes on the rental trailer don’t work, so, without care, it could easily go out of control and flip the much lighter ute. At one point, a gust of wind hit the trailer, making it swing wildly, which started the ute swerving from side to side, almost off the road, but Richard managed to regain control.
We stopped a couple of times to stretch our legs and enjoy the scenery, but mostly we just kept going, trying to beat darkness and/or the approaching rain from catching us out. Late afternoon turned into a beautiful evening, with miles of purple mountains outlined along the horizon before us and dramatic storm clouds prowling up from behind. But we did make it safely back to Port Augusta.
What a day!
We checked into the Fauna Holiday Park. We’ve rented a “cabin,” sort of a large trailer on a permanent site. It has a kitchen, TV, two bedrooms, and a shower. We were glad to be able to clean up after all the dragging and loading.
We went shopping at a Woolworth’s on a street lined with lovely Victorian buildings. The store offered a huge selection of wonderful, often exotic food items (I’m guessing a benefit of being a crossroads). We got goodies for the evening, and returned to our cabin to settle in for the evening. Richard is making a stir fry for our dinner, and Nikki has set out delights for “happy hour.”
Tomorrow, we’ll drop off the camping trailer to be repaired, then plan what we’ll do for the next two days. But that’s tomorrow. Right now, the pâté with port, the prawn dip, and a cold glass of Strongbow cider are calling me.
Nice end to an unusual day.
We were up just before dawn and began packing up bits of camp. The sunrise was glorious, and the light spilling over the astonishingly lovely bushland was magic.
Our orphan lived through the night. Today, we’ll try (among other tasks) to find him a new home. We headed back along the dusty, red miles of beautiful wilderness, not stopping until we got to Iron Knob. Short break, mostly to buy beverages, and then on again, and back on to the Eyre Highway.
Skippy slept in my lap for most of the drive, only poking his head out of his pillowcase-pouch occasionally to look around or to suck on my fingers, hoping for milk. He is a heartbreakingly beautiful creature, with big, brown eyes and a coat like silk. His huge ears swivel independently, as he tries to pick up a familiar noise, and he shivers occasionally, no doubt because nothing is familiar.
First order of business in Port Augusta was getting the tow hitch on the ute repaired, so we could pull something again. Richard then arranged rental of a larger trailer, one on which we could load the totaled trailer we’d left out busy. Then we headed for the local vet Nikki knew, to drop off “our baby.” Skippy is so adorable, the vet’s staff fell in love with him—and they immediately called to make arrangements for him at a nearby animal reserve. One thing that amused me was seeing cans of milk on the shelf for various forms of local wildlife, including wombat milk and kangaroo milk. Nice to know that they are equipped for emergencies like this.
Then back across town, to pick up the rented trailer. Port Augusta is a very utilitarian town, the “Crossroads of Australia,” where highways and trans-continental train tracks all converge, connecting in some cases with the busy harbor. As a result, there are lots of unattractive warehouses and work buildings—and charming, handsome, Victorian-era hotels. The area is pale and dusty, but flanked by beautiful Spencer Gulf and the Flinders Ranges.
Port Augusta offers lovely old houses and dozens of service stations. Magnificent old gum trees and flowering bushes suggested to me that earlier settlers might have thought it a beautiful spot, and in its heyday, as a busy port, it would have been fairly wealthy, as well. Now, it’s a kind of tacky, ugly spot with some pretty bits in a magnificent location. But the residential areas are nice, and the people here are remarkably friendly.
And whatever else can be said about it, Port Augusta had everything we needed, including a good place for lunch. We were directed to a carry-out place that offered spit roasted chicken, salads, fish, gyros, and chips/fries. We got chicken and salads to share, and had a bit of a picnic nearby.
After lunch, with the new, larger trailer hooked up to the ute, we headed back into the wilderness, to retrieve our gear.
I was up at 6:30, finished packing, had a cup of tea and a shower, and headed out the door.
The jet I boarded had a surprising amount of legroom. Sorry I can’t fly Sydney to LA with this much space! Taking off, we swiftly crossed back across the land we had taken two weeks to traverse.
A lovely snack was served on the Broome to Kununurra leg of the journey (finger sandwiches with crusts trimmed off and chocolate chip, macadamia nut shortbread–could they possibly have made anything richer!), and lunch was served between Kununurra and Darwin (chicken breast and large, chilled shrimp–yum). No need to buy lunch at the airport.
The Darwin Airport is larger than Broome’s facility, but still small enough that passengers walk from their planes to the terminal. The plane was air conditioned, and after two weeks without A/C, it felt strange, and I felt more comfortable during the walk from my little Broome plane to the terminal. It is another spectacular, hot day. However, the airport was also air conditioned. I’ll adjust. The terminal was crowded, but was bright and comfortable.
The flight from Darwin to Adelaide was on a bigger jet, and it was really packed. I was a little surprised, but maybe it’s because it also goes on to Melbourne and Sydney, after dropping me off in Adelaide.
I’m sorry to be leaving this part of the country. I always feel like I’m on my way home once I leave the outback, even though I have two more weeks in Australia. However, I’m grateful for those additional two weeks, because I’m not ready to leave Australia yet.
I fell asleep almost while the plane was taking off and became conscious again forty minutes later, when beverage service came through. Below me, there was a whole lot of nowhere. The amazingly rugged landscape stretched to the horizon, with mountains, rivers, fault lines visible, but only rare signs of anything approaching civilization.
At least from up here, it’s evident that I’m somewhere specific. At most airports (unless they are little ones, like the one in Broome), it’s generally hard to tell where you are. No matter how much “personality” an airport has, in all but the smallest airports, it’s hard to feel like you’re anywhere but an airport, and all airports are in the same place—at the center of arriving and leaving. And at every airport, I’m doing the same thing, arriving, leaving, or waiting, usually with a view that consists solely of runways and airplanes.
The broad expanse of wild ruggedness below me has now turned from the brown and green of the Top End into the red of the Centre. A three-quarter moon hangs in the blue sky just to my left and forward. The fairly consistent clouds of the afternoon up north have given way to rare wisps. My view changed dramatically as we continued south, from red land to solid cloud cover. Still, from the air, even endless clouds are astonishingly beautiful. It’s one of the things I love about flying.
Then finally, partial clearing and the ocean shore, as we approached Adelaide. The pilot reported a temperature of 11˚C (roughly 52˚ F). It was 38˚C (or just over 100˚F) when I left Darwin. I’m glad I have a jacket.
The sun was just setting as we landed, which made even the airport splendid. Richard (Nikki’s husband) was waiting for me at the airport. He’d been in town for work that day, so it was quite convenient for him to pick me up. Saved me having to take a bus north.
The drive to Nuriootpa took just about an hour and 20 minutes. Nikki had dinner waiting when we arrived. Richard’s brother, Sandy, was visiting from Sydney, and the four of us dined and chatted and drank wine and chatted some more until 10:30. Then it was off to bed, to get a good night’s sleep before heading off on the next adventure.
Last night I slept beneath the stars and a quarter moon so bright that I hardly needed a flashlight. The breeze was as gentle and warm as a caress. It was wonderful.
I awoke to the sounds of hundreds of corellas (small, white cockatoos), and to a clear, cool, and steadily brightening sky. I slept relatively well last night—better than in the tent—and felt refreshed, though not eager to rise.
We had a leisurely breakfast, and then, at 7:30 a.m., a chance to hike back to the gorge again, to see it by morning light. I set off on my own, with hat, water bottle, and camera. Windjana is a gentle, sandy gorge, so I could wear sandals instead of hiking boots.
The gorge was even lovelier in the morning light. The water was still and glassy. Dozens upon dozens of corellas were standing at the water’s edge and in the shallows, getting their morning drinks. Other corellas flew over in flocks of varying size, and still others sat in the trees, making an unbelievable amount of noise.
There was one non-corella among the feathered features. A cormorant that must have been doing some early morning fishing sat on a branch, drying its wings.
On the far shore, opposite where I stood, the beach was covered with freshwater crocodiles. A few others floated in the water nearby. Last night, when Belinda and I had gone swimming, we had seen just a couple of freshies a fair bit up the gorge, but now that I saw how many there were, I’m not sure I’d so happily jump in the water with them all. Just a bit daunting to see so many.
Butterflies and dragonflies fluttered and perched everywhere. Some dragonflies were bright red, others were vivid blue. The butterflies were white with black or brown with white and purple. Actually, we’ve seen numerous butterflies everywhere up here. They have been a great delight to me. The brown butterflies I was seeing today were now familiar companions, having appeared many places—there were dozens at Tunnel Creek in particular. But I have also seen black and electric blue, yellow, orange with black, and white beauties as we’ve crossed the region. Wonderful.
I photographed a lot of things I shot yesterday, but the light is different now. Plus this is a place of such astonishing and strange beauty, I wanted to take as much of it with me as possible, even if just on film. Perhaps it is because it is the last day of the tour that I am being so prolific with my photos—sort of a way of holding on to the place.
By 9:15, I was back in camp. We packed up all our gear, and by 10am, we were on the road. Sigh.
Another blazing hot, crystal-clear morning. As we sped along the road to Derby, the boabs became more numerous. Most of these delightfully strange trees stand alone, but occasionally they occur in little “groves” of four or five trees—probably youngsters sprung up from seeds dropped by the parent tree. Over time, the central or largest boab has pushed the others over simply by getting so huge in girth that it “wins.” Or sometimes, if the boabs are similar in size, it looks like they’re dancing in a ring, and leaning way back.
A lot of short, uninteresting-looking scrub and flat land now surrounded us, as we approached Derby. This is not the most scenic part of the trip. Recent burn-off made some bits look really desolate. Litter and telephone poles were our first indications that we were approaching civilization.
It is almost inconceivable that the trip is so nearly over. It seems odd, too, that I can spend so much time with people I really like all the while realizing that I’ll probably never see them again. I am battered and bruised and weary, yet I am sorry to have this part of my current Australian odyssey end. It is so fresh and beautiful out here, and though it is hard, it is uncomplicated.
We arose this morning to a noisy flurry of cockatoos. There were a few clouds in the sky, and they were tinged pink by the rising sun. Soon the magpies added their caroling to the other morning sounds.
We were breakfasted, packed, and on the road by 8 a.m., crossing the miles, climbing into the next mountain range, stopping to look back over the plain we’d just crossed.
The mountains rose before and around us, red and stained, in slanted slabs and layers jutting out of the ground, like the bones of the earth with the skin peeled away. I was reminded again that much of what one sees in the Australian landscape is owed to erosion. So, in a way, it is the bones of the earth we were seeing. Up and through Inglis Gap, a pass in the King Leopold Range, and down the other side, to continue our drive to the Napier Range.
Birds were wonderfully abundant. In trees, on the ground, or on the wing, they were delightful, and we occasionally stopped just to enjoy them. There were galahs, pink and gray and handsome; wompoo pigeons, with their “woop, woop, woop” call: butcher birds, black and white and noisy; a wedge-tailed eagle, always impressive.
We rolled into Windjana Gorge National Park, and this evening’s campsite, around lunchtime.
Windjana is cut through the Napier Range, which was once a barrier reef that got thrust up long ago from the ocean floor. The range is Devonian-era limestone, with the outlines of coral polyps and even older pre-coral skeletons still visible in places. The rock is strangely worn, with sharply defined, black pinnacles in some places. Fascinating. I look forward to exploring—later.
September 1 is the first day of spring here in Australia. We rose at dawn, as usual, but had a leisurely morning, while John greased the truck and did a few minor repairs. (Those rough roads really beat up even rugged vehicles.)
It was another crystalline morning—clear, unblemished blue from horizon to horizon. The magpies, cockatoos, and crows set up their usual morning chorus. John says the crows in this region are the largest in Australia. That’s easy to believe. I had thought they were ravens, they’re so large.
Most of the group has wandered off to swim or take pictures. I explored for a while but then returned to camp, for a bit of tea, rumination, and writing. I have written extensively about all I’ve seen, but I should probably also note that those with whom I am seeing it are a remarkable lot and have added immensely to this experience. Everyone is well read, well traveled, both interested and interesting, fun, enthusiastic, and thoroughly enjoyable. I consider myself extremely fortunate in having such an ideal group of traveling companions.
I’ve been impressed with our guide, John, as well. He’s very tall, wiry, thin but strong, with shoulder length, wavy, dark blond hair. He is tremendously widely traveled and at times appears a bit world weary, but he is patient, resourceful, polite, and full of stories about his interesting life. Born in London, he left school at 15 and has spent most of his life wandering, mostly in Africa and then Australia. He rolls his own cigarettes and often seems to prefer smoking to eating. Amiable. Slow of speech but quick of wit. He actually delights in the challenge of the horrific roads, even though it means a lot of time fixing the truck, as he was doing this morning. So perfect—in fact almost iconic—for this setting and job.
Belinda came by as I finished my notes, and we hiked together down to the water hole, to photograph reflections and water lilies.
By 9 a.m., John had finished working on our vehicle. We had a final coffee and biscuit break before heading back on the road at 9:30. (Had to push start the truck, which seemed reluctant to leave.)
We made a short stop back at Barnett River Roadhouse, for fuel, water, and treats. I had one of the wonderful fruit “ice lollies” they seem to have everywhere here, even in these remote spots—a frozen cream, passionfruit, and pineapple confection on a stick that was yummy and refreshing. Then we were rocketing along the dusty red road again, covering the 120 kilometers to Bell Gorge in the King Leopold Range.
When we stopped to stretch our legs at one point, I was delighted to see delicate flowers growing along the road. I thought they looked like Sturt desert roses. Someone else said they thought they were native hibiscus. So I grabbed one of the reference books on board and found out that we were both right – because the Sturt desert rose is a type of native hibiscus. Lovely flowers.
I awoke a few times during the night and, looking up at the stars and tree branches, I felt completely alone and removed from the world. It’s as if even the tent is a reminder of civilization, and peeling away that last layer made me feel completely free.
Dawn was beautiful and cool and musical. This area seems so beautiful this morning, though it is not really an area one would identify as beautiful. It’s just so perfectly removed from everything.
We rolled up our swags and gathered around the fire for tea and breakfast. I was warming my cup of tea over the fire when Shirley said, “Isn’t this when you miss your microwave?” Somehow, that intrusion of civilization, even just spoken, induced something between panic and melancholy in me. The thought of being anywhere other than the middle of nowhere, sleeping under the stars, seemed horrifying at that moment. I don’t know if it’s Australia I love so much, or this lifestyle, or if the two are so interwoven in my mind that there’s no way to separate them, but right now this is the only place I want to be. Anyway, I reminded myself, with gratitude, that I have five more days out here. (And yes, I do know that I would not survive for long in the wilderness, and that to a certain extent the wilderness would be less attractive if it weren’t balanced by “the real world,” but it’s where I need to be right now.)
We packed our gear and headed back down from the plateau, returning to King Edward River to pick up the trailer we’d left behind.
We hadn’t gotten much farther along when a loud thump got John’s attention, and we stopped to find a nut missing from the trailer hitch. Most of the group went in search of the missing piece, and we were stopped for a while. The nut was never found, but John and Don worked diligently to jury-rig an alternative.
About an hour later, we were on our way again, retracing the miles back to the Gibb River Rd. Green parrots, galahs, and butcherbirds accompanied us as we drove. Wonderful. We drove straight through to Drysdale Station, were we stopped for lunch. Here, John was able to buy a new nut and bolt for the trailer and got it repaired. (It is not unusual for people out this way to stock all sorts of things for repairing vehicles—though one would want to make sure to not drive out here in something rare and exotic—pick something common, and you’ll always be able to find parts.) We were soon back on the road—have to make up for lost time, to get to our evening destination (don’t think these are roads one would want to negotiate in the dark).