Australia

Vastness

 

 

“That’s the thing about Aus. It’s vast!” my fellow passenger was saying, as we shot across the desert at 100km an hour while gulping at frosted glasses of Victoria Beer. “People from outside just can’t grasp the sheer ‘vastity’ of it.”
The Indian Pacific train had been trundling across the Western Australian Outback for close to twenty hours already and I had to admit that I was struggling to come to terms with it myself. We were now in what my friend might have called the complete ‘emptity’ of the Nullarbor Desert. The name derives from Latin for ‘treeless desert’ and apart from a few scraggy bushes there had been nothing worthy of the name for the last two hundred miles. Then we came upon a little collection of a few shacks around a railway watering point. At some point in the past some optimistic (or perhaps just humorous) souls had planted about a dozen scraggy pines here and they had named the place "Forest."
The map shows an enthralling chain of place names: Kellerberrin, Kingoonya, Woomera and, in this sweltering desolation, the wonderfully named Koolyanobbing. In the village of Cook, touted as ‘Queen City of the Nullarbor,’ we stopped to explore the few sun-scorched huts and the old jailhouses while the train refilled its water-tanks. A sign beside the track said that Cook has a population of ‘four people, forty dingoes and four million flies.’
Scarcity of water aside, crossing the Nullarbor is in some ways more like making an ocean voyage. The Indian Pacific sings smoothly along on her silver rails between featureless horizons with never a bump or a lurch. This is officially the longest stretch of straight railway line in the world. You only realise what an unusual sensation this is when you suddenly find yourself careering into the wall when you reach the first kink in the track after 298 miles.
The Indian Pacific connects Perth and Sydney along 4,352km of track but I would be disembarking at Adelaide to catch another train northwards. The famous Ghan follows the supply route once used by the intrepid cameleers who brought supplies from South Australia to the embryonic settlement at Alice Springs. The cameleers came from such diverse places as Punjab, Kashmir, Sind, Rajasthan, Persia and Afghanistan but came to be known to the locals simply as ‘the Ghans.’
The Ghan claws its way for 2,979km from Adelaide right through the great Red Centre. Like a great silver spear, piercing directly into the heart of the island continent, The Ghan still offers the feeling of an expedition (albeit a delightfully relaxing and luxurious one) as it leaves behind the wheat fields of South Australia and heads off into what, even today, is one of the world’s great wildernesses.
It took the great explorer John McDouall Stuart many months to cross the desert from coast to coast. (Having made it that far – and on the verge of starvation – he had to turn around and walk all the way back again because nobody had thought to send a boat to meet him).
Many years ago I hitch-hiked and drove across this same route in a month. With The Ghan I made the crossing easily in just over a week (with a stop at ‘the Alice’). Nevertheless, by the time The Ghan rolled through the steaming tropical rainforests of ‘The Top End’ and into Darwin I had once again found an increased respect for the incredible vastity of Australia.

Alt Uluru

 


 

David Whitley’s travelling partner was sceptical about the merits of Australia’s famous big red rock. And then she walked around it...

“Well, it’s just a big rock, isn’t it?” Katrina, it is fair to say, was excited about our drive-through-the-Outback adventure, but didn’t quite get why Uluru was so special. OK, we pretty much had to go there if we were heading through central Australia, but paying to stay at the severely overpriced resort and taking a six hour round trip out of the way was of debatable merit. I knew differently. I’ve been to the artist formerly known as Ayers Rock before. And I know what those who fly in, take a picture or two and fly out are missing out on.

Everyone has seen the postcard shots of Uluru. Many realise that it changes colour depending on the light, and many know that sunsets and sunrises featuring the big red rock can be pretty spectacular. But that’s just one of the rock’s faces you’re seeing. Walk around it, and you see many, many more – each one thoroughly striking. Black streaks formed by water courses over the millennia stripe the sides, chasms have been carved out and caves have been gouged into the almost 90 degree cliff faces.

Some parts appear as a heavily pockmarked face, an acne-ridden teenager that makes Stephen Hendry look like a Clearasil model. Holes remind of damaged plaster that has been attacked with a sledgehammer. The kinks, bulges and hollows form a vastly different shape at every turn. From one angle, Uluru looks like a dome; from others it looks like a series of corrugated ridges or the break-outs of a jelly mould.

Some parts are weathered to the point of appearing scabby; others seem firm, smooth and mighty. Formations and features set the imagination running wild – you start seeing whale’s tails or the heads of ET, Darth Vader and a disgruntled/ constipated man.

The contrast with the plain Uluru rises from is dramatic too. Although this is the desert, vegetation does pretty well out here. The branches of spindly white-trunked trees add a touch of menace, like snakes lashing out wildly from a Gorgon’s head. Salt bush covers the least fertile soil, while more impressive beasts clamber higher where they can. The red dirt is sprouting an oasis of green, but the rock itself is starkly barren except for a couple of hardy pioneers trying to grow in narrow cracks where rainwater occasionally flows.

Aside from occasionally debating whether a formation looks like a snake’s head or a fish, we walked around for just under six miles in an entranced silence. To the local Anangu people, Uluru is a sacred spot. Others bleat on about its spirituality. I’m an old cynic who doesn’t buy into that sort of nonsense, but it has a certain magic about it that cannot be described in words or pictures.  It’s far more than just a big rock, and once you’ve walked round it, you’ll understand why.

As my sceptical compadre neatly put it, “Wow, I’ve fallen under its spell.”

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Ayers Rock Resort

 

Uluru plea

 

 

There are few things more hypnotic than watching a desert highway flicker out, like a shaken rope, as it stretches out into the limitless distance. Moreover you can be pretty sure that no cop in his right mind is going to be sitting out on this blood-boiling forty-five degree outback day. So you keep the needle hovering at a steady 130km/hr and listen to the wheel purr over the hot sticky tarmac.

A map of the Outback shows just a relatively small section of desert between The Alice the Erldunda roadhouse. It is actually close to three hours driving but that is nothing in the scale of Australia. If you carry on south from Erldunda there would be very little to make you twitch the steering wheel before you reached Coober Pedy and the edge of the desert in about another ten hours. Swing right after you have refuelled at the roadhouse though and the Lassiter Highway will soon lead you to one of the undeniable wonders of the world. When you are two hours down the Lassiter Highway you start to see Uluru (once known as Ayers Rock) rise, like a great red whale, from the flat desert horizon. Uluru is the most photographed and instantly recognisable rock in the world. Yet nothing can prepare you for the sight of the world’s most gigantic monolith as it begin to rise up until its almost sheer red walls loom 348m over you.


This was actually my second visit to a place that was still then universally known as Ayers Rock. The Aboriginals long ago asked that people respect the traditional name of their sacred site. This place is called Uluru they say – not Ayers Rock. They have been pointing this out, to the best of my knowledge, for well over a decade. Sure it takes a little to accustom people to knew names but we grasped the changes to Myanmar and Mumbai fast enough and have realised that we shouldn’t call tsunamis tidal waves. Yet even the Australian authorities continue to signpost ‘Ayers Rock’ rather than Uluru even on the sacred land around the rock itself.


When I first arrived seven years ago and I was surprised to see so many tourists still hiking up what everybody knew even then was the most spiritual site of the local land-owning Aboriginals. I figured that people probably climbed because they had been shuttled in at speed and nobody had taken the time to point out that the local Aboriginal community respectfully asked people to ‘please not to climb.’ In most other (reputedly) culturally sensitive countries such a request from the traditional owners of a sacred spot would be sufficient for an immediate ban on climbing.


Today there is a huge board right at the base of the rock in which this request to refrain from climbing is detailed in 16 languages…and still whole crowds of jack-booted tourists goose-step by (metaphorically speaking) en-masse to make the climb to the summit. Their defence would presumably be to point out that they have travelled halfway around the world to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime experience.

This is like telling your host: “Well, I’m sorry but you shouldn’t have invited me to your house if you didn’t want me to practise ju-jitsu on your grandmother.”

Flying Docs

 


 

 

In Alice Springs and Katherine, David Whitley discovers how people living in the remotest parts of Australia remain attached to the rest of the world.

 

The real Outback?

On my journey through Australia, I have been travelling across what I deem the Outback. In reality, I’ve been sticking to the main highways with the odd diversion up a short gravel track. It’s still more than many Australians will cover in their lifetime, but I’d be deluded if I tried to convince myself that I was really living the Outback life. For a reality check, a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre in Alice Springs is in order. The RDFS is a truly remarkable organisation, and one that literally keeps the people of the Outback alive.

 

Flying Doctors

For some people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, cattle stations and roadhouses, the journey to the nearest hospital with adequate facilities can be measured in days rather than hours or minutes. The Flying Doctors provide an essential lifeline, and run regular emergency missions to dirt airstrips in the middle of nowhere which are being lit up with car headlights. That’s the showy part of proceedings, but the more mundane day-to-day tasks are equally as vital as the nick-of-time airlifts. The Flying Doctors also distribute medicine chests to key spots such as police stations, pubs and homesteads. The drugs inside are labelled with numbers so that people have to phone for diagnosis rather than self-prescribe, while body charts are divided into segments so that the ill/ injured party can explain what hurts and where. The Flying Doctors also run regular preventative healthcare clinics amongst the Aboriginal communities on their patch – and for the Alice Springs base, 90% of the 30,000 people in the area it covers are Aboriginal.

 

RDFS base visit – Alice Springs

A visit to the base is utterly engrossing. Come on a weekday and you can watch the controllers in action, while comparing modern equipment and resources to those the RDFS had in the past is an eye-opener. The 1958 medical cabinet has a nice bit of cocaine in it, while the pedal radios used to keep the line open to the doctors up to 600km/h away would have been of limited use if you’d just broken your leg.

 

World’s biggest classroom. 

Another insight into Outback life comes a lazy 1,000km or so up the road in Katherine. The School of the Air here boasts that it is the world’s biggest classroom. And given that its catchment area is three times the size of the UK, this is probably a fair call. Yes, that was three times the size of the entire United Kingdom. When we show up, there are precisely zero children in the building, but the teacher is plugging on regardless. With pupils living up to 1,100km away from Katherine (and even further for those based overseas in the likes of Kazakhstan and East Timor with their miner/ charity worker parents), turning up every day just isn’t practical.

 

Schooling by satellite

So instead, children living in Australia’s most remote spots are home-tutored (usually by their mother) and have proper school lessons conducted via satellite. The set up is remarkable – the teacher sits in what looks like a radio studio, using cameras to point to what she’s talking about.The kids, meanwhile, interact by satellite phone and a little chat frame in the bottom of the screen. It’s a high-tech set-up and, by and large, it works. That said, choir practice can be a little interesting with the phone lag... Up until 2006, this was all done by (rather crackly) radio. But now the kids can see the teachers during lessons. It’s a huge leap forward, and watching the system work brings a tear to the eye. It’s a privilege to come across children that cherish their school lessons and the interaction they bring to their lives. It’s also yet another amazing achievement in taming some of the harshest, most isolated country on earth.

 

More photos here

 

Broken Hill

 


 

David Whitley gets a true taste of the Outback, going out with one of the world’s most isolated posties on his rounds.

Sheep logic works entirely differently to ours. The three woolly merinos can hear us approaching along the dirt track. They can sense the dust storm being kicked up behind the Landcruiser. They know that this means danger, and they need to get out of the way. As we thunder ever closer, they panic and break out into a run. And it seems that straight in front of the rapidly approaching vehicle is the optimum route to safety. “That,” says Steve. “Is why sheep and intelligence don’t belong in the same sentence. At least the goats tend to run off on the right side.” Steve Green knows these treacherous stretches of red earth better than any man alive. He is the Australia Post contractor responsible for servicing some of NSW’s most remote properties twice a week.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, he embarks upon his epic 550km-plus mail run across two time zones. In a day’s work, he’ll drop off letters, parcels, vital medicines and spare machinery parts to just twenty outback stations. It works out at slightly over two mailboxes an hour – and many of them are designed with the sort of eccentricity that comes from being isolated in total whoop-whoop for a very long time. He delivers to rusting oil drums, converted fridges and – in one instance – a model of Ned Kelly that has its guns pointing out at the Silver City Highway.

For today only, I am Steve’s gate man. In practice, this means that I have to get out far more often than he does, opening and closing the gates designed to keep the sheep in. They may seem a little pointless in areas so big, but it’s easier to search one giant paddock than to go over the entire property, inch-by-inch, in order to find a stray. The average property size in these parts, sandwiched between the South Australian border and the Darling River to the south of Broken Hill, is around 80,000 acres. Sounds enormous, but the land is so stark, dry and barren that it’s hard to make a living off it. No crops are grown, and in some areas there’s only one sheep for every 50 acres.

To drive through it is awe-inspiring. It’s the true sunburnt country; scorched earth, slithering box trees on the horizon and proper Big Sky. It’s easy to see why artists come to live in Broken Hill – the stark landscapes surrounding it could act as inspiration to a complete klutz that struggles with painting between the lines. To anyone with a talent or an artistic bent, it’s dreamland.

But it’s not exactly paradise for the station owners. Times are tough, very little land has even a smattering of green to cover it and creeks can’t even muster a trickle. As we drive past a large dusty bowl, Steve says: “If Harry Harry Creek and Turkey Plain Creek go absolutely crazy at the same time, that is Lake Woolcunda.” From his tone of voice, it’s obvious that this happens very rarely indeed.

After three hours on the road, we pull into a yard full of rusting metal, old machinery and what one of the passengers calls “other assorted junk”. “Heathen!” Steve snaps back with a grin. We’re at Buckalow, our morning tea stop. And it seems as though quite a gathering has arrived, possibly in anticipation of some new meat to talk to, but more likely in the anticipation of free cake.

“I’m disappointed that you’ve not got scones today, Val,” says Chris Bright of the neighbouring Kimberly property. As cuppas are supped and cookies demolished, the conversation meanders all over the place.  The absence of the local friendly carpet python seems to be of some concern. “We’ve not seen it in the house for some time,” says Val Gillett, the redoubtable owner of Buckalow. “It wouldn’t bite. It’d just sort-of punch you. Especially if it had a chicken in its mouth.”

Chris has tales of a more unpleasant interloper. “I tell you what – if you’ve got a brown snake in your yard or kitchen, you don’t let it out of your sight for a second. As far as I’m concerned, it can have 79,999 acres to do what it likes in, but if it comes in that acre where my house is, it’s gone.” The banter is all very jolly, but the situation is not. I ask when they last had a good year. “1994,” says Chris, without the slightest hesitation.

It’s easy to see what conditions are like from the vegetation. In some places, even the saltbush is struggling to grow. “And that’s a drought specialist,” say Steve. As we drive on, the landscapes are extraordinary. Stark red desert backdrops will suddenly turn into grey/ white wintery-looking stretches as the soil changes. Kangaroos hop alongside the road or sleep behind rocks. Wedge-tailed eagles make their graceful, effortless swoops across the skyline. Emus stand and watch as the truck ploughs past.

On some tracks, the only tyre marks have been made four days ago on the previous mail run – not another soul has driven down there since. Steve has a fairly light load today, so he’s happy to make the occasional detour up a sand bank to watch a lizard, or show off patches of spinifex that kangaroos have turned into a bed. He also tries to point out the different flora of the outback. Acacia bushes are “like ice cream for goats”, apparently. As the stomachs start to growl, we pull over somewhere completely different.

The Bindara station is a relative oasis. At one point, the homestead was the hub of a million acre property, which transported huge amounts of wool down the Darling River. A bit later on, we see a rusting barge on the riverbank – this was used to ferry the sheep across. Today, Bindara gets a bit of cash from agriculture, but mainly from its bed and breakfast accommodation and workstay programme. The owners, Bill and Barb, are down in Mildura when we arrive, so the welcoming committee is comes in the shape of Bindi – the sort of guard dog that would kill with a thousand licks.

The grounds around the main house are just beautiful. The roses compete with the jacarandas to provide the most colour, while the onions and asparagus growing in neat rows are flanked by orange and lemon trees. An old chimney stands by the tree-lined riverbank and the water... well, it may have the colour and consistency of glugging cement, but at least it’s flowing.

It’s not just us that are enchanted with the spot. A couple of nomads join us as we’re unwrapping our sandwiches. They’re on the hunt for Bindi’s partner in crime, Kanga, who has gone missing. John and Trish only planned to stay at Bindara for a night or two but they’ve been here for five or six weeks now, helping out with whatever needs doing in return for food and lodging. They put up the fly-screen tent that sits on the lawn, although Bindi tries her best to knock it over by charging through, wilfully ignoring the door.

The green quickly turns back into that familiar fiery orange as we head towards Willotia, the furthest outpost on the run. But Steve pulls over abruptly after seeing some more wildlife at the side of the road. It looks like a fox, but Steve opens his door and calls out: “Come here, Kanga.” The wandering hound has been out hunting. And evidently for a swim. He jumps into the truck, then proceeds to clamber over into the back seat and shake dirty water over everyone. Steve hauls him forward, and the soggy hound ends up half on the gear stick, half on my lap, panting away as he enjoys the prime views out of the windscreen.

We swing back via Bindara on the way home to Broken Hill and Steve shouts out to John as he slips the rogue dog under the fence. “Special delivery, mate!” On the long last stretch, Steve tries to explain why he doesn’t bid for more mail run contracts. “For a start they pay peanuts – and roasted peanuts too. They’re bad for you.” Indeed, that’s why he carries the passengers – taking a few tourists is what makes the whole thing viable.

“Second – and I’m not being arrogant here – but I’ve got by far the best run there is. Some of the others can be 18 hours in a day. This one has great people, morning tea is at morning tea time, lunch time is at lunch time and there’s the country. “Anywhere else, you pick one great bit of scenery you see on this route, and it’s that all the way. Here it keeps changing, and it’s always different.”

So why doesn’t he get a bigger truck and take more than four tourists? It’s not as if the demand isn’t there – in peak season, he is turning down 20 to 25 people every time. “Because this is the truck I do the mail run in. These are the clothes I do the mail run in. And this is how I drive. “The reason people love it is because it’s not a tour. If people are out shearing, it’s because the sheep need shearing. We didn’t stop at the Ned Kelly mailbox because they didn’t have mail. Everything people see isn’t happening for their benefit – it’s happening because it’s real.”

Damn right it is – right down to the last kamikaze merino.