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.

 

 

Sydney train

 

Travelling by steam train is like stepping back in time. Passengers scurry along the platform, checking numbers written in chalk on the side of carriages. A red carpet is laid out, and an attendant takes an older lady’s hand to assist her over the gap, while tickets are clipped by attendants in shiny black caps.

At the front of the train, a man in soot-covered denims shovels coal into the fire box while the driver, wearing a slouch hat, monitors a pressure gauge the size of a dinner plate. There is a massive sigh from the engine and steam engulfs the station. In the swirling fog, the pitch-black barrel of the engine is the only thing distinguishable. The conductor checks his silver fob watch, blows sharply on his whistle and cries, “All aboard!”

It could be a dream, but it’s real: We're travelling on the 3642, a green 160-ton steam locomotive restored painstakingly to its 1930s glory by a dedicated team of volunteers from the NSW Rail Transport Museum, based at Thirlmere, in the south of Sydney. It’s the biggest rail and transport museum in Australia, and well worth a visit on a weekend in Sydney, where train rides are offered on its diesel and steam fleets.

Amazingly, all the crew on the 3642 are volunteers. Most are train buffs, many are family and just as many have been involved from the beginning, when the train was a shell covered in graffiti. On just a handful of dates each year, the crew take the train out for special events- a trip to the Blue Mountains, a jog along the coast to Wollongong, a trip inland to the Southern Highlands. Often the destination isn’t the main drawcard for passengers, but simply the delight of the journey.

The grand days of rail travel are long gone, but little nostalgia and the romantic appeal of train travel go a long way: our train is packed, and as we gather steam and pass through Redfern, there is the faintest smell of fireworks in the carriage.

We stop just before the platform 45 minutes later at Penrith station.A workman with a wrench the size of my arm heads to a pump, while another positions a big metal pulley over the black tank in front of our carriage, to fill her up with more water.

We cross the Nepean River and the huffing of the locomotive becomes more pronounced as she pulls us up towards the Blue Mountains. While the 3642 does the hard work, I explore back through the train.

I’m a little affronted by the people dressed like mad scientists in clear plastic goggles and white lab coats but when I stick my head out the window I understand – I'm immediately covered in cinders and soot. Hanging out the side of the train as it chugs along is an unsafe but irresistible pleasure. My grin is so wide, I later find a bit of charcoal lodged between my front teeth. I watch the steam puff out of the engine like a perfect children's drawing and when I glance back, every window is occupied with grinning idiots, their hair flying madly.

Traffic banks up as trainspotters chase us up the mountain. There's one guy with a video camera set up on a tripod on the roof of his car, while another wearing headphones holds out a microphone to capture the sound of the steam whistle. People perch on top of chain-link fences and squeeze through locked railway maintenance gates to take photos. Parents stand on overpasses with their kids, engulfed in steam.

The appeal is understandable. It is a glimpse of the past, before terrorism and carbon offsetting and security checks– a nicer,more simple and innocent time for travel.

On arrival, the Blue Mountains are as stunning and cold as ever and the Winter Magic Festival as crowded and wacky as expected. But we're just anxious to get back on our train. It's easy to talk to the passengers beside us as we're warmed with wine and cheese, raffles and laughter on the return journey down the mountain.

It's dark when we reach Penrith but families bustle up to the platform for a closer look. A woman with a toddler approaches Michael.

“Is it Thomas?” the toddler asks.

“More like Henry,” he replies kindly.

It's a completely different language but one they both understand. The toddler smiles and walks up to the engine for a closer look.

  

Car hire

 

Four wheels-phobic David Whitley concedes that, every now and then, shelling out for a hire car is the best option

As a general rule, I’d really rather not be driving. I know some people love to be behind the wheel, but it’s not something I find at all enjoyable. I’d sooner someone else was concentrating on the road and doing the hard work. Ideally, I’ll be on a train so I can move around and properly enjoy the view.

But even as someone who would prefer not be driving, I do have to concede that there are occasions when simply hiring a car is the best – and often cheapest – option.

When I was in Australia last year, I had a thoroughly enjoyable time. I wasn’t going to any particularly major attractions, and I was mooching around in areas that many overseas visitors don’t venture to. Theoretically, I could have got to all of them using public transport or tours, but it would have taken an enormous amount of planning and a lot more time.

So I picked up a car at Sydney airport and drove. I drove along the south coast of New South Wales, through Kangaroo Valley, around the Australian Alps and back through the Southern Highlands before ditching the car at the airport again.

During the course of that week, I started to realise what the main advantages of hiring a car were. It wasn’t just about the places I was going to – it was about getting there alone, and with no particular time constraints on when I had to leave.  I could sit and read a book on a log for an hour if I so wished, I didn’t have any pressing engagements elsewhere and I was quite at liberty to disappear again if I got bored.

But the freedom of hiring a car isn’t so much about the destination – it’s about the places you can stop at on the way to and from the destination. If something by the side of the road looked quite interesting, I could pull over and investigate. If a sign pointed to something I’d never heard of, there was nothing to stop me doing a little detour. On the way back to the airport I stopped at a few beaches for a swim – the sort of beaches that getting to by public transport would be nigh on impossible. And I could also keep all manner of snacks, drinks and assorted stuff that I’d ordinarily have to throw away in the boot.

When people talk about the freedom of having a car, this is the sort of thing they’re talking about. It’s not about being able to get somewhere – it’s about being able to take up distractions on the way there.

roundtheworldflights.com have some particularly good value campervan and car-hire - ask your consultant for a quote

 

Perth Mint

 



David Whitley tries to get his hands on what he patently can’t afford in Western Australia

 

In a climate of banking instability, bail-outs and business collapses, it’s unusual to come across an operation that is not just surviving, but booming. The Perth Mint is one of the unexpected beneficiaries of the global financial crisis. With the public jittery over the banks, house prices rocky and stocks and shares plummeting, people have turned to gold as a safe investment. And if there’s one thing that the Perth Mint has got, it’s lots of gold. The Government-owned institution produces commemorative coins and bullion, plus it acts as both a depository and trading centre. The gold price has shot up in 2008, and the Mint has seen a flurry of interest, both from investors and curious visitors. Sales of gold and silver coins from the Mint’s shop have more than doubled in the last year – visitors are clearly putting their money where the metal is.

 

The Perth Mint is a curious mix of high security trading centre, upmarket souvenir shop and tourist attraction. Many go in purely to buy jewellery and look at the collector’s coins – and these cover everything from cutesy koala engravings to Prince Charles memorabilia. The coins are all legal tender, but it would be absurd to use them as such. A coin with a face value of $2 is sold for $90, and will probably be worth a lot more in years to come – handing it over in return for a bottle of Coke would be a costly error. The mint also revels in its Gold Exhibition, which traces the history of gold in Western Australia and has a couple of fairly awesome set pieces. By the reception are a few of the medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which were made at the Mint. But the history goes back a lot further than the turn of the 21st century.

 

WA’s first gold was found in Coolgardie in 1892, and the state’s population more than trebled in the next four years as people flocked to cash in. Soon after, the world’s “richest mile” was discovered in Kalgoorlie and it wasn’t long before it seemed sensible to mint it in Perth rather than send everything back to London. That’s where the big limestone building that still houses the goodies today came in. After the brief history lesson, visitors are led through to a mocked-up prospector’s camp, where some giant gold nuggets are on display. Unfortunately, they’re models, and painted polystyrene isn’t quite as valuable. One of the big beasts – the Hand of Faith - was found in rural Victoria, and is the largest nugget in the world today (other larger ones have been broken down). The real version is on display at the fittingly-named Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas.

 

Back inside is the world’s largest collection of gold bars, all wisely kept behind glass aside from one that visitors can attempt to lift. It’s pretty small, but takes a bit of muscle. It weighs 12.54 kilos, was worth $200,000 at the time it was made and is now worth considerably more. There are also opportunities to see how much your bodyweight in gold would be worth (a cool $3,712,752) and engrave your own coin. But the real highlight is watching the gold being poured. Danny Martin has the unenviable task of standing by a 1,300 degree furnace and handling $200,000 worth of molten gold. “Please don’t try and jump me,” he says as he pulls the searing liquid metal out in a clay crucible.

 

He’s wearing a wool shirt, as that smoulders rather than bursts into flames, and has an apron and gloves made of Kevlar. He brushes the crucible against his left mitt just to prove how hot it is – the sizzling sound is shudder-inducing. Very carefully, he proceeds to pour the gold into a mould. “Would anyone like to lick the bowl?” he asks.  The crucibles, understandably, have a limited lifespan, and traces of the gold stay in them. These are all carefully removed with chemicals before the sturdy old warhorses are put out to pasture. The bar takes five to ten seconds to solidify, a process that it should be well used to by now. The same bar has been melted down and re-used for the demonstration 30,000 times over the years. Remarkably, none of it has been lost in this time – the weight is carefully logged after every demonstration. The cooling process is nothing fancy – the mould is just dunked in a sink of water – but soon enough, the reformed bar is possible to touch with the bare hand. 

 

But anyone who wants to be able to touch gold on a more permanent basis is better off heading to the shop – the security guards and cameras are enough to deter any chancers. And afterwards, people really do flock to the shop – under present conditions, it seems as though the Perth Mint has the golden touch. 

 

More photos here

 

The Perth Mint can be found at 310 Hay Street, East Perth. It is open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and 9am to 1pm on weekends/ public holidays. 

 

Aussie Bite


Our run-in with Aussie wildlife continues. Yesterday I was sitting on my surfboard, enjoying a blissful, sun-blessed pause between sets at Byron Bay. The great curving arc of sand that reaches, almost unbroken, from Cape Byron (Australia’s easternmost point) around Byron Bay and Belongil Beach stretched out behind me. Ahead of me there was little to interrupt those thousands of miles of watery horizon before the coast of South America.


Suddenly I was aware of a big shadowy shape moving swiftly through the clear water directly towards my right foot. It moved so swiftly that, before I could even react, it had passed within inches of me and was already arching over the surface of the water in a smooth, sleek, gun-metal grey form. Thankfully the whole thing happened so fast that I had no time to start frantically hauling my extremities out of the water and screaming like a hysterical maniac.

And, of course, as soon as the nose rose above the water – just a metre from me – I could see clearly that this was not the feared shark that had first entered my mind but a dolphin. Spectacular marine life is a common occurrence in the line-out at Byron Bay. I had already seen a big turtle raise its head beyond the breakers and had paddled over to come within a few feet of it before it sank back under the waves. Occasionally even migrating whales are spotted here.

Even Australia’s east coast, the most densely populated part of the country, can be a Mecca for wildlife lovers. Some of that wildlife is a real privilege to see...some less so. Fenningham’s Island is a sleepy little place not far from Newcastle. The campsite there is set in a picturesque lagoon among eucalyptus and wattle trees. Kangaroos and koalas inhabit the forests in fair numbers. Ibis strut at will around the campsite and in the early morning the normal wake-up call is the cackling cry of the kookaburra (the bushman’s alarm clock). But the dominant species is definitely the mosquito.

We arrived shortly before dusk, just as the mosquitoes began to bite, and before long I was soon grilling steak and vegetables on a campfire. Tucking into the meal we were grateful for the drifting smoke of the fire that seemed to be more effective against the voracious little attackers than any repellent. Suddenly I became aware of a shower of little sticks and leaves that was falling on me and my plate. Imagining at first that it was just a breeze in the treetops I didn’t take much notice until I realized that the pieces of falling timber seemed to be hitting me with impressive accuracy. I backed up towards the van, staring upwards with my headlamp set on full beam. I was able to make out a large pair of bright red eyes just as a eucalyptus seed flew down and hit me perfectly between the eyes. I was being bombarded by a possum!

Perhaps, I thought, the possum was just defending his territory, in which I had unwittingly parked. Perhaps our lary, lurid, spray-painted Wicked Camper was offending his sense of decorum. It was then that Laura – the Brazilian travel-writer on this same assignment – realized that another shadowy form was moving through the scrubby brush towards our campfire and the last chunk of steak. It seems that the bombardment was just a diversionary tactic so that the possum’s accomplice could creep up from out of left field and steal our steak. Possums are not said to be among Australia’s most intelligent creatures…but these two sure came close to outwitting us.

 

By Mark Eveleigh