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.

Lennox Head

 

 

Sometimes when we’re travelling we’re so busy we forget to keep our eyes open. It was my boyfriend who spotted it first- a lump of shaggy brown struggling in the water, swimming awkwardly towards the rocks that line the ocean at Lennox Head. We were sitting on the balcony of our apartment, one with a view that looked down a green slope to the water’s edge, a place where every morning brings a new kind of coastal meditation.

Whales migrate south during the Australian spring, the young ones leaping and showing off with their spectacular submarine-like breaches, while older humpbacks simply lope slowly in a spouting rhythm. Pods of dolphins play in the surf, each morning at sunrise looping in a circle around a school of fish for breakfast. When they aren’t hunting, nesting pairs of regal birds of prey used the decades-old Norfolk pine trees as a timber thrones.

However there was nothing regal or meditative about the brown bird swimming for its life in the water, pushing desperately with its wings through the waves towards the rocks. Grabbing a pair of binoculars to get a better look at the breakwater, we realised that it was a bird of prey – and just like taking a fish out of water, this was a bird that had no business being in the sea.

Grabbing keys, tennis shoes for the sharp rocks and towels, we flew down the back steps and around the house to get to the water’s edge to try to rescue it. But by the time we got there, other passers-by had seen it fighting and waded into the water, pulling it out and placing it on the rocks (nearly losing fingers in the process).

It was an Osprey, with wet bedraggled feathers and a dirty white head.  It sat in a few metres away in a soggy half-drowned mess of feathers looking entirely racked off. Clutched in its foot was what had been wearing it down - a big fat juicy fish big enough for human consumption. It’s talons were splayed awkwardly across the fish, and embedded in it’s body- almost as if fishing wire was tangled around it’s foot anchoring it to the fish.

However, it was a little less sinister than that. The bird was simply a bit of a gumby- he had hooked his talons in to the fish and got them stuck in between the gills, the eye sockets and some bone- and had pretty much almost drowned himself out in the water, unable to let go of a fish far too big for it to catch.

His group of rescuers chuckled and headed on their way- the couple powerwalking along the path, the surfer who had paddled in, and the guy riding a bike with his dog. My partner and I stayed, a bit wary of the dogs, snakes and oncoming night time chill that still posed a threat to its safety.

The bird was so wet he couldn’t fly more than a metre off the ground, and he eventually half flew, half hopped to large piece of driftwood to consume his prey- or rather, pick the fish off his foot. With his wings spread to help them dry, he shredded, pecked and mangled the fish bit by bit, as we inched closer and closer to the bird. He eyed us a few times but didn’t move, letting us come to within a metre of his perch. My boyfriend put his arm around me, and we sat in silence and watched him eat as the light faded.

It’s hard to describe what it was like to be allowed to sit there for an hour next to such a wild and magnificent creature- humbling is perhaps the only word that comes close. This bird had deigned to let us sit there, and perhaps sensing we weren’t a threat, he was patient with us getting so close. So much of travel is about doing something or rushing somewhere, checking in online or paying top dollar for a manufactured experience-but here it was about taking a moment to truly experience something.  And our hour sitting within a few feet of that magnificent bird of prey is something we’ll never forget.

 

Pictures by Chris van Hove

 

 

Chopper

 

 

David Whitley takes to the air over the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park, terrified that his tiny steed won’t make it.

 

If two proper helicopters got together and had a baby, this would probably be it. In chopper terms, the tiny contraption in front of me looks like a newborn. It can seat two (or three with a bit of breathing in) and appears to be a mere shell. This is my first time in a helicopter, and I can’t profess to being an expert, but being able to see the engine and inner workings surely isn’t safe, is it?

 

 

Despite it looking like it might start crying when I touch it, the helicopter is apparently fine. Seeing the guts is a cool design thing according to Mike Watson. Mike runs Fleet Helicopters in Armidale, New South Wales and his small squadron of flying machines gets up to all sorts. Some are used for transporting rich businessmen around, some are used for fighting bushfires or power line surveys and others are used for taking tourists out on jaunts above the countryside. And for me, that countryside is going to be the Oxley Wild Rivers National Park. It’s gorge country, and we’re going to fly low over six of them, taking in waterfalls, old mines and areas that even the most ardent bushwalker would be hard pushed to reach.

 

“Do you want the door on or off?” says Mike, as if this is a perfectly normal pre-flight question to ask. “There’s not too much wind about, but it might be a little bit blowy.” A little blowy? In every single one of my other flying experiences, a missing door mid-flight would lead to a depressurised cabin and being sucked out to certain death.  But hey, if it improves the view, why not? I’m strapped in with a harness that looks suspiciously like one from a high thrills rollercoaster, and the rotors slowly begin to whir. It takes a few minutes for the engine to warm up – it needs to be going at 30rpm before take-off. 

 

To emphasise just how small the scale of things is, Mike’s radio communications don’t go through a control tower – he talks directly with the pilot of the Qantaslink plane that’s nearby on the runway. After a quick “do you mind if I go first old chap?” in pilot-ese, we’re off over Armidale, and then over the farms and vineyards towards the gorges. It’s a part of the world that’s monumentally underrated. The Oxley Wild Rivers National Park bears comparison to the far better known Blue Mountains near Sydney. Of course, it’s not within two hours of a major city so it doesn’t see hordes of tour buses every day - but there’s the familiar blue haze, a lush green foliage and jaw-dropping views from almost every angle.

 

Before heading into the gorges, I’m given a little education about the area. What we see today started to form around 60,000 to 70,000 years ago when Australia and New Zealand were part of the Gondwana supercontinent. The tectonic plates crunched into each other, forming a plateau. A wet period then followed, in which rivers carved out the gorges through granite rock that was at one stage the floor of the Pacific Ocean. It’s an area that has been subject to a David Attenborough documentary, Life. The famous naturalist came out looking for rock wallabies and wedge-tailed eagles, and he wouldn’t have had to battle through many people to see them.

 

The benefits of the pocket-sized helicopter, its wrap-around glass windscreen and missing doors soon become apparent. We fly over Hillgrove, an old antimony mining settlement on Baker’s Creek Gorge. It feels like a proper eagle’s eye view as we pick out the mine shaft, and the mild buffeting as we transcend air channels adds to the thrill. Lean back towards the propeller, and the DAKKA-DAKKA-DAKKA is vivid; venture a hand out towards where the door once was and it feels the pace. The pen I’m holding almost takes a long trip downwards.

 

From Baker’s Creek, we fly over motorbike tracks, walking trails and tributaries of the Macleay River. We’re looking out on a unique eco-system – plenty of hitherto undiscovered plants have been found here by scientists, and there are probably a few more that are yet to be tracked down.Animal tracks – probably belonging to dingos or wallabies – dot the scree slopes near the gorgeous loop in the river known variously as “The Heart Of New England” and “Mickey Mouse”. There’s no sign of any active life though – our tiny aircraft feels like it’s the only thing for miles around

 

We swing a sharp right to get a proper view of Wollomombi Falls, which is the first, second or third biggest waterfall in Australia, depending on whose tape measure you’re using. It’s little more than a trickle today, but it’s more than made up for by Dangar Falls, which is billowing over the cliff face. Apparently an Italian chap once tightrope-walked over Dangar Falls pushing a wheelbarrow. Each to their own, but I think I prefer my baby skeleton helicopter with its missing doors.

 

More photos here

 

 

Details

The Flight of the Six Gorges with Fleet Helicopters (Fleethelicopters.com.au) departs from Armidale airport and lasts around 60 minutes. 

 

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Woomera


Eager to get his hands on a few deadly missiles, David Whitley pays a visit to a secretive military town in the South Australian desert

I thought my primary school had a pretty cool setting – the playground was surrounded by corn fields, and we often got to see a tractor. But the primary school in Woomera wins hands down – it has a park full of intercontinental ballistic missiles outside. There are a fair few bizarre places in the Australian Outback, but Woomera takes some beating on this front. Approximately 300 miles north-east of Adelaide, Woomera has an eerie Truman Show-like feel about it as you drive through. The houses are prim and neat and the streets are kept spotless, but there seems to be no-one there.

Then you see the rockets, missile launchers and anti-aircraft guns, and it starts getting rather sinister.This open air display of military hardware is all about showcasing Woomera’s somewhat shady heritage. The town (read: military base) was set up in 1947, when the British and Australian governments decided they needed somewhere to blow things up. The British government was deeply concerned when Nazi Germany began the era of missile warfare in 1944, launching unpiloted bombs on British cities from sites in the Netherlands. The UK needed such rocket technology, and the Aussies were only too happy to hand over a vast swathe of land in the South Australian outback. Never mind the sheep farmers and Aboriginal communities out there – the allies needed somewhere to test out weapons of mass destruction.

And so Woomera became the service town that no-one was supposed to know about – its existence was only officially confirmed in the 1980s. Nowadays, the Visitor Centre at Woomera also doubles as a local history museum. The displays take you through the thousands of huge explosions that have taken place in the Woomera Prohibited Area over the decades, and touch on the more acceptable history as a space monitoring centre and launch site. Some parts of the story are beautifully absurd. Special planes were designed and constructed at huge cost just so the researchers had something realistic to blow up with their rockets. Oh yes, and there is also a fully functional bowling alley in the middle of the Visitor Centre – almost certainly the most isolated of its kind in the world.

What is perhaps more interesting is what the museum doesn’t tell you. The word ‘nuclear’, for example, is conspicuous by its absence. It’s almost as if they’d prefer you to believe that the rockets they were firing into the desert landscape were full of chrysanthemums and cute pictures of puppies. Also glossed over are the current goings-on in the Woomera Prohibited Area. Joint space research projects with Japan are gleefully trumpeted, private research is alluded to and the status as an active Defence Department playground is quietly brushed under the carpet.

Tell-tale signs are there for the eagle-eyed, however. Staff at the Visitor Centre wear shirts adorned with the logo of BAE Systems, an arms manufacturer with a – cough – controversial track record. And then there are the signs around the Stuart Highway, which firmly remind you that you are travelling through the Restricted Area. The road itself is a public free for all, but you can’t wander more than a few metres off it without laying yourself open to some serious trouble. And that’s both in terms of friendly interrogation from military types and the distinct possibility of walking over something that can make your legs look like the remnants of a kebab thrown on the floor after a Saturday night drinking binge.

 

 

 

By David Whitley