I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!
As we pulled into one of the many rest stops along the long, straight Stuart Highway, feeling hot and thirsty, we immediately looked for the familiar small shelter; a haven of shade for all travellers. Unfortunately, this one seemed to have a permanent inhabitant with a small caravan and many shade features draped around it. So I just headed straight towards the water tank to perform my new ritual of taking my shirt off, dousing it in water and then immediately putting it back on. This provides immediate relief from the heat and you even feel cold for a nanosecond. “Wanna beer?” the voice from the shelter called out. Not wanting to offend the voice from the shade, I just replied,”Nah it’s a bit early for us mate. Besides we’re pushing on again.” Next thing the beer-bellied voice emerged, dressed in jocks, a shady hat and carrying a plastic bucket. He must have pegged me as a kindred spirit as by now I too was dressed in just a bra and of course, motor-bike pants. As he strode towards me in his fine, Australian blue Bonds he threw a full bucket of cool water over me! “Thanks,” I said as we faced each other in our underwear.
This type of laid-back familiarity and helpfulness was what struck me the most as we put the miles behind us, leaving the rainy and cold Melbourne weather. On day one of our trip, leaving behind a flurry of cleaning and packing, we were exhausted from months of renovating and shifting houses. Reaching the border town of Tocumwal too late for a meal we were just happy to find somewhere dog friendly (the dog and ute towing the bikes were being delivered 2,900 kms away in North Queensland). The hotel staff were not only nonplussed about a dog in the rooms, but they also voluntarily cooked up a feed of sausages, eggs and tomatoes just for us! This was amazing given, we had been dealing with grumpy, unreliable tradesmen and other services over the last six months.
People told us that leaving is the hard part and that you just need to leave because you never have enough money and you are never ready. How true those words are!
Because we had spent so much time preparing for our big RTW trip, neither of us had even thought about what route we would take to Camooweal, nearly 3000kms away. Towing an original Con invention, with the bikes on their rear wheels, we couldn’t reverse or do tight. turns. This coupled with having a dog in the back of the ute who couldn’t really get out without fuss and a lot of help made our start a little wobbly.
I had stashed a brand new Camps book under the driver’s seat as well as new maps of Qld and the NT. However, Con had brought along a Readers Digest Map book of Australia with strip maps of the type I hadn’t seen since my parents travelled with the RACV equivalents! The man of the ancient maps was back. Our 12 month trip together very nearly took a U turn as the driver expected the navigator to know how to interpret these ancient hieroglyphics, printed in brown and white, and decide upon a route to the border in 10 seconds. We took the scenic route to the border, but at least we had left. That’s the hard part right?
How true it is.
The country friendliness just magnified as we drove further into the outback. Nothing was too hard for anyone it seemed, even in the ever increasing temperatures. My gorgeous old labrador dog, Khan, which I was delivering to my son in Camooweal, was really finding the weather difference challenging. A few minutes on the hot concrete in 38 degrees+ , would send him limping from burnt pads which I then had to cool down in iced water. We had a bucket of iced water occy strapped in the ute, just to keep his core temperature down. One day we looked back to find his droopy eyes and face pushed flat against the window behind us in distress. We managed to set up a system of planks for him to jump out of the car which over the next few days he seemed to perfect. However, people were incredibly helpful and a cafe owner even held his lead for us outside the shop whilst we chose a drink. “Now you can help me with my puppies”, she said laughing. Mc Donalds provided cups of ice for him to lick.
Day two of driving totalled 870 kms. Overseas travellers are amazed at the distances we cover in this country and even though we have both travelled extensively and lived in other places in our “wide brown country” we were still overwhelmed by the distances we still had to travel to reach Camooweal by the 10th of October and then Darwin by the 13th. 2,900 kms in total to Camooweal in such a short time, towing two motorbikes on their rear wheels and an old dog who was suffering from the heat. Because the towing invention of Con’s couldn’t be reversed and need a turning circle as large as a 16 ft boat! pulling up for accommodation or into a town provided its own challenges. If we turned too sharply the bikes would jump up onto each other. The system attracted many comments along the way and many people suggested there might be a market for the set up. Well the prototype is sitting on a cattle station in Far Nth Qld if anyone wants it!
The holiday feeling finally appeared as familiar icons of Australian travel met us along the way and we knew we had left behind all the concerns of packing, storing, selling and everything else we hadn’t completed. It wasn’t long before we were greeted by travelling Drovers, pushing large mobs of cattle and horses along the highway. We were lulled into the pace of the Outback as we pushed slowly through the cattle, some of which preferred to just amble straight towards us in the middle of the road. Emus, kangaroos, boab trees and ant hills became more prevalent and of course, the outback pubs were a welcome sight as we drive into the straight “main drag” greeted by the locals under the shady verandah of the Bourke hotel.
‘Back o’ Bourke’ is a saying which I grew up with; the impression that Bourke was the end of the road and that there is nothing beyond Bourke. It is also famous for having recorded the hottest temperature anywhere in NSW at 49.7C in 1903. Bourke is in fact The Gateway To The Outback and Henry Lawson is quoted as saying, “If You Know Bourke you Know Australia.” So pleasantly surprised were we to find a very welcoming, clean town with plentiful history and the best and biggest meals of barramundi, gigantic steaks and lamb chops, all served of course with a pile of hot chips. And of course, Happy Hour with the locals and the drunk bank manager who was missing his girlfriend.
Bourke is also on the headwaters of the Darling River which is a main tributary of the Mighty Murray River. It was impressive to see it relatively healthy and alive with water, as climate change threatens its existence. Only a few years ago, the river had dried up and people reliant upon it for their livelihood were walking away from their properties. The large pier was testament to the days when the rivers were the major highways of the Outback and when Paddleboats transported wool and other goods along the waterways. Con and I were already planning our next trip which was a dream of mine; start paddling here at Bourke to where the Darling meets the Murray. We figure when we are broke from travel we can float down the Murray for next to nothing.
Long hot days of travelling and lots of cooling down stops for the dog, saw us travel another 800 odd kms on the Matilda Hwy, before spending a night in Barcaldine at a free rest stop and staying up just long enough to see the Blood Moon eclipse. This part of Queensland is the land of bush poets, shearers, large cattle stations, mining and extremes. Kynuna pub along the way was a great place to rest on a 38 C day and a surprise to find that Banjo Patterson first recited his famous ballad and Australia’s unofficial national anthem, Waltzing Matilda*in that very pub. This folk song/ballad has become one of the most often sung songs in Australian history. Most Aussies have no idea what it is about though and just are happy to be pulled into its melancholic rhythm. According to the Kynuna pub, it is an account of the 1894 shearers’ strike and an attempt to gain more pay from the squatters of the land. Striking shearers also assembled under a ghost gum in the town of Barcaldine and are said to have formed the Australian Labor party. The preserved 200 year old tree died from vandalism, but it is worth a visit as the architecture around the tree simulating a living tree is just amazing. As you stand under the living architecture, you can actually see and hear the tree move.
Four and a half days travelling and 2,900 kms later, we finally made it to Rocklands station, Camooweal on my son’s 21st birthday! The ute was delivered, the bikes were still in good shape and the dog was alive! Camooweal boasts having the longest main street in Australia. Also as I found out, the station workers can park their utes at the end of their road, just 100 metres form the pub, drink with the local coppers and then drive home legally as they are on private property.
*A waltzing matilda is someone who travels about with his swag.
We now had another 1400 kms ahead of us to cover in 3 days. Long days in the saddle and probably more kms than we will do in a month in Asia.
The road from Camooweal to Three Ways is pretty well dead straight, so straight it looks like a state border line on a map. Whilst the dog was in the back of the ute, he was becoming acclimatized, shedding fur and receiving ice baths. Now was our turn in the heat. 40C heat and bike protective gear make things pretty hot! I’m sure my droopy eyes looked pretty heat affected behind the visor too, but we didn’t have any ice to cool us down nor have anyone who cared! (apart from the man in his undies!) Fortunately, those rest stops along the way provide enough shade to park the bikes under and also water tanks to saturate ourselves with. We’re not complaining yet though, because we both know that an endless summer is ahead of us throughout Asia. An air conditioned room was awaiting us at Three Ways and of course a generous Aussie dinner.
This was the territory of very long road trains up to 53 metres. They were lined up out front like caterpillars at rest. I was a little nervous at the idea of passing a road train, but the long straight roads made that reasonably easy. Sitting behind them on the bikes is unbearable though as they produce a lot of heat and so sitting behind one for a while provides enough incentive to pass.
As you travel north towards Darwin, the terrain becomes less desert like and increasingly more tropical. Although we were on a deadline, we did stop at one of my favourite places, Edith Falls, this is heaven in the heat; clear, crisp pools and an enticing waterfall. Unfortunately, we by passed Mataranka another oasis to the traveller, but pushed onto Katherine. Finally 7 days after leaving Melbourne and over 4500 kms we had landed in Darwin, in time to ready the bikes for shipping.