The Outback: Very Dry in the 'Wet'

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March 12th 2015
Published: December 25th 2017
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Geo: -20.2679, 148.716

26 February - 11 March 2015

Cairns is very familiar, this is our third visit, so we stayed only a couple of nights, long enough to collect our van and settle in. We have gone for the (very slightly) upmarket Toyota HiAce Kuga, which means it is only between 6 and 9 years old and has done almost 400,000 kilometres. The layout is an improvement with a little more storage space and worktop. I love it!

We were also given 2 new travelling companions, not actually human despite their behaviour. The first is a tall free standing fan which I think of as male as it is gangly with very large feet! At bedtime we love him as he keeps the temperature to a manageable level. The rest of the time we hate him as he takes up ALL the floor space. First thing in the morning Jim unceremoniously ejects him from the van.

The second new arrival is definitely female because we can tell from her voice. It is the Sat Nav. I did not really see the need for one as there are so few roads in the Outback, but Jim thought she might be useful. However, she and Jim bicker constantly as she regularly takes us off route and often round in nonsensical circles. She is much less reliable than other sat navs we have used, but we don't know why. Usually when Jim has been rude to her she retaliates by sounding her speeding buzzer to make him feel bad. One day she told him off because he had been driving for nearly 3 hours!

There are always a few teething problems with vans when bits fall off or something does not work. We did our first supermarket shop, stored everything away and set off to return to the campsite when our hearts sank at the sudden familiar sound of thud, crash, clunk, clunk from behind us. Instantly recognisable it is the sound of the fridge door falling open and the contents pouring out over the floor. Thankfully as the fridge is small and low the bottles rarely break! The door sometimes opens if it has not been closed properly, or if the fridge is overloaded. A quick examination revealed that the spring had weakened and shortened so Jim managed to stretch and pack it. So far it is holding well!

The first couple of days we could not decide which direction to take, being torn between revisiting some of our favourite places or venturing out into unknown territory. We compromised. Moving up onto the Atherton Tablelands we stopped early in the morning at Petersen Creek for a few minutes hoping to see the elusive platypus. It is not easy as they spend much of the day underwater or in their burrows which have underwater entrances. A man passed me on the path while I was waiting patiently. He asked if I had seen one and when I said "Not yet" he walked on with a cheery "Sneaky little buggers!". I presume he means the platypus? Shortly afterwards I spotted 2 and managed to get a picture of one the instant before it sank down out of sight.

Our other favourite place we wanted to revisit is Mareeba Reserve. As we reached it we saw the sign saying it is closed for the 'Wet', re-opening in April. Ah well, that made the decision for us, into new territory and perhaps come past Mareeba on our return.

We did call into the Pioneer Museum in Herberton which was well worth a visit if only to see the printing machine, a Linotype, called the Eighth Wonder of the world by Thomas Edison, as it revolutionised the printing process by replacing the need for hand type setting. The retired Printer/volunteer who has restored the machine to working order gave a clear and passionate demonstration of it's workings. His justifiable pride and joy was wonderful to see.

The 'Wet' this year is not very wet as they believe the storms along the east coast a few weeks ago sucked out all the moisture from the weather patterns in the interior. Strange place this Australia. Just hope it doesn't cause any plagues as we had last time. I really thought that plagues only happened in the Bible until I came here.

So we turned westwards into the outback. I knew we had arrived when we stopped at Innot Hot Springs Caravan Park to check in and I asked the lady if they had wifi. She laughed! It may be some time before I can post this blog.

It is what you might call a basic site. It does have hot springs. People dig holes in the river shingle and the hole fills with very hot water. I had a traditional shower in the ablutions block and when I tried to cool the shower with cold water found both taps delivering only very hot water. Different! Usually obtaining a hot shower is the problem.

That night I was awoken by a loud, crunching noise. It sounded like an old washing machine cranking itself up on it's final spin. But it went on and on. Jim snored contentedly through it. I thought he should wake and go and find out what was happening but he was in such a deep sleep it took 5 minutes, a lot of calling of his name and three violent bouts of shaking before he finally spoke. He decided it had nothing to do with us and was coming from the laundry. I was afraid it might lead to an explosion (in the middle of the night anything seems possible) so I nagged until he grudgingly put clothes on and ventured out. He was back inside in 5 seconds! WE were the source of the noise which was thankfully much louder inside than out so we had not woken everyone else up. The water pump had seized up but Jim managed to repair it the next morning with duct tape.

Another night we stayed in Georgetown (population 300) and went out to the only restaurant for a meal as it was my birthday. The meal itself was average but the evening very enjoyable as we sat with 2 women who are travelling playgroup/kindergarten teachers. They are away from their base in Atherton for 3 to 10 days at a time, equipped with a 4x4 vehicle and satellite phone, and they spend half a day with each group or individual as on many of the Stations there is only one child. Some clients only receive 2 visits a year because of the 'wet' season. It was a fascinating insight into different lifestyles. Industry in the Outback mainly comprises cattle stations, mines and some tourism.

Eventually we reached the Gulf of Carpentaria where "the Outback reaches the sea" at Karumba. In theory we should not hve been able to get here at this time of the year. This is another tiny town dedicated to fishing now, although it was originally a port for the inland mines. We planned to stay one night and ended up staying 3 as it was so peaceful and relaxing. At Karumba point where we camped there are a couple of cafes/shops, a motel and campsite. Our campsite had a lovely pool, of which half was always in the shade so it was perfect for cooling off when the temperature and humidity were high.

The campsite was very quiet as the main season doesn't start for a month or so. Then the town is inundated with people coming for the fishing, mainly hoping to catch barramundi. One couple explained that they (like many others) come for 3 or 4 months every year. They bring 2 large chest freezers stocked full of food as everything here is expensive. Then as they eat their supplies they fill the freezers up with the fish they catch and travel back with 2 freezers full of frozen fish.

Apart from fishing and swimming in pools there is little to do in Karumba. The presence of crocodiles means going in the sea is to be avoided and even the fishing folk are warned to stay at least 10 metres from the edge once they have cast their line. However the road between Karumba and Normanton (where there is a very nice librarian who let us check emails on his computer) is one of the most outstanding birding areas I have ever seen. There were large numbers of Brolgas, Jabirus, Ibis and Royal Spoonbills as well as smaller birds.

Moving south from Karumba we arrived in Mount Isa, or The Isa as the locals call it. Most of the small towns in the Outback came into being when precious metals or stones were found and prospectors moved in. They tended to boom then bust when deposits ran out, so many have disappeared completely or are ghost towns. The Mount Isa Mine is an exception as it is still very productive and mines 5 different metal ores. At one time it was the largest earner of foreign currency in Australia.

The town (population 23,000) has a character all it's own mainly because of the huge open cast mine which forms half of the town, the other half being houses and shopping centre. Only the road separates the two so the mine is ever present, definitely a company town. Twice a day at 11.50 am and pm there is an underground explosion which can be felt in parts of the 'Townside' and definitely in the 'Mineside' as the 2 halves of the town are called. From the moment of arrival there is a sense of being in a tough male environment. Apart from the usual small businesses found in any town of this size all the other industry is centred around servicing the Mine. Every other compound is full of heavy machine of all types, even the scrap yard is full of very big machines and pieces of metal. There are yards offering training in how to use all the specialist digging, earth moving machinery etc. I imagine all babies born here are presented with hard hats at birth! At one time the ratio was 5 men to 1 woman.

But the prosperity has a cost. There are high levels of lead in the dust so everyone is advised to wash their hands frequently, prevent dust accumulating in homes and schools and make sure that younger children in particular are well and regularly fed as if they are not well nourished they are more vulnerable to lead poisoning. Anyone can request a blood test at any time to check their levels if they are concerned. We were not allowed to fill our water tank in The Isa, as because there is a drought, water levels are low and the water muddy, meaning there is a risk of high lead content.

We spent a fascinating morning visiting the School of the Air. Tourists can turn up at 10 am any school day and have a tour which consists of an introductory video, sitting in on a lesson, having a talk with the Administrator and then looking at pupils' work. Jim and I were the only visitors that day. The funding is jointly from Queensland and central Government, there are 170 pupils living on remote Stations and it operates over an area about the size of the UK! There are similar Schools of the Air in other parts of Australia.

Each pupil receives a half hour lesson every day over the "Air" together with other children in the same grade. The groups are usually of 5 or 6 pupils. After the video we sat with a teacher giving a lesson. Her group were Year 2s. As she asked a question, if a child knew the answer they would say their name and the teacher would then select one to answer. If someone did not volunteer their name she might ask them a simpler, supplementary question. She obviously used a microphone and ear phones as well as a computer where a small square showed each child in their own 'classroom', at the side of the screen showing the material they were using for that lesson. I thought the technology must make communication easier now as they all have computers but in fact it is still relatively unreliable in the Outback so the teacher has to be prepared for it to crash regularly and use traditional equipment.

I knew the basics about the lessons but there is much more going on in the School. In addition to the class lesson, each pupil has a one to one session daily with their teacher. They are also sent written materials, have regular week long camps where they all meet up together and do team activities, they each have a Home Tutor, and they can even be a scout or learn a musical instrument via the School of the Air. The children do not seem to miss out in any way despite their isolation. They never have behavioural problems with their pupils and all the materials and work displayed showed kids who were very happy living in the Outback and enjoying their school life.

The Home Tutor is often the mother but many families have governesses or 'Guvies' as they call them. One problem that does occur regularly is that as the 'Guvies' are under pressure to help their charges succeed they often do the work for the pupil themselves. But as the teacher said with a grin, her pupils are so young they are totally honest and tell her when it is not their own work.

Finally the Administrator told us more and showed lots of pictures, art work, essays etc produced by pupils. Especially interesting were their descriptions of life on a Station, the jobs they had to do like "feed the chooks", muster the mob of bullocks, take care of their horses etc. Some explained how young bullocks are castrated and their testicles (called Bush Oysters) sliced and cooked. As one said ,"it sounds gross but they are delicious".

The teacher told us that after the last camp she asked one boy if he had a long drive home. His reply, " Oh no, Miss Pollard, it's only seven hours"! We had been made to feel very welcome at the School.

After Mount Isa we started our trek back eastwards towards the coast, spending a day and a half crossing very flat Savannah grassland, so dry it is beginning to look like desert. There has been no real 'Wet' for 2 years.

In Julia Creek we stopped at the Information Centre to see a Dunnart. The Dunnart is a tiny rare nocturnal marsupial with very sharp teeth found in few places but Julia Creek happens to be one and the Information Centre usually has one in captivity. Unfortunately it died recently (after a relatively long and happy life of 3 years 10 months we were assured) and a replacement is awaited. The replacement will come from the University which is the only place licensed to breed the seriously endangered Dunnarts. We had to settle for a picture of a stuffed one.

We stopped in Richmond and were surprised to find a well presented newish Fossil Display called Kronosaurus Korner. A hundred million years ago there was a vast sea in what is now eastern Queensland and much of Northern Territory. It was populated by marine dinosaurs. Numerous fossils have been found on Stations in the area surrounding Richmond and put on display. These finds are as recent as 2012, including the spectacular and almost intact 11 metre long Kronosaurus and 9 metre long Pliosaurus. There is always something unexpected to be found in Australia.

As much as I was fascinated by how people live in the Outback it is good to leave the desert like landscape and very high temperatures (approaching 50 degrees) behind and return to more moderate climes of the coast. We could not wild camp much in the Outback as we needed the fan! Aussie campers we met were horrified that we did not have air-conditioning.

Now we are back on the coast at Bowen beside Horseshoe Beach. Unfortunately none of the campsites has Wifi so we are going off to McDonalds. If we have any luck the blog will be posted this evening. Hope it reaches you.

Ps Jim's PC/tablet suffered a near fatal attack - he sat on it in the dark. It died but he has coaxed it back to life. I think it is still seriously injured!

Additional photos below
Photos: 40, Displayed: 33


12th March 2015

Lovely photos particularly the birds - glad that you are enjoying yourselves back in OZ.
12th March 2015

I'm delighted that you liked seeing the Linotype machine in operation. I spent many happy hours in my youth, watching one working at my Dad's printing works in Auckland. But I haven't seen one working for over 40 years. Fascinating. Did you
notice how the keyboard wasn't QWERTY. And did he explain "upper case" and "lower case" as being the upper & lower boxes of type at the top right?
12th March 2015

My friend Max Cryer is a researcher of word origins. He says:For many centuries, mustard has been an essential accompaniment to beef. It became associated with vigour and enthusiasm because it added zest and flavour. The phrase “Keen as” is
first recorded in print in 1672 . The word ‘keen’ is used when associated with mustard in the sense that ‘keen’ means ‘sharp, effective and noticeable’ which good mustard is.Another version appears in 1679 – “You shall see a man as hot as mustard against Plot and Plotters." By 1925 the association was so strong that the word was used like this: “That fellow is mustard” ( Edgar Wallace . Note that – people and things were not like mustard, they were mustard). The phrase 'hot stuff' comes from the same comparison. A company called Keen and Sons was one of the early manufacturers of the condiment. They were taken over by Colman's in 1903, although the Keen brand name persists and mustard is still available under the name Keen. There is no direct connection between the firm and the saying – since the saying “keen as mustard” was published in 1672 and Keens the makers of mustard weren’t established until a hundred years later -1742. But there is little doubt that the presence of Keens helped re-inforce the hundred-year-old saying about mustard being “keen.”

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