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Oceania » Australia » Queensland » Birdsville
November 4th 2007
Published: December 9th 2007
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Windmill, Emerald, QueenslandWindmill, Emerald, QueenslandWindmill, Emerald, Queensland

George Ward Memorial, Emerald, Queensland
Well, better late than never, here's the last Australian blog - and penultimate blog from the Overland To Oz trip. It seems strange thinking back to how much preparation there was in getting the trip organised and here I am, nicely settled into a new life in Ireland, having already completed a trip that I'd been thinking about for 18 years! I'm planning on carrying on blogging travels in Ireland over the next few months, with pictures of the beautiful County Donegal scenery, but given how long it's taken me to finish writing about Australia, I'm not sure when that'll be... .

Anyway, back to Australia! I last left you in Queensland - Danielle had flown back from Sydney to be at her brother's wedding in Northern Ireland in April leaving me to continue travelling for a few weeks more. The plan was to travel with family friends for the last 30 years, Lorraine and Brian from their hometown of Mackay in Queensland. Years ago on my last trip to Australia, I looked on the map and saw the legendary name of Birdsville - home of both the famous Birdsville Track and the Birdsville Races - not bad for a
Warning Sign At Gem Field, Rubyvale, QueenslandWarning Sign At Gem Field, Rubyvale, QueenslandWarning Sign At Gem Field, Rubyvale, Queensland

I'd been Warned These Signs Were No Joke!
tiny desert town in the middle of nowhere which practically closes down in the middle of the summer because of the heat. It had always seemed just the stuff of dreams on that trip - I was tied in to a Greyhound bus trip around the East coast and straight up the Red Centre and I never had the funds to buy a car, so it went quietly to the back of my mind but I guess the images it conjured up still tweaked at my imagination. So when Lorraine had emailed to say that her and Brian were heading out in their 4x4 along the Birdsville Track and I was more than welcome to travel with them, I jumped at the chance. The times worked out perfectly - we'd booked the container ship from Singapore to Brisbane several months beforehand and it's arrival would give us a couple of weeks in Oz before Danielle had to fly home, so we'd still have time to explore before the 4x4 trip.

After arriving back at Mackay airport, Lorraine and Brian collected me and we made preparations for the off. My Dad had sent over my tiny tent from England and
The Anakie Ambo!The Anakie Ambo!The Anakie Ambo!

Off Road Ambulance, Anakie, Queensland
other than that, I was pretty much packed. It was clear that I was travelling with seasoned 4x4'ers - the trailer tent was already prepared and food and drink was stowed, with emergency fuel and water for the journey packed alongside. We'd be travelling west from Mackay into bush country and from there deep into the Outback as we headed south-west to meet some friends who were travelling from northern Queensland into Birdsville. From there we'd pick up the Birdsville Track to travel south to the driest state on the driest continent in the world, South Australia - in the middle of the worst drought in living memory. The scenery would change dramatically as we followed the Murray River and head east into New South Wales along the coast and up to Brisbane where I'd fly onto a brief stopover in Auckland before heading back to Blighty, and Danielle.

We left the following day, with no reason to hang about and 6 weeks of overland travel before us. I wasn't exactly sure how I'd fare after so many nights in my small tent but I knew this was a trip I'd wanted to do for a long time and hoped that my sense of adventure would prevail! I also knew that there would be some very long days before us - hundred of kms on dirt tracks for several days followed by nights under canvas, but the thought of wild camping, collecting firewood and swapping tales of adventure and of travels under the stars over a few tins of XXXX made my stomach tingle - it was surely a fantastic way to end the biggest adventure of my life.

The first day was spent getting some miles under our belts, making the most of the sealed roads and heading west towards a brief stop in Emerald to visit L&B's old stamping ground and to meet Lorraine's mother. We were still munching on homemade cake when we arrived in Anakie for our first night's stop, this time with some of Brian's family. I was treated to good old Australian hospitality - large lumps of meat were thrown onto the bbq and a good few beers were sunk as we sat in the garden and chatted the night away. Gradually talk came around to Poms and their inherent fear of a country apparently overrun by creepy crawlies. I reckon Aussies
Our First Bush Camp West Of EmeraldOur First Bush Camp West Of EmeraldOur First Bush Camp West Of Emerald

Lorraine And Brian Sat By The Camp Fire, With My Tiny Tent In The Background
don't mind winding us Poms up about their snakes and spiders to try and make us scared, so conscious of this I just laughed it off, until I was told about a late night trip to the bathroom when someone in the house tripped over something - flicked on the light and found a large carpet python curled around the toilet. Bladder control would be something of a top priority once the lights went off that night!

Anakie is in the middle of an area known for it's beautiful gems and a small settlement called Rubyvale is just up the road. After a hearty brekkie I was taken for a spin to see where the stones are dug. Diggers can make a claim on a plot of land, build a temporary structure and start digging. It reminded me of old Jack London stories I'd read of the Klondike Gold Rush as we drove around the dust track in between caravans and small winches, poking awkwardly from the long spinifex grass. Bearded men wandered through the long grass and as I joked about how it'd be funny if I picked up something glinting through the dust, we passed a sign
The Start Of The DirtThe Start Of The DirtThe Start Of The Dirt

Outback Track, Central Queensland
saying bluntly that people found digging on a claim would be shot. I was told that was no joke.

As we drove back along a dirt track, we lurched to a halt and as a huge cloud of dust caught us up and enveloped the car in a thick brown mist, I looked hard for what had caused us to stop so suddenly. A large Brown Snake was slithering across the road in front of us. We were trying to stop, apparently, so that I could jump out and take a picture of the second most venomous snake in Australia. Or maybe I could just watch it from the safety of the car. Unfortunately, it moved too quickly for us and was across the road and into the grass before I could get out, but as we drove back, I was told how a girl had survived being bitten by one only the other day - so they're really not that bad (if you happen to be near some anti-venin!).

We continued our journey, eventually turning south-west as we passed through Jericho, over the River Jordan and north of Surbiton, and onto Ilfracombe - all familiar place names
Those Bloody Flies!Those Bloody Flies!Those Bloody Flies!

Me Complete With Fly Net - The Flies Gave You 10 Seconds To Put It On And Then They Attacked! I Both Loved And Hated This Fly Net - For Protecting You From The Flies, And For Getting In Your Food When You Forgot To Take It Off!
but in completely alien country. As we pulled into Isisford, we entered the Outback - not an official line, but a frontier of sorts. The grasslands of Anakie had given way to dust and scrubland. The land had opened up before us - no trees to obscure the view ahead and a heat haze began to settle on the road. We were a long way from the lush tropical rainforests of northern Queensland but as we quickly found out, the pubs seem to serve pots of XXXX Gold everywhere and Isisford was no exception. We stopped for a look at the Clancy Of The Overflow pub, named after the poem by Banjo Paterson and author of Waltzing Matilda and numerous other traditional Australian tales and tunes. As we made camp that night by a creek, it was easy to imagine generations of travellers stopping at similar points along their journey, sitting by a fire and wondering what the next day would hold. Only 200 years ago, European travellers perished in this environment, unsure about how to survive in the desert heat, or simply getting lost and not carrying enough water between stops. Travel has become easy now and a little
The Heat Of The OutbackThe Heat Of The OutbackThe Heat Of The Outback

Welford National Park, Near Windorah, Central Queensland
way away from our pitch there was even a toilet and shower, saving the shovel and pit toilet experience for another day.

Shortly after leaving Isisford, we left the sealed roads behind and headed towards Welford National Park, near Jundah. As we neared the park, we were reminded that this was once farmland. How difficult this was to imagine now - completely flat, the deep red dust that formed the soil can have provided so few nutrients to the grazing cattle. Attracted by the permanent water holes, life must have been so tragically difficult here - the only wildlife we saw were some Major Mitchell cockatoos flying overhead and plenty of kangaroos sheltering under the occasional tree in the midday sun. As we drove over the compacted soil, we headed towards some water, but as we tried to get closer, the water seemed to stay the same distance from us - and we even tried driving around it - surely you can't drive around a mirage? But as sure as that seemed like plentiful water, the mirage disappeared as we got too close and we drove over more red dust. How demoralising that must have felt to those first
Wild Camp At Coopers Creek CrossingWild Camp At Coopers Creek CrossingWild Camp At Coopers Creek Crossing

Site Of Burke And Wills' Infamous Camp On Their Ill-Fated Expedition
European explorers, confident that they were heading towards much-needed water, but never seeming to finding it.

As we stepped out of the car for a regular dose of smoko (tea and some of Lorraine's cake!) and a break from the monotony of travel, we were hit by something that caught me unawares. Along with the heat that rushed in the car as you opened the door and covered you like a recently slept-in duvet, came a hundred flies. Unrelenting, they swarmed around your face, in your ears, up your nose and onto your eyes. When you waved them away, they disappeared for enough time for you to think you'd escaped them, only for them to arrive back with reinforcements. Just as I was dancing around the car, hands and legs waving in the air in some curious tribal dance, Brian handed me a net - "you might want this for your head", he said. As soon as I put it on, I relaxed. Aaah, apart from the odd fly that adventurously managed to clamber through, I had escaped. But where did they come from? You had 10 seconds, tops, until you were deluged in the bloody things after getting out of the car and woe betide anyone who let them into the car, although fly squashing did provide good sport for me sat in the back! The net was great and did the job a treat - if only I could remember to pull it up whenever I ate or took a drink... .

After a long, hot day of travelling in some truly beautiful desert scenery, we made camp by Coopers Creek. This was a beautiful bush camp, with the river flowing 10 metres away we camped under the shelter of ghost gums, their shimmery white barks and the breeze rustling the thin green leaves. It reminded me of days spent sat by the river Test in Hampshire, enjoying a summer's evening after a long day in the sun. It seemed hard to believe that this was close to the site of where, in 1861, explorers Burke and Wills finally perished on their long and arduous exploration of inland Australia. They were due to cover a massive distance on foot, by camel and horse, travelling from Melbourne to the southern edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria. This journey alone was around 1700 miles - and after having
Approaching Big Red, BirdsvilleApproaching Big Red, BirdsvilleApproaching Big Red, Birdsville

Big Red Is The Largest Sand Dune In Australia, Marking The Eastern Edge Of The Simpson Desert, Queensland
successfully completed this journey, had to turn around and return home the same way. They were the first European explorers to attempt such a trip and on the return leg, were hit by monsoon conditions. Gradually their animals began to die, their pace slowed and their rations became low. A rescue party was dispatched from Melbourne - it waited at a pre-agreed point for 4 months - 1 month longer than was originally planned, but left after their own members started suffering from scurvy and dysentery. Just 9 hours after the rescue party left the tree, Burke and Wills arrived. They found the supplies left behind but having lived off of them whilst recuperating, had to set off again several days later. They had with them food given by a local Aboriginal tribe, but died whilst trying to find the rescue party - who were just 35 miles away. We later visited a tree which has the initials carved in it as well as the date - "B+W 1861" which was really quite awe-inspiring, given the distance that they'd travelled and conditions that they must have endured.

That evening, we cooked up some good old bush tucker, sank a
The Top Of Big RedThe Top Of Big RedThe Top Of Big Red

Simpson Desert, Queensland
couple of beers and lit the fire. It was completely silent apart from the gentle sound of the river flowing and the sky was a perfect deep black punctuated with silver stars and satellites. It was my turn to wash up that evening and as I put the small electric light on, a million insects received the signal that it was time to descend. The light became a magnet as it darkened with moths the size of your hand sat on it and praying mantids marched their way across the canvas towards where I was washing. A tickle on my sandalled foot and I looked down - a large centipede ambled along, scooping up any leftovers that we'd let slip onto the ground in the dark. They were amazing to watch - and where they all lived waiting for a single light to come on in the middle of the Bush was a mystery. That night I crept into my tent, the constant bombardment from flies during the day and then the moths during the evening proving too much for us all and as I read under torchlight, my tent became one big moth-magnet and I dropped off to the
View From The Top Of Big RedView From The Top Of Big RedView From The Top Of Big Red

Cars Meet Before Heading Through The Desert Or Back Into Birdsville
gentle patter of rain-like drops on the tent as insects descended from the trees, swiftly followed by a hop-hop of a frog, scooping up a hundred free meals.

We tended to rise with the sun every morning, making the most of the daylight hours and headed off early. We were pushing on now towards Birdsville where we'd meet up with friends of Lorraine and Brian, Greg and Marilyn, and their daughter and son-in-law, Marijeke and Bart. The condition of the road had deteriorated as we headed south-west, although it's a vastly improved in the past few years. Occasionally there would be a large sign next to the road advising on the road conditions - most roads were impassable during the rains and some only navigable in a 4x4 however good the conditions. We rang ahead a couple of times to ask for local advice as getting bogged literally in the middle of nowhere could prove fatal but given that this was early autumn, the roads (apart from near Lake Eyre which for only the second time in the past 100 years, had filled which meant that the roads nearby had been washed out), were in very good condition. For
Aussie Friends And Travelling CompanionsAussie Friends And Travelling CompanionsAussie Friends And Travelling Companions

From Left - Lorraine, Marilyn And Greg, Bart and Marijeke And Last But Not Least, Brian
the most part, roads were compacted high-grade dirt which made for quick travel - if creating a huge amount of dust behind us and as a result, if you saw a road train coming in the distance, it was a good plan to move way off of the road so as not to get showered in gravel. Road trains are huge trucks made up sometimes of 3 or 4 trailers containing anything from cattle, oil or other trucks and have priority over pretty much anything. As we made our way down towards Birdsville, we came across a sign warning that parking was strictly prohibited for the next 3 miles - and all of a sudden the only sealed bit of road for 200kms appeared. We were driving along an ad hoc air strip - a vital supply line for the various cattle stations along the way and especially important for the Royal Flying Doctor Service to be able to fly in to attend to emergencies in the area.

On arrival to Birdsville we made our way to the camp site and found our friends already having a beer in the shade, complete with fly nets. The rock-hard ground resulted
Artesian Well, BirdsvilleArtesian Well, BirdsvilleArtesian Well, Birdsville

Travelling Up From A Basin 1292 Metres Underground, The Water Is Heated To 98C By The Earth's Core And Is Then Stored For Use By The Local Population
in a few bent tent pegs although my tent went up okay, but I'm sure it's never been quite so hot in there! Just lying down meant I was bathed in a thin film of sweat - to move was like having a bath in there. This was early autumn - I can't imagine what it's like at the height of summer, although as most residents told us, places closed down during the summer due to the heat - and crossing the Simpson Desert or the Birdsville Track during that time is just not heard of - or particularly safe.

Birdsville is a small town, located at the eastern edge of the Simpson Desert and at the northern end of the Birdsville Track, roughly 1600kms west of Brisbane. It's famous for a couple of things - namely the Birdsville Races, where every September the population of around 200 swells to 6000 for 2 days of horse racing, and well, famous for being Birdsville! A by-word for remoteness, the town is inhabited by a hardy bunch who are used to seeing travellers pass through after a couple of days staying at the campsite or at the legendary Birdsville Hotel. A
The Birdsville HotelThe Birdsville HotelThe Birdsville Hotel

The Famous Hotel With Birdsville Airfield Alongside
drink at the hotel is compulsory - anyone who takes a picture (or who wears a baseball camp back to front) is obliged to donate $2 to the Flying Doctors. You can sit and watch small aircraft take off and land across the road at the tiny airport - admittedly a rather glamorous way to arrive, but the couple that we saw jet in and walk over to the hotel in their upmarket gown and jacket looked a little out of place, surrounded by dusty cattle station workers resplendent in Akubras (like cowboy hats) and other tourists who had fallen out of their 4x4 after 300kms of dust track under their belt.

We spent 3-4 enjoyable days here, visiting the town's working museum where the jovial owner showed off items from times passed - mainly farming and household goods that really helped to hit home just how hard life would have been - with no air conditioning and poor refrigeration. The cemetery was situated a little way out of town, a peaceful place of higgledy-piggledy crosses and metal plaques, some with names scratched onto them. We were surrounded by deep red sand dunes, waves of inflamed dust shuffled in
Birdsville Water HoleBirdsville Water HoleBirdsville Water Hole

Birdsville, Queensland
the wind whilst little track marks criss-crossing them showing the routes of insects that had long gone before we approached. On one day we headed over to see Big Red - the 40m high sand dune that marks the edge of the Simpson Desert. Testing out the 4x4 (and the drivers') off-roading skills!) we slipped our way up to the top and parked to look across to the start of the Simpson Desert - a line of sand dunes lay before us. Some cars headed on across the desert, riding over the numerous dunes, whilst other cars sat at the bottom of Big Red, unable to climb to the top, their high-visibility flags blowing pointlessly in the breeze.

On our way out of Birdsville, having sampled the new cafe and bakers (highly recommended!) and made the most of civilisation before heading south and joining the Birdsville Track, we went for a spin along the Birdsville race track. Home to the famous races, horses from all over Australia are flown in for the 2 day charity event in aid of the Flying Doctors. With an empty track ahead of us, we went for a quick spin on the parched road,
The Birdsville Race TrackThe Birdsville Race TrackThe Birdsville Race Track

Birdsville, Queensland
the mud crispy and crackly under foot and wheel.

As we joined the Track, road signs warned how important it was to prepare for this trip and advised on road conditions - the track was open to all traffic, but with 300kms to the next fuel stop at Mungerannie, we had to fill up and carry enough reserve fuel to get us the extra 250kms to the following stop in case we couldn't get fuel there. The next 300kms were spent on completely flat dirt track, surrounded by desert with only the huge wedge-tail eagle as company, feasting on occasional road kill - kangaroos, wallabies and goannas.

We were in convoy with Greg and Marilyn, never more than a few miles apart but letting each know if we were stopping for smoko by getting in touch on the HF radio. We found one of the best wild camps yet along the Track, with plenty of good firewood and although 150kms from any habitation, a clean toilet complete with paper! The temperature had dropped considerably at night and we had to wrap up against the cold - but at least it kept the flies away until sunrise when they
Our Own Birdsville RaceOur Own Birdsville RaceOur Own Birdsville Race

An Empty Birdsville Race Track
seemed to wake up and sniff us out. We were heading towards Mungerannie which was the only fuel stop before Maree, but somewhere along the way lost Greg and Marilyn and with no word on the radio, hung back and stopped the next car we saw. They had got a flat tyre on their car, then 1km further down the track, developed another one - this time on their trailer. Fortunately they had 2 spares but fixing both wheels on the track was hard work but the Mungerannie Roadhouse did everything from fix punctures, serve beer and fuel to provide a bed for the night so we were fixed up and back on the road in no time, looking for our next camp.

As we headed towards Maree, 400kms on dirt track took their toll and a stone flicked up from the road, bounced off the trailer and broke the rear window. Faced with another couple of days of travelling with dust and flies in the car, we used up a roll of masking tape to try and hold the shattered glass together. Despite the bumpy road and the occasional door being slammed a bit too enthusiastically, the window
If You're Off To Brisbane, Don't Forget Your Sandwiches...If You're Off To Brisbane, Don't Forget Your Sandwiches...If You're Off To Brisbane, Don't Forget Your Sandwiches...

The Nearest Stop, Betoota, Was Literally An Empty House On A Rare Bend In The Road
stayed in place and it wasn't long before we rolled into Maree and a well-deserved sight of sealed road. Phone calls were made and we found a place in Port Augusta that could replace it - in a few days. In the meantime, we could just kick back and enjoy the scenery.

With time to kill and more rolls of precious masking tape bought, we made our way to the beautiful Flinders Ranges and into our camp ground at Wilpena Pound. The Pound is an area 100sq km, enclosed by 1000m high mountains and was formerly used by early farmers as an enclosure for animals, but was originally inhabited by the Adnyamathanha tribe of aborigines. Today it is criss-crossed by walking tracks where you can explore the mountains and a campsite is located in the middle of the Pound, nestled in a pine forest, home to hundreds of kangaroos and huge, loud crows - a natural wakeup call when sleeping in a tent!

Now in South Australia, the driest state in the driest continent on earth, fire warnings were everywhere and as we passed through the comparatively lush greenery of the wineries and fruit growing areas of the Hunter Valley, the Government warned that if there was no significant rainfall in 6 weeks, then water would no longer be diverted from the already parched Murray River. Hundred of businesses along the river faced bankruptcy with the prospect of no water for their crops and the talk on local radio was extremely downbeat with such a bleak outlook.

As we turned east, our 4x4 resplendent with new rear window we followed the Murray River, skirting the Victoria/South Australia border and camped at perhaps our most beautiful wild camp, along the banks of the Mighty Murray. It was a spot in amongst a forest of gum trees and with the slow moving river at our side, proved a great spot to sit and watch the galahs flying overhead. But it's isolation proved to be a scary element as well - that night a van came and parked not far from our two tents and with nobody else for miles around with only the mysterious van driver for company, although probably completely innocent, it made me feel particularly vulnerable in my small tent!

With an early start courtesy of the hundreds of galahs squawking their hearts out overhead, we
Lorraine And Brian With The Burke And Wills TreeLorraine And Brian With The Burke And Wills TreeLorraine And Brian With The Burke And Wills Tree

Signed By The Exploring Duo, Shortly Before their Death In 1861
made our way towards Ecucha to take a ride on the famous Murray River paddle steamers, reminding me of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and then we continued onwards, turning north-east and onto New South Wales.

We couldn't resist a quick spin on the Mount Panorama racing circuit which was a good bit quicker than the trip around the Birdsville horse track! It's home to the Bathurst 1000 - a 1000km race competed by V8 Supercars and whilst the public are allowed to take their own cars around the course, you still have to watch out for the police who are regular visitors to try and catch speedsters!

We headed straight to the NSW coast and onto Nambucca Heads for fantastic beach views and a couple of days of sea fishing, before travelling into suburbia and Brisbane airport, for my flight to New Zealand and then home. Australia had turned out to be a fantastic end to my journey but that had only really been possible because of my very good friends, Lorraine and Brian. Without them, I'd never had got to experience the Aussie Outback with such great guides and I hope that this blog has in
Memories Of SichuanMemories Of SichuanMemories Of Sichuan

Hawk Near A Waterhole, Birdsville
some way given a feel for the heat, flies and sense of adventure that the country evoked. The thought of early European explorers making their slow progress across such inhospitable terrain will live with me for a long time to come.

The next blog will be the final one from this trip (although I will be blogging my new life and travels in Ireland) and will mark the end of a fantastic experience. This time last year Danielle and I were travelling in Cambodia, unsure of how were to get to Australia and what adventures lay before us! Bye for now and have a good Christmas.


Additional photos below
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Crispy And Crunchy MudCrispy And Crunchy Mud
Crispy And Crunchy Mud

Burnt Ground At The Birdsville Race Track
Wise WordsWise Words
Wise Words

Sign On The Birdsville Track, Edge Of Birdsville
Sand DunesSand Dunes
Sand Dunes

Birdsville
The Road Train Finally Arrives At The Mungerannie Road HouseThe Road Train Finally Arrives At The Mungerannie Road House
The Road Train Finally Arrives At The Mungerannie Road House

With 300kms Between Petrol Stations, We Had To Wait A Couple Of Hours For The Truck To Arrive With The Fuel
A Chilly SunriseA Chilly Sunrise
A Chilly Sunrise

Wildcamp On The Birdsville Track
Deserted Desert TownDeserted Desert Town
Deserted Desert Town

South Australia
Some Welcome ShadeSome Welcome Shade
Some Welcome Shade

Flinders Ranges, South Australia
Sopwith CamelSopwith Camel
Sopwith Camel

Airshow Near Mildura
Wild Camp On The Murray RiverWild Camp On The Murray River
Wild Camp On The Murray River

Galahs Giving A Fly Past, Sunrise
The Three SistersThe Three Sisters
The Three Sisters

Blue Mountains, Katoomba, New South Wales
PelicanPelican
Pelican

It's Beak Can Hold More Than It's Belly Can
Lorraine And BrianLorraine And Brian
Lorraine And Brian

View Of Our Campsite And The Beach Below
My Home For 6 WeeksMy Home For 6 Weeks
My Home For 6 Weeks

Life On The Road...


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