Wednesday, 21 December 2011

A Month Outback

Bush Tucker Time

Not even a road-sign for shade

The see-through towns owned only one heat bent old nag. They were but slivers of ization, middle in a bovine plain. Collections of sheet metal bashed to form houses, water-tanks and wind-vanes and slowly oxidizing museums of cars scattered amongst the weeds. We stopped long enough to scavenge any fallen mangoes, read any information available; “Kayuna, one time home of A.J ‘Banjo’ Patterson of ‘Waltzing Matilda Fame’. Population in 1894 – 184, population in 2004 – 20, projected population for 2014 – 2”, buy a half liter petrol for our stove, fill up with water, pass the time of day with whoever is on the street, often nobody, and move on.

The roadsides are strewn with the plastic peel of high calorie comfort foods and half full bottles of designer drinks in red, green, blue and see through. Four dollar treats we can ill-afford slung from the briefly opened windows of air conditioned cars. Still, we are happy with our campfire dampers, porridge oat biscuits and bore-water. Are we not Anja?...Anja…she is nodding sideways, well, they taste good when we are hungry.

We have various methods of saving water. After dinner conversation may go like this; ‘Shall I wash the plates and pans tonight or lick ‘em?’…”Nah, we washed ‘em last night, jes’ lick ‘em clean, tilt yer hat back first though”. Sometimes we load up with over a week’s food and 26 liters of water, enough for 2 days; we may even get a wash out of this. Tea and the thought of tea keeps us going. One time when we found our first shade of the day mid-afternoon, we drank six cups of weak tea each, pretty much back to back.
Can't see the bush for the Gum trees

Road-Train hurricanes coming head on stop us in our tracks. They are infrequent but I sometimes lose my hat. Should say helmet as it is law outside of the Northern Territories, but who gives a damn out here. I don it in ‘town’ just to show respect for the law.

We will not miss the stench of rotting kangaroo. So many more dead than alive. They come to the roadside ditches where the grass is sweeter and fail to understand either fences, trucks or headlights. By no means the only indigenous species unable to adapt to modern machine-mans ways.

Australians it seems will go to even greater lengths to avoid getting out of their cars than the Americans.

We leave Tennants Creek strengthened after a break and turn into strong to gale-force winds which we fight for a week to Mount Isa. A Swiss grey nomad whom we meet in some shade asks us where we sleep at night. I look left and right and indicate ‘out there’ with my head. “Is it not too dangerous”? She asks, and we reply “but there is no-one out there”. A confused look in her eye indicates that that, for her, is the problem.

There is no-one out there. In 2000kms of outback we saw one woman on a horse and that was only half a mile from a station. As in parts of Asia one knows there are people there, always, though unseen, one knows that here is no-body. Where we camp, say 500 m from the road you could stay for a year and no-one would know you are there. The only company are the gurgley birds in various colours, the screechy birds, the laughing monkey birds (you don’t want them roosting in a tree above your tent telling jokes about you all night), the punk parrots with yellow mohicans and the insects of course. A giant, majestic Kangaroo may visit inquisitively at dusk or an Emu invite himself for breakfast, but the nearest human is sometimes a hundred miles away. We cut but a thin line through a large continent and know there must be people outdoors somewhere doing tough, leathery cowboy things. We just don’t see them.

Dangers there are though , as we have found out. We are not altogether naïve but have made a few errors in this land with wich we are so unfamiliar, and met with unexpected forces.

One day we rode towards smoke on the horizon, clearly a bushfire on the N. side of the road. The wind blew as ever from the SE. As we got slowly nearer the fire was bigger than we thought and was creating its own cumulus clouds and weather system. We managed to get eventually beyond it only to see another bushfire, smaller but nearer the road. It is not unknown for these fires to have 100km fronts and throw balls of fire the size of cars.

Tired and hungry we called a halt, the sun was sinking and we made camp south of the road. If the wind doesn’t change we will be fine, we convinced ourselves, and planned to keep checking throughout the night. As it got dark though we could see the orange of the fire through the trees, a scary and unexpected sight. We knew we should be no-where in this vicinity.

The wind stilled as usual and the glow seemed to dwindle somewhat. I could have sensed a wind change in my sleep had one occurred. By morning the fire was all but out. The trees seem mostly to survive and in this season the grass grows back quick and green. Probably more foreign cyclists come along to replace those singed every season.
Big Sky Country

Not far from Mt Isa is a beautiful creek lined with green grass and gum trees. The water flows slow and brown and the place is too inviting to ride past on an afternoon hot enough to fade your hat. So the billy is on the fire for tea, the tent has been pitched in the shade and the menu being drawn up for dinner when one of us remembers the crocodile advice. Are we back in Salty territory? Damn, we don’t know. Forgot to ask someone. My logic says no, we are 400kms from the gulf of Carpentaria where the river leads, too far. Also we are too high, 300m or so, nothing called a ‘Salty’ would dare to venture so far and high would it? If I were a crock though, I would be happy in this water; deep and dark and slow where the animals come so obviously down to drink. I decide we are ok. And if I am wrong then it’s a big error but having made the choice I will forget it and sleep well. Anja worries more as night draws on (often my role) till I ask if she wants to move away from the river into the long grass with the snakes. We stay where we are and survive but we now casually ask the yokels about the crocodile situation.

Storms and rain are another problem. Lightning apparently starts most of the bushfires and its easy to believe when you have witnessed the storms here. Camping one night in the bush by a dry creek, dinner was disturbed by rain which turned into a thunderstorm lasting most of the night. The clay like earth absorbed no water at all it seemed and the ground was awash and the creek filling up fast. It appeared to be a tossup whether we would drown from flooding, get struck by lightning or burnt in the ensuing bushfire. We were kneeling on our sleeping mats (recommended safety position, though recommended by whom, neither of us could remember) and praying for the storm to let up. There was lightning all around and no time-gap before the thunder. One strike nearly got us I am sure. It was so close we could smell burnt ozone from in the tent. Finally the worst of it moved off across the plain and we could see no fire, (how does a fire spread with so much water around)? Dawn was upon us and we packed up camp only to find the clay had absorbed just enough water to stick to us like glue. The wheels on the bikes clogged up and we had to shove and carry them back to the road. Hard, work and a pair of hours spent cleaning them up a bit. I am thinner than usual these days and covered in mud, Anja said I looked like a tent peg freshly pulled from the ground. I lost my title of ‘Adventure Tom’ backalong with the leech experience; I guess there are worse names than “Mien schmuztige Hering”.
They are making it up!

We see often inch diameter holes in the ground, tunnels with whispy-web coatings. Backpacker eating spiders we reckon. After leaving a camp where there were many of these dwellings I saw on Anjas back pannier a spider. It was large flat and hairy, had Hazchem written all over it and moved in an intelligent way, if that is possible.

I did a great Dads Army ‘Don’t Panic, Don’t Panic’ impression and nearly made Anja fall from her bike. To regain some respect (from the spider at least), I flicked it skillfully off, Sam Gamgee-wise across the road with my bicycle-pump. We were remarking to each other that that was the damn scariest spider either of us had ever seen by a long, long way when the furry fiend ran back super-fast across the road and back onto the bike. For the next five minutes we played hide and seek with the canny beast until finally it was flicked into the grass.

From snakes we have seen very little, though we always stomp about a bit in the bush to let them know we are coming.

With a headwind every day we were getting worn out. An afternoon on the banks of Chinamans Creek by Cloncurry restored a little strength and spirit but by Winton we needed a full day off. There was a muddy waterhole and we spent the day by it, underneath the shade of a coolabar tree, fixing the bikes, eating and drinking tea and watching the birds.

The pond was no more than 50m across, with a big island in it, a few miles out of town. Damn if a pick-up didn’t bring a speedboat to launch and spend an hour racing from one side to the other. They love a bit of water in the outback. Nice to see grown men having fun. I guess!


One afternoon the wind blew our way. We were still in the clay-country and needed hard standing for the tent. Truck lay-bys were the answer, we had them marked on the map and they often had a picnic table and some shade. Reaching easily at 3pm one 50km further that we had planned we left at 4pm with 44km to Longreach. As they say, you’ve got to make your hay when the sun decides to shine. Eight kms down the road the wind turned. We fought it for another 3kms and realized we would be fighting for hours instead of easily cruising into town. This was more like sailing than cycling. Down to 9km\h we did what I have never considered before, we turned back and blew home to where we were an hour or so before where we tied our tent to an insubstantial bush and hoped for another change in wind before morning.

Settling for a fickle crosswind, we set off once more and finally sailed into Longreach on a broad-reach. Great cattle town.

We rode out with the wind behind us again. Riding the same speed as a strong wind, all goes quiet, it is like being still, only the billowing of the long-grass gives away the gale.

I was just remarking on how the gods seemed to have let Turner paint the sky this day when they took away his brushes and gave them to Blake. A black storm was closing in on us from behind and to the North. Sir William was doing his best to reach us with thunderbolts and boiling clouds. With no Emus in sight we were the highest thing we could see so we decided to make a run for it. A 30km run as it turned out, we knew there was shelter in 50. As one Blake’s bearded storm gods took a swipe at us with his hand, we were splattered with turpentine rain but the angry snort from his nostrils blew us out of reach, we were hammering along at 35kmh with lightning splitting the skies behind us.

The dead straight road took a slight bend southwards and the storm tumbled on straight east, unable to turn under its own momentum. The angry artist was ordered to pass along his brushes and, though they didn’t let him paint any hats or pipes or anything daft, it seemed they let Magritte have a go. He did us one of his endless blue skies over green grass with evenly spaced cumulus clouds which seem to have had their bottoms cut off with a knife. Clouds that let you see extending far further than the horizon. Chapeau René.

To end the day all the minor battleship artists were allowed to practice their skies. There were four or five storms to watch at one time.

One evening just outside of Jericho we were surrounded by thousands of flying foxes; large fruit bats that came to drink from the Jordan river. They were not the meter wingspan type we had seen in Java, maybe 18 inches from tip to tip but there were more of them. I reckon a flap of bats that big could eat more mangoes than Anja in a sitting.

The morning of the great spider fight we pulled into a lay-by and found the gravel to be moving. Closer inspection revealed it to be the great woodlouse migration. Millions upon millions swarmed through the grass and along the road and looked, from head height like wildebeest from a helicopter. Where were they going and why?


We have battled the wind as far as Emerald where we swim in the brown river that flows around thick tree trunks in the extensive botanical gardens. These Australian towns have the most wonderful parks.

Today we saw crops and fields, a town that is reasonably busy and all of a sudden things have changed.

Now in Queenslands central highlands, we rode over the hazy-blue Drummond Range, part of the Great Dividing Range, and are only a few days from the coast. The weather is noticeably cooler; we are 20 miles south of the tropics and maybe the coast cools things down. Not sure if we want civilization for Christmas, we may head for a national park with a flagon of wine and some lamb chops and spend a few days with the birds and beasties before rolling down (yeah right) to the beach.

Only 2000kms to Sydney and no idea what to do then. Oh, I forgot, we fly (again) to New Zealand on the 10th Feb.

Merry Christmas everybody, I don’t expect you’ll be hearing from us before then, email is not easy at all to find. Have a good day you all. We shall eat well now the shops are closer than 500 miles apart, might even find some mince pies, they like pies the Ozies it seems, though I doubt they will be home made. I won’t miss brussel sprouts but I do like one of Ma’s homemade mince pies at Christmas.

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