Caravan maintenance and the art of journaling

No 6 in a six-part travelogue.

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Theresa Creek Dam at sunset. Caravan maintenance and the art of journaling.

As we start out on the last six days of a six-week caravan adventure, now is the time to dig into my journal for publishable insights and ironies. We found quite by accident an oasis in the outback called Theresa Creek Dam, 22km south west of Clermont. The dam was built here in 1985 by Blair Athol Coal to supply Clermont with drinking water.

It’s a tranquil lake spanning some 8,100 acres with abundant birdlife and a special kind of light. The dam is also an angler’s paradise, stocked quite recently (2015-16) with 14,200 barramundi and 34,147 golden perch. There’s also jewfish, saratoga and red claw. All kinds of boating is allowed, but you must have a licence to go fishing.

So after some hard driving across the flatlands of central Queensland, known for beef cattle and abundant reserves of coal, we took time to sit by the cool waters and reflect on the journey. We also did some running repairs on car and caravan. I say ‘we’ advisedly, as I am the sort of impractical bloke who will try three ways of doing something before the fourth and correct way.

This trip has not been without its mishaps, starting with the realisation, three days out, that the three-way caravan fridge wasn’t working. It cost $230 for a fridge mechanic in Charleville to tell us the bad news, that the fridge, given its age and resale value (nil), was not worth fixing.

So it’s had a good innings, this fridge, which the mechanic said was still working on gas, or at least it was until we took the van on dirt roads. She Who Plans Ahead Even When Being In The Moment reckoned it would cost $500 just to get the old fridge removed and a new three-way fridge (about $1200) installed.

The alternative, we figure, is an upright 12-volt fridge which will also cost about $1,100 but the installation will be a piece of cake. It can then run off the car battery when driving, the van battery when camped and the solar panel can keep the latter topped up. (Meanwhile, we pretend we’re in the 1920’s and use the fridge as an icebox, replenishing ice every couple of days. Ed)

In other on-road adventures, we bought a new car battery in Clermont. The old on failed once at Mt Surprise for no real reason other than to suspect the original Ford battery (four years old) was about to cark it. We got a ‘low battery’ warning a few days ago when starting the car, so got it tested in Clermont by the local RACQ approved repairer.

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Handy Mandy and the art of caravan maintenance

The other challenge was the caravan wardrobe door, which fell off while we were bouncing our way across the dirt road shortcut between Hughenden and The Lynd. Fortunately, the mirror on the inside of the door remained intact. Not so the hinges, which apart from matching all other hinges in the van, proved a curse to replace. Uncle John, who is possibly more handy than She Who Screws With her Left Hand (make of that what you will), tried three different hardware stores on the Atherton Tablelands and came up empty. He suggested a hardware store in Cairns which (a) was hard to find) and (b) couldn’t help us anyway. Persistent as always, SWSWHLH found a set of offset hinges in a caravan supplies shop in Townsville. But there were only two to (the only) packet. Not to be deterred, SWSWHLH took a hinge off a back cupboard, replacing it with the damaged one off the wardrobe, figuring that it ‘would do’ as it is not load bearing. So yesterday, with my assistance, She hung the wardrobe door and what do you know, it closes and locks. Yay. Estimated cost $4.86.

Anais Nin and my 40-year journaling habit

All of these little challenges are detailed in my journal, a long-running series of notebooks which contain not only factual observations, but also fiction and my interpretations of life as it progresses. It’s hardly the erotic adventures of Anais Nin, but as any good psychologist could tell you, it can be cathartic and even helpful to pour one’s feelings out in a journal that will hopefully never be read by anyone else. My executors have their instructions.

My journal contains sentiments which could be misinterpreted in the context of a loving relationship spanning many years. For example, Ms Acronym is apt to interrupt my sudden brilliant flashes of creativity, encouraging me to go birding, walking, do the laundry, work out what we’re doing tomorrow etc just when the small kernel of a new song has started rattling around in my head.

And as she no doubt caustically observes when scribbling in her own book, when travelling I tend to get dazed and confused in the late afternoon, readily confusing left and right and north and south. I grant that one’s spouse could find that exasperating, as I so often insist my way is the right way (when it is abundantly clear it is not).

She Who Keeps A Journal While Travelling has another writing exercise where she is supposed to spend 10 minutes writing down her feelings and then burn the paper. I apparently blundered into this exercise, rummaging around in the fridge (kept cool with ice boxes), saying “Honey, where are the carrots?” (My riposte was milder than you might suspect. Ed.)

Other minor mishaps on this escapade were usually due to somehow getting lost, which we either found amusing (or not). On leaving Glenmorgan for Surat (we’d been at Myall Park, a fascinating botanic garden in the bush), our GPS told us to turn left and continue down a corrugated dirt road which, half an hour later, had not yet met a bend. As my journal now tells me, some weeks after we stopped being annoyed about it, if we had not taken this road less travelled we would not have seen a mob of wallabies, a Bustard, a feral cat, four dead dingos hanging from a tree and a drover on a horse, durrie hanging from the corner of his mouth, who gave us a puzzled look and a laconic wave as if to say ‘are youse lost or something’. Later we deduced we had taken a local access road through various pastoral properties, emerging some 120 kms later at Surat.

We share equal blame for mishaps and forgetfulness. Someone left the van step on the footpath in Augathella while we went to take photos of murals. “Maybe someone nicked it,” I said, in an attempt to be charitable.

We drove on to Morven, planning to have a leisurely meal at the pub then watch State of Origin II. Alas, the pub burned down two years earlier so we ate canned stew and watched the game on the Ipad. I believe it is called finding strength in adversity.

My best act of dazed and confused was going into the ladies loo at Morven Recreation Ground. I came out of the shower wearing only a towel to find a woman about my own age looking less than excited to find a paunchy, near-naked old man in the ladies’ loo. “I think you’re in the wrong place, mate,” she said, in that charming understated outback way, adding “Ewes means girls, mate.”

Related reading:

Cape York or bust

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Cape York or bust

No 5 in an outback series

On the last day of Queensland’s school holidays, a steady line of dusty 4WD’s returning from Cape York are queuing up for the Daintree River ferry crossing. Many of these road-beaten vehicles are rentals from Cairns. You can tell the real deal 4WD by the snorkel (a vertical exhaust above the cabin – designed for crossing creek and rivers without killing the engine).

Kids or even adults have written epitaphs on the dusty windows including “Cape York or bust” “Been there done that” and “still driving”.

(And my very favourite one-“Capey McCapeface”.Ed)

The bitumen road peters out just past Cape Tribulation in the Daintree rainforest. Intrepid travellers with appropriate vehicles can take the scenic Bloomfield track to Cooktown then loop back along a sealed road to Lakeland, where the 582 kms journey to Weipa begins. After Weipa, the route becomes a 4WD dirt road with a few sealed sections, all up 908.4 kms, a 28 hour drive to the northernmost tip of Australia. Last time a survey was done, between 60,000 and 70,000 people had made the arduous trek every year. Those are small numbers compared to the volume of tourists visiting Uluru or Kakadu National Park, but in the context of a wild, undeveloped frontier, it’s a lot of traffic.

Some take organised 4WD tours, some fly/drive; others take a boat to Cape York and come back by road. If you do decide to drive from Lakeland, you have an estimated 15 and a half hour journey to Weipa (averaging 37 kmh). By contrast, the bitumen road from Cairns to Lakeland is a three hour drive (250 kms).

You might know that our outback travelling is constrained by the limitations of a six-cylinder rear-wheel drive vehicle and a 30 year old caravan. It’s a high-set van, but as recent journeys on unsealed roads have shown, the suspension is not built for corrugations. We call the 271 kms short cut from Hughenden to The Lynd, which has sealed sections and some rough stretches, ‘The Road that Broke the Wardrobe Door’.

So our adventures north of Cairns were limited to a day trip from Newell Beach to Cape Tribulation and back, via a cruise on the Daintree River, two hikes in the rainforest and the extreme disappointment that arose from listening to the Broncos getting thrashed by the Warriors (well may you scoff and say, ‘what’s that about being in the moment’?).

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Daintree River croc – Cape York or Bust

Despite the high tide, we saw three crocodiles on the (highly recommended) one-hour Solar Whisper cruise, including a 3m croc known as Scooter who decided to swim along the mangrove-lined bank a few metres from the boat. John the skipper pointed out a few birds including an Azure Kingfisher, a Papuan Frogmouth, a Rufous Night Heron and Radjah Shelducks. (There are photos on my camera, but the downloading process is rather primitive. Ed)

As for Cape York or bust, I can only repeat what authorities will tell you: take extra fuel, water, tyres, vehicle spares, a jack or two and a shovel. Always give way to wildlife. Note to those who are tempted: there is no mobile reception in much of the Cape region and satellite phones do not always work.

Nevertheless, Cape York or bust is a major bucket list item for the intrepid traveller; some ride trail bikes, others mountain bikes and more than a few walk the track, carrying their food and shelter on their backs.

Tourism is just one part of the Cape York story, a tussle between pro-development lobbyists (remember the Spaceport?), the mining industry, pastoralists, the traditional owners and increasing awareness that this pristine wilderness has to be protected for all time.

Even on the relatively tame Mossman to Daintree road there are decisions for the risk-averse. We don’t often take guided tours, but when it comes to croc-spotting (that’s Scooter on the left) on the Daintree River, go with an expert. I told our skipper about Paddy McHugh’s chilling song, Dan O’Halloran. He’d not heard of it, but I said he should look it up but maybe not share with his passengers. Not to spoil a good story song, I’ll just give you the chorus line: “Nobody knows what happened to Dan O’Halloran except me, and it makes me shiver”.

As we drove back along the narrow, winding but sealed road from Cape Tribulation, I wondered if (in the future) I had a Cape York or bust trip in me, and, when I did, would it be a sealed highway by then.

Successive governments have made efforts to upgrade the road from Lakeland to Weipa, which in 2014 still had 380 kms of dirt road, impassable after rain.

The Federal and State governments co-funded work to seal sections of road between Lakeland and Weipa, on the Cape’s west coast. Weipa is the site of a major mining operation and a deep water port. So there are commercial imperatives involved with sealing that road.

But it is a slow process, at about 30 kms per year on average between 2014 and 2018. The slow pace of the project was used as an election issue in 2017.

The numbers of tourists visiting the region fluctuate according to economic conditions and extreme weather events. Studies have concluded that the majority of Cape York adventurers are self-contained, so their contribution to the local economy is negligible.

As the Federal Government’s Wild Rivers report observed, Cape York is large and underdeveloped and only accessible for eight or nine months of the year. The region comprises 15% of Queensland in area, but accounts for only 0.3% of the State’s population. Cape York’s residents are amongst the most disadvantaged in Queensland. More than half (54%) of Cape York people aged 15 years and over have a gross weekly income of less than $400 per week.

While sealing Cape York’s main road and also minor roads to Aboriginal communities might be a good thing for locals (less wear and tear on their vehicles and all-weather access), one ought not to make the trek too easy. Cape York has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage site (near neighbours, the Great Barrier Reef and the Queensland Wet Tropics, are already listed). But as the University of Melbourne’s Jo Caust recently wrote in The Conversation, some World Heritage listed sites are being loved to death and authorities need to exert some control over visitor numbers.

When you read about the impact of mass tourism on Cambodia’s Angkor Wat and Vietnam’s Hoi An, a coastal town that escaped the ravages of war, perhaps it’s a good thing that mass tourism is unlikely in Queensland’s rugged and remote top end.

 

Longreach to Winton via Mystery Road

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Apex Park outside Longreach (photo by Bob Wilson)

From Hughenden: No 3 in an outback adventure series

So we’re driving into Longreach from Barcaldine, a journey rarely punctuated by a bend in the road, when snippets of a song jump into my head.

“I dunno why they call it Longreach, it doesn’t seem that far to me,” goes the line from one of Mick O’Halloran’s songs.   .

Unlike much of the outback, at least you know when you’re coming into Longreach, 1,175 kms north-west of Brisbane, because of the unmistakable landmark which is the Qantas Founders’ Museum. We found our way to the town information centre and paid $6 for the privilege of camping for two nights at Apex Park, 4 kms west. The photo doesn’t quite do justice to the sight of 90 or so caravans, fifth-wheelers, slide-ons, camper trailers, A-vans, converted buses and the occasional tent, squatting in the dust alongside the Thompson River.

There’s a barbecue and covered picnic tables, flushing toilets and it’s only five minutes from town. But we were all a bit too close together for comfort and there were irritants like drifting smoke from camp fires, the grumble of generators, the untimely crowing of feral roosters and the bloody flies! I’ve been on a quest for a pair of his and hers fly swatters but so far on this trip they’ve been out of stock everywhere we looked.

I could not help noticing how many more vans there were in the morning, implying that some arrived late (or early), as it the habit of the lesser crested grey nomad, nabbing the best sites. I’m not suggesting they do it to avoid paying $3 – nobody’s that much of a tight arse.

Apex Park is reached via the Landsborough Highway west of Longreach across a series of bridges forming a long causeway across the Thompson River flood plain. The Thompson is a 3,500km long inland river that runs across channel country into Lake Eyre. While Longreach, like other western Queensland towns, has relatively low rainfall (average 450mm a year) floods are common because the many tributaries of the Thompson join and spread during heavy rain. The causeway’s 16 interlinked bridges stretch 24 kms across the flood plain, one effort to minimise flooding in the town.

We drove to the other side of Longreach for a late afternoon walk through Iningai Nature Reserve. Named after the traditional owners, this example of Mitchell Grass Downs country along the Thompson River has been allowed to regenerate since goats left it a dusty desert in 1950. There’s a fine example of a Coolibah tree, under which one can pose for the inevitable photo. The reserve is touted as a bird watcher’s paradise but we didn’t see many, maybe because night was gathering fast. Tip for bushwalkers – always carry a torch.

Onwards to the town seeking to claim the crown of South Australia’s Quorn as the country’s best known outdoor sound stage. Major films like Mystery Road and Goldstone were filmed in the Winton district. We were in Winton primarily to enjoy the Outback Film Festival, established in 2013 after the successful premiere of the aforementioned Mystery Road, starring Aaron Pedersen as a surly black cowboy detective. Some 400 people packed in to Winton’s famous open air theatre for the event, which remains the main venue for the film festival. Some films are also shown in a theatre at Winton’s rebuilt Waltzing Matilda Centre.

We saw some great films in the four days we were in Winton including Mystery Road, Sweet Country, Brothers’ Nest (starring Shane and Clayton Nicholson), documentaries (Night Parrot, Black Panther Woman and Backtrack Boys stand out), and a gory sci-fi film, Upgrade, which was a last minute replacement for That’s not my Dog.

If you get bored with the show you just look up, let your eyes adjust and take in nature’s starry, starry night. When Upgrade finished about 10.20 we were heading to bed but noticed that comedian Lawrence Mooney was doing an R18 late show at the North Gregory Hotel. Mooney came out in character as PM Malcolm Turnbull and wasted no time establishing the tone with a few swear words.

“Are there any kids here?” he asked. “If there are, f*** them off because this is an adults-only show.”

Mooney’s sharp satirical sword spared no-one; Millennials and Gen Xers copped it, so too the Greens, Labor and a few Senators singled out for special mention. Two people walked out when he made a joke about farmers and suicide and one heckler in the front row kept up such a running commentary Mooney resorted to telling her to shut the f*** up. You attend late night comedy shows at your own risk.

Grey nomads also copped a spray, although they were so under-represented in the Monday night audience there was little risk someone would take offence at his suggestion that serial killers should stop preying on backpackers and focus on grey nomads instead “because nobody cares”.

The telling part near the end of his show was Mooney asking the audience of 30-40 people how many actually lived in Winton. One woman raised her hand only to say she used to live in Winton but had moved away.

I had vague ambitions about driving out to Middleton, where Mystery Road was shot, until I figured out it was a 360km round-trip. Every place of interest around here is at least two hours’ drive away.

The Outback Film Festival, A Vision Splendid, is a bold project for a small outback community to sustain. It deserves to be supported (and you can still find time to go fossicking or dinosaur spotting).

On Wednesday night we got glammed up and went to the 100th Anniversary celebrations of the Royal Open Air Theatre, which included dinner and a special screening of the silent film classic, The Sentimental Bloke.

It meant skipping the spectacular sunsets you so often see in the flat country spreading west, but there are sure to be more as we head north to Hughenden and the Gulf country.

The alert among you will observe that this was posted on Thursday, as we’re going bush and will be out of WIFI range for a few days. I’m off to buy some block ice as our caravan fridge decided to cark it (Aussie expression meaning it died). After our visits to the Stockman’s Hall of Fame in Longreach and Barcaldine’s Australian Heritage Centre, which tell stories of the hard life of country people in the 1800s, getting by without a fridge for a few weeks is no great hardship (as long as you don’t forget to buy the ice-Ed.)

 

 

 

 

 

When desert stars disappear

Outback: No 2 in  a six-part series

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stars – Image of Charleville night sky, June 26 by Laurel Wilson’s Nikon Coolpix

I was going to be cute and headline this piece about stars, ‘Charleville’s starry starry night’, which in one tells you where I am and sneaks in one of those song references for which I am apparently known. Our plan was to visit Charleville’s famous Cosmos Centre, an observatory which takes advantage of the (usual) crisp and clear night air to show the far west’s spectacular night sky.

But you can’t count on the weather. Halfway through our second day in Charleville, 747.3 kms west of Brisbane, the clear blue winter sky began clouding over. By the time we came out of a supermarket expecting to go to dinner and then to an astral show, we found instead rain spots on the windscreen and a voicemail message from Mike at the Cosmos Centre. Tonight’s shows are unfortunately cancelled due to cloud and expected rain, he said. If you are still around tomorrow you can rebook, he added. But the weather forecast was a 90% chance of precipitation, and besides, we had to be in Blackall.

Drat, we said and went off to the RSL for the Barra special.

I was space-mad when I was a kid and so were all my mates. In 1957 (most of us were 9 or 10), the Soviets declared themselves winners of the space race (on account of launching the world’s first satellite station (Sputnik), which orbited for a couple of weeks before running out of battery power. The USA was aghast and immediately ramped up its own space programme, frantically trying to catch up to the USSR. These were the Cold War years, long before perestroika and glasnost. The US and USSR happily spied on each other and played nuclear chicken (the Bay of Pigs crisis). The US arguably won the space race in 1969 when Apollo 11 landed on the moon. Even today you will find conspiracists who say the whole thing was a con, filmed in a studio.

Do you remember Laika, one of Moscow’s stray mutts until the USSR space team captured the dog and sent into orbit? Laika was one of three dogs ‘trained’ to become astronauts. The Soviets coldly admitted that the dog would die in space (and it did), heralding perhaps the birth of the animal rights movement.

Not that me and my Kiwi school friends were thinking about such deep things, but the space race got us interested in the wider world.

Our parents were not too thrilled, though, about experiments with home-made rockets (taking fireworks apart and stuffing the explosives into toilet roll tubes).

I read up on astronomy and became something of an expert (so I thought) on the planets, their moons and even distant stars. A famous New Zealand radio quiz show (It’s in the Bag) visited our small town so I put my name down to answer questions on my special subject. Genial host Selwyn Toogood found me out, though, on question two or three which was: name the second furthest planet from earth. I said Saturn when the correct answer was Neptune. Selwyn said something like “By hokey, that’s not right, Bobby. But thanks for taking part in the fun.”

‘It’s in the Bag’ offered contestants the choice between keeping answering questions (and being gonged out), and choosing between cash or an unopened bag. Nobody knew what was inside the bag. It could have been a (voucher for) a new fridge or washing machine, or one of the dreaded booby prizes.

You will have to take my account of this episode with a grain of nutmeg as it was long ago (1958?) and these days I’m flat out remembering where I left my keys and phone.

I’ve always been a bit of a stargazer, and you can take that any way you like. When you grow up in a small country Kiwi town, the stars take their proper place in the firmament.

Australia’s outback is the best place to see the night sky. There’s no artificial light and in the winter months the colder nights mostly guarantee a crystal-clear sky.

More than a few songwriters have had a stab at describing the starry starry night, but none as convincingly as Don McLean, in his ballad about Vincent van Gogh. There are others, as I found when plundering my IPod – Dream a Little Dream of Me, Starman (Bowie), And I Love Her (Beatles). More recently Coldplay came up with A Sky Full of Stars. Moon Dance doesn’t qualify but it’s a great tune and Van is undeniably a star.

Music historian Lyn Nuttall (aka Franky’s Dad), found an example from the 1950s (I knew he would). Don’t Let The Stars Get In Your Eyes was a hit for Perry Como, but the original was recorded by the writer, Slim Willet. Lyn, who curates the website poparchives, quotes Arnold Rypens of The Originals (this is for my songwriter pals patiently waiting for their APRA cheques), who wrote of this song:

“Slim pulled a gun on Bill McCall (head of 4 Star records & publishing), forced him to walk to the bank and collect an overdue payment for royalties in cash.” 

The poets waxed on about stars, to wit the ‘mansions built by nature’s hands’ (Wordsworth). Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14 is often held up as the gold standard. But Gerald Manley Hopkins was more adventurous. He likened stars to the ‘eyes of elves’ or ‘fire folk sitting in the night sky’. Hopkins also described stars as ‘diamonds in dark mines or caves’.

That makes my ‘blazing starry nights’ (last week) seem prosaic.

We went outside at Moonie last week where there was a clear sky. She Who Knows About Such Things pointed out the Southern Cross. We both identified Venus and guessed we were about a week away from a full moon. But, as you might gather, there’s a bit of rain about in the west for the next week or so. Charleville got 10mm overnight after our star gazing was thwarted, making it 173mm for the year to date.

Out west the paddocks are dead brown and parched and we’ve already seen a couple of drovers driving cattle along the ‘long paddock’. So it would be churlish of us grey nomads to complain about a bit of rain, eh.

Next week: further west

Re last week’s episode, Ridley wrote to point out that camper trailers and other camping vehicles (slide-ons, for example), didn’t factor in our stats. Moreover, slide-ons (the camper sits on the tray of a Ute or small truck and can be dismounted), don’t have to be registered. So yes, there’s even more undocumented grey nomads out there.