When desert stars disappear

Outback: No 2 in  a six-part series

stars-outback-music
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.

 

Does a six-week outback trip make you a grey nomad

(No 1 in a series of six)

The last thing packed into the 12ft caravan we call The Tardis was a heavy duty doona, an essential item considering we’re heading west, to Charleville and beyond. Night temperatures out west at this time of year vary from -2 to 6 degrees. The days will be beautiful, though – sunny and still. I’m looking forward to the blazing starry nights.

The ubiquitous Grey Nomads, many of them temporarily migrated from Victoria, have Queensland all worked out. In the spirit of the Canadian ‘Snow Birds’, who winter over in New Mexico and Arizona, they are escaping the unforgiving cold of places like Ballarat, Bendigo and Melbourne for the stable sunny climes of west and north Queensland.

Likewise, Queenslanders tend to head south and west when the seriously humid part of summer starts.

The first thing you find when trying to research this elusive subject is that reliable data on grey nomads is hard to find.

A Sydney Morning Herald report last year surmised that grey nomad numbers had doubled in the previous three years. The latest official Tourism Research Australia figures show that caravan and camping nights are up 13 per cent on the previous year, to 11.78 million nights.

A more reliable way to get a sense of potential grey nomad numbers is to look at caravan and camper van registrations. They totalled almost 500,000 in 2017. Caravans led the way by a long margin (450,564), with 47,775 camper vans. States with the most registered caravans were Queensland, Victoria and New South Wales, each in six figures. NSW led Queensland and Victoria in camper van registrations.

Of course, these figures do not suggest that all of these vans are on Australian roads every day of the year. As caravan owners know too well, these expensive bedrooms on wheels sit in garages and carports 80% of the time. As many of you know, the old Coromal or Windsor van that has ‘done the lap’ twice is now sitting out the back, semi-permanent accommodation for a family member. It could be the adult son (between share houses), the adult daughter (between marriages) or Mum, who can still live by herself but needs a loved one checking in quite often.

Nevertheless, the call of the wild still drives tens of thousands of Aussies around the eastern seaboard or trekking across the outback. All they need is a reliable person to mind the house and pets (or take the pets with them). Or they may have sold the house to fund the road rig.

Research by Professor Jenny Onyx of University of Technology Sydney cited an estimate by the Bureau of Tourism Research that in a single year Australian retirees undertook 200,000 caravan trips of six weeks’ duration or more. The same source speculated that these numbers were set to increase greatly as more baby boomers retire.

Let’s be clear about the term Grey Nomad – it means a person of at least 60 years of age, retired and often pursuing domestic travel as a way of life. While the size of some caravans and road rigs would cause you to think otherwise, the demographic is not wealthy, often eking out stays in free camps waiting for the next pension payment.

Prof. Onyx also did research on the North American phenomenon known as ‘Snow Birds’ – North Americans who choose to winter in warmer American states like Arizona, New Mexico and Florida.

Prof. Onyx says that 220,000 retirees moved to Phoenix Arizona in the winter of 1993-1994, of which one third lived in what North Americans call RV Parks (dedicated resorts for recreational vehicles). All of which is a long way from the Aussie grey nomad, camped down by a billabong with a solar panel, a portaloo and/or a generator.

PhD student Rod Caldicott from Southern Cross University identified a growing problem for caravanners who stay on the road for extended periods. He said that while there was a 257% increase in caravan registrations between 1995 and 2005, the short and long-term capacity of caravan parks was on the decrease. Caldicott chose Tweed Shire for a case study, concluding that tent sites in the shire’s 27 tourist parks had declined by 64% since the 1970s and the number of ensuite cabins correspondingly increased. Annual caravan sites have fallen 12% between 1970 and 2010.

The advent of fly-in fly-out workers has increased demand for permanent and semi-permanent accommodation.

It’s not unusual to stay at an outback caravan park and find the washing lines full of overalls and high-vis vests.

There are a few unwritten rules if you are going to be on the road with a caravan for months at a time. The first of these is to take a break from driving every two hours. And the driving ought to be shared. It’s hard work.

The next rule is to set a constant speed – 90kmh is good, and keep a steady eye on the road behind you.

Extendable side mirrors are good, but a CB radio is better. Paint your UHF channel on the back of the van so the road train that’s following can call in: “10-4 Ned & Mary, B-triple right behind you and about to pass.”

SMH writer Sue Williams raised the common conflict between grey nomads (who seem to prefer 70kmh) and the road trains on freight deadlines. She quoted truck driver and Pilbara Heavy Haulage Girls trucking company boss Heather Jones.

Jones says she was driving a triple road train with a 70-tonne load along a highway when she came up behind a grey nomad caravan that drove at 30km/h, then 80km/h, then 30km/h. Then it stopped dead.

“It turned out they’d stopped to take a photo of a Sturt’s desert pea flower,” she says. “But they seemed to have no idea that a massive truck was behind them that takes a while to stop.”

Our photograph this week, which I’ve used before, shows our road rig next to a cattle road train. It does make you think.

We were in an auto electrician’s shop recently having a new car aerial fitted to the Ford Territory (this is a virtue signal to show we have upgraded from the green wagon in the photo). While chatting to the young fellow who fitted the new aerial, the conversation fell to reversing cameras. The Ford has one, but it’s not much use once the van is hooked up. It turns out we could buy a monitoring camera for the caravan as well. This means you could have as good a view of the road behind as the road ahead.

Or we could do what most Grey Nomads do. The husband (usually) starts backing the rig into the designated camping site. The wife (usually), stands at the back and waves her arms to indicate keep coming, keep coming, and stop! (I prefer ‘left hand down’, ‘right hand down’ etc in dulcet tones while conversing through the open car window- ‘the wife’) We’re looking forward to this jaunt – west to Charleville, then north to Winton, Hughenden and on then to Coastal north Queensland before turning for home via Townsville (go the Cowboys!) and points South. We have star-gazing, the Winton film festival, national parks, hiking, bird watching and an ongoing scrabble tournament on our to-do list.

Somewhere along the way, we’ll do what all travellers should do – schedule do-nothing days. Throw the laundry in a commercial washing machine and assign the husband to peg it out when the time comes. Sit out in the sun and read a book; take a nanna nap…

This would be the day when hubby cooks dinner, right?

 

In praise of the small caravan

small caravan at Barkly Homestead Roadhouse, NT

It’s hard to estimate just how many kilometres we’ve clocked up touring around in this little Jayco pop-top caravan, but it’s a lot. Probably close to 100,000. We bought the van back in late 2011, after an exhaustive search for a small, older caravan. We decided that as we did not know if we’d enjoy caravanning or not, it seemed wisest to spend as little money as possible.

Eventually we bought ‘The Tardis’ from a retired aeronautical engineer, a Mr Fussy who’d looked after the 1984 caravan meticulously, kept it under cover and added luxury extras like electric brakes and LED lights, as well as small truck tyres to give extra clearance. There was an awning too, stored away under the beds (more on that later).

Done all the dumb things

Caravanners would probably agree, but you never stop learning. You never, ever stop doing dumb things (like not putting the chocks back in the van; instead driving them into the turf as you leave). One of our neighbours at Castle Rock campground at Girraween confessed he had once driven out of a camp site with stabilisers still down. This is not recommended. The same could be said for not properly clipping down the front window, not locking the van door and forgetting to undo the safety chains before you drive the car away! (Guilty as charged, on all counts. Ed)

Most of the National Park campers we encountered recently were in relatively modest rigs – a few A-vans, a couple of camper trailers and one caravan even older than ours. There were also a lot of tents, a lot of kids and not an IPad to be seen anywhere.

Not a small caravan

You don’t often see rigs like the one above in national parks. The access defeats them and there’s usually not enough room to park a beast like this (the sides push out, making for a large living room). I believe this one also had a washing machine and dryer. For $100,000 or more (including vehicle), you could have one too.

We saw many rigs like this (and larger) on our three month, round-Australia trip in 2014. There was a rig we saw in Alice that also had a trailer on the back towing a small Suzuki 4WD. On the back of the 4WD was a bike rack and two bikes!

Meanwhile we have learned how to eat, sleep, make love and play scrabble in a 12ft caravan. There have been occasions when we coveted more space, a toilet and shower even, but they are few in number.

Our caravan is simplicity itself. We arrive, pick a spot, reverse in (easy), put the jockey wheel on, detach the car, get the van level and push the roof up. Job done.

We should have kept a log book. The top photo was snapped at the Barkly Roadhouse in the Northern Territory. I was taken by the contrast between our humble rig and the ‘B-Triple’ cattle train.

Our most recent van trip between Christmas and New Year and beyond was to Girraween National Park via Brisbane, Warwick and Yangan. Our sister-in-law had a houseful prior to and including Christmas, so we parked the van next to her house on the bayside and did some ‘home camping’.

Onwards to Girraween where we found a quiet spot near some other campers, who appeared to be camping as an extended family.

This was the trip where, apart from the super moon and the blessed silence after 9pm, we made two amazing discoveries about our caravan. One, I found out how to light the grill! The van has a full-sized oven and cook top that runs off gas. To light the grill and make toast, I finally discovered, you open the oven door, turn on the grill and stick a match underneath. Not what you’d call rocket science, but we had tried various ways of lighting the grill in the past, but nothing worked.

The second thing, given we were going to be staying a few nights, was to put up the awning (left) − an old-style canvas sheet which has to be threaded into a channel along the roof of the caravan, then pegged out with poles and ropes. Believe it or not, this was a first. Now, with a bit of wax for the sail track and a few extra tent pegs, we can achieve this every time we stay more than one night. #feelingsmug

It’s been around, this little van. And, I’d need to add that we have seen smaller ones – 10 footers with a door at the rear. A six-footer with a home-made tilt-top and a few slide-on vans that sit on the backs of utes. There are also bubble vans so small you could probably tow one with a motorcycle.

Ours has been hither and yon – the first big trip in 2012 to the Man from Snowy River festival at Cooma, the National Folk Festival in Canberra and home again. We did a big northern trip in 2013, to Cairns and Karumba, across country to the Territory and back in a loop that took in Budjamulla (Lawn Hill) National Park and home, via western Queensland. Then the big trip in 2014, road-testing our near-new Ford Territory (which had only 9,000 kms on the clock). On reflection, we should have gone for six months, as Western Australia is far too large to whiz through in a month.

We’ve also taken this rig to the Blue Mountains for the music festival and that was when we discovered the leaks we’d fixed were, er, not fixed.

So I went to K Mart and bought a really big tarpaulin for $30 and we threw it over the entire van. Try doing that in a fifth wheeler.

Caravans – a money drain or a hobby for DIY types

We have spent some money on the van, it’s true. The first time was when heavy local rain seeped in and destroyed the kitchen bench top, which we then had replaced with marine ply (after fixing the leaks). Then when our local mechanic checked the tyres, he concluded they were so old they didn’t even have identifier numbers on them. So $400 later we were back in business and feeling safe. We’ve had lots of spot jobs done on the road (the insides of our three-way fridge fell to pieces after being taken on the Lawn Hill road) but a smart young guy in Mt Isa fixed it for $130. Another chap in Mt Isa stayed back on a Friday night to fashion new aluminium hinges to repair the van door which had come adrift. An artful fellow with a van repair business near Sunshine Coast Airport recently fixed everything on the van that didn’t work properly and replaced worn wheel bearings.

Not a small caravan No 2 (is that a quad bike on the back?)

Some people, we found, are permanently on the road, hence the need for impressive rigs like this (left). Others make do nicely with vans as small as the one below.

Very small caravan

I fondly remember on one of our first forays north stumbling upon a former work colleague, retired from newspaper life, travelling with his wife in an old 10ft van with single beds. “It’s all we need,” said Roy, getting his fiddle out for a few campfire tunes.

As an old fella we met in the NT, towing a 30-year-old van with an aged Kingswood* said, when a fifth-wheeler rig roared past: “Aw, he’s just showin’ orf.”

*Holden Kingswood, the classic car for everyman, produced from 1968-1984.

More reading : an outback travelogue from 2014

 

Prickly Pear makes a comeback

prickly-pear-comeback
Photo of Prickly Pear near Roma by Bob Wilson

You don’t have to travel far inland in Queensland to see that Prickly Pear, the invasive scourge of farmland in the early 1900s, is making a comeback. ‘The Pear’ as it is sometimes known by farmers, has started to re-appear, growing and spreading after the floods of 2011 and 2012.

The Opuntia species (a member of the Cactaceae family) was introduced to Australia (by white settlers) in the late 1880s to form hedges and provide fodder for times of drought.

Prickly Pear, a cactus plant from the Americas, thrived in the Australian outback. The combination of cacti and rabbits, another introduced species, took a heavy toll on Australian farmland at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, Prickly Pear was a major problem. After some years of experimentation, authorities introduced a biological control in the form of the Latin American Cactoblastis Moth. The moth lays eggs on the prickly pear and its larvae eat the cactus. This was hailed as one of the world’s most successful examples of biological control (the moth eggs were distributed manually). Within six years all varieties of the prickly pear cactus had disappeared.

Not so circa 2017, with varieties of Prickly Pear re-emerging along roadsides and in paddocks around western Queensland and the southern Downs. When we travel I notice things like this and habitually make notes (usually when I’m a passenger).

In some areas (Goondwindi to Inglewood is particularly bad); the cactus has spread into farmland back from the road. Some plants look unwell, though whether through poisoning or biological controls we don’t know.

At this point it should be noted that the variety known as Tree Pear (photos) has some resistance to Cactoblastis, though it can succumb to a cochineal insect. The Southern Downs Regional Council recommends the application of herbicides.

In the interests of moistening a dry subject, let me digress and mention two folk bands that enshrined the Prickly Pear legend into folklore.

Toowoomba musicians John and Sandy Whybird formed Cactoblastis Bush Band when John, then a high school teacher at Chinchilla, saw what Prickly Pear could do to the land. He taught students about the pest and the late 1920s solution to the invasive species.

The band, which recently recorded a CD, performed at the Chinchilla Museum last September to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the introduction of Cactoblastis to the area.

A Brisbane folk duo (Jan Davis and the late Tony Miles), adopted the clever stage name Prickly Pair. They played together for eight years in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

My research led me to the Urban Dictionary, which defines Prickly Pair as slang for the stubble growing back on a man’s testicles after shaving (for an operation or whatever).

Anyway, the Common Pest Pear is back and local farmers ought to know that notification of infestation is required under the Biosecurity Act 2014. No-one expects a problem of the scale which caused farmers to walk off their land after ‘The Pear’ and rabbits finished off what floods and drought had missed. There’s a plaque alongside the Moonie River at Nindigully that commemorates the success of the Cactoblastis moth, when the use of poisons and cochineal insects proved to be ineffective.

Early settlers, in their wisdom, decided to set up a cochineal industry to provide dye for clothing. The cochineal is a scale insect from which the natural dye is extracted. The insects are found on the pads of prickly pear cacti then brushed off and dried.

The Pear is commonly spread by birds and animals eating the fruit and excreting seeds. However, the new spread of Prickly Pear has been accelerated by floods moving broken cacti pads from one location to another.

The State Government’s Business Queensland website describes the Pear as “vigorous in hot, dry conditions, causing other plants to lose vigour or die. It competes and invades pastures and impedes stock movement and mustering.”

Authorities took the rampaging cacti seriously and began investigating biological control agents in 1912. More than 150 insect species were studied, with 18 insects and one mite released in Queensland.

Today, eight insects, including Cactoblastis cactorum remain established in Queensland. An article by Leonie Seabrook and Clive McAlpine in the Queensland Historical Atlas describes Prickly Pear in Queensland as a generic term for five different Opuntia cacti.  Three are low-growing shrubs up to 1.5 metres high and two are tree pears, growing up to three metres. The article observes that at the height of the infestation in 1925, prickly pear had spread across 24 million hectares in Queensland and New South Wales.

While the (imported) Cactoblastis Moth was hailed as a biological saviour, early settlers must shoulder the blame for importing invasive species and pests into Australia. Apart from prickly pear and many other weed species, settlers also introduced cane toads, rabbits and feral goats, pigs, cats, brumbies, foxes and camels.

Prickly Pear observations aside, we had four lovely days hiking in Carnarvon Gorge where the weather was balmy. It did rain on the last day but I went for a walk anyway. It’s only rain, as they say in NZ.

As you’ll have gathered, we just spent 10 days towing our little caravan out to Carnarvon Gorge via Rolleston and back via Injune, Roma, St George, Nindigully, Goondiwindi and Warwick. Today we headed home, via Toowoomba and Esk.

Other on-road observations included a lot of road kill, a feral cat, a lone kangaroo out in the middle of the day, a couple of pelicans in a dam, two emus foraging in the long grass, an abandoned car that had been pillaged for parts and a bloke on a recumbent bicycle (the rider lying down and pedalling in a reclining position). We saw two vans smaller than our 12-footer and a massive RV being towed by a 4×4 (with a small car being towed behind that).

We had the usual (and unusual) mishaps common to most caravan expeditions. Like trying to move the car when it was still shackled to the caravan by metal chains (good one, Bob). I bought one of those stainless steel coffee percolators you brew on the stove. First cup I poured tasted a little soapy. As I sipped further down the cup it transpired someone had left a spoonful of congealed dishwashing liquid in the bottom of the cup. (Guess who usually does the dishes? Ed.)

A highlight of the trip was the free camp at Nindigully, where about 50 caravanners were camped beside the Moonie River. A goodly number of them gathered in the pub to watch the State of Origin decider. Many people left at half-time (we assume they were NSW supporters or maybe they were just cold). The ones who remained were in good spirits, taking their crushing defeat like good sports. As we headed back to the van in the dark we heard a chorus of cheering and the war cry ‘Queenslander!’ from the pub.

How do you reckon NSW will go next year?” I asked She Who Spilt A Pot of Pepper In the Van But Didn’t Want It Mentioned.

“I reckon they’re cactus,” she said, chortling quietly under her maroon beanie.

Online subscribers might have noticed we did not file a FOMM last week. That’s because we were out bush and offline. I did post a 2014 column to email subscribers. You can read it here:

https://accounts.google.com/o/oauth2/approval/v2?auto=false&response=code%3D4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s&approvalCode=4%2F95ecdlLPrRNanWf2kHbdOTsrt5gIfRbSQ-pTeN6r60s