Crossing the Nullarbor

The author on the Nullarbor Plain
NASA satellite image of the Nullarbor Plains (public domain)

A Brisbane lawyer I know who is an ‘Australia all Over’ listener came over at a corporate function one time to say he’d heard ‘Underneath the Story Bridge’ on Macca again. “So tell me,” he said, “Are you responsible for “Not Bloody Golf Again”? (A popular tune performed by Frankie Davidson and the late Dawn Lake). He seemed agreeably pleased to hear I didn’t write the song, probably because the corporate world is serious about its golf and doesn’t like anybody dissing (Gen Y speak for disrespecting), the sport.
I was musing about the people I know who do enjoy a good round of golf when we started crossing the Nullarbor this week. The Eyre Highway Operators Association has come up with up with a magnificent tourism gimmick – the world’s longest golf course. The Nullarbor Links is an 18-hole, Par 72 course spread over 1,365 kilometres. You tee off at Kalgoorlie in WA, then throw the clubs in the car and drive a good few hundred kilometres to the next hole at Norseman. And so on across the Eyre Highway, playing one hole in each participating town or roadhouse all the way to Ceduna in South Australia. And good luck to them.
We started our run back east on Sunday, travelling from Lake Douglas Recreation Park, a quiet free camp some 12kms to the west of Kalgoorlie. We did a whistle stop tour of Kalgoorlie (the museum, the Super Pit (500m deep open cut gold mine), the Arboretum and the 24/7 IGA) and then drove to and through Norseman to Fraser Range Station. We’d become so used to good weather on this trip we failed to notice the huge low system developing across the south west. Many places had rain – some even had 40mm! But the rain came with strong, squally storms and wind gusts of up to 100kmh.
Fortunately, Fraser Range Station had good sheltered van sites so we more or less slept through the night.
After Fraser Range – beautiful granite country and part of south west WA’s vast hardwood eucalypt forest, we drove on to Cocklebiddy, another roadhouse outpost.
We got through the journey quickly (tail wind). It was so windy in Cocklebiddy (population 8), that we left the roof down on our pop-top caravan and went to the roadhouse for fish and chips (me) and lamb shanks(ed). Tuesday it was still windy, though not quite as extreme. We got up early and headed to Eucla, the first stop on the eastward crossing where you can easily get to the beach. The ruins of the Eucla Telegraph Station lie half buried in sand dunes about 4 kms down the hill from Eucla Pass. We drove to the end of the road and walked to the ruins, marvelling at the stoicism of the first Telegraph Station keeper, living way out on a salty windswept plain surrounded by white sand dunes. In 1877 the operator sent his first message: “The Eucla line is open. Hoorah!”
We walked on another 500 metres or so to a desolate beach on the Southern Ocean – thankful to get back to the car after navigating our way through disorienting salt pans, sand dunes and scrub.
Australians tend to refer to all of the land between Perth and Adelaide as ‘The Nullarbor’, but if you look at the NASA satellite photograph (left), the Nullarbor Plain is the pale brown semi-circle bounded by the Southern Ocean to the south and the Great Victorian Desert to the north. It’s big, though − 200,000 square kilometres of flat, arid and virtually treeless land. It encompasses part of the Woomera Prohibited Area, where the military has tested weapons over the last 60-plus years.
It’s not a Lawrence of Arabia-type desert. This one has saltbush, bluebush, Mallee and other hardy plants, not to mention birds, reptiles and other fauna. If you are interested in nature, conservation, bush walking, bird watching, palaeontology, botany, geology or Australian history, you could spend a year on the Nullarbor and still not be bored.
If you are on a drive (some guide books depict this as Australia’s ultimate road trip, akin to Route 66 in the US), then be aware, it is a gruelling trip. The road is in very good nick, but dead straight in many places, including the “90-Mile Straight” – 146.6 kms between Balladonia and Caiguna.
Ah, so many impressions: a P-plater out for a drive with Dad − a sort of white fella desert initiation, I guess. Cyclists cross the Nullarbor – the smart ones wear fluorescent safety vests and do their riding in the early hours of the day. Birds of prey don’t stray much from their hunting zone, but they are always there. We saw a wedge tail eagle that, intent on a road kill breakfast, only just escaped our front bumper bar. There was a big male emu outside Eucla picking his way through the foliage with six or even eight chicks trailing behind. We saw several Southern Right whales and calves frolicking in the Southern Ocean just off the Head of Bight, a conservation park with a boardwalk and lookouts just 12kms off the highway. From there you can also see ancient sand dunes and the epic Bunda Cliffs.
But each to their own − some are on a journey, some are just driving, and some are on a deadline, delivering goods from one state to another. We encountered many a road train, but no scary moments with these.
We saw a convoy of Model T Fords on their way to a convention in Busselton and just yesterday chatted with a woman who is driving solo from WA to Strathalbyn in South Australia for the Australian sheepdog championships (towing a caravan and carrying eight dogs in a cage on the back of the ute).
Many people use the Nullarbor Crossing as a way to raise funds for charity. We met a group of seniors riding 50cc scooters from Port Augusta to Perth to raise awareness about depression and suicide.
At the first lookout where you can see the eroded cliffs of the Great Australian Bight, we met a man in his 50s on a pilgrimage and taking Mum and Dad along for the ride. “I did it years ago in an XY Falcon with three Aussies and three Germans,” he said. Dad was walking slowly with a stick, but he got to the lookout and you could see how happy son was to relive his epic trip and share the joy with his folks.
They got back into his shiny red Falcon sedan and off they went, down the Eyre Highway towards the Nullarbor Roadhouse, watching out for wandering stock, camels, emus, wombats and kangaroos.

Songwriters on the road

Fred Smith’s Queensland band – Rebecca Wright (cello), Emma Nixon (violin), John Thompson (tour organiser), Erin Sulman (percussion) and Fred.

When songwriter Fred Smith brought his show Dust of Uruzgan to Maleny in November 2013, he called me and asked if the band could rehearse in our downstairs room. It seemed the venue was not available until 4pm and he needed to rehearse with his locally recruited band. So Fred and five other people arrived at our place (bringing the makings of lunch with them), which explains this happy snap (left).
Self-funded songwriters have to do these sorts of things all the time in Australia, when they can’t afford to fly people in for two gigs. I remember that concert because Fred managed to pull more than 100 people to a small town gig on a Wednesday night. They were a listening audience too, and that’s a good thing for songwriters who tell long, involved stories. Fred (I wrote about his WA tour last week), has been pursuing his passion for songwriting for 17 years and like many of us, he is finding it harder to draw an audience in a sports-obsessed country.
I have a lot of admiration for songwriters like Fred, John Thompson and Nicole Murray (Cloudstreet) and Roz Pappalardo and Chanel Lucas (Women in Docs). They have worked hard, toured hard and persevered. I decided this week to ask some of the songwriters I know who have been doing this for a long while just what it is that keeps them going.
John Thompson and Nicole Murray chose to make music their career in 2002, after working seriously at music around day jobs for two years. Since then, they have toured seven times to the UK, and have also been to USA, Denmark, Germany, Japan, New Zealand and Morocco.
“There are still plenty of places in Australia we haven’t seen,” says Nicole. “Most of our touring in Australia has been east coast, from Townsville to Tassie, with a couple of trips to Adelaide and southern WA, once as the entertainment on the (Indian Pacific) train.”
Cloudstreet sing both traditional and original songs which fit into the Australian and Anglo-Celtic traditions, using close harmony vocals and a range of instruments. After years of touring and turning out seven Cloudstreet CDs, the duo took a year off when John was cast as The Songman in the travelling stage show, War Horse. While John was away on tour, Nicole made two recordings with violinist and singer Emma Nixon as The Wish List. Now John and Nicole are planning to record again in early 2015 to take a new CD to the UK in May.
Is there is a living doing what you do?
“There is usually money to be made when touring, but the cost of the travel, food and accommodation eats a lot of it up,” says Nicole.
“We can afford our rent when touring but it’s not so easy when we come off tour. Because of this we have diversified and are concentrating on musical activities that can be sustained locally a bit more, like choirs and dance bands.”
Ah, but will you still be doing it when you’re 74?
“I think we will find a way to keep making music, because the emotional sustenance it provides is essential.”
Queensland acoustic duo Women in Docs (Roz Pappalardo and Chanel Lucas) have toured all over Australia and beyond since forming in 1998.
“We formed after years of playing in rock bands across Far North Queensland and deciding that singing our own songs, telling our own stories and using our own set list was more important than almost anything else,” Roz says on the phone from Cairns.
“It’s hard to know how many k’s we’ve driven. I wish we did know. I think we’ve probably driven from Cairns to Adelaide maybe 25 times? We’ve never driven to Perth but flown there many times and we’ve done Darwin as Women in Docs once. We’ve crisscrossed both America and Canada in a car. Goodness!
Roz and Chanel regret not listening to their intuition more – “it’s always right, you know…”
“We always ‘knew’ that we shouldn’t have done something. But, even in those situations, we always get a cracking story and a potentially a song.”
Meanwhile the Docs are quietly beavering away, writing new songs and getting ready to tour in late October, the Tamworth Country Music Festival in January and then a few festivals in 2015.
“And hopefully a new record. Why not? We love it.”
Solo singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Chris Aronsten has been persevering with music for 35-40 years.
“I just love it,” he says. Chris sings original songs, traditional folk and blues, and plays Celtic and bluegrass fiddle tunes.
“I started playing and singing as a kid in Brisbane in the 1960’s and moved to Adelaide in ’74, playing gigs at folk clubs, coffee shops and pubs. I went to Melbourne on and off for gigs and started writing songs back then too.
“I’ve been scratching out a living ever since, except for a brief time in the early ’90s when I had a second-hand guitar shop with a muso mate and did gigs on the weekend. After five years of that I just went back to playing full time. Couldn’t do both.”
Chris has produced two CD’s in recent years, one of which was praised by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Bruce Elder, and is working on songs for a new one.
“These days I’ve got enough of an established circuit here and in the UK that the next few months are usually (financially) secure.
“I guess I could be more ambitious, but I’m more excited about playing music than ever.
“I can’t imagine not still doing gigs when I’m 74 if I stay fit and healthy.”
Brisbane songwriter Mark Cryle’s best-known band was Spot the Dog, which produced three CDs of Mark’s songs and though the members have gone on to other projects, they remain good friends and often join Mark on stage.
“I have always tried to surround myself with good musicians – players who can find what is right for the song. I still think that the parts of my recordings that I like best are the parts I didn’t think up myself.
“I enjoy writing for different projects and am currently planning in my head two recordings – one of chamber folky sort of stuff with the Civil Union (Rebecca Wright, Donald McKay and Alice McDowell), and another CD more in the vein of Sideshow Alley.”
The latter, with its sweet nostalgic song about first love at the Brisbane Ekka, has received radio play. Another track, Kalgoorlie Girl, was nominated in Macca’s Top 10 for 2013 and Waiting for the Ice to Thaw has been included on Macca’s just-released compilation “Well I Love It”.
Mark says his next album will have a mixture of “relationship” songs and some narratives about the nation’s past.
“But I have a thesis to finish writing first, though.” (The origins of Anzac Day).
Granite Belt-based Penny Davies and Roger Ilott perform their own songs, as well as those of other, mainly Australian, writers. They have had their own studio and record label since 1982 and released about 20 albums.
They had a long association with the late poet and folklorist Bill Scott and as a result many of their songs have become well-known on ABC radio.
“Both of us have always seriously pursued a music career – about 40 years all up (each),” says Penny.
“We both started in the folk music scene in Sydney in the early 1970’s
“We’ve performed in about 100 towns throughout Queensland including Cooktown and Weipa and out west to Boulia and a fair bit of NSW.”
And is there a living in it for you?
“We’ve always got by financially by learning to live on a little. We used to make money touring when the Arts Council used to fund it. These days it’s difficult to make money if you have to travel to gigs.”
No regrets, though?
“I hope we will be making music till our last breath – so long as we can sing and play, we’ll sing and play,” says Penny.
Independent acoustic music artist Steve Tyson is another whose work has caught the attention of mainstream CD reviewers.
“I think it just helps reinforce the necessary social media marketing these days. There is so much stuff out there, so many people doing shows, that fairly constant (not crazy bombardment), social media messages help keep your upcoming show front of mind.
“I have always looked at touring as an adventure. I don’t want to lose money, and I at least want to pay my best mates who tour with me a few dollars to buy a few beers! Fortunately most tours have ended up in the black.”
Steve is about to go on the road with a new CD, “Green Side Up”. He says he tours to take his story songs to fresh audiences, and experience that “incredible feeling” when people are listening attentively to the lyrics.
“That’s the most important thing. Sure I hope that translates to sales and I want to cover costs, but that’s not why I do it!”
The challenge for narrative songwriters like Mark Cryle, Steve Tyson and Fred Smith and yours truly, is to find a listening audience. The pubs, clubs, restaurants and cafes that hire musicians are more often meeting places for people who want to catch up with their friends and have a conversation. Unhappily, this often happens at the tables in front of the stage.
We (The Goodwills) discovered house concerts were a good way of helping songwriters find a listening audience. We’ve promoted house concerts in Brisbane and Maleny over that last 20 years.
We usually do an opening set. There’s afternoon tea, carrot cake and I can go and have a lie-down before the guest act starts. We’ll be looking to do house concerts next year when we tour with my new CD, The Last Waterhole (shy retiring songwriter seeks listening audience: apply within).
Next week: Crossing the Nullarbor

Fred Smith comes home

Fred Smith Maleny
Fred Smith in concert – Maleny 2014

Few itinerant musicians could claim to have drawn a full house to a lecture at the University of Western Australia, but Australian diplomat and singer-songwriter Fred Smith did just that, on the topic Live like an Afghan. Fred was the subject of an Australian Story episode last year, which brought him from folk circuit favourite to the mainstream, no doubt accounting for the interest shown in his lecture.
Fred is currently touring a show called Dust of Uruzgan − a narrative of his time with a multi-national peacekeeping force in a remote dusty outpost in northern Afghanistan. He and his entourage were halfway through the 13-gig tour of Western Australia when we caught up with him for a meal at the Castle Hotel bistro in York, 97 kms east of Perth, and for a quick chat after the show.
In his role as a diplomat, Fred has been to Uruzgan twice – from July 2009 to January 2011 and then May 2013 to November 2013. The time he spent there made a big impact on Fred, and in turn, the songs and stories that emerged have resonated with ordinary people around Australia, as well as those who have personally experienced what he’s talking about.
The show begins with an emotive song from bass player and singer Liz Frencham and then moves on to a narrative, interspersed with Fred’s songs (written during his time at the multinational base at Tarin Kot), accompanied by a slide show using hundreds of photos taken by Australian Defence Force photographers and civilians. It is an absorbing presentation.
Fred’s songs differ from the work of most of his contemporaries, as the subjects of his songs are often real people. The song Dust of Uruzgan, for example, is a tribute to Australian soldier Ben Ranaudo, one of 40 Australians killed in action during this country’s engagement in Afghanistan. Many of those killed or injured were sappers, the forward patrols who scout for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), placed by insurgents along the roads used by the military coalition.
Fred’s song Sapper’s Lullaby has become something of an anthem for the Australian troops in Afghanistan and the families of those who lost loved ones. The last Australian troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan in December 2013. Since coming home, Fred has been touring Dust of Uruzgan around all parts of the country.
The WA tour was 18 months in the planning, and Fred says it is a civilised tour, because the band get to stay in motels, there are proper meals and days off. There’s a PA and stage lights and someone to operate them. All the same, Broome to Esperance with 11 other stops along the way is a big commitment, more than 3,000 kms and not much time for sight-seeing.
The tour is organised by Country Arts WA and sponsored by the WA government Department of Culture and Arts, Lottery West, Healthway, GWN7, the ABC and Act Belong Commit, a movement to encourage people to achieve better mental health.
The tour covers familiar territory for Fred, whose parents were teachers in Regional WA until his father got a job with the Foreign Affairs Department in Canberra in 1969. Fred returned to Perth as an adult to study Law and Economics, completing his studies at the Australian National University. He took a job with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in 1996 “about the same time I caught the songwriting bug”.
While he is making money at the moment, touring with a properly funded show and enjoying the mainstream popularity of the critically acclaimed Dust of Uruzgan, it is not a way of life he sees going on forever.
“I just don’t think (touring) is viable in Australia anymore, and especially not financially viable. The towns are too far apart and people are more interested in sport.”
Despite Fred’s pessimism about the future for independent musicians touring Australia, the Dust of Uruzgan tour is doing quite well – 100 at Exmouth Yacht Club (big military presence in Exmouth) and 60 on a Monday night in York are quite respectable numbers for this type of show.
Fred says the tour is about raising awareness of what Australian troops were doing in Afghanistan and how much they need support at home.
“The Vietnam generation got back and no-one knew what they had been through and they copped a lot of hostility, even from the RSL.
“Over the last 12 years, 20,000 young Australians have served in Afghanistan. Regardless of what you think of our involvement there, it is important that their story gets told and heard so they don’t walk the land as strangers, like a generation of Vietnam veterans did.”
Fred told the York audience that soldiers injured during the conflict have struggled on returning home, through a combination of their injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and some had since taken their own lives.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, welcoming the last troops home in December, said it was a heavy question to weigh up if the war had been worth the price paid (referring to the effects on those who had served in Afghanistan over a 12-year conflict and the cost of more than $7.5 billion).
“If you look at the benefits for our country, for Afghanistan, and for the wider world, then my conclusion is yes, it has been worth it,” the PM told the ABC.
“But not for a second would I underestimate the price that’s been paid by individuals and families, and the price that will continue to be paid because, while there are 40 dead and 261 wounded, there are hundreds, if not thousands, who will carry the psychological injuries with them for many years to come.”
Meanwhile, Fred Smith says he has come home to find balance in his life, although for now he has a fairly hectic schedule. Fortunately for Fred, DFAT seems to think a lot of what he achieved through using music to build relationships and trust during postings to Bougainville, the Solomon Islands and Uruzgan.
“I’m busy all the time. I work part-time for DFAT and because most of the gigs we get are on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, I spend the weekends doing that.”
He will be on the road again in October launching his new CD, Home, which though mostly set in the domestic frontier (home), also contains a couple of strong songs about the difficult return many soldiers face coming home from Afghanistan.
“It’s about coming home and calming down. I became a Dad in January and I’ve already written a love song for my daughter.”
I asked him if he considers what he is doing as a job, or a calling.
“The only reason to make art in this country is if you can’t stop yourself, so yes I guess it’s a calling,” says Fred.
And is the candle worth the game?
“It depends what time of day you ask me. I’m OK, if I manage to have an afternoon nap!”
But can he see himself doing a Leonard Cohen, one more comeback in his 80s?
“Never say never,” says Fred.

Royalties for Renewables

Photo by Laurel Wilson
Walkaway Wind Farm

For the past six years Western Australia has been channelling 25% of the royalties it earns from the mining and oil and gas industries – capped at $1 billion a year – into regional community projects. The Royalties for Regions programme was introduced by the WA National Party in 2008 when it had more of a say in State government than it does now.
As we travel through WA, we can see this money being put to good use in hospitals, schools, regional programmes, community assets and community programmes – for example, an Aboriginal cultural centre and art gallery in Carnarvon and new buildings in Geraldton’s thriving universities centre.
We think this distribution of mining profits goes only so far. What if all States and Territories imposed a royalty (say 5%) which would be spent on renewable energy infrastructure? She Who Is Back Reading Newspapers peered over the top of The Australian to tell me Tony Abbott looked set to break another election promise by asking Dick Warburton to review Australia’s 2020 renewable energy target with a view to scrapping it altogether. Abbott now says he was just floating the idea. We hope it will be like a helium-filled party balloon and that someone lets go of the string.
Australia is often criticised by global renewable energy supporters for apparently squandering the abundant options we have to generate solar, wind and hydro power. There are only two commercial-scale solar energy plants in Australia. The Uterne (“bright sunny day” in Arrente language) Solar Power Station is a 1MW capacity grid-connected solar photovoltaic system 5 kms south of Alice Springs (it provides 1% of the town’s power). Then there is the 10MW Greenough River Solar Farm near Geraldton. On last year’s figures, the cost of using photovoltaics is less than half the cost of using grid electricity.
But despite this, the Federal Government’s $95 million Solar Cities programme is not exactly catching on. Surely solar is a better option for remote communities and roadhouses than the ever-present 24/7 diesel generators. Timber Creek is one of six small NT townships (also Borroloola, Elliott, Daly Waters, Ti Tree and Kings Canyon), that are largely diesel-fuelled. Most of the larger towns supplied by NT power company Generation are powered by gas or diesel. Generation says it also works with independent power producers to support renewable energy power generation initiatives. From our observations, solar power in the outback is small-scale and limited to solar-powered water pumps and the like. Many remote roadhouses, caravan parks and farmstays run diesel generators, if not 24/7 then for peak demand periods.
Considering that diesel fuel has to be transported vast distances by road trains from large cities, this seems a very backward way to generate power when your average outback town enjoys many more sunny days in a year than, say, Melbourne (or Maleny).
Australia’s modest renewable energy target states that 20% of our electricity must come from renewable sources like solar, wind and hydro by 2020. The Howard government introduced this target in 2001 and it was supported by the Rudd/Gillard government, in the ensuing years it has attracted around $18 billion in investment.
The Clean Energy Council this week called the Abbott plan to scrap the target “reckless,” saying four million Australians already live or work under a solar power system and more than 21,000 people work in the renewable energy sector.
The review prompted Silex Systems to suspend its proposed 2,000-dish solar farm near Mildura − enough to run 30,000 homes. Chief executive Michael Goldsworthy told the Sydney Morning Herald the uncertainty about Federal government support for a long-term renewable energy target and low wholesale power prices were the reasons the $420 million project would not go ahead.
Nevertheless, we have seen some encouraging signs of renewable energy around the country, including hydro power from Lake Argyle that powers Kununurra, Wyndham and 85% of the Argyle Diamond Mine. Wind power is big business in WA. Alinta Energy’s Walkaway Wind Farm south of Geraldton is a popular drive-through photo opportunity for travellers. Its 54 turbines produce 90MW of power, only one megawatt less than Australia’s largest wind farm at South Australia’s Yorke Peninsula. The smaller Munbida wind farm 10kms south supplies 55MW to WA Water Corporation to offset the energy used by its desalination plant at Bunbury. The Collgar wind farm in the Merredin district of mid-west WA, owned by local farmers, produces 206MW of electricity a year from its 111 turbines – enough to power the equivalent of 125,000 houses.
In South Australia, Alinta Energy is favouring a stand-alone solar-thermal power plant (solar-thermal uses a field of mirrors to concentrate sunlight for a central receiver) to replace its ageing coal-fired power stations. Repower Port Augusta’s Dan Spencer told the ABC a solar-thermal plant would mean transition away from base load coal to base load renewable energy, “which is something we haven’t seen in Australia before”.
Germany is the world leader in renewable energy and we’d be the first to acknowledge it is easier by far to transmit electricity around a small, landlocked country. But the Germans are showing the rest of us how it can be done. The share of electricity produced from renewable energy in Germany has increased from 6.3% in 2000 to about 30% in the first half of 2014 and the country will easily meet its own target of 35% by 2020, using wind, biogas and solar power. Travelling through Bavaria in 2010, we were astonished to see the roof of a 17th century farm building covered with solar panels. In many other rural areas, sheep grazed peacefully under banks of solar panels, and we spotted a waste-to-energy plant built on top of a small town’s landfill site.
We did our bit for renewable energy a few years back, installing half a dozen solar panels as well as a solar hot water system (admittedly with a booster switch from the grid if we have a prolonged wet spell). But what to do, we asked ourselves this week, about the carbon-burning exercise of towing a caravan 15,000 kms around Australia?
She Who looks up UBIBOI (‘useless but interesting bits of information’ – thanks, Grandad Ray), calculated our carbon footprint for this epic journey. By journey’s end we will have produced 4.77 tonnes of CO2, based on driving 15,000 kms at an average 14.5 litres per 100 kilometres. On this basis, we owe $24.15 per tonne or $115.95. We plan to donate this amount to Barung Landcare on our return home so they can plant trees to offset our hypocritical squandering of resources. Given the odds against an all-States and Territories commitment to Royalties for Renewables, it’s the least we can do.