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?