The Roads More Or Less Travelled

All roads lead to Canberra – at least that’s what most politicians think. This week we’re having a break from politics, the plight of refugees and why Australia’s asylum seeker policies are on the nose. Today guest writer Laurel Wilson (aka She Who Also Writes) looks at the hazards of the highway for travellers. This post contains 21 images. – Ed.

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Definitely NOT our next road rig..

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, I’m feeling quite refreshed after our 6 week, 6,000 kilometre road trip around Queensland in our trusty 12ft caravan (despite the occasional mishap, chronicled elsewhere).

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Not this one, either

One of the positives in travelling is that it can give you the opportunity and inclination to study the ever-changing surroundings. Unlike those who object to outback travel because “you can drive for ages and not see anything”, I’ve always found there’s something new to experience as you drive along. Some of these experiences, such as the pungent stink of Gidgee in humid weather, are perhaps not ‘must does’, but it was a relief to find the source of that odour, when I was beginning to think that we had a leak in the caravan’s gas cylinder or the car had developed some nameless fault.

Having a naturally curious nature (unlike the woman living in Dingo, who neither knew nor cared how that small town got its unique name), I was intrigued by the extent and variety of roads we travelled on during our latest trip.

I began to wonder just how many kilometres of designated roads there are in Queensland. According to a Department of Main Roads factsheet, as of 2013-14 there were over 33,000 kilometres of State controlled roads (which includes over 5,000 kilometres of the National network). In addition, Queensland Local Governments are responsible for almost 155,000 kilometres of roads in their respective areas.

In our latest trip around Queensland, we travelled on all but one of the designated ‘National Highways’, the only exception being the Barkly Highway, which runs westward from Cloncurry. In all of our trip around Queensland, we managed to stay off the highway called ‘Bruce’, except for the 400 or so kilometres from Cairns to Townsville, where we had tickets to watch a North Queensland Cowboys Rugby League game – one of Johnathan Thurston’s last games (I realise that the bulk of readers neither know or care, but I don’t get to write this blog very often, so thought I’d take the opportunity…).

This time, our most westerly destination was Winton, where we spent four fascinating days at ‘The Vision Splendid – Outback Film Festival’.

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The Not So Mighty Bruce Highway, North Queensland

What constitutes a ‘National Highway’ seems to be open to some interpretation, but I’ve used a list supplied by Wikipedia (I know, I know, not necessarily the best source, but should be adequate for this purpose).

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Two lanes and well-maintained –west of Charleville.

Whether the roads we travelled on were ‘National’, ‘State’ or ‘local’ wasn’t always possible to tell. (Apparently the various tiers of government have a similar problem when deciding which tier is responsible for building and maintaining them.) And we really didn’t care who was ‘responsible’; we were more interested in their state of repair (or disrepair). To be fair, of the 6,000 kilometres we travelled, the great majority of the roads were at least two lanes wide, bitumen and either in very good repair or quite adequate.roads-travel

Give the road-trains a wide berth – they ain’t stoppingOnly a couple were gravel or ‘dirt’ and gave us (and the poor old caravan) a rough ride for our money. And one of those we can blame on the GPS, which decided to take us on a trip from Glenmorgan to Surat via the most circuitous route it could find.

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Hmm, wish we had a better map
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Do you guys know where we are?

The other was the ‘shortcut’ from Hughenden to ‘The Lynd’, some 250km to the North. We chose this road (The Kennedy Developmental Road) because it went past Porcupine Gorge National Park, which we wanted to visit, and was much shorter than the alternative route to our next destination. And after all, most of the lines on the map were solid red (indicating bitumen) rather than the dotted line for ‘dirt road’.

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Porcupine Gorge
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The author and editor (after the 1600 steps down and back)
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You can get to Porcupine Gorge on the bitument, a longer way around

As it turned out, the accent should have been on ‘developmental’, rather than ‘road’. There were frequent patches of the dreaded ‘corrugations’, in which the road surface consists of a series of ruts which run at right angles to the direction of travel. This is a phenomenon common to ‘dirt’ roads and apparently results mainly from the numerous vehicles travelling over the moveable surface of such roads. Regular grading of the road helps smooth out the corrugations, so it’s worthwhile trying to find out whether an unsurfaced road has been recently graded before you travel on it. Being of fairly ‘senior’ years, I’m quite used to travelling ‘off the bitumen’ and have met corrugations before. The general wisdom about negotiating corrugations is to drive at a reasonable speed (not necessarily too slowly, but not highway speeds either) and to drop the tyre pressures a bit if you usually run to higher pressures- though not really worth the hassle unless you’re stuck with a long stretch of ‘corro’.

The Kennedy Developmental Road was the site of one of our minor mishaps this trip. The continual bouncing of travelling across corrugations was eventually too much for the 30year old+ hinges on the wardrobe door, and we arrived at ‘The Lynd’ with the wardrobe door lying on the floor of the van. Interestingly enough, the clothes remained in the wardrobe! (Finding new hinges to fit, putting them on and getting the door to shut properly was a small triumph for ‘Handy Mandy’ and her trusty sidekick.)

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Right- No-one’s looking- let’s drive on the smooth side…

This time next year the road will probably be a much more comfortable drive, as there was plenty of roadwork going on as we drove this stretch.

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The dreaded corrugations on the way to The Lynd

 

 

 

 

 

 

We met these International travellers at ‘The Lynd’ – It’s a 1915 Model ‘T’ Ford. They prefer the dirt roads (see below) and avoid highways in their world travels. They have travelled to over 50 countries, raising money for the charity SOS Children’s Villages International.  http://www.tfordworldtour.org/

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original Queensland outback road

As you would expect, most sealed roads are black or grey, but we do come across some which, to my eye, are a rather fetching shade of pink. Some may see it as ‘tan’, but the idea of pink roads somehow appeals to me. I haven’t been able to find out why they are ‘pink’, but my theory is that it has something to do with the roadbase containing a fair proportion of the red dirt/sand common in many parts of Queensland.

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The pink brick road
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Pink’, don’t you think?

One of my pastimes while travelling is to take pictures while we are inside the car (and I promise I only do this when I’m the passenger). Most of the photos in this ‘blog’ are of that type. And a few shots of the roads more or less travelled:

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The road not travelled – near Winton
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On the straight and narrow to Georgetown
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The road to Dingo

 

 

 

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Sometimes the best road is the one leading home..

 

 

 

 

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:

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?