We continued our journey east, we would be staying a couple of nights at the small town of Roma to resupply before heading north and off grid once again. On the way to Roma we decided to break the journey with a night just outside the small settlement of Morven.
Our home for the evening was a working farm, grazing sheep, cattle and goats, with an abundance of bird life. Checking in at the office we also noticed it was home too a small business Gidgee Smith Bags. The owner set up the business 13 years ago on line and has gone from strength to strength, now employing a couple of people and producing these really smart bags from a pvc material.
We love to see this type of small enterprise, unencumbered by their location in the middle of nowhere. It probably keeps the local Post Office open as well! They also run a little coffee shop and mobile van for the passing (mostly caravans) traffic on the highway. How enterprising.
Tassie liked the fact that she had 15 acres almost to herself! It was a very peaceful afternoon for the three of us, Catherine capturing some more fab shots with the zoom lens, me continuing to get the hang of my new spotting scope, and Tas, well she was just hanging out. She doesn’t even have to leave her chair to get a drink!
Apparently over 70 species of birds had been listed on their property, and what a lovely surprise to be somewhere our hosts even knew that! I think we got to 20?
We then tootled off to Roma, our first town with a large Coles/Woolworths type supermarket since our small supermarket at Leigh Creek – 1,741 km behind us! Isn’t that just incredible? Charleville did have an IGA to be fair, but it was still a small supermarket. So this was our first town with a big supermarket in since Whyalla, over 2,095 kilometres away!
For those of you not familiar with the sheer scale of Australia, that illustrates how low the population density is away from the coast and our cities. Imagine needing some fish sauce or oyster mushrooms for that Asian recipe you want to cook…or to find some wholemeal or fresh vegan pasta..….oops..”Bye honey…just need to pop out to the supermarket…don’t wait up…back in a week or two” And in the couple of little shops we did see on the way, you will of course be paying an enormous premium for basic foodstuffs. Quite a different world. So we were excited to get our big restock done at a big national chain supermarket!
I wonder how many Australians forced to take their holidays domestically this year (we are banned from travelling other than to NZ, and that is often interrupted by our continuous outbreaks of COVID-19 from hotel quarantines) and will be shocked by how different life is for the 15% of Australians who don’t live in our five urban centres? Hopefully the tourism dollars flowing into these regional businesses will help revive some of these small towns.
We arrived at Roma to find a delivery waiting for us – a pop up screen room from our old favourite manufacturer Oztent. We have looked at annexes over the years, but they tend to be bulky and heavy and take a while to put up. This screen tent is plenty big enough for us, and literally pops up in seconds. Another couple of minutes to peg it out and we have doubled the fly and mozzie proof living area we have available to us. Let’s see how it works out but first impressions are very good.
A wine top up was also required, and fulfilled at a little bottle shop next door to our caravan park. I also slipped in most importantly, another bottle of Woodford Reserve, our bourbon of choice. Well, it’s going to be zero degrees at night where we are headed, so something a little warming is required, or so the rationale went.
Mrs A spotted (despite my best efforts to distract her) a sign to “the biggest bottle tree in Roma”, and off we went.
For you folk not based in Australia, yup…weird looking creations. I feel like singing “Who ate all the pies” when walking past them, but as they are pretty prevalent in Central Queensland that’s probably a slippery slope to mandatory mental health support.
So water tanks are filled, fridges and freezer stocked, washing bag empty (highly unusual status), wine store brimming over (not so unusual), its off to the wooly wilds again. Our water will need to last for five days, and thankfully the sun is forecast to shine as we will have no access to mains electricity. Carnarvon Gorge here we come! Talk soon…
Location: Travelling from Birdsville to Charleville, Queensland, Australia
Farewelling Birdsville we turned on to the imaginatively named Birdsville and Diamantina Developmental Roads and pointed ourselves east. Over the next couple of days we were making our way across to Charleville, pretty much half way to the coast of Queensland.
Much of the journey was along graded gravel road, with occasionally a stretch of single lane tarmac for good measure. Our first day’s driving took us across the outer reaches of the Sturt Stony Desert and Strzelecki Desert into what is known as Channel Country, so named for the numerous creeks and rivers (often dry) which intertwine across the region.
The landscape is largely featureless and flat, stretching across to the horizon. The morning we left there were strong winds which whistled across the desert, nothing to stop the dust flying. As it was a head wind it made driving a challenge too – the Land Cruiser certainly ate up the fuel.
There are occasional rest areas, sometimes with picnic tables and toilets, a chance to break up the monotony of the journey. Mid afternoon we saw a slight uplift on the side of the road, decorated with a giant serpent. The Dreamtime Serpent is an important figure in the Aboriginal creation story, representing the mythological serpent which joined all the waterways throughout Mithaka Country. This artwork had been created with different coloured gravel and gibbers from across the region.
As we continued on through the afternoon, hills became more frequent, and we pulled over at this bizarre sign directing us to the ‘Hole through Mount Henderson’. There is a walk up to a lookout up on top of this, but the sun was getting low in the sky and we still had to reach Windorah for the night.
It was at this point the single track of tarmac became continuous, and we knew it wasn’t far to Windorah. There we pulled up on a field behind the pub, donating $10 to the Flying Doctors to park there the night.
The following morning (Saturday) we pumped our tyres back up and gave the car and van a good wash with a high pressure hose just outside Windorah. We know it is going to get dusty again, but hopefully slightly less than the past couple of days have been.
We actually passed through Windorah and Cooper Creek when we very first started our big trip – four years ago in 2017! We reflected on how much more comfortable we are now travelling, feeling less stress towing and parking up. We have learned a lot in that time.
The landscape started to change as we progressed, the small drought tolerant shrubs changing to small trees, then larger trees, paddocks full of dry grasses and more undulating hills on the horizon. We called in for a lunchtime break at a rest area beside a creek (with actual water in it!) I had read was good for spotting birds. It gave us a chance to stretch our legs and think about something other than driving. We saw quite a number of birds, including flocks of budgerigars flying past, Mallee Ringneck Parrots, a White-necked Heron and more.
Another roadside rest area just outside the small town of Quilpie was our camp for the night.
The journey continued on Sunday morning, with just a few hours’ driving this time to our destination of Charleville. We stopped at a ‘Ghost town’ called Cooladie for lunch on our way over, which gave a chance for some more bird spotting before we settled in for an afternoon of washing.
Cooladdi was originally a railhead for the local pastoral community. At one time, Cooladdi had a school, post office, and police station with a population of about 270 people. As the railway line extended further west, Cooladdi’s role and population declined. There is little evidence of a town (let alone a ghost!) today, no more than a few wooden floors and a cairn marking the town centre.
It was only a short while further to our destination for the coming few days, Charleville.
Charleville is a small town located on the Warrego River. Its traditional First Nation custodians are the Bidjara People who historically lived all along the river banks. These people are still an important part of the Charleville society. As of 1980 the Bidjara language was almost extinct, with only 20 elders speaking it in communities along the length of the river. It has now been revitalised and is now being taught in schools.
The settlement built up during the mid 1800s as a service centre for pastoralists across this region. While slightly smaller these days it is no less important, with its hospital serving as the primary medical centre for the whole region. If you get sick in Birdsville, a 2-3 day drive away, it is likely you will be flown to Charleville for your treatment via the Royal Flying Doctor Service. This service is absolutely essential for residents living in remote areas and means we no longer see the high death rates seen prior to the launch of the service in 1917.
After a morning exploring the small town, the hospital was where Mark and I found ourselves on Monday afternoon, for our pre-booked Covid-19 first vaccination. We are very keen to continue our travels around the world and believe being vaccinated is our first step to being able to do this.
We went out to dinner at the local Thai restaurant (with a Vietnamese chef!) to celebrate.
We have spent some time exploring the various parklands and riverside walks for birds of course. Mark has a new tool in his bird watching kit – a spotting scope. It is like a telescope you put on a tripod and can see birds in incredible clarity up to about half a kilometre away. It is like watching a live nature documentary unfold in front of your eyes, just amazing. He has bought an adapter to allow him to take photographs on his phone though the scope. I am certain he will soon be complementing my camera photography.
On the Warrego River Walk we felt very privileged to see a pair of Pale-headed Rosellas feeding their hungry family – just metres from people out for their afternoon stroll or jog. A few trees back I heard a call I recognised from my childhood, and up in the trees behind us was a flock of Cockatiels, their yellow faces and rosy red cheeks looking so familiar. I much prefer to see them flying through the treetops than captive in a cage.
Another outing near the Charleville Cemetary had us observing Apostlebirds, White-browed Babblers, Whistling Kites, Galahs and more.
A novelty for us was the change in the weather. Just for one day we had rain! I know our friends and family in the UK will scorn us, but we do appreciate the brief change. With the low humidity and dry air comes dry skin and high levels of static. I am a little tired of getting electric shocks every time I turn off a light or get out of the car! The increased humidity definitely helped reduce that for a short while.
Other than the river, there is little surface water around, so the lakes at the Charleville Water-treatment Works attract a lot of birds. On the advice of a lady at the Information Centre we popped over for a look. We found five or so large patches of water surrounded by reeds and full of water birds.
The birds were quite skittery, clearly not used to seeing people. A large flock of zebra-patterned ducks took flight as we arrived. We later learned these are Pink-eared ducks (if you get close enough, you can see they have pink ears just behind their eye), and live only in Australia. Ibis (commonly seen with their long beaks in city rubbish bins!) were here too, as well as Pied Stilts, Spoonbills, Pacific Black and Grey Teal ducks. We had a good look around before leaving them back in peace.
Meanwhile, a couple of walks down to the quieter end of the river near where we are staying yielded some new and old birds for us. Just walking in the forest, listening to the wind and the chatter of our multitude of feathered friends is so peaceful. We ended up walking 10km without realising!
After a pub dinner, we went out to Charleville’sCosmos Centre. We had booked on an hour’s stargazing session with some powerful telescopes and a guide to explain some of the sights we were seeing. We wrapped up warm with our beanies and thick coats against the 10 degrees temperatures, but had a perfectly clear, starlit night with no moon. Ideal for seeing the Milky Way and constellations. It was an interesting evening and a different way to see the stars without sitting beside a warm fire…we were pleased to warm up once the show was over.
We had a lovely week, taking the time to do our cleaning and recover from the relative trauma of our disruptions on the Birdsville Track and in Birdsville. But now we are ready to farewell Charleville (or Barky-ville as we have renamed it, due to the multitude of noisy dogs here) and continue on our adventure heading east.
We would like to acknowledge and thank the Yarlayandi, Karnwali, Birria, Kuungkari and Bidjara People through whose traditional lands we travelled and spent time the past few days.
Location: Mungeranie Hotel, South Australia to Birdsville, Queensland
When we decided we wanted to travel up the Birdsville Track, we never imagined driving several hundred kilometres of it at night! We never drive at night, let alone down a track. But we had no choice. Our caravan was on the back of a truck somewhere behind us, and we had to make Birdsville that night because we had nowhere to sleep otherwise.
The first hundred kilometres from the Murngerranie Hotel was easy going. The late afternoon light bathed the desert in an eerie golden glow.
We passed a couple of vehicles coming the other way, then we were on our own. To our west was the huge expanse of the Simpson Desert, all 176,000 square kilometres of it, and that is the size of Cambodia! To our east the, Sturt Stony Desert, then the Strezlecki Desert. Vast, almost completely empty of people, the odd cattle station, that’s it.
Travelling through country like this we felt exposed without our home being towed behind us. We had nowhere to stop and shelter should we break down. The surface deteriorated, as we had been told it would, and we had to slow right down. The surface here is made up of what is called gibber rocks; what is left after the sheets of sandstone have been broken down over the millennia by erosion, and the sand and dust has blown away. Careful driving is required. But we had to press on as night fell. It really isn’t a smart idea to drive in the bush at night, especially on these unfenced roads, where wandering stock can suddenly appear.
I normally do all the driving, as Catherine is not so comfortable doing it when we are towing, but now she took over the wheel as my glaucoma makes night driving problematic. We were both on high alert, and suddenly there was a cow and her calf charging along beside us. Luckily they didn’t veer in front and we were safely past them, hearts pounding. After what seemed like an age, but actually we made good time, we spotted the sparse lights of Birdsville as we crested a hill.
I had rang from the hotel to get us a motel room, and managed to snag literally the last bed in town. This is peak travelling season as the winter temperatures makes the desert country more accessible. Combine that with the restrictions on Australians leaving the country, and the scarce towns that there are, are heaving.
The no pets policy was kindly waived by the lovely folk who run the Birdsville Caravan Park given our situation. We got in at 7.30pm. Our tow truck driver didn’t get in until 10.30 pm, we found out the next day. These guys work so hard. Anyway we crashed out, our little Tassie super excited to be in a new environment, racing (a relative term in her case nowadays) round the room with big wide eyes. Every so often she’d come up to one of us, stare into our eyes, and tap us with her paw on the shoulder, with a speech bubble only we could see that said “What the hell’s going on? Where have you brought me now?” Heart melting stuff, for us cat dotty folk anyway.
We went over to see our tow truck driver Blake in the morning, he was now wearing his other hat of bush-mechanic-extraordinaire. He warned us that he would “get to the repair when he could”, but had to first go and rescue someone who was stuck in the desert after the storm last night. A bit of rain on that surface and the tracks get pretty crazy. We settled in to Birdsville life, with me quietly expecting we were going to be here for a bit.
The first visit was to the bakery. After some blood tests in March showed my cholesterol was way too high, I had been off the pies since April 1. And yes I was an April Fool to think it would stay that way forever. The smell of baking was just too much, and the local speciality was a curried camel pie! It was so good I had another…oops.
I asked the guy serving (Jim I think) what was his story, as I do, and it would become a familiar one in Birdsville. He and his partner was passing though in their caravan, liked it and stayed. The same for our mechanic Blake and his partner, set out to tour Australia from Brisbane and never got past Birdsville.
’So what was the attraction?’ I asked. From several people, a similar theme of enjoying a strong community (around 120 permanent residents). Interestingly thats around the size that the research tells us humans can just about remember who is who and have the emotional bandwidth to maintain their relationships with. A hundred and fifty people is the upper limit and called “Dumbar’s number” It seems to even hold true for digital relationships. So check your Facebook friends – more than 150 and you really are going to struggle to give them the love and attention a friendship deserves.
Time to book the pub. We got the last two seats for dinner.
Checking in with our mechanic, I was right and it looked like we were going to be here at least one more night.
On the way to the pub for our evening meal, we were treated to a great sunset and view of a blood super moon. We liked Birdsville!
What a wonderful dining experience. Our server Joel was just such a delight, taking time to tell us about what we might be interested to see around the town. A great little wine list, and the food was superb.
The original pub had burnt down and been rebuilt by its current owner who happened to be a builder. And what a great job they have done. After dinner we moved to the bar and got invited to join a couple of staff from Brown Brothers winery who were there to promote their wines to the pub and its customers. Great fun. then on the way back to our motel room we saw the moon’s eclipse.
The next day it was not a surprise to hear our mechanic say he would once again “get to it when he could”. He’s working on his own at the moment, servicing not just the hundreds of tourists driving in every day with issues, but also the station owners where he gets his year round work from. Last month he has been called out to rescue an 84 year old guy driving his Volvo solo across the Simpson Desert. A bold move indeed.
So we took a drive out into the Simpson a short way from town and wandered along a track we had been recommend for a spot of birding.
We were rewarded with a Black Kite circling round and eyeing us up. As always I get this super strong connection open up to memories of my father. If you have never listened to Spirit Bird by Xavier Rudd, then give yourself a musical treat. He tells his story of a similar experience he had, connecting with his First Nation ancestors when they visited him through a bird. Its also the same species as the one I had interacted with for my 60th birthday present. Beautiful creatures.
When we headed back into town and checked on our van, there were tools underneath, progress had been made. Blake had sourced some metal rails to replace our broken ones and had started fitting them, then got called away on another emergency. He was finally able to finish the job at at 8.30pm that night, and he still had another one to do after us!
This for us will be the lasting memory of Birdsville. The kindness of its people. They are isolated in a pretty inhospitable place. They look after each other. A great little community we’ve had the pleasure to briefly be part of. It’s time though now to leave and resume our travels.
Location: Marree to Mungeranie, Birdsville Track, South Australia
We set off from Marree on a beautiful bright Sunday morning. The track from Marree has been recently graded, and apart from one or two deep sandy bits and the occasional cattle grid, was smooth driving. Even Tassie managed to get some sleep.
The Birdsville Track follows an ancient Aboriginal trading route which links several water holes. The route was then made into a track for mustering sheep and cattle to Adelaide. These days most of the sheep stations have changed to cattle stations, cows being a little more robust and able to protect their new born calves from dingos and wild dogs.
The route traverses three deserts; the Strzelecki, Sturt Stony Desert and Tirari Desert and as you would expect, the land is incredibly dry with no more than 10cm of rain falling per year. The survival of people, flora and fauna is predominantly thanks to the Great Artesian Basin – a huge underground freshwater reservoir which stretches more than 1.7million square kilometres. This huge water source is the world’s largest subterranean water basin and could fill Sydney Harbour 133,000 times.
Bores (a hole, often using a windmill to draw up the water) have been sunk into this reservoir, with approximately one every 40km along the track. In a few areas there are natural springs and seeps which form puddles and small wetland areas, essential for the survival of birds and mammals in this area. When the water emerges the temperature ranges from 30-100 degrees centigrade.
This area is closed to travellers in the summer months, when temperatures have been measured to reach 49.5 degrees centigrade in the shade. Phew! Temperatures are only getting hotter, with Birdsville, our next destination, breaking records only last year with more than 10 days on the trot over 45 degrees centigrade – and that was November, which is still classified as spring!
We pulled over for lunch at one of these bore sites, an area where the water comes out warm. An enterprising station owner had put in a large plastic basin and a huge tap, calling it an Artesian bath. As we arrived there were several people sat in the bath wearing fly nets, enjoying the warm water. I meanwhile had less glamorous tasks to do – using the naturally warm water to do some hand washing!
Fly nets are absolutely essential out here – you cannot leave your car without looking like an odd bee-keeper, but without it you would have flies in literally every orafice. They are incredibly annoying. Without insect repellant your arms and legs are black with little insects. The only thing in their favour is that they don’t bite, just annoy!
After lunch we had a look around the nearby wetland area to see what bird life was about. I was very excited to see a lone Budgie munching on seeds. He was very friendly and sat on a low branch chatting to me and seemed quite tame (more photos on our Instagram feed).
We continued on our way, taking a look at a couple of other locations before deciding to stop for the evening at the Mungeranie Hotel. After checking in at the bar and paying our $20 and were told to pick ourselves a spot along the tree line. We found ourselves a suitable space, and went to level up. It was at this stage I noticed an awful metallic scraping sound coming from underneath the caravan – never a good sign.
I looked and spotted one of our water tanks hanging down at an uncomfortable angle, with one of the two brackets completely missing. The second tank was hanging down and leaning on the wheel axel, one of its brackets hanging by a single bolt, the remainder scraping through the stones on the ground. Nightmare!
It surprised us to see this, given the road surface had not been that bad at all. Talking to other caravanners, they weren’t surprised with many saying it just takes one rock to hit a bolt or for it to weaken over time due to vibrations. Either way, we were in the situation we were in and clearly could not continue.
The majority of the Birdsville Track has no mobile signal, and we suspected this would be the same. Yup, checking our Telstra phones, not a single bar. We went into the hotel to ask there and they let us know they had Optus signal. This was hopeful.
We are carrying two mi-fis with us (mobile wifi units), one of which has a UK Vodafone sim card, the remainder of a plan we had signed up to last year while travelling in England and Wales. It has free roaming in Australia, but to be honest, has been pretty useless…until now. We turned it on and amazingly, full signal! Hurrah! We were able to make phone calls, do internet searches, and share our situation with fellow Zone owners on the Facebook group.
Over the next couple of days, our caravan insurance company (CIL) agreed to foot the bill for towing out our van and repairs to the brackets, and we had managed to book a guy called Blake to drive down from Birdsville to collect us.
Once all that was organised, we had some time to try and enjoy our surroundings. It was fly-central so the insect repellant and fly nets were essential ingredients to being outside, but we managed to have a look around. Mungeranie Hotel is located beside a small wetland, and being surrounded by arid lands, the area is teeming with birds, with flocks of Zebra finches and Budgerigars frequently seen flying from the trees and bushes.
We saw a lot of water birds too, many first time viewings for us.
Of course it was impossible to be living 200 metres from a pub and not venture in. The Mungeranie Hotel is typical of Australian outback pubs – absolutely chock full of quirky character. The exterior is quite neatly kept, with a row of rusty old trucks on parade as you arrive up the driveway. Then there are the traffic lights and the ‘McDonald’s opening soon’ sign to give you a chuckle.
There has been a hotel at this location since the mid 1800s when the road was established as a stock route. At one stage there were also stables, a blacksmith, store and a police station, and drovers would let their cattle drink at the waterhole here. Everything was closed by the 1920s and this hotel as it stands was not licensed again until 1989. Today it is a roadhouse, offering very basic rooms, fuel, hot dinners and drinks, as well as space for camping.
Once inside the pub, the walls and ceilings are literally covered in souvenirs of previous visitors. Hats are the main decor, then there are the strange dangling pieces of hair, which we then learn are rats-tails from old mullet hairstyles and beards!! A little bit gross, and very bizarre.
All the drinks are bottled, nothing on tap given the distance from anywhere. They ran out of red wine while we were there (not our fault) and I had the last bottle of soda water with my vodka, followed by the last nip of Jamison’s Whisky!
On our second night, Mr A had got chatting to a young couple on their way over to the east coast of Australia to work on a mango farm. We invited them to join us at the pub for some drinks, brought our own music and soon a party was happening. We were joined by a road-train driver who had pulled up for the night after driving 1,200km that day (he insisted no drugs were involved). We had a great night, ending at 1am when the bar started running out of drinks we wanted!
The following day we got ready for Blake’s arrival with great anticipation. Although we had made the most of our couple of days at the Mungeranie Hotel, we were not keen to make it our forever home!
To our relief he finally arrived around 3pm, his drive down the rough track made all the slower by the long empty truck. It had taken him 7 hours in total to reach us, doing a couple of jobs on the way. And after loading our home, he was going to have to do the same trip again in reverse. We looked on in awe of this tenacity and attitude, and hoped our Zone would make it to Birdsville without further misadventure.
We left Blake to continue with the finishing touches, knowing we would be much faster on the track than him. We farewelled our faithful home and looked forward to seeing it tomorrow in Queensland, our fourth state of the trip.
We would like to thank and acknowledge the Yawarawarrka and Ngamini First Nation people, throughout whose traditional land we travelled on this journey.
Location: Northern Flinders and Marree, Northern South Australia
Australia has this brand of being populated with outdoorsy and Crocodile Dundee outback types, but in fact is one of the most urbanised nations in the world, with two thirds of Aussies living in a capital city, and 90 per cent of them clustering into just 0.22 per cent of the country’s land area. So when you are away from the urban areas, as we mainly are, it sure isn’t busy! And we are about to head into one of the least populated areas of the country, the vast expanse of the far northern end of South Australia.
Leaving behind the relative comforts of the campsite at Rawnsley Park Station in the southern Flinders, we headed north for the drive up to our next destination of the small settlement of Maree. Catherine had spotted that on the way there was a “self-guided drive” along an area of outstanding geological significance. As a geographer by education she was keen. Me, I know whats good for me, I go where I’m told 🙂
It was actually a very interesting drive, a little rougher than I expected, but the information boards told a fascinating story of this ancient landscape. When you read that something you’re looking at is 610 million years old, it really puts in perspective the impact we homo sapiens have had in such a microcosm of time, so much so we have our own geological period unofficially named for us – the Anthropocene.
We also saw stromatolites, which are some of the earliest life forms we have found evidence of (the oldest being the ones we saw in WA dated to around 3,500 million years old!), and as the ozone layer built up over hundreds of millions of years (and that we put at risk in a decades, thanks to strong global action, now seems to be repairing) it created the first known complex life forms of Ediacara Fauna (soft bodied sea dwellers).
So with our heads stuffed full of this geological wonder, we emerged back on to the tarmac again and set course for the small mining town of Leigh Creek. Well, it was a mining town until the coal mine closed in 2015, and it may become one again if the plan goes ahead to create a key ingredient for fertiliser by heating the underground coal seams. We were relieved to see that not only was the local supermarket still open (the town has dwindled to around 120 people now) but was really well stocked with fresh fruit and veg. This is most unusual, and we were very grateful, as the next supermarket on our route north would be 1,201km away!
When you look at the health stats on rural Australians, they have lower life expectancies, and suffer from more preventable diseases. It just isn’t healthy in the (remote) country. It really doesn’t surprise us looking at the contents of most of these remote stores, and as for exercise opportunities, well there’s certainly a dearth of walking or cycling routes, and a climate that for much of the year would make using them pretty uncomfortable.
We pulled off for the night a 100km short of Marree, by Clarrie’s Waterhole. Nothing there, just a flattish piece of gravel, and with full water tanks and fridges that is all we needed. We were treated to a big outback sunset, then settled in for what was a very peaceful night.
The morning saw us make the short run into Marree, a small (150 people and still dropping) service centre for the large sheep and cattle farms in this remote area of far north South Australia. It also lies at the junction of two inconic outback travel routes the Oodnadatta Track (which runs for over 600km up to the north west) and the Birdsville Track, that we will be taking.
I noticed the roadhouse operates scenic flights from here over Kati Thanda – Lake Eyre. A bit of bucket list item for us, particularly as it has water from the Queensland floods now reaching it – a particularly rare occurrence. So off we went for our 90 minute ride around the skies above this massive natural wonder.
We thank the Arabunna people as, since 2012, the recognised traditional owners of the land we flew over. What an incredible landscape these people have lived on for thousands of years, before the Europeans arrived and claimed the land as their own in order to graze their sheep and cattle on.
In those rare flood years, it fills 960 sq kilometres of lake – for comparison, Sydney Harbour is 55 sq km. When it is dry and the salt is hard, it’s big and solid enough for Donald Campbell to have set a world land speed record on, averaging 649kph! It also is home to the lowest natural point on the Australian mainland, at 15 metres below sea level.
The area also has its fair share of mysteries, such as how do birds who are thousands of kilometres away know that the lake has flooded and fly there? In the 1998/99 flood apparently around 80% of Australia’s total pelican population turned up there! Just one of the mysteries surrounding bird navigation. If it is a subject that interests you, like it does us, check out the Sunday Times Nature Book of the Year in 2019 “Incredible Journeys’. It collects all that we know currently about how animals (including us) navigate, and highlights by implication so much of what still remains a mystery.
Another mystery in the area is the so called “Marree Man”, a modern geoglyph (large design you can only really appreciate from the air), but unlike the famous ones in the UK and South America, this was created, by persons unknown in the winter of 1998. Thanks to NASA for enabling the timeframe for its creation to be nailed down, but nobody since has owned up to being the artist, despite Dick Smith even offering a $5,000 reward! You can’t beat an outback mystery…
Today we are heading off up the Birdsville Track. We are unlikely to have any internet for the next few days (or possibly longer if we linger!), so all going well we will post next from the Birdsville Pub in state number four for this trip – Queensland!
Location: Rawnsley Station, Ikara Flinders Ranges, South Australia
We reluctantly pulled away from Quorn, wishing we had booked for longer and explored the region around this little friendly town in more depth, but unfortunately had little choice. Firstly, the campsite in Quorn was fully booked for the upcoming week, and secondly we had booked in to stay at Rawnsley Station, on the border of the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park.
A short drive from Quorn is the little settlement of Hawker. It has an art gallery that is quite well known for featuring some of the region’s most prominent artists, but sadly that was closed on this Sunday morning. Fortunately for us though, the other key attraction, Flinders Food Co, a cafe serving excellent food, was open for business. We called on in and ordered some delicious lunch from the interesting menu – well deserving of its great reputation.
As we drove up towards our home for the next few days we noticed quite a few vintage cars towing camper trailers. Apparently they had just come down the Birdsville Track, the route we are intending to take over the next couple of weeks into southern Queensland. Seeing the skinny wheels, most of the vehicles without air conditioning, heating or electric windows, made us feel more comfortable that we won’t struggle too much on our trip north. Punctures will be our greatest fear – we have changed a few tyres in our years travelling Australia, and it’s hard work with these heavy chunky wheels! Our fingers are crossed our tyres stay inflated. Changing a vintage car tyre would be much simpler!
Our destination was Rawnsley Park Station which was initially settled as a sheep station in the mid 1800s, originally part of Arkarba Station. Previous to this it was the domain of the Adnaymathanha Aboriginal people. Arkarba Station was split up , and in 1951 Rawnsley Park Station was purchased by Clem Smith and his family.
Rawnsley Park Station turned to tourism in 1968 to supplement its sheep business and has not looked back. It’s a pretty well set up operation, with many marked walking and mountain biking trails, and a short drive to the Ikara-Flinders Ranges national park. Scenic flights and helicopter trips offer another way to see the region. Mr A asked about the Aboriginal history, but nobody seemed to know anything.
A bit of online searching suggests that when the sheep station was initially settled there was conflict between the First Nation Adnaymathanha people and the white farmers. Aboriginal people were shot in retribution for hunting sheep to feed their families.
I liken the situation to aliens landing and taking over our water supplies, farms cathedrals, theatres, opera houses and supermarkets and restricting our access to them all. Thirsty and hungry we are then driven to trying to dash in and get some food, and are killed for our trouble. A pretty nasty situation, and one that completely changed the way First Nations people had to live their lives. They gradually adapted to become workers on the stations, stepping away from thousands of years of sustainable living.
Today, the Adnaymathanha people are integral in their work as rangers in the national park, helping to restore the land to its former sustainable state. We thank and acknowledge these communities and their ancestors for their connection to these lands for thousands of years.
Once we had settled into our site we pulled on our boots and set off for an afternoon hike. Rawnsley Park Station has a number of signed hikes ranging from 2 to 12 kilometres in length. We picked a 6.5km one named after one of the early station owners, Clem’s Corner. Clem is also the name of Mark’s fondly remembered late father, so the name was particularly poignant.
We are approaching the end of autumn now, so the sun is setting earlier and especially where there are mountains (hills) towering above you. Rawnsley Bluff is the highest peak on the property at 943 metres (3093 ft). As we reached the lookout the light was incredible – the shadows long across the land and the colours incredibly vivid, the pinks, blues, mauves, purples and oranges a feast for the eyes.
The Station is home to many birds, including the beautiful Red-capped Robin. We had never seen one of these before, and were delighted with this little chap emerged from the native cypress pines surrounded by his multitude of girlfriends.
Early the following morning we set off on another walk through the Station, rewarded for our prompt start with many more robins, Mulga Parrots, Mallee Ringneck Parrots, huge Wedge-tailed Eagles and Emus.
We took a drive out to nearby Arkaroo Rock, a significant cultural site for the Adnaymathanha people of the Flinders Ranges. ‘Arkaroo’ comes from the name given to the petrified serpents which later became the mountains of Ikara.
Unfortunately the National Park folk have neglected to share any interpretive information about the charcoal and ochre paintings. The paintings depict the Yura Muda or Dreaming (creation story) of Ikara.
A warm camp fire concluded our day with a nice glass of Malbec. With the nights dropping to between 2 and 6 degrees, we certainly appreciate all the warmth we can get!
The temperature here warms up to the late teens or early 20s during the day, starting to drop as soon as the sun dips behind the hills. It is a perfect time of year to be here. Mark and I last visited the Flinders in January 2004 (17 years ago), when day time temperatures were in the high 30s and we had to start our walks before sunrise to get the cool of the day and minimise flies. There are virtually no flies here currently, which definitely helps the situation. Walking without fly nets over your hat is impossible in the hotter months.
Another walk around the property revealed more bird and wild life including, of course, more adorable robins.
Walking back to the van we stumbled across another guest travelling with a cat. This cat is just 18 months old and huge, like a small lion – he is a Maine Coon – they can reach more than 8kg in weight – double Tassie!
We regularly encourage Tassie to be active and get outside, but being 17 she’s mostly keen to sit in the sunshine and sleep! One one short walk from the caravan she decided to mark her territory…while a dog might do this by urinating, Tassie’s choice was to find a big dust bowl and have a good roll – rubbing her cheeks and therefore her scent on the rocks and ground. One very orange cat emerged – she needed a good brush and wipe down with a damp cloth afterwards! She was not impressed, but forgave us after another nap in the sunshine!
We paid a visit to the Ikara-Flinders Ranges National Park, just under half an hour’s drive away. There are a range of walks available to do there, ranging from the easy 8km hike we did up to Ikara (Wilpena Pound) up to a couple of multi day (multi week even) hikes.
Ikara was a place of initiation ceremonies and corroborees (gatherings and rituals) until it was designated as farming land in the 1850s and farmers from Adelaide arrived with thousands of sheep. Needless to say, the climate of long droughts followed by flood meant the farm did not survive.
The area was designated as a national park in 1945 though it took until 2016 for the name Ikara to be included in the National Park’s name, in recognition of the significance of this place. Ikara features in traditional Aboriginal songs across Australia, showing just how important this location is to First Nation groups from right across the country.
The Adnaymathanha rangers have worked hard to rid the park of pests, including wild cats, rabbits and goats, though there is some work to do still as we saw both goats and a rabbit on our visit. Still, the Yellow-footed Wallaby is now stabilised there, after being driven to near extinction previously.
It’s a beautiful area and it pays to take the walk slowly, enjoying the sights and sounds, and for us, appreciate the novelty of tall trees after our time on the Eyre Peninsular where they are few and far between.
We climbed to the lookout and admired the view. The Flinders are the highest mountains in South Australia, Ikara stretching out before us filled with native pine and eucalypts.
The Woolshed Restaurant was our evening treat – located on Rawnsley Park Station itself. As we are on a sheep station, the menu was no surprise – specialising in lamb, with fish, kangaroo and vegetarian options for those preferring something different. We decided to share a lamb tasting platter, including chops, sausages and rump. Delicious, but a whole lot of meat! Somehow we managed to find space for dessert – a vegan panacotta for me and an affrogato for Mr A.
On our final day we took a walk up towards Rawnsley Bluff, the highest point on the range surrounding the sheep station. Magnificent views were our reward, plus more wildlife – Euros (stocky, hairy kangaroos!), Emus and more Mulga Parrots nesting in the hollow branches of a dead tree. A fitting end to a brilliant few days here.
We will never forget our time here, it has been truly magical. But it is time for us to continue our journey north, we have some exciting things to see over the coming few days!
Our South Australia sojourn is drawing to an end after four months, and tropical central Queensland here we come! Our plan is to “head up the track”, as the saying goes when tackling an iconic outback adventure: the Birdsville Track. The track starts in South Australia’s arid north, and winds its way through three deserts before spitting you out, very dusty and thirsty, at the Birdsville Pub a few kilometres over the border in the central west of Queensland. It will be an adventure for sure.
But first we had a bunch of jobs to get done in the small town of Whyalla, where Catherine was once again going to fly back to Adelaide for steroid injections into her airway, a visit to the hairdressers and some retail therapy. I was being looked after by Tassie, and getting some local medical stuff done. Then it was a matter of cramming as much fresh food into the van and car as we could store. 1,700 km lies between us and our next supermarket in Queensland! Yup…thats a long way between fresh vegetables!
Whyalla is a town that has been struggling for years under threat of its biggest employer, the steel mill, closing down. Today the serious crime squad in London announced it was opening an investigation into the mill’s owner, but despite this cloud, everyone was super friendly and a strong sense of community was evident. But, we couldn’t wait to hit the road.
After six weeks on the very flat Eyre Peninsula, it was great to see the country rising up into jagged peaks in front of us This was the southern end of the Flinders Ranges, a semi-arid country containing some of Australia’s most important fossils and evidence of early human history. We had made a trip here back in 2004, but it was January and crazy hot. Now daytime temperatures are pleasant in the high teens and low 20s, and nights in single figures that have us both fighting over a snuggle with our hot water cat in bed!
Our first destination was the small settlement of Quorn, a town made famous by having for many years both the main east to west and south to north railroads passing through it. During World War 2, around 40 trains a day passed through the town carrying our troops up to defend Darwin and on from there on to fight against the Japanese in the Papua-New Guinea campaign. Nowadays its a very pleasant stop on the tourist route up into the ranges. It even has a tea shop serving a range of brews in English china cups. So civilised.
We had managed to snare a cancellation on the only caravan park in town. It is a really busy season up here, and we had heard from friends who stayed locally that there was an outdoor movie shown every evening at sunset. We dressed up warm and headed out. The film was projected onto the side of an old silo, very atmospheric, and had some really interesting content, including from an elder of one of the First Nation groups to live on this ancient land. So inspiring to to see a community pulling a project together like this.
Tomorrow we head further up into the ranges and a three night stay on a sheep station, and then from there up to the end of the tarmac and the start of 519km of the Birdsville Track.
It may be a while before we get enough signal to upload another post, hence the heads up on our plans over the next few weeks. It would be an unusual plan that survives contact with the Outback, so our fingers are crossed, but we think we have prepared well enough. The wine cellar is full, the fridge groaning, and the tanks full.
Location: Pildappa Rock & Mt Ive Station, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
With Venus Bay in the rear view mirror we turned north, heading to the drier interior of the Eyre Peninsula, the South Australian outback. We were aiming for the outskirts of the Gawler Ranges National Park.
Within an hour we were pulling up at Pildappa Rock just outside Minnipa. Jutting up out of the flat landscape like a miniature Uluru, this pink granite monolith was a central point for the Kukatha Aboriginal communities, who used its surface pools for drinking water. Locals liken this rock to the more famous ‘Wave Rock’ in Western Australia, said to look like breaking surf in its erosion.
Geologists have found that this rock was originally formed about 7km below the earth’s surface (1500 million years ago!). The surrounding soil has weathered much faster than the rock, hence it now towers over the surrounding area. It is estimated it erodes about 50cm every million years.
On our visit, all the pools were dry, the lack of rainfall evident in the dusty surround, our climb up revealing stunning views of the landscape around us.
The First People traditional owners, the Kukatha community, cared for and tended to these lands, and we thank and acknowledge this. Being the only source of surface water for some distance, the people protected this rock and recognised it as a special and sacred place. When European settlers first arrived in the area seeking water, the Aboriginal community introduced them to this rock and shared their precious water, only to have it then taken over by the new settlers who built dams and drains to secure the water for themselves, restricting their access. Yes, yet another sad story of cruelty and selfishness from our ancestors.
Today much of the surrounding land is used for growing wheat, being autumn all harvested now. It is hard to imagine how anything grows in these dry, dusty conditions, Willie willies (mini dust tornadoes) are frequently seen racing across the huge fields, spinning up what is left of the topsoil.
We continued our journey, next stopping for lunch at a nearby camping area by some more sculpture-like granite rocks at Wattle Grove.
Once we left here, we joined a long red sand and gravel road heading further north towards a remote sheep station, Mount Ive. We let the tyres down a little to smooth out the corrugations and enjoyed the journey. The scenery was magical. The sun was just starting to dip in the sky and in doing so lit up millions of raindrops hanging in the trees, spinifex, blue bush and saltbush either side of the road. It was quite surreal, following a red-sand road surrounded by sparkling diamonds.
With the sun starting to set we decided to find ourselves a wild-camp just off the road for the night rather than press on.
A space for the night secured, we had an explore, bewitched by the beautiful sunset and incredible light cast on the red hills and scenery around us.
It was a beautifully dark night, a good opportunity to have a practice at some night photography. This shot of the Milky Way was my best first attempt.
The following morning we had a walk around, in awe of the silence. You could hear your ears ringing and the cogs in your brain whirring! Every sound seemed incredibly loud. The flocks of birds seemed to think so too, most too nervous to hang around for a photo or even to be identified through binoculars. They clearly are not used to humans out here.
We drove the final 45 minutes to Mt Ive Station, arriving mid morning and set up on the dusty dry paddock they had assigned to campers. It was a bit disappointing really. After some of the wonderful station stays in Western Australia (especially Hambleton and Woolleen) it felt like there had been no effort made here. We had so many questions for the owners, but they were not present and the managers were fellow travellers and only had been working there for a couple of days.
Visitors are attracted to the area because of its proximity to Lake Gairdner National Park. We paid for a mud map of a track and a key to a locked gate giving us access to the lake. Lake Gairdner is a huge salt lake, famous for land speed record attempts during Speed Week each March.
After setting up camp we took a drive out to the lake. No driving is allowed on the lake outside of the allocated event.
The lake is considered to be the third biggest salt lake in Australia. It is 160 kilometres long, and 48 km across, so the area we visited was all but a tiny corner.
Stepping onto the lake it is hard to convince your brain it is not snow. It crunches like snow, but is not at all slippery, with little give when you step on it. In some places this salt is more than a metre deep.
We enjoyed our experience so much we went back the following day – the grey skies changing the whole scene, and being wrapped up in our winter gear it felt even more like a snowfield.
The Mt Ive Station property also has a volcanic geological area known as the Organ Pipes. We hiked up a dry creek to explore.
The station is mostly set up to encourage four wheel driving, with visitors given the option to buy another mud map with further routes to explore. Rather than spend more time in the car, we decided to try some more walking, picking our way up through the rock and prickly spinifex plants to the top of one of the hills surrounding the property.
We had a good couple of nights here, but especially enjoyed our time wild-camping. We hope to do more of that in the coming months. For now, however, we had to head back to the coast and Whyalla – I had a plane to catch…
Location: Venus Bay, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
They Eyre Peninsula coastline runs for a staggeringly long 1,726 kilometres, and we have just spent the last five weeks wandering around the majority of it. What a trip segment it has been, so wild and wooly.
It is fitting to finish off by visiting one of the more photogenic places we have ever been to. With both a sheltered bay and a wild surf coast, all within walking distance of our little (very crowded!) caravan park on the foreshore of Venus Bay.
Now, the ancient Italians named the goddess of cultivated fields and gardens Venus, and there sure isn’t anything that civilised here. It‘s nature at its most magnificent, but it is raw, humans haven’t tamed it. There’s not a blade of grass in sight. It‘s all sand, and salt, and wind, and sun. The elements are in charge here. You can see where the sea is winning its millennia old battle against the land, as the limestone cliffs slip, chunk by chunk into the ocean, carving out these magnificent shapes in the rock.
We acknowledge the Wirangu and Nawu peoples as the traditional owners of the land that was then named Venus Bay (after the first sailing boat that explored this coast) by the early European settlers who started arriving after Mathew Flinders had mapped the coast. Early contact was as usual brutal when these First Peoples were denied access to their traditional water sources and fishing grounds by the settlers. Conflict that resulted in murders on both sides, and a public hanging for two aboriginals.
Arriving at lunch time we quickly set up the kayak to take advantage of a calm spell and set off randomly for one of the small islands we could see in the bay, I’d Googled them to try and find out anything, but the last reference was in 2006 in an obscure Department of Environment management plan. From that I learned the islands are (were?) home to some endangered flora and fauna. Well the birds certainly kept well hidden from even Catherine’s long lens. With over 360 offshore islands just in the State of South Australia alone, it gives you an idea of the scale of this country. Unsurprisingly then, there was not a footprint on the beach. We climbed up to the sand dunes and gazed down into the interior and wondered who had last visited. On this crowded planet, this is a special feeling.
On the paddle back we did see some birds, one crested tern having a very bad hair day.
A pied cormorant stood proudly surveying its territory, and other than that the usual pacific gulls and pelicans, certainly not the species range we had been hoping for.
We did a couple of walks from the campsite around the cliffs, and just drank in the unspoilt grandeur of this place. Yes, there are a few new houses being built, but still we managed on our second walk to see not a soul once we had left the campsite. One set of footprints this time, but that was it.
The sunset glorious. very few places in the world can claim to be this unspoilt.
A short drive down the coast took us to a cave we had been recommended, as stretch of coastal sea scape that just had us grinning from ear to ear.
Venus Bay, you’re pretty special. But now its time to head off inland, leave behind the coast, and take in an entirely different landscape. And there you have it. The joy of caravanning.
Location: Streaky Bay, Eyre Peninsula, South Australia
As our regular readers will know, it is quite rare for us to spend much longer than three or four nights in one place, but on this trip we are making a habit of slowing right down, and with few hard deadlines to meet, we are following our guts. Streaky Bay has been a perfect location to stop and pause at. Not only a great camp site, but lots to see and do in the area.
We had visited the Department for Environment and Water to ask where the the best areas for seeing birds were, and one area highlighted was Sceale (pronounced scale) Bay Conservation Park, in particular a saltwater lagoon which lay behind the dunes. We drove over for a look.
We found quite dramatic scenery with the wind whistling across the water, a shallow lake edged with salt encrusted mud, but not a single bird in sight, not even footprints on the water’s edge. We had a short look around and decided to continue down to the coast and Sceale Bay itself.
We found yet another stunning beach stretching along towards some small shacks and houses which make up the settlement, and just two people on the beach. It is just incredible how few people there are everywhere, and we are just lapping up the isolation.
We returned to the Zone to get ready for dinner. Yes, after my nasty food poisoning episode, we had decided to brave it for a night out in town.
We had chosen a small cafe with water views called Drift. They had an interesting menu, with ingredients sourced from local areas, so we had great expectations.
Sadly, we were disappointed. While the shared plate of steamed dumplings were tasty, they seemed no different from the frozen ones we occasionally have in the caravan. We both chose a seafood marinara for our main dish, only to find all the prawn, calamari and scallop flavours completely swamped with bucket-loads of an incredibly sickly sweet tomato sauce. So disappointing.
The wine we chose was nice, but tainted by the young lady serving us snapping that we couldn’t take unfinished wine home, and therefore she wouldn’t give us the cap! Responsible service of alcohol regulations anyone? In their favour, neither of us ended up sick, so that was good. Overall, it was such a shame. We so wanted to support this small business.
Saturday dawned overcast, so we followed part of the Westal Way loop drive (one of three loop drives from Streaky Bay which take visitors to several natural attractions) and made our way to Tractor Beach, just 20 minutes south. There’s council camping in a site by the beach and they provide free wifi and solar power charging at the beach shelter.
The sign at the beach was our first and only sighting of any mention of the local Aboriginal Wirangu communities which previously made this coast their home. We recognise their connection with this country and thank them for their custodianship over the past thousands of years.
We were the only two people exploring the beach of course, which stretched along to an ever-decreasing headland, slowly being worn away by the sea. Another picturesque afternoon’s outing, but still no sight of the sea-eagles or osprey which apparently call this coast their home.
Our surprise sighting of a female Sea-lion last week had left us wanting more, so we took a drive out to Point Labatt, about a 50 minute journey south of Streaky Bay. The drive took us along the stunning Baird Bay, a relatively calm but expansive area of water surrounded by sand dunes and not a boat in sight. We are constantly amazed by the spectacular beauty we find here, with so little human impact to spoil it.
Finally at the point, we found ourselves at a viewing platform above one of Australia’s last remaining Sea-lion colonies. As mentioned in our last post, it is heart wrenching to think that these beautiful creatures could be extinct in the next 40 years unless something is done to change their demise now.
It was incredibly windy at the lookout, and we had to wrap up warm to stand there and watch the goings on below us. Both Australian and New Zealand fur-seals and Australian sea-lions make this location their home, protected from their main predators, the Great White sharks, by a reef out at sea.
Female Sea Lions carry their pups for just under 18 months before they give birth, and then are pretty much ready to mate again within a week. Sadly only 3 out of every 10 pups will reach maturity.
Sea Lions differ from seals in that they have external ear flaps, and rather than flopping along on their bellies, they can walk on land using all four flippers. All females are light grey with yellow-cream chests and bellies, while the males are much darker and up to four times larger.
On Sunday we kept things more close to home, and took a walk up the coast from the campsite. We saw one person all afternoon, and he was stood at the shore fishing, just four metres from his car! We have the feeling that not too many people pick their way along this shoreline.
On Monday we drove south to Speeds Point. Speeds Point was the location of Australia’s first ever big-wave surf competition in 2009. It was certainly wild – what they call a high energy coast, with several collapses on the cliffs evident. Apparently scenic flight operators along this coast notice cliff collapses every day…something to bear in mind when standing near the edge capturing another spectacular scene.
From there we followed the Westall Way touring loop around, visiting Smooth Pool (an area of rock pools – it was busy with four wheel drives literally everywhere, so we didnt stop), Point Westall, and The Granites.
The Granites was incredible. It’s a popular surf beach with some pretty big waves, especially off the point. We spent some time on top of the cliff watching the exhilaration of the surfers as they rode the breakers.
Our final day in Streaky Bay has been spent doing final jobs and stocking up at the small supermarket in anticipation of not having any shops for the upcoming week. I encouraged Mark to join me on the historical tour of the town – it took us around the old hospitals, shepherd’s hut, monuments and official buildings. It was a nice opportunity to stretch our legs without getting sandy or dusty, or having to watch our step walking over rocks. We also got our flu vaccines – given we cannot get our Covid vaccines here yet (and it is extremely unlikely we are going to catch it anyway) we thought we should be protected from something!
Our time finished off with another fine sunset. I made sure to take advantage of seeing it set over the water. It’s likely to be a while before we get to enjoy such sights again.