Wednesday, December 21, 2016

You're going to do what?! Meeting crazy people in outback Australia.

There are some people you meet and the more you talk to them the more your respect for them deepens. Others are quite the opposite and you wonder when they'll become entries for the Darwin Awards - short-lived and notable for doing something stupid, and entirely preventable.

Mary was one of the former. 

We were enjoying the 8km hike along part of the Heysen Trail out of Koolaman Campground in the Brachina Gorge, Flinders Ranges, SA. 

We'd just walked up the Yuluna Creek stopping frequently to gaze awestruck at the ancient seabed .... 

.... and wonder at the incredible force that it must take to push huge trees into a woven mass in a riverbed.
It was a warmish day and we paused to ponder whether to go on to the Bendowta Hut ruins or not, when a lone woman strode up with a "cooeee" and began chatting with us. 

She was visiting family from NZ and each time she visits, she does a couple of sections of the Heysen Trail (at 1200Km doing it in sections is sensible!).

As usual, first glances assess a person far quicker than words ever can: with Mary it went along the lines of: Not a threat. Alone. Small pack. Doesn't seem to have much water. Snakes are quite active. Hope she's got a good first aid kit. Is there room in her pack for a personal location beacon? Satellite phone? Does she have food in case she gets stuck out here?

And the more we chatted, the more we realised that not only was she a hugely experienced hiker, she was strong, capable, knew her limits and would do her utmost not to be a danger to herself or others.

We discussed 'worst case scenarios' and plans we have in place in case of emergency. She was a delight to spend time with, that rare combination of someone who is interested to hear what we'd been up to, and happy to share her own entertaining stories.

In contrast, a few days later at Coward Springs, we met an older cyclist from the USA.  

Coward Springs on the Oodnadatta track is a delightful spot to spend a night or two.

There's a bore which has been converted to a spa, shady trees to pitch the tent under, long-drop toilets and a donkey boiler shower. Luxury!

I'd noticed a lone cyclist, leathery skin, elderly, tent pitched to get maximum breeze and shade, little pot and stove ready for dinner and him sitting on a log contemplating who knows what.

Being a relatively friendly soul, who generally likes to be supportive of people travelling alone, and being genuinely interested in where he'd come from and where he was headed to, I said "Hi, good ride?" as I walked past, anticipating a generic "Good. Thanks" in reply and a proper follow up afterwards.

Why? Because there's an unspoken convention when camping, that when someone is headed off to the toilet with bog roll in hand, it's fine to say "Hi, how ya going?" and the reply is along the same lines. Brief! Then civilities done with, it's time to depart.

I hadn't accounted for a loquacious, self absorbed Yank, completely oblivious to toilet roll, direction of travel and purposeful gait.
This is NOT the time to begin a monologue about challenging track conditions, government ineptitude, previous outback tracks conquered and asking if it's possible to buy supplies at William Creek. Sheesh. So much talk. So much grumbling. So much self.

For what it's worth, imo, you don't conquer a track. You might conquer your own fears, but a track? You research and prepare for expected and unexpected conditions, know your limits and the limits of your equipment and overcome obstacles as they arise. But overall, you prepare as best as humanly possible, including for worst case scenarios: 

What will I do if my bike breaks down in the middle of nowhere and no vehicles come past for a day? Two days? Do I have enough food and water to survive? How about shelter? Do people know where I am and when I'm expected at the next town? How will I contact people if I'm injured? 

Then he then began moaning about the general lack of phone reception. Outback. On the Oodnadatta Track. More or less in the middle of nowhere. With very few people. Who would have guessed that there wouldn't be a whole lot of mobile phone towers?!

He'd apparently rocked up expecting city quality mobile phone reception so he could research the next town from the previous one. Not smart. And because there was no reception to access the internet, he was unable to check the possibility of restocking his extremely depleted food supplies (which are kind of vital!) at William Creek. That's something I'd have expected a solo, long distance, remote area cyclist to have researched thoroughly before leaving home.

Prior to speaking with listening to him I'd been impressed with his apparent dedication and willingness to ride on the long, dusty, corrugated road, miles from anywhere. 
I now reassessed. He'll be lucky to survive. He hasn't done his homework. He doesn't have enough food to complete the next stages of the track up to Marla (likely to be another 3 or so days of riding) and is botting* food from other campers. It's hot (43+C or nearly 110F) and he openly states he's struggling. Really, really struggling. This is not good.

Next morning, we expected him to be gone at first light, but he had a good old sleep-in and started the 70km ride to William Creek well after the cool of dawn. The sun was already blazing, and it was in the mid 30s in the shade when he wobbled slowly out of the camp site. 

We'd had a lazy start and expected to see him hitching a lift along the track, however when we came across him he was making a slow meandering path on the right hand side of the track, bare chested, wearing ski goggles (to prevent flies exploring his eyes) and with a bit of fabric acting as a hat. I gave him points for cycling on the right. It meant he could easily see if there were oncoming vehicles and he wasn't in the dust of the cars coming from behind.

The scenery is striking, with mound springs dotted along the length of the Oodnadatta Track. It was this source of water which enabled the Aboriginals to make their way through this region for many, many thousands of years.

We stopped and sweltered our way around the well signposted Strangeways Siding ruins, drove out to ABC and Halligan Bay on Lake Eyre and came across the cyclist again at the William Creek Hotel late that afternoon. 

He had a group of people gathered around him at the bar, and was repeating the complaining soliloquy I'd heard. It sounded like he'd said it so often he was word perfect.  When he saw us he broke off to state "It beat me, the Oodnadatta beat me. I'm over it. I can't buy supplies and they're going to arrange a lift to Coober Pedy."

People die out here.  Cycling at the beginning of summer, through the wind and searing heat, where there's no shade, no water and few vehicles, takes a special sort of person. A well prepared one who's researched and thought through the implications of problems. Someone with a back up plan, who knows which places have food, potable water, and transport if needed. At Coward Springs there weren't many campers, and those of us who were concerned for the cyclist's welfare were in no position to assist with transporting him, his bike and gear. Whilst he was clearly extremely fit and physically strong, he wasn't in a good mental space and had apparently done little research on the reality of cycling the Oodnadatta Track or having any plan for being unable to complete the ride mid way through, other than relying on the good will of locals or passers by. 

Things can go pearshaped when you've prepared well, but wilful ignorance and putting yourself or others at risk rarely goes down well.
Near William Creek.
A great spot to reflect on life.

*Aussie slang meaning a scrounger. 


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas baking

Me baking mince tarts: 

"Hmm that recipe looks a bit boring. I think I'll add some roughly chopped chocolate, a decent dollop of the disaster marmalade I made earlier in the year (it's more or less solid), a handful of mixed nuts, coffee granules and assorted Christmassy spices - cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and cardamom. Oh, and then there's those chili flavoured coconut chips that are a little bit odd and the last of the coconut butter. Could work out ok." 

And it all got mixed in with the minced fruit which has been marinating in coffee flavoured vodka for a few days. 

They look a bit rustic but taste pretty darn good!

And then there were the individual Christmas cakes. In my mind Christmas baking is associated with spice. Lots of it. I found three Christmas Cooking books on the shelves, but none of them included spice in the rich fruit cake recipes. Not a skerrick. What's going on? In desperation I ferreted out the trusty old Cookery The Australian Way, and spice was included, though not very much.

Then, trusting my not entirely reliable memories, I added more than stated quantity of spice to the mix. I'd found some apricots and other forgotten end packs of sad looking dried fruit in the pantry, and had left it all soaking for a few days along with raisins, in the coffee flavoured vodka that had gathering dust on the shelf, then added extra mixed nuts. There was more marmalade to use up - will it last forever? and some chocolate that had fallen behind the vegetable crisper in the frig. May as well add that too!

Into the patty pans in the muffin tin (my token attempt at portion control), then a bit of guesswork with the timing and taadaaa. We have success!

The pantry now looks a lot neater having used the end packs of fruit, our tummies are chubbier and the house smells fantastic with all the spice. 

Perfect taste treats for picnics over Summer!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

The problem with "flushable wipes" in the outback.

Mt Dare Hotel is more or less in the centre of Australia, not far from the Northern Territory border on the western edge of the Simpson Desert. It's a long, long, long way from anywhere. It's usually crispy dry except on the rare occasion it floods. It's often hot. Very, very hot. We were there in November, and as we left the bar, after having a very welcome beer indoors away from the damn flies, the barman, doing his best Crocodile Dundee impersonation, (complete with 'beater and Akubra style hat), reminded us to use our torches and stomp loudly on the way out to our tent as he'd just been shooing away a "king brown". 
The bar with an interesting selection of stubby holders.
My first thought was ... "Is this some weird outback thing he's doing with beer bottles, and why am I scaring them away?" Followed by "Oh! he's referring to snakes!"

The heat, dust, mozzies and flies can do that to you ....
The newly revamped beer garden is a delight, but ... flies...
What I didn't know then was that a King Brown is another name for a Mulga Snake. That's one I know to be wary of, having watched a particularly long one in a picnic shelter in Corner Country a couple of years ago. Stepping on one in the dark wouldn't be good. (Info on their venom here.)

I stomped vigorously!

As with all travel, there are times when the topic of toilet etiquette comes up. It's no different in the outback. When there's no loo, go behind a bush (some ladies use a small brolly if there's no vegetation), dig a hole and bury your waste, burn or remove any paper and leave the place as you'd like to find it. 

However, there's a new menace cunningly marketed as 'flushable' which creates havoc not only in cities, but in the outback as well. Seeing these little off-white sheets stuck on bushes on remote tracks, fluttering into pristine ancient springs, stomped into red soil and generally creating an eyesore, I kind of wish they'd never been invented. I also have a lot of sympathy for anyone whose job it is to unclog pipes and septic systems where they're an inconvenient, expensive, time consuming menace.  

The ACCC is currently taking court action against the manufacturers of "Flushable" wipes:
“The ACCC alleges that the impression given by the representations which Kimberly-Clark and Pental each made about these products was that they were suitable to be flushed down household toilets in Australia, when this was not the case,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.
“These products did not, for example, disintegrate like toilet paper when flushed. Australian water authorities face significant problems when non-suitable products are flushed down the toilet as they contribute to blockages in household and municipal sewerage systems.”
It's not just suburban household and municipal sewerage systems that suffer. Notices like the one above, in the toilets at the camping ground behind the Mt Dare Hotel, are important to raise awareness of the problems the wipes cause. 

Basically, "flushable wipes" stuff up the septic system and create all sorts of problems which are a pain to fix. 

At one other camping ground there was detailed information about how unpleasant, tedious and time consuming it is for staff to rummage around in the system to locate the clogged spot - and then remove the offending items by hand. Peeeeuw. You really get the feeling people are completely over these things. 

Then there are the stories of wet-wipes clogging the pipes in Septic Pump Trucks and the driver having to clear the hoses manually: a messy, smelly, slow process. Ugh. 

Flushable wipes might technically be flushable, but they create LOTS of problems - if you must use them, put them in the bin. 

And whilst the wipes are generally cursed, so are lazy people who shove dirty clothing, nappies, and even sleeping bags into long drop toiltes; kick cheap broken camping gear behind bushes and and seem to think the outback is a massive garbage dump. 

But all grumping aside, Mt Dare Hotel is great! They put on a decent meal, and it's a beaut spot to stop, share information and listen to tall tales and true from local characters!  


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Surrounded by coal, camped near Mordor.

My image of Mordor is a region of never ending, noisy, repetitive production, ceaseless activity by blank faced automatons, endless mechanical sounds, the ear jarring screech of metal on metal, the deep rumbling, stomach-churning thud, thud, thud of heavy machinery and a pervasive stench, which permeates and taints the air for many kilometres around. An odour hard to remove from clothing by washing and which seeps into pores, eyes, nose and lungs relentlessly.

I never expected to visit, and camp beside a lake which lived up to exactly that image. Its beguiling beauty, the active birds and deceptively welcoming water were a con.
We thought it'd be pleasant to camp beside water after being in the desert. Lake Liddell, appeared, from the guide book, to offer swimming, water skiing, jet skiing, kayaking, fishing and other cheery, family friendly, water based activities for the families living nearby in Muswellbrook and Singleton. We figured that if we arrived lateish, and left early, it could be a peaceful place for a night.

There'd be frogs, water birds wading merrily and diving for fish, the quaking of ducks and no crocodiles ... most enticing!

How wrong we were.

We were greeted by a friendly, welcoming woman, who explained in a frank, forthright manner, that under no circumstances should we have anything at all to do with the lake water. No fishing, no wading, no kayaking and definitely don't splash it on your face, or allow any droplets at all to enter your nose. There's something in the water that can enter your brain and kill you. It doesn't happen often, but when it does - whammo. She told us that all taps in the camp ground which would normally use lake water had been locked off, and even if we discovered that one had been overlooked we should definitely NOT use it. She reassured us that the showers were safe to use, as the water in the amenities block had been trucked in and was perfectly fine!

This wasn't what we'd expected.

We were also unaware (strangely, the guide book is quiet on this aspect of the park) that just over the toxic lake, over the charming hills in front of our tent is the Liddell Coal Mine which operates all day and night, every day of the year. To enable this to happen, massive massive lighting systems are used, so it's a bit like the glaring illumination from a large city which, unlike Paris, doesn't dim its lights during the wee hours. When he noticed, my husband commented drily "It's good the coal industry only runs 9-5".

So much for the anticipated tranquil night's sleep.

The mine's ceaseless activity ensures that what appear to be kilometre long coal trains, with not quite fully enclosed wagons, rumble and clang their way around the camp ground not far from where we set up camp. All day. All night. Seemingly every 1/2 hour or so. They come from between the hills in the distance to our left, slowly grunt and clatter their way along and rumble off, somewhere to the back of us. By daylight, we can see the mountainous tailings from the mine.

The steady, deep rumble, rumble, rumbling from the incessant trains, drowned out the cheeping, quacking, croaking and flapping of every living creature around, including, earlier in the evening, the raucous partying of a large group of young campers. That's quite an achievement. Between trains, the persistent mechanical hum from the generators of the power plant over to our right is the constant background noise. Very Mordor.

Edit 2020 - 4 years later - This is what the LNP is still considering propping up & keeping on life support to the tune of $100million pa, in spite of the companies objections. 4 years of transition lost due to outdated ideology.

I woke early (I didn't get much relaxing sleep), and as I walked along the shoreline in the crisp morning air, there was the distinctive smell of what I think of as briquette dust (well known to those of us who grew up in Melbourne in the 60's and 70's.) It's a smell which lingers unpleasantly and it wasn't possible to avoid.

This is the scenario which the current federal government supports and wants to extend. Not only that, but they also persistently run smear campaigns against renewable energy, particularly wind. A couple of weeks ago we stood next to a wind generator farm wondering what the fuss was about. No smell. No threat of fire and toxic pollution. A whooshing noise as the blades turned, and that was the sum of the experience.

I wondered as I walked, if I was tempting fate and that my steps would disturb the lake's lethal legacy and some vapour droplets would find their way into my nostrils. I lengthened my stride to reach higher ground a bit quicker than normal.

How privileged I've been. I've never lived near where coal is mined or near a coal fired power plant. The coal mining lobby and their political allies insist coal is here for the long term, and are desperate to extend mining and other fossil fuel extraction into prime agricultural lands. It's hard to be as enthusiastic knowing the extensive, reputable, well researched negative health and environmental impacts.

We have alternatives. We don't need to put all our eggs in the one basket. Companies want to invest in clean energy. People want jobs in the renewables sector. Citizens want to support sustainable options. Coal mining is scarring the land, having a massive impact on water (which is used extensively in mines and plant) not to mention the potential for fire as happened at Hazelwood Victoria. (Here and here.)

I'm glad I've briefly experienced what it's like to live near a coal mine and coal fired power plant, and I'm so, so grateful we can leave; this is too close to my vision of Mordor for comfort.

Further reading:

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A night time of fireflies at Adels Grove - Outback Queensland

You know that feeling when people think you're bonkers and you're completely sure you're sane?
We recently experienced that up at Adels Grove near Boodjamulla National Park (formerly Lawn Hill). It's about a hundred and something kilometres from the Gulf of Carpentaria nearish where the western side of Cape York dips into the gulf. It's a long, long way from home in the south where we have proper winters and dry heat summers. It's hot, HOT, HOT, at this time of year and HUMID. UGH, UGH, UGH. Nothing dries out. Not us, not clothing, not anything. You take off your damply sweaty clothing at night and put it back on, still damply sweaty in the morning. (Limited space prohibits many changes, which wouldn't have made much difference anyhow as they'd have felt damp too.)
We were camped in the 'grove' - the quiet spot for people mostly in tents and without generators. The trees are thick, rotten (one fell less than a metre from a nearby camp with a massive whumpfh) and with a very, very dense canopy. There's a constant dropping of what we could only guess was poo from billions of small tree dwelling creatures overhead, so we covered our mugs at all times, shook clothing out constantly, and I brushed my hair not at all. It was kind of like itty bitty soft pellets like those tasty chocolate sprinkles you decorate cakes with. yup. really.
We tend to sit in the dark after dinner, watching ... nothing in particular ... just soaking up the ambience, keeping an eye out for bats, listening for night birds. That kind of thing. Most people don't. They use lanterns, torches, made big fires (in 32C heat! - crazy) which means they don't see special things that their night eyes have adapted to see. 
Like fireflies!
The first night we were at Adels Grove, I had no idea what I was seeing, but a wee light seemed to float up from behind the table, over the stove, and waft up into a tree.
A cautious question; "Um, Trav, did you see that?" Thankfully he had. But what was it? Lights don't usually float gracefully upwards and settle in a tree. It wasn't a one off though, it kept happening in different locations around the campsite. Next morning I made a point of asking at reception, but the blank looks and cautious, but calm backing away made it clear what they thought. "Batty old woman, probably had too much to drink, gotta keep an eye out for that kind of person."
We watched night after night. If I believed in fairies, that's what they'd look like at night! I was mesmerised. I'd wake during the night, and with the fly of the tent off (trying to make use of any stray breeze to cool down just a morsel, please!) and fly-mesh covering the roof, I could see them flashing and pulsing, in groups, singly, sometimes clustered, at other times apparently wafting on a not-really-there breeze between branches.
As I said, the people at reception seemed to think I was living in fantasy land, and no other campers we spoke to had seen anything, but a ranger I cornered at Boodjamulla had seen one recently, so took my questions seriously. She didn't know much about them, but knew they existed in Australia. Gotta love park rangers! ... Except she asked hopefully if I'd caught one - no, no, no and no ... for all I knew it could have been a land form of the irukandji jellyfish which would leave me paralysed, in agony for ever, or possibly dead. 
Anyhow, now I'm home with reasonable internet and data, I can say with confidence that they were fireflies, and it seems we were there at just the right time to see them in abundance. 

There's a bit more about them here:

This is not a firefly. My guess is it's a locust. They were thick everywhere and hopped/flew, getting pelted noisily against the car covering it with sticky, smelly, brightly coloured bug gunge. When we camped at Mt Moffatt, the birds (pied butcherbirds?) had a wonderful time picking them out from behind the numberplate, under the car, and up in the mudguards. They feasted.