A Road Trip Outback Down Under (part 3 of 3)

by Lynn and John Salmon

(Back to Part 1) // (Back to Part 2)

August 12-13, 1995 (Carnarvon Gorge)

Trip mileage reached 5083km at Carnarvon Gorge.

It was a pleasant 300km outback-like drive from Biloela to Carnarvon Gorge. Long narrow road, open space, little traffic. I don't feel a strong inclination to speed on the Aussie roads. I guess they are just narrow and bumpy enough to make the speed limits of 100-110 km/hr seem more than enough. Only the last 80km was on dirt, but it was in good shape and 80 km/hr was doable. Some cows were in the road at one stretch and some brolgas were seen along the way.

We got to Carnarvon in early afternoon and were assigned a camp site. The place is surprisingly crowded, but it is Saturday. The camp sites seem to be a bit unevenly provisioned. Ours has a concrete cook pit. Only about 1/3 of the sites do. It's convenient as a table for our fuel stove.

Near sunset we took a walk on the nearby nature trail which runs along the edge of a creek. We saw several platypuses. For the first one we were well located sitting on a log which appeared to be situated above the platypus' home. We saw several more as we walked along the creek on the way back to camp.

Finally! We are both healthier and well enough to get a bit of exercise. We walk about 13km up the Carnarvon Gorge. (Is this the same Carnarvon that dug up King Tut?). It's really pretty country out here. The gorge walls are all yellows and whites and grays, topped with eucalypt forest. The path crosses the Carnarvon creek about 10 times along the way. We look for more platypus, but see none. They may be active only at dawn and dusk.

The walk was at a very leisurely pace and we took in a number of pleasant stops. First was "The Amphitheatre" a surprisingly open chamber located up a ladder and through a narrow slit in the rock. Lots of echos and much cooler air than outside because sunlight rarely gets in here (maybe for a few minutes around noon each day). It was a pleasant place, full of ferns, and we ate our lunch here.

We walked on and stopped at a spot called "The Art Gallery". It is full of aboriginal paintings, mostly hand prints, some goannas, paired boomerangs. The only colors that remain in the artwork are red (ochre), yellow (ochre) and white (kaolin clay). There were depictions of "coorow" (the canoe-shaped carryall) and a large number of engraved female genitalia. An engraved "rainbow serpent" runs along much of the wall.

There were also many free-hand net patterns that weren't well explained. There was also a smiley face documented as part of the Aboriginal art else it could be mistaken for graffiti. Little is known about the former inhabitants of this region. Park literature is silent on the question of whether they were killed, died of smallpox, left "voluntarily", or were gone before the Europeans arrived. The significance of the art work is judged by comparison with other areas where some cultural memory remains. The inhabitants did eat the macrozamia nut, which is toxic and carcinogenic unless prepared properly.

We sit here for a while and I chat with an old woman who seems quite taken with the idea of abseiling down the wall, but "that's for you young folks". She's also into bungee jumping ("you young folks...").

We also talk for a while with Axel, from Belgium. He's been traveling for a few months this time, but he really has no permanent address. He bases himself in Thailand because they have good airfares to lots of interesting places. His take on travel is very much like ours. He can't understand people who judge a country by how nice the pool at the hotel was. But they can't understand him because none of his travel stories sound like fun, or even particularly pleasant. Rail travel in India, or trying to buy a beer in Hanoi, for example. Nevertheless, it breaks the everyday routine, and I guess that's why we do it. Of course, this trip through Australia is pretty tame and predictable.

Axel was very impressed by the birds at Carnarvon. They just don't have birds like that in Belgium! A cockatoo stole his sausage right off the fire, and he kicked another that was about to take a cheese sandwich right out of his hand! He says that if his photo of the grill-thief comes out it will have been worth the lost meal, because without the photo, nobody will believe his story. We mainly had currawongs surrounding us while we were cooking and they opened our bag of apricots but didn't get far. I also had an interaction with a thirsty kangaroo who wanted a drink while I was washing out a pot. He was strong enough to hold onto the pot when I tried to take it away.

We finished our walk with a visit to the "Moss Garden" and then back to camp. Sunday night in camp was much more quiet than Saturday and we were tired from our walk and went to bed early. Got up in the night and saw some gliders fighting and flying from tree to tree.

A whole mob of roos visited over breakfast. The joeys would get out of the pouches and scamper about. Sometimes they would jump over the head of mom roo as she calmly ate grass.

August 14, 1995 (Barcaldine)

We took one very short walk to more aboriginal art at the "Balloon Cave" before leaving Carnarvon for points farther west. We went through a number of small towns like Rolleston, Springsure, Emerald, Alpha and Jericho before stopping as the sun got low in Barcaldine (pronounced bar-call-done). All streets in Barcaldine are named after trees.

We first thought we were in trouble when all the motels appeared to have no vacancy signs. We found one more with a hand-painted sign that says "We are Open". ("Does something smell like shoe polish?") It turns out to have only been open for a week and their phone wasn't working so no one can book a room. Their cook was also ill, but they managed a barbie for us and the few other guests which was quite acceptable.

The proprietors Frank and Verge ate with us and talked for a while. Frank is Aboriginal, and Virginia is Filipina. Frank's been a shearer for a good long time. He thinks the US and Australia are very similar, sharing a British heritage, a pioneer/cowboy tradition and huge open spaces. They took similar approaches to the "problem" of native populations, etc. Australia is just a few decades behind. Land out here costs about $10/acre.

If we were staying a couple of more nights, we could go out 'roo shootin'. In order to be sold for meat, the kangaroos must be killed by a single head-shot. Then throw 'em in the back of the pickup and take 'em to the abattoir to be gutted and flash-frozen. One can get $.50/kg for the meat, and a big 'roo weighs maybe 40kg, so it's a way to make a few extra dollars for an evening's work. The Japanese tourists apparently really love to go shooting. Frank isn't much into hunting for sport, but he figures that the herds are too large because of the recent introduction of artesian water bores, which allows them to overpopulate with respect to the food supply.

If any one is interested in obtaining a roo for a pit roast give Frank at the Ironbark Inn a call at 076 512 311.

August 15-16, 1995 (Along the Matilda Highway)

[BIG] The car was behaving a bit strangely so we visited a mechanic. Turned out to be only a loose spark plug lead. No worries.

We visited the Australian Workers Heritage Centre in Barcaldine and spent a couple of hours there. It had a lot of varied exhibits, all labor related. The first big union activity occurred here with a sheep shearers' strike in 1891 that led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party. It wasn't entirely clear what the strike was about. There is a reproduction of the "contract" which the workers objected to, but there isn't much discussion of specifically what bothered them. Perhaps it was the "any dispute will be decided by the owners" clause, which seems tailor-made for abuse. There was also a streak of racism, with the workers strenuously objecting to the employment of foreigners. Nobody seemed to consider trying to bring the Chinese laborers into the union as an alternative.

I enjoyed the exhibit of political cartoons from The Worker, as well as various pamphlets and "broadside" advertisements. The 1920s schoolboy exam was also pretty interesting: Q1: draw a jug, spade or vase. Q2: What is the missing angle (drawing of a triangle). Q3: define elsifrage. Etc. I wouldn't have done very well.

There were some other good exhibits on the history of the Queensland Parliament, with particularly good coverage of years in which Labor ruled (surprise, surprise), and a little bit about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander labor. There was a nice exhibit of 30 or so dresses, from the corseted and whaleboned prisons of the 19th century to a Chanel/Jackie O number from the 60's. The best part was the highly opinionated commentary. This curator has an opinion, dammit, and if you don't want to know it, don't read the signs.

We drove on to Longreach for lunch. Longreach is home to the Stockman's Hall of Fame. It was getting late in the day and a brief rain was on so we didn't visit though it sounded interesting. All the Longreach streets appeared to be named after birds.

We stopped for the evening in Winton. Winton is famous for heaps of things. QANTAS airline was started here. Banjo Patterson wrote "Waltzing Matilda" at a water hole near here. The Lark Quarry dinosaur stampede footprints are preserved in rock ~110km SW of town, etc., etc. The town itself isn't much to look at, however. It's a strange place. The bus stops have cow silhouettes (holding cameras). A statue in the center of town commemorates "Waltzing Matilda", with a pile of concrete blocks, topped with bronze plaques with the words, and items jutting from the sides (like a ram's head or a swag). The poem makes no sense. It's truly bizarre that it's so popular. Nice tune though. Of course that's from a traditional Scottish melody called something like Craigielee.

Again most of the motels (~4) seem to be full but we got the only available cabin at a caravan park conveniently located in the junk yard just outside of town. The television advertising is good out here. We learned, for example, that Tiguvon is Australia's #1 Lousicide. This wasn't during the 5am stock report. It was during the Simpsons!

Today is the 50th anniversary of VP day (or VJ day).

We had dinner at the North Gregory Hotel famous because "Waltzing Matilda" was first played there in 1895. The original North Gregory Hotel burned down in 1910 was rebuilt, burned down in 1915, rebuilt again, burned down in 1946, and rebuilt for the 4th time. Everything in Winton seems to have burned down multiple times in the last hundred years. I guess once a fire gets started around here there's not much to stop it (i.e., no water, everything is very dry).

Before leaving Winton we visited the Qantilda Pioneer Place which specializes in memorabilia from the area. It has quite a lot of stuff. Lots of old newspaper accounts of various fires. A major part of the collection includes many papers from the early days of QANTAS (Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service). Lots of stuff is collected into binders and one can sit and read through old letters. There were many letters sent from management to Qantas' first secretary and bookkeeper, who did the books for the first couple of years gratis. "I'm sure you'll be as pleased as we are to hear of our new service reaching from as far away as Darwin", and then a few years later "... our new international service.", etc.

The sad case of one William Reeves was recorded in detail. Mr. Reeves hung himself in the Winton jail after being arrested on suspicion of arson. (Or did he? Depositions were taken from the two policemen. There were no witnesses.) There was lots of other "primary" source material which provided a fascinating portrait of life in Winton.

Then we moved on to the "stuff" department. Lots and lots of "stuff". Big stuff (old tractors) and little stuff (perfume bottles). The mundane (kitchenware) and the bizarre (things labeled "do you know what this is? -- let us know."). They also had a replica of Elle Macpherson's cottage.

There was an exhibit about Banjo Patterson and "Waltzing Matilda" and some articles about the controversy behind the origins of the song. One theory on the origin is that one of the shearer's involved in the shearer's strike had been involved in burning down the Dagworth station and fled and drowned in the water hole while avoiding arrest.

Another story involved a dismissed coach driver. Whatever the origin, Banjo Patterson was told some of the stories and wrote the song in 1895. Since this year is its centennial, every little town along the Matilda Highway makes some mention of it and claims some tie-in to the story. Banjo Patterson was a Sydney attorney. A city slicker. Someone unlikely to make a good impression on the "True Blue" Aussies who seem to like him so much.

Along the road between Winton and Mt. Isa we passed the Combo Waterhole where Banjo and company picnicked and were told the stories of the swagman that drowned there. We stopped and took the 2.5km walk to the site. The water hole is maintained by some sort of earthworks that was built 100 years ago and is still holding on. As we returned to the car we saw the police drive by, but we didn't have any sheep on us so we don't have to jump in the water. The drive is as desolate and empty as any we've seen, but the waterhole itself was cool and reasonably shady.

We got a quick lunch at the Blue Heeler Hotel in Kynuna which has a surf life-saving club. We don't stop at the Magoffin Matilda expo across the road. Apparently there is a raging controversy over the Matilda legend. Magoffin says its about a union revolutionary who burned a woolshed and was tracked to a nearby waterhole where he drowned himself (a lot of suicide around here in sight of the local constabulary, eh?) The official version is something about a coach driver. Magoffin says "since when was 'Waltzing Matilda' a government song."

We then went on to Mt. Isa where we found a slightly gunky motel. It is still under construction so we got a large suite for A$59. It has a living room, 2 bedrooms, one with water bed. The kitchen isn't finished yet, however.

August 17-18, 1995 (Mt. Isa)

Mt. Isa claims to be the largest city in the world with an area of 41,255 sq km. It is one of the country's main mining towns. The Mount Isa Mine is the largest single producer of lead and silver in the world, the largest producer of copper in Australia and Queensland's largest single industrial enterprise. Mount Isa is dependent on the mine as one in five of the population work there.

We visited the Riversleigh fossil exhibit and got more information about the nearby World Heritage Site 300km from here. It's an OK exhibit, with some big chunks of rock with fossils clearly visible. They also run a 40 minute ABC video called "Ghosts of Riversleigh", that is a very good introduction to the fossil hunting going on. This is a HUGE find. Mammal fossils from this period are very hard to find in Oz, and they are here by the millions. Hundreds of new species have been discovered. The super-saturated lime in the waterholes perfectly preserved many of the animals that fell into them.

They had no books or pamphlets for sale but I picked up a copy of the newsletter of the Riversleigh Society, Riversleigh Notes which had a bibliography list compiled by paleontologist Mike Archer who is a key figure in the Riversleigh finds. We also asked about what there is to see at the site itself, and learn that one site has been made accessible to the public.

After the fossil show, we scoot over to the mine visitor center to see if maybe there's a cancellation so we can go on the underground tour. No, unfortunately not, but we think we impressed the woman with our perseverance so she calls us in the afternoon even though we might not have been first on the waiting list. We're in luck, a cancellation for the 8am mine tour came in and we'll be there.

The little museum has a neat "Star Tours" type exhibit for those who can't go on the real underground tour. You step in to an "elevator", and get shaken around, to emerge "under ground", where you see a simulation of what's down below. Kind of tacky, but it actually works pretty well. There are also some ingots of lead and copper weighing a couple of tons each. Why do they send the lead to Britain for refining? Doesn't it cost an awful lot for shipping?

We searched for lunch but there seem to be slim pickins in this city of 23,000 people. We couldn't find any cafes and ended up going to a super market and bakery for lunch meat and rolls to make sandwiches. Mt. Isa also lacks any beautiful old buildings. It was founded in 1932. Maybe by then, the money men were more efficient at removing wealth, so there are no great civic buildings or opera houses or other characteristics of the boom towns of the 19th century.

The manager at our hotel asked if we needed any butter in the evening when we were paying. Apparently several guests recently left a stick of butter each in their fridge and she doesn't like to see it go to waste. I'm afraid we'll be doing it too, having just got some at the super market. The manager has been to the US, but it was a while ago and she didn't understand English very well at the time, so she doesn't remember it very well. She is Ethiopian and is married to an Australian. Her most vivid memory of the US was walking through Washington D.C. and being spat upon by a black man. I couldn't explain what taboo she had violated either?! Was it for being affectionate with a white man? I just had no idea, but it's certainly true that 15 years ago inter-racial couples were not as common as they are today.

We got up early for our 8:00am tour of the Mt. Isa Mine. This tour was of a different nature than the mine tour we took in Broken Hill. First, we suited up in some serious clothing, overalls ("germans"), wool socks, steel-toed boots, helmet, belt respirator, protective glasses, gloves, and ear protectors. The group size is limited to 10 people because that is the capacity of the 4 wheel drive vehicle that will be carrying us around down under.

After everyone had changed their clothes our guide, Henry Horne, led us to the shaft elevator and we proceeded down to level 17. There were a couple of young mine workers who got off at level 14 not seeming too sure if that was where they belonged. Probably new hires, we learned that approximately 1500 of the 3000 employees turned over in the last year. They don't last too long. If they do they can make A$450/day, but 50% of that will go away in taxes.

We all board a full-size 4WD vehicle and we're off! Now I know why Alien 3 was set in a mine. I think I could appreciate the movie much better now. The film didn't really convey it, but there's a sense of oppression and complete spatial disorientation down here. The noise, along with the darkness, the heat, and the huge automated machinery could be absolutely terrifying.

The tour lasted approximately 3 hours. Henry drove us around through the underground corridors and took us to sites where men were actually working. We went to the deepest part of the mine currently 1500m. We stop for a while to watch a guy putting in bolts to hold the ceiling up, and we watch another drilling holes for explosives. Numerous trucks with "EXPLOSIVES" written in huge lettering drive by. I think of "The Wages of Fear". If you don't pay attention to the stop lights, you'll be crushed by the 30 ton electric ore trucks that are hooning up and down the byways.

The lead mine is apparently even more automated, with much of the work done by remote control. We didn't see any RC mining, though. We drove a long way, up and down 15% grades. Henry was a friendly, talkative bloke, much like our guide in Broken Hill. Here, however, the mine is fully functioning, so it's too bloody noisy to impart much information while in the tunnels. It didn't look like "Hollywood" mining to me. It looked noisy, dirty and hard, and I sure wouldn't do it for $40/hr, but I suppose it's far easier than the by-hand old way, which I wouldn't do for any amount of money.

We collect a couple of fragments of copper ore and talk to Henry for a few minutes in the "crib" (canteen, hewn directly out of the rock). The men put their lunches in an oven that's on a timer, so they get a hot lunch at precisely lunch time without having to wait. Some of the miners are paid very well (about A$100k/yr), but most of the mine employees don't get paid that well. Henry points out that Mt. Isa has an awful lot of brand new Toyota Land Cruisers and other toys associated with a well-paid blue collar population. He says there's a lot of "keeping up with the Jones'" in Mt. Isa, and housing is pretty expensive. There was a strike earlier in the year, but then everybody's mortgage payment came due and they voted to accept the contract essentially unchanged.

August 18-19, 1995 (Riversleigh)

A call to the local ranger made the roads to Riversleigh sound pretty bad for our Sigma station wagon so we decided to rent a 4WD vehicle for the trip, 360km mostly on dirt roads with 3 creek crossings. The Toyota land cruiser is BIG. It also feels very stable at 120km/hr on pavement. Certainly better than the Sigma. The pavement lasts for about an hour, during which time we pass several 3-part road trains. Then we turn onto a dirt road which is in very good condition. So good, in fact, that Lynn hits a turn at about 90km/hr and spins out. We didn't flip or anything, and of course there's no other traffic for miles. Lucky thing we didn't rent an Isuzu Trooper! We finally turn onto the dreaded "4WD Only" road through the Riversleigh station. Verdict: it's a pretty miserable road. Badly washboarded, but no major clearance problems and only one section of soft sand that just maybe, on a bad day, would have been a problem for the Sigma. The river crossings were no problem either, as there is concrete paving under the water.

We arrived in late afternoon and found the best camping site we've had to date in a place called R-5. R-5 seems to be council land, or something not associated either with a station or the National Park and our literature says it is open for camping. There are no facilities and no other people at this idyllic place. The slowly flowing Gregory River runs 10 ft from our tent. Plenty of shade and a very secluded feel (although we can see a few cows on the hill behind, and we hear a few cars cross the river 100m downstream). A lot of fish can be seen in the creek. They come up and look at us hoping for food scraps when we fill our pots with water.

[BIG] We fossicked around at D-site at Riversleigh. This is a site that was formerly excavated, but the paleontologists have finished and moved elsewhere. We spent a couple of hours exploring and finding heaps of things. There are dozens of fossils exposed in the limestone rocks. There is a sense of exploration that one gets when everything is not categorized and labeled.

We climb up a pile of stones, maybe 30m high and find a more-or-less whole animal stuck in the side of a rock. Lots of bird bones (which are about the only thing I can identify because of the porous bone structure). Some were very large bird vertebrae. At the museum some fossils were identified as "giant bird vert.", "large bird vert.", etc. We believe we identified a G. B. V. in the rocks. The museum also mentions Monty Pythonoides and Thingodont. The Lawn Hill Park Ranger we spoke to on the phone was certainly mistaken when she told us there was nothing to see at Riversleigh.

While we are there a family comes and goes and another couple shows up while we are leaving. Otherwise, we have the place to ourselves. It's lots of fun. Much better than it will be in a few years when it's all fenced and sign-posted. But I guess that's inevitable as more and more people start showing up.

After a thoroughly enjoyable time at Riversleigh, we headed on to Lawn Hill National Park (now called Boodjamulla National Park). Lawn Hill is an oasis of lush vegetation and abundant water surrounded by the arid Australian outback. The Park has huge sandstone cliffs towering above Lawn Hill Creek, a waterway lined with stands of native livistonia palms. Despite being quite far from the main population centers Lawn Hill is a popular destination and there are many people there. The boat hire is a major attraction. When we arrive, the boats are all gone, but there's a sign that says "RELAX! You won't be disappointed". After about 20 min. a boat comes back and we set out "tacking" back and forth across the river. (Note, this is a canoe. Tacking is not the desired behavior). Crashing into the banks a couple of times, and working much much harder than necessary, we finally get the hang of it after a couple hundred meters.

The gorge is spectacularly beautiful! Red sandstone cliffs rise up on both sides. Hundreds of eagles fill the skies and we can't figure out why for a long time, till we realize they are eating locusts! Trees cling to the sides of the cliff, sending roots down 30 or 40 meters to the water's edge. The trees and roots are bright white, in contrast to the deep red of the rock. The water is a deep green, and clear enough to see the many fish in the top meter or so. We see some huge catfish, maybe 70cm or so long and very fat and meaty. They stare up at us as we stand by the water access ladder - lurking, no doubt waiting for some food.

About an hour up-river there's a portage over a falls, and then a passage through a very dense, low, "Jungle Cruise" area before it opens up again into a broader (and very sunny) gorge. We stop for lunch of pepperoni, cheese and apple under the shade of the Jungle Cruise trees.

Rowing is hard work. We paddle back from shady spot to shady spot, spying cormorants, eagles, turtles, and even a couple of swimmers on the way. Near the rental station we come to a tie-up on the opposite side of the river and decide to go exploring. It turns out that it's an Aboriginal art site of the "Rainbow Dreaming". A huge pile of shells is lying around, suggesting even to the untrained eye that this was a spot used for habitation. Finally, we get back to the boat hire spot after 2.5 hours out on the river.

The Lawn Hill campsite was full so we camped at Adel's Grove approx. 10km from the park. It's camp ground was actually much nicer than the one in the park. Nicely arranged, plenty of trees, privacy and the luxury of hot showers.

August 20, 1995 (Lawn Hill)

Lookout - Eagles

We began our day with a walk at Lawn Hill called the Island Stack. After a steep uphill there is a walk around sort of a butte overlooking the gorge. We saw hundreds of eagles circling overhead. There seems to be a plague of locusts eating the vegetation at Lawn Hill and the eagles are happily eating the locusts. At one lookout point we could hear the eagles as they caught locusts. The eagles steer by rotating their 'wedge' rudder. They hold the locust in their talons and bend their head down to eat. After one bite they throw the rest away. They're too far away to tell which parts are most tasty, but there are wings and other locust pieces scattered all over the ground.

It's pretty hot and the walk tired us out. John took a swim to cool off. There were some gigantic catfish (Salmon catfish) lurking in the river. We saw one cane toad while walking, but it was dead and nothing had eaten it.

We drove back to site R-5 to camp again before an early start to Mt. Isa to return the vehicle tomorrow. The drive back is uneventful. No spinouts. The sun is horrific on the first 30km, though. We can barely see the road. We stop for a few "outback" photo ops near termite mounds and burned-out cars along the way.

A Map of Outback Queensland. Trip mileage at departure from Mt. Isa is 6460km on the Sigma plus 706km done in the landcruiser.

August 21-22, 1995 (Cloncurry)

We decide to return to the coast by a northerly route that would be impassable during the wet season. We stop in Cloncurry for the night and admire the penguin trash cans located throughout the town.

Early rise and breakfast at Alice's Restaurant. Actually, it is just the cafe associated with the Cloncurry Motel where we stayed. The woman running it and the motel, seemingly all alone was named Alice. She was quite a talker. She fondly referred to the children who came in to buy candies on their way to school as urchins. She complains about them and shoos them out. A few others come in, most wanting some new flavor of ice cream on a stick. She asks one "Do you want all your teeth to rot and fall out of your head?" and he answers no and doesn't appear to make the connection with his wanting a bag of gummi worms.

Alice is a talker! In 1977, the government started giving allowances to unwed mothers, and she reckons the girls just went out and got pregnant by whoever was handy, gave the baby to the parents, and collected a regular "paycheck" for 18 years. Thus, Cloncurry has 600 kids in school! (LP gives the population of a few thousand total).

Alice also thinks they should dredge a deep water harbor at Karimba. They could save millions on transporting cattle, and they could probably get the Century Mine to put up the initial investment. Environmentalists should quit their whining she says. It's already a harbor after all. We're not talking about cutting down mangrove swamps and damming rivers!

We leave Alice chatting with another customer, and head over to the John Flynn Place Museum and Art Gallery. John Flynn is the mover and shaker behind getting the Royal Flying Doctors started. During the 1910s he was the driving force behind a sort of medical presbyterian mission to bring medicine to the outback. (The Australian Inland Mission). This was highly successful, but Flynn was not the type to leave well enough alone. In the 30s he became convinced that radio could be used to provide advice over great distances, and then that the relatively new aviation technologies could be used as an ambulance service over those same distances. Flynn comes across as a complete monomaniac. He would pursue his idea tirelessly and unrelentingly. Eventually a wealthy businessman left him a substantial sum in his will and the Flying Doctors were off the ground.

Cloncurry was the first Flying Doctor base because it had a 40 bed hospital (the result of a previous typhoid epidemic) and a good airfield. To equip your station with RFDS (actually, it didn't get royal patronage until the 50s) you got a pedal powered radio (bike pedal design hasn't changed much in 60 years) and a box of medicines in labeled and numbered vials. You ring up and tell the Dr. that little Jimmy is having some wheezing or whatever, some questions go back and forth and the doctor diagnoses asthma and prescribes one tablet of #131 four times per day. If you've got a broken leg, the aerial ambulance flies out to get you. It's really a good idea. But even the best ideas need someone to promote, promote, promote. That was Flynn's role. The museum had a bunch of letters and documents, but they were presented "behind glass", so you couldn't really read them (contrast with the Winton museum).

Downstairs was more "stuff", and upstairs was the art gallery, which was surprisingly good. All local artists, but the work was a lot more interesting than what we saw for sale in the galleries in Broken Hill. The competitors in a recent tapestry competition were hanging in the gallery. I particularly liked a Chinese one with the inscription: "I was born homeless. My heart will be at rest when I return home", and an old family portrait from the turn of the century.

Finally, there was the "Australia remembers" exhibit, which did have loose leaf binders with the fascinating diary of a soldier who escaped from an Italian POW camp and made his way to Switzerland. It was all very mundane, but somehow compelling reading.

We drove from Cloncurry to Normanton, 377km north, passing only 3 significant landmarks:

  • The small town of Quamby which has a giant fosters beer can painted on the water tank.
  • The Burke and Wills Roadhouse which had the biggest road train we've encountered during our trip (4 cars) parked at a fuel pump. Why are these guys so legendary, when the much more successful, and far less stupid explorers are forgotten.
  • The Bang Bang Jumpup
    [BIG]

The road is two way but only one-lane, speed limit 100 km/hr, when an oncoming car approaches, you need to both pull half-way onto the shoulder throwing up rocks. When it's a road train coming at you, you just pull off altogether and wait for it to pass. Trip mileage 6990 + 706km.

August 23, 1995 (Normanton on the Gulf of Carpentaria)

Normanton is famous (at least to us) as the starting point of George Morrison's walk in 1882 from here to Melbourne some 3200km. What a guy, unfortunately no one in Normanton seems to know about him. It was a major town then. Not any more. It also doesn't look like much of the town has survived. Normanton is now primarily a base for people interested in Barramundi fishing. We are staying at the Gulfland Motel which has a big Barra hanging as the place's ornament/mascot. The town is also the end of the Gulflander train line which runs a total of 157km and connects Normanton with Croydon.

Everyone staying at the motel was up and out by 8am except for us. We had business to do in Normanton. The post office opened at 9am and we mailed Gravity's Rainbow to Dave, a check to Norman and a postcard to James.

The bank did not open until 9:30 so we passed time by getting gas and visiting the railway station. There were a couple of men checking out a rifle at the BP station. One of them paused and filled our tank. There wasn't much to see at the train station. We then went to the bank which is housed in a quaint building from 1884. It looks more like a summer home than a bank.

One weird aspect of Normanton is that there are lots of aboriginals wandering the streets. All the whites are indoors.

We left Normanton and headed east. The first 150km to Croydon was a fairly difficult drive over dirt road. We kept encountering caravans, which drove slowly and threw up so much dust that visibility was negligible which made passing almost impossible. The next 150km to Georgetown went much quicker over sealed road. We stopped at Undara NP which has lava tubes. We don't know yet whether they will be worth a visit or "uppy duppy lava lamps", but it is at least a convenient place to camp. We decided to stay in one of their "swag" tents rather than setting up our own tent or staying in the train cars that have been converted to expensive tourist lodgings. This place is very weird. Is it an up-and-coming World Heritage site, or is it an ultra-shonky coastal Queensland tourist trap. Only time will tell.

August 24-25, 1995 (Undara-Atherton-Cairns)

We took a half day lava tube tour at Undara which turned out better than expected. One of the longest lava tubes in the world is the Undara Lava Tube in Australia. Its main branch is over 110 km long. Another branch goes about 60km north. There are about 60 entrances and only a few have been explored. The tubes appear to be very similar to those found in Hawaii.

Our guide, Jamie, was very good and knowledgeable about not only Undara, but other lava tubes in the world. Also, we were in luck because two large family groups who had booked on the tour didn't show so we had a nice small group of 5.

We start by going to the top of a small outcrop from which we can see about a dozen volcanoes (both shield and pyroclastic) that have erupted during the last few hundred thousand years. One of them might have been called "dogbowl hill", but has a much more poetic aboriginal name instead (but not in the local language). Undara is off in the distance, the tallest, but not terribly impressive at this distance.

There is some local vegetation called "spear grass", that has a barbed end and twists when wet, so it actually corkscrews into the skin. They tried to raise sheep here, but the grass would get in their wool and eventually kill them. Only short-haired cattle do well.

We also take a close look at some trees. All the trees that survive on the grassland have somehow adapted to withstand periodic fires - extra thick bark, or shedding bark, or reserves of nutrients stored below ground or deep inside or something. Non-fire-resistant plants live only on the rocky outcrops.

After a look at the vegetation and the horizon, we look at some aerial photos. Jamie said it was from 1963, and taken at 27000 ft, but it looked a lot more like a satellite image taken from 27000 km to me. The image was about 1.5m across and showed an area at least 150km across. The old volcanoes were clearly visible, as were the lava tubes, which show up because the collapsed sections support a different type of vegetation from the surroundings. The lava tubes form in the courses of old rivers. The tubes themselves form a very delicate environment, which is why we can't go bumbling about on our own. The bats can be disturbed by light, which causes them to drop their young, who can't necessarily fly back up. There is also a danger of contracting a fungal lung infection from bat droppings. Finally, there are a number of fragile structures on the walls (although fewer than in a good limestone cave) which could be easily damaged. I had thought that the "must be visited with a guide" was purely a money-making ploy, but I found the explanation plausible and convincing.

Next it's time for "smoko", aka tea, which includes some delicious Anzac biscuits baked up earlier in the day by Mrs. Collins, 3rd generation of owners. The place is now managed by her son Jerry, who is on a first-name basis with staff like Jamie. (This also gives me a much higher opinion of the place). I guess (and later verify in Cairns) that to promote an attraction on the Queensland coast, one has to print up many hundreds of thousands of brochures. When they sent a few thousand out to the Matilda highway it seemed incredibly over-hyped.

Smoko is at the entrance to one of the caves. The weather is a bit gray for people, but it's perfect for the rock wallabies. They're small and fun to watch as they bound up and over the rocks. Finally, it's time to go inside. It's a really big tube in the ground. Imagine a short section of subway tunnel, open at the ends. The ceiling has a "jigsaw" pattern of discoloration where it has cracked due to shrinkage and the salts have been leeched out of the rock. There are a few bones on the floor, but it's mostly really fine dust. Just walking kicks it up into a fine "fog".

There are some formations of "lava coral" (gas bubbles percolating out of the rock as it cools) and "lavacles" (stalactites of lava). The tubes are up to 10m high and 19m across. They formed when lava flowed down a river and filled it up. As it overflowed the banks, it slowed on top and must have cooled from above, leaving a free flowing "stream" underneath. The requirements are a very non-viscous lava, a river bed and a shield volcano. They exist in 25 countries, but are most colorful in Undara.

We walk through the fine dust and see a few bats hanging from the ceiling or hidden in cracks in the wall. There is another place where the flow separated and reconnected, leading to turbulence and strange features on the walls. The largest tube we visit is about 200m deep and there's a huge "lobster" pattern at the terminal wall.

Finally, it's time to go back and have lunch. We have a buffet with Max and Pat, who were on our tour. Pat had hip replacement surgery 6 weeks ago, and was very bold to clamber over rocks and up and down ladders. She was a bit slow, but certainly didn't hold us up any even though she worried about it a lot. They're from Melbourne and are heading home. Their next trip will be to the Kimberleys. They've just been to Cape York, where the roads really are as bad as everyone says. Much worse than anything down here.

After a late lunch we drove to Atherton and happened upon a part of the Wet Tropics World Heritage site, Mt Hypipamee Crater, along the way. A short walk takes you to the crater which is "not just a big hole in the ground" according to the sign. This is not to say that it is not a big hole in the ground. It certainly is. But it's also a "diatreme". Presumably people often confuse the crater with a platypus or echidna (both "monotremes"). On the walk back, we detour to Donner Falls. It's nice, but after you've seen Niagra/Horseshoe, most falls just seem a bit tame. One day we'll get to Victoria or Iguazu.

We visited the "Crystal Cave" in Atherton. It's really a rock and gem shop in which the owner has added an "underground" cave/museum to display some rocks and fossils. It sounds pretty hokey but it was actually quite enjoyable. The best part was a quiz at the end. John got 9/10 and got a free rock. I only got 8/10.

We next stop at Lake Barrine for "World Heritage Area Best Scones." (Dorrigo NP actually had better scones in a WHA.) The hype over WHA is getting to be a bit much. We are expecting to come across a World Heritage Smelter or World Heritage Garbage Tip any time now. (Actually, there is a World Heritage smelter in Germany, but that's a different story). It's almost enough to put one off visiting the rest of the WHAs.

We meet a cassowary at the car park, with a French family carrying about 5 Nikons and assorted tripods, lenses, etc. I get a nice picture and we drive on to Cairns, down a very twisty mountain road. Fortunately, there's nobody ahead or behind us. Cairns is hot, humid and full of tourist kitsch.

August 26-27, 1995 (Cape Tribulation)

Our final outing as our Australian road trip winds to a close is a quick drive north to Daintree and Cape Tribulation. Daintree was crowded but the crowds disappeared as soon as we crossed on the ferry to Cape Tribulation. Yesterday's paper ran an interview with the author of "A Traveller's Guide to the Wet Tropics of Qld." He said travellers' biggest complaint about the WTofQ is the crowds. Damn right. Mossman Gorge is not the Great Wall of China, but sure not a peaceful nature walk either. More like Yosemite valley. We elect not to do the loop of a few km, and head up to Cape Tribulation instead.

We cross the Daintree River via ferry which drags itself back and forth with some kind of friction drive on a cable. The ferry is fast and costs A$5. There isn't much signage about getting on. I feel a bit like the Blues Brothers as I pull on and discover that the ferry is already moving before I stop the engine.

A few km into the rainforest on the Cape Tribulation side is the "Rainforest Education Center". It costs $6pp, but it has a very nice boardwalk with numbered "attractions" keyed to a booklet that they hand you. The usual info about diversity and rapid turnover of nutrients by fungi, bacteria and insects, plus quite a few plant IDs with the occasional factoid about edibility, toxicity, etc. Dozens of trees are ID'd. I can't tell them apart. (OK, I can usually pick out the "strangler fig", but the hardwoods are completely indistinguishable). The Education Center could do a great service by trying to give you an idea of what distinguishes one tree from another.

The best thing about the area north of Daintree is the lack of people. There are a couple of other people here, but it's not Grand Central Station like Mossman Gorge. Apparently, rental car companies do not allow their cars to cross on the ferry, so we have left most of the tourists behind.

We drive a few more km, and stop for scones at a place called Florvilea run by an aging hippie. They have all sorts of "rainforest flavorings" in them and they are quite delicious. Unfortunately for Lynn, they also have raisins, so I eat two servings.

We drive to Cape Tribulation itself. I haven't been reading carefully. I thought Cape Tribulation was a settlement. It's not. It's a car park with a couple of walking tracks. We really need to find someplace to sleep and decide to return to Noah's beach. It's only about 8km, but it's over REALLY REALLY bad roads. Huge pot holes and 5m long mud puddles with no clear bottom. Now we know why the road to Cooktown is 4WD only. 37 km of this would be VERY bad for the car. The really bad stretches only go for a few hundred meters at a time, so we can make progress at 10km/hr or less.

We camped for the night at Noah's Beach and got lucky with the rain which didn't come until we had finished dinner. We heard it approach and dived into the tent just as a downpour started. But we left all the car doors open! I make a dash for the car, grab the raincoats and torch (presence of mind!) and shut the doors. I get pretty wet from being out for 20 sec, but it's warm, so it's not even uncomfortable. The rain stopped during the night and we woke to find a more or less sunny day. A butcher bird shared our camp site.

We did a couple of the short walks found on Cape Trib. There's a very nice boardwalk through the mangroves. The parts over or near water are protected by heavy steel mesh. "Danger: Estuarine crocodiles inhabit these water. No fishing. No swimming" Are these facts related? I think so. Mangroves thrive where their roots are submerged in salt water. They have huge and tangled root systems with "snorkels" and "knees". This mangrove forest and the forest a bit inland look like the quintessential primeval rainforest.

While we are sitting on the observing platform, we hear a loud splash behind us. "CROC!" - alas, no. It was a ray of some kind loosening itself from the mud and heading back out to the river. There were also a few fish, but we don't spot any frogs, and there are surprisingly few birds. We only see a couple, but don't even hear very many.

August 28, 1995 (Cairns)

Almost final trip mileage is 8107km + 706km in Cairns.

We did a bunch of "practical" stuff today. We took the car to a car wash and spent some time going over the interior to get it ready for sale. We left the gas can out of the car to "air" and it walked away. We learn about all the hoops we must jump through to sell our car.

Why these tasks took all day I don't know. We also did a bit of shopping and got some film developed. While looking around for souvenirs we conclude that rock ants are the best souvenir in all of Australia.

For dinner we went to Kiplings Restaurant in Orchid Plaza. We had what is probably the best food we've had in Australia. I had prawns with freshly made fettuccine pasta, sun dried tomatoes, in garlic cream sauce. It was beautifully arranged and had vegetables decorating the plate. For example, a potato was mashed and shaped into a tiny pear, golden brown on the outside. It even had a little stem made from a bit of bean sprout. Chef Herbert himself served our meal because the waitress was busy when it was done, and Chef H. does not leave dishes on a warming table! Instead of mints, there is a bowl of chocolate dipped strawberries at the cash register on the way out. Awesome.

August 29-30, 1995 (Cairns - car for sale)

Car dealer visits were the order of the day. Price offers were in the A$4000 neighborhood though we had been hoping for closer to A$5000. Gambling that we might be able to make a private sale we did a little investing and fixed the broken headlight glass (A$84) and got a road worthiness inspection (A$40) which turned up an additional (A$65) brake cost. We put an ad in Cairns Post for tomorrow's paper (A$9).

No calls woke us up. No calls all day in fact. At least the mechanic who did the RWC inspection commented that it was one of the cleanest engines he'd ever seen and confirmed that the car is in great shape and our price reasonable.

After waiting through the morning hoping for a call, we decided to take our excess bags to air freight (46kg for A$300) since the phone wasn't ringing off the hook. Near the airport was a neat boardwalk through the mangroves. There were several different vegetation type areas and a lot of activity from the mud crabs. I dropped a leaf down which scared a couple of small crabs but got a big guy to sidle over, take the leaf, sidle back and pull off a bit and start eating. John got a lot of mosquito bites, but otherwise we had two lovely short walks.

We still have a car, however. Got a nice dinner at a place called Red Ochre, not as nice as Kiplings, however. This place does "Australian" foods, kangaroo tail soup, emu steaks, etc. The emu steak looks and feels like steak but tastes like ... well... emu I guess.

August 31, 1995 (Cairns)

Sold the car for A$4800. We were awakened by a call from a dealer that we had seen On Tuesday wanting to "bargain" a bit more. He had offered A$4250. We said we would stop in later. We went to a couple of other dealers and the second one gave us A$4800. The actual offer was A$4750 and we flipped a coin for the extra $50 and won the toss. Car sold, we celebrated with an excellent lunch at Kiplings.

Next obstacle, plane tickets. We can't seem to get a direct flight from Cairns to LA or Cairns to Tokyo to LA for several days. We can get to Hong Kong from Cairns but it gets difficult to get out of Hong Kong for LA in the next few days. But we have a friend in Hong Kong and have never been there so we opt to go to Hong Kong rather than stay in Cairns.

We call our friend Curtis later in the day and learn a Taifun will hit Hong Kong tomorrow. Three calls to Hong Kong caused MCI to turn off our calling card due to suspected fraud because we had never called Hong Kong before. MCI's fraud department decided that this was suspicious activity on my calling card and shut me off without warning. Worse, nobody with the authority to turn me back on was awake in the US. This is not acceptable, and I try to move up the chain of command from the operator who is clearly helpless in the face of organizational and technological incompetence, through a couple of levels of managers, until I finally get somebody who just lies to me and tells me my card will be turned on in an hour. I guess that's how to get ahead in the organization. Know when to lie to the customer. An hour later I try again, and have the same unpleasant experience with customer service. Nobody at MCI seems to think that it's unreasonable that the computer can turn me off without manual intervention, but that there is no 24hr authority who can turn me back on. Grumble.

September 1, 1995 (Green Island)

It's our last full day in Australia. We took a half day trip to Green Island which is very touristy but easy to get to on short notice. John went diving and had a great time. Lynn took the yellow submarine semi-submersible. It was quite good. Much better than a glass bottom boat.

John's introductory scuba dive: I'm very glad that I took (though did not complete) scuba training 20 years ago because the instruction was incredibly cursory. "Equalize on the way down. Exhale on the way up. Breathe normally." Entering the water is the biggest hurdle. You just step off the boat burdened with tank, wet suit, weights, bcv, etc. I take a few seconds thinking it over and plunge in. The bcv is inflated so I bounce right back up to the surface. We take a few seconds with Peter watching me carefully to make sure I'm not panicked, and then he slips a weight in my pocket and expels a bit of air from the bcv, and we descend very slowly to about 5m. Jerry is already on the bottom waiting for us. He didn't know you could dive off this boat and he had been planning to snorkel only, but when I started suiting up he asked if he could join. He has a certificate, and seems comfortable and confident, but he's no expert. When we are through, he's as excited as I am about the dive.

WOW. I said that before about LEI, but this is even more amazing. The fish down here are even bigger, closer and more plentiful than my snorkeling experience at LEI. There is lots of soft coral, which sways in the breeze like a wheat field and is very soft to the touch. Peter has befriended a Coral trout about 24 inches long with a mouth full of very sharp looking teeth. Peter's feeding motion displays considerable respect for the teeth.

The coral formations are spectacular. We stop to look at a GIANT clam (2 feet across), and can easily stick a forearm into the gap. I was surprised when the two halves of the shell moved a few inches. I thought the only movement was in the "muscle" on the inside. He squeezes pretty hard on your arm, but he has a mucous membrane that feels like motor oil, so it's no problem pulling away.

We also spot a very large fish (maybe 40kg). I think it was a Maori Wrasse. We stop for a look at a large eel stuck under a coral bommie, but I'm having trouble maintaining constant buoyancy, so I drop down to the bottom and kick up a big cloud of dust and we move on.

There are anemone fish hovering inside anemones and Peter also points out some "Black Coral", which is really yellow until you scratch off the surface. The piece we saw isn't very valuable, but the "good" pieces from 30m or so deep show growth rings like trees and are very valuable in jewelry. Finally, there was the "gill worm". We didn't see it in action, but apparently it provides a cleaning service to fish, who swim up and let it clean bits of debris and parasites from around their gills. It looks like a tiny blue Christmas tree, and pops back into its hole when we touch it.

Lots of table coral, that we get to look at from underneath., and we go through a little "canyon" at one point that I think could make people claustrophobic because at one point there's no room to go straight up to the surface any more. When we're done, we haul ourselves out and go back to shore, about 200m away. Peter later tells me that we swam about 1km, which surprises me. I go searching for Lynn, who is hidden in a very pleasant shady spot in a perfect position to spot me if I come off the beach in one direction. Of course, I came from the other direction, and missed her for about 15 minutes.

I take a nice fresh-water shower to get the salt off, and its time to go back on the boat. When we get back to Cairns, we have a beer with Peter in the bar. He's thinking about getting out of the diving business. It's just a matter of time before your luck runs out and somebody gets injured. He had a lady snorkeler get a seizure last week which worried him. She was ok in the end, though. He's been to LA. He was mugged within 200m of the train station, but when the mugger found out that he and his friend were Australian, he sent them on their way with directions to avoid the bad part of town!

It's our final evening in Australia. We pick up our plane tickets and go looking for last minute gifts. We get a boomer for Norman. We dither about a "sport" model or an "authentic" model. The Lebanese salesman is very persuasive, and we decide on the "authentic" hand carved Mulga-wood model with a nice bending grain. It should be almost indestructible.

As we are walking through Orchid Plaza for the "last" time, I finally see a painting I really like. "Water Dreaming", lots of concentric circles in a grid. I run in to check the prices. $3000. I say "that's what I was afraid of", and the lady running the shop says something like "good taste will get you into trouble every time". We chat for a few minutes and she offers us a 20% discount + mailing + insurance, but it's just not in the budget this time. She shows us some books, and explains how the piece is reminiscent of sand paintings which are ceremonial and are destroyed immediately upon completion of the ceremony (somewhat like some Navajo sand paintings).

We returned to the motel and watched our last Australian television (both British shows), Seaforth and Pie in the Sky a show with a fat policeman/chef. In the morning we bought an aboriginal painting at the gallery in our last hours in Cairns (a less expensive one). It's hanging on our wall now. We leave for Hong Kong, and eventually home.

THE END

Lynn Garry Salmon <>{