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In Greenland

Iron Bark

Iron Bark
Under full sail


At Russell Boating Club's Tall Ships Regatta

Blue Water Medal

Blue Water Medal
Blue Water Medal

Books By Annie Hill

  • Brazil and Beyond
  • Voyaging on a Small Income

15 July, 2009

Around Australia

By the time Trevor had dismantled, repainted and re-mantled the forepeak and saloon, he was understandably ready for a break. ‛I think we should go and drive around Australia before it gets too hot,’ he suggested. What a splendid idea! We'd been planning to do this for years. I’d been saving up since Panama – and had started to doubt it would ever happen. Australia is an enormous country and although much of its coastline is worth visiting, the real Australia is the interior. Sure, most of its cities are along its shores, but they are not what Oz is about. Our preparations didn’t take very long. We bought a cheap four-person tent, some interlocking, closed-cell foam mats to use as a ‛footprint’, several large plastic boxes for clothes, food and cooking equipment, dug out our propane cooker we use when tramping, sleeping bags, etc and loaded up the car. We went by way of Beelbi Creek, where Brendan and Caroline live, to pick up some things we had temporarily stowed there and Caroline persuaded me to leave behind our sleeping mats in favour of real Oz swags. One of these belonged to Trevor, anyway, and he looked at it with such nostalgic affection, that I felt that I’d better take her advice and do the job properly. For those who have never come across a real swag, they are an arrangement that make a lot of sense in that dry country. Their basis is a piece of proofed canvas a little over twice the width of a sleeping bag. On the bottom are sewn a couple of pockets at each end and these hold the closed-cell foam mattress in place. You can then tuck a couple of sheets and a blanket or two round the mattress – or put a sleeping bag on it – and put your pillow in place. Around the bottom and up one side of the mattress is sewn a zip and this fastens the whole thing up into a sort of super sleeping bag, but with an extension on top, which can be put over your head to keep off the dew or – on rare occasions – the rain. In the morning, you climb out, zip up the whole thing, roll it up and secure it with straps sewn onto the outside. The canvas keeps it clean, you can sit on it, but when you are ready turn in, you simply undo the straps and instantly you have your bed, ready to use. In dry conditions this effectively obviates the need for a tent, but we usually used at least the ‛inside’ of ours, because the floor enabled us to put our clothes down without their getting dusty and kept out unwanted visitors such as snakes. The screen kept out biting insects, of which Australia has a large and varied population. The swag also provides a comfortable seat on which to sit while cooking and eating. Caroline – as usual – had given sound advice.

Travelling around Oz in GEG was often like cruising in Iron Bark. GEG was not into speed, but would doggedly continue when many a more flash and expensive vehicle would have given up the ghost. She had no luxuries, but was essentially comfortable. She was strongly built and simple (apart from her electronic fuel ignition, about which more later). She was neither new nor fashionable, and throughout the whole 20,000 km trip, we would meet people who said, ‛You’re surely not driving around Australia in that?’. (We didn't have extra-wheels, or extra-wide tyres. Nor did we have a snorkel, roof rack or any other of the accoutrements that real four-wheel drive vehicles had. Even the spotlights fell off after the first bit of real dirt road!) However, after she had towed her third vehicle in half an hour, out of a veritable sandpit, one of the rescuees stated, ‛Now that’s a real car,’

and indeed, she seemed to required little more than petrol and the occasional top-up of oil and water. Cheap and reliable – like the ideal cruising boat. ‛Driving off the bitumen’ also resembles sea cruising. You give passing vehicles a friendly wave. You start fretting about where to spend the night a couple of hours before sundown and occasionally end up in less than ideal surroundings – gravel pits in this way of life –

rolly anchorages in the other. You try to avoid expensive marinas, a.k.a caravan parks, and seek out a free and secluded berth at night. Time was, when cruising in Scotland, that you could go into an hotel and request a shower: while land cruising in Oz, we did this at roadhouses, and often the hot shower was free or paid for by a ‛gold coin’ donation ($1 or $2) to the Flying Doctor. Believe me – hot and dusty needs a good shower as much as cold and salty. When roadhouses didn't oblige - or after a particularly dusty day, we did as we do aboard and used a ‛Sunshower’ to sluice ourselves off.

And like real cruising, we had to provision for several days without refrigeration,

hunt out laundrettes, watch our water consumption and look out for weather – some of the dirt roads that we travelled would be completely impassable after only a few mm of rain.

Of course, there were a lot of differences, too. It's an incredibly expensive way to travel – we spent more on fuel in 8 weeks than we would spend in 8 years, sailing, although, to be fair, we were travelling between the end of June and the end of September 2008, when the cost of petrol was at and all time high! We covered vast distances at great speed, so that while we saw a lot of the country, it was more like a series of snapshots than a detailed appreciation. On the other hand, if we felt tired of driving, we could stop – we didn’t have to wait until we found a safe haven to drop the hook. Overall, it was a wonderful thing to do once, but unlike cruising under sail, there was not much of a sense of achievement. It was partly for this reason, that driving on the dirt roads is so satisfying – at least there is some challenge to it. The most mundane day sail is positively exacting compared with driving along a well-made, hard-top road – especially in Oz where there is so little traffic. We left on 22nd June and set of NW into the heart of Queensland. Away from the coastline and along the Divide, we encountered well-wooded country and rolling scenery, but soon we were into a much flatter landscape. Horizons are often a long way off in Oz; roads run on to vanishing point,

and I found it difficult to believe that what looked like desert to me, was in fact cattle country – as Trevor described it: ‛a rabbit would take a cut lunch to cross one of these paddocks’.

The real desert was covered in vegetation – scrub that can tolerate minuscule rainfall and fierce, unremitting sunshine.

It was also difficult to come to terms with the sheer size of the place – after driving for a week, averaging about 420 km a day, we were still in Queensland! In the farming areas, the roads went through small towns – often little more than what would be regarded as a hamlet in England – that served a community that covered many square kilometres. We bought Trevor a new hat in Barcaldine. In sunny weather – the norm in this country – he nearly always wears a broad-brimmed hat, and as an Aussie he is a connoisseur. I was told that it was insufficient merely to have a broad brim, the hat must not only be made of felt, but the felt must be produced from rabbit fur. At one time there were many manufacturers of such hats, but now it was difficult to find one in the lower price range. His old hat had unaccountably shrunk and become uncomfortable, so eventually Trevor bit the bullet and bought himself a very flash hat made by Akubra. This one had a final flourish – a small black opal set into the hat band. Trevor looked very handsome in it, but was initially embarrassed to wear it. But it soon became impregnated with red dust and began to look lived in!

These small towns often had English names that conjured up in my mind a completely different image,such as Ilfracombe – a quaint little place,whose main claim to fame was ‛a mile of old vehicles’, which lined its only street. A far cry from the seaside town of stone buildings in faraway Devon.

The drive across the central deserts along deserted and dusty roads was incredible. We saw perhaps a dozen vehicles in a day. Outside Boulia, a crude sign announced ‛Next Fuel 460 kms’.

In the ‛dusty Diamantina’, ’roos bounded along beside us, then, with suicidal tendencies suddenly crossed the road.

Huge road trains swamped us in clouds of dust.

For 8,000 kms there were empty creek beds and no running water. Often the bush was burning, which I found frightening and disturbing, in spite of rationalising the necessity for such an event, in this particular environment. The Australian vegetation has evolved in such a way that regular burnings are a necessity: a number of plant seeds will not germinate until they have been through a fire, and the fires clear out dead trees and plants, which enables new growth. But my imagination was tortured by the thought of the slow-moving animals entrapped in the flames, and the sight of the scorched land was distressing to a mind that associates greenness with health.

For three days we drove along the Donahue-Plenty Highway – the main road from central Queensland to Alice Springs. In many places we had to dodge
from one side to the other to avoid potholes, frequently filled with ‛bull dust’,
a trap for the unwary, because the holes could be half a metre deep, but the soft dust made them appear innocently smooth. It was a strange experience to be barrelling along on the wrong side of the road for several km at a time, seeking out the better going.

Alice was a sad town, filled with unhappy-looking, Aborigines,too many of whom were waiting for the grog shops to open. I saw one elderly man, very distressed about the loss of his wallet, being treated with rudeness and contempt in the shops that he went into, enquiring if anyone had found it. After he left one establishment, I heard a woman remark, ‛It’s no use him asking us. You can be sure one of his friends stole it.’ He was a quiet and dignified man. I wondered how she could be so certain.

Alice has a horrifyingly high rate of crime and is on the ‛not recommended’ list for tourists in many countries. That the Aboriginal people are in a sorry state would be a masterpiece of understatement, but no-one seems to know how to give them back their sense of purpose. You can hardly blame them for preferring to eat out of tins rather than to spend days searching for food that is barely sufficient to keep body and soul together, but like most people, they need some purpose in life. There is a confusing double-think at all levels: ‛No-one is asking them to become black white fellas’ is something I heard frequently, and yet the same people would say, ‛We need more and better jobs for Aboriginal people.’ And yet surely working at a job from 9 to 5, five days a week is exactly what white fellas do and not at all what black fellas did. It’s not lack of money, that’s the problem, it’s that life has no meaning for many of them. And problems of the spirit take a lot more fixing than problems of the bank balance.

White Australians, with their belief in ‛ a fair go’ are confused and embarrassed by the situation, but I also found a surprising proportion very racist. I can understand that the word ‛Aboriginal’ is a mouthful and I enjoy the Aussie way of shortening words for convenience, but even so, I could never hear people say ‛Abo’,without wincing. No doubt one could say ‛nigger’ without meaning to be pejorative, but it’s hardly respectful.

There are two reasons for going to Alice: it is the centre of this vast country,
and it’s the gateway to the famous Ayers Rock, or Uluru as it is now more commonly known. Rising out of apparently limitless spinifex plains, it is a startling sight – a huge, red monolith in the middle of nowhere.

Trevor tells me that its sacredness to the Aborigines is somewhat moot, because the people who originally lived round here moved on or died out many years ago. However, anyone can see why they might take offence at the
constant stream of tourists, hauling their unfit and overweight bodies
up the side of Uluru, by a rope, held in place with large stanchions hammered into the rock itself. It was not a pretty sight and we didn’t join in, but contented ourselves with viewing it from the roadside and driving on. It dominated the landscape for several hours until the scrub blocked it from sight.

One of the things that I had not expected in Australia, was the vast number of trees that cover so much of the country. While there were many scrubby little bushes growing no more than waist high, much of the landscape was covered in trees that were far too tall to see over, and in many places positively grand in their appearance.

After Uluru, we were on the Central Highway, which in the Northern
Territory was little more than a rough track. While no part of it actually required us to use four-wheel drive, a less robust vehicle would have struggled to survive its ruts and corrugation. As we crossed the Great Victoria Desert to the gold fields of Western Australia, the road improved dramatically and we stopped to look at the litter of abandoned mine workings – old and new – that dotted the country,

and on to Kalgoorlie, with its gaudy, ostentatious,19th century pubs.

We spent a week in Perth with Trevor's family and then headed up north
through the Pilbara and Kimberley. WA is even bigger than Queensland
– and this northern part is remote and untouched. Red rock and spinifex,
aboriginal rock art,

boab trees, wonderful birds and, in the Kimberley, masses of running water – a delight

after all the arid country we had traversed. Although it was mid winter, the sun was hot enough that it was glorious to be able to swim - or even to wash our hands,

crocodiles permitting. Saltwater crocodiles are fearsome beasts and can travel a long way up the rivers. Even their small freshwater cousins grow to 2 metres.

We rarely saw the sea in the Kimberley and Top End, because big tides and mangroves keep the road well inland.

We travelled along the Gibb River Road, notorious for the number of punctures it causes. GEG didn't survive unscathed, but we drove this road with old tyres and the one that shredded itself was so worn, it was probably illegal.

A few days later GEG's electronic fuel ignition ceased functioning. After 3 days of fiddling, Trevor got it going long enough for us to limp back to the bitumen. We needed a tow truck to take us the 100 km to Katherine, the nearest town, where he spent 4 days sorting out the problem with help from experts mechanical and electrical, and a computer program. At the end of the process, poorer, wiser and with bloody knuckles, Trevor said that he knew what the F in EFI stood for! As always: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

There had been plenty of rain in this area, and our days were enlivened by creek crossings, some deep enough to lap over the door sills.

Now we needed our 4WD and high ground clearance. The Kimberley was amazing: rushing water and abundant life contrasting with arid hillsides. To be there in the Wet when the summer rains cut off much of this country for weeks, must be an unforgettable experience.

On across the north of the country almost to Darwin, before turning south, back into Queensland. The lovely wetlands and tumbling rivers were left behind and water was again a rare commodity. We stopped by a grateful oasis on the Diamantina, alive with parrots, pelicans and spoonbills. This was the billabong

of Waltzing Matilda and we camped 'under the shade of a coolabar tree'. A few thousand more kilometres, and we were back to Iron Bark. Our sturdy little home seemed very luxurious after 2 months living in a tent and cooking on wood

fires. But now we need to get on with the chipping and painting.