Wednesday, July 30, 2008

fossickers noodling through the mullock

Admittedly one of the activities that we decided to pass on, many locals and tourists spend the day fossicking through the heaps of discarded mullock ( rubble ) left by the commercial opal mines looking for pieces of opal that may have been overlooked. This is called noodling.

Serious noodlers have a noodling machine which sifts and sorts the mullock in a darkroom, using ultraviolet light to highlight the pieces of opal.

Some things you just could not make up!

Below a typical Coober Pedy dug out dwelling and church:

The CP golf course has no greenery at all, so I suspect that their bunker shots are of an extremely high standard.

Aerial view of mullock piles:

the painted hills

East of Coober Pedy in the middle of barren desert is a recently discovered (2006) area 30 km x 10 km.This section of the Breakaways country takes the form of brilliantly coloured rocky outcrops of large and small hills rising suddenly from the flat surrounding desert. Only 400-500 people have seen them from ground level, there are no roads, no walkways and no camping areas, and hopefully that is how they will remain. The exact location is still a well guarded secret.

It was our mission to see them, which is why we hooked up with the delightful Trevor Wright and his little 4 seater cessna plane. Trev does tours over the desert, as well as transporting mining staff to and from isolated opal mines.

Not being the best flyer in the world, I was a little unnerved by the casualness of the pre-flight check: wipe the windscreen with a dusty rag, check the bag of chocolate muffins is on board, take off.

The views of the hills overcame the fears ( mostly).

Statistics for the area are fairly mind boggling- the cattle station which we flew over a part of is 6.5 million acres ( that is big. Bigger than Belgium big) and before the drought conditions could run 22,000 head of stock. Currently there are approx 700 head of cattle, of which we saw none.

We flew over part of the Dog Fence. At 5400 kilometres, the Dog Fence is one of the longest man-made structures on earth, slicing across the heart of Australia's desert. It stretches from the Great Australian Bight and ends in the foothills of Queensland's Bunya Mountains. It has been built in a bid to keep dingoes away from livestock......dingoes to the west, stock to the east ( when there is enough water to run stock obviously).

We touched down in William Creek 168 km from Coober Pedy, stopped off at Trevor's house for a cuppa, met another pilot and 'Dinner' ( his pet lamb, who was orphaned at the station where he was sheep mustering , and once they had bonded he decided to fly the lamb back home rather than allow it to be knocked on the head).

Fortunately the town with a population of 5 has a pub, so we had a few beers with the visiting policeman before heading back.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Coober Pedy

From Lake Hart we had to travel 350 km to Coober Pedy. Having enjoyed the warmth and sunset the previous night, we awoke to seriously high winds and dust storms so the long dry desert trip was not enjoyable as the van was buffeted and thrown around the road. With my foot flat to the floor we failed to maintain 70 kph against a very scary headwind.

The protocol of campervan waving has become somewhat easier on the Stuart Highway- everybody waves at you, in acknowledgement of being mutually insane for being there in the first place.

But we got here- the opal mining capital of the world, and the place where the majority of the population lives underground to avoid the extremes of the weather. We will be here for 2 days, so more information to follow, but despite complaints about the nerdiness of our post office collection, I leave you with a picture taken in the Old Timer's Mine Museum which incorporates the only ever underground post office in the world.

We have booked a 4 seater aeroplane flight over the painted desert tomorrow. I do not like flying at the best of times, so am hoping the winds will have subsided somewhat.

salt lakes and rockets

Yesterday we travelled our first 250 km north from Port Augusta into the desert. For the first time in weeks we were able to stop at a campsite, get the chairs out, crack open a bottle of wine and watch the sunset. We were parked next to Lake Hart, a huge salt lake, and Ness the tour guide did not let the driver know that said 'lake' was totally dry. It is deceptive because it looks so like a body of water...until you walk the dog offshore and into the middle of it, and I assumed that the dog was going to get very muddy!

These lakes are 1.5 metres below sea level. Lake Eyre, another larger salt lake (well, the largest in the world actually, at 9,50 which we will pass close to over the next few days, is so huge and so dry that Donald Campbell set a world land speed record on it in 1964.

Lake Eyre yacht club ( a hardy bunch of optimists) take the opportunity to sail on it whenever there is enough water ( last sailing 1997- fills with water about four times per century).

We stopped at Woomera before we reached the lake- this township has only been open to travelers recently because it is in the middle of a patch of desert that has been used since the 1960's as a secret military rocket launch and testing site. The surrounding area is still prohibited, but the outdoor rocket and missile museum was surreal.

The sunset over the 'lake' was beautiful.

Sunday, July 27, 2008


We are now in Port Augusta preparing for the trip north through the middle of the country. Adelaide to Darwin is approx 3,000 km so we are stocking up with water, spare diesel, food supplies and extra dog biscuits in town today before we start.

We should hit Alice Springs and Uluru in August when the temperatures will be reasonable- any later and we will be contending with overwhelming heat.

Yesterday we passed through the mining district of Burra whose history is worth a mention:

In 1845 copper was discovered in the area, and the South Australia mining association, a group of Adelaide shopkeepers and merchants ( 'The Snobs') and the Princess Royal Mining Company, a group of capitalists and pastoralists ( 'The Nobs') vied for ownership of the copper-bearing land.

They drew lots and the Nobs took the southern half, which yielded very little, while the Snobs gained the northern half and went on to reap the rewards of one of the richest copper mines in the world.

Miners in large numbers were recruited from the UK, and it demonstrates the total lack of originality when it came to naming towns as Aberdeen, Hampton, Redruth, and Llywchwr were set up, each with their own pubs which still stand today.

After the mine closed the area became collectively known as Burra Burra- not an aboriginal name as one may be lead to think, but Hindustani for 'very great' and named by the Afghan cameleers who took up residence ( thanks presumably to earlier endeavours by Mr.Horrocks and Harry the camel with the deadly shot).

Friday, July 25, 2008

Clare Valley

We have left Adelaide and are moving north. We toyed with touring around the Yorke peninsula west of Adelaide ( to give Nancy the complex polygon she requested after pointing out that the map was becoming a little tedious) but decided to start the big push to Darwin.

We are in the Clare Valley, another wine region north of the Barossa Valley. Apparently Jamie Oliver served Clare Valley 'boutique' wines at Brad Pitt's birthday party in 2004 but who am I to name drop? It was also the first wine region in Aus to champion the screw cap over the cork.

The most unusual winery we have visited to date was Sevenhill- established by Jesuit priests in 1848 who had fled from persecution in Silesia.

Three years later they planted the Valley's first grapes and began making sacramental wine, which they still make today.The cellars are crammed with oak barrels full of the stuff . At the same time St. Aloysius church was built ( conveniently on site at the winery ).

To this day the wine makers are still Jesuit monks, and they produce sacramental wine in enormous quantities. They also produce several wines for the standard market and we tasted a couple of very clean Rieslings....I am not sure whether the description on the tasting notes of a wine ' of extreme purity' was a piss take or not.

I was interested to stop in a tiny town called Penwortham. Penwortham in Lancashire is where I went to school and my brother and his family still reside there. It was established and named by John Horrocks ( a good Lancashire name if ever I heard one ) so a bit more research was required.

John Ainsworth Horrocks, born Penwortham, Preston 1818, emigrated to Australia in 1839. He brought with him a family servant, a blacksmith, a shepherd, four merino rams, sheepdogs, tools, sufficient clothing for five years, and a church bell. He built up a flock of 9000 sheep and established one of the earliest vineyards in the Clare district ( whether he got there first or the Jesuits beat him to it remains unclear).

Bored with farming he rented out most of his properties. 'I want a more stirring life', he wrote, and proposed an expedition to search for new agricultural lands near Lake Torrens. An appeal for government assistance was unsuccessful but over £140 was raised by private subscription. Horrocks's own contribution included the first camel in Australia. So the bloke from my home town is partly responsible for the massive feral camel problem in this country..... but read on, the camel got the final revenge.

Leaving Penwortham on 29 July 1846 for a planned four-month absence, the party of six—including Jimmy Moorhouse, an Aboriginal goatherd, and the artist S T Gill—travelled with the camel, two carts, six horses and twelve goats. On 16-19 August the expedition crossed the Flinders Ranges via Horrocks Pass. Horrocks found that the camel was temperamental, biting both humans and goats, but it would carry up to 160 kg, vital for anticipated treks through waterless country. The horses had been without water for two days when on 21 August the party reached Depot Creek.

From here several exploratory trips were made. On 1 September Horrocks was preparing to shoot a bird on the shores of Lake Dutton. The kneeling camel moved while Horrocks was reloading his gun, catching the cock. The resultant discharge removed the middle fingers of his right hand and a row of teeth. He was taken back to Penwortham, arriving on 19 September. Having ordered the camel to be shot, Horrocks died of his wounds on 23 September and was buried in land at Penwortham that he had given to the Church of England for a church.

So not only did the bloke from my home town introduce the idea of bringing camels to Australia, but the daft pillock was shot to death by one.

** learned today that the camel was called Harry

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

blue skies

Back to Adelaide to mooch along the west coast suburbs. Glenelg and Brighton ( it appears every beach city has a Brighton) both very beachy and cafe culturish, the sun shone and we felt like we were on holiday in a hot country.

Certain people have suggested that our collection of Post Office pictures is somewhat nerdy, so the above is Glenelg Town Hall.

We ascended Mount Lofty to the east of Adelaide which offers the most extensive views of the city, the coast and islands beyond. No pictures of any note unfortunately as the winter sun was low and bright at 4 pm, but we did share the view with a southern brown bandicoot.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Barossa Valley

The last 3 days have been spent in the Barossa Valley, eating fine food and visiting vineyards to taste the local wines. Obviously we felt obligated to do a quick rainmaking tour to ensure all those fabulous grape vines got a thorough watering before they spring into leaf.

There are still a lot of small vineyards producing Shiraz, Riesling, Chardonnay but the big boys who got there first are somewhat dominating- Jacobs Creek, Wolf Blass.

Jacobs Creek's export market is a mind boggling 8 million cases per annum, plus whatever the home consumption is, so obviously the grapes are now sourced far wider than just the valley.

Free camping opportunities are pretty sparse around here, so we have been forced to stay in some fairly grim Tourist Parks. Last night we stayed at 'Highway One' Caravan Park which says it all really.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Arrived in Adelaide in time to have a quick look around. It is an easier city to navigate in the van than Melbourne, so we had a stroll along the river and did some shopping.

Very pleasant compact city, with the university campus along the river.

Yesterday we caught up with Vicki, a friend who is over from the UK visiting relatives. We plan to go to the Barossa Valley for a vineyard tour and tasting, and return to Adelaide mid week.

Friday, July 18, 2008

approaching adelaide

Our 2 days spent on the Fleurieu Peninsula east of Adelaide looking for whales was pretty much washed out by heavy rains and confirmed our findings that whales do not like to be wet. Did spot a fur seal instead.

The coastline has changed from limestone to granite and is very different.

Granite Island has a horse drawn tram.

The cuttlefish in these parts are enormous- james dog posing below for scale.You could keep a pretty big budgie occupied with these things.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

world youth day

The 'pilgrims' have arrived in droves ( over 125,000 of them from overseas) , the Pope is resting at a retreat on the outskirts of Sydney and all is well with the world...or maybe not.

Lawyers in Australia said that police powers introduced by New South Wales parliament for a major gathering of young Roman Catholics later this month will undermine free speech

Under the powers, police will be able to arrest and fine people (up to $5,000 ) for "causing annoyance or inconvenience" to participants in World Youth Day.

This means acts of peaceful protest at the event in Sydney could potentially be deemed a crime.....causing offence now an offence?

But those killjoys at the federal court have spoiled all the fun, by ruling that the special laws brought in by the New South Wales parliament do indeed infringe the right of free speech.

Probably just as well for the Bondi surf school offering 'walk on water' lessons for the visiting pilgrims.

There has been some wonderfully irreverent press coverage:

"Benny and his Jet" was how Sydney's Daily Telegraph described the Papal flight.

Channel 7 has taken to calling the papal retreat on the outskirts of Sydney his "Holy Hideaway".

When the rail unions threatened a transport strike to coincide with World Youth Day, the Sydney Morning Herald came up with "Stations of the Very Cross".

Protests appear to be continuing despite the threat of Draconian censorship. One group, the NoToPope Coalition, says it plans to distribute condoms to highlight its opposition to the Church's stance on contraception, homosexuality and abortion.

Their fashion parade unveiled the T shirts they will be sporting on the day-Slogans like "Pope Go Homo" and "The Pope Is Wrong - Put a Condom On".

Monday, July 14, 2008

the last argument

'It's OK Dear, you can come out now'

(Many thanks to Rona for the above)

back to the coast

So here we are back at the coast south east of Adelaide.

It appears that Kiwis have some kind of complex neural pathway that, like the tides, is affected by the gravitational pull of the moon because when navigating Ness seems unable to avoid coastal routes and destinations. This was kept in check when we lived in central England and the nearest coastline was at Skegness but has gone into overdrive since we got over here.

It is raining, a constant drizzle and grey skies but at least the gale force winds have abated at the moment. We arrived in Robe and I parked by the sea next to the Information Centre while Ness nipped in to try and get some up to date info regarding recent whale/dolphin sightings and suggested destinations to view them. I looked out to sea and watched 2 adult bottlenosed dolphins and a small juvenile leaping and playing just off shore. I had to rush in and haul her out to verify the sighting before they went, or it would have been dismissed as a figment of my imagination.

A local informed us later that you never see dolphins in that particular bay. I wonder if he ever ventures out.

I have finished my knitting project- the large furry object that started life as a scarf took on a life of its own, and grew and grew. We call it 'garment' and it is a cross between a poncho and a duvet.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

giant marsupials

Moving south to visit Naracoorte caves where the largest collection of megafauna skeletons have been found. It is the only World Heritage site in South Australia.

For more than 500,000 years giant animals roamed the Naracoorte area. Falling into well hidden pitfall caves, their fossilised skeletons have been left behind, giving scientists a rare glimpse of animal life long extinct.

Giant marsupials such as the wombat-like Diprotodon, Thylacoleo the marsupial lion and a host of kangaroos lived in the area. Over 100 species have been identified from bones in the fossil cave, including over 30 of the extinct magafauna. The deposits in layers in the soil have helped give a time frame for the existence of these extinct species.

There is a museum where life sized robotic moving models of some of these huge marsupials are on display- I know it sounds corny but they really are exceptionally well done.What a cool job to have, creating robotic giant wombats from information gleaned from preserved skeletons.

The sun was shining for the first time in a few days, so probably not the best day to choose to spend underground but the caves were spectacular and well worth the detour.

ninety mile desert

Yesterday we crossed the ninety mile desert, heading back south towards the coast. Sixty years ago this was a vast inhospitable tract of land and it defied all grazing and cropping efforts, as the abandoned homesteads throughout the area attest.

Scientists discovered the land was deficient in cobalt, copper and zinc and a chemical 'conquest' of the land followed. Remnants of the land the way it was prior to this chemical terrorism are to be found in a number of conservation parks including our long drive through Ngarkat, and pretty bleak it is although amongst the mallee gums and sand dunes Ness managed to find some flowers, and apparently in late winter and early spring the wildflowers provide a brilliant display.

We failed in our mission however- to spot an endangered Mallee Fowl.

good ideas...

A caravan with a roof terrace.

A Post Office with its own vineyard.

Friday, July 11, 2008

south australia

We have crossed the border into South Australia, so a new time zone and all our clocks are 30 minutes out.

We were stopped at border control but we were pretty confident that we had used up all our fruit so were not violating any fruit fly control orders ( how do those flies know not to fly across the border when they have been placed in a bin in NSW?) but the nice man took our onions, potatoes ( a new 10kg sack from a farm shop) kumara and squash leaving us with a carrot and a zucchini.

Fortunately the window box with jacaranda seedlings growing in it was not seized, but we will have to plant them somewhere before we cross into WA.

First stop in SA a supermarket to purchase vegetables.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

places worth a quick mention

Ouyen- just a small town en route to Mildura, but anywhere which holds an annual 'Great Australian Vanilla Slice Triumph' Festival is worth a mention.

Moliagul, near Ballarat- the area where the 'Welcome Stranger' gold nugget was found in 1869, the largest alluvial gold nugget ever discovered, weighing 72 Kg. It was found by 2 blokes from Tresco, Isles of Scilly, Cornwall and they received over £19,000 ( equivalent today £1,400,000 ). The bank did not possess scales large enough to weigh it, so it had to be broken into 3 pieces by a local blacksmith in order to be assayed.

where the Darling meets the Murray

Wentworth is at the confluence of the Rivers Darling (2,740 km ) and Murray (2,530 km ), was once the busiest inland port in New South Wales, and was considered as the site for Australia's capital ( yet again one of the many many towns which stake that claim ).

It has a great museum- basically just an enthusiastic bloke with a shed and a bizarre collection of stuff.The Perry Sandhills, 400 acres of sandscape, were much enjoyed by james dog.

Charles Sturt 1830

'We were again roused to action by the boat suddenly striking upon a shoal, which reached from one side of the river to the other. To jump out and push here into deeper water was but the work of a moment with the men, and it was just as she floated again that our attention was withdrawn to a new and beautiful stream ( the Darling ), coming apparently from the north......
As soon as we got above the entrance of the new river, we found easier pulling, and proceeded up it for some miles, accompanied by the once more noisy multitude.........An irresistible conviction impressed me that we were now sailing on the bosom of that very stream from whose banks I have been twice forced to retire. I directed the Union Jack to be hoisted, and giving way to our satisfaction, we all stood up in the boat, and gave three distinct cheers........The eye of every native had been fixed upon that noble flag, at all times a beautiful object, and to them a novel one, as it waved over us in the heart of a desert. I laid it down as the Murray River, in compliment to the distinguished officer, Sir George Murray, who then presided over the colonial department, not only in compliance with the known wishes of his Excellency General Darling, but also in accordance with my own feelings as a soldier..'

Fiona & Vanessa 2008

We arrived at the confluence of the Murray and Darling, the weather was most tiresome with a relentless westerly wind, and we were sorely vexed. We stoked the fires of the vehicle, made a ration of tea, and cooked French sweet pastry items from our provisions.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

inland sand

Frantically heading north to avoid the winter weather- Daylesford and Ballarat had snow 2 days after we left.We are now back on the River Murray further west than before in Mildura.The river is somewhat fuller then when we left it so our rainmaking tour has not been in vain.

The camp site in Mildura is a picturesque spot on the river and the fees are very reasonable so we are treating ourselves to a warm van and the height of decadence- hot baths! Been weeks since we had such luxury.

Mildura itself is a modern regional city, pop. 60,000, and we have avoided too much city driving, but it is well placed for the tour we did yesterday to Mungo National Park. The park is 100km from the city along a dirt track so we joined a tour and went on a 4 wheel drive bus leaving a disgruntled ginger dog back at base camp.

The National Park consists of 17 dry lakes ( dried up approx 15,000 years ago when the last ice age rerouted the Darling River). The lakes have been eroded by years of wind, searing sun and drought leaving a sandy fossil landscape. 'Mungo man' was discovered in 1974 and is around 40,000 years old and has caused much debate about the geographical development of homo erectus.

We were lucky to visit on a dry and sunny day, and the 'Great Walls of China', a large eroded crescent of quartz and clay 30km long and 30m high, are truly stunning.