Written December 1999
Merry Christmas from Australia!!I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges
Of droughts and flooding rains;
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!
So penned Dorothea Mackeller in 1908 and that is the way we feel about Australia today.
As 1999 began with ‘Long Passages’ high and dry near Brisbane, we purchased a 23’ Winnebago, named her ‘Winnie the Whale’ readied it for long-distance travel, and mid-February to see Australia by land. Our route? A figure-8 that looked like:
Brisbane, heading south to:
Sydney, Canberra, then S & W along coast to
Melbourne & Adelaide, N up the center to:
Darwin, then over to the west coast & S to:
Perth and east along the coast to Adelaide.
Birds and Wildlife
By far the biggest surprise of Australia has been the abundance of birds. Huge flocks of cockatoos, galahs (pink and gray parrots), kookaburras (exotic kingfishers) and corellas greeted us along the highways and in campsites. Parrots of every imaginable color combination flew out of the bush or along the van. Estuaries had herons, ospreys, cormorants, large jabirus (storks) and small jacanas that appear to walk on water. The male Bowerbird built a display nest on the ground and strutted around scattering colored objects around each entrance to attract a female. Wildlife abounded in places that appeared too dry to support life. Kangaroos were everywhere, wallabies were more secretive, emus stalked the plains, wombats came out at night, and crocodiles swam alongside our tour boat, jumping 8’ out the water for their meal. Australia truly has an amazing array of wildlife!
We were the grateful guests of Sara Henderson, a prolific Australian author and her daughter Marlee on their 1263 square km cattle station in the Northern Territory. They were in the middle of a muster (or roundup) when we arrived and for two days we followed them as they flew helicopters, lassoed wild bulls from a jeep, separated bulls from cows, branded and dehorned young cattle, and selected some of them to go to market. It was a fascinating insight into a hard life in an unforgiving land. A few hardy stockmen were aided by backpackers, youngsters from around the world, sweating in the outback for their room, board, and memories to last them a lifetime. Sara was a charming and interesting hostess as we joined her for meals and a glass of wine at the end of each day. This is a memory we will treasure forever.
The Red Center, thousands of square miles of red sand dotted with bright green bushes under a canopy of brilliant blue, is the best known part of the Outback. Many days were spent driving hundreds of miles through barren lands with occasional bushes and cattle that needed 10 square miles each to graze. The bush flies were a new experience - they swarm over you as soon as you get out of a car or house and don’t rest until sundown. One evening we stopped on a barren plain close to a windmill for night, and were interrupted at sunset by the sound of cattle filing by our van on their nightly search for water. Ayer’s Rock rises like an apparition from the desert floor and changes colors from dull orange to bright red as the sun sets. The aborigines call it Uluru and consider it sacred, and don’t appreciate tourists climbing it. They also own it, as part of a recent settlement, and when the current lease to the Park Service expires in 90 years they have the option of closing it – time will tell.
The Oodnadatta Track
In Australia, the Oodnadatta Track conjures images of camel trains carrying supplies north and cattle driving south to the markets. A telegraph line hummed alongside the track as a railroad was built to supercede the camels. Now, 100 years on, the rails have been torn up, the wires are down and the gravel track is used mostly by tourists chasing an image of the outback. The land is dry, flat and featureless and dry salt lakes flash by, reminding us how unforgiving the land can be of carelessness with water. We drove 250 miles in a race to get to a gymkana (rodeo) being held in the town of Oodnadatta. Along the way we stopped at William Creek, population 10, Australia’s smallest town in the middle of Anna Creek Station, Australia’s largest cattle station with over 10,000 square miles. The gymkana was great fun, with barrel races, bullwhip cracking contests, and camel races. It brought cattle station families together from hundreds of miles around for a once-in-a-year event as kids met other kids they normally only know over the radio when they study together on The School of the Air. All in all it was a great day.
Sea eagles, herons, geese, darters, jabirus, and snowy egrets share the waters with crocodiles as they all ignore the camera-toting tourists gliding by their estuary. Our tour on the Yellow River is just one vivid experience from this World Heritage Area known as The Kakadu. The area contains hundreds of aboriginal art sites spread over 15,000 square miles of the Northern Territory. A fascinating tour with two charming aborigines explained many aspects of nearby Arnhem Land where traditional laws persist, including traditional punishments such as breaking bones and spearing legs for the rare transgressions of rules. A day at Shady Camp in the Kakadu stands out in our memory when we set up our sun shelter and cameras beside a tidal river and watched, videoed, and photographed crocodiles and birds all day in our front yard.
Texans would be jealous of this state, 3 ˝ times the size of their pride and joy. We were amazed at the variety of beautiful beaches, deserts, long stretches of high cliffs, and trees second only to redwoods in height and girth. We rode over sand dunes, watched whales breach 100’ from shore, walked among the crowns of giant tingle trees on walkways supported 200’ above the ground, and drove through hundreds of miles on the treeless plains of the Nullarbor. Resources abound – mountains of iron spawn towns, railroads and ports to get it to their Asian markets, gold has created several rushes and off-shore oil and gas deposits provide jobs for thousands. And flowers: WA has an amazing array of wildflowers and as we drove south during the Spring, fields of yellow and purple everlastings were punctuated with kangaroo paws, wreath flowers, and others unique to this part of the world. WA has it all, except for people – about 1.5 million gathered in the SW corner around Perth, and a scant 300,000 scattered around the rest of this huge state.
After 20,000 km we arrived in Perth and took a vacation from our touring, by flying to the US. A few days in Brisbane working on ‘Long Passages’, a (too) few days in Auckland trying to catch up with as many friends as possible and then on to Annapolis to spend large $$ at the Annapolis Boat Show. After Annapolis we headed to Texas, Oregon, Florida, and Pennsylvania to catch up with friends and relatives. We really enjoyed all of our visits, but were shocked at some of the high prices (guess we had forgotten). A couple of days in Los Angeles capped off the visit as we acted the tourist bit by shopping on Rodeo Drive and laughing on cue at a screening of "The Martin Short Show".
Australia is huge, as big as the USA, with lots of wildlife, a surprising variety of colorful birds, lots of great wines and 18 million very friendly people. With only 1/15th the population of the USA, it seems empty, particularly in the center. But virtually all of the country is being used, either for living, growing sheep or cattle, or mineral exploitation. Our most enjoyable experiences were in the small towns and out-of-way places. Our planning for weather worked out well as we had one stretch of 4 months with one day of rain, and it was never really too hot or too cold. Twelve months of solid traveling is probably too much in one go, scenery overload hit us about 6 months into the trip, and a break would have been welcome at that time. But overall, it has been a fascinating and educational year as we head back to Brisbane and ‘Long Passages’.
The Plans? Get LP back in sailing shape and head to the tropics by July 2000. If the political situation remains stable in Indonesia, we will sail through it to Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and we should be approaching The Red Sea by the end of 2000.
We wish the best to all of our friends everywhere, and hope your year has been as good as ours.