Breakfast was a simple spread of tea and toast, though at the unearthly hour of 6am. Today’s aim was to make it through 750km of ancient inland sea. Only now it’s a little drier. It began to strike me as we travelled how many creeks and rivers we drove over which were completely bone dry. I wonder what this part of the world looks like when it does rain. Most of the road is gravel, but some sections have been tarmacced as they’re apparently impassable when it’s wet otherwise.
There are no sheep in these areas either, which dashes that Australian stereotype. Dingoes are present in the Outback and they don’t just kill for food. Like foxes, they do it for the fun of it and sheep are just too easy a target for them. We did spot some emus and a handful of kangaroos and wallabies legging it out of the way of our coach. What they survive on out there is beyond me.
We stopped to use the bush toilet after a couple of hours. There was quite a breeze, but it was silent. No whistling or anything. It was all very surreal. Even the tumbleweed seemed to have been set to “mute”. An hour or so later, we pulled into Winton for the bus to refuel. Being a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, and it being Sunday, everywhere was shut. Thankfully, one person had kept their cafe open, so we sat around there mainly as it was airconditioned. And had cheap ice lollies.
Winton is credited as being the home of Waltzing Matilda, the Australian national song – not the national anthem. In 2000, a poll was taken to decide which song should be made the anthem. The vote was incredibly close, and the government settled on Advance Australia Fair over Waltzing Matilda as a song about the suicide of an unemployed thief wasn’t really the kind of image they wanted attached to their country at official engagements. You can kind of see their point.
There is actually a Waltzing Matilda Museum in Winton, but as with everywhere bar our little refrigerated oasis it was closed. The burglar alarm certainly worked well, though, as two Asian girls on the coach discovered when they leaned too close to one of the windows to have a look inside. I’ll spare you an annotated reading of the song (there must be a bazillion on Google – go look), but will explain the title. A “Matilda” is a bed mat, which is carried rolled up and slung over the shoulder. It hangs around the hips and as the carrier walks, it bounces off the hips as if it’s dancing – or waltzing – with them. So essentially, to “waltz (with) matilda” is to walk with one of these bedrolls.
An airline was formed in Winton many years ago. Originally called Queensland And Northern Territories Air Service, it’s more commonly known as QUANTAS these days. And the town once held the world record for the longest road train pull. This is essentially what it sounds like. A powerful truck pulling a load of trailers along the road. Winton set the record with 34 trailers being towed along the main street, but the record has been smashed since then. The current holder is apparently somewhere in the US and the train was over 1.5km long.
The water in the town also stinks of sulphur, much like Rotorua in New Zealand. So if you ever visit, don’t drink the tap water! The toilet smelled worse after I flushed it.
As we set off towards our lunch destination, Laurie put a film on the DVD player – Rabbit Proof Fence. This is a true story of three Aboriginal children who were taken from their mothers early last century. They were all half-caste, the result of white workers having their way with Aboriginal women and then moving on to the next job, wherever that may be. The “plan” by the government at the time was to “breed” the colour out of them. From half-caste to quarter to octal… by which time the ethnic features would no longer show up. And apparently this was doing them a favour. Astoundingly, this practise continued up until 1970. Thousands upon thousands of children were forcibly taken from their families over the decades leading up to then. The Rabbit Proof Fence of the title was a real structure built to run from north coast to south coast (1500 km) east of Perth – a failed attempt to keep rabbits away from crops, but still the largest fence ever built.
We stopped for lunch at Kerris Brook Station. In the UK, we have farms. The US has ranches. Aussies have stations. This one is pretty much empty. Despite having 50,000 acres to play with, it’s been so dry for the last four or five years that the owners have de-stocked as they simply couldn’t keep the sheep or cattle going. Instead, the owners charge tour companies to come onto their land and see some of the natural structures. They’re lucky enough to have some amazing ones, in particular the Three Sisters – three sandstone mountains next to each other. New South Wales has a similarly-named range, but Queensland’s has been confirmed as older. Around the area – in fact around the whole Outback – are Bloodwood trees. These have white bark and the Aborigines use them for fishing in a rather bizarre way. If the leaves are crushed and dropped into a pool, they deoxygenate the water causing the fish to rise to the surface.
All stations carry a range of antivenin and so forth to aid in medical emergencies. The Flying Doctor can pretty much guarantee getting anywhere in the outback within ninety minutes, but that can be too long in some cases. To avoid confusion, all these potions are labelled numerically. Every station has the same ones with the same numbers on each bottle. They describe what’s bitten someone to the doctor by radio, and their given a bottle number and an amount to inject.
Our lunch was a BBQ that we set up inside a tin shed which used to be used for housing and sheering sheep. The heat was well over 40 degrees, and the wind was like standing in front of a huge hand dryer. The flies were everywhere. Food was good, though.
After munching mouthfuls of flies, we packed back up and settled into our seats until we arrived for a short stop at the Middleton Hotel. There used to be eight of these hotels in a chain running along the old stagecoach route. This is the oldest and the only surviving one. It’s family run by some lovely people who have two very friendly dogs, one of which recently had a load of puppies. Oh, and they have camels. Sadly, they’d gone for a wander and I could only just make out their humps and heads far away at the edge of the property. They are used to pull a stagecoach, and compete in the annual Boulia camel race in the nearby town. I’m sure I read somewhere that Oz has more camels than Egypt.
The owners waved us good bye (with a bullwhip – scary people) and we made the last stint to Wirrilyerna (“flat land”) station, just outside of Boulia. This station is 100,000 acres and has a huge variety of animals living there, most of them treated more like pets than livestock.
I opted to sleep outside under the stars, so making use of my $25 sleeping bag. It was $15 to rent one for the trip, and another $15 for the Alice to Darwin tour, so it was cheaper to buy one. Camp beds were set up, so we popped mattresses on them and left our bags in dorms. Only one of the beds was knocked over by a cow during dinner.
We shared dinner with two wonderfully playful dogs and a beer-drinking kangaroo called Mary. Mary’s gorgeous. An orphan when her mother was killed by dingoes, the farm found her and brought her in. She’s incredibly friendly, though a little timid, and will pose for photos with you, drinks beer out of her own mug and will even let you pop a finger into her pouch. That was a weird experience – the pouch isn’t immediately visible and when you remove your finger it just seems to get “swallowed” by her fur. It’s amazingly warm inside, though. You can see why baby kangaroos choose to spend so long in there.
We ate and drank around the campfire until after 11pm. The skies out here are amazingly clear. I simply didn’t know that many stars existed. It’s not just that the constellations are in different places back home, it’s just too hard to spot them among the huge number of “new” stars that are obscured by pollution in the northern hemisphere.
The generator is normally turned off at 10:30, but for the benefit of those in dorms was left on overnight to power the aircon. It was a warm night, and one of the girls headed indoors around midnight as it was too warm outside. I fell asleep half out of my sleeping bag, and woke in the morning curled up inside it. I guess the temperature dropped sometime overnight. I do recall waking at some point in the night and seeing a shooting star. I made a wish… but I know deep inside that this particular wish will never come true. Still, you have to have hope.