We put the grumpiness of our Darwinian taxi driver down to the fact that it was relatively early in the morning and there were few if any coffee shops open.
Our hotel was pretty basic but well placed in the town and the management was friendly and helpful. Our first task was to make contact with the shippers and so I set off early in the afternoon to introduce myself to them, find out what the program was and establish what part I had to play in it. The petals began to fall off the roses shortly after stepping over their threshold. The boat had been delayed by a couple of days and was rescheduled to arrive late on Sunday; the presence of the Giant African Snail in Timor Leste meant added precautions had been imposed by the Australian quarantine services and every container arriving from Dilli had to be pressure washed externally before contacting Australian soil, a process that could, we were told, add up to three days to the unloading program. I was also informed that it was my responsibility to arrange customs and quarantine clearance of my cargo unless I wished to employ the services of a company specialising in this service – as this was already the most expensive shipment we had encountered to date I opted to do it myself! Nothing could be done until the ship arrived and the shippers issued a release date and program – so we went fishing! Full of thoughts of big fish and tasty bits to take back to our YHA hostel with cooking facilities, reality was somewhat different – a glut of ugly red fish that were deemed inedible and all were returned to the sea to frustrate another boat load of anglers! It was a good day out however and we had good company. The next day we visited the thriving Saturday market at Parap a short bus ride from the city. Filled with all styles of fast food and local crafts it was a great morning out. The Navigator took a particular shine to a wood carver who resembled ‘Crocodile Dundee’ and was in the act of picking up one of his ‘very realistic’ lizard carvings – when it moved! After an uncharacteristic expletive and a turn of speed that would have impressed a cheetah, sanctuary was sought a few metres away at the base of the ramp leading up to the ‘disabled’ loo but any thought of safety evaporated swiftly when the unusually designed ‘bracelets’ adorning the handrail turned out to be snakes!
On Monday we were informed that the container would be available for clearing on Wednesday – the boat had not arrived until early on Monday. I went off to customs first and then to AQIS, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service to arrange their respective inspections. At AQIS I met an Italian couple whose car had arrived on the same boat as ours – they had driven a Fiat 500 from Milan and were headed for Sydney! Between us we arranged for our clearance inspections to take place early on Wednesday morning.
On Wednesday at the appointed hour we removed our respective vehicles from their containers during which Genghis suffered minor damage because a ramp could not be provided (‘it’s not our responsibility to provide a ramp, mate’ – shipping agent!) Genghis was driven into the quarantine area where he was inspected and passed by customs after which the quarantine inspectors moved in. Genghis’ entire contents were unloaded and placed on the floor of a shed for inspection and were passed. Then Genghis was presented and within 5 minutes was declared unfit – he had not been cleaned to the standards demanded. The Italians were knocked back for the same reason. We remonstrated with the shippers over the fact that their agents in Dilli had neither made us aware of the severity of the inspections we would face in Darwin nor provided us with advice on the companies in Dilli that were equipped to prepare our vehicles to the requisite standards. The AQIS website gave us a statement on the cleanliness of vehicles expected at inspection time but it did not allude to the ferocity of the inspection, something the shippers and their agents were aware of in minute detail. Before blows were exchanged the manager was summoned and eventually a semblance of calm was restored. But that only lasted a few minutes when we were told that the vehicles could not be cleaned by the shippers (who are their own agents in Darwin) for at least four days; they didn’t have the manpower and they refused to allow us to operate their high pressure hoses in case we broke a leg! The root cause of our anger and frustration was a very poor service exacerbated by a leering yard foreman who seemed to take delight in our frustration and disappointment and who clearly ruled operations at the Darwin end of a shipping company that has a monopoly on freight between Dilli and Darwin. Finally sense prevailed and the manager had our vehicles washed on Thursday ready for an inspection on Friday which both vehicles passed – but not before the Italians had lessened the odds of failure by ripping out their carpets, back seat and all door and boot seals and throwing them away!
Not surprisingly, our view of Darwin as a city was, for want of a better word ‘contaminated’ by the inexplicable inefficiency, unfriendliness and unprovoked hostility we encountered at the shippers and their agents. Nevertheless we enjoyed the buzz of the city generated by a large number of tourists and locals who loved to party in a climate that demands the consumption of abnormally large quantities of liquid, water in the day and alcohol at night!
The billion dollar development of the waterfront is stylishly attractive and once completed will provide the city’s inhabitants and visitors with a ‘softer’ venue for wining and dining as well as giving them a safe ‘beach’ environment to enjoy thanks to the artificial beach that has been created there (you cannot swim or relax on any of Darwin’s natural beaches thanks to the presence of crocs, sharks and deadly stingers such as the Box Jellyfish). Darwin has a unique character – hard countries breed hard men and women and as there is nothing soft about the Northern Territories it is not surprising that it attracts and breeds people who not only work hard but play hard too.
After ‘springing’ Genghis we spent that night in Darwin and left early on Saturday morning for an oil change and the start of our long journey to Tasmania via Perth! For those following a similar route we want to note the difficulty we had obtaining 3rd party car insurance – we found it impossible to arrange third party insurance through the normal insurance companies and eventually obtained it through the Darwin office of ‘Autobahn’, a company that hires out camper vans and which is found in most major cities in Australia. They were helpful and very efficient delivering our insurance in a matter of a few hours. Our delayed departure from Darwin had forced us to forego a visit to the Kakadu National park so our route was planned to take us first south to Katherine then west to Kununarra where, if it was open, we would travel the unsealed Gibb River Road to Derby and then on to Broome where we would turn south and follow the coast to Perth.
The two hour drive to Katherine was uneventful and the countryside relatively flat and uninteresting, except for the
thousands of small termite mounds that dotted the landscape. We anticipated spending little time in Katherine but saw more of it than we intended as we searched for an aboriginal community art gallery, Mimi, which, when we eventually found it, was shut – it was Saturday. We had literally rubbed shoulders with aborigines in Darwin, our first contact with Australia’s first human inhabitants but we were woefully ignorant of their history and the challenges they face in contemporary Australia. Our interest in them grew through conversations with people in Darwin and in particular through an art gallery that works hard to promote their art through their non-profit making organisation. It was explained to us that encouraging the communities (of which there are many, speaking more than a hundred different languages) and supporting them in what is a therapeutic activity, helps them to confront and manage the challenges they face in adapting to the changing world they live in; and the money they earn from the sale of their art also directly benefits their community. The consequence of this belated interest in the aboriginal communities added a new focus to our journey through Australia and we made plans to visit as many aboriginal community art centres and galleries as possible.
By late afternoon we were accommodated in the road house at Timber Creek having travelled through much more varied and attractive countryside; undulating, golden grass covered hills interspersed by gum trees with leaves of various shades of green and trunks ranging in colour from pale beige to black. The termite mounds we had seen on the Darwin/Katherine road were still in evidence but they were now much taller, reminding us of watchful Meerkats.
And for the first time in our voyage we came across ‘road kill’ in quantity, most of it involving wallabies. At one point we came across a group of the live versions one of which ran in front of us before pirouetting at the last split-second to avoid a lethal clout from our bumper – any ‘Wallaby’ would have been proud to be associated with such agility!
Our roadhouse was run by a fifteen man/woman crew of mainly young backpackers working to meet the conditions required to renew their temporary work visas. The roadhouse pub was well patronised by the local aborigines each of whom was required to produce their ID card the details of which were recorded and against which the purchase of their alcohol was entered. This seemingly demeaning requirement was, it was explained by one of the staff, imposed on the aboriginal community at the request of their elders who have had to live for too long with the deeply destructive consequences of wide spread alcoholism within their community. Later in our trip through the ‘Top End’ we regularly encountered signs declaring that the carriage of alcohol was prohibited in defined areas – further indications of the ongoing battle against a widespread disease afflicting many of the aboriginal communities.
The following day we set off to cross into West Australia and to spend a couple of nights in Kununarra, the eastern extremity of the fabled Kimberley. The road was good, the countryside varied, interesting and quite beautiful in a crystal clear atmosphere – and at
last, near Victoria River Crossing, we encountered the region’s famous and distinctive ‘boab’ trees. But during this drive we also killed a number of birds which flew into the windscreen whilst wheeling and turning in flocks at low level – sadly many of these were pretty bee eaters one of which we unknowingly carried, wedged on the bumper, until it rolled off into the path of a startled shopper as we parked outside a supermarket in Kununarra!
The border between the Northern Territories and West Australia (WA) is marked by a manned quarantine check point designed to prevent the spread of plant diseases – all fruits, plant material and seeds have to be declared – their type and condition dictates their fate but it is true to say that most are consigned to a rubbish bin. The quarantine staff are also engaged in preventing the importation of cane toads. Originally imported into Australia and Queensland specifically to target the damaging sugar cane beetle, the toads turned out to be ineffective pest controllers but excellent breeders that have voracious appetite for the native fauna – snakes and lizards in particular. Now over 200 million strong (from an original 100 or so imported in the id 1930s) a major campaign to halt their spread is underway with the campaign’s literature pulling no punches when it comes to the methods by which the toads are best dispatched! Having negotiated the border crossing successfully and changed our time zone to that of Perth we turned south to visit the artificial Lake Argyle, the consequence of the huge Ord (river) Irrigation Project designed to create sufficient irrigated land to make settlement and farming (particularly of rice for sale to the Chinese) viable in the region.
It is spectacularly beautiful and when full covers an area of around 2,000 sq kms – but the rice crop it was designed to irrigate proved unviable as a consequence of which it provides irrigation for a much reduced agricultural area.
Kununarra is a modern, well laid out town and the centre of the rural community made possible by the Ord Irrigation Project. It is unremarkable save for this point but was a pleasant enough place to catch up on a little administration. The old stock route known as the Gibb River Road starts further west of Kununuarra towards the El Questro Wilderness Park and the town of Wyndham which is West Australia’s oldest and northernmost town. This old route provides a much shorter east /west (Wyndham to Derby) crossing of the Kimberley than the much more modern Great Northern Highway which ducks to the south of it, but it is a rough, 4WD only road that is bisected by a number of creeks that become impassable in ‘the Wet’ (the monsoon season).
The monsoon normally begins in November so we were surprised to learn in Darwin that the road was still open in early December but heavy rains were forecast and on reaching Kununarra we found it closed. Although disappointed this was probably fortuitous as had we become stuck between swollen creeks we could have been there for weeks and as it transpired the monsoon began in earnest the day after we left Kununarra, coincidental with the time we would have been on it.
Instead we set off for Fitzroy Crossing via the Aboriginal art galleries at Turkey Creek (Warmun) and Hall’s Creek. As before, the road was in good shape and we enjoyed the views of unspoiled and rugged countryside all around us. Clouds were beginning to gather to the north and although we didn’t experience any rain then it was clear that it wasn’t far away.
Having crossed the Ord River our first stop was at Turkey Creek to visit the Warmun Gallery, a surprisingly modern (and clearly expensive) building in the middle of not very much, a little oasis in the wilderness.
Inside, the space was filled with colour; hundreds of canvases recording thoughts and dreams to a pitch that made you smile at the joy this release of energy and emotion must have given its artists. Therapeutic indeed! We spent a good hour at this wonderful place before moving on to Hall’s Creek where the gallery we encountered there was less ‘up market’ but clearly a great asset to its mainly women artist community.
But there was inspiration of a different sort here. In the heart of the small community next to the visitor centre is a large memorial to ‘Russian Jack’, a gold prospector who built a ‘bush’ wheelbarrow and pushed an injured colleague 300km to a doctor. He did it a second time but on that occasion only 180km was needed to get medical assistance!
We arrived late in Fitzroy Crossing and had little time to find accommodation finally pitching up at a caravan park and a non-powered site. The park had a bar and a restaurant and having opened up the roof tent we set off for a site inspection. As we walked through the grass we were assaulted by huge grasshoppers which we learned were known locally as ‘locusts’ – we would have referred to them as ‘crickets’ but as this was about the time of the victorious second Ashes test match we had been advised to refrain from using the ‘c’ word in public! We opted out of the bar, had a meal in the restaurant and returned to the site to finalise our sleeping arrangements before turning in. A few minutes later a squeak of distress from the ladies loo caused me to head there at a gallop with thoughts of snakes and large lizards uppermost in my mind. Thankfully nothing dangerous was the cause but the pesky locusts had infested the cubicles and in the flickering light from a single, 20W light bulb outside the cubicles, were difficult to spot. Deep in contemplation of the day’s activities, the unexpected arrival of several ‘locusts’ with spiky legs seeking purchase on a bare ‘bott’ was understandably shocking – hence the cry for help. Clearing the locusts wasn’t a simple task because as quickly as they were expelled the albeit pathetic light source acted as a homing beacon – and there was no chance of continuing the motion in the pitch darkness – sentry duty won the day. We did not sleep well that night! No ‘locusts’ in the bed, nor any mossies or flies but it was a very hot (37oC), humid and still night which left us wet with perspiration. Having cleared the loos of locusts in the morning we had a silent breakfast, packed up in a zombie like stupor and departed for a two night stop in Broome via Derby. As we drove out of the site we couldn’t help but notice an unusual sign on the opposite side of the road on open ground; ‘No Grog, No Humbug, No Gambling’ followed by a details on how to inform the police of such activities. The sign starkly highlighted the negative behaviour of those failing in a community that is battling alcoholism and its wide ranging consequences.
A couple of hours later we reached the outskirts of Derby having driven through increasingly flat terrain as we dropped down onto the coastal plain. We had visited Derby and Broome before and so this aspect of the journey was a trip down memory lane and began with a re-visit to the Boab Prison Tree.
Reputed to be at least a thousand years old, this extraordinary tree has a girth of over 14m and a hollow trunk that can be accessed through a narrow fissure. It is an important aboriginal site and acted as an overnight prison for aborigines in the custody of the authorities during transportation over the Kimberly during the latter part of the 19th C – there is a similar tree on the other side of the range at Wyndham. The town had grown since our visit to Derby ten years ago and a little corrugated iron shack at the end of a bauxite loading ramp in which we had had a memorable meal ten years previously had been comprehensively modernised to the extent that, for us the soul had been removed from it. After lunch we visited a vibrant and educative gallery a few kms up the Gibb River Road, the Mowanjum Art and Cultural Centre depicting styles of painting wholly different from those exhibited in the galleries south of Kununarra. And it is that ever changing style that makes this genre of artworks so surprising and fascinating, styles that catch the eye and demand further investigation, an investigation which delightfully begins with the language spoken by the artist before identifying their community and almost as an aside, their name.
We sauntered into Broome and our YHA accommodation in time to get unpacked and go out again to re-familiarise ourselves with the town. Again, it had grown remarkably and appeared far more prosperous than it had during our last visit. Broome is fiercely proud of its heritage – essentially a remote outback town, it was established as a pearling port in the late 1800s by Japanese businessmen. The business attracted a Chinese dominated Asian workforce who with Aboriginal divers handled the dangerous end of the business building up a trade that supplied the world with the vast majority of its demand for mother-of-pearl. The trade had died off before the start of the First World War but Broome continues to farm oysters for the production of pearls and successfully markets exquisite Broome pearls.
Positioned at the gateway to the beautiful north-west of Australia, Broome is a highly popular tourist destination and as such caters for all tastes, ages and wallet sizes – and it is this tourist mix that gives the town a vibrancy that makes it an exciting ‘base camp’ from which to explore Cape Leveque and the Dampier Peninsula.
After two nights we set off for Port Headland, a long day’s drive further down the coast. The port is the highest tonnage port in Australia and central to West Australia’s huge iron ore mining operation so there was no high expectation of a beautiful, unspoiled beach venue but we thought we should at least see it. Miles before we got there we met road and rail traffic suggesting that there was a large earth moving operation in the vicinity. Once we had fought our way through the outskirts of railway siding, engineering works, a salt processing plant and a myriad of other industrial works including those supporting the offshore natural gas fields we arrived at the port and the heart of the town – and it wasn’t all bad! There were a few ‘period’ buildings to offset the more modern, unappealing architecture and there was a port with huge iron ore bulk carrying cargo boats virtually moored on the doorstep.
Our room was in the pub which burst into life shortly after our arrival at 5pm when it seemed the entire mining community descended on the pub to drink, eat and party the night away. Whilst they warmed up we went off to visit Portland’s Courthouse Arts Centre and Gallery at which there was an exhibition entitled ‘The Way it Was’ which comprised Aboriginal paintings each accompanied by an explanation by the artist of the memory that had inspired it’s creation. It was very well done and added to our new found interest in Aboriginal art. The open air ‘snake pit’ in the pub comprised two bars, one on each side originally intended to separate ‘white fellas’ from Aboriginal workers and whilst that was no longer the intention rival groups harangued one another good naturedly across neutral ground. Supper in this noisy and energetic atmosphere was fun but only for as long as it took to eat ‘mains’ and eventually the ‘grey nomads’ (we were not the only ones there), were forced to yield ground and seek sanctuary in their rooms.
We slept well and left early in the morning for a very long drive to Carnarvon, 800km south on the coast and in the heart of fruit and vegetable growing country. Unusually it was pouring with rain and as we headed south it intensified to a point that the ‘fast’ wiper setting barely coped. It was the monsoon season and we were glad that we were not on the Gibb River Road. By 1pm the rain had stopped and the road conditions improved quickly as the water levels in the floodways (signed danger areas generally in the troughs of undulating roads where flooding normally occurred during prolonged heavy rain).
As we passed through the Tropic of Capricorn (Tropic of Cancer in The Kutch, Gujerat, India and Equator in Pontianak, Kalimantan, Indonesia) we smiled at each other with a sense of achievement and in celebration I handed the driving over to Belinda – magnanimous as ever. 5km down the road we drove at 110kph into a floodway full of water which immediately threw the car slewed the car and threw up so much water we were temporarily blinded. Belinda controlled the car as best she could, reoriented us by switching on the wipers and slowed down carefully with the brakes before getting us through to dry road. A very scary reminder of the unexpected but with the sun out and a drying road each trough in the road appeared to be full of water until you got close to it and the mirage disappeared – not so on this occasion! At 3pm we arrived at the Minilya Roadhouse to fuel up before making the final dash to Carnarvon. We were very low on fuel when we arrived and were surprised to see a long line of road trains parked on the side of the road and the roadhouse’s forecourt jam packed with cars, 4WD vehicles and caravans.
At first we thought that the fuel had run out but we very quickly learned that the rain we had experienced earlier had caused flooding along the road in front of us and it had been shut 6am! Optimism was high but it quickly evaporated when a highways maintenance vehicle announced that the road wouldn’t open until the morning at 6am provided there was no more rain. The gulley outside the hotel had changed from a very dry, 10 years dry, 80m wide riverbed to a raging torrent of over 7m in depth in less than a day – during the night it got very close to the level of the road surface over the bridge at which point there would have been a serious danger of structural damage. So we made the best of it along with 300 other stranded travellers. The roadhouse owners, who had had only taken over their new acquisition two days previously, put their shoulders to the wheel and laid on as many burgers and sausages as they had in their chillers and freezers. They sold out all their cabin type accommodation and all their camp sites in the twinkling of an eye and everyone got on with it – and it continued to drizzle through much of the night. We slept well in the roof tent,
had an early breakfast and joined the throngs waiting for news. The anticipated decision at 6am didn’t happen but we did get confirmation that the road running to Geraldton, south of Carnarvon and our anticipated route out of the town was also closed and appeared to be in a worse state than the one leading into it. By 10am there was still no word and we were all getting agitated particularly the road train drivers many of whom were carrying perishable goods. Some of the throng called it a day, mostly those with children or pets who, having heard the extent of the damage caused by the rain and the likelihood of extensive delays to road travel abandoned their holiday plans headed back the way they had come. We too looked at the options and in our case it was easy – stick with the current situation and hope that it improved or take a long 23 hour detour drive north then east through Tom Price and Newman and south west to Perth. As we deliberated the news came through that the lorries were going to be allowed through which to all the 4WD drivers meant that we too would be allowed through.
And so it was – we pushed our way apprehensively through water that was above the level of the bottom of the doors (and much higher in one place) and we ‘cruised’ into Carnarvon as people gathered on the main bridge to see the tidal wave of muddy water and broken trees flushing down the previously dry river bed. We reached our YHA hostel as news broke that flood levels were increasing and that serious damage was expected. As it turned out, over the course of the next week the agricultural community was devastated by flood waters that wiped out many farms and destroyed not only the existing crops but the means to plant next year’s as well. We heard of one distraught farmer who watched his 1500 head of cattle drown and many others suffered similar losses.
The flood waters reached to within 200m of the town centre and the town was cut off and could only be re-provisioned by air – the airport was on high ground. We were unaffected unlike the many people around us who were very worried about family, friends and neighbours. Extra flights were laid on between Carnarvon and Perth and on the 21st December we took advantage of one.
Having secured Genghis we boarded a flat bed lorry to cross the waterlogged airport road and flew to Perth where we hired a car and headed south to spend Christmas as planned with old friends in Denmark on the South Coast or ‘Great Southern’ near Albany.
We couldn’t head south from Perth without spending time in the renowned Margaret
River region so we booked into a B&B for three nights and luxuriated in the beautiful countryside and coastal scenery, gorgeous wines and mouth watering food. We then moved east to Pemberton, deep in the karri forests where we met food smokers and a man who had just begun the business of cultivating ‘marrons’,
the west’s answer to ‘yabbies’ or fresh water crawfish and it looked to us that he was going to do well with these (by yabbie standards) enormous beasts. We also learned from him that the many trout in the streams and lakes of the region are incapable of breeding in these waters and are bred by the authorities and when mature enough are released into the waterways for the pleasure of fly fishermen. Pemberton is far smaller and much less commercial than Margaret River but it has an air to it that suggests that it is taking the wine and food industry very seriously indeed and it intends to have its name writ large on any map depicting the gastronomic regions of Australia.
Denmark is also a very pretty town with a stunning coastline, beautiful forests and rolling countryside. We spent a very pleasing five days there with old friends during which we celebrated Christmas with them which necessitated, in keeping with their family tradition, a swim in the Southern Ocean! We met many of their friends and revelled in the coincidences that placed strangers with friends and acquaintances of ours on the other side of the world.
We drove back to Perth on the 27th, spent a night on the outskirts and flew back to Carnarvon the following day with fairly heavy hearts – we knew that our exit route was still closed and we were mentally preparing ourselves for our 23 hour detour drive.
On our return the flood waters had receded a great deal and the air of despondency that prevailed at our departure had been replaced by an air of optimism as the reconstruction began. But not all was well and many from the farming and fruit/veg growing communities were contemplating financial ruin – at least one family had turned their backs on their property and left for Perth, for good. As we stepped off the aeroplane we met the travel agent through whom we had purchased our tickets who greeted us with ‘Happy Christmas, you must be pleased with the news’ – it had just been announced that the southern exit road to Geraldton would open in the morning at 9am!
We re-packed Genghis with springs in our steps and after a good night we left early for our journey through Geraldton to the small crawfishing port of Jurien. The damage on the sea level and featureless road between Carnarvon and Geraldton was plain to see; wide tracts of vegetation free land identifying the paths taken by flood waters that had literally swept away everything in their paths, buildings, roads, livestock and fences. At one point we were startled to see an Emu and her chic staring at us from the short roadside scrub – escaped inmates of some farm or wild birds? The road to Jurien from Geraldton took us along the coast and through a very long stretch of impressive sand dunes before we reached the town. Settled around a port that contained commercial craw boats and some very impressive private game fishing boats, the town was neatly laid out and tidy giving the impression that it was home to a relatively prosperous community. Our cabin style accommodation was part of a pub/restaurant/bottle shop (off licence) complex and having unpacked we set off to see what the facilities had to offer. The whole complex was housed in one huge room; the bottle shop in a glass screened corner, the bar taking up most of two walls and the dining area competing with a couple of pool tables in what remained of the floor space. The place was packed to bursting point; children getting rid of what remained of their daily energy quota; mums watching children, intervening in trouble spots, chatting, drinking; dads without a care in the world having a beer at the bar with mates; singles drinking, playing pool and eyeing each other – just the sort of place for a quiet supper! We took the first vacant table which just happened to be within queue backswing range of one of the pool tables. And we enjoyed very much the good natured tussles that took place on it whilst we set about tucking into the obligatory steak and chips – incredibly for a crayfishing port fresh crayfish was unavailable.
We were told that the entire catch was regularly sold to Chinese agents who sent the catch live, on ice, to China where they fetched premium prices! The evening was fun and being back in the chaos of lively company had been good for us.
Having checked all the usual fluid levels in Genghis he was given a rather more detailed inspection underneath to ensure that he had no loose nuts and bolts and that all his belts were in good order and tensioned properly. We had a long drive ahead of us to reach Norseman, the town at the beginning of the two day journey across the Nullarbor plain that links West and South Australia along the Southern Ocean coastline. Incidentally, Nullabor is not an Aboriginal word as is widely assumed – ‘nullus arbor’ is latin for ‘no trees’!
Our route that day from Jurien took us for hours just north of the Great Eastern Highway through the rolling hills of the Wheatbelt which at that time of year were covered by a golden wheat crop made even more dramatic by contrasting dark lines and copses of gum trees. We passed through small, neat agricultural towns like Moora, Wongan Hills, Goomaling, Wyalkatchem (we’ll catch them?), Nungarin and Merredin before joining the Great Eastern Highway which we travelled on for the rest of the day.
This ribbon of tarmac took us through the last Wheatbelt town and first Goldfield town of Southern Cross before turning south and ducking under Australia’s largest producer of gold, the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie-Boulder. A lack of time prevented us from visiting the town – well, that plus the Navigator’s reaction on reading in the guide book that the plethora of bars in the town were staffed by bargirls wearing only underwear! To be fair, the decision to bypass the town was by mutual consent – even the prospect of scantily clad bargirls paled into oblivion at the thought of the damage that could be done to our credit card in a gold mining town!
900km after we set out from Jurien we rolled into Norseman and into motel accommodation. It was quite late by the time we arrived and chose the accommodation because it boasted an on site restaurant – but it was closed due to New Year’s holiday taking by the staff. The only alternative was the Miners and Working Men’s Club a short drive up the road. We set off grumpy at the restaurant closure and returned from the club with smiles on our faces having had an unexpectedly good meal in friendly company.
On New Year’s Eve we set off on the Eyre Highway for the Clare Valley north of Adelaide, a distance of over two thousand kilometres that we planned would take us three days.
The route is devoid of habitation save for the handful of road houses and inns that serve the needs of those in transit so we had filled fuel tanks and jerry cans to bursting, topped up our 60 litre water tank with drinking water, checked the accessibility of all recovery kit and made sure that our jacks and wheel changing tools were ready to hand – it was very hot and we wanted to reduce any necessary physical activity to the minimum. The drive went well; we started in the early morning to take advantage of the relative cool, we re-fuelled as planned, we didn’t suffer a puncture or breakdown, we were knights in shining armour for a young German couple who had broken down and we reached our overnight New Year’s Eve stop at the Eucla roadhouse in time to book a table at their restaurant!
Apart from the memorable location there was little else to remind us of the transition from 2010 to 2011. The first person we met on the first day of January 2011 was an elderly man who we found inspecting Genghis. He turned out to be an avid Vauxhall car fan who owned a rare 1950s model of the marque which was sitting on a trailer waiting to be transported to a Vauxhall owner’s meet in Gipsland, Victoria. He had travelled from Perth and reckoned the round trip would take a little over two weeks! Just before the end of our conversation his wife, who bore an uncanny resemblance to the late Hattie Jacques, clambered into the towing vehicle, slammed the door and sounded the horn several times to alert her husband to the fact that it was time to be off! With eyes rolled heavenward he said goodbye, sauntered over to the car and set off for an interesting four days to Gipsland. We left a few minutes later and after a few kilometres passed through the quarantine check point on the West/South Australian border where we noted a couple deep in animated conversation in a parked car towing an old Vauxhall car on a trailer.
Our journey that day took us through Ceduna where we left the Eyre Highway and headed south down the west coast of the Eyre Peninsula towards Coffin Bay, famous for its oysters and at its southern tip Port Lincoln ‘Tuna Capital of the World’. But very few tuna caught by boats from Port Lincoln are landed. The commercial reality is that damaged tuna are worth nothing to the highly lucrative Japanese market and in order to avoid damage caused by over handling they are transferred at sea to Japanese factory ships that are equipped to prepare this prized fish for immediate exportation to Japanese tables. Our destination was not to either of these locations however as we had chosen a town a little closer to the Nullarbor at which to spend New Year’s Day, Streaky Bay.
The emptiness of the Nullarbor had not, for us, been the boring experience predicted by the authors of literature we had read about it. Far from it – we loved the changing patterns and colours of the landscape caused by the sun’s position, intensity and relationship to any clouds;
we were fascinated by, for want of a better phrase ‘the tree art’ we came across from time to time by the roadside. It only seemed to occur in areas where Aboriginal Lands bordered the highway so we assumed they were related to those communities but we never did determine their origins; we smiled at the Royal Flying Doctor Service emergency landing strips marked out on the particularly straight and flat sections of the road where natural roadside obstruction
didn’t exist; we smiled when oncoming drivers acknowledged our much practiced, casual index finger raised salute from the steering wheel (those that didn’t acknowledge our salutation withered under a torrential tongue lashing); we marvelled at the fact that we were experiencing all of these emotions and felt very privileged.
The road to Streaky Bay kept twisting and turning, dropping and rising and at every bend gave us a little glimpse of what to expect; from wheat filled fields to isolated farm houses; from tree covered hills to grain filled silos; from cud chewing cattle to offshore islands; from snapshots of sea to white sand fringed bays. The town lived up to the anticipation. Our pub with rooms was perfectly situated overlooking the sea and the pier.
At the halfway point of the two hundred metre long pier was a large rectangular ‘swimming pool’ delineated by a surrounding metal grid from the sea bed to a height about two metres above sea level. This was a safe bathing area, the waters beyond having been determined dangerous not only due to the presence of shark but also because swimmers had had their feet badly lacerated by a large mussel like bivalve that liked the area and buried itself in the sand with just its very sharp ‘lips’ protruding above the level of the seabed. At the end of the pier a few fishing boats were moored and here three generations gathered to teach the art of drop net fishing – and by the look of the catch of blue swimmer crabs the ‘oldies’ were passing on their skills very effectively.
We celebrated New Year (in lieu of the Eucla roadhouse where to be fair the food had not been at all bad) in a restaurant overlooking the water where we did have a meal worthy of such an event. We were interested and somewhat disappointed to learn that despite the presence of the local fishing boats it was impossible for the restaurant to purchase fish direct from the boats. It was much more lucrative and far less time consuming in terms of bureaucratic form filling for the fishermen to sell their entire catch to one agent than it was to sell a part catch to two parties – one party, twenty minutes form filling, two parties, forty minutes form filling (even if that party only wanted two or three fish). The restaurateur was well aware that he was having to purchase less fresh fish from an agent tens of kilometres away who had in all probability purchased the catch from a boat moored a hundred metres away from his kitchen – how frustrating. Our sleep was interrupted by revellers – hangers on from a New Year’s Eve party that had attracted a large gathering of young people who had seen in the New Year well. There had been trouble however and after we had left the town we learned from the national news that a young man had died in hospital as the result of an altercation that took place on the green just outside our bedroom window a few days before.
On the 2nd of January we set off for the Clare Valley, a region renowned for both its beauty and its ability to nurture great grapes. The day was notable because it was my birthday, a birthday marking an age that was difficult to acknowledge without sinking into deep and sometimes despairing thought. I had had the good fortune to spend a previous milestone birthday with our family in Victoria’s Yarra Valley also noted for its great wines and so having lunch in the Clare ten years on seemed appropriate. But that didn’t upstage the predecessor sufficiently so we had planned to skip off after lunch and spend two nights in a neighbouring and very fine wine growing region, the Barossa Valley.
We arrived in the Clare Valley ahead of schedule and had the opportunity to visit a very well known winery before heading off for lunch in a small, less well known vineyard that had been recommended not only for its wines but also for the quality and innovation of the food served in its small restaurant. The setting was superb and we dined al fresco under a beautiful olive tree that was reputed to be well over a hundred years old. Needless to say we eat well but limited ourselves to only one glass of wine owing to the need to drive for a further hour before reaching our overnight destination – but it was a very satisfying glass of wine.
Our two nights in the Barossa were spent in the small town of Angaston, one of three towns in a valley that is only about 25km long but which produces just over 20% of Australia’s wines. There is a sense of deep rooted self satisfaction in its community at what has been achieved here and along with many beautiful cellar doors there is a burgeoning supporting cast of well established restaurants, fashion boutiques, delicatessens, wood turners, local food factories and farmer’s markets. All in all a very satisfying place in which to spend a few days.
We left the hill country to the north and east of Adelaide and headed south to the Limestone Coast on the south western flank of the flat plains between the Murray River and Victoria. Our destination was Robe, a popular seaside getaway for the well healed of Adelaide and Melbourne. It is a very pretty place based on a port, some beautiful beaches and a plethora of residential buildings that reflect the quality end of contemporary Australian architecture. The main street was lively and bustled with families heading in or out of the many restaurants that catered for the throng of holiday makers. We eat in a restaurant that we had booked earlier because it was renowned for its local sea food but it was a disappointment and joined a growing list of places we had eaten at which failed to live up to their promises. Our accommodation was on the outskirts of the town in an old house under renovation. It had been built by an Englishman, the black sheep of a family who learned in Australia that he had inherited a fortune in the old country. He travelled back to England to claim his new found wealth and on his return to South Australia chose Robe to build his handsome single storey building, a replica of his family home in the UK.
Due east of Robe is the renowned wine region of the Coonawarra, a mecca for those who appreciate a spicy ‘Cab Sav’, a powerful Shiraz or a creamy un-oaked Chardonnay. At the heart of the region is the town of Penola which recently basked in the media spotlight when Mother Mary McKillop, the co-founder of the town’s Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart in the mid 1800s was canonised by the Pope in October 2010 making her the first Australian Saint. Before setting off to visit a couple of the vineyards we spent a good time with the local butcher who did all his own curing and smoking and wasn’t reluctant to share his recipes and techniques with us. The vineyard cellar doors were informative and fun and a perfect prelude to a picnic lunch under a huge cypress tree at the corner of two large blocks of vines. After lunch we headed to Mount Gambier where we intended to spend a couple of days catching up on our administration and in particular planning the few days we would spend in Victoria before setting off for Tasmania.
Throughout this region there are references to the Chinese miners who in the late 19th C were being lured from South Australia to the gold mines in Victoria’s Ballarat. To impede their progress and curb migration the authorities imposed a hefty transport tax on all Chinese labourers in the hope that they would stay put or return to China. But they hadn’t counted on their fortitude, particularly strong when gold is around! 16,000 of them walked to Ballarat and a far from welcome reception. Throughout our journey through Australia we were surprised by the size and significance of the contribution made by the Chinese to the development of the country – a contribution that extended to a large part of South East Asia (and beyond) but in Australia largely went unsung. It is worth noting however that not all immigrant contributions to the development of the country at that time in its history have passed without any fanfare; the Ghan, the famous train link between Adelaide and Darwin should more properly be spelled ‘ghan – it is the clipped version of the word Afghan and pays homage to the Afghan camel drivers and their beasts who played such an important role in the pioneering of Australia’s largely desert interior. Incidentally, when we travelled through Oman we learned that Afghani and Omani camels are of the same breed and it was only these that were imported into Australia. As a consequence the Australian camel’s blood line is uncontaminated through careless breeding and is regarded by the Middle Eastern camel aficionados as a very valuable asset! A parallel, in some ways, are the vines originally imported into Australia in the early part of the 19th C that escaped the phylloxera plague responsible for the devastation of up to 90% of Europe’s vineyards in the late 1800s.
From Mount Gambier we headed into Victoria with not a quarantine check point in sight. We drove through beautiful countryside around Heywood before dropping down to the start of the Great Ocean Road. We had driven this road before and so had not planned to follow it through to Geelong. But we had met an Australian silver surfer at Pantai Lakei on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa and had said that we would visit him if we ended up in his neck of the woods, Port Campbell on the Great Ocean Road.
So we found him, had a good chat and then headed inland to Curdievale (just north of Peterborough) and a very comfortable homestay that just happened to be a neighbour to the
Boggy Creek Pub, an atmospheric pub built in 1856. We had supper there whilst watching a beautiful sun set over meadows and the creek – on which a dairy farmer and his friends were attempting to water ski behind the farmer’s very new, very expensive and very noisy ski boat!
The next day we drove into Melbourne and into the suburb of St Kilda where we were based for two nights before crossing the Bass Straight to Devenport on Tasmania’s north shore. The drive along the Princes Highway from Geelong to Melbourne was, on this occasion a unique experience. I had driven this road many times but never in my own car – and as we entered Melbourne proper and drove past familiar landmarks I think we realised for the first time what it was that we had achieved.
The crossing from Melbourne to Devenport on the Spirit of Tasmania II was unseasonably cold and very rough.
We had opted for a daylight crossing that began at 9am and was scheduled to conclude at 6pm. By the time we had driven onto the boat and secured Genghis on one of the huge car decks the majority of foot and other car passengers had loaded and there was little in the way of comfortable seating left. There had been three basic options at booking time; basic seating (no charge) or pay extra for recliners or for a further supplement, a cabin. Cabins were an unnecessary expense for a daylight crossing but recliners would have been nice but there had been none left. So we made ourselves as comfortable as possible with our picnic lunch and warm clothing on Deck 10, as high as it goes for passengers, and whiled away the time. Visibility was limited and for the majority of the voyage all that could be seen was a wild grey sea overlaid with a perforated blanket white, breaking wave crests. The ship shuddered a lot as it dropped into the troughs created by a very heavy swell and it wasn’t long before sea-sickness afflicted a significant number of passengers around us – there but for the grace of god! Deck 10 was pretty Spartan by comparison to the plusher main deck at Deck 7 but it had the advantage of fewer passengers who had the luxury of less congested loos in which to throw up – small comfort maybe but comfort nonetheless! As the voyage progressed and the ship’s movement intensified it was not difficult to imagine the plight of small boat crews in such conditions – the infamous Sydney Hobart yacht race had concluded a few weeks before with a high number of retirements due to dismasting and other forms of incapacitating damage.
We eased into the very welcome sheltered waters of the River Mersey at just before 6pm and after a short km or so of steaming through Devenport we docked on the eastern bank of the river. It took time to unload and after passing through a quarantine check point we headed off to our pub accommodation on the west bank of the river and directly opposite the ship – we had spotted it from our deck on the way in.
Having settled in we ate in the pub and went for a short walk to orientate ourselves and confirm the location and opening times of the Visitor Information centre which turned out to be 7.30am suiting us well. As we returned to our pub the Spirit of Tasmania II was easing off her berth after which she nosed a short distance upstream before turning through 180o in what seemed an impossibly narrow part of the river before gliding downriver to the sea and her overnight return to Melbourne.
We obtained the information we wanted from the Visitor Centre as soon as its doors opened and after breakfast set off on a short shopping trip during which I purchased a spinning rod and reel and a 7 day fishing licence (only required for river fishing) in a camping shop the proprietor of which told me which lures to use. We set off for Arthur River on the North West coast. Our original plan had been to to head east on arrival and work our way clockwise around the island but the weather forecast relayed to us on the ship had warned of strong north easterly winds and heavy rain in the east so we went from clockwise to anti-clockwise!
The north coast road to Stanley was good and traffic was light at worst! The countryside was pretty; gentle hills covered in copses and crops rolled down to the coastal towns set on a predominantly rocky shore. We visited a cheese-maker en route and the delightful Burnie Makers’ Workshop, modern freeform building which houses a number of activities concurrently: interpretative displays chronicling local history and manufacturing processes, a café, a shop, Creative Paper (a successful local initiative that recycles industrial by-products into art papers) and, most importantly, a number of workshops scattered within where resident makers produce their work as well as give demonstrations – artists specialising in ‘miniatures’, sculptors using a variety of materials, furniture makers, musical instrument makers, wood turners and so on. From Burnie we visited Boat Harbour nestled under hills at the end of a cul-de-sac beside a beautiful bay. It was here that we first noticed an unfamiliar pink crop that was fenced and had warning signs detailing the dire consequences that would befall any trespasser. This crop turned out to be poppies and we came across many, many more fields of them as we journeyed across the island; Tasmania is considered the world’s most legally efficient producer of poppies with the highest yield per hectare of any opiate-producing country (around 2.5 tonnes per hectare). Further up the coast is Stanley, a town that is situated at the end of a thin strip of land in the lea of a very prominent piece of rock known as the Nut. After a quick visit to the fishmonger to get some local information and prices of fish we left for Arthur River via the commercial town of Smithton where we provisioned. The two hour drive took us through countryside that slowly changed from cropping and dairy country to one that was predominantly forest and later, nearer the coast’ heath. Some dairy farms were interspersed among the trees and open heath land taking advantage of the lush growth achievable in an area noted for its high rain fall. The cattle certainly looked to be in superb condition. Our accommodation was on a camp site a short drive from the hamlet of Arthur River, a small collection of mainly run down holiday shacks for those who loved the relative peace of the location – and an unforgettable view across the river and out to a rock strewn shore battered by a wild Southern Ocean. Our host was a cray fisherman whose boat was undergoing a refit so he was busy attending to the maintenance of the site and was very happy to take a break and chew the fat. In the course of our conversation we asked him about the possibility of buying a crayfish straight from a boat and he confirmed the view expressed by a cray fisherman in Jurien, West Australia – not worth his effort due to the time he would have to spend filling in a catch and sale return – pity.
He did tell us where to fish however and armed with our rod and reel I spent a few happy hours in the teeth of a gale thrashing the water – and I caught two very fine Australian Salmon which we cooked and ate within an hour of their capture. The fish is not highly prized by fishermen generally which surprised us as we found it very good to eat – but it was very fresh and perhaps that is key to its flavour.
We enjoyed two days at Arthur River and enjoyed it for the same reason as the locals – an unspoiled, wild beauty and peace and quiet.
From Arthur River we headed south on the Western Explorer Road to the once thriving gold mining town of Corinna where we caught the small Fatman ferry across the Pieman River to continue our journey south to another mining town past its best, Zeehan.
South of Zeehan is the reputedly beautiful town of Strahan but we were becoming a little wary of beautiful coastal towns that in our recent experiences turned out to be chocolate box perfection but without character or soul so instead we headed inland to the open cast mining town of Queenstown. If you want the absolute antithesis of places like Strahan this is it! The winding road into the town suddenly revealed a lunar landscape, a pockmarked hillside bisected by dry gullies and devoid of vegetation; not the opening scene to a Star-Wars like sci-fi film but the western route into a very earthy town. We didn’t stay long and climbed out of the valley bottom and headed east in the lea of Cradle Mountain en route to Lake St Clair and then on to Great Lake in the Great Western Tiers. The countryside was reminiscent of the Auvergne region of France with twisting roads, conifer forests and fast running rivers – very pretty but bloody annoying when we were stuck km after km behind caravans being towed by underpowered 4WDs!
We arrived at Great Lake in time to thrash the water for an hour or so but shore fishing here is a very hit and miss affair without accurate local knowledge – we did see a couple in a boat land a very good looking fish which kept our spirits high. The following day was wet and windy but those are the conditions when the fishing is best – aren’t they? – not in our case! But it didn’t matter because we were in pretty country and with our 4WD capability we were able to wander down some remote tracks and enjoy the scenery.
From the Great Western Tiers we headed for a three day stay in Hobart.
- Accommodated in a YHA on the outskirts of the city we used local transport to get us into town and especially the Sullivan Cove port area around which there is much to do and see; Salamanca Place, a picturesque row of four-storey sandstone warehouses that show off Australian colonial architecture at its best; the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery where their exhibition on the sorry history of Tasmania’s Aboriginal community is thought provoking; the Maritime Museum of Tasmania and the Carnegie Gallery with exhibitions of Tasmanian photography contemporary Tasmanian art, craft and design; the lively Salamanca Market that takes place every Saturday and is a magnet for foodies and every craftsperson between the Bass Straight and the Southern Ocean.
We loved Hobart and could have stayed there for a week or two but we were pressed for time and there was still so much to see and do – and the next stop was Franklin to the south west of Hobart. First we wanted to visit Bruny Island where, from the Salamanca Market we had learned there was a smoker of some repute. The ferry from Kettering across the D’Entrecasteaux Channel gobbled up the long line of waiting cars, caravans and commercial lorries and took just 15 mins to land us on the island. Our time on Bruny was spent exclusively with the smoker. He was an interesting man, passionate about food in general and smoking in particular. He was catering to a niche market and was doing very well with smoked salmon in particular and a range of home made preserves.
He recognised a need to expand his produce and had experimented with duck, quail and other meats but had been floored by bureaucracy – the government demanded AUD$2,000 annually to conduct inspections three times a year to ensure the product’s suitability for human consumption; a total of AUD$8,000 annually for the four products he was considering. He didn’t object to the need to be inspected but knew that he would have to sell an unrealistic amount of the new products just to break even; his conclusion was that he could not afford to branch out and grow his business. Rather than help a business and, as a spin off the community, the authorities seemed hell’s bent on stifling initiative and enterprise. Sadly this was not the only occasion we came across the Luddite mentality of the authorities towards enterprising opportunities that had as much to do with underpinning small communities through job creation as it did to satisfy the aspirations of hard working individuals. From Bruny we returned to the mainland and visited a highly successful sheep cheese making enterprise set in beautiful countryside – Ewe with a View! – before setting up camp in a public camping site on the Huon River in Franklin, a small boat building town between Huonville and Geeveston. Our neighbours in the camp site were intrigued by our roof tent and we didn’t want for a drink for the rest of the evening! In the morning we packed up and drove a hundred meters into the town to visit the Tasmanian Wooden Boat Building School.
Established over 20 years ago by an academic who wanted a change of life, the school teaches would be wooden boat builders the skills of such an artisan. Over two years they are actively engaged in on the job training building a wooden boat for the sponsor of that intake. The sponsor is required to purchase the materials for the project and the material that has to be used is a wood known as Huon Pine. This pine is particularly slow growing, a matter of 4mm in girth every 10 years but the resulting tree is straight and yields a wood of very fine grain. It is very highly prized as boat building material and all Huon pines are owned by the government which auctions the wood when it is available. The current course’s sponsor is Tetsuya Wakuda the renowned Japanese-born Australian chef widely recognised as one of the country’s most original, creative and successful culinary talents. His boat a 34 or 36 foot motor launch will be launched in 2011. The yard is not given over to the school exclusively and as it wants to promote the skills associated with wooden boat building any available space can be offered to a boat builder.
At present a retired shipwright in his late 70s is building a very beautiful 22 foot yacht, ‘Peggy’ which he designed and has already spent well over a year in its construction. Whilst watching him at work it easy to understand his prediction that it will take at least another year before she enters the water. Having seen wooden boat building in the Oman and then India it was very satisfying to see the same skills shared by another culture.
From Franklin we headed back to Hobart and on to the Tasman Peninsula and that night’s stop at Dunalley, the point at which the 105 year old Denison canal cuts the peninsula from the mainland by linking Blackman Bay on the eastern side of the peninsula with Norfolk bay in the west. The swing bridge over the canal is made of metal, as is the road surface which gives off a slightly eerie moan as vehicle tyres pass over it. The town has a well established and innovative restaurant and a fish market where there is fresh fish available every day thanks to the five or six local fisherman who are supported by it. We camped in the grounds of a hotel/pub close to the canal from where we had a beautiful view of Norfolk Bay and the marine traffic entering and exiting the canal. Rather than pitch the roof tent on this occasion we erected our guest annex, a 4 man tent. We intended to stay at the site for two nights so using the tent meant we could reserve our pitch whilst we went off in Genghis to explore the peninsula the following day. We eat in the pub that night and had a surprisingly good night’s sleep on an inflatable mattress that took an unexpectedly large volume of puff to inflate.
Early in the morning we set up the stove, cooked breakfast and eat it whilst looking over Norfolk Bay. A couple of small 5m ‘tinnies’ had set off before first light and we could see in the distance that one was on its way back so we went down to the fish market to see how he’d done. The skill with which this single handed fishermen recovered his trailer borne aluminium fishing boats was good to watch and testament to the hundreds of times he had carried out the operation. When his dog had stopped growling we were able to get close enough to see his catch – a boat full of flathead, a fish much prized for its flavour. The market was run by a man who was struggling to make ends meet. He supported the livelihoods of six fishermen including the one we had watched but he was forever under the pressure of local bureaucracy that made his working life increasingly more difficult to manage. His concern was that he would be driven out of business which if it were to happen would affect the fishermen he supported, their families and the community in general. In the course of conversation with him he told us that someone in Eaglehawk, a little further down the road towards Port Arthur, pickled octopuses. Having pickled octopus ourselves and adored the result we were keen to compare notes with a ‘professional’ – so we climbed into Genghis and set off. We had neither name nor location other than the name of the town so an hour later we stopped at Eaglehawk’s small port to ask questions. But there was no one there and as we turned round to set off back to the main road a cray fishing boat steamed onto its mooring and two crewmen came ashore in their tender, one man in his forties and a teenager. As they landed outside the Tuna Club of Tasmania’s weighing station we asked them if they knew anyone who pickled octopus to which the older man replied that he did and why were we asking. Having explained the reason for our search he told us to follow him as he jumped into his ‘ute’ and 20 minutes later we turned into a driveway to a house where he stopped and the two of them went into the house. We too parked and approached the front door to be met there by an elderly woman in a pink dressing gown who sought an explanation for our presence. We explained our quest after which she ushered us into her home where she was struggling with a failed batch of apricot jam. The two craw fishermen were busy making tea in her kitchen and turned out to be good friends of hers. We soon learned that the lady’s name was Rose who was in her mid to late seventies, sprightly and with the complexion of someone who had spent the vast majority of her life outdoors. She was extremely hospitable and over tea and homemade biscuits she told us of a life catching, curing and marketing pickled and smoked octopus. Her memories were punctuated by the fishermen the older one reminiscing of the days when as a schoolboy he would go down on a low tide on his way to school and catch octopus which he sold to members of the Greek community – he was disappointed if he had less than eight. It was a particularly good business for him because he joined the men to whom he had sold his catch on the way back from school at the end of the day and helped eat the catch which was being barbequed! Rose was still pickling octopus as a hobby but the real work was now being done commercially by her son in a larger town who, due to our mismatched itineraries we were unable to visit. We reckoned that Rose had been involved with octopuses for over 60 years which may have had something to do with the name by which she was affectionately known in the region, ‘Octopus Rose’. She epitomised the strength of character we expected to find in relatively isolated communities where you had to be tough to meet the challenges of the environment. She was a lovely lady and I would have given my eye teeth for a tape recorder and a few hours of her time – what a fascinating story she had to tell. Her friend, the cray fisherman was also an interesting man with a story to tell. As skipper of his own boat for 27 years he was wrestling with bureaucracy to maintain his livelihood. Qualified and certificated to the highest level, a new requirement for continued qualification had recently been introduced that required a skipper to jump into the sea from a structure several meters above sea level. With a back damaged from years of hauling craw pots he was not prepared to take the test and failed to accept its relevance when he worked day in day out on a platform less than a meter above sea level. He is in danger of having his license withdrawn but intends to take his case further – but he is unsure to whom he can appeal as he has little or no confidence in the authorities and the union which should be taking an interest in his plight and that of others in similar positions – Rose is also a qualified skipper and will not be jumping anywhere soon! Our conversation with these two supported our observations that in Australia generally there was a rather heavy handed approach to the introduction and implementation of rules and regulations without fully appreciating their consequences. The potential damage being caused to communities which depend on small enterprises to provide employment and thus keep families in the area instead of forcing them away to seek employment must surely be a political aspiration which deserves a more sympathetic ear than currently appears to be the case. Our views on this subject could rightly be criticised for lack of real research. But after more than two months traveling through largely rural Australia with its many small towns and isolated communities where we have rubbed shoulders with a hugely diverse and colourful cross section of this type of community we echo many of their concerns that boil down to a feeling of frustration at increasing levels of bureaucracy that stifle innovation and enterprise, the life blood of the small community.
We could happily have spent more time in Dunalley but we left for the east coast after two nights there and traveled for much of the day through empty, beautiful countryside to Great Oyster Bay and after a brief visit to the Freycinet National Park we moved north to Friendly Beaches.
We camped there in sand dunes that were alive with wallabies. At this point the sea arrives on the beach having journeyed uninterrupted by landfall from Chile or Antarctica! It was mesmerising not just for its fury but also for the gentle, deep swell that suggested infinite power. Having witnessed a novice fisherman catch a couple of decent looking fish from a rocky promontory just before sunset I planned to fish from the same spot early the following morning but the swell had increased in size overnight and now regularly inundated the area with surges that once spent retreated with such speed and force that it was easy to hear large boulders giving way to the power and movement – no fishing from there! There weren’t any other suitable spots from which to cast a lure so I had a stroll along the beautiful beach which had not a single manmade piece of flotsam at the high water mark, a very unusual and satisfying observation. On my return route through the sand dunes I came across a group of wallabies chasing one another through the knee high scrub and stood still to watch them at which point a movement 2 meters in front of me caught my eye and there tunneled into the scrub and busy eating some tender shoots was a young wallaby quite unperturbed by my presence. Eventually it emerged from cover and lazily hopped off to join the group gamboling in the scrub further on. After a cooked tailboard breakfast we packed up and set off to the north on a short leg to St Helens a town recently damaged by floods in the heavy rains that had been predicted in the forecast we had heard on the boat coming over to Tasmania and the reason we had headed west on arrival and not east as we had originally planned.
Founded as a whaling town in 1830 (it also attracted ‘swanners’ who harvested the under-down of the bay’s black swans) St Helens is a pretty town with a picturesque marina and a port that is home to Tasmania’s largest fishing fleet. The town is the northernmost on the east coast and guards the southern access point to the beautiful Bay of Fires, so named by early explorers after they saw Aboriginal fires along the shore.
We spent three nights in St Helens exploring the town, swimming at beautiful Binalong Bay and taking in the views of the rusty red lichen covered boulders that dominate the shore at The Gardens. We also tasted our first Australian crayfish here – fresh caught and cooked within a few hours of being landed it was, quite simply, the best textured and tastiest crustacean we have ever eaten.
For a Jerseyman to put a Jersey lobster in second place in a ‘tasty’ crustacean contest is tantamount to sacrilege but there it is, the truth will out!
From St Helens we began our journey back to Devenport and started the journey by heading west towards Scottsdale. The first leg took us through heavily wooded high country to the dairy farming plateau around Pyengana, home to
Priscilla, the Pig Princess of the Paddock. Priscilla lives at the ‘Pub in the Paddock’ where she whiles away her time making herself attractive to visitors and – drinking beer, her party piece! Pyengana is also home to one of Tasmania’s best known cheese makers, the Pyengana Dairy Company which has been crating tasty cheeses, mainly Cheddar style cheeses, for four generations and was well worth the visit. A little further along our route we came across the Weldborough Pass and its forest interpretation site. We got out of Genghis and spent a happy half hour amongst stands of blackwood, sassafras and myrtle interspersed by wonderful displays of ferns – and all this against an acoustic background of several very raucous kookaburras!
Fifteen minutes beyond the pass we arrived at Weldborough and our night stop, the Weldborough Hotel. Weldborough was first known as Thomas Plains, after an early surveyor. The original plan was to open the area to rural development but the discovery of tin resulted in a sustained mining boom and the construction of a service town that included a racecourse and, a little later, a hotel (with good accommodation!). ‘The Centenary of Portland’, an early guide to the region, describes the town in the 1880s; ‘The Chinamen came and set up a local Chinatown, carrying on as tin scratchers everywhere. All tin and goods went and came from Georges Bay (St Helens) by pack track and slab roads … crops were put in, with good results at Christmas time, while a few cows arrived upon the scene’….. ‘In the roaring days of the Weldborough Mine the lights were never dimmed, and with three shifts to every bed the trade ‘roared on’ continuously, and every prospector bore a pleasant smile. Having exhausted its importance as a going concern, the Weldborough petered out’ It is widely recognised that this was the largest Chinese community on any tin field in Australia and they are said to have outnumbered the Europeans. A large, classic Chinese cemetery remains on a hillside as evidence of the size of the community and in contrast to the Chinese miners who died and were buried in Ballarat, little repatriation has taken place. The hotel, originally built in 1886 and named the ‘All Nations Hotel’, allowed us, for a small fee, to camp on its pretty, grassed, gum treed back garden and having set ourselves up we sat under the gums and had a glass of wine or two before heading into the hotel for supper. We chose the special, T-bone steak with home made chips and fresh vegetables and they were, by a country mile the best steaks we had eaten in Australia. By happy coincidence it transpired that the farmer who grew the beasts whose meat had given us so much pleasure was sitting behind us so we were able to thank him personally for his efforts, a very satisfying way to conclude a great meal.
We slept like logs in our elevated tent and after a muesli breakfast under the gum trees we set off for Launceston via a vineyard or two.
It didn’t take long to drop off the high country and reach the northern coastal plain where we chose to visit the ‘Dalrymple’, ‘Bay of Fires’ and ‘Jansz’ vineyards where we whiled away a good morning (and a decent portion of our remaining budget) before heading into Launceston for a late lunch. We didn’t have time to do justice to the town and instead drove through its centre and Old Launceston Seaport on the South Esk River before having lunch in a bizarre eatery – Davies Grand Central Station, a petrol station and delicatessen selling gourmet food and local wines and beer. Super food and well priced diesel – we couldn’t want for more!
Our camp site that night was south of Launceston on the banks of the Macquarie River at Longford where we cooked the last meal of our entire journey and spent our very last night on Genghis’ roof in our tent. It was a sad occasion and our spirits were not as high as they should have been in such a pretty place. The next day we drove just beyond Devenport to visit a very disappointing market at Penguin before doubling back to Devenport to the pub where we had spent our first night in Tasmania. Early the following morning we boarded the Spirit of Tasmania I and, in reclining seats this time spent a comfortable 9 hours on a relatively calm Bass Straight to Melbourne where we spent the night with friends.
We spent our last week with Genghis in Victoria’s Western District and in the Grampians catching up with old friends whose generosity did much to overcome the sadness we felt at reaching the end of our journey.
After saying goodbye to them we returned to Melbourne for a night and a day later on Monday 31 January I reversed Genghis into his container, tied him down and wished him bon voyage for his passage back to Southampton. A day later we left for New Zealand by air. It had been our original plan to take Genghis to New Zealand for at least two months but our new grandchild oriented timetable having curtailed the time we had in the country ruled out any thought of pursuing that plan. So instead we aimed to spend two weeks with a hire car visiting friends on the North Island only. And that’s what we did.
Having returned to the bosom of our family we often reflect on a journey that will only be properly concluded with the return to Jersey of our vehicle, Genghis. We often think of him in his container on the high seas and celebrate the strength of the vehicle and the qualities it has. A long distance traveled with no breakdowns and only one slow puncture. Miles of road eaten up in comfort and safety; the few near misses remained near misses thanks to the original build quality and subsequent preparation of the vehicle.
As for us, we wallowed in the journey of a lifetime; unrepeatable experiences in all sorts of situations with wonderful people from all sorts of cultures, all of whom showed nothing but kindness to us. We are truly grateful for the opportunity to have begun and successfully complete a journey that gave us the chance to investigate our navels in detail, that reinvigorated us and that provided us with the focus and energy we needed to confront the next few chapters of our lives.
Distance (road travel): 47,000km
Fuel burned (diesel): 7,000 litres
Distance (sea travel): 16,000km (including all outgoing container shipping and ferry trips)
Countries visited: Jersey, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Oman, India, Nepal1, Malaysia (Malay Peninsula, Sabah, Sarawak), Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia (Kalimantan, Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, West Timor), East Timor (Timor Leste), Australia, New Zealand1. (1 – visited without Genghis)
Time on road: 412 days (One year, one month, two weeks and 3 days)
Time in roof tent: 61 nights
Accidents: One minor in Ooty, India
Puncture: One in Surabaya, Java, Indonesia