The kitschest street in Australia

 

 

David Whitley take a detour to Bee Gees Way in Redcliffe, Queensland

The bronze statue of three bare-footed young boys, one with guitar in hand, is dedicated to Bodding, Basser and Woggie. Behind it, yellow plaques bear seemingly random phrases. “Nights On Broadway”, “Run To Me”, “Woman In Love”…

The link becomes more apparent when the eye scans over the better known song titles. “Massachusetts”, “I Started A Joke”, “How Deep Is Your Love”… The three boys are Robin, Barry and Maurice Gibb, who would go on to achieve worldwide fame and fortune as the Bee Gees.

On its own, the statue and song titles combo would be a subtle little tribute to a band that was founded and named in Redcliffe, Queensland. But it comes as part of a quite marvellously OTT laneway that has been entirely given over to the local boys done good. Redcliffe is enormously proud of the Bee Gees, and Bee Gees Way is its way of showing off that pride.

The Gibb Brothers were born on the Isle Of Man, but spent their early years in the outskirts of Manchester in England. The family moved over to Redcliffe in 1958, when Barry was 12 years old and the twins were just nine. They had been playing music together back in the UK, but it was in Redcliffe where things started to happen.

At the entrance to Bee Gees Way, which is just off the shore-hugging Redcliffe Parade, there’s a huge glass plinth on which Barry’s recollections of playing at the Redcliffe Speedway are printed.

  

“Back then we talked them into letting us sing in between the races – whether it was the gnats or the stock cars. We sang through the PA system on the back of a lorry, the crowd threw money on the track and we gleefully ran out and picked up the change.”

It was while doing this that racing driver Bill Goode and radio DJ Bill Gates spotted them, and signed the boys up on their first contract. It was signed at the Gibb family home on Oxley Avenue, on March 16th, 1959 – and we know that because a replica of the contract, signatures and all, has been blown up and placed inside the glass plinth.

They became the BGs (which comes from the initials of Bill Goode, Bill Gates and Barry Gibb, rather than the usually assumed ‘Brothers Gibb’). And as they started to make TV and radio appearances in Australia, that became the Bee Gees.

The boys of the initial bronze statue became the men of the new bronze statue opposite, which shows an altogether more recognisable Bee Gees. Barry has his long mane, Maurice his hat, Robin his earring. And behind that is a 70 metre mural featuring stencil-like images of the brothers, and more of Barry’s thoughts. ‘Mo’ was the extrovert, who always had a gang of kids running behind him in the schoolyard; a “magnetic personality” who was “never off stage”.

Robin is portrayed as a dichotomy, two people in one, who was as obsessed with history as music.

It’s this personal, reminiscing approach that plays a big part in making Bee Gees Way so odd. It could have been a lionising tribute, and it could have been an outdoor museum, but it’s neither. It’s more an extended interview with an old man, possibly a few glasses of wine to the good, taking a misty-eyed look back at the past.

Opposite the mural is a wall covered in lots and lots of photos, covering everything from the brothers’ parents getting married to them hauling Grammy awards and Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductions. On the way, there are sweet childhood pics, and ludicrously camp disco-era silver-costumed promo shots. Each is accompanied by a caption from Barry, who generally resorts to half-hearted jokes such as “Was it a hit?” under recording studio photos rather than any real deep insight.

Larger panels give a touch more sense of the Bee Gee story, particularly the one where Barry recollects arriving in Southampton in 1967. They had returned to the UK in a bid to make it big internationally. They were quickly told that “groups are out” and “You have to be an Eric Clapton or you don’t stand a chance”.

“We heard this constantly but we never listened,” are the last words. And they were proved right not to, as later that year Massachusetts became their first smash hit.

A big screen plays footage of Barry being interviewed, interspersed with videos of Bee Gees songs, with the air of justifiable if mildly daggy indulgence tempering the overall kitsch daftness of the lane’s very existence.

But Redcliffe is more than happy milking its claim to fame, and Barry has happily obliged with a few memories from his short time there. “I have changed, but the child inside me has not,” are his words immortalised on the wall. “I am still here on Redcliffe Beach, fishing for that tiger shark.”

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Kalbarri

 

 

Rock-monkeying in Kalbarri National Park David Whitley ruins his trousers in one of Western Australia’s most rugged landscapes

There are many things that are designed to be done in brand, spanking new white trousers. Dancing to Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees is a prime example, as is rollerskating whilst on your period in tampon adverts. However, such clothing is not ideal in all circumstances, as I now know to my cost. For example, sitting around a campfire in a muddy field, getting progressively more tipsy. 

Believe it or not, the next day your lovely gleaming trousers turn a dirty shade of charcoal, and they absolutely stink. Seeing as they were completely buggered up from the previous night, I thought I may as well keep them on while we’re strolling around the Kalbarri National Park. Now I don’t know what everyone else thinks of when they hear the phrase “National Park", but I tend to think of a few relaxing walks, with maybe the odd hill. I was wrong, and if there was any chance of my proud new purchase washing clean after the campfire, then there wasn’t after a morning in the Kalbarri. 

This place is astonishing, as much for the history as the scenery. Millions of years ago, this was the bottom of the ocean. Now, we know more about the surface of the moon than the ocean floor. To put in perspective, the only time man has gone to the deepest depths of the planet was in 1960, when two men and a submersible went right into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific. They had tiny windows, nothing that enabled them to see in the dark and saw sweet FA. We’ve never been back since. That’s as mad as snakes, and thus walking through the Kalbarri is pretty special. You’re going back in time, and visiting a place that is a complete mystery to mankind at the same time. When I say walking, it’s a bit of a misnomer, unfortunately. Most of the time, we’re clambering up and down rocks, messing our clothes up big style. 

It’s all great fun and high adventure, but I really wish I’d put some kind of novelty Steve Irwin costume on beforehand. As we snake our way down through the dust, we encounter people who clearly believe in doing things these easy way – they’re abseiling. At the bottom, we arrive at the Murchison River, and after all that exercise, I’m having a swim. Everyone looks at me as if my brain has gone on holiday, and the river is, of course, freezing, but it’s remarkably refreshing after scrambling over rocks for the best part of two hours. From there, it’s a case of climbing all the way back up. It’s hard work with the sun beating out of a clear blue sky, but it’s worth it – the view is astonishing. The river carves its way through the surrounding landscape, and you’re perched on a ledge way above this ancient world. Let’s face it, I can always buy a new pair of trousers.

 

Broken Hill

 


 

David Whitley gets a true taste of the Outback, going out with one of the world’s most isolated posties on his rounds.

Sheep logic works entirely differently to ours. The three woolly merinos can hear us approaching along the dirt track. They can sense the dust storm being kicked up behind the Landcruiser. They know that this means danger, and they need to get out of the way. As we thunder ever closer, they panic and break out into a run. And it seems that straight in front of the rapidly approaching vehicle is the optimum route to safety. “That,” says Steve. “Is why sheep and intelligence don’t belong in the same sentence. At least the goats tend to run off on the right side.” Steve Green knows these treacherous stretches of red earth better than any man alive. He is the Australia Post contractor responsible for servicing some of NSW’s most remote properties twice a week.

Every Wednesday and Saturday, he embarks upon his epic 550km-plus mail run across two time zones. In a day’s work, he’ll drop off letters, parcels, vital medicines and spare machinery parts to just twenty outback stations. It works out at slightly over two mailboxes an hour – and many of them are designed with the sort of eccentricity that comes from being isolated in total whoop-whoop for a very long time. He delivers to rusting oil drums, converted fridges and – in one instance – a model of Ned Kelly that has its guns pointing out at the Silver City Highway.

For today only, I am Steve’s gate man. In practice, this means that I have to get out far more often than he does, opening and closing the gates designed to keep the sheep in. They may seem a little pointless in areas so big, but it’s easier to search one giant paddock than to go over the entire property, inch-by-inch, in order to find a stray. The average property size in these parts, sandwiched between the South Australian border and the Darling River to the south of Broken Hill, is around 80,000 acres. Sounds enormous, but the land is so stark, dry and barren that it’s hard to make a living off it. No crops are grown, and in some areas there’s only one sheep for every 50 acres.

To drive through it is awe-inspiring. It’s the true sunburnt country; scorched earth, slithering box trees on the horizon and proper Big Sky. It’s easy to see why artists come to live in Broken Hill – the stark landscapes surrounding it could act as inspiration to a complete klutz that struggles with painting between the lines. To anyone with a talent or an artistic bent, it’s dreamland.

But it’s not exactly paradise for the station owners. Times are tough, very little land has even a smattering of green to cover it and creeks can’t even muster a trickle. As we drive past a large dusty bowl, Steve says: “If Harry Harry Creek and Turkey Plain Creek go absolutely crazy at the same time, that is Lake Woolcunda.” From his tone of voice, it’s obvious that this happens very rarely indeed.

After three hours on the road, we pull into a yard full of rusting metal, old machinery and what one of the passengers calls “other assorted junk”. “Heathen!” Steve snaps back with a grin. We’re at Buckalow, our morning tea stop. And it seems as though quite a gathering has arrived, possibly in anticipation of some new meat to talk to, but more likely in the anticipation of free cake.

“I’m disappointed that you’ve not got scones today, Val,” says Chris Bright of the neighbouring Kimberly property. As cuppas are supped and cookies demolished, the conversation meanders all over the place.  The absence of the local friendly carpet python seems to be of some concern. “We’ve not seen it in the house for some time,” says Val Gillett, the redoubtable owner of Buckalow. “It wouldn’t bite. It’d just sort-of punch you. Especially if it had a chicken in its mouth.”

Chris has tales of a more unpleasant interloper. “I tell you what – if you’ve got a brown snake in your yard or kitchen, you don’t let it out of your sight for a second. As far as I’m concerned, it can have 79,999 acres to do what it likes in, but if it comes in that acre where my house is, it’s gone.” The banter is all very jolly, but the situation is not. I ask when they last had a good year. “1994,” says Chris, without the slightest hesitation.

It’s easy to see what conditions are like from the vegetation. In some places, even the saltbush is struggling to grow. “And that’s a drought specialist,” say Steve. As we drive on, the landscapes are extraordinary. Stark red desert backdrops will suddenly turn into grey/ white wintery-looking stretches as the soil changes. Kangaroos hop alongside the road or sleep behind rocks. Wedge-tailed eagles make their graceful, effortless swoops across the skyline. Emus stand and watch as the truck ploughs past.

On some tracks, the only tyre marks have been made four days ago on the previous mail run – not another soul has driven down there since. Steve has a fairly light load today, so he’s happy to make the occasional detour up a sand bank to watch a lizard, or show off patches of spinifex that kangaroos have turned into a bed. He also tries to point out the different flora of the outback. Acacia bushes are “like ice cream for goats”, apparently. As the stomachs start to growl, we pull over somewhere completely different.

The Bindara station is a relative oasis. At one point, the homestead was the hub of a million acre property, which transported huge amounts of wool down the Darling River. A bit later on, we see a rusting barge on the riverbank – this was used to ferry the sheep across. Today, Bindara gets a bit of cash from agriculture, but mainly from its bed and breakfast accommodation and workstay programme. The owners, Bill and Barb, are down in Mildura when we arrive, so the welcoming committee is comes in the shape of Bindi – the sort of guard dog that would kill with a thousand licks.

The grounds around the main house are just beautiful. The roses compete with the jacarandas to provide the most colour, while the onions and asparagus growing in neat rows are flanked by orange and lemon trees. An old chimney stands by the tree-lined riverbank and the water... well, it may have the colour and consistency of glugging cement, but at least it’s flowing.

It’s not just us that are enchanted with the spot. A couple of nomads join us as we’re unwrapping our sandwiches. They’re on the hunt for Bindi’s partner in crime, Kanga, who has gone missing. John and Trish only planned to stay at Bindara for a night or two but they’ve been here for five or six weeks now, helping out with whatever needs doing in return for food and lodging. They put up the fly-screen tent that sits on the lawn, although Bindi tries her best to knock it over by charging through, wilfully ignoring the door.

The green quickly turns back into that familiar fiery orange as we head towards Willotia, the furthest outpost on the run. But Steve pulls over abruptly after seeing some more wildlife at the side of the road. It looks like a fox, but Steve opens his door and calls out: “Come here, Kanga.” The wandering hound has been out hunting. And evidently for a swim. He jumps into the truck, then proceeds to clamber over into the back seat and shake dirty water over everyone. Steve hauls him forward, and the soggy hound ends up half on the gear stick, half on my lap, panting away as he enjoys the prime views out of the windscreen.

We swing back via Bindara on the way home to Broken Hill and Steve shouts out to John as he slips the rogue dog under the fence. “Special delivery, mate!” On the long last stretch, Steve tries to explain why he doesn’t bid for more mail run contracts. “For a start they pay peanuts – and roasted peanuts too. They’re bad for you.” Indeed, that’s why he carries the passengers – taking a few tourists is what makes the whole thing viable.

“Second – and I’m not being arrogant here – but I’ve got by far the best run there is. Some of the others can be 18 hours in a day. This one has great people, morning tea is at morning tea time, lunch time is at lunch time and there’s the country. “Anywhere else, you pick one great bit of scenery you see on this route, and it’s that all the way. Here it keeps changing, and it’s always different.”

So why doesn’t he get a bigger truck and take more than four tourists? It’s not as if the demand isn’t there – in peak season, he is turning down 20 to 25 people every time. “Because this is the truck I do the mail run in. These are the clothes I do the mail run in. And this is how I drive. “The reason people love it is because it’s not a tour. If people are out shearing, it’s because the sheep need shearing. We didn’t stop at the Ned Kelly mailbox because they didn’t have mail. Everything people see isn’t happening for their benefit – it’s happening because it’s real.”

Damn right it is – right down to the last kamikaze merino.

 

 

The Light


David Whitley heads east of Perth to view one of the world’s great engineering achievements, but finds himself wowed by one of Australia’s natural wonders 

Around 45 minutes east of Perth, there is a dam. A decent-sized, but unremarkable dam, if compared to enormous projects such as the Hoover Dam in the US, or the Aswan Dam in Egypt. But it is the pipes leading from Mundaring Weir that should inspire awe.

Before the 1890s, Western Australia was a bit of a struggling backwater. The Swan River Colony – as it was originally called – was only founded because the Dutch and French were snooping around the continent’s west coast and the British thought they should stick a flag down to stop the competition making a claim.

In 1829, Perth was founded. It’s an older city than Melbourne, Brisbane or Adelaide, but the other colonies grew a lot quicker than poor, bedraggled and forgotten Western Australia.

But in the 1890s, gold was found way inland at Kalgoorlie. There were fortunes to be made there, but many paid the ultimate price in trying to make them. It was desert, and you can’t drink gold. Many ambitious would-be miners didn’t even make it out there. There were no roads, and over half who attempted the 600km walk over dry bushland from Perth died of thirst.

Enter CY O’Connor, an Irishman with a reputation for handling massive infrastructure projects. He came to a tragic end, committing suicide under pressure from constant media carping about the costs of major achievements such as standardised rail gauges across the state and a new port at Fremantle.

He never got to see the finished version of the pipeline that would be, by any measure, one of the greatest engineering achievements in history. It runs for 560km from Mundaring Weir to the Kalgoorlie goldfields, uphill and through the desert. It required loans of what would now be billions of dollars, and what was then the largest single order of steel in history.

Stood on top of the dam, however, it’s not the engineering achievement that strikes. It’s something that’s hard to convey to anyone who has not visited Australia. It’s a stunning sight – the water of the lake created by the dam is a rich blue, whilst the rocks that make up the banks look gaspingly dry.

But the dazzling scene is made by the light. It’s the thing I missed the most when I returned to Britain after five years in Australia. Even on the sunniest days, Britain only ever gets a muted, hazy light. In Australia, however, the skies seem so much more vast, and the light so much more intense. There’s an invigorating, almost fearsome brightness during the day that turns into an enhancing, hugely flattering illumination at dawn and dusk. It’s only when you leave and lose it that you start to realise just how powerful and energy-giving it is.

On the way back from the weir, we decide to drive up to Kings Park, the giant 404 hectare green lung that overlooks the Swan River and central Perth. The road in – Fraser Avenue – is lined with tall gum trees. They’re striking at the best of times, gloriously pink-tinged white trunks soaring skywards with no branches on the lower levels to sully the majesty. But as the day draws to a close, the fading, marvellously complimentary light gives the honour guard of trees an entrancing, magical appearance.

And no man-made achievements will ever be able to top that.

Disclosure (and recommendation): For a great overview of Perth’s history and future, the two hour Perth Urban Adventure walking tour around the city with Two Feet And A Heartbeat (Twofeet.com.au) is an excellent choice. David did the Two Feet tour as a guest of Tourism Western Australia (Westernaustralia.com).


Sydney train

 

Travelling by steam train is like stepping back in time. Passengers scurry along the platform, checking numbers written in chalk on the side of carriages. A red carpet is laid out, and an attendant takes an older lady’s hand to assist her over the gap, while tickets are clipped by attendants in shiny black caps.

At the front of the train, a man in soot-covered denims shovels coal into the fire box while the driver, wearing a slouch hat, monitors a pressure gauge the size of a dinner plate. There is a massive sigh from the engine and steam engulfs the station. In the swirling fog, the pitch-black barrel of the engine is the only thing distinguishable. The conductor checks his silver fob watch, blows sharply on his whistle and cries, “All aboard!”

It could be a dream, but it’s real: We're travelling on the 3642, a green 160-ton steam locomotive restored painstakingly to its 1930s glory by a dedicated team of volunteers from the NSW Rail Transport Museum, based at Thirlmere, in the south of Sydney. It’s the biggest rail and transport museum in Australia, and well worth a visit on a weekend in Sydney, where train rides are offered on its diesel and steam fleets.

Amazingly, all the crew on the 3642 are volunteers. Most are train buffs, many are family and just as many have been involved from the beginning, when the train was a shell covered in graffiti. On just a handful of dates each year, the crew take the train out for special events- a trip to the Blue Mountains, a jog along the coast to Wollongong, a trip inland to the Southern Highlands. Often the destination isn’t the main drawcard for passengers, but simply the delight of the journey.

The grand days of rail travel are long gone, but little nostalgia and the romantic appeal of train travel go a long way: our train is packed, and as we gather steam and pass through Redfern, there is the faintest smell of fireworks in the carriage.

We stop just before the platform 45 minutes later at Penrith station.A workman with a wrench the size of my arm heads to a pump, while another positions a big metal pulley over the black tank in front of our carriage, to fill her up with more water.

We cross the Nepean River and the huffing of the locomotive becomes more pronounced as she pulls us up towards the Blue Mountains. While the 3642 does the hard work, I explore back through the train.

I’m a little affronted by the people dressed like mad scientists in clear plastic goggles and white lab coats but when I stick my head out the window I understand – I'm immediately covered in cinders and soot. Hanging out the side of the train as it chugs along is an unsafe but irresistible pleasure. My grin is so wide, I later find a bit of charcoal lodged between my front teeth. I watch the steam puff out of the engine like a perfect children's drawing and when I glance back, every window is occupied with grinning idiots, their hair flying madly.

Traffic banks up as trainspotters chase us up the mountain. There's one guy with a video camera set up on a tripod on the roof of his car, while another wearing headphones holds out a microphone to capture the sound of the steam whistle. People perch on top of chain-link fences and squeeze through locked railway maintenance gates to take photos. Parents stand on overpasses with their kids, engulfed in steam.

The appeal is understandable. It is a glimpse of the past, before terrorism and carbon offsetting and security checks– a nicer,more simple and innocent time for travel.

On arrival, the Blue Mountains are as stunning and cold as ever and the Winter Magic Festival as crowded and wacky as expected. But we're just anxious to get back on our train. It's easy to talk to the passengers beside us as we're warmed with wine and cheese, raffles and laughter on the return journey down the mountain.

It's dark when we reach Penrith but families bustle up to the platform for a closer look. A woman with a toddler approaches Michael.

“Is it Thomas?” the toddler asks.

“More like Henry,” he replies kindly.

It's a completely different language but one they both understand. The toddler smiles and walks up to the engine for a closer look.