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.

 

 

Dolphin kayaking

 

 
 
David Whitley takes to the ocean at Byron Bay, and finds himself with some rather cute company… 

We ride high on the swell. Another wave is lurching towards us, and it won’t be the last.

There’s something special about being low to the water while the ocean does its thing. Rolling with the rhythms, being transported from mountain to valley, it’s hypnotic.

But while I’m sat paddle across my knees in the kayak, others are taking on a precarious balancing act. They’re stood on their kayaks, acting as lookouts, as the swells roll in.

There’s no need to stand to see most of the scene, however. Behind us and to the left is the stretched out sand of Byron Bay’s Main Beach. The clouds are gathering ominously above it, but we appear to have hogged the one circle of clear blue sky to ourselves. To our right, surfers gather to take on The Pass – apparently one of the top surfing spots in Australia.

In front of us – thousands of miles in front of us, in fact, is Chile. It’s a fair approximation of the world’s end.

But we’re not looking for South America – we’re looking for wildlife. We’re told that turtles are regularly found here. The green turtles are more shy than their loggerhead counterparts. Not surprising, really – the loggerheads are the size of coffee tables.

There are also plenty of sea birds, diving down towards a tasty snack in the water. They’re a good sign; if sea birds are feeding, then our prey might be too. We’re after dolphins; they’re often found playing in the bay, but they’re being curiously elusive this morning.

Just as I’m beginning to get disheartened, however, the shout goes up. A pod has been spotted. This should be our signal to paddle hard and go out to join them, but it looks as if they’re coming towards us.

I try to work out how many there are. It looks like two separate battalions in the same pod. Further out are a couple of fins, rising and falling beneath the wave with synchronicity, but nearer to us, they seem to pop up at random. There’s two – no, three – no, five. Blimey, there might be ten or twelve of them.

Then the magic happens. One lifts itself almost entirely out of the water right in front of my kayak. Its sleek silver curves arc upwards, along and then seamlessly back in. I’m sure it flashes a smile on the way.

But these waves don’t just conceal dolphins. They’re also packed with treachery, as we discover on the way back to shore. There’s a certain craft to paddling a kayak through the breaking waves. You have to ride them straight on, keep paddling through them rather than being tempted into an easy ride. And, if your kayak starts to spin round (as it’s highly likely to), you need to lean hard into the wave, or you’re going to capsize.

Before we make an attempt on the shore, there’s a shuffling of personnel. I swap places with the frankly lazy daughter of a woman in her late fifties. The girl is knackered, and it’s decided that some proper arm power is needed at the back of the older woman’s boat. I become her engine, and her steersman. If it goes wrong, it’s probably my fault.

We thunder in, in line with the wave. We keep going over the top of the wave, but the kayak starts to turn. I lean over, but the lady in front has forgotten. She’s not leaning, damn it. And then she falls in. Failure. I try to stay on board, but the vessel is almost on its side. I tumble over, straight on top of the spluttering woman below. It’s the exact opposite of the grace displayed by the dolphins.


 

In search of the sea dragons

 

 

In Victoria’s Port Phillip Bay, David Whitley goes looking for some very weird fish

The mercury may be well over the 40 degree mark, but Jacqui insists we put on the wetsuits. “The water in the bay is about 19 degrees and, trust me, you’ll feel it.”

The Great Barrier Reef may be Australia’s conventional snorkelling hotspot, but the stretch of Port Phillip Bay just off Portsea’s beach has something that Queensland can’t rustle up. It is home to a small colony of phyllopteryx taeniolatus – more colloquially known as the weedy sea dragon. Cousins of the seahorse, these little fellas grow to about 40cm long and look about as bizarre as it’s possible for a fish to get.

Through the wonders of evolution, they’ve developed things that aren’t quite polyps, aren’t quite fins and aren’t quite humps. Whatever they are, they protrude from the body, cunningly making them look like seaweed.

Subsequently, they can be rather hard to spot, even when you’re floating above them, keeping an intent lookout.

From the beach, we swim over to the buoy that marks the outer edge of the mini-marina. A small reef lined with luxuriant eel grass makes this area a prime habitat for all manner of temperate weather-loving fish, and a fair few stingrays that hang out on the bottom minding their own business.

The secret to spotting the weedy sea dragons, we’re told, is to stay still and just fix your gaze on a patch of grass. They’re most easily seen when they move across a patch that’s otherwise staying still.

And it’s using this technique that one’s cover is blown. It uses its slender body in a wave-like motion, gently gliding above the seabed.

From the top, they look entirely black, but duck down and it’s possible to see the vivid pinks and yellows that make up their bodies.

But these are not mighty dragons. In fact, they’re extraordinary weak – and hopeless swimmers. They can’t fight swells as waves come into the beach and are helplessly pushed along by them. That’s why they seek peaceful, secluded spots to live in.

Portsea, historically, has been one such spot. But a decision to dredge parts of the bay a few years ago has had character-changing effects. Now surf occasionally gets up, hitting the shore much harder than it once did.

This means its eroding much faster than it once did, and walls of sandbags are piled up alongside the slowly-shrinking beach. There are fears over the future of the village pub, which sits on top of a hillock right above the sea.

 

But the sea dragons may be in trouble too. Jacqui Younger, who guides the snorkelling tours for Bayplay Adventures. “If we’re honest, we don’t know what will happen to them. But the dredging has not been a good thing for Portsea.”

We finish off by swimming over to the pier, where seemingly hundreds of children are jumping off - partly to keep cool and partly to show off to their friends. Under the pier, crabs run up the wooden support poles and shoals of puffer fish flock around them like intimidatory gangs. But Jacqui spots what she’s been after.

“Here he is,” she says. “It’s the last one.” The dragon has some caviar-like blobs on its back.

“They’re eggs, and this is the only one that is still carrying them this season. The female will lay them on his back, and he’s the one that looks after them.”

Hopefully, when they do hatch, they manage to find a way to beat the ever larger waves.

 

 

Disclosure: David was a guest of Tourism Australia and Tourism Victoria

Picture credit 12

Handily, you can get Melbourne included as a stopover (plus get another 9 around the world) on a Navigator RTW We also love Australia (Go Aussies!) and sell very well priced breaks in Victoria

by David Whitley

  

Mission Beach

 

 

 

Landlubber David Whitley gets a taste of sailing without leaving the beach in Northern Queensland.

It’s a wonder that everyone in Mission Beach doesn’t have one of these babies. The four villages that make up the area are spread four or five kilometres apart, and the most direct path between them is straight down the 14km-long beach. As I stand on the shore, considering the post-pub transport possibilities in a one taxi town, Chantelle pulls up her Blo-kart. It’s an enormous contraption that she somehow pulled out of a bag half the size of a surfboard. At the bottom, there’s a metal frame with wheels and a seat. On top of that, there’s a big sail.

She seems a little apprehensive. “There is enough wind, although it’s a little flaky,” she says. “It’s possible, but there’s a big but...” What she means is that there’s a big butt. “Well, you saw how fast I was going,” she dithers, eyeing up my somewhat ‘sturdier’ frame. “The problem is that the bigger, heavier and taller you are, the more wind you need.” I’ve come this far, and I’m not backing out now. And if that means trundling across the sand like a pensioner on a stairlift, then so be it. I slide down into the seat, and Chantelle tries to show me the ropes. Or rather, rope. I’ve got one to which controls the sail, plus some bicycle-style handlebars for steering.

 

“There are no brakes, and it’s currently in the stop position, facing directly into the wind,” Chantelle explains. The principles, I’m told, are close to those of sailing. Keep the sail at roughly right angles to the wind direction, and maintain momentum by zig-zagging (or tacking) across the sand. It takes a few episodes of shamefully slumping to a halt before the idea clicks, but before long, I’m carving across the sand, picking up speed and performing hairpin turns. Dog-walkers on the beach shoot looks of abject pity at the slightly slow child attempting to play King Hoon.

 

Everything feels faster than it probably is – in the same way that going 30km/h on a motorbike can feel faster than going 50km/h in a car. But when the wind hits the sail and the kart flies through the wet sand, it’s virtually impossible not to grin like a glee-infused simpleton. It’s fun in the way that a well-made family comedy film is fun, even though instructions inscribed on the sail insist that Blo-karting can be a very dangerous sport. Those wanting a proper hardcore adrenalin activity are advised to look upwards. 

 

At one point, Chantelle plonks a flag in the middle of the beach. I operate under the impression that this is for performing doughnuts around, but she soon indicates that I shouldn’t be going past it. “The skydivers are about to land,” she says. Sure enough, five parachutes are flitting through the air, with Dunk Island in the background. Those who have descended from 14,000ft are pumped-up whooping like the audience on the Jerry Springer Show.They may be getting the rush, but I’m deliriously content with my somewhat unique soft option; tugging on my sail rope, pootling across the sand and making a mental note to steal one in time for the Friday night post-pub taxi scramble.

 

 

David went Blo-Karting with the Mission Beach Adventure Centre (00 61 4 29 469 330). 

 

 

 

By David Whitley

Bush

 

 

David Whitley becomes a temporary part of the family at Bullock Mountain Homestead near Glen Innes in New South Wales.
 
Containing the sort of energy usually associated with a nuclear reactor, Cruiser bounds down the bank, ploughs through the water and digs his paws in to climb up my chest. My new friend indulges in a frenetic bout of face-licking; a sure sign that he’s not planning to leave me alone for the rest of the stay.  I’ve been out in the bush for less than a day, and I’m evidently part of the family already. Cruiser is the younger of the two dogs at the Bullock Mountain Homestead, and the boisterous Labrador-cross comes everywhere, be it on a scramble down the river, a drive through the forest or pre-dinner kangaroo hunt. He’s after rabbits rather than roos, however.

His weary cohort Tooheys – all the homestead’s animals are named after alcoholic beverages – normally follows with a little less enthusiasm. He’s happy enough to humour Cruiser, but is clearly glad to see his young protégé lavish attention on some other poor mug for a few days. Bullock Mountain is one of those glorious places that can be all-action or ridiculously lazy, depending on whether you’re more in the Cruiser or Tooheys mindset.

Fishing, yabbying, birdwatching and bushwalking are amongst the options on offer, but it’s clear that the heart is with the horses. Twenty-or-so roam freely around the property’s 12,000 acres, but are rounded up and saddled when guests wish to go for a ride. The horses are cared for with an almost maternal verve by co-owner Alison Wood, and they’re clearly in good condition. I’m presented with an absolute beauty – a giant grey called Belle (as in Bell’s whisky) with film star looks.

Unfortunately, she blatantly has T-Rex blood on one side of her family, and getting up without an ice axe and crampons should be something of a challenge. Alison points at a tree stump. “We’ve thought of that,” she says, ushering Belle towards nature’s pedestal. Once up and plodding through the trees, it’s pretty obvious to see why the Woods use the property for horses and tourists rather than agriculture. It’s rocky, rugged and rather overgrown. Some of the trails disappear beneath a sea of wispy green scrub, while the paths are crossed by fallen trees and other obstacles.

We break into the occasional canter, but for the most part, it’s a tentative walk through land that doesn’t seem all that close to habitation. But suddenly we emerge at Beardy Waters, and a beautiful blue pool flanked by two thick rows of gum trees. Pelicans debate whether to scatter or stand their ground as we approach. It’s exactly what the Australian bush should look like, and it’s warm enough for a swim. Cruiser agrees whole-heartedly.

Once we’ve made our way back to base, it’s time for an altogether different water activity. This part of NSW’s New England area is notoriously rich in minerals – particularly sapphires. Most of them are mined these days, but fossickers still try their luck in the rivers and creeks. Unfortunately, doing it the traditional way is rather hard work. Scrabbling around at the rock to get enough to sift through is not much fun, so the Woods have come up with a better plan. They get bags of cast-off material from the mine, and take their guests through how to find the jewels amongst the junk.

Part of the bag is emptied out into two large trays, which act as sieves. They’re lowered into a water vat, and the cleaning process begins. The trays are dunked, shimmied, swivelled and shaken in the water in order to clean the dirt off and separate the bigger stones from the little ones. There’s a clear technique to it, with the aim being to get the heavier stones – and hopefully the sapphires – to the bottom. Alas, that technique isn’t immediately obvious to a rank amateur.

The trays are then flipped over onto old barrels and the rubble is picked through with tweezers. I strike lucky immediately – a small blue speck glimmers amongst the black stones. I hold it up to the light to check, and then pouch it. The hunt is surprisingly fascinating. A second pair of eyes can spot potential sapphires that the first pair misses, and after a while everything starts to look bluer than it is. I end up with a film canister half full of potential gems, although the elation wears off when they’re surveyed by an expert in town. Apparently only one is really gem quality.

But for all the activities, it’s the family atmosphere that makes Bullock Mountain special. The highlight of the day is a lamb roast in the evening, then beers, tall tales and dirty jokes around the campfire. And, of course, making sure that Cruiser has his tummy suitably tickled.

 


Disclosure: David was a guest of the Bullock Mountain Homestead (Bullockmountainhomestead.com) and tourism New South Wales (Visitnsw.com).