Stuart


David Whitley hits the Stuart Highway, and feels humbled by Australia’s vast, dry interior.

 

You can quickly go off kangaroos. Don’t get me wrong, under normal circumstances I can happily watch them all day. But at 6.30am, when I’m bleary eyed, behind the wheel of a strange car and tentatively inching my way through the minimal dawn light, they are less welcome. At this time of the morning, kangaroos are a ruddy nuisance. They come out in force, leaping nonchalantly across the road from all angles and making driving a test akin to The Gauntlet on Gladiators.

 

Emergency stops are as regular as gear changes at this time of the morning around Wilpena Pound, but it’s worth the test of nerves. Wilpena Pound is a huge natural amphitheatre in the Flinders Ranges, and all around are fabulous walking trails, scenic drives and 360 degree lookouts. But the landscape is far too varied and jagged to be proper Outback. And today’s drive was our first foray into Australia’s vast, inhospitable interior. The cross-continental adventure really starts at Port Augusta, a deeply unattractive town that is billed as the Crossroads of Australia. From here, the major highways head east, west, south and – more pertinently for us – north.


Port Augusta lies at the head of the Spencer Gulf. From here, the Stuart Highway ploughs its way up to Darwin and doesn’t cross a permanent source of flowing water until Katherine – 1,500 miles away. To get an idea of how remote the territory the Stuart Highway crosses, bear in mind that the road has only been properly sealed for 23 years, and the train line from Adelaide to Darwin was only completed in 2004. Interruptions include four settlements that would be regarded as villages or small towns at the most in the UK, with a roadhouse every hundred to two hundred miles dispensing fuel and awful food.

 

And if it sounds a tough drive, then think what it must have been like for the man the highway is named after. John McDouall Stuart* led six expeditions into Central Australia, eventually becoming the first person to successfully cross the country from South to North and back again in 1862. Each time he was walking over brutal country into the complete unknown, tortured by searing heat and often going days without water. His story is well worth reading – and some of the rest stops along the way cover the basics of Stuart’s incredible achievements. But the surprising thing for us on our first foray along the Stuart Highway was how fascinating the landscape was. We had been prepared for long, tedious slogs up a gunbarrel-straight road, but our first eight hour stretch of driving had us gripped.

 

This is partly due to the occasional stop-off along the way. At one point, we pulled over by Lake Hart. The railway line separates the road from what is usually a dazzling white basin. Hart is one of the ring of vast salt lakes that dot the interior of Australia. It’s a mere baby compared to the giants such as Lake Eyre and Lake Torrens, but it still gives a glimpse into what makes Australia’s outback so unique. The salt lakes are usually dry, as are the creeks that run into them. But a few times every century, it rains spectacularly in the north of the country and the creeks brim with water. They flow into the salt lakes, which fill and suddenly turn from barren landscapes into amazing scenes of life. Millions of birds flock from miles around to feast.

 

This year has seen one of those heavy rains. Lake Hart looks relatively full of water, while charter flights have been running to let tourists see the incredible scenes at Lake Eyre. What has taken white Australians decades to understand, however, is the complete unreliability. The central Australian landscape is best thought of as being like a dormant volcano – it can appear dead for years, and then will suddenly explode into life for brief, irregular periods. But what really grips is the vastness of the stark landscape as you drive through it. Despite the abnormal level of rain, the horizon looks unbelievably dry. And, importantly, it also looks so big. There’s little option but to feel very, very small indeed and just submit to something more powerful than you could dream of being. 

 

 

*Stuart was a Scotsman, and unquestionably the least incompetent member of the famous Stuart dynasty – which ruled Britain for many years with varying levels of bunging inadequacy.

 

Disclosure: In the Flinders Ranges, David Whitley was a guest of the Wilpena Pound Resort (Wilpenapound.com.au) and the South Australian Tourism Commission (Southaustralia.com).

 

More photos here

 

 

Gold Coast Zorbing

 

 

David Whitley goes rolling downhill in a giant plastic ball in southern Queensland

Welcome, my friends, to Teletubbyland. On top of the lush green, perfectly-sculpted hill, closely cut and rolling like a particularly vicious golf green, is a giant ball. About four metres high, made entirely of see-through, bubble wrap-style plastic, it bobbles around, reflecting the sun and looking quite, quite surreal. Suddenly it starts rolling towards us, almost squelching down the hill. It slowly gathers pace, but gives the impression of an old, fat Labrador gambolling along with its tongue out, ready to greet his master home from work. Oh yes, and there’s someone inside it, flapping around in a rather undignified manner.

This is a Zorb, a hi-tech method of rolling down a hill without the grass and mud stains. All the fun, but without the need to buy special washing powder or get treatment for grass-induced rashes. Now, the Gold Coast has many a weird and wonderful attraction, but this could well top the lot. Apparently it has been here for three-and-a-half years, but unless you’ve got a friend who just happens to live round the corner, you’re probably not going to find out about it. For a start, it’s way off the main strip, about 3km north of the Dreamworld theme park at Pimpana, and there appears to be no signposting for it. Even when you get there, it’s hidden behind a Go Kart track. Whether this is a cunning viral marketing push up there with Leonardo DiCaprio’s fabled Thailand beach or a stunning lack or organisation, I’m not sure.

Eventually, we find the site, and we’re greeted by a scruffy looking chap who looks like he’s just woken up next to a half-empty bottle of moonshine. He greets us with a chirpy g’day and then disappears around the back for ten minutes to do Important Things. We’re left staring into space, wondering which poor blighter has the job of pushing the gargantuan spaceballs up the hill. He returns from the pressing negotiations regarding the Middle East peace process to talk us through the options. Basically, there are two ways of rolling down a hill in a big, dumb, plastic globe – either strapped in with a harness or freestyling amongst a couple of buckets-worth of warm water – and both, we’re assured, are riotously good fun.

After being sucked in by the comprehensive spiel, I’m led to a battered old ute which looks like it has seen both world wars. The Zorb is shunted on top of the back with the use of a couple of poles. It seems as no-one’s quite stupid enough to attempt to push them uphill all day after all. “They’re only made in New Zealand,” I’m told, as we chug to the top of Mount Wiggle. “And they cost about $12,000-$15,000 each. Pretty serious equipment, this fella.” Apparently, it takes about 25 minutes to fully inflate one using a souped-up leafblower, and twice that time to get the air out. To attempt the task on lung power alone would be an exercise in extreme masochism.

On the crest, we’re greeted by John, who is clad in the corporate uniform of paint-splashed overalls. I’m taking on the harness first, and he briefly explains how to get into it whilst pushing the ball onto the pool of water on which it is designed to rest. I leap inside and get busy with the process of strapping myself in. Feet first, then waist, then chest, and, following the rapid dislocation of both shoulders, I get my hands in the handgrips behind me.

There are two options; go down forwards for the view, or backwards for the fear factor. Being both an admirer of the countryside and an utter coward, I choose the form… oh hang on, we’re off!  The supersized hamster ball slowly lumbers downwards, with me flipping over and over, entirely helpless and in bellowing hysterics. There’s no real adrenalin rush – far too slow motion and jelly-like for that – but the sensation is something approaching unbridled, childish joy.

Performing somersault number four or five, a mound appears in front of me. Ah… this could be a problem. There are a lot of nasty trees to the right, and should this send me off course towards them, it’s going to be a mighty tricky rescue operation. The Zorb lurches slightly that way, but gravity wins out and it’s a few rolls to the finishing line. I’m not sure whether they fill the plastic with nitrous oxide, but I’m almost in tears of laughter as I’m helped out of my psychedelic cocoon.

The water option is an entirely different experience, partly because you’re granted a limited bit of freedom, partly because you get soaking wet, and partly because I have company this time round. What will follow is an inelegant mess of flailing, tangled limbs, but first, the pipedream. The idea, we’re told, is to run the Zorb downhill, staying upright all the way. Keep the weight centralised along the radius, don’t lean too far in any direction, and go aggressively from the push off to get it moving properly. Easy, huh?

Alas, no. Two seconds later we’re both sloshing around in a pool of water, banging arms and legs into each other in a desperate attempt to get upright. As our spherical plastic cage gathers pace, I desperately try to regain my footing. Up again, I wobble, slip and crash backwards, my landing cushioned by a nice, bouncy stomach. From here on in, it’s a desperate scramble for dignity, hands clawing at the walls, knees and feet going every which way in the pool beneath us. The comic roar is doubled this time. Whether it’s a release of delight and energy that has been hidden away since early childhood, or the wartime spirit of keeping up the grin during impossible adversity, I really don’t know, but pure glee is splashed across our faces upon exit, despite just having suffered total humiliation.

 

Fremantle

 

 

David Whitley gets an insight into how prison life used to be in Western Australia – and vows to be a good boy from now on

If the Australian government really wanted to cut crime, then the best thing they could do would be to put Old Fremantle Prison back into use, and from there broadcast a reality show on prime time TV. From tax return ‘massager’ to murderous psychopath, everyone would think twice. Sharing a tiny room with a violent criminal and a bucketful of festering human waste - in 40 degree heat with no fan or air conditioning – is no fun.

Up until 1991, when it closed, this is what conditions were like at Fremantle Prison. Holiday camp it wasn’t, as you can see at first hand as everything has been kept intact. When it closed down, after lots of thumb twiddling, the State government decided to keep it open as a tourist attraction. A rather ghoulish one, admittedly, but a fascinating one nonetheless. The refreshing thing about the tour is that there’s no romaniticising the prison life. You get the full details in all their guard-bribing, fist-fighting, drug-smuggling, soap-dropping horror. First up, we’re taken through the check-in procedure. We’re told how prisoners were stripped naked, had their belongings put in a bag, and were issued with the prison uniform.

As we’re guided through the chapels, cells and exercise yards, we’re bombarded with interesting titbits of information. Whether it’s the mundane stuff about how mail was read and luxury items bought or daring tales of escapes and riots, you get a real feel for the prison life. You learn things too – drugs being smuggled in through tennis balls being hit over the prison walls; the wing for non-violent prisoners being more violent than the wing for those up for bashing grannies; the wannabe artist who whittled his button into a pencil and covered up his incredible cell artwork with porridge every morning. It’s unexpectedly gripping.

What really comes across is the barbarity of the system though. Not from the prisoners, mind, but from the authorities. We’re taken to the flogging post, where misbehaving convicts would be whipped until they’re hospitalised, and then to solitary confinement, a hellish prison within a hellish prison. Eeriest of all though is the gallows. The last man hanged in Western Australia was Eric Edgar Cooke, a serial killer, in 1964. Amazingly, the death sentence was only abolished in 1984, but the tour takes you through what would happen if it still existed now. A rope round the neck, the sinister crank that opens the trapdoor, and you’re dead within two seconds. Strangely enough, silence fills the room after that.

 

ps Tours of Fremantle Prison run from 9am to 5pm every day, and candlelight tours are also available. You’ll need to book in advance.

Aussie Bite


Our run-in with Aussie wildlife continues. Yesterday I was sitting on my surfboard, enjoying a blissful, sun-blessed pause between sets at Byron Bay. The great curving arc of sand that reaches, almost unbroken, from Cape Byron (Australia’s easternmost point) around Byron Bay and Belongil Beach stretched out behind me. Ahead of me there was little to interrupt those thousands of miles of watery horizon before the coast of South America.


Suddenly I was aware of a big shadowy shape moving swiftly through the clear water directly towards my right foot. It moved so swiftly that, before I could even react, it had passed within inches of me and was already arching over the surface of the water in a smooth, sleek, gun-metal grey form. Thankfully the whole thing happened so fast that I had no time to start frantically hauling my extremities out of the water and screaming like a hysterical maniac.

And, of course, as soon as the nose rose above the water – just a metre from me – I could see clearly that this was not the feared shark that had first entered my mind but a dolphin. Spectacular marine life is a common occurrence in the line-out at Byron Bay. I had already seen a big turtle raise its head beyond the breakers and had paddled over to come within a few feet of it before it sank back under the waves. Occasionally even migrating whales are spotted here.

Even Australia’s east coast, the most densely populated part of the country, can be a Mecca for wildlife lovers. Some of that wildlife is a real privilege to see...some less so. Fenningham’s Island is a sleepy little place not far from Newcastle. The campsite there is set in a picturesque lagoon among eucalyptus and wattle trees. Kangaroos and koalas inhabit the forests in fair numbers. Ibis strut at will around the campsite and in the early morning the normal wake-up call is the cackling cry of the kookaburra (the bushman’s alarm clock). But the dominant species is definitely the mosquito.

We arrived shortly before dusk, just as the mosquitoes began to bite, and before long I was soon grilling steak and vegetables on a campfire. Tucking into the meal we were grateful for the drifting smoke of the fire that seemed to be more effective against the voracious little attackers than any repellent. Suddenly I became aware of a shower of little sticks and leaves that was falling on me and my plate. Imagining at first that it was just a breeze in the treetops I didn’t take much notice until I realized that the pieces of falling timber seemed to be hitting me with impressive accuracy. I backed up towards the van, staring upwards with my headlamp set on full beam. I was able to make out a large pair of bright red eyes just as a eucalyptus seed flew down and hit me perfectly between the eyes. I was being bombarded by a possum!

Perhaps, I thought, the possum was just defending his territory, in which I had unwittingly parked. Perhaps our lary, lurid, spray-painted Wicked Camper was offending his sense of decorum. It was then that Laura – the Brazilian travel-writer on this same assignment – realized that another shadowy form was moving through the scrubby brush towards our campfire and the last chunk of steak. It seems that the bombardment was just a diversionary tactic so that the possum’s accomplice could creep up from out of left field and steal our steak. Possums are not said to be among Australia’s most intelligent creatures…but these two sure came close to outwitting us.

 

By Mark Eveleigh

Perth Mint

 



David Whitley tries to get his hands on what he patently can’t afford in Western Australia

 

In a climate of banking instability, bail-outs and business collapses, it’s unusual to come across an operation that is not just surviving, but booming. The Perth Mint is one of the unexpected beneficiaries of the global financial crisis. With the public jittery over the banks, house prices rocky and stocks and shares plummeting, people have turned to gold as a safe investment. And if there’s one thing that the Perth Mint has got, it’s lots of gold. The Government-owned institution produces commemorative coins and bullion, plus it acts as both a depository and trading centre. The gold price has shot up in 2008, and the Mint has seen a flurry of interest, both from investors and curious visitors. Sales of gold and silver coins from the Mint’s shop have more than doubled in the last year – visitors are clearly putting their money where the metal is.

 

The Perth Mint is a curious mix of high security trading centre, upmarket souvenir shop and tourist attraction. Many go in purely to buy jewellery and look at the collector’s coins – and these cover everything from cutesy koala engravings to Prince Charles memorabilia. The coins are all legal tender, but it would be absurd to use them as such. A coin with a face value of $2 is sold for $90, and will probably be worth a lot more in years to come – handing it over in return for a bottle of Coke would be a costly error. The mint also revels in its Gold Exhibition, which traces the history of gold in Western Australia and has a couple of fairly awesome set pieces. By the reception are a few of the medals from the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which were made at the Mint. But the history goes back a lot further than the turn of the 21st century.

 

WA’s first gold was found in Coolgardie in 1892, and the state’s population more than trebled in the next four years as people flocked to cash in. Soon after, the world’s “richest mile” was discovered in Kalgoorlie and it wasn’t long before it seemed sensible to mint it in Perth rather than send everything back to London. That’s where the big limestone building that still houses the goodies today came in. After the brief history lesson, visitors are led through to a mocked-up prospector’s camp, where some giant gold nuggets are on display. Unfortunately, they’re models, and painted polystyrene isn’t quite as valuable. One of the big beasts – the Hand of Faith - was found in rural Victoria, and is the largest nugget in the world today (other larger ones have been broken down). The real version is on display at the fittingly-named Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas.

 

Back inside is the world’s largest collection of gold bars, all wisely kept behind glass aside from one that visitors can attempt to lift. It’s pretty small, but takes a bit of muscle. It weighs 12.54 kilos, was worth $200,000 at the time it was made and is now worth considerably more. There are also opportunities to see how much your bodyweight in gold would be worth (a cool $3,712,752) and engrave your own coin. But the real highlight is watching the gold being poured. Danny Martin has the unenviable task of standing by a 1,300 degree furnace and handling $200,000 worth of molten gold. “Please don’t try and jump me,” he says as he pulls the searing liquid metal out in a clay crucible.

 

He’s wearing a wool shirt, as that smoulders rather than bursts into flames, and has an apron and gloves made of Kevlar. He brushes the crucible against his left mitt just to prove how hot it is – the sizzling sound is shudder-inducing. Very carefully, he proceeds to pour the gold into a mould. “Would anyone like to lick the bowl?” he asks.  The crucibles, understandably, have a limited lifespan, and traces of the gold stay in them. These are all carefully removed with chemicals before the sturdy old warhorses are put out to pasture. The bar takes five to ten seconds to solidify, a process that it should be well used to by now. The same bar has been melted down and re-used for the demonstration 30,000 times over the years. Remarkably, none of it has been lost in this time – the weight is carefully logged after every demonstration. The cooling process is nothing fancy – the mould is just dunked in a sink of water – but soon enough, the reformed bar is possible to touch with the bare hand. 

 

But anyone who wants to be able to touch gold on a more permanent basis is better off heading to the shop – the security guards and cameras are enough to deter any chancers. And afterwards, people really do flock to the shop – under present conditions, it seems as though the Perth Mint has the golden touch. 

 

More photos here

 

The Perth Mint can be found at 310 Hay Street, East Perth. It is open from 9am to 5pm on weekdays and 9am to 1pm on weekends/ public holidays.