Some very different kinds of adventures this week. We have done some proper exploring of the outback, which might as well be a different country to the coast. We have met some characters, shooed a lot (A LOT) of flies and seen the land become increasingly more desolate as we head west.
We decided to stay an extra night in St George so we could actually explore the town some the next day, rather than just blogging and bailing. Tuesday morning we wandered down by the Balonne River and explored the town some. Friendly people all around. We also did some more work on that special project I mentioned. Look out for a Bonus Blog at some stage.
On the recommendation of our temporary neighbours and fellow vagabonds in the Caravan Park, we decided to head south to check out Lightning Ridge rather than west to Cunnamulla. Loaded up on fuel, food and water, our first stop was just out of town - the Riversands Vineyard Winery. Ruth discovered she likes port. Yesterday she shared some new outback wisdom she had gleaned - "When travelling the outback, take Liquor instead of beer. It is more space efficient with a better alcohol to volume ratio, doesn't take up room in the fridge and doesn't make you wee as often."
After our morning wine and port tasting, we travelled south back along the highway and through the cotton fields. We watched the harvesters and balers doing their thing for a while, before stopping off at Queenslands oldest pub (Nindigully, established 1864) for a beer, followed by lunch by the river.
Further south we made a quick stop at Thallon to check out a large mural painted on their grain silos. We then cut back west through Dirranbandi and Hebel before eventually rolling into Lightning Ridge in the late afternoon. The information centre there was super helpful and tourist friendly. For the sake of proximity to attractions, we decided a quick one nighter in a Caravan Park was in order.
Lightning Ridge is all about opals. The shiny little stones that make people go crazy with the idea of striking it rich by finding a big one or a rich seam in your mine claim. This place is steeped in the history of the early rush, the development of mining technology and the melting pot of cultures, nationalities, characters and oddballs that makes up the community.
Wednesday morning we began the day with a dip in the artesian bore baths just up the way from our overnight residence. The water comes out of the ground at a steamy forty-ish degrees (Celcius, for our American readers), depending on the time of day. You can't stay in too long, but it was very relaxing and enjoyable. Oh and Tuesday night we used 6 sheets of pastry to make sausage rolls and quiche, cause we don't have a freezer.
Lightning Ridge has four self driving exploration routes 'car door tours' - basically old car doors, colour coded with arrows and numbers at points of interest, hanging in trees or held up with star pickets on the side of the road. We took the red route first, past the site of the first settlement in the area. Camps abound. Camps are outside the town limits and have no water, sewerage or electricity. They are technically somewhere between squatting, mine claim and freehold. Not quite 100% on the legalities, but people live there in ramshackle huts, old caravans and repurposed materials with solar panels, wind generators, water tanks and long drop dunnies. It is an eclectic mix of the well maintained house-proud cared for structures and the is-this-a-junkyard-or-someones-house camps. There is even a hand built ironstone castle.
We took the yellow car door route next, arriving at Marg's Carvings opal shop for a yarn with Marg. She was even nice enough to polish Ruth's engagement ring. We picked up a nice little souvenir for Ruth. Then a friendly stray dog turned up so we made friends and kept it company until a local could come pick it up. From there we explored the underground sandstone sculptural workings of the Chambers of the Black Hand (Which always makes Adam think of some sort of Dungeons and Dragons Secret Assassin Society). You can see the progression of Ron Canlins ability from his early self taught scratchings to wonderfully intricate sandstone sculptural relief, sometimes painted. Oh, and all done with just a butter knife and a glove for smoothing (although recently upgraded to steel wool).
From the Chambers we drove up to Lunatic Hill to see a large open cut mine pit, various bits of old cobbled together machinery and a proper look at the exposed geological profile that makes opals possible. We drove back along some more gravel roads, past more motley camps and a corrugated iron church before returning to town for lunch.
After lunch we drove out to Grawin (say 'Grah-win', like Darwin) to camp for free (for the first time in quite a while) behind 'The Club in the Scrub,' loosely a nine hole "golf course" and one of three watering holes for the miners about the opal fields. A couple of friendly beers as recompense for the free camping and we found a little spot in the trees, near a dam where the kangaroos like to drink at dusk. Wasn't a bad spot, despite the breakfast flies.
Thursday morning we took some back roads. We passed the other two pubs in the opal fields - The Glengarry Hilton and The Sheepyard Inn. A winding gravel track took us through the very dry Lake Narran nature reserve to Brewarinna. A stop in at the local visitor centre let us take in a local indigenous art exhibition, telling the stories of people from 17 local language groups who had been removed from their families to the mission. Sometimes five generations of family. Sad but important to witness. We pushed on to Bourke for a fuel and gas resupply.
We heard on wikicamps about a station to camp at called Comeroo. Thunderstorms started in the afternoon and we drove through brief showers on the sealed road up to Enngonia before turning west on the gravel road to the station. There was a point of interest called 'Captain Midnights Grave' on the HEMA map for the road, but we couldn't find it. The road started getting pretty bad (a thin sand layer above a hard (dry) layer of packed clay that gets very slick and boggy as the rain wets it up) as the patchy showers increased, so we ended up putting tyre pressures down and going slower.
We eventually made it to the station during a fine patch and found some other campers swimming in the creek. They were a group of environmental scientists working for the University of South Australia to collect flora samples on the adjacent station (Naree). Their work takes them all over the country - they will be chasing us to Tibooburra, then up in Cape York later in a couple of months when (if) it dries out.
Station owners Bruce and Christine were gracious hosts at beer time. Bruce (who is sixty something) was telling us how a couple of months ago he rode a motorbike from Steep Point (the Mainlands westernmost point) to Cape Byron (easternmost) in eight days, straight through the middle. He has also been down to Wilsons Promontory and plans to head up to Cape York in a couple of months to hit all four corners of the mainland within a year. We didn't see any camels and didn't remember to ask. I don't know if they used to have camels and now don't, or it is a bit of country humour. They do run cattle, sheep and goats. And have a very impressive old tractor collection. And plenty of flies to share in the morning. A windy night with lightning and intermittent storm showers passed through to a crisp country dawn.
Yesterday was another long driving day. Patches of damp road (but no significant water in drainage lines or floodways) meant we took it easy along the sometimes gravel, sometimes sand and clay roads to Wanaaring. When we got there the bloke at the corner store told us they had 17 mm overnight and hail, and that the road between Bourke and Wanaaring had been closed. Good thing we took a detour!
From Wanaaring we drove 243 kilometres on sand, clay, gravel and the (very) occasional bitumenised cattle grid and floodway to Tibooburra. The landscape slowly evolved as we headed west. The Paroo River and Billabong got left behind. The trees got smaller and smaller, until (what Adam thought at first on the horizon was a tailings dam) hills made entirely of naked, lifeless stone started to thrust out of the landscape. We skirted dry lake beds and saw many kangaroos and emus along the way. Red dirt, a band of scrubby green and blue sky. Then red dirt, a band of greenish grey, dead and dry, and blue sky. We saw one car on its own, and a contractors light truck and a 70 series landcruiser together heading the other way in the four and a bit hours the drive took. Proper remote.
We crossed into a different type of landscape 20 kilometres out from Tibooburra. The Sturt National Park. We turned a corner, the sun shifted to our right and it was like we drove into a caricature of outback Australia. Blue sky, red stony dirt and about 200 kangaroos and 100 emus (not even exaggerating) in about 5 minutes of driving. It felt oddly cliché, but here we are all the same. We will be driving through more of this National Park on our way out to Cameron Corner tomorrow.
We made it to Tibooburra (which apparently means 'place of many rocks' in the local language) and there are - many rocks. Stacks of boulders piled into mounds that look almost staged. Dinner and cold beer at the pub last night was a well deserved night off from self catering. We didn't ask too many questions about the c