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We didn't 'Planet'! One camper van. Two blokes. Four weeks. What could go wrong?

Strewth

AUSTRALIA | Friday, 23 March 2007 | Views [1763]

For once, we were organised and on the road quite early. The information gained in the boozer last night was so contradictory as to be of little use, so we made for probably the best source in any small country town – the gas station. Because motorists generally fill up at every opportunity out here, almost any station in any town will have spoken to folk coming from far and wide. They are usually also the local shop, post office, communications HQ and whatever else you care to think of.

We did the routine van service, everything filled and checked, windows cleaned etc. The attendant was a big hairy man with a black singlet and a burning cigarette hanging from his lips. It is only petrol, after all. During general chit-chat, we learned that the nearby Lake Cargelligo was only 7% full, and has not been at the desired level for two years now. The four-thousand acre lake was essentially natural, but has been dammed to raise the level. It acts as an over-flow to collect water during better times, but also provides the tiny settlement for their needs. Unfortunately, for some time water has been directed via canal to the south for irrigating the huge expanses of thirsty cotton crops. While the town’s supply is assured, the main income from domestic tourism has been affected.

Water, next to beer and Aussie rules footy, is a regular conversational topic. In Britain they talk about the weather. In France they talk the cost of onions. Along our route so far, starting in the Blue Mountains and heading west, the situation has changed with every day. It has generally become much more arid, but opinions vary according to whom we speak. There is no doubt that Australia is suffering a serious and prolonged drought, and we will discover more on this when we end up in Queensland next month. Down here, folk from the small towns are generally comfortable with the situation; water has always been a commodity to treat with care, and much of theirs comes from reliable aquifer basins. For farmers of crops and livestock, the situation seems more serious. The storms currently roaming the region have given very localised refreshment to parched areas, while those on the outside can only hope the next will pass over them. Stock rates in the affected areas have had to be drastically reduced. From where I am writing this now, two thousand kilometres west, some cattle stations are down to an unbelievable one animal to six hundred acres. To put that in perspective; a productive European cattle farm will carry more than one animal to one acre.

We asked the man if he knew anything of the road conditions up to Ivanhoe, two hundred kilometres distant - “Gees mate, that roads’ rough as a dogs guts”. He added, “lat avit is bull-dust mate, turns to shit with the rain”. Bulldust is as fine as talcum powder and provides a good driving surface when dry. However, with a decent drop of rain the road quickly becomes impassable even to four-wheel drive. Our problem is the speed we have to travel to cover some distance, if we hit a wet area it would most likely be too late to turn around. There has been a few rogue storms roaming a large area of outback, some places remain dry while others get flash floods. Finding out which is which is our objective.

Was up there for a footy game, anit rained during the match, me and the guys were stuck there a week before we could come home”. Bloody hell, I thought, how many weeks ago was this going on? ”Uh Strewth mate, must have been thirty years ago now, ain’t bin there since”! Oh right. Maybe we should go find someone who has left town this side of the new millennium. We took a calculated risk; the rain had been patchy, and so far we have seen a lot of recent improvement work on the roads. There is every chance that things have changed in thirty years.

Conscious that this was actually our first really big day on the road, we stuck with it and settled into a routine. We shared the driving, maintained a steady pace and stopped only for the most interesting bits. We were now into the real outback, in terms of the landscapes and increasing remoteness. Typically, distances between settlements are one to two hundred kilometres. The road did turn out to be better than expected and we made Ivanhoe at exactly the time predicted.

Along the way we marvelled at the vast open spaces that fill the gaps between towns. It may appear completely inhospitable, but signs of human inhabitation past and present are all around. We stopped to explore various derelict buildings or the occasional old farm truck, half buried in the dirt. Each location tells a story of more prosperous times and broken dreams. There is only two things that really go on out here; everything we saw was connected with farming or mining. Because of the arid climate, it is difficult to judge how old all this stuff is. A number of sites had the remains of an old windmill. Even with a few blades missing, some would break the eerie outback silence, propelled by a harsh furnace-like wind. There was no other sound, except maybe a gentle ghostly howl as the same wind played around the rusty metal structures. We often found piles of old-fashioned brown beer bottles, discarded by working men at the end of a day’s hard yakka. Kick around in the brittle earth and you might find rusty buckles from a Jackaroo’s saddle, or spent bullets from a drunken tin-can shooting match.

Following the Cobb highway, a famous old droving route known as The Long Paddock, we came across a long since abandoned farm that was enough to send a tingle down my spine. It felt more like Bosnia than Australia. Every surface of the building was riddled with bullet holes. Had somebody re-enacted Ned Kelly’s Last Stand? The smell of a rotting carcass hung heavy in the air, and the imagination ran riot. Some of the derelict properties along the Cobb Highway were road houses, placed to serve the stock drovers as they moved animals along its 600km lenght from Queensland to the Victorian markets. In Ivanhoe, the visitor can learn all about this fascinating route and the hardy men that kept it alive.

A long day of shared driving got us all the way into Broken Hill, a town of surprising size that by day would reveal itself as something of an oasis in the middle of nowhere.

Totally beaten up, we crashed for the night without even calling into a pub.

Tags: ambassador van, on the road

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