40,000 kms and counting

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40,000 kms and counting

Binns Track is in the northwest of the Northern Territory... a rambling 2191km outback drive, beginning up north in the rugged, rocky, shale-ridden Gregory National Park - over on the Western Australian border - where 2-spare tyres are recommended and a number of local tracks are currently closed for whatever reason... something to deal with from time to time. Then we head east and south, down to the Davenport Ranges where to drive one 17km river section takes 2hrs. Yes, the track conditions vary, sometimes sand, rock or plain old bulldust, sometimes narrow with 2-individual  tyre tracks, sometimes road-train wide with no-go bog areas, serious bumps and ruts here and there.

We stop to chat on occasions, indigenous communities often close by, small groups camped along the track to search out bush tucker... wild bush beans and seeds being family favourites.

But today we are camped at Tower Rock - 200km northeast of Alice Springs - a recently created Conservation Area donated by a local station family. And after 8mths on the road - having travelled over 40,000km - it's another journey milestone.

Tower Rock is a special place, for us found almost by accident - a handful of mammoth, isolated but atmospheric redrock piles just off Binns Track,  mentioned in our WIKICAMPS bible with 3-reviews amounting to a rating of 4.8-stars out of 5, the surrounding scrub-covered plains melding with an endless red horizon... and at night just us, the rush of a  cool breeze among dark boulder piles, and a blanket of stars overhead.

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Postcard from Cobourg

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Postcard from Cobourg

From Kakadu and the  East 'Alligator' River it's a 4hr drive to Cobourg Peninsula's 'Caiman' Creek, although it's anyone's guess what those two reptiles have to do with Australia's Northern Territory... the drive beginning with an East Alligator crossing where the causeway is partially blocked with waiting saltwater crocs  - not alligators - the 2m to 4m beasties ignoring our truck as they wait for tidal change and the unsuspecting fish that follow.

At Caiman Creek we are about 550km east and slightly north of Darwin, getting here via a badly corrugated road, lined with bush and narrow at times.

The region is part of West Arnhem Land, returned to Aboriginal ownership in 1981, having first arrived around 40,000yrs ago and more recently seeing outsiders come and go... Indonesian sailor-traders, buffalo and croc hunters, pearlers, missionaries, tourists and fisherfolk of all denominations.

And it is just south of here that was thought a good place for a European settlement in the 1830s, even without a convenient supply of fresh water, an initial survey conducted at the end of the wet season and the British colonials being preoccupied with a perceived threat of Dutch and French expansion in the region.

A 43m long jetty was built, but wrecked by a cyclone the following year. A prefabricated building intended as 'Government House' was lifted off its stone pillar foundations and dumped 3m away.

Within 6yrs the settlement was struggling, with half the garrison - initially from Tasmania - crowded into the small hospital suffering from malaria... along with scurvy, influenza, dysentery and diarrhea.

And it is the ruins of 'Victoria' we are here to see, a 6hr round trip by boat only, including a 4km hike round the site.

Our guide is Travis, initially from South Australia, maybe 40, with a tangle of dark wind-tussled hair tied in a ponytail, a long-sleeved fishing shirt, football shorts and bare feet. Travis is well read, has worked "in mental health with Central Australian indigenous communities", and has been a tour guide in the Kimberley, Kakadu and Tasmania. These days he is based here, "married with family and a mortgage."

The first thing we see is a 20m high cliff - red and white - with what's left of the jetty below. Travis noses the boat into the shallows and on to the white sandy beach. He grabs a 1-ltr bottle of water... and an epirb - an emergency locating device. "The most important thing we have on board I reckon." He smiles. "Pretty damn isolated out here."

We look around, what is left being stone, the ruins including a powder magazine still intact, and what is left of the married quarters with Cornish-style round stone chimneys. There are also the ruins of 2-Quartermaster's stores, a blacksmith's, limestone kiln, hospital, kitchen and bake house.

The cemetery is a quiet, forlorn place, dominated by a handful of graves including that of an Italian priest who chose to live with the local Aborigines instead of within the settlement, and over on the edge of the jungle a tall stone spire dedicated to the wife of the longest-serving officer - Lieutenant Lambrick  - his 40yo Emma the much-loved matriarch of the settlement who died during childbirth in October 1846. 

Travis is quiet for moment. "Yeah, that was tragic really. But it seems the settlement limped along for another 3yrs, 'till the sickness and death of both the Assistant and Chief Surgeon... the last deaths recorded here."  

Travis shrugs. "Mmmm... odd that one... both the Assistant and Chief dying in the same year I mean."

The late morning glare is intense, and Travis' eyes narrow. "The books tell us they failed here due to ambitious trade hopes not eventuating." I must look doubtful considering the population never exceeded 70 souls. Travis smiled. "Well yeah, I know... they'd hoped that Victoria Settlement could be another Singapore... way out here. But supplies, were unreliable and infrequent, storing stuff in this climate difficult... I mean half the flour weight was weevils! And there was of course the disease, and the wild but mostly oppressive weather."

"They did have a garden I suppose, but the soil is not so good up here, and anything harvested was mostly eaten by rats."

"And malaria was the major killer here, spread by mosquitoes of course... but they never got what it was about." Travis shook his head. "The Aboriginal mobs knew it was mosquitoes that carry malaria. They took preventative steps, like using smoke, and smearing clay on their skin. But the Brits thought malaria was caused by bad air."

Travis has one child, with another baby on the way. He frowns, then gazes out to sea. "No kids made it through here, and I reckon the real reason the place failed was that it died of a broken heart, with the death of Emma Lambrick... and her baby, Emma having already lost her only son the previous year.

"I often wonder what happened to Emma's husband - Lieutenant Lambrick - him being second in charge and the longest serving officer here at Victoria Settlement until finally abandoned in 1849... him losing everything after being stuck here for 11yrs."

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Hard times at Cape Arnhem

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Hard times at Cape Arnhem

We are 1000km east of Darwin, our only access to here via the Central Arnhem Road, arriving at the turnoff late afternoon. Then it's still another 20km off the main track, with compulsory vehicle restrictions fair warning - "Vehicle must be 4WD with plenty of clearance, 2m max width x 2-1/2m max height."

On the descent from the escarpment the scrub crowds in, the sand deepens, tree roots and the occasional drift of rock add to the chance of a puncture. Our first glimpse of the water is between 60m dunes, the sand deeper and softer here. Our truck turns into a roller coaster, the steeper crests topped with slats of wood tied together and laid across the track to help with traction. Many of the connections are broken, with some slats impaled in a mess of white sand.

Finally along the beach we choose a path just above the waterline, the tide retreating for the next couple of hours. We pass the sacred site of Twin Eagles,  impressive pieces of rock joined to the mainland by sandbars. This is a wild coast, isolated and often windswept.

Our camp lay between stands of bull oaks where the slightest breeze sounds like the rush of a river, the ocean waves a constant wash, a timeless ebb and flow. A pair of osprey fish just offshore and sooty oyster catchers wander the wet sand. There are dingo footprints for the length of the beach. They seem small and delicate, their direction straight.

We meet Ron the fisherman, a tradie from Darwin. He fishes alone from the rocks here, has 5-rods and has "been here 4-times now." He has dark hair tied back in a pony tail and swims fully clothed in his shirt and jeans, "to cool off after lunch" he says. "Have seen some crocs, but never a dingo till now." Ron has no time for dingoes. "You seen the damage those buggers do?" He wipes loose strands of his wet hair away from his face. "Yeah, this one, she's small... probably has pups somewhere. They'd call her a fox down south."

On our first night any breeze is soon gone, the sea a breathing lullaby, the early evening a welcome relief from the normally sweltering sun. The full moon is late rising, finally lighting the dark, hilly landscape where our truck is nestled.

The next morning we lay low in the shallows, the tide out, the sun already hot. There is no sign of crocs. The dingo approaches from the fisherman's camp, stops and stares, not 5m away... then takes a measured step even closer, her delicate front paws now in the water. She's young, with a fine white muzzle and black nose. We can see her ribs, but her sand-red coat is clean, unmarked by mange or scars.

She sniffs the air and stares, her eyebrows white, those eyes brown and questioning, "Are they dangerous? Are they food... maybe some beached animal that could be dinner?" Her cautious curiosity is tangible, before she finally turns, gives us one last look, then resumes her business-like trot, off and down the beach before turning at some rocks, then disappearing up into the dunes.

That night we cook pork on the campfire, the fireplace a rusted steel ring in the sand, our burning logs within, half the top a cast steel grate.

Early next morning we finish coffee, and there is a movement in the corner of my eye. Then all is still by the makeshift BBQ. She stands still, neck stretched and nose towards the now cold grill, those eyes watching us. But the pork steaks are long gone, just a memory of last night's dinner with a bottle of Italian red wine, a dash of garlic and a kale salad with shredded Parmesan cheese.

It seems those eyes are accustomed to disappointment, and we wonder if there are pups secreted away in a den up the beach. We offer no scraps, and life seems tough for a beautiful animal that has been here for over 4000yrs.

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A walk on a Macassan beach

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A walk on a Macassan beach

We are in East Arnhem Land, the beach windswept, with white sand and red rock shelves, the sun burning, the smell of baked earth and newly-burned grass, the early September temperature around 37degC.

The walk is a loop, the site recently subject to a regular indigenous 'cool burn to keep down the understorey and to better see these pictures that lay on the ground - outlines built of small red rocks in the 1890s by Aboriginal Yolngu elders

And this is their story that could have been lost to future generations, the story of a way of life that existed for hundreds of years and a local connection with the outside world... the Indonesian collection and trading of sea cucumber - or 'trepang' - along with the turtle and pearl shell, all in turn to be traded to the far-off Chinese.

We walk in a clockwise direction, observing the Yolgnu artist's work, an important historical record of visitors to this shore called 'Macassans' - from the Indonesian island of Makassar - pictures of their boats and stone houses, of their fireplaces for boiling the trepang.

The Macassan sailors came each December with the monsoon winds - sailing their tri-mast vessels - the 1600km journey taking 2wks. They would set up camp at their stone houses by tamarind trees planted on previous visits as location markers, returning home with the corresponding southeast trade winds.

They did business with local clans and in exchange for Yolngu labour - and the use of their land - the Macassans traded canoes, metal knives, axes, spears and fish hooks, along with glass and tobacco. Several Yolngu visited Indonesia, returning to East Arnhem the following year.

We follow the marked walking track from the stone outline of a Macassan sailing vessel to that of a Macassan stone house, and wonder at the march of progress... the last Macassan visit in 1907, 'the last' due to an Australian edict to introduce licenses and taxes payable in Darwin before any trade - the direction of the winds making sailing to Darwin impossible.

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6-months on the road

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6-months on the road

For this milestone we are in Northern Territory on the Gove Peninsula, East Arnhem Land.... and we are wandering the airy corridors of the YIRRKALA ART CENTRE - an expansive display of Indigenous Arnhem Aboriginal art.

It's been 6mths now, since leaving the cooler climes of Bayside Melbourne... and every now and then something special has come our way...  like a special moment or thing, an event, a place or person. This time it's all about a priceless national treasure we have never heard of.

To get to Yirrkala it's been a drive on the reddest of roads,  billowing dust the norm, corrugations common and the occasional rut  - '24hrs from Katherine' the information brochure says, although 'only' 700km as our truck flies.

We overnight at Mainoru Roadhouse, our recommended stop in accordance with our over-the-counter, no-cost, 10-day permit from the Northern Land Council office in the Katherine main street.

On our arrival at Nhulunbuy on the Gove Peninsula, we seek out the 'Dhimurru Corporation' office for camping permits on Aboriginal land, then our NT liquor permit to buy take-away alcohol.

The seaside town of Yirrkala is 20km to the south, the scent of frangipani on a breeze, the sun hot, the Gulf of Carpentaria a glittering turquoise blue and the sand a dazzling white.

The gallery is adjacent an Aussie Rules oval of green grass, a stadium/shed and store. Impressive murals cover outside walls... the heros of Aboriginal rights going back to the 1960s. The gallery entry is plain and unadorned, the glass door dark and dusty under a wide, shady verandah. 

Once inside is another story... a treasure-trove of handmade indigenous art typical of this isolated region. There are forests of traditional wooden Yidaki - didgeridoo - with the most intricate traditional designs, wall hangings and paintings. Shelves are stacked full of books, CDs and carvings. Simple racks are laden with woven bags and a photographer snaps special pieces in a cluttered room off to the side.

Justin is lean, has a greying mane of straight hair and has been here since the 90s. He rises from behind his computer screen, stands tall in a plain white tee-shirt and blue jeans. There is something we must see, he says.

Out back is a specially-built darkened room with timber steps down to a small sunken cellar of sorts - atmospheric with soft lighting designed to highlight 2-vertical panels. Both are intricate in their design - rustic browns and blacks - with a low bench seat directly across from, and in front of the panels. There is a lot for the visitor to take in. 

The panels are about 1m wide by 3m high and hang side by side. And they tell an Aboriginal creation story, wonderfully presented in detail by the Indigenous artists, but evidently with no Christian influence, coersion or direction.

Justin tells a story that begins "before my time", the panels created by Yolnu elders and gifted to the newly opened Methodist church in 1963, intended for permanent display as a screen behind the communion table. Justin waves one hand towards the front door. "You would have seen the church over the road."

The story continues... 10yrs after the panels are installed - around 1983 -  a new missionary arrives at the church, saying the panels are inappropriate for a church, and are most certainly "heathen" works. Both panels are stripped from inside the church against the wishes of the Parish Committee.

The panels lie neglected and forlorn for 4yrs - but are never completely forgotten - propped against an outside wall exposed to the ways of mud wasps and weather, before being rescued by a coalition of Indigenous and non-Indigenous activists, then cleaned by the staff of the Australian University.

Justin pauses for effect and to gather his thoughts while peering over the top of thin-rimmed glasses. "And that was the beginning of a movement here in Arnhem Land... you might say, the very beginning of the entire Australian Indigenous Land Rights movement."

Down in the cellar my eyes are drawn to the panel on the right, with a small figure top and centre - a diminutive, painted bird - this little bird being the ancestral link between the spirit and the temporal worlds, flanked by helpers on his immediate right and left... the cicada and the possum. Alas, an ancient story considered inappropriate to the doctrines taught in a civilized house of worship. 

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Postcard from Seven Emu

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Postcard from Seven Emu

From Hells Gate we drive 4hrs west across the Northern Territory border via the Savannah Way, part of Australia's National Highway One, although here mostly a red dirt and dust road of sand holes, bulldust and corrugations. The turnoff is a 25km track to 'SEVEN EMU',  a sprawling Gulf station of 1665 square miles right on the Robinson River... and a unique partnership with the AUSTRALIAN WILDLIFE CONSERVANCY.

OUR CAMP is perched on 30m red cliffs high above the Robinson, a favoured haunt of saltwater crocodiles, two 4m beauties making an appearance in the first hour. Later we gaze down on metre long queenfish that cruise towards the river mouth bounded by distant dunes on a wild Gulf coast.

For most of the day the wind moans through white cyprus pines and the afternoon sun throws a shimmering silver sheen over tussled river ripples. At night we listen to the ratchet drone of crickets, the splash of feeding fish, the cries of night birds and the crackle of the campfire - not a skerrick of wind now, and a never-ending magic carpet of stars. The air is cool after another 35degC winter day, the fire's smokey smell loaded with the perfume of dust and dry wood.

The old stockmen facilities are rustic... a flat iron roof on round wooden posts, a long drop toilet with sunset river views, and a 44gal rusted drum 'donkey' fire-fed heater for luxurious hot showers.

The owner of Seven Emu is Frank, a Gulf country Garawa man in his early 60s, with a knowing black face,  the wispy line of a mustache and white hair under a tussled black hat with wide Gulf brim. The blue shirt is of a Wrangler Western check, the worn jeans of faded denim, the slip-on shoes tarnished and dusty.

And Frank's a man who doesn't seem to miss anything, has a mischievous streak, his sharp eyes brown, narrowing now and then as if sizing up his audience. I ask about his dad, who bought this place, and Frank screws up his eyes, thoughtful as he remembers his father. "You know, the best advice he gave me was to always talk to the boss when doin' business... keep low and stay out of trouble."

I'm also interested in Ludwig Leichhardt, the famed German botanist/explorer who came this way in the 1840s, naming 'Seven Emu' after a successful hunt, before disappearing without a trace on the return journey. Frank nods. "Yeah... lot's come here interested in that bloke. Good man I reckon. Never shot a blackfella, and asked them about the animals, plants, and the lay of the land."

We take a rough, winding track in Frank's battle-worn Landcruiser ute, out to the old place... across sandy ruts, bumps and dried-out crossings - the homestead paddock deserted now due to a lack of reliable water.

Frank parks his truck and we make our escape from the searing midday sun... to a grand stand of mangoes reminiscent of a giant cathedral, tall thick columns of trunks, their canopies melding as one. Their shady shroud hangs cool and restful over what's left here - some tumbled-down shed walls, some crooked asbestos sheeting and the overgrown remains of his mum's vegetable garden.

Frank talks fondly of his mother, caring for the family and that vegie garden, but dying at only 61yo... and he points to one particular tree. "See that tree? I was born under that one." He tells a story of his dad leaving home, riding over 500km east to the Queensland frontier Gulf town of Normanton, with a young Frank in tow and his mum left home with a brand new baby. "Yeah, long way that trip, me just a baby." He smiled. "To give me mum a rest dad said. And with me just startin' to walk, reckon he should have got father of the year!"

Our host points to a depleted pond surrounded by scrub just below the paddock and we amble down to the water's edge. It's been a good wet season he says. Frank stoops down to pick up a handful of wet sand, holding it up and gazing intently at the palm of his hand. "In the old days, there were bugs and bait in this sand." Frank frowns. "But nothin' happenin' now." He falls quiet for a moment as a gust of wind rustles the mango leaves. He tugs at the brim of his hat with one hand, tossing the sand over the water with the other. "And, when the sand hit the surface the fish would always be comin' to the top back then... to see what was happenin'. These days, nothin' much goin' on there either."

I look at the pond, Sue and I both thinking the same thing - there are tadpoles in the water after all, so is that not a good thing? But Frank has been down this road with tourists before. "Cane toads," he says with a hint of contempt, then moves on to another story - when his brother and him encountered a giant crocodile. "He was a big one that saltie, maybe 6m or so... an old one for sure." His eyes follow along the sand bank where we stand. "We was camped on a bank, my brother and me, and this big fella rushed up with his mouth open. Lots of teeth." There's a smile from Frank, then a nervous cough. "Scared the hell out of us. Right between us he went, then just keeled over, dead. We found 20-toads in his belly."

We look at each other, then at Frank, more than a little depressed.

Frank is sad at what has happened to this country, the introduction of pests that degrade the land - from assorted weeds to South American cane toads, feral cats and camels - after 65,000 years the sudden neglect to properly care for the land.

But Frank is grateful for his good luck too, the Seven Emu pastoral lease purchased in 1953 by his visionary father, an Aboriginal, self-made, self-educated man with no entitlement to vote back then, and Indigenous Australians not granted full citizenship rights until 1968.

By all accounts FRANK'S FATHER was an exceptionally hard worker, a horse trader and cattle drover with a plan... striking it lucky by winning some money "on the horses", raising 11-kids and insisting they be formally educated... Seven Emu being the only pastoral land lease ever purchased by an Australian Aboriginal.

Frank smiles from the corner of his mouth, and his brown eyes sparkle. "You know what?" He leaves me no time to answer. "My old dad lived till his 90s, and always said that I needed to take care of country... that city fellas like you would arrive one day and pay me money to tell stories and show them around."

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30,000kms and counting

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30,000kms and counting

This morning we ponder our breakfast bowls in quiet isolation, another milestone bush camp away from the roadtrains and caravans, about 100km east of Mt Isa, Outback Queensland... last night's neighbours a passing herd of camels with shining eyes, their footfalls the only sound on a balmy, starry night, Australia the only country in the world where it is still possible to see wild camels.

But it can be funny about breakfasts... the obvious things easily missed first thing in the morning, even after a long time on the road - with the dual milestones of 30,000kms and sharing over 100-breakfasts - we've just discovered our breakfast bowls are different, both being a valued gift from our Airbnb friend - Carol from Coventry.

Yes, the bowls are exactly the same size... and yes... they are exactly the same colour. But hey, they are not the same. After all this time tagging them as either "the one on the right" or "the one on the left" - due to us having subtle differences in our breakfast preferences - we've found that one bowl has horizontal lines integrated into an otherwise similar pattern, whereas the other does not.

Oh, and those special breakfast dietary requirements? No, it's not about who likes ruby grapefruit, grapes, apple or apricot... and who doesn't. It's not about kiwi fruit or mandarin. And no, it's not even about the denomination of muesli or the dollop of yoghurt in each bowl. As it happens, we are both happy with all of the above.

But what it is about is the preferred banana proportion to be carefully placed in each bowl, and the degree of ripeness of said banana. Not so important? Well, that depends on how long you spend with someone - 24/7 being a long time - and it depends on who you talk to.

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Broken glass, backroads and byways

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Broken glass, backroads and byways

It's been tricky, but after having the windscreen cracked in 3-places, and the driver's window shattered - all within minutes - we've just managed to get the lot fixed in Longreach, Queensland one week later.

Tricky? Because our options from Birdsville - having mobile reception and from where we booked the repairs - were either Outback Mount Isa 700km north, or Outback Longreach 900km to the east. 

Mmmm... oh well, what's a few hundred extra kms between friends when on the road for 4-months and travelling over 20,000km on roads and tracks of assorted ilks? Interestingly though, it does seem to have been the sealed roads that are more if a problem - with the added factors of excessive speed and oncoming caravans - a spray of loose bluemetal often flicked up and catapulted in our general direction.

But it is especially disappointing to be hit with yet another stone, with another cracked windscreen today, only 1-day after the first lot of work was finished. Oh well... just another 'inconvenience', as long as it doesn't stop our travels.

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100places 100faces

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100places 100faces

Well, maybe not 'exactly' 100-faces... one thing for sure though, since leaving Melbourne Bayside 4-months ago, we have today stayed in 100-places!

There have been roadside and roadhouse stays, tavern carparks, caravan and National Parks, along with the occasional station stay.

And for our 100th stay, we're here at LARA STATION - 150km south-east of Longreach, Queensland. And to get to the homestead we've come through the 'back paddock' taking 2hrs to take the 10km cross country 'scenic route' on a puzzle of old government roads and muddy tractor tracks, opening and closing gates as we go... scenic, yes, but definitely not the recommended route which happens to be via Landsborough Hwy.

We find THE OLD QUEENSLANDER HOMESTEAD weather-worn and weary, but still grand, the rambling grounds deserted except for a friendly, well cared-for blue heeler at the gate of a modest, small cottage. A young woman camper is in a caravan out back of a larger shed. She looks surprised at the intrusion, wondering who we are. Yes, the owner Jo does live in the cottage, but is currently "out and about" and "the proper wetlands camping area is just down the road, with a caretaker on site".

Lara wetlands is a treed Eden - a large artesian pond littered with silent, brooding sentinels of bare, drowned trees, this spa and waterbird paradise all fed by the homestead bore since 1908. Tonight there's a pink dusky sky overhead, the smell of woodsmoke from happy campers' fires and the goodnight calls of kookaburra, currawong and mudlark.

In the morning it's the musical trill of black and white pied butcherbirds. And today we finally meet the owner Jo - once a Sunshine Coast girl - having left home at 16yo to become an Outback mine driver/operator.

At around 5'-6", she wears 'Western' garb, a blue shirt, well-worn boots and jeans, topped off by a tall, buff-coloured hat with a more than generous brim,  crowned with resting sunglasses. The accent is country, measured but direct.

It's obvious from the start that Jo is the real thing - feisty, and pragmatic, with steel-blue eyes, a dry sense of humour but an obvious affinity for others. And Jo is courageous, with not the slightest hint of any past misfortunes.

As she tells it, she met and partnered Michael - a freelance helicopter pilot from a local family - first buying a station to the west, then moving home to here at Lara Station, a neglected 15,000 acre rambling cattle enterprise needing lots of love - the owner-builder having died an old man, leaving the son-in-law forbidden to enter, a dislocated family, and the old man's grand old timber-lined homestead forlorn and deserted for over 30yrs.

Jo stretches her wiry frame to her full height, with both thumbs tucked into her belt. "Yeah, it was a tall order, that's for sure. And times are tough 'round here... both the land and on the stations. We get the droughts and the floods, and in later days, even a mini-tornado that lifted the old place's roof."

But as well as the running of the station itself, and being of a practical bent, Jo had other ideas - a vision in fact - suggesting to Michael tourism's possibilities to augment the viability of the place. And with Michael often away flying for a week at a time, Jo finally convinced him that they should open up their property to travelers - grey nomads, assorted families and all that share a love of the bush and the great outdoors.

Jo got to work, with Michael's help, putting her dream into action and with their very first camper arriving in 2014... a Swiss gent with accented English she hardly understood. But even though Jo was excited at the real beginning of their new venture - and spoke to Michael often whenever he was away flying - this time she kept the fantastic news secret.

A wistful smile escapes from the corner of Jo's mouth as she recalls the timing. "I decided It would be a nice surprise for Michael to see our first camper from the air, with Michael always flying in directly over the wetland camping area on his return home." There's a shrug of Jo's shoulders, Michael not making it home that night, his chopper crashing and her life partner Michael killed.

Postscript - August 22 2017 - Jo currently has the property up for sale, feeling she does not have the financial resources to allow for the development of Lara's full potential - to lovingly restore the homestead and property fulfilling a dream that was both her own and Michael's.

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Postcard from the Diamantina

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Postcard from the Diamantina

Diamantina is 400km north of Birdsville, the surrounding landscape more akin with the American Wild West... red rocky outcrops called  'jump-ups' in these parts - flat top, truncated, ancient mountain leftovers from some long-forgotten inland sea, and seemingly sown at random across these endless red plains with the scantest smattering of grey bush... until we reach 'Channel Country' that is, the tangled, snakelike, labyrinth of waterways rutted and wrangled by past torrential onslaughts, the larger trees with ripped, bare roots, the stark gibber plains with occasional sink holes.

So this is the mighty 'Diamantina' diaspora, the stuff of Outback verse, our truck rising and falling on a dusty roller coaster of a road. Wayward cattle stare languidly, the land a rutted moonscape of a floodplain, with washed up flotsam pushed high in the canopy of ancient stunted trees. Dry, scoured trenches flow wherever they wish.

Finally arriving at Hunter Gorge campsite, we meet National Parks Ranger Max tending the facilities and passing on upcoming weather details. "Yeah, some chance of rain... but less chance than yesterday. Changeable country this, that's for sure." Those dark eyebrows are raised. "In my first year we were all stuck out at the homestead for months." There's a sweep of that giant hand. "All you can see was flooded, for miles and miles." Max pauses, could be only in his 20s, in faded green Ranger garb, a mop of black hair under a wide-brimmed hat and the scant beginnings of a beard." He points down south, in the direction where we passed the old station homestead on the slightest rise... now the Parks office and accommodation, and sited on one of the few pieces of higher ground.

Our camp overlooks a flotilla of pelicans cruising the coffee-coloured Diamantina water, fishing as one, upstream then down... floating this way, then the other, beaks down trawling, beaks up again... and on they go until dark. Our neighbour too catches fish, 5-yellow bellied perch within hours of arriving, and graciously offers us one - a delicious gift we wrap in foil with garlic and lemon and cook on our fire, along with roasted slices of saffron-coloured sweet potato that melt in our mouths.

That night we listen to an ominous pitter patter of rain for most of the night, recalling the Ranger's earlier words, "Yeah, the isolation is kind of nice. But it can get tricky out here. You're a long way from anyone I reckon." Max's eyes had narrowed to stress how serious things can get. "Even with 10mm of rain the roads get impossible." 

At 6am it's still dark, still raining and time to get up. We've decided to run for it, leaving those still sleeping in vans and  camper trailers. We don't fear the river - not for now anyway - but we do fear the notorious red mud.

We breakfast on fruit and yogurt in silence, still dark, the wet drifts coming and going on a cool intermittent breeze, the smell of dust replaced by rain. Soles of our gumboots are layered in mud that's more  like glue, even though the ground is wet only on the surface, the sand still dry below.

We finish packing and rev up the truck with very first light, but there's no other sign of life. From our riverside campsite we slip and slide towards the gate, our truck tyre treads clogged with mud that was sand just yesterday... the truck in low range and 2nd gear. Olympic tobogganing on greasy mud comes to mind

Max had said that "If you get to Brighton Downs, then you'll make it out."  The window wipers settle into a rhythmic  clap, our slicked-up tyres slip and slide, our truck barely missing a gate post. We are 70km from Brighton Downs, but are at least now out the gate.

It takes us over 2hrs to reach Brighton Downs, where we take a deep breath and ponder the legendary amounts of water flowing through the Diamantina system in one 'normal' wet season, and the improbability of anyone driving out once the rain got really serious. "2.4 cubic km a year" Max had said with some authority. "more than the water in Sydney Harbour."

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In the shadow of Big Red

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In the shadow of Big Red

'THE BIG RED BASH' music gig is held each year at the beginning of July, 30km west of Birdsville in the shadow of Big Red, or Nappanerica as the first folk called it - the 30m high South West Queensland sand dune - on the edge of the Simpson Desert, the largest parallel sand dune desert in the world.

On the first day we arrive around midday with our newly-cracked windscreen and smashed driver's window, a legacy of flying blue metal catapulted up from oncoming caravans on a narrow sealed road. 

It's an enlightening hike to the stage in the afternoon, Missy Higgins on day one, some here for the iconic setting, others set to 'rock the Simpson'... a ragtag collection of intrepid travellers in assorted rigs and campers, caravans, trucks and buses, tents, swags, annexes and awnings.

Many seem content with listening at a distance, either staying at their camp or sitting within eye-shot in their comfy fold-up chairs, a large viewing screen set to the right of the stage... the entire scene dwarfed by an iconic western backdrop - the famed red dune rising abruptly behind.

Late in the day, there's a line of people on the dune ridge, the setting sun silhouettes standing kids and grown-ups, while exuberant shouting youngsters jump, tumble and slide in the sand, hurtling down towards the back of the stage and immediately scrambling back to the top, more interested in 'doing' the dune than any music or performer.

On day three we meet travelers from West and South Australia - Tom and Jen, Stewart and Ailsa - both couples with similar trucks and fitouts to ours... although a South African design we've only heard about.

That night we share stories round their campfire - tales of the road, South America, of teaching and assignments in small Territory schools, of indigenous kids... and of previous Simpson Desert crossings in rare 'good seasons' when this same desert was alive with rolling fields of wild flowers - their last trip "taking 9-days instead of the normal 5 due to the boundless photo opportunities"... and of finally reaching the top of Big Red, to gaze down on the flat sand pan where we now sit. But instead of the unrelenting sand, they see water as far as the eye can see.

The fire crackles, the slightest movement from us or passing foot traffic stirring up dust. We all gaze up at the stars, the clear black sky... just a myriad of stars that sparkle, the astral haze of the Milky Way the only cloud.

With The Bash over, we choose a late start, the early exit ques lengthy, the smell and clatter of diesel engines, the dust clouds thick, but us in no hurry to join the fleeing throng. The empty plain looks flat, unrelenting, dry and desolate, the sun already hot, Big Red brooding.

We look at each other and wonder at the almost mythical changes we've only heard about. There is red dust in our nostrils, dust on our clothes and our skin, on our feet and in the corners of our eyes. Heaven help anyone suffering from hay fever or asthma. Our tent and truck are full of red dust.

And we try to imagine just last year, 'The Bash' site flooded, and the annual event forced to the Birdsville showgrounds... and we ponder the possibility of clouds here, heavy grey skies, thunderstorms and spikes of lightning, this same place after days of torrential, unrelenting rain... our camp under a metre of water where our newest friends sailed kayaks... right here... in the shadow of Big Red.

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postcard from laura

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postcard from laura

Down from 'The Tip' we say goodbye to our top end `adventure-4WD' companions Wendy and Al, and it's on to Laura... not to be confused with nearby 'Old Laura' or 'New Laura'... and we are here for the 2017 bi-annual ABORIGINAL DANCE FESTIVAL.

Laura is an outback town with a population of 80 - a pub with Chinese backpacker staff that serves barramundi and beer, with space for campers out back. There's a post office doubling as a general store, a caravan park and tourist information centre.

But it's just to the south of here that things get special... with the world-famous Aboriginal QUINKAN ROCK ART going back thousands of years, including striking depictions of emus, kangaroos, human figures and the ever-present spirit world. And further south there is a camping ground surrounded by a natural rock amphitheatre where the dance festival is held.

And this year's festival has special significance for us, being just back from 'The Tip', and now with some knowledge of the participating Cape York Aboriginal communities that include Mapoon, Bamaga and Lockhart River... isolated Australian Cape communities of which we were previously unaware.

Our favourites are the Lockhart mob, having visited the area on our way north to the tip of Cape York, and having been lucky to later meet 2-teachers considering leaving their current positions at a Brisbane school to embark on "more challenging, more rewarding roles"... at Lockhart River as it happens.

We are camped nextdoor at Elliot Falls when we first meet on the Old Telegraph Track, and after a swim to wash off the dust are kindly invited around to share their fire.

Steve is aware of the gravity of their decision, but they are both "looking for a change after almost 30 years in the system". He pauses to collect the right words, looks across at his partner Karen and adds. "We really would like to make a difference, and we think we can do that." He pokes at the fire. "I'm told the big thing is to get the kids to school in the first place, and then to create opportunities for them that make coming to school a more appealing option than not coming". He then adds " We hope to go there and be good role models for the kids." Steve looks pensive, and Karen nods agreement. We are impressed. Steve is a big guy, looks fit, and both Steve and Karen are eloquent and impassioned. We are sure they'll be a formidable combination, a great help to the Lockhart community and the school principal whom they have both known since the late 80's where they met in Canberra.

At Laura the dance festival is in full swing, with the LOCKHART RIVER MOB currently going through their paces. And it's obvious they are the favourites in our part of the crowd, especially with a woman in a wide-brimmed hat. She stands behind us, her shouts enthusiastic, loud and encouraging... and very biased.

We are struck by the age mix of these Lockhart dancers - tiny kids of around 2yo, teenagers and older dancers too. One Elder wears glasses and has an intercom unit strapped to his belt. Another is a middle-aged woman with wide eyes, wild grey hair and very animated... all have the traditional paint, grass skirts and the totemic moves of their clan. And we are struck by the rhythms and chants, the gasps and cheers of the mixed crowd... the hypnotic click of clapsticks and boomerangs.

Postscript - 13 July 2017 - We receive a message today from Steve and Karen. Yes, the enthusiastic Lockhart supporter at the Laura festival was in fact the current Lockhart school principal Siobhan. And Steve and Karen have accepted the offer to live among the Lockhart River Aboriginal community to teach and mentor the kids.

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