Dusting off the sand - Brisbane, then Toowoomba

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Dusting off the sand - Brisbane, then Toowoomba

We are in Brisbane for 2-nights... with the luxury of a hot shower, free WiFi that really works, and cocktails at the iconic Storey Bridge Hotel beneath the equally iconic Brisbane bridge of the same name.

There are some tweaks to the truck needed - the engine malfunction light having ominously appeared... again... a repeat offender from months ago, and something we really need to finally nail. Toyota now tell us the problem lay with after-factory-fitted cruise control and simply disconnect the culprit. So it seems we are temporarily without a cruise control. Mmmm... the saga continues... and we shall try another tack on that one. Oh, and there is also the matter of a smallish melanoma to be removed.

So here we are - on our last balmy Brisbane night - the above dealt with... for the moment, and we ponder our next move. But let's be brutally honest here... we do seem to have trouble travelling in straight lines, and have just spotted another distraction in a Brisbane magazine. It seems there's impressive street art in the Queensland city of Toowoomba, Australia's 2nd biggest inland city after Canberra. 

Yes, we are still headed up the coast to Townsville and beyond... but... in the meantime we move on once again, to enjoy the optimism of Toowoomba - a forward-thinking city with big plans - great Turkish food and some stunning street art. 

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Postcard from Moreton Island - beaches and birdsong

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Postcard from Moreton Island - beaches and birdsong

From the Moreton Bay ferry, there's a one-way track east across the island, daunting sand hills at times... then narrow and winding, powder-soft, bumpy or deeply rutted. How one bloke tows a trailer is a mystery, and it's a welcome thought that we'll meet nothing from the opposite direction on this leg. 

On our first day an old timer warns that some get bored out here. "There are no possums mate, no kangaroos or koalas either. Never have been." He tells us tales of "blackfellas befriending local dolphins" to help with the herding of fish, and living mostly off seafood. "And there are middens in track cuttings mate, that go back thousands of years."

On the east coast our truck nestles among ocean coastal dunes with sublime sunsets on a lagoon of a lake just a short walk inland - our camp with the constant roar of surf and the calls of birds that flit and roost in rolling surrounds of casuarina and  banksia bush.

Our daily ritual starts with sunrise, a swim in the lake, the fresh water chilly, the air balmy but still. Next is breakfast: Innisfail red papaya, muscatels, banana and pot-set yogurt, the smell and taste of fresh-brewed coffee - hot and black - the last of a treasured gift from Costa Rica.

Down by the surf the waves pound even louder. A pair of Brahminy Kites are white and russet red, flight feathers extended like fingers. They drop and soar on unseen thermals, and a stiff Pacific breeze laden with the smell of salt - where a single morning walk can last forever on a beach of a highway that's mostly empty, awash, shiny and flat under a morning sun.

From the beach we gaze south to the profile of Mt Tempest - the tallest vegetated sand dune in the southern hemisphere.... then for the length of the coast until shrouded in sea mist, the weekend abode of long rods and wishfull ocean fisherfolk. Another sandy track leads across the bottom of the island back to the west coast and the sheltered waters of Moreton Bay, with Shark Point home to dugongs and giant turtles.

We turn north to where a distant lighthouse sits afloat a faded promontory in early morning light - an Antipodean dreaming... or maybe-memories of a Mediaeval Mont Saint Michel.

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Another island home

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Another island home

The island is an odd shape - wide at the northern end, thinning down south - but at about 35km long it's the 3rd biggest sand island in the world. We've been lucky to have previously spent time on Fraser Island - the 1st largest - but are always on the lookout for something different.

The first we heard of Moreton  Island was some weeks back in NSW, where we were approached by the owners of a camper trailer close by - John and Karen. They asked about our go-anywhere truck.

John is a butcher by trade. They've left their "now older kids at home to fend for themselves" and look for work here and there. Karen smiled. "Yeah, the money comes in handy, but life's not all about the money, is it?". There was butchering work to be had, and even an offer to manage a hotel for a couple of weeks... but I digress.

John had the words 'Moreton Island - escape the fake' emblazoned across the chest of his black tee shirt. "It's like Fraser," he said, "but quieter."

So here we are, after waking at 3:45am to catch the only ferry with any space - the 5am from Brisbane.

On the ferry we lower our front tyre pressures to 15psi, the back to 20... gulp hot coffee upstairs and ponder the thought of our first 'serious' sand driving since Namibia over 2yrs ago.

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Where to next?

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Where to next?

It's great to catch up with friends, but after 5-days BYRON BAY BLUESFEST is over... so it's back to the road for us. OK, so we often don't know where we are headed... not 'exactly' anyway. As always, our methodology is simple though, in this instance our 'plan' saying 'north'. And it is true our default setting is to follow the coast. For this leg it's Byron to Townsville, about a 15hrs drive if we were to head straight there.

But to beat the Top End Wet, we've allowed up to a month... so we are in no hurry. And on our last day in Byron, a friend asks if we'll be visiting Tenterfield and surrounds in Queensland. It's "beautiful country out there, and well worth a visit".

We look over our maps, then at each other. It's a minor diversion - only 250km to the west, and there is another wine district as it happens. So we change our 'plan' and head inland for now... just because we can.

Once on the road again, we check out 'WIKICAMPS' as per normal, finding a 'rest area' with 4-stars. After the festival, we are keen to keep today's journey short, and this place fills the bill - a rolling grassed site called 'Crooked Creek Rest Area'. It costs nothing to camp, allows campfires, has covered picnic tables and a toilet... all surrounded by glorious bush.

For dinner we share a Kerala coconut curry with salmon, a cask shiraz, a raging red campfire to warm the legs, the last calls of kookaburras and currawongs, then a lullaby of crickets, frogs and a gurgling creek. From our cosy bed in the top of the truck we listen to the intermittent rush of a passing breeze laden with damp bush smells and a hint of woodsmoke.

In the morning it's the last of Byron's best hot cross buns, toasted on last night's now flaming embers, surrounded by tiny wrens that dance and tweet at our feet... and we discuss nomadic life  with our only overnight neighbour.

Brisbane Bill wears sandals with socks, has a grey beard, blue eyes, and enjoys a natter. He and his wife are headed "whichever way the wind blows".

It seems there's another great camping spot not far from here -'Tooloom Falls' - also a free NSW State forest site as it happens. We look it up on Wikicamps - '50km NE from you' says my mobile phone app.

*****

A word about WIKICAMPS - an invaluable app for travellers and nomads of all ilks... dependent on public input and loaded with different camping sites, rest areas and points of interest throughout the country - with photos, lists of facilities, candid comments and prices of each.

Filters enable searching a current location, favourites or selected areas. New sites, comments and photos can all be added.

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Ten thousand K and counting

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Ten thousand K and counting

So here we are,finally approaching Byron Bay with our 2nd leg almost complete and our truck trip meter already passed the 10,000km milestone. Yeah, it's been tough at times... as can be seen by the frugal Mudgee tasting plate in the picture above... but alas, we struggle on.

But now, it's time to reflect on some journey discoveries, previously unknown and in order of appearance...

PENNINGTON BAY, Kangaroo Island, South Australia - we arrive at Kangaroo Island after almost missing our ferry, and when alighting on the island, we immediately head south to be greeted by over 30 dolphins surfing turquoise waves - us the only human audience.

WESTERN RIVER COVE, Kangaroo Island, South Australia - after 20km on a scenic, rolling and winding dirt road, we arrive at our own secluded cove, ragged rocky outcrops and a beautiful golden beach.

MCLAREN VALE, Adelaide, South Australia - our favourite winery being CORIOLE.

WOMAD, Adelaide, South Australia - A last minute stopover, "The World's Festival", a wonderfully eclectic annual get-together of music, food and friendly people.

TANUNDA, Barossa Valley, South Australia - our favourite winery being ROCKFORD.

The quiet and the isolation of the Outback - the red dirt and dust, the open endless skies, failed dreams and ancient dreamings, town names replaced with stations, out-stations and homesteads... opening and closing gates... lost and found in SOUTH AUSTRALIA and NEW SOUTH WALES.

MUTAWINTJE, New South Wales - A wild and isolated National Park north of Broken Hill, with an impressive collection of Aboriginal cave art. We rise early, another 40degC day predicted, and set out on a 5hr hike through the wilds of the gorge, followed by the luxury of a hot shower, a Goan curry and a  cheeky cask rose. 

MENINDEE LAKES, New South Wales - to see the lakes full of water, a chance encounter with a fire engine red mirror image of our own Troopy truck... oh, and a special evening birthday dinner.

BOURKE WHARF, New South Wales - After days of 50degC, the town has cooled off to 40degC. We walk out on the old wharf, currently hanging high above the Darling River, to be greeted by hundreds of corellas screeching, wheeling this way and that.

BREWARRINA, New South Wales - Seeing Aboriginal fish traps made of stone - over 40,000yrs old - thought to be the oldest man-made structures on the planet. And a stunningly beautiful campsite at BEDS ON THE BARWON, with ancient river redgums, a plethora of birdlife and iconic rustic amenities, right on the banks of the Barwon River at the very start of the mighty Darling River system.

MUDGEE, New South Wales - Over 40 friendly cellar doors and great wines at around 800m elevation and surrounded by hills, a magnificent tasting plate at LOWE, our favourite local winery.  Gorgeous bush camping among the rolling pastures of nearby Havila, OLD BARA HOMESTEAD.

HILL END, New South Wales - In the past a major gold town... now a nostalgic memory. Crooked fences and walls - all romantically set among rolling hills and grazing kangaroos, all surrounded by wild bush, rocky terrain and daunting 4WD tracks. And one of the best inter-reactive museums we've seen anywhere - HILL END HERITAGE CENTRE..

UPPER COLO, New South Wales - On arrival in darkness, through sheets of rain, via a narrow winding track surrounded by bush, we set up camp and dine in drizzle. In the morning we wake to wet bush smells, the chuckle of opposing kookaburra clans, and crowds of black cockatoos in clear blue skies... and a ramble on an unexpected sandy beach. All this, on 'NSW's most pristine river'.

WOLLOMBI TAVERN, New South Wales - a wonderfully rustic tavern, with well-worn wooden floorboards, hand-wrought furniture and riverfront camping out back.

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Lost on Root Hog Road

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Lost on Root Hog Road

Well... maybe we're not lost... not technically anyway. We are in New South Wales. We know it's a mere 20km from the old ghost town of Ophir to Hill End - as the crow flies - Ophir once a thriving frontier town and the site of Australia's first 'payable' gold strike. We leave at noon, after a 2hr bush hike among the long-abandoned diggings and shafts.

In the beginning we take the tamely-named Freemantle Rd. It's dirt, but in good enough nick. And the hard copy map shows a continuing track... the trouble being we are now facing a 'No through road' sign, and our iPad shows the road stopping at Macquarie river. 

Eventually we come to a fork in the road, and stop.  One leg heads in the general direction of the river.

We check our ipad again, and the truck GPS - the GPS with a river crossing.

But yes, this fork does 'head' for the river. But what happens when we get there remains a mystery.

A ute comes from the opposite direction - a wet stock dog in the back.

I wind down the window once the dust settles, the cheery driver "born and bred in these parts".

Will we be able to get across the river? The local scratches his chin and looks over our truck. His dog barks and wags his tail.

"Yeah... dog's been for a swim just now, and you'll make it in that. Track's a bit rough, rocky in bits... and the farmer doesn't like shooters, so sometimes shuts the gate."

A trip we expected to take maybe an hour, takes more like 3-1/2

Hindsight is a great thing, but there's definitely something ominous about a fork in the road, when the way forward is a crooked post with a sign that says 'Root Hog Road.'

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Our first flat tyre

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Our first flat tyre

Well, it's not our first flat tyre with the Troopy... that was a year ago, out front of home in Bayside Melbourne. I removed the culprit in the driveway, replaced it with our spare, and dropped it off for a new tube to be fitted by our trusty local mechanic.

But today is another kettle of fish.

From the old NSW mining town of Silverton we've headed back into Broken Hill - the only way to get to Mutawintji National Park. The dirt turnoff is only 50km out on a tarred road, but we don't quite make it.

Pulling over to check a momentary Telstra signal, we get going again only to come to an abrupt halt. A sickening grinding squelch tells us we have a flat.

We jump out, opening the tailgates to retrieve, rearrange stuff and pull out the standard Toyota jack... the truck not sitting too badly, just off the road and on a nice hard shoulder surface.

We pull off one of the good spares. 

With the barrel jack under the back axle on a plate of wood, I wind and wind, until the Troopy chassis begins to lift, and alas, there is a load resounding crack - the jack eyelet that houses the winder rod having abruptly sheared off rending the jack useless.

I remember the number one rule - 'Don't panic.' The ground is stony, baking bloody hot, the air temperature 36degC.

And I remember 4x4 forum discussions from 12-months back - "Don't ever rely on a single jack."

So we unbolt the Hi-Lift jack fixed to the rear bumper, something I had wondered may have become an expensive piece of furniture.... they do have a reputation for being dangerous and unnecessary.

So... for the first time, we use our Hi-Lift jack to get us going again. Without it we would have been up a well known creek without a paddle.

Yes, it did take a bit of getting used too. And the suggestion of the lone passerby to spray the dust-caked Hi-Lift mechanism with WD40 made the job so much easier. Thanks Frank.

Oh... and one last thing... was the Hi-Lift dangerous to use? Well, like most things, some loving care and respect is definitely needed.

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Postcard from Broken Hill - What's in a name?

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Postcard from Broken Hill - What's in a name?

Broken Hill seems a long way from anything, but is certainly entrenched in Australian folklore, being the 'BH' component of 'The Big Australian' BHP Billiton , and becoming the first city in Australia to be included on the National Heritage List - the 'broken hill' that gave the town its name initially being a number of hills that appeared to have a break in them. Alas, all have now been mined away.

And there's no shortage of culture here, with at least 8-galleries showcasing the work of artists including the iconic Pro Hart and Jack Absolam. Chips Rafferty and June Bronhill also came from here.

Today the air is dense and hot at 37degC, but it's hard to warm to a place where over 700 souls have been lost in mining accidents - the youngest killed at age 14 - and most streets are named after rocks and minerals.

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A birthday away

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A birthday away

Today is Sue's birthday, last night having set up camp by Lake Parmarmaroo - part of the Menindee lakes on the Darling River NSW - dinner a chilled Coriole Fiano with a watery sunset through ancient, river redgum boughs.

But this morning is the big day, us relaxing, having finished fruit, muesli and yoghurt... with black coffee of course.

Two figures approach, kindred spirits in more ways than one it seems.

They are from faroff Switzerland, having hiked the 2km from their camp this morning, beside the same lake... and as it happens... with a similiar truck... and a similiar fitout.

But their truck is fire-engine red, a left-hand-drive Toyota Troopy, having been fitted out by Roger - gifted carpenter -and his partner Connie... then shipped all the way from Switzerland.

Tonight though, the big day almost over, we are by the roaring weir overflow, more ancient redgums riddled with nesting holes, and a celebratory bottle of Rockford Black Shiraz we've lugged all the way from the Barossa... oh, and 1kg of Menindee's finest giant yabbies, freshly caught and cooked... but eaten by us.

We finish with birthday cheese, chocolate and a traditional Italian green walnut liquer from Kangaroo Island... the smells here of red sand and dust, the sound of rushing river water, and thoughts of how far we've come so far... and our new Swiss friends - with a red Troopy truck the mirror of ours.

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Outback and onwards

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Outback and onwards

We are 350km northeast of Adelaide, the sky an endless sea of blue, the only sound an occassional surf-like roar. But we are a long way inland, the roar just wind rushing through hardy conifer-like indigenous black oaks that proliferate these scrubby plains of red dirt and bulldust, the occasional rock and sand ridge drift.

We are in the Danggali Conservation zone, once a 253,000Ha South Australian sheep farm, now just ruins, but declared Australia’s first park classified under UNESCO’s 'Man and the Biosphere Program' - a living laboratory and hopefully a successful balance between conservation and sustainable use.

Yes, we've camped out in the middle of nowhere before - the wilds of WA's Cape Arid, on a fast-eroding beach at the northern point of Qld's Fraser Island. But this may be our first truly 'wilderness' camping experience - in our Troopy truck at least - no facilities, no shelter - toilet duties needing a hole to be dug, the paper burned and all buried.

We are many miles from anyone, no other vehicle for days on end, but equipped with 4x4 recovery gear, a week's supply of food, wine, beer, our 70L water tank and 2-90L diesel tanks... us having driven north from the outpost town of Burra, over the Goyder Line and finally arriving here, in the middle of nowhere - the South Australian 'Outback'.

It's autumn, but the days' temperature still in their 30s, lots of animal tracks in the red sand, but no animals to be seen. The night silence is deafening, the clear sky ablaze.

Next, it's further north, headed for Broken Hill, passing nothing but 'stations', 'outstations' , 'homesteads' - and through gate after gate - the sandy tracks and ridges, the occasional emu, the recent carcass of an unfortunate kangaroo... the smell of rotten sunbaked meat... and the special treat of five magnificent wedgetail eagles jostling on a single branch, momentarily disturbed from their roadside feast.

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Stopping by`The World's Festival'

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Stopping by`The World's Festival'

It is true we're on our way to Sydney... and Byron Bay beyond. But sometimes the stars are aligned, there's an opportunity and a choice to be made. 

As it happens, we are in the city of Adelaide, some Toyota tweaks planned for the truck... the last day of Womad 2017 - 'The World's Festival' - a festival we have wanted to see for many years.

There's been some rain, but the morning is mercifully dry, scattered clouds that billow, the temperature 27degC, the festival set in magnificent rolling gardens of giant Moreton Bay figs, Norfolk pines, wide oaks and ancient gums, an evening chorus of bat squeaks overhead.

The street food is Yemeni, Greek, Japanese and Spanish,  and everything in between. The smells are of free-trade coffee, and organic donuts coated with sugar - from Byron Bay of all places.

Korean drummers and big band Columbian salsa vie with rap and techno dance.

The crowds are couples, performers, families with lots of babies and toddlers... and singles, wandering grey nomads, teens in Thai-dye tees, young hippies in torn denim, old hippies with pony tails, greying manes and bald but hatted pates.

A Jamaican dude wears a Japanese Kimono, aviator sunnies and dreadlocks down to his waist.

In the cool of late evening patrons wander, in awe of a French concoction of burning urns and pots that hang from trees, the smell of burning paraffin, rusted frames of steel, giant ferris wheels that turn and burn, buckets attached, tipping flames into chutes.

Yes, we could have focussed on the Troopy truck repairs and headed off again, but sometimes travelling means stopping, pausing to take a breath.

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1st leg done

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1st leg done

We're sitting here on the Sealink ferry, our truck 1600km further along from when we started - the Melbourne to Kangaroo Island leg, signed, sealed and delivered.

Favourites? Well, just setting off was a big one... the roaring endless seas of The Great Ocean Road, those wild ragged cliffs and the ghosts of travellers past... the beautiful desolation of The Coorong, the dazzling white sand and the smell of baking salt on a welcome sea breeze, the crashing waves of southern seas that ebb and flow just over the dunes, the soaring pelicans, and early evening visitations from families of flashing electric-blue wrens that magically appear from surrounding scrub to chirp and dance on impossibly thin matchstick legs... the crystal-clear depths of Piccaninnie Ponds, the tunnels and caves that lie below... the quiet isolation of Kangaroo Island, its dusty dirt roads, its hidden sapphire coves that gleam in the sun and play host to bottle nose dolphins that hurtle, jump and spin in waves that roll to finally shed champagne bubbles on sandy shores.

And having the time, the inclination and luck to absorb it all.

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