SATURDAY 19TH JANUARY 2013.
COCKBURN CAMP to GILGANDRA.
Note the Macquarie Marshes and the Marthaguy Creek Camp where we camped on the first night of this odyssey; it seems so long ago. It’s hard to believe we have been away for so long and have seen so much.
Last night was not an uncomfortable night, even though in the early hours of the morning we had to move into the car due to rain. This morning a cool south wind blew and from radio reports the southerly change was more than welcome in the region.
The owner of the Pink Road House at Oodnadatta (not far from the geographical centre of Australia) said the people of Oodnadatta (pop 280) were rejoicing because the southerly had found them. Since September last, daytime temperatures had hovered around 38 degrees. Temperature changes brought about by southerly changes can be dramatic with falls of 10-15°C often occurring in less than an hour. In the Sydney region southerly changes that sweep up the coast are called ‘Southerly Busters’ and I remember when I was a child my parents often said ‘a southerly buster is coming this afternoon’.
According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, Oodnadatta holds the current official heat record. On 2 January 1960 the mercury hit 50.7 degrees Celsius. The weather extremes during this odyssey have been: the coldest day was at Augsburg in Germany (-8), closely followed by the day we went snow-shoeing in the mountains near Bern, and the hottest has been (42 degrees) near Lake Dumbleyung a couple of days ago. For the overseas readers of this blog a few statistics regarding the Australian climate might be of interest.
Australia is the driest continent on Earth (Antarctica is excluded). Its climate is very erratic, often moving from one extreme directly to the other overnight. Years of drought are often broken by an overnight deluge resulting in devastating floods. The lowest recorded temperature was minus 23.0°C on 28 June 1994 at Charlotte Pass in the Snowy Mountains of NSW.
Our overnight stop at Cockburn is not far from Broken Hill, an historic mining town. The area is very interesting and always worth a visit but, once again, we didn’t stop. Following is some history of the area.
In 1883 boundary rider Charles Rasp, who patrolled Mount Gipps station fences, discovered what he thought was tin, however after analysis it proved to be silver and lead. Rasp was a trained chemist so he had an eye for rocks and soon after his discovery he took out leases and eventually shares were floated. The company floated was called the Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) and in 1885 mining of the ore body commenced. The rich fields attracted hundreds of fortune seekers and thus Broken Hill became a prosperous town. At one time there were 72 pubs providing vittles to the workers. Rasp moved to Adelaide, married and died in 1907 a rich man.
Broken Hill is 220 m (722 ft) above sea level, has an average rainfall of 235 mm (9 inches) and summer temperatures that reach well over 40 °C. The closest major city is Adelaide, the capital of South Australia, which is more than 500 km to the southwest.
There are many historic buildings in the city and it would be easy to spend a week there poking about. The back lanes particularly attracted me when I wrote Further Down the Back in 1982.
Silverton is an outpost 25 kilometres northwest of Broken Hill. The town sprang up after the discovery of rich silver deposits. The Silverton discovery preceded Rasp’s discovery but once mining at Broken Hill got under way Silverton went into decline. The town is often referred to as a ghost town, however there remains a small permanent population with a number of artists including Peter Browne, Albert Woodroffe and John Dynon. It’s worth searching the web to see their work.
The town has a hotel, which has regularly featured in films. Replica cars from movies Mad Max and Mad Max 2, are sometimes parked outside the hotel. Other well-known productions filmed in and around Silverton include The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Flying Doctors and Dirty Deeds.
While on a research trip for one of our Backtrack Tours in 1997 Bev and I called into the Owl Gallery at Stevens Creek on the outskirts of Broken Hill. The building had once been a hotel then an art gallery. We thought it an ideal location for a tour morning tea and our thinking proved right. Val and Mitch were the two eccentric owners and we were invited in for a cuppa and when inside we realised the place had no roof. Mitch informed us it had been destroyed in a fire and because they were low on funds they couldn’t afford to replace it and, anyway, it didn’t rain much so there was no need for a roof. The problem with having no roof meant no run-off when it rained. They overcame the problem by filling empty wine flagons with water when they went into Broken Hill for supplies.
Mitch was an art collector and his collection was housed in a rough corrugated iron lean-to off the side of the old hotel; there was no lighting so we viewed the collection by torchlight. Mitch assured us his collection was extremely valuable. I suggested he might sell a couple of paintings and put a new roof on the main building but that was not an option for him. ‘Never’, he said! Some months later we took a coach tour there for morning tea. Val informed us she had been to Broken Hill the day before to have her hair done and buy a new pair of trousers for Mitch. On the day of the visit it rained and my clients huddled inside under umbrellas.
Mitch and Val were battlers. They survived on the smell of an oily rag but managed to collect all sorts of owls in every known form, including an owl suit in which he greeted our passengers. Mitch’s claim to fame, other than living in a house with no roof, was having a part in the film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. His starring role was in the segment where the Filipino woman did unusual tricks with ping-pong balls. Mitch stood out the front of the building holding his dog on a leash. Val has now passed on and so has Mitch probably. When we first visited them Val was halfway through a university degree in religious studies. I guessed she was in her mid 70s at the time.
Unfortunately at the time of writing I do not have access to Stevens Creek photos, however one day soon I will post them.
Wilcannia is the first town east Broken Hill and is located on the legendary Darling River. For a time in the mid 19th century it was the third largest port in Australia.
Fortunately there are still some fine historic buildings in Wilcannia and they are all worth a look.
During paddle steamer times most of the large trees along the banks of the Darling River were cut down to fire paddle steamer engines and the trees that had fallen into the river were dragged out as they created hazards for navigation. These actions had ongoing environmental ramifications as it is now realised that the fallen trees provided habitat for native fish species. Another ecological disaster was the introduction of English deciduous willow trees. Leaf fall from the willows formed a compost heap on the riverbed in which European carp foraged. These carp have contributed to the decline of native fishes as they, like cane toads, eat just about everything they come into contact with. The willows are now being removed and native Casuarinas (river oaks) are being re-established. A factor influencing water flows in the Darling was the over-allocation of water for irrigation. I was actually involved in the process when working for the Irrigation Commission in the late 1960s. There’s no doubt we have stuffed the Darling.
Most times these days the river is no more than a sluggish channel. Irrigators, town populations and stock and domestic water draw-off have reduced the river in places to a series of waterholes. I spoke at length with an aboriginal elder here some years ago and he informed me that when he was a kid the water used to run mostly clear and they swam through the clear waters spearing fish. It wasn’t until broadacre farming commenced that the river started to run dirty. The same man told me that to his kinfolk the land is their mother and when the whitefellas plough it they are effectively raping their mother. Many of the Aboriginal people living in the Wilcannia area today are descendants of the original owners and every time I go through Wilcannia I can’t help but think we have done them wrong.
With reference to the above image, one club member said, ‘The club had a beautiful boathouse and we used to take the pleasure boats out for moonlight picnics’. When the river broke its banks, such as in the above photograph, paddle steamer captains sometimes found it difficult to know where the main river channel was. It was reported that one steamer ventured two miles away from the river and when the water level fell it was left high and dry. The only way to get the steamer back to the river channel was to disassemble it and carry the pieces back by bullock wagon and re-assemble it. When river levels fell paddle steamers became stranded so whilst waiting the captain and crew settled into felling trees along the banks, stockpiling the wood for fuel or transporting it back south for sale in Adelaide.
Before white man arrived on the scene at Wilcannia the country was under the charge of the Barkindji Aboriginal people (for 30 000 to 40 000 years) and it would have been a Garden of Eden for them. Fish and wildlife were plentiful and there would have been few reasons for them to wander inland into drier country. Now there are hazards living close to the river and the image below shows what I mean.
In 2005 Cobar Shire had a population of about 7,000 (5000 in the town). The Shire covers 44,065 square kilometres, that’s a little over 6 persons per square kilometre. The name Cobar is derived from the Aboriginal Ngiyampaa word Kuparr, Gubarr or Cuburra, meaning ‘red earth’ or ‘burnt earth’.
Some years ago when I was poking around the Cobar area I found a quantity of old photographs thrown in a creek, such is history to some folk. I gathered them up and gave them to the museum here.
Pastoralists began to settle the area in the mid 1860s. In the mid to late 1960s I was surveying out around the Cobar area. My job was to survey and design water supply schemes for graziers. At the time I didn’t hold the country in very high regard because most of the country was scrubby, hard to survey as it was difficult to get clear line of sight. Two experiences stick in my mind when working in the area. The first was when I called at a homestead to ask for directions to the bore I was to equip. The lady of the house told me to see her son who knew about the job in hand. Her directions to find him were rather vague and I suggested that to her but she said I would have no trouble locating him as I would hear him before I see him. I thought the reference to hearing him related to the fall of an axe or sound of a chainsaw as he was ringing a thick patch of scrub, but he was singing. I will never forget the strong baritone voice wafting through the scrub. I stood awhile contemplating the scene and I thought ‘Opera in the Scrub’ and I’m being paid to be here!
Ringing, is cutting a ring of bark from around a tree and eventually the tree dies. Cleared country was referred to as ‘rung’.
My second recollection involved a 10 kilometre survey from a bore to a proposed tank and trough site. The owner of the property accompanied us (my field assistant and me), as he wanted to select the site himself. Nearing where I thought the trough site would be I asked the landowner, ‘Is this roughly where you want the trough?’ His reply was, ‘You’re within a mile of a bull’s roar, keep going’. After another 1500 metres I asked again and his reply was ’You’re within a bull’s roar now, keep going’. Finally he said, ‘You’re within a whisker of a bull’s roar. This will do, let’s peg it here’. This distance of land measurement is definitely not surveyor language but I got the gist of it.
Since first settlement the Cobar region has been a significant wool-growing area and many a fortune has been made from off the sheep’s back.
Depending on the type of wool, a bale weight varies between 110 to 200kg. Some property owners washed their wool in a wool-wash (usually a waterhole in the river) to remove dirt and lanoline. Washing lightened the fleece which reduced freight costs.
A rough count tells me there are around thirty five bales of wool on the capsized wagon and if each bale weighed 150kg it means at 1950s value, a pound a pound ($37-00 per kilogram), there is just under $200 000 worth of wool waiting to be righted.
Prosperity in the wool industry peaked in 1950-51 when the average greasy wool price skyrocketed. This short-lived but extreme price was due to the American and Australian armed forces’ involvement in the Korean War. It was mighty cold in winter on the battlefront and wool was the warmest material suitable for soldiers’ great coats.
The main feature of Nyngan is the Bogan River and it starts up near the central west town of Parkes, about 600 kilometres to the southeast.
Many early explorers venturing into Australia’s arid interior were attempting to find an inland sea which was believed to exist at the time. Many explorer routes followed watercourses and leaders, dreaming of wide waterways ahead, insisted boats be taken along.
Major Sir Thomas Mitchell in 1835 travelled down the Bogan and camped at Canonbar where the expedition was almost abandoned because Mitchell was suffering from ophthalmia (inflammation of the deep eye structure). The expedition doctor suggested placing leeches on Mitchell’s eyeballs. Following is an extract from Mitchell’s journal: ‘Dr. Stephenson having recommended the application of leeches, and having observed them in the ponds at Nyngan, I sent William Baldock and Yuranigh there in search of some, and they brought back enough. Fourteen were applied to my eyes the same afternoon’.
The leech treatment proved successful and the expedition continued down the Bogan and across to the Macquarie River which they followed to its confluence with the Darling River.
In my latter teenage years I used to spend some of my holidays in Nyngan and one event that has stayed with me is the night at the open-air movies. Movie theatres during those times were called the ‘fleas and itches’ because the seats and floor carpets were fairly well infested with fleas and, on occasions, bed bugs as well. Upon returning home from the ‘fleas and itches’ it was obligatory to undress in the bath and shake your clothes and the fallen fleas would then be washed down the drain. At the Nyngan open-air theatre the seating arrangements were canvas deck chairs and the local naughty boys would push lighted cigarettes up from underneath, burning a hole through the seat in front, right through to bare flesh! Darwin still has an operating open-air theatre with a similar seating arrangement but I don’t think there is any cigarette activity carried out there!
On the way out of Nyngan there is a hotel in which I used to stay during the 1960s when working out these parts. What sticks in my mind about one of my stays was the breakfast…bacon, sausages, baked beans and fried tomatoes and eggs. On one occasion the meal floated in a sea of fat. I couldn’t get it down so I opened a screen door leading off the dining room, held the plate at arm’s length, tilted the plate and the meal slipped off the plate into the mouths of waiting dogs. I reckoned the dogs made the dining room door their first stop during their early morning rounds.
During the 1960s there were very few motels and the only accommodation available were ‘no star’ hotels. The rooms smelt of cigarettes and were dark and dingy; the beds were ‘sway back’ which necessitated carrying a piece of plywood to slip under the mattress to keep your back straight whilst in slumber; rarely was there a bed lamp so I carried a bayonet socket with globe and switch and all I had to do was get up on a chair and connect it into the ceiling light; and for a little comfort on hot nights a table fan was a boon. Regardless of the hardships, it was an experience to stay in such places and yarn with the locals over a beer at night.
The now abandoned railway from Dubbo to Bourke passes through Nevertire. The village name of Nevertire is derived from a conversation that an early settler had with a local Aboriginal before country to the west was taken up. When the local was asked how far the plain extended to the west the reply was, ‘she go on and on and never tire’.
From Nevertire it’s into Warren across the Macquarie River, which flows north and into the Macquarie Marshes where we visited on Day 1 of this odyssey. Not far from Warren is Haddon Rig, one of the foremost Merino studs in Australia. Founded in 1882, it currently markets 1000 top quality medium-wool rams for sale each year. In the late 1960s I did some survey work on Haddon Rig and I was fortunate to be able stay in the homestead, an experience I will never forget. During my stay I was shown what quality wool looked like. The stud master took me to the ram shed and introduced me to the rams by parting their fleece. Looking into the fleece was amazing.
The description of this fine chap reads like a description for a vintage wine. ‘This impressive young sire has an extremely soft long, masculine, pure muzzle. Standing very well, with an exceptionally long deep, reasonably plain body. Carrying a very rich, well defined crimpy long stapled nourished bright medium wool’.
After Warren the next biggest town is Gilgandra. ‘Gil’, as it is affectionately known, was the ‘town of windmills’, so named because just about every resident had a windmill in their backyard pumping water via a sand spear. A sand spear is a round slotted section of pipe with a point on one end that you pushed down into the sandy aquifer and with the aid of a windmill pump, water was drawn easily to the surface.
There were three main brands of windmills: Comet, Southern Cross and Alston. It was easy to tell which was which from a distance by the number of legs and the shape of the tails.
One of Gilgandra’s claims to fame is that it was from the town in 1915 that the Coo-ee March set out. The *Coo-ee March comprised a group of men who set off to walk to military barracks near Sydney with the aim of enlisting into the army to fight the Hun (a disparaging term to describe the Germans as barbarians) and save the motherland England. At the beginning of the march they were given a new pair of boots and they were fed along the way. There were similar marches all over Australia.
It took eight days to walk the 455km (56km per day) from Gilgandra to Dripstone (near Sydney) and by the time the men got there numbers had swelled from twenty six to ninety-seven.
*Coo-ee is an aboriginal word for hello; some older folk still use the word today. If you are lost in the bush the best way to attract attention is to call ‘cooooo eeeeee’.
At the end of WW1 the Parish of St Ambrose Bournemouth England made a cash donation to the people of Gilgandra in appreciation for their war effort. The money was used to build a replica of Bournemouth Cathedral. Unfortunately the amount didn’t cover the total cost so only half the church was built. I interviewed the pastor of the church when doing freelance work for ABC Radio and we sat in the church where he related to me the story about the church. We sat on plastic chairs, not old wooden pews as one would expect. When I asked about pews he informed me they were stolen a few years prior. Nothing is sacred!
For those with an interest in matters of charity and religion they might be interested to know that it was from a building behind the church that the Brothers of St Lawrence set out on their push bikes to bring the word of God to the people in the outback. The brothers were not tough adventurous individuals but sons of the English gentry wanting to test their mettle under the watchful eye of God.
In a town where there are a number of motels the one we choose to stay in tonight is the one where the price is displayed on a board out the front. Our motel tonight costs $65 and the quality is more than adequate. Tomorrow we will be in our own bed. I wonder if it is going to feel strange and if we will need to acclimatise.