Revisiting England and Wales: Visit to Maggie Part 2


the Australian Outback…. Birdsville….Backtrack tours….and Gilwern Wales.

A typical Fred’s backtrack leading to new horizons.

In the previous post, Maggie’s Camp in Wales Part 1, featuring the Australian outback I related how we established our Backtrack tour business and how we met Maggie. This post is a continuation of the previous one and we look in more detail at the diversity of the outback, where we took our clients and where Maggie lives in Wales. Previously I mentioned that the Birdsville Outback tour was one of the most popular, I now take you there.

Map showing where the most remote town in Australia is.

There are a number of must see attractions in and around Birdsville. The most popular would be the Birdsville Hotel then Big Red, the highest sandhill in the Simpson Desert to the west of the town, the Birdsville racecourse, the cemetery and finally the Birdsville hot bore.

The iconic Birdsville Hotel built in 1884.

Usually quiet apart from 4WD enthusiasts there is a period in September each year when the Birdsville races are conducted. During the two-day event the population of the town, normally 100, swells to 7000 and almost all of these visitors are intent on partying. With so many active partying visitors the police presence swells from one to twenty. Some years ago my son made a documentary film about the Birdsville races and one sequence required us to stand on top of the hotel parapet and film a night street scene. Revellers decided we were sitting targets and began throwing beer cans, full and empty ones, at us. Because Toby’s eye was glued to the camera he couldn’t see the cans coming so I would call ‘one coming in at two o’clock’. The can throwing went on until the police intervened.

Our clients loved the Birdsville Hotel during quieter times. The food was top class and having a beer at the bar was a ‘must do’. One warning I gave clients after booking into their motel rooms was to not leave the door open as snakes like coming into the rooms seeking water in the shower recess.

To the west of Birdsville town is Big Red, said to be the highest sandhill in the Simpson Desert. For many of our clients the whole point of going on the Birdsville tour was to climb Big Red, and even physically challenged clients set their minds to attempting it. The following photograph shows Paul, one of our regular clients, taking up the challenge.

Helping Paul to the top of Big Red.

Paul and and I sharing a joke on the way to the top of Big Red.

The late Paul was born in 1923 in England and contracted polio in childhood. In latter years he exhibited the effects of post-polio syndrome, which includes muscle weakness and paralysis. According to the medical professionals it is important that sufferers of post-polio syndrome avoid physical exertion. It was obvious Paul did not heed this advice, he saw getting to the top of Big Red as just another challenge.   From the day he contracted polio Paul faced many challenges and one of the greatest was to fulfill his lifelong desire to fly and go to sea. Just prior to WW2 he applied to join the Fleet Air Arm in the UK but the recruiting officer rejected him due to his wonky leg, however the Royal Air force accepted him and from there he transferred to the Fleet Air Arm. Whilst in the RAF Paul flew Catalina flying boats, a very appropriate aircraft for someone wanting to fly and go to sea.

Catalina flying boat. Image credit: In the public domain and via Wikipedia.

After transferring to the Fleet Air Arm he took to flying Fairey Fireflies, an aircraft carrier-based aircraft which, according to Firefly enthusiasts, equalled the Spitfire.

Fairey Fireflies taking off from an aircraft carrier deck. Image credit: In the public domain and via WW2

One amusing tale Paul told me was on one takeoff he pulled the undercarriage of the aircraft up a little early and the aircraft flopped down onto the deck, scratching the under belly of the aircraft and breaking the ends off the propellers. The shortened propellers did not prevent him from completing his mission and were not discovered until he returned to base. Service men such as Paul were subject to danger on a daily basis, not only when in the air but during off duty hours as well. During the very first bombing raid of London by the Germans during WW2 Paul and a colleague were playing billiards in a London club and a bomb scored a direct hit on the club. Paul dived under the billiard table and survived, his colleague made a dash for the air raid shelter and was killed on the way.

Big Red is one of 1100 sand hills in the Simpson Desert and stands at around 40 metres high. The sand hills run mostly in a north/south direction for hundreds of kilometres and are covered with spinifex and cane grass.

The eastern face of Big Red.

The red is a coating of iron oxide on the sand particles which are picked up from the atmosphere as the original base sand is blown from one place to another. It is believed the deeper the red the further the sand has blown.

Birdsville artesian bore head. The bore is 1.28 kilometres deep and the water, as can be seen from the steam, is very hot. The cone device is an attempt to dissipate heat.

Birdsville is often described as the most isolated town in Australia and its claim to fame, other than the annual Birdsville races, is it has the only utility owned and operating geothermal power station in Australia. Hot water from the bore is run through a heat exchanger where the fluid is evaporated into a pressurized gas which then drives an alternator to produce electricity. The Birdsville plant produces around 80kw of power. At the end of the power generating process the partly cooled water is channelled into a pond and then reticulated into the town’s water supply and the Birdsville Lagoon. There are some great campsites around the lagoon and it is a pleasure to sit and watch the thousands of water birds making the best of a manmade wetland.

Including tours and research trips we made nineteen trips to Birdsville and every one of the journeys was different. We saw the country underwater, in drought and in full bloom.

Flooded Channel country north of  Birdsville.

The majority of our tours took people into Australia’s harsh but beautiful arid desert areas. Following are a few images showing places we visited.

A happy mob on tour.

The people who came on our tours were generally highly motivated and had the desire to learn about the natural wonders of the Australian landscape. Some knew more about the subject under discussion than I did which meant I had to be sure of my facts. For example, if there was a Latin expert on board I had to be sure I pronounced the Latin plant names correctly. On one tour we had the director of the Canberra Botanical Gardens so I had to have plant identification spot on. Prior to going on tour I asked our clients to fill in a questionnaire relating to occupation. Knowing this meant I knew who I was dealing with. It was said of me at the time, ‘Fred knows a lot about little things and a little about a lot of things’.

We took groups into Lost City northwest Queensland. They flew in by helicopter then explored through the amazing sandstone pillars.

Picnic lunch on an outback road.

Under the coach we had a freezer in which Bev kept enough butter and cold meat for forty people for up to 14 days and an icebox for salad vegetables and fruit purchased along the way, a marvellous feat of planning on her part.

Clients taking a walk after lunch. The dead tree in the foreground is a mulga (Acacia aneura).

Mulga is an acacia and a truly amazing plant as it is relatively long lived (200 to 300 years), unusual for acacias.   Through evolution it has developed some amazing attributes enabling it to survive in the harsh Australian environment. The leaves stand erect to avoid the midday sun and the erect leaves allow rain to be channelled down them and deposited immediately at the base of the tree trunk. Roots penetrate deep into the soil and the roots harbor a bacteria that fixes atmospheric nitrogen. The leaves are coated with a form of herbicide which falls to the ground killing surrounding moisture hungry grasses.

Walking to the mountains. The mountains in the distance are part of the inactive Warrumbungle volcano, NSW

Walking on Lake Eyre, a large salt lake in South Australia. The next shoreline to the north from here is about 75 kilometres.

Level Post Bay where the above photograph was taken is sixteen metres below sea level and is accessed through the property ‘Muloorina’. Englishman Donald Campbell (1921-1967) visited Lake Eyre on a number of occasions and during one visit in 1964 he set a new world land speed record of 648.73kph (403.1mph).

A morning tea game of paddymelon bowls along the Wanaaring Road, NSW

Paddymelons or Afghan melons are often seen growing in roadside table drains. They are not native to Australia but emanate from Africa. They are not suitable for human consumption as they contain toxic substances.

A corella contemplating a paddymelon lunch.  The flowers in the background are poached egg daisies.

There are fourteen species of cockatoos in Australia and the corella is one of them. They are very intelligent long living birds. Corellas were confined mostly to drier outback regions however they have moved into more populated areas over recent years causing untold damage to trees in parks and gardens. It is not uncommon to see flocks numbering in tens of thousands.

One of the gates in the dog fence that runs along the NSW Queensland border. This is definitely in the outback.

The dog fence was built in the late 1800s as a pest exclusion fence with the aim of keeping Australia’s wild dog, the dingo, out of productive sheep-growing areas in southern Australia. The fence is 5614 kilometres long and runs from the east coast of Queensland to the Great Australian Bight in South Australia.

Everybody out! Checking out a termite high-rise mound.

Termites are not ants, although they are often referred to as white ants. They can be friend or foe: foe when they want to devour your house and friend when they eat fallen wood, turning it into valuable fertilizer. Some woods are too hard for termites to eat or contain repellant oils, which are not to their liking. Softer woods such as oregon are particularly attractive and there is a saying, ‘if you don’t want a piece of oregon eaten by termites you have to carry it around on your shoulder’. The termites living in the above mound eat spinifex grass, which grows in most outback regions.

Many of the roads we traversed when on tour were unsealed graded roads, some were rough and stony and the hardiest 4WD enthusiasts we met were amazed that we would negotiate such roads with a seventeen tonne coach. There was the occasional problem. The next photograph shows one event relating to stony roads.

In the thousands of kilometres we did we had only one blow out.

The principal of the company (Trevor Hannaford) from whom we chartered the coach and driver was most accommodating and supportive of our endeavours, encouraging us from the start. There was one driver who drove for us on most of the tours. Alan (Tappie) was also very accommodating and he had a favorable rapport with our clients. Tappie never seemed to tire, even after the most arduous day. An arduous day might involve ploughing through bull dust, being bogged or repairing a hole in the engine sump.

Ploughing through ‘bulldust’.

Bulldust is extremely fine, formed when road dust particles are subject to repeated drying and wetting. The dust penetrates every nook and cranny of a vehicle and sometimes when a vehicle plunges into a bulldust hole the vehicle is totally enveloped by the dust, hiding it completely and making it difficult for the driver to see the road ahead. Fortunately the coach we took into the outback had pressurized storage bins and therefore passenger luggage and food supplies remained dust free.

A warning on the Plenty Highway. Yes! This is a highway, not at all like people imagine a highway to be.

At the entrance to most towns in the outback a sign asks drivers to stop before entering the town allowing accumulated bulldust under the chassis to fall to the road. Vehicle wheel rims accumulate the most dust: centrifugal force forces the dust to the periphery of the rim and it isn’t until the vehicle slows that the dust drops to the road. Town residents are not happy with vehicles dropping this dust in the main street of their towns.

During the Birdsville Outback research trip Bev and I camped at Muloorina and adjacent to our camp was a pig shooter’s camp. He told me a story about one of his dogs which would run into the reed bed and emerge with a stick in his mouth. He said the dog had the ability to count the number of wild pigs in the reed bed. One stick indicated one pig and two sticks, two pigs. I asked what happens if there was a big mob of pigs. His reply was the dog would come out with one stick and shake it vigorously. Smart dogs in the outback!! Another meaning for bulldust is when someone tells a story that can’t be true. I think that term might apply to this story.

Most times dust was not a problem, it was rain that led to our undoing.

A serious bog on a property in South Australia.

The owner of the property assured us we wouldn’t get bogged as it hadn’t rained for a couple of weeks. Sheer man- and womanpower managed to extricate the whole seventeen tonnes by simply pushing. Clients often remarked there was never a dull moment on a Fred Backtrack tour.

The following photograph shows a storm and although beautiful it was not what we wanted to see when roads in all directions were unsealed.

Ochre pits near the end of the Birdsville Track.

The storm on the horizon dropped over 50mm of rain on the Cobbler Desert track where we were going the following day. The wet road necessitated us having an extra night in the nearby town of Leigh Creek.

Ochre is a natural earth pigment containing hydrated iron oxide, which ranges in colour from yellow to orange/brown. It was, and still is, used by Aboriginal people as body decoration and if mixed with animal fat it will stay on the body for longer periods. Decorating one’s body is called ruddling.

After rain the desert is transformed. Rainbow Valley Northern Territory.

Following are a few images of delicate plants of red soil country. Many desert plants are called opportunists as they have to flower and set seed in quick time as it may be years before it rains again.


Kangaroo paw.

Unknown. I’m hoping a reader will help me out with the identification of this one.

As I said before, nothing phased Tappie. He saw a broken fan belt, a flat tyre or a hole in the engine sump as challenges.

Our driver Tappie in his element fixing a leaky sump so we wouldn’t be late for dinner. Liquid steel did the trick.

All our clients considered the two man, one woman team a great threesome. Some clients when booking a tour asked whether Alan would be driving. Being in control of a coach with up to thirty-five passengers was a great responsibility and Tappie tackled the task with confidence.

The two-man, one-woman crew.

Our clients came from varied backgrounds. On one tour I asked a client what he did with himself, having recently retired. He replied that he ‘records the bus registration numbers of buses going out on their rounds from a Sydney bus depot’. At first I thought he was joking but after confirming it with his wife I realised he was for real. Bearing this in mind I am assuming that there is possibly a reader of this blog who might have an interest in buses/coaches and therefore a few details relating to the coach we used might be in order.

First it is necessary to clarify the difference between a bus and a coach. A coach has a toilet and a bus does not. This might seem trivial but for some it is comforting knowing their method of transport is toilet-equipped. One prospective client enquired if the door of the toilet swung in or out. If it swung in she would be unable to come on the tour. I determined she was unfortunately overweight and once in the toilet an inward swinging door meant she couldn’t close the door.

The coach we chartered was a 1982 model Denning with a two-stroke GM six cylinder diesel motor. Two stroke diesels are not common these days as they are not very fuel-efficient but they were very reliable and reliability in the outback was a prerequisite for us when one considered how far we were from civilization and how rough the roads were.

Advisory road sign telling us the road ahead was clear.

The tyranny of distance paled into insignificance once we reached our destination.

Rainbow Valley NT. A beautiful ancient landscape.

A Grass tree (Xanthorrhoea) overlooking the Flinders Ranges South Australia.

Grass trees are like the bottlebrush, waratah and kangaroo paw, all iconic Australian plants. Grass trees grow mostly in poor nutrient soils and respond to wildfires by flowering profusely after a fire has passed through. There are 66 species (found only in Australia), the smallest grows to only one metre high and the tallest six metres. They are very slow growing: 0.8 to 6cm per year and living to an estimated 450 years.

Xanthorrhoea in flower. Honeyeaters dream of the grass tree flowers.

Eyre Peninsula South Australia.

The Eyre Peninsula is a sparsely populated region of South Australia and its beauty is its naturalness. There are no guardrails, few manmade tourist attractions or restrictions placed where lovers of nature can go.

On the edge of the Great Australian Bight.

The Great Australian Bight is technically part of the Indian Ocean and lies on the southern edge of the Nullabor Plain. Cliffs along the coast are sixty metres high in some places.

Mound spring in the desert.

Mound springs are the Great Artesian Basin’s (GAB) blow off points and exist where pressure forces water up through a fissure in the earth’s crust. The basin is the largest in the world, stretching over 1,700,000 square kilometres (approximately 140 times bigger than England) with measured water temperatures of 30 to 100 degrees Celsius. Water coming to the surface in the south-west of the basin flowed into the intake beds some two million years previously.

Features of the Great Artesian Basin.

Many travellers say they have little interest in geology but I point out that geology is the main subject of travel. Travellers who gaze in wonderment at Uluru, Kata Tjutu and Wave Rock or further afield at the Grand Canyon, Cappadocia in Turkey or the mountains of Meteora Greece, are showing their interest in geology. The following photographs show our clients pondering over the marble pits in far north Queensland and a couple of other geological wonders we took clients to.

Marble quarries at Chillagoe far north Queensland.

Marble quarries far north Queensland. A huge chainsaw was used to cut the marble into manageable blocks.

Marble is a metamorphosed limestone and comprises recrystallized carbonate materials, most commonly calcite or dolomite. The colours, stripes and swirls are associated with mineral impurities such as clay, silt, iron oxides and silica.

The forty metres high Sawn Rocks north western NSW.

The rocks are sheared off remains of a basalt lava flow from a now inactive nearby volcano. The striking columnar fractures are a result of cooling of the basalt from outside to the centre causing shrinkage cracks to form.

Pildappa Rock South Australia.

Pildappa Rock is one of the many inselbergs in Australia (Uluru is also one). An inselberg or monadock is an isolated hill, knob or rock rising out of a flat plain. Geologists believe the formation is a result of water seepage into the soil at the base of the rock and over time the permanently moist soil conditions softened the rock and then the effects of wind and rain caused the flare or wave form we see today. The softening took place when the surrounding plain was higher than it is today.

My on-board coach spiel revolved around history, geology and botany and I gained great satisfaction from showing people the microscopic creatures and plants underfoot.

Trying to entrap an ant lion in the desert sands. Parents and grandparents brought their children and grandchildren along on our tours.

Ant lions are a species of insects which have fierce predatory habits. They dig pit traps into which ants fall and as the ant attempts to climb out of the pit the ant lion snaps onto them and the ant is never seen again, except for a few not so tasty bits and pieces.

Less fierce creatures of the desert are the frogs and below is a photograph of one of the many desert dwelling frogs.

Crucifix frog/toad, also known as the Holy Cross frog.

The Crucifix frog/toad is one of the few Australian species that has skin patterning which does not provide camouflage but instead acts as a warning against predation. The warning might be associated with the fact that the frog excretes a glue-like substance which I imagine would not be at all tasty. There is one member of the same genus known as the ‘superglue frog’ because predators get gummed up after eating one.

The big question here is, frog or toad? According to the Australian Museum, the answer is not simple and I’m not even going to attempt an explanation. If the reader would like an answer, go to the museum web page

A botany lesson, showing clients how black spear grass seeds react when dampened with water.

The botanical name for black speargrass is Heteropogon contortus, which means tangled, and this is how clumps of seeds present themselves. Pouring water on them, which is what I am doing in the above photograph, sends the seeds into spiral contortions. Watching the seeds attempting to plant themselves into the palm of one’s hand is a bizarre event. The genus is sometimes referred to as Tangleheads.

Many of our clients became interested in outback town architecture. Pubs were not only appreciated for the beer and food but for their photographic attributes as well. Outback pubs are unique and there is nothing like them anywhere in the world. The longest Australian pub verandah is 100 metres long and the longest bar is 32 metres.

School of Arts Hotel Roma western Queensland. At the time the School of Arts Hotel was built it boasted 44 bedrooms on the top floor.

Now that you have viewed and read about some of the places we visited with our tours I’m thinking you might want to go there hence I have prepared a map so you can start planning.

Map showing some of the locations where we took clients on tour. The boxed names indicate places mentioned in this and the previous post.

There are three spelling mistakes on the map: Yowha is spelt Yowah, ocher should be ochre (and Peninsula is spelt without an r on the end…Editor!) Sometimes when I am preparing blog maps I am more concerned with letter formation than spelling. I hope you will excuse the errors as I didn’t want to redraw the map for the sake of three misspelled words.

 So, back to our trip to Wales and meeting up with Maggie. Around Gilwern in Wales where Maggie lives there are no outback style hotels or opal fields but there are pubs, or inns as they are called in polite circles. The word pub is simply an abbreviation of ‘public house’.

Bridge End Inn at the end of the ride. One thing bike riders need is good food often, and we found it here.

About to set off for Abergavenny.

Gilwern is located on the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal and where there are canals there is invariably a towpath and towpaths beckon bike riders like us. Following is a map of the canal.

The not so portable map showing the extent of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal. Our rides from Gilwern took us east and west along the canal.

It’s rides like this that make the effort of carrying bikes worthwhile.

Riding trails like the one above bring to mind a passage the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, (1859-1930) penned.

 When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin on the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.

Narrow boats on the canal.

It would be feasible to travel the M & B Canal in a canoe and camp in the fields each night.

Meadows along the way.

The only words that come to mind are stunningly beautiful.

Along the canal there were big plants too and the one that impressed us was a giant redwood. This is the first time we have seen one in the real.

Giant redwood. Unfortunately there was no plaque on the tree giving details as to what species it was or when it was planted.

This giant is probably a Sequoiadendton giganteum. I am of this opinion because English plant collector William Lobb (1809-1864) in 1853 went to Calaveras Grove Sierra Nevada USA where the giganteum grows and he collected seeds, shoots and cuttings for transportation back to England. It is often quoted that Lobb was the first to introduce the tree to England, however others say horticulturalist Patrick Matthew, also in 1853, was involved with the planting of sequoias.

Following is an extract from the National Trust web page relating to the discovery of the Sequoia by William Lobb.

 ‘A feverish William Lobb, racing back to England in the autumn of 1853, knew he held the raw material of a legend. The seeds he cradled aboard ship carried an epic tale, dwarfed only by the mythic proportions of the tree that had produced them. Though a seasoned plant hunter…. he had seen nothing in his travels to prepare him for his first glimpse of the ‘big tree’…..Lobb knew this ‘vegetable monster’ would trigger an enormous craze in British horticultural circles… The larger-than-life conifer, so symbolic of the vast American wilderness, suddenly became a status symbol, rising boldly from expensive and highly groomed landscapes an ocean away’.

General Sherman Tree in Sequoia National Park. Image credit: Author Jim Bahn and uploaded by hike 395. Via Wikipedia.

Tunnel Tree. (circa 1940). Image credit: In the public domain. Photographer, Grant George A. Via Wikipedia.

Sequoia trees are tough but delicate, delicate because they require specific habitat criteria and tough because one in Poland has purportedly survived temperatures to minus 37 degrees Celsius. Growth in Britain is very fast; the tallest in Britain is at Benmore in Southwest Scotland.

Our Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal ride came to an end in a pleasant tranquil glade. We sat awhile and reflected on our travels so far and the fact that the end of another Encountering the Past was drawing in. I thought of the old axiom ‘All good things must come to an end to make way for better things as the best is yet to come’. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343-1400).

The pleasant glade at the end of our ride.

These last two posts of Maggie’s Camp has in many respects been one of reminiscences, my days as a roving ABC reporter and our days when touring the Australian outback. However the goodliest thing was renewing our friendship with Maggie.

Maggie today without the fly veil.

The end of this post is the very last for Encountering the Past Part 3.

After Bev and I returned to Australia we made a three months trip to Tasmania (Encountering the Past Part 4). This trip took us to a number of areas we visited in the 1990s but because I am running behind with my writings I have decided not to post Tasmanian stories just yet but commence Encountering the Past Part 5.

Our Odyssey #5 due to commence in September 2017 will take us from Zurich to Germany, Austria and Slovenia then maybe Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Corsica and Sardinia. After the Mediterranean countries we will return to Zurich via France in January 2018.

Bev and I hope you enjoyed Encountering the Past Part 3. Thanks for the positive feedback and we hope you will continue to travel with us in 2017/2018.

‘We might not know where we are going exactly but we will end up where we were meant to be.’



About tbeartravels

It's been said that I know a little bit about a lot of things and a lot about little things. I hope I can share some of this knowledge with you as we travel.
This entry was posted in Odyssey #3 2015: UK Spain Morocco France. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Revisiting England and Wales: Visit to Maggie Part 2

  1. Kevin and Sue Dewar says:

    Wow, how lucky are we to live in Australia! The photos and information were amazing, it brought back great memories of our trip to the outback with you.Would definitely love to visit the outback again.
    Hope you are both enjoying your European travels so far.
    Cheers Kevin & Sue

  2. raffaella says:

    dear Fred and Bev
    I love reading your posts, they are amazing !
    I hope I can meet you in Italy if you come by

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