Thursday, 24 September 2009
We had planned on staying at the Royal Exchange Hotel (another old pub which has been converted into accommodation) for our entire time in Broken Hill, however it was booked out. Apparently Broken Hill is very popular during the week. Had we wanted weekend accommodation, we would have been fine. Alf and Jane had warned me about travelling sales representatives and the importance of making sure Friday night accommodation was sorted out. It seems Broken Hill was a mid-week town. As a result, we had booked into the Imperial for only one night and were then shifting to the RE. So, again it was another pack up of the car even though we were just shifting a couple of streets over. My initial plan for the day was to climb the pinnacles - a small group of small hills just outside town from which we could get a decent view of the surrounding countryside and so Pete, who had flown in at night, could get a look out the beginnings of the outback. HOWEVER - although the Pinnacles have always been on private land, there had never a problem with people driving out and looking at them. But now, the current owners have to decided to start mining the lease on the property again and have blocked access to the public. There is a new fancy website about the Pinnacles but it was too slow to check out with the mobile broadband and it didn't seem to say much anyhow. So we cursed the new owners (if you're reading this - you guys suck) and made alternative plans. I wanted to be back well before sunset so we get some photos up at the Sculptures Park - a small hill outside of town upon which a number of large sandstone sculptures have been erected - so we need something close, yet interesting. Following the advice of the Lonely Planet and the manager of the Imperial, I decided we should check out the Menindee Lakes - a group of lakes about an hour and a half out of town. Rather than try and get an early check-in at the RE, Yvette thought that this would be a good opportunity to test the repack of the car to allow room for Pete. We needed to rearrange things so that there was a comfortable enough space for another person on the back seat. An hour and half drive each way would be a good test. Giving up the front seat for Pete, Yvette was to be the hopefully-not-to-squishy guinea pig. As soon as we could, we swung by the information centre to pick up a key to allow us to drive up to the sculptures (lazy, yes - but I didn't know how much time we'd have when we got back) and then headed out to Menindee. The landscape changed numerous times on the drive, from sparse scrubby plains to a large line of trees which followed a dry and sandy creek. We stopped suddenly when we spied a flock (a herd?) of emus to allow Pete a better look. He hadn't seen an emu in the wild and hadn't seen one at all since a rather depressed example in the Dublin Zoo. The drive was a lot longer than I expected and it was quite a relief to see signs for the lakes. I pulled into the first lookout I could find and despite the large areas of blue displayed on the TomTom, there was little water to be seen. The only thing to do was to head into the town of Menindee and see what else was around. Being a very tiny town, it was easy to find the information centre and we headed in to find out what there was. I didn't want to waste the long drive. A very friendly if slightly mad man with a large white bushy beard explained to us that because of the lack of rain, there hadn't been water in the lakes for years. Boo hiss Lonely Planet. There was however, a reservoir which constantly had water in it and was worth a look. The TomTom would be happy - it was about 20 km down a dirt track. By this stage it was lunchtime and we selected one of the two local pubs - Maidens Menindee Hotel - for a counter meal. The pub was clean and friendly and there were no death stares from any of the patrons. Pete opted for some pork chops while Yvette had some fish and salad. I chose a hamburger. Around the walls of the pub were paintings of the doomed explorers Burke and Wills who apparently had stopped for a drink in the pub before heading out to meet their untimely fate. I hoped this wasn't an omen. After finishing out lunch in the curiously high-walled beer garden (problems with marauding kangaroos perhaps?) we took a few photos, had a quick look at supposedly historical bakery across the road which looked more like a concrete shed, and got back on the road to find the reservoir and with a little luck, some water. Now, I do not like gravel roads. I had an accident on one years ago where I was driving by myself, something happened and I ended up upside down, hanging in my seatbelt. I am not sure if a tyre blew or I lost control on the loose surface. As such, I still get a little nervous when the tarmac gives way to dirt. Still, I was determined the day wasn't going to be waste and 17 km or so out of town (back the way we had come) we found the turnoff. To start with it wasn't too bad, but then we reached the corrugated part and it was a rough and slow going. Out of the left side of the car we saw one of the 'lakes' which would have been huge had it been filled with water, but was now a large, flat plain dotted with dead trees. I assume the trees had grown during the time the lake was empty and had died when it had filled up again. It was quite eerie and alien and almost like something out of a fantasy novel - the 'dead forest' perhaps. We finally reached the reservoir where a large weir held in the water of one of the few rivers which had flowing water. A collection of pelicans and other water birds waited patiently at the outlet as this shallow water flow was the only way any fish could get downstream. The water was similar to that of the Murray - a greenish opaque. There was a large osprey circling and I wondered how it could possibly see any fish. This appeared to be the only area of water around and so after a few photos, we decided we could head back to Broken Hill and have time to check in to the Royal Exchange before sunset and the sculptures. So, after another rough, slow trip back over the gravel we got back onto the main road. One of the worst and most distressing thing about driving in the country and the outback is the sheer amount of roadkill. On the roads after leaving Loxton we had seen almost every native species represented - from kangaroos to emus and even magpies and one poor koala. Even though I grew up in the country and have done lots of long distance driving on highways, the number we have seen has been horrific and confronting. On the road from Broken Hill to Menindee there was even a dead, exploded sheep. These would be the only big red kangaroos I would see After a brief stop at the dry creek to take some photos of a rusted old car on a junkpile, we trekked back in to town to check in to the Royal Exchange. Yvette had managed to survive the four hours or so of travelling okay in the back which was encouraging. We had enough time to check in, dump our stuff and have a little bit of a rest before we had to get out to the sculpture park for sunset. Why did we have to get their for sunset? I wanted photos of the large blocks of sandstone illuminated with the light of setting sun. With the bags and various bits and pieces unpacked, it was easier for Yvette in the back now and we drove the short distance out to the hill. To my horror we got stuck behind a large tour group bus which vomited forth a noisy herd of gabbling tourists at the car park. My heart sunk even further when I saw the tour bus which was already there. Luckily they must have been the Short Attention Span Tourist Company as the passengers had just enough time to whip around and take some photos before they were herded back onto the bus and driven away. Still, there were a number of people like us waiting for the sun to go down and the one shot in particular where the sculpture with the hole in it frames the setting sun. As the sun got lower, the number of people crowding around the vantage point grew. One of the most difficult things about shooting at the sculptures was trying to get a shot without a tourist or a tourist's shadow in it. I mostly managed to achieve this and the departure of the buses made it a lot easier. The sun went down and I swallowed my pride and took the obligatory shot through the hole of the sculpture. As soon as the sun set, everyone got back in their vehicles and left, us amongst them. After the long drive that day I was more than ready for a beer and we did a mini pub crawl of the few pubs still working looking for somewhere to eat. Pete was hoping for some rough local action and perhaps an insult about his long bushy beard. Unfortunately for him (and luckily for us) the locals seem quite used to tourists and the comment was a shouted "nice beard" from a passing car. I'm not sure if they were being sarcastic or not. The second pub seemed like a real local and had Coopers Green on tap and had the menu been a little more accommodating to Yvette's semi-vegetarianism, we probably would have stayed there. As it was we moved on to a pub just across from the Imperial where we had stayed the night before. This pub had been renovated and lacked atmosphere but had prawns wrapped in bacon on the menu which was the best option Yvette had seen. The crowd was young and had fucking awful taste on the jukebox which I attempted to remedy with some Clash but this only provoked a young pair of girls to program some more awful shit. We took this as a sign and decided to call it a night. Pete would have to try again the next night for some beard abuse.
Tuesday, 15 September 2009
Today was going to be the first of the big drives. It's over three hours from Mildura to Broken Hill, and while I had done days longer than that on the trip, the Silver City Highway was one big long straight stretch of very little. The agricultural plains and vineyards of Mildura very quickly yielded to scrubby bush which suddenly became the typical outback low-laying vegetation with large sparse areas of red dirt. My friend David whom we stayed with in Melbourne had done this trip a number of times and had warned me about the long boringness of it but as it was completely new countryside to me, it was all quite interesting. The only rest stop on the highway is the Coombah roadhouse and is pretty much everything you'd expect from a service station/takeaway/shop in the middle of nowhere. Again the toilets are for 'customers only' although this time there was a poem explaining this on the wall outside. It covered the fact a transaction must occur before facilities are used and those not wishing to enter this agreement could find a suitable nearby bush. There was something about not letting dogs shit there as well but the poem was annoying me by that stage. We bought a couple of postcards and asked for the toilet key.
After a quick meal of leftover pasta we got back on to the long, straight road for the second half of the drive. As we got closer to Broken Hill, the scrubby bush turned into very sparse areas of red dirt with the occasional bush here and there.
Broken Hill is separated into north and south areas by the train line and a large pile of dumped rocks from mining - the north being Broken Hill and the south imaginatively called Broken Hill South. Driving in, the place looks like a mining town and by that I mean everything looks dry and dusty, there are piles of machinery in various states of repair lying around and lawns consist mostly of dust and rocks. However, once you're in to the city proper it seems like any other town, apart from the fact that all of the streets in the centre are named after minerals. There is Bromide St, Chloride St, Beryl St and so on. We were on the delightfully named 'Oxide' street staying in a beautiful old hotel called the Imperial which had been converted into an accommodation-only establishment. There are a few of these kinds of places around. Having been in decline since the price of zinc dropped in the 70s, a lot of the numerous hotels around town have been turned into other things - one of them is even a church. At least the buildings have been preserved and not knocked down. We checked in and I was going to have a little lie down, but I was looking through the various tourist brochures and came across the ad for Bell's Milk Bar. Now, Bell's Milk Bar had been recommended to me by David and is an old-fashioned milk bar that is not a retro establishment but a surviving milk bar from the 50s. We quickly got ready and headed over to the south side for some of the best milkshakes we've ever had. I had custard flavour and Yvette plumped for banana. Just before sunrise we headed up to the top of the large pile of rocks in the middle of town upon which a restaurant and a miners' memorial has been built. We watched the sunset although Yvette decided it was better from inside the car and out of the wind. Back at the hotel Yvette started preparing a risotto as we waited for our friend Pete to fly in. About 8.30 I headed out to the aerodrome. It's an odd drive at night as the street lights of town finish and there is a few kilometres of darkness before you are suddenly at the turnoff to the aerodrome. I turned in and at the first roundabout was a very large and very unimpressed kangaroo who reluctantly moved out of the way and allowed me into the carpark to pick Pete up. With Pete in the car, it was back to the hotel where Yvette had cooked up a delicious three-cheese risotto. It was time for a few beers and wines and catchup with news from the big city.
The plan had originally been to have a quick look around the Loxton Historic Village setup which was an attraction in town with a colonial town mocked up and I assume, actors running around. However, neither of us were really in the mood and we wanted to get to Mildura in order to be in time for an afternoon trip on a paddleboat down the Murray. So after another quick look around town and a refuel, we were on the road again. The landscape changed again as we got closer to Mildura with scrubby outback giving way to crops and the occasional vineyard with a couple of glimpses of the big river out to the left. We stopped for a short break at Lake Cullalleraine where I think I may have smacked the muffler into a stupid-arse pointless flower bed near a rest stop whose toilets were for 'customers only'. While I understand it would be annoying to clean facilities if people who are using them aren't giving anything to you, I would still be more predisposed to be a customer after using said facilities. So after the muffler smack turning around, we found the free rest stop which was much, much nicer being on the shore of the lake. We were immediately assailed by coots (a noisy and rather annoying water fowl) who were obviously used to travellers feeding them. I pulled out some of the biscuits from the hotel room we had taken and threw them out. Suddenly, out of the trees and the reeds came a very noisy family of apostlebirds, or what I knew as happy families. I hadn't seen these since the last road trip I did between Mackay and Brisbane where at one rest stop near Rockhampton there seems to always be a large flock of them. Apostlebirds are hilarious. They are constantly chattering and squawking about seemingly nothing and seem to fight and share in equal measure. I spent a bit of time feeding them and watching their antics.
From there it was a quick trip across to Mildura where we arrived in plenty of time to check in to the caravan park, unpack, have a bit of break before heading down to the Paddleboat Rothbury for a two hour trip down the Murray. Luckily, we arrived just before a tour bus of pensioners turned up and we managed to board and pay and grab the seats right up the front at the top. A few seconds later and we would have been too late. The trip down the river, through Lock 11 and back is a slow affair travelling at only 4 knots (about 10km/h) but the weather was fine and not too hot and it was nice to be driven around by someone else with a bit of commentary on the way. Apparently there are over 140 species of birds along the Murray and admittedly we were only on one section, and it was the middle of the day, but we still only saw a maximum of perhaps 12.
A little bit weary from sitting in the sun for two hours, we drove straight back to the caravan park where we took advantage of the cooker to make some pasta with chorizo and capsicum. Afterwards, Yvette rearranged all our belongings in order to make room in the car for our friend Pete who was meeting us in Broken Hill and travelling with us across to Dubbo. I meanwhile did some laundry which had built up since staying with Gavin and Pia. Having clean clothes is always nice when you're on the road however it means that my overnight bag was now full to bursting. Time for Spicks and Specks and then bed.
Wednesday, 9 September 2009
Gavin and Pia get up way to early for the likes of we holiday folk, so they had already left by the time we had managed to drag ourselves out of bed, coffee, breakfast, shower and pack. In fact they would have had to have stayed home 'til 11 to witness our morning faffing. We drove the few kilometers over to Beej and Tracey's to say one last goodbye and then we were off. Out of the city again - on the road - free. As much as it was lovely to catch up with our friends, it felt great to be getting out of the city and back in to the countryside. For some reason, the TomTom decided that the quickest way to get through the city was to go through the city. So, we got one last extended look at Adelaide before the seemingly endless drive through the northern suburbs. These seem to suddenly disappear however and suddenly we were on the highway with the Barossa off to one side and fields of grapes and canola (given the unfortunate name 'rapeseed' by Europeans). This gave way surprisingly quickly to scrubby outback - the first bit of this type of countryside we'd seen and was perfect for clearing the city cobwebs from our minds.
It was a fairly easy drive and around lunchtime I decided we'd stop in Blanchetown for some food and a break. Apparently known as 'the entrance to the riverland', this was our first proper view of the once-mighty Murray River. And while the river is still quite amazing and beautiful, Blanchetown isn't. We drove down to the river and 'lock 1', the first of the many locks and weirs along the river. There were Pelicans everywhere waiting for fish to be funneled through one part of the weir. I assume this is easier than trying to find fish in the Murray as it is quite muddy - practically opaque. Oddly enough, large fish were jumping out of the water right in front of us which they seemed to ignore. This was the most interesting (and active) part of the town and there was nothing else to really speak of and certainly nowhere that looked like it would serve food. So we pressed on to Kingston-On-Murray and in particular the Banrock Station winery. Now Banrock Station wines do not pretend to be anything other than what they are. They are decent quaffing wines and price themselves accordingly - around $9 a bottle. Their building however is spectacular and is grander than anything we saw in McLaren Vale outside of Adelaide. On a slight ridge, the view overlooks the countryside for miles (see pic at the top of this blog) and when we arrived there were two storms off in the distance adding to the majesty of the place. After a brief tasting of their reds (and their white shiraz) we grabbed a couple of emergency bottles and got back on the road to Loxton enjoying more views of the Murray along the way. We arrived in Loxton about 5ish and checked into our room which was a fairly standard motel block but it had a view (again of the Murray) and we had been given complimentary beer which was waiting for us in the fridge. After unpacking, we took a little stroll around the town which seemed quiet and mostly unspoilt. Unfortunately there were only a couple of postcards of Loxton, none with the name 'Loxton' on it and no magnets to add to our collection of places we've stayed in. We then went down to the pub for a couple of beers and some food. That night we opened the Petit Sapin cheese we'd bought at the Adelaide market and had that with some red wine while watching Good News Week.
Monday, 7 September 2009
We needed a day off and had decided to book in for two nights at Robe. It's always nice to stay at least two nights in a place as it means you don't have to get up, get packed and get gone by the criminally early 10am. After the drives of the past few days and the fact that the weather had become so windy that it was blowing metal signs down the street, it was a perfect day to stay in, turn on the heater, read and nap. Which is exactly what we did, with a quick trip out to buy the local papers (the 'local' being the Adelaide Advertiser - a dreadful rag that will waste about two minutes of your life, or ten minutes if you're into AFL). Feeling much better that evening for having done nothing, we went down for a couple of pints* of Coopers downstairs before again eschewing the pub restaurant for some very local, and very overpriced Chinese food. Even though we'd spent the day doing very little, we still opted for an early night.
The wind which we'd hoped would ease by today continued unabated. We did manage however to get a brief period of non-rain in which to pack. We did a quick drive around the town which was actually our first proper look at the place. We found the other pub which I now suspect is the place recommended to us as it had rooms opening onto an upstairs verandah which overlooked the sea. Robe seems like quite a nice place, well on its way to being completely fucked up with shitbox houses designed by f*ckhead architects being built all over the place. Which is a shame really. I imagine it was quite pleasant about ten years ago.
From Robe we headed to Kingston SE. The 'SE' or 'southeast' was originally to distinguish it from the other Kingston already in South Australia (now officially called Kingston-on-Murray). This was a refuel stop but unbeknown to us it was also the home of The Big Lobster. Apparently one of Australia's best "Big Things", it was actually pretty cool.
Having looked at Google Maps, I decided the coastal road would be the nicest and would hopefully get away from the neverending acres of pine forests. It also promised some large lakes right next to the road which due to a lack of recent rain, were nothing more than large areas of low-lying land. Still, it was an easy and pleasant trip to Meningie with not too much traffic for a Sunday. We stopped there for the obligatory two hour break and had a pie and quiche from the local bakery. I also bought a sausage roll which I didn't feel like after the pie, so I threw it whole to the waiting seagulls out of curiosity to see how long it would take them to devour it. The pastry was immediately removed and one seagull managed to grab and swallow almost the whole of the sausage middle which was quite a feat as it was still quite hot from the bakers. Perhaps it burnt his little tumtum...
I sent my friend Beej a text telling him we were on our way and we climbed back into the car for our last bit of countryside for a couple of weeks. The trip into Adelaide from the south goes through the Adelaide Hills and even though a lot of it is highway, it is still quite a pretty drive. It also drops you right into the Eastern suburbs and it seems to go from 100km/h to 60 a little too quickly. Luckily Beej and Tracey (and their lovely new bub, Campbell) live in Kingswood which is in the Eastern suburbs and from the end of the highway to their place was only ten minutes. We unpacked and grabbed some of the cheese we still had from the Dandenong markets and Apostle Whey, some wine and some salami and headed down to the park for an impromptu picnic. Unfortunately the weather had followed us and we had only sat down for half an hour before it got too cold and inclement to stay. A quick repack and we were back and enjoying drinks and food out of the wind and the rain. It was great to see Beej, Trace and Campbell again and nice to think we'd be staying in one place for at least a week.
* the pints we had were proper pints as you would reasonably expect. However, in South Australia what is known in the rest of the country as a schooner (425mL) is called a 'pint'. If you actually want a pint of beer (570mL), you have to ask for an 'imperial'. If you ask for a 'schooner' you will be given a 285mL glass, known in Queensland as a 'pot' and in NSW as a 'middy'.