Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dispatch from the Bush

 I’ve just returned from a two week sojourn to the outback. Traveling over 3000 kilometers in 10 days ……you could say I saw a lot of country! I was volunteering with Outback Links, an organization that matches intrepid souls in placements helping remote families dealing with the realities of living in the back of beyond. The program is a branch of Frontier Services. I traveled with the early education RAFS (Remote Area Family Service) field service coordinator. Flick (week one) and Emma (week 2) are dedicated educators undeterred by the isolation and extensive travel requirements of their job: providing play based enrichment for children up to age 5.
Charleville races

Davida, Flick and yours truly

fancy fascinators
Before heading off to begin the scheduled loop for 7 playgroups around southwest Queensland, I arrived in Charleville (12 hours west of Brisbane by car, but I flew) the day before the Melbourne Cup. Country races have been held in Charleville for 50 years on the same day as the Melbourne Cup, and for the 3300 residents it’s a public holiday and a very big day out. Over a thousand folks turned up to watch each other, five local races, and the big one on TV. After getting some instructions from Davida and Flick, I approached one of the bookmakers to bet on my first horse race. Thinking it was entirely possible I was perhaps the only American in attendance, seems I should bet on the horse called Americain. At exactly 2 pm all two thousand eyes were glued to one of the many televisions around the place and, behold and lo, I picked a winner! Had I wagered more than 10 dollars, this would have been even more exciting. The ‘fashions on the field’ were no doubt a bit less fabulous than in Melbourne, but Charleville’s ladies frocked up with fascinators, hats, plenty of jewelry, and tottered around in the dirt and grass in fancy high heels, many of them looking tremendously uncomfortable.

Also on the agenda for my time in the bush was tagging along while my RAFS compatriots attended an early education conference in the thriving town of Goondiwindi on the border of New South Wales. Although it wasn’t large enough to boast a stoplight, the town did have a large hotel, more than one gas station, Domino's pizza …the population was in the thousands! This was by FAR the largest town I visited. On arrival we were served a camp oven dinner (chili cooked over a campfire) with billy tea, but I was told it wasn’t the real deal, as authentic bush tea is meant to be strong enough to stand up your spoon. The conference lasted a day and a half, with interesting presenters and good information…..I hadn’t been to a professional conference in many a year.

mess o' bees

So we’re off to do the playgroups, with our 4WD vehicle packed up to and including the roof rack with blocks and dress up clothes, paint and glitter, soap bubbles, a train set, a water slide and a wading pool. We’d set up at the town park/hall on the grass, and the mums and tots poured in from the surrounding properties, which may have been up to two hours away. On several occasions I was able to lend suggestions and a listening ear to mum’s who voiced speech and language concerns about their little ones. Three hours later when everyone was thoroughly soaked and inevitably someone was crying, we packed up. The temperature was usually near 100 by now. We grabbed a cold drink and sandwich at the pub/grocery store/gas station/ restaurant/post office/bank….all of these housed in either one or two nearby buildings. Off we roared down the one lane road to the next town. Sometimes we encountered a vehicle or two and sometimes not. Once, for about a kilometer,  there was a dotted white line down the middle of the road: it was there in case the road needed to be used as an emergency landing strip.

river near Thagomindah
Between two and six hours later, we arrived in the next spot, spent the night, and got up the next day to do it all again. In between towns was…….nothing. Well, not nothing: rocks, red dirt, brush, trees, occasional small hills, more red dirt, cattle, sheep, goats, emus, snakes, lizards and goannas, kangaroos, wallaroos. The farther west we drove the more barren the landscape. Bird life was abundant; we saw apostle birds, budgies,butcher birds pelicans, one pair of brolgas and one pair of major mitchell's cockatoos, gallahs, among others. On the last day we saw wedge tailed eagles, which are one of the largest birds of prey: they can carry off lambs!I didn’t see any dingos as they usually don’t come near the road, but we did see a few wild pigs and foxes that were road kill. Happily the three venomous snakes I saw were dead, but I heard stories of very alive deadly snakes that almost everyone has encountered in one way or another.We crossed several streams ,which when flooded (as often happened this year) makes the road inaccessible. The streams/waterholes were all the same color: mocha. Due to all the rain recently, we saw  heaps of wildflowers and much more brush and plant life than is normally present.

wearing my fly veil
one of my companions in the loo
Outback folks were welcoming and friendly, always hospitable and happy to see us. The towns with schools (only primary, older kids were sent to boarding school) had enrollments of between 5 and 20. ‘Town’ is relative term, two of the ‘towns’ we came through had a population of less than 5. There was a pub/hotel/restaurant, and gas pump. One such place we stayed was Naccunda, and our accommodations were decidedly one star… Emma and I each had our own room, which thankfully boasted air-con unit, a 4 by 7 inch mirror, a disassembled smoke alarm, two twin beds with 15 inches between them, and a Gideon bible. The amenities across the cement step featured cute little frogs gripping the helicopter and airplane themed shower curtain, as well as emerging from the sink drain. Non-potable river water ran in the taps; identifiable by the brown tinge. Unfortunately the next morning after we unloaded and set up for playgroup, no one showed up. So we spent the morning flicking off the three inch grasshoppers that landed on us, shooing flies, hoping for a breeze, and applying DEET.
emu track

In Eromanga (pop.40), a town with a petroleum refinery, and the point in Australia that is furthest from the sea, I had an unusual experience. I went for my usual evening walk, enjoying the quiet and admiring the wing span of the kite hawks circling above. Soon there were more, now about 7 or 8 of them. They seemed to be following me……they came a little lower if I stopped walking, which I couldn’t do for long as the flies were fierce. It was evident the birds were keyed into my status as slow moving solitary mammal. If there was any chance I was going to die soon, they were ready to make a meal of me.

Chris and the blue tongue
Only four more weeks in Oz!!! We plan to enjoy every minute of it, swimming in the pool, catching waves, and glorying in the warm but not too hot time of year. While I was away, the fam managed just dandy of course....Chris from Tomas was over, and he and Tom encountered a blue tongue lizard  in the foyer.... Eli finishes up school in two weeks with a trip to dreamworld theme park with his school mates, and Melissa's dance concert is the following day. We're going to start packing any minute now.......


  1. I can't believe it has already been almost a year. I realize we still won't see you for another year, but it is amazing to watch the time pass. It sounds like an amazing 2 weeks!

  2. wow. I've been waiting for the outback report all year. hurrah. more. please tell me more

  3. Fantastic, Steph! Enjoy the upcoming travels and journey home. Guess we won't be able to be part of your welcoming party in Arcata, but will have to organize our own private homecoming with you soon. Love to all.

  4. You certainly have had a grand time. It is getting cooler her even though we have had some great sunny days this fall. It has been to terrific to read your blog and see all things adventures you have had.


  5. As usual, your blog is so interesting and exciting What in the world are you going to do when you get home to exciting Arcata? I'm in Seattle going up and down the coast visiting Kristy in Portland, granddaughter in Olympia and Kathy in Seattle. Took the train from Portland which was fun. Nice little break for me. GOing home tomorrow. I'm sure you can give some lectures and slide shows of your trip to different clubs !! You did such a good job with names of plants and animals!

  6. Sounds terrific. I can't believe it's only four more weeks. I'm off to Chicago today for a quick conference and then Angel and I are going to Mexico city on Saturday!

    Most anything coming on our computers wants us to help our sick
    country one way or another.

  8. Stephanie-

    Your trip to the out back seem to have been everything you hoped for. The travel to the vast interior with women who had a real life purpose. The "towns" seem to be just as small and quaint as possible. Insects to conquer, birds to enjoy, what could be better. Did you go to an actual sheep station?

  9. Hi Steph,

    Thanks. Looks great and sounds like you are having a great adventure.

    See you soon...


  10. I am really looking forward to you coming home. Maybe we could do something like this in Orleans, Ettersberg and Etna...particularly that waterslide! You have accrued a year's worth of interesting stories for our walks. I look forward to it and know that I miss you!

  11. Hi Steph,

    Wow, I'm so glad you got the chance to experience a different part of Australia. Enjoyed your photos. I can't imagine living way out there. How do mothers (and kids and husbands) keep their sanity? I did notice that your photos were mostly of white kids. Did you interact with the Aborigines at all?

  12. Davida wrote:
    "Hey Stephanie! Thanks for the message - I had checked out the blog and LOVED reading it! You write so well! I am busy getting ready to head south for the Classic Outback Car Trial which supports our work and is a great chance for some PR. Last year I invited Flick along for the week or so, so it will seem very strange to be driving solo this year!"

  13. Stephanie,
    I hope there will be another post before you pack up and head for home. Your blog has been a regular treat. What a rare time, eh?
    Tom Rowe