Impressions of the trip
For three months, starting in late May, 1017, I spent 96 nights with my wife in the confined space of one room, known as our motor home. Certainly a blue-ribbon test of the marital bond. We were doing our big “trip around Australia”, the retirement trip that grey nomads often talk about, particularly before they get grey hair. We drove over 13 000 km, purchased over $2000 of diesel and visited SA, NT, Qld and NSW. We had originally planned to go over to Adelaide and then up through the NT as far as Katherine, and then turn west, back towards WA, making it an anticlockwise loop. But almost on a whim, at Three Ways (just north of Tenant Creek) we turned east and did a big clockwise circle though Queensland and NSW before closing the loop by returning to Horrick’s Pass, in the Flinders ranges just north of Adelaide. I did have the possibility of visiting a cousin through marriage in Qld so this influenced the decision. It’s a lot of driving and when we did stop for a few days, this was always very welcome.
Susan introduced me to free camping on this trip. Here it is necessary to be completely self-contained, though some stops did have a drop toilet, with such facilities varying in their level of agreeable presentation. Dealing with toilet matters, if I may be slightly indelicate, is in fact a significant part of the daily routine. Fortunately I am an after breakfast mid-morning man and was able to 100 % able to avoid internal visits, relying on road houses and the not so occasional trowel and behind a bush visit, affectionally called “AL frescos”.
Before setting out I was looking forward to seeing a variety of eucalypts. My guide to Eucalypts by Dean Nicol showed me the geographical region where particular species grew naturally, and I realised we would pass through a number of these. So there were the ghost gums of Alice Springs, the river red gums of the Finke river (and many other rivers), the coolabahs along the Darling river (NSW) and the Matilda highway (Queensland) and the desert oaks along the Larapinta highway (NT on the way to Uluru) have now become cherished memories. The river red gum, appearing in seven subspecies, is the most widespread of the eucalypts. The coolabah is perhaps the most iconic, as it is celebrated in the lyric “under the shade of the Coolibah tree” in the poem waltzing matilda. On the trip I also became aware of the dig tree, a coolabah, where Burke and Wills found buried supplies left behind by the waiting party that left 7 hours before they returned from the Gulf of Carpentaria.
Two books were my happy companions on this trip (apart from my Eucalypt guides). The first was “The Singing Line” by Alice Thomson, which tells the story of Charles Todd and the telegraph line from Adelaide to Darwin. This tale fleshed out the details of the enterprise that I was vaguely aware of. As we travelled up the Stuart Highway we could see the type of terrain the early explorers and pioneers had to contend with. We visited two telegraph stations. The excellent museum in Alice Springs and the more undeveloped one at Tenant Creek were visted. But Todd had to wait for Charles Stuart to complete his explorations and this in turn lead me to discover the rivalry between Stuart of South Australia and Burke and Wills of Victoria.
I found my second book, “The Dig Tree” by Sarah Murgatroyd, at the shop attached to the roadhouse / restaurant at Barkly Homestead. What a wonderful find this book turned out to be. Firstly in the forward, Geoffrey Blainey lists all the other attempts to tell this tragic story (so lots of reading to follow up). The book is a very well researched narrative of the story by this BBC journalist, who tragically died from cancer just before the book was published. Apparently she drove along the path of the expediton three times, often in extreme discomfort. As I’ve already mentioned we weren’t able to visit the dig tree, as our motorhome is not up to extended travel off the bitumen, but otherwise we tried to connect with places where our trek crossed theirs. This occurred the first time on the Mt Isa to Cloncurry road. At Cloncurry there is a good museum that has a facsimile of Wills’s diary, as well as Burke’s water bottle. (Though the national museum of Australia in Canberra also claims to have it). In Queensland we free camped by the banks of the Barwon River, which flows in Coopers Creek, so we got a feel for the countryside. Several weeks later, 100 km south of Broken Hill, we visited Menindee Lakes, on the Darling, where Burke and Wills set up their first base camp, on the edge of what was then the extent of European settlement. Coming to realise what the first explorers and pioneers went through in those first years is one of the chief benefits of the “Round Australia” journey.