Three weeks on the road in North West Queensland

trip3As the editor of the North West Star my patch is enormous. Centred in Mount Isa, it covers a region from the NT border east to Hughenden and from the Gulf of Carpentaria south to Birdsville, a huge area covering 14 local councils and almost half a million square kilometres. It is the size of Spain (Isa is our Madrid) but with a population of less than 50,000 people. I’ve been lucky to get around a lot of it but even by my standards these last three weeks have been hectic, with several big journeys bookended by two one-thousand-click trips, for 5000km in the car in three weeks.


It started with the Easter races at Boulia. As in previous Easters I began with a drive down to Bedourie to catch up with friends. It is past Boulia, 500km from Mount Isa, on a road parallel to the border and surprisingly all bitumen, though the Mount Isa-Boulia stretch is almost entirely one lane only.


I stopped at the Vaughan Johnson lookout at the border of the Boulia and Diamantina shires to enjoy the amazing view east over the Channel Country. The colours always change up here but this was as brown as I’ve ever seen the view. There is water in the Lake Eyre Basin thanks to flooding further north but little has made it to this part of the system.


The effect of upstream water is confirmed at Bedourie. The roads south to Birdsville and east to Windorah are shut due to flooding. There is an alternative rocky route to Birdsville via Lake Machattie but I’m not keen on that bonejarring experience.


I’m content to drive 20km south of Bedourie to Cluny property and admire the normally empty Kings Creek in full flow though it has hardly rained in Bedourie this year. Kings Creek is part of the Georgina River system and all this water came from the far north west of Queensland and the NT.


On Saturday it was up 200km to Boulia to cover their annual race meet followed by a 300km drive back to Mount Isa that afternoon. It was important to get home before dark as cattle wander the unfenced road at night and give off no reflection. I’m keen on this Indian system to give them glow horns in the dark.


On Easter Sunday I went out to Rigby Falls, a waterhole and waterfall about 50km towards Cloncurry and then another 20km on rugged tracks. It was a beautiful drive though there was little water remaining at Rigby after recent rains.


Having gotten the Tuesday paper out of the way early Easter Monday, I had time in the afternoon for more local exploration, to East Leichhardt Dam, a reserve supply for Cloncurry Shire, and admire a lovely waterhole near the Dam itself.


The following Saturday it was back to the races, this time Maxwelton, 350km east of Isa. The Maxi bush races are famous around the district but didn’t happen last year due to a bumpy track failing to pass muster. The locals came along anyway, dressed in their finery and had a great day out with footraces replacing the four-legged variety.


Maxi race president Bill Needham plays the fanfare twice with each race, once to announce the horses in the ring before the race, and secondly to announce correct weight. Maxi races were broke and dying a few years ago when Needham and a new committee took over to save it. Needham admits they knew nothing about racing but they knew how important the annual meet is to social interaction in an isolated district.


On Monday it was more equestrian sport, this time 320km up to the Gulf to the campdraft at the dot on the map called Burke & Wills Junction. I wouldn’t normally drive that far for a campdraft but this one doubled up as the national championships decider, a rare honour for a place that boasts just one building – the Burke and Wills Junction roadhouse, with nothing 200km in any distance.


At the gala dinner that evening caterers from Cloncurry did a remarkable job to feed 300 people from a mobile kitchen hired from the Outback College of Hospitality. They brought in 150 serves of 300g steak, 150 serves of 200g barramundi, 30kgs of potatoes, 10kg of cherry tomatoes, 30kgs of prawns and 5kg of smoked salmon and made 25kg of coleslaw and pumpkin salad in heat of 36 degrees outside and 46 degrees in the mobile kitchen. I slept off dinner in the car that night and drove back to Mount Isa on Tuesday.


I was back in Cloncurry on Thursday for a parliamentary hearing into the high costs of regional airfares. One reason I do so much driving is that flying in the bush is outrageously expensive, a hot-button issue in our region. At Cloncurry the federal Senate committee heard from local councils and industry groups and later that day returned to Mount Isa to hear the horrendous experience of locals who have forked out $20,000 and more to fly to see sick family members or get their kids to sporting events on the coast.


On Friday I was on the road again, this time to Julia Creek for their annual Dirt N Dust triathlon festival, which I’ve written about before. It’s a great weekend with plenty going on. But this year I was unprepared for the enormous amount of flies and bugs. They are in abundance after recent rains and were a pest at Maxwelton (though not at Burke & Wills where there was tree cover). This photo of bugs in the light at the arena does not do justice to their extraordinary numbers, and made life very difficult.


Bugs or no bugs the tri goes on and on Saturday morning we headed 30km out for the start at Eastern Creek. The bikes are taken out in enormous cattle trucks and the competitors, organisers and media are bussed to the start.


The fun starts with a 800m soupy swim (though it can get quite deep and cold) in the creek. Visibility zero, but flies in the billions. Crocs? Well this is a Gulf river system so maybe one or two but they’ll be freshies who might give you a nip if you get too close not fearsome salties who enjoy the taste of person.


Then the 30km bike ride back to town. Usually they are battling a headwind but this year there is no breeze. The only thing they have to contend with is media crouched in the grass or on the middle of the road looking for that perfect low level heat haze shot (I got one I’m happy with).


Finally it’s back to town for an energy-sapping three laps of the main street in a 5km run to finish the triathlon. Afterwards everyone shrugs off the active wear and rocks a suit or a fabulous dress at the Artesian Express races at Julia Creek’s McIntyre Park, holding the richest race in the region.


I headed back to Mount Isa on Sunday and after filing my Julia Creek stories I had time to head 20km out of town to explore the trails and climb the hills at the Heywood Granite Mine.


This abandoned mine is full of red granite boulders not unlike the more well-known structures at Karlu Karlu – the Devils Marbles.


Two days later it was another 300km round trip. The destination was Dajarra, half way to Boulia. Here the Cloncurry Shire Council was holding its monthly meeting and also officially opened the small town’s new cenotaph which honours Dajarra’s Indigenous First World War digger Peter Craigie. Peter’s family came down from Mount Isa to celebrate the day, a week ahead of Anzac Day.


The final trip was on Thurday, a lazy 500km to Winton. About half way from Mount Isa is the tiny township of McKinlay. In the centre of town is a statue to John McKinlay, Scottish-born cattle grazier, and leader of the South Australian Burke Relief Expedition, one of the search parties for the Burke and Wills expedition in 1861. McKinlay discovered a river nearby, also named for him and the town briefly prospered with a goldrush in the 1870s. Today its main claim to fame is the Walkabout Creek Hotel, used for filming Crocodile Dundee.


My destination was Winton for the three-day Way Out West festival. The main street was closed to traffic with a music stage across the road from the town’s North Gregory Hotel. The hotel famously heard the first rendition of Banjo Paterson’s Waltzing Matilda (though its genesis was inspired by Combo Waterhole, 160kms across the border in McKinlay Shire).


In a break in events I drove 20km out of Winton to the sparse Bladensburg National Park with its grassy plains, clay pans and mesas, river red gums and gidgee woodlands. The National Park conserves 84,900ha of Mitchell Grass Downs and Channel Country, including unique birdlife, plants and animals. Impressive flat-topped plateaus and residual sandstone ranges provide a scenic backdrop to vast grassland plains, river flats, and rocky scarps.


The Koa People consider Bladensburg part of their traditional country, and it is also important to the Maiawali and Karuwali People. At Skull Hole inside the Park the Native Police and associate posse massacred two hundred Aboriginal people. Norwegian scientist Carl Lumholtz recalled how he in about 1882-84 was shown “a large number of skulls of natives who had been shot by the black police” some years earlier. In 1901 P. H. F Mackay wrote an article to The Queenslander about a massacre at the Skull Hole on Mistake Creek citing property manager Hazelton Brock as a witness and participant who classified the incident as “the Massacre of the Blacks”.


I camped the night at Pelican Waterhole, site of the original township of Winton next to the Western River. The town was moved a kilometre away to its current location on higher ground due to frequent flooding.


The centrepiece of the weekend was the opening of the new $23m Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton. The old visitor information centre and museum was burned to the ground in June 2015 though the statue of Banjo survived the blaze. The Governor-General and Premier of Queensland came on Friday to officially open the new building. I watched that ceremony but could not hang around Winton for the rest of the festival. It was back on the road for a final 500km to Mount Isa and some well deserved time on the couch.

The full itinerary for the three weeks:

Easter Mount Isa – Boulia – Bedourie 1100km return (plus side trips)

Easter Sunday Rigby Falls 120km return

Easter Monday East Leichhardt Dam 100km return

Saturday, April 7 Mount Isa to Maxwelton 700km return

Monday-Tuesday April 9-10 Mount Isa to Burke & Wills Junction 640km return

Thursday April 12 Mount Isa to Cloncurry 250km return

Weekend April 13-15 Mount Isa to Julia Creek 520km return

Sunday April 15 Heywood Granite Mine 50km return

Tuesday April 17 Mount to Isa to Dajarra 320km return

Thursday-Friday April 19-20 Mount Isa to Winton 1100km return (including side trips).

Total 4900km.


Inside Capricorn Caves

The Capricorn Caves are another of North Queensland’s great natural wonders. Situated near the Bruce Highway 30km north of Rockhampton, the Caves are part of the Mount Etna National Park. I’ve driven past the town of The Caves visible from the Highway many times before finally dropping by last year. Caves are awesome places to get a measure of an area’s geology and this one has nice gardens too while waiting for a tour into the cave.IMG_0470

My first surprise as we start the tour is that instead of going down we are going up. These caves are high in the mountains. Aboriginal people have long known of the Capricorn caves, and it is part of the Darumbal people’s traditional homeland. They were rediscovered by settler John Olsen in 1881 when it was almost immediately opened to the public. In 1988, after four generations of Olsen family ownership, Rodney Olsen sold the freehold property to Ken and Ann Augusteyn. Today, they are the only privately owned show caves on freehold land in Australia.


While wild caving tours are on the menu for the adventurous, the park has also reached out to the wider market with easy walking caves via wooden steps and even wheelchair accessible caves. The Archer Brothers settled in Rockhampton area in the 1850s and named Mount Etna after the volcano in Sicily. From 1914 to 1939, the caves were mined for guano, a natural fertiliser, and from 1925 for limestone. During World War II, commandos trained here. The national park was established in 1975 to protect the caves.


During the Devonian period about 390 million years ago eastern Queensland was covered by a warm shallow sea. Erupting lava gradually built up islands that provided a base for corals, sponges, and shellfish to grow. Their calcareous skeletons accumulated on the sea floors to form the sedimentary Mount Etna limestone. As the limestone emerged from the sea to become land, it was exposed to acidic rain and underground water flowing through cracks. These waters dissolved the calcite in limestone to form the caves. When the water became saturated with the dissolved calcite it redeposited the calcite as cave decorations.


The area has been alternately shaped by, and then starved of, water. Limestone from ancient coral reefs formed rocky karst.


Five bat species roost in Capricorn Caves at different times of the year, mainly in warm wet weather. Little bent-wing bats (Miniopterus australis) visit in their thousands, and Australia’s largest carnivorous bat, the vulnerable ghost bat (Macroderma gigas) is a rare vistor.


Marine fossils of the original corals can still be seen in Capricorn Caves. Crinoids (sea lilies) were abundant and stromatoporoids, sponge-like filtering organisms with hard skeletons, built up large mounds of limestone.


The rare fern Tectaria devexa, seen in cave entrances, was threatened with extinction in 2006 after decades of drought. Spread across southern Asia Capricorn Caves remained the only known locality in Australia until April 2001 with about 40 plants when an additional smaller population was located at another cave. A threatened species recovery program has helped stabilise the fragile species.


The most popular tour is the Cathedral Cave Tour is with its wheelchair access and the natural acoustics of the Cathedral Chamber. It’s a popular venue for weddings, Carols at Christmas and orchestral performances.


The tour meanders through ten chambers ranging from smaller caves decorated with stalactites, cave coral and shawls to the huge domed Cathedral Cavern. In my tour they turned off all the lights in the Cavern while playing a recorded cover version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah which sounded amazing in almost total darkness while candles flickered on the walls.


Because there was only three of us on this session we got a bit of the more adventurous tour. The exit is via the “Commando Crawl” and then a swing rope. Thankfully we we skipped the bit where you squeeze through “Fat Man’s Misery”, a tight fit cave not for the overweight – or claustrophobic.


A visit to Paronella Park

park15I’d driven the road from Townsville to Cairns once before in 2013 but at that time I’d not heard of Paronella Park. I headed up that way again in 2017 and in the intervening years I’d heard multiple times Paronella Park was worth a visit and had won many tourism awards. So I added it to my itinerary between Cardwell and Innisfail. The park is not new, it has been open since 1935. As I drove north I saw many billboards advertising its charms and wondered why I didn’t notice it before. Or was it simply clever marketing in the last few years that had raised its profile?


There is no doubting Paronella Park is an extraordinary place with an extraordinary story. Situated at Mena Creek it is a 15km detour from the Bruce Highway, 200km south of Cairns.  I parked on the south side of the creek at a lookout admiring Mena Creek Falls. It was the dry season so not at its most spectacular but sitting pretty right next door was Paronella Park in all its glory.


The Park is approached by a swing bridge which looks down on the creek below and part of the ornate park. The park was a pre-war dream of a Spanish immigrant named José Paronella who wanted to build a Castilian castle in the Australian tropics. Paronella was born in February 1887 in La Vall de Santa Creu, a small village in Catalonia. On five hectares of virgin scrub beside Mena Falls he built a park in his name with a castle, picnic area by the falls, tennis courts, bridges, a tunnel, and covered it with 7500 tropical plants and trees that is now a lush rainforest.


José Paronella’s father tended olives for local farmers and his grandmother’s tales of “romantic Spanish castles” and the “nobleza” profoundly influenced José’s later dreams.  As a young man, he moved from Catalonia to Cairns in 1913. For 11 years he worked hard, cutting sugar cane then purchasing, improving, and reselling cane farms. By 1921 he was an Australian citizen and a wealthy man. Paronella received an extortion letter from The Black Hand demanding £500. The Black Hand had been established in Sydney and Melbourne, and was making inroads into the Italian communities in Innisfail with many murders, bombings, and blackmails. Paronella was susceptible to extortion as he had been involved in tax evasion. In 1924 he returned to Spain under a false name intending to marry Matilda Soler, his betrothed before coming to Australia. But Matilda had found another man so he married Matilda’s younger sister Margarita instead. He took Margarita back to Australia where the couple worked hard together to continued to build their fortune. They also had two children Teresa and Joe (Jr).

park16José first saw his park in 1914 but it wasn’t until 1929 he was in a position to buy it which he did for £120. Immediately he got to work building his pleasure gardens and reception centre for public enjoyment. Paronella was strongly influenced by the Moorish architecture and gardens of Spain, and the design of Villa gardens visited during his European honeymoon. He also admired the work of Antonio Gaudi, and created garden elements inspired by those in the Alcazar Garden in Seville and the Botanic Gardens in Madrid.


The earliest structure, the Grand Staircase, was built to facilitate the carrying of the river sand to make the concrete. The steep structure has reminders of past floods. The two brown tiles about half way up represent the 1996 flood level (lower) and 1967 and 1994 (upper). Near the top is a third tile representing the huge height of the 1946 flood.


After building a house for themselves, the Paronellas started on the castle and accompanying lookout towers and pillars. Apart from the stone house, all of the structures were constructed of poured, reinforced concrete from old railway track. The concrete was covered with a clay and cement plaster put on by hand, leaving their fingerprints as a reminder.


It took six years to open the park but the buzz was growing at the scale of what they were doing. In 1933 the Brisbane Sunday Mail reported what the “pleasant-faced Spaniard” was up to in the Deep North. The paper was impressed but struggled to avoid racist overtones. “Joe Paronella. An amazing fellow of 47 and with none of the swagger the world has pinned to his race.”  But it did ask him the question why he put so much effort into it: “It is because I wish to do something. I make my money in (the) sugar industry and in selling my farm. I travel and see the world twice. Never do I see any place as beautiful as Queensland.”


Paronella did much of the work himself. He also employed a canecutter who had worked as a carpenter in Malta and the canecutter’s nephew to work on the project full-time. He used many unemployed men who had arrived in Innisfail and exchanged food and shelter for labour. In 1935, the Park was officially opened to the public. Queensland governor Leslie Wilson was at a conference in Innisfail and visited the new park. Wilson was impressed and told journalists “Paronella has created a place of beauty which will be a great attraction to visitors in the future. His buildings are of unique design. The Park is a credit to North Queensland. It is absolutely remarkable to see what one enterprising man can do.” Access to Mena Creek from Innisfail had improved and the park was immediately popular. It boomed during the war years as thousands of American servicemen descended on the park with plenty of money to spend.


The theatre showed movies every Saturday night. And when they removed the canvas chairs from the Hall it was transformed into a favourite venue for dances and parties. The highlight of the ballroom was a myriad reflector, a great ball covered with 1270 tiny mirrors, suspended from the ceiling. Its pink and blue spotlights of pink and blue shone on the reflector from the corners of the hall and when rotated slowly, it produced a coloured snowflake effect around the room. Upstairs was the Paronella Museum housing coins, pistols, dolls and samples of North Queensland timbers. Evidence remains of the disastrous fire that swept through the Park and destroyed the hall and cafe in 1979. The Park was closed for years, but was slowly revived despite further damage caused by cyclones and floods.


The tunnel of love was built in 1932-1933. The reinforced concrete structure provided a short cut to the fernery. It was closed in 1993 for safety reasons. The closure has allowed the colony of little bent-wing bats to grow from 40 to 500.park10

Paronella planted these majestic rows of Queensland kauri pines (Agathis robusta) in 1933. They can live for a thousand years. Paronella planted over 7000 trees and the whole park was threaded by pathways, bridges and avenues. He also built a shaded orchid and fern house for Margarita to tend exotic plants.


An astonishing feature of the park is a hydroelectric power station, the first in North Queensland. Installed in 1933 it worked using gravity according to Paronella’s own design. Water falls nine metres into the turbines where were coupled with DC generator.  A belt-driven governor controlled the speed and changed the angle of water flow to maintain constant rotation speed. Paronella used the station to power the park though he had to change it to AC after the 1946 floods. The system, along with the entire park, was destroyed after cyclone Larry in 2006 but the current owners restored it with the help of a German company specialising in old hydro systems. Up and running again since 2010, it continues to power the entire park and also supplies the grid.


Two years after repairing from the significant damage of the 1946 floods, José died of cancer, leaving Margarita, Teresa, and Joe, to carry on. Teresa married and moved to Brisbane while. Joe married Val in 1952, and they had two sons, Joe (José) and Kerry. Floods, renovations and maintenance kept the family busy after Margarita died in 1967 and son Joe in 1972, Val found it too hard and sold up in 1977. The park was closed after the 1979 fire. Mark and Judy Evans purchased the Park in 1993 and began a plan to put the Park back on the map. They see the Park as a work of art, and work on maintaining and preserving, rather than rebuilding.

A trip to the abandoned Mount Elliott mine and Selwyn ghost town

I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the old abandoned mines and ghost towns of North West Queensland such as Mary Kathleen and Mt Frosty. Many, like Kuridala, briefly flowered in the early 20th century with small vibrant towns attached only disappear just as suddenly when the copper boom ended in the early 1920s. I’d taken the rough road to Kuridala before but at the time did not realise another equally interesting old copper mine lay a further 25km down the same road. Mount Elliott and Kuridala led parallel existences and were fierce rivals but both are now deserted. As at Kuridala I was apprehensive I’d find it given the lack of signposts in an isolated area, but just like Kuridala I found it thanks to a prominent chimney.


The copper field at Hampden (Kuridala) was discovered in the late 1890s and the investment of Melbourne capital prompted the discovery of other fields near Cloncurry. In 1899 a hermit gold fossicker named James Elliott blasted a few trenches and found rich red oxide of copper on the conical hill that became Mount Elliott.


As Geoffrey Blainey puts it in Mines in the Spinifex, Elliott was an old man with a past masked in tragedy. He had been sentenced to death for robbing and murdering a Chinese man before the real murderer confessed on his deathbed. Now his luck finally turned. He sold his interest to Fort Constantine pastoralist James Morphett but the Federation drought forced Morphett to sell to mining promoter John Moffat. Moffat financed the exploration of the ore body which by 1907 had 45,000 tonnes of rich copper ore ready to be mined.


That was the year the mine was floated on the London market and the same year James Elliott died. Years later novelist Randolph Bedford said Elliott claimed to have found an even larger lode – at Mount Isa. Whether it is true or not, the Mount Isa lode would not be discovered for another 16 years.


The 1907 London price for copper was £87 a ton, the highest price for 30 years, and the Cloncurry fields pulsed with life. The railway extended west from Richmond to Cloncurry and there were calls to extend it another 115km to the Hampden and Mount Elliott copper fields.  A new town called Selwyn sprung up to service Mt Elliott and horse teams hauled boilers and mine machinery as well as stores and corrugated iron for its buildings.


The general manager of the mine WH Corbauld altered the furnace and erected three converter shells ahead of the arrival of the first train in August 1910. Blainey said the smelting works with their iron roofs were an impressive sight, “flashing in the sun, three tracks of railway running through the spinifex, and the stacks of firewood piled high for the boilers.” In four months the furnace extracted £125,000 of copper and gold. The copper was the richest in the Commonwealth and the gold was richer than many Victorian fields.


Mount Elliott’s wealth was in the upper zone with enough ore for five years of mining. Beyond that was lower grade sulphide ore and Corbauld needed a central treatment plant to make it pay. But Mt Elliott and Hampden could not agree on merger terms and remained fiercely competitive in gobbling up nearby smaller mines.


In 1912 Mount Elliott bought up the Hampden Consols mine on their rival’s boundary with its large deposit of sulphur, iron and copper which made it an ideal smelting mixture. Every week the trains loaded with Consols ore under the nose of the Hampden plant despatched it 30km south to Mt Elliott. In 1913 the Consols mine caught fire and the loss hit the company hard when its rich reserve was rapidly depleting. After a workers’ strike against contract rates, Mt Elliott closed for seven weeks putting 900 out of work.


The London-based owners bought up nearby Mount Oxide, Great Australia, Dobbyn and Crusader mines. The First World War sent the copper price through the roof so the poorer ore of Mt Elliott became profitable. The company deepened the mine, improved the smelter and bought a fire refinery south of Townsville. In 1917 they doubled the length of the furnace to smelt a larger tonnage of low grade ore.


Living costs were high in Selwyn, amenities were few and the possibility of strikes were always high as was flash flooding in summer.  By 1918 Hampden Kuridala had eclipsed it in prosperity yet Mt Elliott continue to make a profit. Corbauld laid a post-war master plan for it to become a world class “copper camp”.


But rapidly falling copper prices put paid to those plans. Mt Elliott re-opened in 1919 after a Christmas strike but within two months were forced to dismiss 650 workers. They left for the coast never to return. The smelters never re-opened. “The blast of the mine whistle was not heard in the valley again,” Blainey wrote in 1960. “All that now remains of Mount Elliott are ransacked smelters, a railway siding, a post office in a creaking tin shed and one house.” By 1961 the railway closed over graziers’ objections there were no worthwhile roads in the area. Now even the post office and shed are gone and nothing remains of Selwyn except a cemetery. The roads remain poor. However Mount Elliott remains a working mine and the old mine was added to the Queensland Heritage Register in 2011 for its “potential to provide important information on aspects of Queensland’s history particularly early copper smelter practices and technologies, the full range of activities peripheral to those base operations and, importantly, the people who lived and worked in this complex historic mining landscape”.


Karlu Karlu: To Tennant Creek and the Devils Marbles

The last time I went to the Devils Marbles was in 2002 on a driving trip from Brisbane to Alice Springs. We didn’t stay long but the amazing shapes and formations of the rocks remained in my memory. Living in Mount Isa they are “just” seven hours away so feel like they are in my back yard. In January I finally had a spare weekend to revisit the place. I left late on Friday so only made it two hours to Camooweal near the border, but still in Queensland. As this mural on a Camooweal wall makes clear, Camooweal was founded as a droving outpost between the Territory and southern states. Though trucks have long since replaced walking cattle through “the long paddock”, Camooweal still boasts an important Drovers Museum open each winter and a drover’s festival in August.

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I stayed in a donga at the back of the roadhouse, had a quick beer at the Camooweal Post Office Hotel (I would be back there the following weekend for the famous Australia Day lawnmower races) and watched the sun set in the direction I would be heading in the morning – west towards the Territory.


I was up early and quickly drove the 12km to the border. The Welcome to the Territory signpost is a must-do selfie stop for anyone visiting Camooweal but this was the first time I was driving past it in two years in North West Queensland.


Followed quickly by the pleasing sight of the NT 130kph speed limit (up from 110kph in western Queensland). With Tennant Creek 470km away and nothing much in between, it shaves valuable time off the journey, doable in under four hours.


About 50km on is Avon Downs. Avon Downs is home to a large pastoral station owned by AA Co and a police station which does important work along the lonely border especially against the sly grog trade from Isa into the Territory Aboriginal communities.


After a lot of nothingness along the Barkly Tableland, I arrive at the Barkly Roadhouse, 260km from Queensland. Two hours into the journey is a perfect time for a fuel refill, toilet break and most importantly a decent cup of coffee. The place is a perfect oasis. We stayed the night here on the return leg of the 2002 trip and I recall the largest steak I’ve ever consumed in my life. Today, it’s just the cup of joe and onwards to Tennant.


I detoured a few kilometres north of Tennant Creek to check out the Telegraph Station. The creek here was a reliable source of water for Aboriginal people for 40,000 years and nine Aboriginal groups call the area home, including the Warumungu, Warlpiri, Kaytetye and Alyawarra people. In 1860 explorer John McDouall Stuart passed this way on his unsuccessful first attempt to cross the continent from south to north. He named a creek to the north of town after expedition financier John Tennant. Work on the overland telegraph line began in 1870 and Tennant Creek was one of 11 repeater stations between Port Augusta and Darwin as Australia opened up instantaneous communication with the world. Completed in 1872 the station hosted a post office and became an important staging point for travellers and rations depot for dispossessed Aboriginal people.


The town of Tennant Creek was not established until well into the 20th century.  The township was located 12km south of the creek because the Telegraph station had an 11km reserve. Gold was discovered in the 1930s starting Australia’s last great Gold Rush. The town quickly grew to 600. Today it remains an important gold mining town with a population of 3000 – about half Indigenous.


Battery Hill goldmine overlooks the town and hosts of one of the last two operating ten-head stamp batteries and a government-owned ore crushing machine. These days it’s all for tourism purposes with underground tours and museums which were closed on the Saturday morning I visited though the great views over town were still open.


Having found a motel for the night, I drove the remaining 110km south down the Stuart Highway to Karlu Karlu, the Devils Marbles (the apostrophe is omitted). The rocks are now in a conservation park spread over a wide area. I parked in the northern car park and set off on a 5km trek.


Karlu Karlu is a living cultural landscape, a sacred site, and traditional country for Warumungu, Kaytetye, Alyawarra and Warlpiri peoples. Since 2009 it has been jointly managed by the traditional owners and NT Parks and Wildlife. Among the many walks is the Nurrku Walk named for the small mallee eucalypt called the snappy gum. This brittle tree often grows on gravelly rises among the spinifex. Aboriginal people used the Nurrku for firewoods, medicine and bush foods including the “sugarbag” honey left by native bees.


The distinctive shape of the boulders are the result of erosion of remnants of a solid mass of granite which still lies below. In John Lewis’s 1872 account of the building of the telegraph line, they passed through “extraordinary shaped stones” in the Davenport Ranges. “The country was of granite formation and many stones were round like marbles,” Lewis wrote. “In fact they were called Devils Marbles”.


The process of creating these rocks began many years before 1872 and was the earth’s work not the devil’s. Around 1700 million years ago, molten magma squeezed through sandstone rocks and cooled into granite. They shrunk as they cooled and earth pressures caused right-angled patterns of cracks called joints to form. As the rocks above eroded, the granite emerged to the surface. Groundwater filtered along the joints and reacted with minerals in the humid climate to form clays. This weathering was most noticeable at the corner of the blocks which had more exposed surfaces.


Eventually the overlying rocks withered exposing the granite. When the weathered bits washed away, it left boulders perched in precarious positions across the landscape.


Though the boulders appear solid, many are fractured by their joints. Rainwater penetrates into the stone reacting with minerals decomposing them to clay. Critical cracks form and the weight of the two halves causes the boulder to fall apart.


The area is a sacred site with many parts (not shown) forbidden to photography. Karlu Karlu is an important dreaming site, and most of the dreaming stories can only be known by appropriate Aboriginal people. There is a practical reason for husbanding this information. During rains water collects in rockholes providing an important water source in a difficult environment.


Karlu Karlu is the Aboriginal term for both the rock features and the surrounding area. It translates as round boulders and refers to the large boulders found mainly in the western side of the reserve. The rust colour from the iron oxides makes the rocks seem like giant sweet potatoes.


After a delightful couple of hours among the boulders, I was thirsty and headed five minutes drive south to Wauchope. There’s not much at Wauchope except for the fine building that hosts the Devils Marbles Hotel.


Wauchope was established in 1917 to service local wolfram (tungsten) mining operations. Wolfram was used in munitions manufacture and mining continued to 1941 when the tungsten price plummeted. Miners extracted 1000 tonnes of concentrate from 10,000 tonnes of quartz. The pub opened in 1938.


That evening I returned to Tennant Creek and went for a run along the 5km bicycle path north of town to Tingkkarli/Lake Mary Ann. This human-made lake provides a water supply for the town and is a cool oasis, even for perspiring runners.


On Sunday it was the long and lonely Barkly Hwy drive back to Mount Isa. The need for a good road between Northern Territory and Queensland was long recognised but it took the danger of impending world war to make it happen. Authorities proposed a supply link between the Mount Isa railhead and the Alice Springs-Darwin North-South Road in October 1940 during the formation of the North-South Road. Initially a road was planned from Newcastle Waters to Camooweal but the project was shelved until March 1941 when the Army gained approval for construction of a road by the most direct route from Camooweal to Tennant Creek. This road was named the Barkly Highway in 1944 for a Victorian governor. The North-South Road was named the Stuart Highway for the explorer.

24 hours in Singapore

I didn’t much time to spare at the end of my Christmas trip to Ireland but I was determined break up the long London-Brisbane leg. Singapore is hardly the most exotic Asian location around but it is strategically placed and convenient and with just 24 hours to kill is easy to get into and around. Though ruled by the same political party since independence in 1965 Singapore ranks 5th on the UN Human Development Index and the 3rd highest GDP per capita and also ranks highly in education, healthcare, life expectancy, quality of life, personal safety and housing.


I took the metro from Changi Airport to Bugis station where my hotel was just a short walk away. I went for a walk towards Marina Bay towards the colonial heart of the city. The National Gallery of Singapore is housed in the adjoining City Hall and old Supreme Court Building. The latter reminds me of the Four Courts in Dublin with its blue-green dome, Corinthian columns and classical design but this was only built just before the Second World War. It finished work as a courthouse in 2005 and re-opened as the national gallery in 2015.


Just across the road is the Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall.  The hall was built in 1905 and contains a 614-seat theatre and a 673-seat concert hall. In 2010, the heritage-listed building underwent a four-year refurbishment to restore its neo-classical facade while getting new facilities inside.


The Singapore River meets Marina Bay in the heart of downtown. Ferry boats ply tourists up and down the river overlooked by skyscrapers and the Marina Bay Sands resort. The resort includes a 2,561-room hotel, a 120,000 sq m convention centre, a 74,000 sq m mall, a museum, two large theatres,  two floating Crystal Pavilions, a skating rink, and the world’s largest atrium casino. Sitting on top of the complex is the world’s largest public cantilevered platform holding a 340m long Skypark.


Along the side of the river is Boat Quay and bars and restaurants line the pedestrianised streets. It gets lively on a Friday night with expats enjoying the British-style pubs while couples sought a river-side table to enjoy dinner and the nightlights of the city. Boat Quay was the busiest part of the old Port of Singapore, handling three-quarters of all shipping business during the 1860s. The bend of the river at Boat Quay resembles the belly of a carp, which according to Chinese belief is where wealth and prosperity lay. For that reason they built many shophouses crowded into the area.


The river empties out into Marina Bay which links to the Singapore Strait and the sealanes of the world. The port of Singapore is the world’s busiest port in shipping tonnage handled, with 1.15 billion gross tons handled in 2005. In cargo tonnage, Singapore is behind Shanghai with 423 million freight tons handled.sing8

The tourist highlight of Marina Bay is the Merlion. The merlion is a mythical creature with a lion’s head and the body of a fish and serves as a mascot and national personification of Singapore.  The fish body (“mer” as in sea) represents Singapore’s origin as a fishing village when it was called Temasek, which means “sea town” in Javanese. The lion head represents Singapore’s name—Singapura—meaning “lion city”.  However the symbol is relatively new, designed as a logo for the Singapore Tourism Board in 1964 and has been its trademarked symbol since 20 July 1966. The statue was built on the estuary in 1972 but moved to a more central location in 2002 when a new bridge blocked its view.


Fort Canning Hill overlooks downtown and the area was once the centre of ancient Singapura in the 14th century. When Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles was appointed Lieutenant Governor of the British colony at Bencoolen in Sumatra in 1818 he wanted to end Dutch domination of the Malacca Strait and established a new port on the island of Singapore signing the treaty of Singapore with the Sultan of Jahore. The hill was the site of the first British Residence and also a botanical garden and a fort was built in 1861 named for Charles John Canning, the first Viceroy of India. The official British surrender to the Japanese was signed here on 15 February 1942.


The Arts House at Old Parliament House plays host to art exhibitions and concerts. Built in 1827, the Old Parliament House is the oldest government building and possibly the oldest surviving building in Singapore. It housed the Parliament of Singapore from the nation state’s beginning in 1965 to 1999, when it moved next door to accommodate a larger number of MPs. The Arts House opened in 2004.

Out and about in East Sussex

Though I lived in Tunbridge Wells in nearby Kent for about six months in 1988 I never got around to seeing East Sussex. Most of things I was interested in at the time were in London and there was not much time left for exploring the south coast. The closest I got to Sussex was the signpost to East Grinstead and the name of that town did not suggest anything worth finding out more about. However more recently a good friend moved to Eastbourne from Australia and I’m slowly getting to know that part of the world better. I was back there again after a visit to Ireland for Christmas.


The only thing I used to know about Eastbourne was its annual women’s tennis tournament warm-up for Wimbledon and the fact it was full of old people. Eastbourne still has the tennis but is slowly shedding the “God’s Waiting Room” image. The 2011 census shows a population of 100,000 that has grown 10% in 10 years with the average age decreasing as it attracts more students, commuters to London and Brighton and families (like that of my friend). It’s a relatively new town but it has some old buildings such as St Mary’s The Virgin Church which dates in part to the 12th century. The church is on the slope of the Bourne stream, that gave the town its name. Next door is The Lamb,  parts of which also date to the 12th century.  The Lamb is one of the oldest pubs in England originally built as a clergy house to house monks who gave alms to the poor of Eastbourne.


The night I arrived a gale was blowing in from the Channel bringing heavy rain but the weather had improved enough the following day for an outing. I admitted to my friend that I’d never actually been to Brighton so we hopped on the bus that would take us there along the coast. We caught glimpses through the window of the still choppy sea and parts of Beachy Head, the white cliffs that look so much like Dover’s, it occasionally stands in for them in movies. Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 162 metres above sea level. The cliffs were formed 100 million years ago. The name has nothing to do with a beach but a corruption of the original French words “beau chef” meaning beautiful headland.


Another sight from the bus were the oxbow laves of Cuckmere Haven.  Oxbow lakes are U shaped bodies of water that form when a wide meander from the main stem of a river is cut off, creating a free-standing body of water, resembling the bow pin of the bow that wraps around oxen. The floodplains at the mouth of the Cuckmere leads to the chalky cliffs and its many walks are popular with tourists.


After an hour or so our bus delivered us to Brighton. The city is renowned for its beaches, packed in summer but mostly deserted here at the height of winter with big breakers coming in off La Manche (“the sleeve” as the French call the English Channel linking the Atlantic with the North Sea).  Brighton has 13 km of beach within the city limits with hotels lining the promenade. The beach is renowned for its pebbly surface but east of the Pier, a flat sandy foreshore is exposed at low tide. The city council owns all the beaches, which are divided into named sections by groynes—the first of which were completed in 1724.


From previous visits I had been to Eastbourne pier but never to Brighton Pier, or to give it its proper name Brighton Palace Pier. Brighton Pier featured in the films Brighton Rock and Quadrophenia so is familiar in the mind. In the mid 19th century railways permitted mass tourism to seaside resorts. but large tidal ranges at many resorts meant that often the sea was not visible from dry land. The pleasure pier was the answer,  allowing visitors to promenade over and alongside the sea at all times. The Brighton Chain Pier was built in 1823 it was decrepit by the end of the century and was planned to be demolished to make way for the new Palace Pier. A storm blew it away in 1896 and the Palace Pier was opened in 1899. The attractions on the pier were tawdry – at least to this observer in January – but the pier remains incredibly popular and the most visited tourist attraction outside London, with over 4.5 million visitors in 2016.


We took a stroll away from the sea towards the town centre. To get there we detoured via The Lanes. Before Brighton there was the ancient fishing village of Brighthelmstone.At the heart of Brighthelmstone were The Lanes,  with a maze of twisting alleyways. These days they host antiques and jewellery shops nestling alongside specialist contemporary and designer boutique fashion. Its name derives from the Anglo-Saxon “Laine” meaning “fields”


Brighton has been an important centre for commerce and employment since the 18th century. It is home to several major companies, some of which employ thousands of people locally with many creative, digital and new media businesses. Despite job losses across Britain due to automisation and globalisation, in Brighton, however, the share of jobs likely to grow is higher – around 11% of existing jobs are in occupations predicted to increase – the third highest share of any British city, according to Cities Outlook 2018.


Our destination was the remarkable Royal Pavilion. Beginning in 1787, it was built in three stages as a seaside retreat for George, Prince of Wales, who became the Prince Regent in 1811. George loved Asian architecture and it is built in the Indo-Saracenic style. Architect John Nash extended the building from 1815 and he added the domes and minarets. Frederick Crace’s amazing interior design is also jaw-dropping and the tour is recommended but photos inside are not allowed. It was used as a royal palace until the time of Victoria, who hated the building and the city had housed it. “The people here are very indiscreet and troublesome,” she said. Brighton City Council bought it off her in 1850 and immediately opened it as a tourist attraction. It had a poignant re-use during the First World War when it became a hospital for recovering Indian soldiers who must have felt some sense of ironic nostalgia for being placed there.


My friend then whisked me off by bus to Lewes, the ancient market town and country town of East Sussex. It was too late to check out the castle so he took me to the nearby Lewes Arms, whose website claims it is the home to ” pea throwing, poetry and pantomime – not forgetting the famous dwyle flunking match”. The English game of dwyle flunking, as everyone knows, involves two teams of 12 players each taking a turn to dance around the other while attempting to avoid a beer-soaked dwile (cloth) thrown by the non-dancing team. Ah those mad English!sussex9

Apart from Lewes Castle, the town’s other claim to fame is the home of Harvey’s Real Ale brewery on the banks of the river Ouse. The brewery is an eight-generation family business, with John Harvey first supplying wine and port to customers in Lewes in 1794.
By 1811, his wine and brandy shipping business is well established “at the foot of Cliffe Bridge” in Lewes. He began brewing as a seasonal sideline activity in 1820 and he acquired the current Bridge Wharf Site in 1838 where he added coal to his business activities and built an eight-quarter brewhouse. John Harvey’s Best Bitter remains extremely popular around the region and when the aforementioned Lewes Arms was bought out by a rival brewery and stopped selling it in 2006, regulars staged a boycott leading to a humiliating backdown by pub owners. It’s not a bad drop but I preferred it mixed half and half with Harvey’s Old, what locals call “mother-in-law”. Any apprehension I had of asking for two pints of mother-in-law had disappeared by the third pint in the cosy Harvey’s pub next to the brewery. The only hard part was heading back out in the cold air and grabbing a late night train back to Eastbourne to end the adventure.