24, 1994 23:05
14:03 Canaway Downs, Quilpie Australia :: 11 JUL 94
why does patrick have a big mouth ?
It has to be as big as Sophie's.
Sophie, the 8 year-old daughter of our hosts Megan and Scott, asked if
she could write something on the computer. The first line above is hers.
Cute kid if somewhat precocious. The second line is my response. To her
credit, she thought the response as clever as the query.
21:54 Canaway Downs, Quilpie, Australia :: 11 JUL 94
How many of us can say we've mustered 1300 sheep in the Australian outback?
Have you ever pulled opal from the earth, raw, sparkling, iridescent
blue-green? Lick it to bring out the sparkle.
The first time you rode a dirt-bike did you log 100 miles over terrain
including dirt road, parched fields, mulga brush, dry gulch and gully.
Were rocks the size of grapefruit spread like flax seed from a sower's
hand and were the remains of ironwood and brush lying in wait to kick
up under tire? Was the front brake cable broken? Did you ride flat-out
and helmetless along fencelines in the bone dry Outback sun? Did you pace
a kangaroo in full flight? For me, the first day on a motorcycle was like
that, all of it.
Today I did all these for the first time. Quite a day.
17:22 Canaway Downs, Quilpie, Australia :: 12 JUL 94
260,000 acres; 450 square miles: Canaway Downs. The land supports 25,000
or more sheep, some 800 cattle, 6 or 8 horses, three little girls, two
proud parents, a governess and uncounted kangaroos, emus and wallabies.
When shearing time comes the human population swells by 29 to include
shearers, wool classers, sheep counters and other support staff.
18:06 Canaway Downs, Quilpie, Australia :: 12 JUL 94
why do you have a black hat ?
'Cause black hats are for bad guys.
do you have any brothers or sisters?
Three sisters. One of them is Louise-you know her. The youngest
is Kathleen, who just married Rob Withey, and Elyzabeth lives back in
New Hampshire with her husband Kurt.
These are more questions from Sophie.
20:54 Longreach, Australia :: 13 JUL 94
I didn't take much opportunity to write while at Canaway Downs. Not only
were the experiences there extraordinary but the time between them provided
the first opportunity I've had this trip to kick back and relax. Yesterday,
after catching up with my expenses on the computer, I leaned back in the
captains' chair, pulled the Akubra down over my eyes and napped away the
morning with the breeze coursing through the verandah. Every now and again
I'd wake, look up at the computer waiting so patiently for attention,
sigh, readjust my legs on the table and settle back in for another while.
Then, in the afternoon I experienced another first: shoveling horse shit.
Country folk expect us city people to act in those stereotypical city
folk ways. For example, cosmopolitans all consider certain natural functions
of the animal kingdom disgusting or, at best, exceedingly unpleasant.
For this reason, farmers uniformly sidle up sideways to you before asking,
as if it were the biggest favour in the world, "would you mind cleaning
the horse's stalls?" To her credit, Megan showed no real surprise
when, after the fifth, "Are you sure?" I assured her that I
don't mind horse shit...really.
The ironic sidebar to this is that country folk hate being stereotyped
as "unsophisticated" as much as city folk deny they fear dirt,
or a little manure.
There is so much to say about Canaway Downs, about the Australian bush
country. I've referred to Canaway as in the Outback but really, it's only
on the edge of it. The real outback begins west of Quilpie and Longreach.
(Longreach calls itself "The Gateway to the Outback.") In the
Outback, properties routinely encompass 5 million acres, 20 fold more
than the paltry 260 thousand of Canaway.
Then again, Canaway is plenty expansive...and remote. Until 3 years ago
they used a crank style phone system. You know, the kind where you crank
up the phone to ring the operator. The operator asks who you're calling
and physically connects you to the line via a patchcord and rings
the phone at the destination. Since the system consisted of party lines,
the operator would tap out the ring for each party using the Morse code
representation for you line. If you were line 'S' the ring would be "dit
dit dit <pause> dit dit dit" whereas 'O' would be "daaaaa
daaaa daaaa <pause> daaaa daaaa daaaa". Very simple, very old
telecom technology. In Yaraka, the proprietor of the store (the only commercial
entity in the town) showed Louise and I the system he'd operated until
just 4 years ago.
A microwave tower in the backyard now provides Canaway with telephone
service. It's a 20 or 30 meter tower with a microwave dish at the top
and a small solar array for power at the bottom. It transmits to and receives
signals from a 300 foot relay tower about 400 kilometers away. The communication
bandwidth still only allows about 12 simultaneous lines connected for
the region surrounding Canaway, but it still beats hoping the operator's
not too far away from the patch bay when you need to make that critical
call to your stock broker, and no more party lines.
The only problem with the microwave system is that it seems incompatible
with my modem. Either that or I've fried the modem. I hope it's the former.
As I was saying, Canaway is plenty remote. The drive to Longreach from
there spans nearly 400 kilometers, most of it on dirt roads and "tracks,"
as Scott calls them. When drawing the route map for us he let on that
though initially remote the road would become more thoroughly traveled
about 40 kilometers after a property called, Budgerigar (named for the
local small fowl we call budgies or parakeets). When pressed for a definition
of "thoroughly traveled," Scott explained, "oh, 2 or 3
cars a day." Well, we saw all 3 of them. Actually, we saw 3 Land
Cruisers, Australia's national symbol. I'm quite certain we are probably
the first Camry, and perhaps even the first Budget rent-a-car to make
the journey from Canaway Downs to Longreach. Which brings me to another
Today I was sideswiped by an emu.
If you don't know what an emu is, think of a smaller dumber version of
the ostrich. "Emu," by the way, should be pronounced E-mew,
not E-moo, else little girls will laugh merrily at your funny American
I was driving, concentrating on negotiating the dirt track as it dipped
and swerved into a gully. Out of my blind spot there appeared an emu failing
to yield. I broke the Camry to a halt just as the emu, which never veered
from its course, collided with the driver side door-that's on the right
side here in Oz.
Louise: "Oh, the poor thing. Is it hurt?"
Me: "The bird!? What about the car?"
The bird got up and ran away. A quick inspection of the car revealed
a nice, plump dent that'll provide an interesting retelling to Budget.
7:36 Longreach, Australia : 14 JUL 94
While there may be few cars, there are no shortages of kangaroos, emus,
sheep or cattle. The sheep usually start running at the sight of the car
and they prefer to turn into the wind when running. If you know that the
wind blows from right to left, and the sheep are to your left, you'll
know that they're going to cross your path, a great reason to tap the
If a few cattle stand in your path, it's all you can do to get them to
move. Having already experienced one collision with an animal we took
no chances with the bovines, staying a healthy distance away while blowing
the horn, patiently waiting for one cow to decide the racket was too annoying
to bother with. Once one of them lumbers off the road, the others eventually
Emus and kangaroos pose something of a problem. Both will wait until
the last possible moment before bolting, often right into your path. Knowing
wind direction helps not at all since these animals will break in pretty
much any direction.
Australian road maps often use thick red lines to show when the trees
have been cleared 40 feet or so from the edge of the road. A double line-indicating
a dirt road in most maps I've encountered-here means the brush and trees
sometimes come right up to the roadside. These conventions apply regardless
of the surface of the road be it asphalt, bitumen, gravel or dirt. Dirt
roads barely wide enough for two cars to pass and no shoulder at all are
often brush cleared 20 or 30 meters on ether side. The significance of
this becomes clear the first time you slow for a couple kangaroos sitting
on their haunches at the side of the road. When the brush comes right
to the roadside, drivers may never see the kangaroo before it bounds out
of the bush and into their radiator. This is particularly a problem at
dawn and dusk when kangaroos congregate at roadside, attracted to the
moisture that condenses above the road surface. The water vapour collects
as dew on the roadside plants which grow more lushly than those a few
meters away. Both plant and dew attract the wildlife..
The dirt road/track traverses several properties as it cuts its way through
to Longreach. On a couple occasions, the road passes through homesteads.
Rural etiquette requires a stop at these homesteads so permission may
be granted to pass. Customarily the station owner gives the permission
and invites the traveler to tea. This is a grand and friendly manner to
travel. Budgerigar was a fine visit.
12:25 Coolangata, Queensland :: 22 AUG 94
Remoteness strikes you in unexpected ways. Night falls as a black cloak.
The crescent moon glows without casting illumination. A hop, skip and
a jump from the homestead you enter a closet and close the door behind.
From a distance, the homestead lights appear like a constellation below
the horizon, but like the ancient mariner the constellation provides only
a point of reference; the navigator needs an accurate chart to steer clear
of rocks and sand-bars.
16:07 IN TRANSIT Coolangatta->Brisbane, Queensland
:: 23 AUG 94
Mrs. Aeneas Gunn authored "We of the Never-Never" an autobiographical
account and commentary on turn-of-the-century life on an Outback cattle
station. Though the events and observations have aged nearly a century
the work offers a view that continues to reflect contemporary life. Read
it and you will gather a good understanding of Outback life then, and
even now. I'll probably devote a Nomadic Spirit Travelogue entry to the book soon.
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