Australia :: June 1994 - March 1995

Subject: Canaway Downs
Date: August 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?

I can.

Have you ever pulled opal from the earth, raw, sparkling, iridescent blue-green? Lick it to bring out the sparkle.

I did.

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 first.

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 accent.

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 brake.

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 follow.

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.

Patrick. -- Responses Sought --