Saturday, April 30, 2011

This Royal Flying Doctor plane could tell a story or two

This Pilatus PC12 single-engined plane services Yowah on a weekly basis, at least.

The Royal Flying Doctor services remote outback stations and communities in Australia, running clinics in outback communities and bringing patients to larger centres for medical help.

With 24 PC12s (and a larger fleet of twin-engined Beechcraft King Airs) in operation throughout Australia, the Royal Flying Doctor Service operates day and night with a team of highly trained pilots, doctors and nurses on board.

For people living in remote areas -- and also for those travelling throughout the outback -- the Royal Flying Doctor Service is an incredibly valuable organisation, giving medical help, confidence and reassurance to those in need.

Whenever I see the Royal Fying Doctor plane coming in to land or taking off, I feel a tug of emotion and a surge of gratitude for the dedication of the team on board.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Yowah Bluff: an ancient land form with a spiritual feel

A late afternoon drive up to the Yowah Bluff was, for me, a spiritual experience. The Bluff itself is untouched, rugged and clothed in amazing trees with massive trunks, twisted limbs, coloured bark and eucalypt-like foliage. To support these huge trees there must be water way up here on the Bluff -- an amazing thought in itself.

On the way up to the Bluff, man-made rock cairns are scattered throughout the bush. They give an impression of 'beings' of some kind, especially when the rich ochre colours of the rocks that make up their various shapes are captured in late afternoon sun.

The statues are the brainchild of Opal Eddie, who created the first six or so, and now other locals have followed with their own creations. More about Opal Eddie tomorrow!

The escarpment falls away steeply, with expansive views out towards arid yet heavily treed land to the east and south in particular. During our time on The Bluff we saw no one, nor did we hear or see any other vehicle. I get the feeling that this is one of the last places on earth where it's possible to be alone when surrounded by such beauty. This is the place where many special Yowah events are held. It's easy to see why.

Most locals feel a deep affinity to this ancient land form; so massive, so centred. To stand or sit in this ancient place is to experience a profound feeling of well-being; of feeling centred and in tune with the country that continues to give up its treasures in and around us.

Yowah opal: precious and incredibly beautiful is hidden in the layers of rock that make up this ancient place -- in outback Australia.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Conversations in Yowah can be surprising and informative

Conversations over coffee at the Yowah cafe bring to light many of the differences that make this small outback Queensland community so unique.

"What have you been doing with yourself this morning?" asks one local woman to another.

"Been cracking nuts; mostly duds but one a real beauty."

Yowah nuts are, generally speaking fist-sized (but sometimes much larger and other times much smaller) and look like a rounded rock. When cracked, however, they may reveal a 'kernal'of pure opal or varying amounts of opal. Therefore, cracking nuts is an addictive process. Will this be the one that makes me one million dollars?

Today's coffee brought forth two more topics that I found of interest

"It's the fact that there is no pub in Yowah that keeps it free of crime," said a bloke dressed in dusty boots, shorts and navy singlet. "We don't need or have police out here. Graffiti's not a problem -- nor is rubbish."

Then there was the miner who digs for opal down a 20 m shaft. "On a fine sunny day like today, when I look up from the bottom of my hole, I can see the stars better than at night!"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Opal cutting is both a skill and an art

Today's invitation to see John at work in his backyard was one we took up eagerly.

Every slab of stone was examined first to decide on the best angle to cut. But it was a bit of a guessing game nevertheless. Some promising seams turned out to be disappointing, others revealed opal with huge potential.

There are about six piles and boxes of stones surrounding John's diamond saw cutter. The first is stone to be cut; the others are grades of stone onto which the cut pieces are thrown -- pieces to sell on to various other people in the trade.

Working with protective glasses, breathing mask and apron, and with a fine spray of water drifting over him (to keep the saw cool and the dust down), John showed us just a little of the work he does every day, as an opal cutter.

Indoors, John has a series of polishing wheels to finish off the most promising stones. John is a man with a passion for boulder opals, especially those with wood seams.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

A kaleidoscope of colour at Yowah in outback Queensland

Today has been one of those days that seems to have evaporated into a kaleidoscope of colour. Opal.

After driving out to the fossicking area set aside for travellers, we searched a while but found only a few specks. On the way back to camp we saw the marked mining claims with their white poles and tape. The irony is, however, that we've found much, much more opal by looking through the heaps of discarded rubble used to define campsites and to prevent flooding. Only a couple of metres from our caravan is a pile of Yowah nuts ready to be broken -- to reveal who knows what!

So, from the comfort of our camp we're finding enough opal to keep us well and truly happy. In fact today, with my only equipment being a bucket of water, an old toothbrush and a pick, I found at least eight pieces of rock containing substantial amounts of opal -- purples, blues and a flash of red. What I found is not valuable as such -- but it is to me!

Later in the morning we visited a serious gem collector who showed us the opal that she and her partner have mined, cut and polished. It was an an eye-opener of colour and beauty.

Aside from the opals, the outback is rich in colour with the red earth, blue grey foliage of shrubs, and golden grasses. Today we took a Major for a walk along the bore drain walk and cycle track which follows the bore drain that runs from the caravan park to the school -- a distance of about 800 m. The highlight for me was to see the bullrushes growing along the bore drain. The highlight for Major, was chasing a rabbit, for which he was reprimanded.

Almost as spectacular as the opals are the leopardwood trees (Flindersia maculata) which grow in this area, with their stunning spotted trunks.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Anzac Day in Yowah 2011 -- followed by opal markets

At 6 a.m. -- in the pitch dark with the only light being a kerosene lantern held by the leader -- a procession of around 50 people left the Bore Head and walked along Harlequin Drive to the Yowah Epitaph and the Community Hall.

While the Australian flag was being raised, six wreaths were placed in remembrance of those who risked and sacrificed their lives on behalf of our nation.

Prayers, hymns, and a short speech; then the playing of the Last Post, one minute of silence, a contribution by local schoolchildren, the Reveille and a prayer for World Peace. To conclude the ceremony the British, Australian and New Zealand National Anthems were played.

Respect and quiet reverence continued as the hush of dawn changed into the blue sky and sunshine so typical of Yowah. To conclude the dawn service, a traditional tot of rum was offered along with tea, coffee and toast -- and of course, conversatio

In the afternoon 15 or so vendors gathered together at the Yowah Community Centre to display and sell the opals they'd mined, cut and polished. Sunshine continued to fall from a cloudless sky, highlighting every sparkle and every colour of every precious gem on display.

I confess we got a bit carried away and bought much more than we intended! However, I'm a great believer in recognizing quality and if affordable buying it, because often you'll never see that quality again, never again have that opportunity.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Yowah Bluff at sunrise on Easter Sunday

Four km east of Yowah a bluff rises steeply (with vertical sides in many places) from the surrounding arid plain to a height of about 150 m. A large Telstra radio telephone tower (that provides Yowah with telephone and Internet access) is located at the highest point. This tower links 120 people -- who live in this remote outback town in Queensland, Australia -- to the rest of the world.

On Easter Sunday, over 60 adults and children (including visitors) met at the Yowah Bluff at 6 a.m.. to watch the sunrise and celebrate a time of renewal: no matter what their spiritual beliefs.

Before sunrise everyone gathered around a large blazing bonfire and Barb led the singing of "Amazing Grace". In the golden hush before dawn, this was a moving moment.

After sunrise breakfast followed, cooked on two barbecues. Eggs and bacon, toast, pancakes, jam, honey and cream were served, along with tea, coffee and cordial for the kids. With tables and chairs clustered around the bonfire and barbecues people ate, talked and laughed.

After breakfast, Barb and Scott led all the children (and not so small children) to an area where the Easter Bilby had hidden 80 or so tiny brightly coloured chocolate eggs in amongst the spinifex grasses, mulga and native shrubs. After much excited scrambling, smiles and squeals of delight, children emerged from the Australian bush bearing handfuls of tiny chocolate eggs covered in brightly coloured silver paper.

Because of a heart condition made worse by cold air, dawn at the Bluff was a second-hand experience for me. However, Doug's photos and recounting made it come alive in my mind, and so I pass it on to you -- my friends all over the world -- in the hope that this day, Easter Sunday, brings peace, tolerance of difference and a sense of renewal to all people: no matter what religious or spiritual beliefs you may or may not have.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Royal Fying Doctor Service visits Yowah once weekly

Today's been typical of outback Queensland in April: hot (30°C), dry and still.

This morning we drove out to the Yowah airport where the Royal Flying Doctor lands and offers a medical clinic once every week. On the way back, we stopped at the place where Ian liberates the bucket of frogs he captures from the toilets and bathrooms throughout the caravan park -- every day. Bullrushes grow in water alive with all manner of tiny water creatures and fish.

If I was a frog I think I'd prefer to live in amongst the bullrushes rather than in a toilet bowl. But then I'm not frog.

Tonight a dinner was held at the community hall. Everyone was welcome, including visitors. With live music, a bonfire, friendly people and excellent food it was a happy Easter gathering.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday in outback Queensland

A meal of fish and chips was served at the local Yowah General Store: Good Friday, 2011.

People with gluten intolerance were catered for too.. My barramundi was plain, grilled -- and delicious.

A golden glow in the western sky suggests that tomorrow will be as fine and hot as today. We haven't found opal of any worth -- yet -- but we're having fun looking. Meanwhile we're meeting friendly and eccentric people, as well as exploring the town and arid countryside surrounding it.

Our camp site includes two leopard wood trees (with dramatic spotted bark), and a wealth of birdlife. We've seen families of warblers for the first time. Apparently a family group (6 to 8 warblers) builds a communal nest like Happy Jacks and all crowd in there to sleep at night. Like the Happy Jacks, warblers raise their chicks as a community. Perhaps this harsh environment is responsible.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Frog song in Yowah's opal mining country

An open bore drain runs through Yowah with the water temperature almost too hot to touch. But that doesn't stop frogs living here and causing annoyance to people who don't want frogs or frog excrement in their bathrooms.

Green tree frogs are extraordinarily tame, nestle into your hand and gaze up into your eyes. The chorus of their mating and territorial calls throughout the night is as musical as bird song during the day.

Every day the owners of the Yowah Caravan Park catch the frogs that inhabit the amenities block because they say that most tourists don't like frogs. Over the years Ian reckons he's caught close to 1000 frogs and taken them out to a big dam near the Yowah airstrip.

Ian says he's feeding the fish but I think he's got a well-hidden soft spot for frogs.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Major Mitchell cockatoos at our Yowah camp

Our camp here at Yowah is close to being a true bush camp, yet with the advantage of power and water laid on. We plan to stay here for about one week; consequently we've set up a more permanent camp, done a few huge loads of washing and explored the country within walking distance of this small outback opal mining town

The highlight today has been a family of Major Mitchell cockatoos feeding on paddy melons only a few metres from our camp. Never before have we seen Major Mitchells in the wild, and to have them come three times in one day has been amazing. What fabulous crests they have, especially when raised and caught in the last rays of afternoon sunshine.

As you know, I love connecting things. The fact that Mitchell is home to us; that we have a dog called Major Mitchell (because he was born and bred in Mitchell); and that we've been visited by a family of wild Major Mitchell cockatoos is, for me, a series of lovely connections.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Eulo, the heart of stumpy-tail lizard country

Located well over 800 km west of Brisbane (in Queensland, Australia) is Eulo, a small outback town of 50 people, where there is a date farm and winery, the Paroo River -- and 1500 stumpy-tailed lizards.

Started in 1968 and last held in 2004, the annual World Lizard Racing Championships were held at Eulo in the last week of August. Suitable lizards were auctioned (the highest price paid was $1065) and then the race began. The world record stands at 2.5 seconds, set by 'Herbie', a Cunnumulla lizard in 1972.

After the race, all the lizards were returned to the exact site from which they were found. This is an important point because stumpy-tail lizards mate for life and live in a particular territory

To mark the occasion of our arrival in Eulo, we took our pet Stego (who is now at least 40 years of age) from his carry-box, gave him several gentle soaks and drinks from a tap and then carried him to the signs at the eastern end of the town where we took the enclosed photos.

Stego is gentle and trusting. In my hands he knows he's 100 per cent safe, so he never struggles to be free but looks around, noticing the red earth, blue-grey mulga scrub and vast blue sky.

26°C is the temperature at which Stego and I feel most comfortable; and in Eulo today that's exactly how it was.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Outback Australia is all around and within us

Our lunchtime stopover at Bollon (located on the Wallum Creek) revealed a small but truly beautiful weir bordered by huge river red gums and a walking track.

A working bee was in progress, repairing the path, taking away flood debris and replanting the garden beds with native shrubs. All age groups were involved, from four-year-olds to the elderly.

Bolon is a friendly town that welcomes travellers. It's also a tidy town where the community of around 100 people pull together in adversity and work together to create pleasant surroundings for themselves and travellers who passed through.

Back on the road again I felt sleepy, and since I was not driving, I drifted off to sleep. When I awoke, huge skies and vast horizons met my eyes. On approaching the larger township of Cunnamulla, sunshine seemed to fall from a larger than normal sun.

Such is outback Australia.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Into Queensland where evidence of flooding is still apparent

Prior to leaving Lightning Ridge, we stopped off at the Saturday morning Royal Flying Doctor market. Naturally, opals of all shapes, sizes and colours were on sale, most of which were mined by the stallholders.

The glitter and unique shape and setting of a boulder opal pendant, with a kangaroo hide 'chain', caught my attention, and since it didn't come with a high price tag, I bought it and I'm wearing it now.

At Hebel -- a tiny town just over the border and in sunny Queensland -- a roadside notice says: Rabbit Keeping Penalty $30,000

We stopped for coffee and chatted to our hosts Barb and Ralph. With a general store, tourist accommodation, meals and the Hebel Post Office, this enterprising and hard-working couple are open every day of the year between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 p.m. -- and always greet customers with grace and friendly service.

On the road again. Tufts of cotton, caught up in the roadside vegetation, suggest that the cotton harvest is in full swing. Apparently it's the best crop for years. There is also evidence of road damage due to the recent floods.

At Dirranbandi we saw the levee bank built around the town to protect it from flooding by the Balonne River. While we ate lunch, Major and Del swam and frolicked in the swollen river, retrieving sticks. The balmy 25° C temperature meant that the dog's coats were close to dry by the time we left and surprisingly shiny and clean considering the muddy water that makes up the Balonne River.

St George for tonight; the town where we nearly bought land until we saw all the crop duster planes lined up at the airport.

For me, the highlight of the day was watching our two shepherds swim and play in the large muddy Balonne River. There was spontaneous joy and delight in cooling off in the water. Sometimes I think that being one of our dogs would be better than being a human!

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Lightning Ridge: the opal capital of the world

Lightning Ridge (located in northern New South Wales, Australia) is the home of the finest opals in the world, and is also a place of intrigue, where wealth and poverty sit comfortably side by side.

Space and light are in abundance and of a quality that attracts artists from all over Australia and overseas too.

The Lost Sea Opal cafe (situated diagonally opposite the caravan park where we stayed two nights) is perfect for coffee and meeting locals and other travellers. Our two German shepherds often provide an opening sentence or two and behave well, settling themselves beneath the table. Today we talked to three locals who remembered us and our dogs from last November, and then we had an interesting conversations with two lots of travellers.

Of course, I had to have a look at the adjoining shop that creates their own jewellery using Lightning Ridge opals. Last year I bought opal earrings; today I just looked. One opal caught my attention.

Shaped like a map of Australia, larger than my thumbnail and containing rich hues and flashes of blues and reds, it is an opal in one million. And its price, a mere $4500!. It has not been made into anything yet, but it could be a ring, brooch, pendant or any other form of decoration. I wonder who will buy it? I can honestly say I don't want it, but I do admire its beauty and hope its owner will enjoy wearing it.

To cynics, Lightning Ridge is described thus: It's not the end of the world but you can see it from here.

For me, though, I find Lightning Ridge fascinating with its rich blend of friendly eccentric people, space and opals.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Tossing a coin to see which direction we'd take

With the luxury of more time we plan a detour to explore the opal mining
centres of Lightning Ridge, Yowah and Quilpie -- on our way back home to Mitchell.

From Gilgandra, we had a choice: west to Bourke or north to Lightning Ridge. Half an hour before departure we decided on the Lightning Ridge route, mainly because we like Lightning Ridge and its intrigue. It was, however, almost a matter of tossing a coin to see in which direction we'd travel.

The country through which we've travelled today is a picture of plenty, after years of drought and then flooding rains. The cattle look content and in excellent condition.

At present I'm in the middle of a gripping Victoria Holt novel which is a trap because I don't want to do anything else but find out what happens! What an amazing plot and characters. It's a long time since I've read one of her novels and it's great holiday reading..

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Scrabble is more fun than TV

While travelling, we choose not to have a TV, preferring to play Scrabble, read, talk, write letters, do my blog, listen to the radio and play the guitar. Never do we wonder how we'll fill in a long winter's evening.

Many years ago, while camping in the Flinders Ranges, torrential rain fell for one whole week. Confined to the caravan and ute with two Siamese cats, a Great Dane, Irish setter and Border collie we played a variety of board games. The only problem was that whoever won felt great and the loser, a bit down. In order to remain sane and preserve our marriage, we invented new rules for Scrabble that meant we didn't compete. Rather, we played together, the aim being to use all of the letters in the shortest possible time. To this day, we play Scrabble this way and always enjoy our game.

While travelling through Victoria yesterday we needed to wear woollen jackets, parkers, scarves and gloves -- now, well into New South Wales, the layers have reduced and I'm beginning to thaw.

For the last two nights we've camped at Gilgandra, located on the Castlereagh River. Today was a rest day, and with the sun shining we took our two shepherds for a long walk along the river. Last time we were here (in December) the river was in flood. Today it's a gently flowing water course with river red gums along both sides. The Rotary Caravan Park in Gilgandra is famous for its garden like setting and magnificent trees.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Parkes Radio Telescope

The Dish Cafe is a favourite stopover for coffee and lunch, with the menu including Celestial Chicken Wrap, and Cosmic Caesar Salad, amongst other things.

Sipping a strong long black coffee, while watching The Dish rotate slowly brought to mind other galaxies and all the things we are yet to learn about our place in the universe.

"If you imagine The Dish as the Sun, the Earth would be the size of an apple located 6 km away." This is today's Food for Thought at The Dish Cafe.

Growing in well-tended gardens surrounding the radio telescope are four young apple trees. These have been grown using cuttings from a tree which is a direct descendant of Newton's famous apple tree.

Whenever we visit The Dish I'm reminded of the excellent Australian-made and produced film The Dish -- filmed on site.

Tonight at Gilgandra, we saw our first bottle tree. This is a sign of warmer climates; a sign that we are entering outback territory -- a place we love.