Around Australia: crossing the Nullarbor


Our hotel in Norseman did not look very promising as we approached it. The signs were all down and it looked like it was ready for a re-paint. There was no answer to the phone number on the door but just as I was about to look elsewhere, James found a guy round the back and the reception door was opened. We discovered that it was built in 1939 and is under renovation. The interior has been done and now the exterior is underway. The guy who was doing some of the work was living in a caravan on the site. I think we were the only customers that night. We left fairly early the next morning as we had over 400 miles to drive. The town was so quiet James thought tumbleweed should be blowing down the streets and it had a hint of Hotel California about it.

The Eyre Highway was named after the first European, John Eyre, to cross the area in 1841. It begins in Norseman and runs along the southern edge of the Nullarbor Plain. The Trans Australia Railway which runs from Perth to Sydney, passes through Kalgoorlie and runs north of the road. It passes into the Nullarbor Plain more quickly. We travelled on the Indian Pacific on that route seven years ago. The road leaves Norseman in the Great Western Forest which is bigger than England. This eventually peters out into bush with trees near Caiguna which continue until just before Eucla.

Just outside Norseman we saw a couple of cyclists we had passed the day before and later saw a third as well as one guy running. I have no idea how far any of them were going. Our first stop was at Balladonia which promised bean coffee on a sign before the roadhouse. The hotel and community were originally 17 miles or so further east on the site of the old telegraph station at the end of the old telegraph road from Norseman. The modern road construction started in 1941 and the hotel moved to its current site in 1962. It is now part of the fairly standard set up of hotel/motel, camping & caravan site, filling station and shop/café/restaurant that most of the roadhouses comprise of. There is a small museum next to the café that covers many aspects of the community and area and one episode which brought it into the public domain. Skylab was a space research laboratory launched in 1973 from Florida. Various teams worked on over the years and in the late 1970s it was decided to return it to earth. It did so on 12 July 1979 and partially burned up on re-entry, spraying fragments into the ocean and on this part of Western Australia. Reporters descended on Balladonia and the roadhouse received a phone call from President Jimmy Carter apologising and offering assistance. NASA posted a $10,000 reward for the first piece of wreckage to be returned to the USA and this was claimed by a 17-year-old from Esperance.

There was also some information about camels. They had been used for outback transport from the 19th century until motor vehicles arrived. The people who worked with and led the camels were often referred to as Afghans although those who worked near Balladonia were either from Karachi or Baluchistan in India. Camels fitted the outback climate very well, but their drivers remained nomadic and isolated from the rest of the community. Some of the camels escaped and have become feral. I saw some from the train in 2011.

After Balladonia we drove round a bend and then came to the longest straight stretch of road in Australia: the 90 Mile Straight.

As we stopped at the sign, I noticed a guy with an old Ford ute had also stopped. I asked him if I could take a photo as my brother used to be secretary of the Ford pre-67 Owners Club in the UK. He was quite happy for me to do so and told me that he was on the way back from an old ute gathering. He also said that he had got married in the early 1980s and that he and his wife had spent 17 years just travelling around the country. Further on we saw more old vehicles also returning home. Our lunch was at Cocklelbiddy Roadhouse. Near there, down an unsealed road to the coast is the Eyre Bird Observatory which we did not have time to explore. We continue through blue bush with stretches of blue flowering plants by the roadside and still some trees. The road goes over the Madura Pass at 90m and then descends from the Hampton Tableland to the plain. After Mundrabilla we spotted the first motorcyclist of the day heading in the opposite direction. Our destination for that night was Eucla (population 53) which sits on a 100m pass and is about three miles from the coast.

There are sand dunes and the old telegraph station which dates from 1877 is slowly being covered by sand. There is also an old jetty down at the beach, but the winds were high and as we approached it looked like a sandstorm ahead, so we turned back. The surrounding landscape is much more like the Nullarbor with plants and after Eucla more like desert. The high winds overnight had brought cloud but at least we did not have to worry about fallen trees on the road.

At the South Australia Border the old Eyre Highway (unsealed) runs parallel until Nullabor. There are several viewpoints looking over the Great Australian Bight. Just after Nullabor we passed the exit to Cook (population 2 and 1 dog) which the Indian Pacific Train stops at. The Highway enters the Yalata Aboriginal Reserve and hills and trees reappear. We passed three cyclists in total. Later, the landscape reverts to sheep pasture and cereal crops. The road passes through Penong before reaching Ceduna. The town claims to have Australia’s biggest windmill and has a windmill museum. I was not tempted.There is also a turn off to Cactus Beach which is renowned for surfing. We reached Ceduna having driven 302 miles in addition to the 435 on Wednesday bringing our total to 8,999 miles.

Around Australia: From the outback to the city and the ocean


Having spent a few days in the outback it was time today to return to the city and the ocean. Our motel was just off the highway in Katherine, so we were on our way fairly quickly. Highway One was fairly quiet although we did see our first four tanker road train and there were the inevitable roadworks. Our coffee stop was in Pine Creek at a café where a cat was sitting outside the door ready to greet us. Further on in the town is a railway museum. It was closed when we passed by, but I had a brief look around. Inevitably the gold rush was the reason the railway opened in 1889. It was extended to Katherine in 1917 but never got as far as Alice Springs. When a nearby mine closed in 1976 the railway closed. In 2004 the Darwin to Adelaide line opened which we must do at some point.

There are a couple of locomotives in a shed. As it was closed I had to take photographs through the wire enclosure.

We continued north into a more rocky and hilly landscape. Just after Hayes Creek, the option to divert via the Dorat Road to Adelaide River where it rejoins Highway One. It was even quieter and the termite mounds even bigger. Some were almost 3 metres tall.

We saw some kangaroos grazing in the bush but all too soon we were back on the main road. A sign to a place called ‘Tortilla Flats’ raised a smile. After Mount Dam the water pipe ran alongside the road. Bad signage nearer Darwin meant that we missed our exit but third time lucky we were on the correct road and off to the airport to dump the rental car. Some bizarre rules mean that we could not keep the same car all the way around according to the offices in the UK and Sydney. The woman in the Darwin office thought that we could have had a rolling contract. Anyway, it is pleasant to be car-less for a day and hopefully we can re-negotiate the fee we are being charged which is for those dropping off at a different destination. Whichever car we have, it will be returned to Sydney where we started. One bit of good news is that when we checked into our hotel, we got upgraded to a suite with an ocean view! The following morning, en route to the Botanic Garden, I spotted an Avis office in town. While James went in to switch the car pick up to that office I explored the Catholic Cathedral opposite.


We walked the just under two miles to the Gardens and enjoyed being back in a green oasis after the dry outback.

Unlike the last one we visited, the epiphytic greenhouse was open and gave me some ideas to try with my orchids and some of my succulents if they have survived my absence. After a cold drink at the cafe it was time to walk a little further to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory. One of the exhibitions was 66 out of the 300 entries for the Telstra National and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards. There were other galleries of art work and I particularly liked some of the linocuts and wood engravings and hope that these will inspire me to get back to my art over the winter.


There were other very colourful works as well as galleries devoted to the geology and natural history, Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Day in 1974 which I remember being reported on the TV and some early 20th century history of the Territory. After walking back to the hotel (with a diversion to a cold beer) it was time to relax with the AC on. Later on we found Darwin’s bookshop: Readback Books and Aboriginal Art Gallery. As usual when travelling I have to restrict myself and we bought one novel which we can leave behind when finished. I overheard the proprietor telling another customer that her main business was the art gallery and the books were a hobby. Sunset is later up here but it was so cloudy little could be seen. Today was the autumn equinox and a full moon. However, we could not see the moon for cloud so here is last night’s almost full one.

New Zealand: the Banks Peninsula

The Land of the Long White Cloud was cloudy as we left central Christchurch to pick up our car back at the airport. We left through the southern suburbs and then east towards the Banks Peninsula. Sighted and named after the naturalist Joseph Banks by Captain Cook in 1770, it was settled briefly by the French in the 19th century before the British claimed it.

South of Christchurch we stopped for coffee in Tai Tapu at the Store Cafe which seemed popular with a local cycling club. The next halt was at Lake Ellesmere which is actually a broad, shallow lagoon separated from the Pacific Ocean by a long narrow sandy spit. We could see Black Swans in the distance. At Lake Forsyth just before Little River, there were Mallard, Australasian Crested Grebes and this White-Faced Heron.
While I was looking at birds, James had spotted some brown cattle he thought were Herefords but had a large white stripe along their backs and down to their white heads. He chatted to the farmer who confirmed that they were Herefords. At Little River, we looked in the old station which is now run by the Little River Railway Station Trust. They are a small volunteer community group who lease the Historic Railway Station from Christchurch City Council. They look after the Gardens, the Building and environs and restore the railway carriages. Inside, there is a Heritage Room and a Waiting Room with the Little River War Memorial Boards from the 1914-18 and 1940-45 World Wars. There are displays in s on local historical and community events and reference books available for people to use to research their family history. The old railway is now a 48km Rail Trail which can be walked, ridden or biked. There is also a gallery selling art and crafts plus you can Stay in a Silo.

The tide was out at Barry’s Bay
and we finally reached Akaroa
The lighthouse was moved from the headland when automation took place. As we ate our picnic lunch this female House Sparrow sat watching us hoping for scraps.

Spring in Edinburgh and discovering another art gallery

On Wednesday morning I was standing on the northbound platform at Crewe Station. The destination board said that the train was going to Edinburgh however the display on the door of my carriage said, ‘next stop Tamworth’, which was a little disconcerting. Fortunately, we did leave heading in the right direction and before 7.30am were at Warrington where the train spotters were already out on the platform. I was going up to Edinburgh a few days ahead of James to get some spring cleaning done but did find time to explore a gallery I have not been in before. The Talbot Rice Gallery is in Old College and free to enter. Old College is undergoing some renovation now but the dome was still visible.

One of the exhibitions was Between Poles and Tides comprising new acquisitions from the university collection and focusing on elemental forces, natural rhythms, destruction, social discord and displacement. It consists of works by David Batchelor, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Ilana Halperin, Jessica Harrison, Fabienne Hess, Daniel Hughes, Daisy Lafarge, Jonathan Owen, Katie Paterson, Isobel Turley, Luc Tuymans and JL Williams
I particularly enjoyed Ilana Halperin’s works which were new to me

Paterson’s Future Library

and works by a familiar artisit, Ian Hamilton Finlay. Here is Les Femmes de la Revolution after Anselm Kefer
and Bicentenary Tricolour

 Also on display was The Torrie Collection, the University of Edinburgh’s founding art collection being exhibited in the Georgian interior of Gallery 2. It consists mainly of Dutch and Flemish 17th and 18th century painting and Renaissance sculpture.
Back at the flat, the cherry tree outside is in flower, a little earlier than usual. The wood pigeons enjoy the petals
The wood pigeons were enjoying the petals

and some passers-by spent ages taking photographs of the tree, selfies with the tree in the background and persuading one of my neighbours to take a shot of them both. I think they were Japanese and perhaps missing the cherry blossom back home.

On the way home through the borders we saw some of the first upland lambs. Lambing in the uplands lasts from mid March to May so there will be many more on my next trip.

Reading about travelling westward on the train north

England was beginning to move again yesterday after the Christmas break but not for long as the M6 was completely stationary in both directions last night and other roads were reporting problems. I was glad that I was taking the train this morning. Scotland is recovering from two severe storms over Christmas, while in Northern England we had much less severe wind and rain. We left the house in frosty darkness with all the stars visible as James took me to the station. In the lounge, I watched a TV programme highlighting the benefits recent wet summers and mild winters have had for farmers who have could keep animals outside for longer and cut more hay from the long grass but also the adverse impact it has had on many insects and wildflowers that need shorter grass to survive and birds such as barn owls who cannot see their prey in longer grass and whose numbers are declining. Yet another consequence of climate change.
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Not driving meant that I could dip into a book I found on Tuesday at Cavern Books, Dagfields, near Nantwich: http://www.cavernbooks.co.uk/. It is David Haward Bain’s The Old Iron Road: An Epic of Rails, Roads and the Urge to Go West. In 2000, the author (who is an established non-fiction writer and academic at a Vermont college) travelled along the routes followed by the early rail road, Lincoln Highway, California, Oregon and Pony Express trails with his family. He had more time than we could squeeze out of our jobs on our transcontinental drive and has researched and added much of the associated history along the way, including that of his own grandmother’s family. There is also a selection of old photographs in the book.

He began in Missouri, travelling north up the river valley from Kansas City and Independence where the California and Oregon trails often began. We passed through St Louis on our Route 66 drive before continuing southwest and here is the Lewis & Clark memorial by the river:
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At Omaha, his route coincided with the Lincoln Highway on Route 30 and our drive as we entered Nebraska on R30 from Iowa.
One of the things I enjoyed in Nebraska was the prairie grass in the Cottonmill Park near Kearney.
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By the time I had reached this stage of his book, dawn had broken in South Lancashire and the sun was fully up well before we reached Carlisle. The Cumbrian hills were covered in frost and mist but there were still large pools of water in the fields in southern Scotland. As I emerged from the station in Edinburgh, it was much milder. The city is gearing up for the Hogmanay celebrations and it will get much busier over the next two days. I shed my woollies and as I walked to the shops from the flat, noticed large numbers of branches on the ground from the surrounding trees. I will be out tomorrow to do a few things in town and looking forward to Friday to meeting friends and celebrating James’s birthday.

Winter Sun in South Queensferry

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We had spent Saturday wandering around Edinburgh with my father who had not visited the city for 20 years. He enjoyed seeing what had changed and what had not. Sunday morning brought one of the still sunny winter days that the east coast of Britain often gets in winter while those of us on the western side of the country are experiencing grey wet weather. As my father is a retired engineer, I knew he would be interested to see the new Queensferry Bridge. He still has copies of ‘The Engineer’ magazine from the 19th century which were found in my grandfather’s garage when it was being cleared after his death. They contain a month-by-month account of the building of the Forth Rail Bridge which is fascinating. The visitors’ centre for the new bridge is not open on Sundays so we contented ourselves with a wander along the shore and into the historic old town of South Queensferry. The name of the town dates from the ferry service for Queen Margaret which was established in the 11th century and ran at first from some rocks to the west of the current harbour. The ferry ran until 1964 when the Road Bridge opened. The new bridge is scheduled to open in early May 2017 so we hope to be able to cross it when we go to Shetland in May. At the moment there is still a small section missing. I hope it joins up satisfactorily, I remember the Kessock Bridge near Inverness not quite matching up in the middle when the two halves were joined South Queensferry also has a bookshop so a return trip on a day other than a Sunday might have to be made at some point.
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On the rails in the dark

Most of my train journeys to Edinburgh are in the early morning with good views of the Cumbrian hills and the Southern Uplands. Not so on this occasion, I was on the last train in the evening. In the week or so leading up to my trip yesterday evening there had been innumerable reports of problems on the rail network so I was not hopeful. As it turned out, my train was only three minutes late and I was soon installed in my seat with a coffee in front of me. The staff member in the carriage explained that due to staff sickness there would be no at-seat service in first class after Preston and plied us with enough food and wine to take us all the way to our destination. The wine came in a plastic bottle which I will hang on to as they are useful means of carrying alcohol into festivals where glass is forbidden for obvious reasons. I settled into the rest of my journey with Jim Perrin’s ‘Travels with a Flea and other Eccentric Journeys’, a collection of his essays on trips to various parts of the world and around his home in Wales. We arrived in Edinburgh on time and although my usual short cut to the bus stop was blocked by the ice rink and Christmas market, I did get a quick shot with my phone of the castle lit up in blue for St Andrews Day just before the bus pulled in.
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I came up a little earlier than James and my father who will drive up on Friday afternoon as I wanted to fit in some last-minute Christmas shopping. I then discovered several things that will distract me from shopping. Firstly, Edinburgh is doing something a little different for the festive season this year. Each day from the 1st December to the 24th they are opening a building or part of a building which is not usually accessible to the public. The event, which is free, is entitled 24 Doors of Advent. Each day from 1-24th December, a different building or part of one not usually open to the public, will open its doors for a day.
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I plan to visit the venues for the 1st and 2nd and possibly the 3rd, depending upon the preferences of the others. I also discovered that the Scottish Chamber Orchestra are performing Peter Maxwell Davies’s ‘Orkney Wedding’ on Thursday evening so that is my treat for this evening.