Outback - Roos, Repairs, Opals and Emus

90% of Australians live in cities, and many never experience the outback -
the distances are vast, 15% of traffic accidents are caused by drivers
falling asleep, rainfall is 125mms/year or less (5 inches), it
takes 20 acres to support 1 sheep, (in UK 4 sheep/acre is average), most
roads are roughly graded unsealed gravel or red dirt, the nearest neighbour
is often 20 miles away, a big town is 2000 people and because few doctors
are prepared to work there,
medical care comes by plane. So why do people live in the outback? For the
aboriginals who came to Australia some 50,000 years ago, the answer was
probably good hunting - they found and exterminated the giant kangaroo
before westerners even arrived. For most others it was gold, silver, lead,
zinc, then opal, and the wealth that came from vast flocks of sheep and
cattle, and later wheat and wine - and the self reliance you need to survive
in the outback. Want to know how to repair a gushing hole in the petrol tank
in the outback? Read on for our personal experience.  The updated
www.intrepidofdover.co.uk website has a few outback photos, and previous
emails ....

Australian farmers have done well after the difficulties of losing preferred
access to the UK market, and now compete effectively in world markets, and
farm land prices have almost quadrupled. But now there is a glut of produce,
which may have been behind the great Australian wheat investigation into why
the AWB (Australian Wheat Board - the monopoly wheat exporter) paid bribes
or 'commissions' of 100s of $millions to Sadam Hussein.
There is also a wine glut. Many farmers ripped out citrus groves in 2000,
and planted vines, without a contract with the winemakers to take the fruit.
Irrigation water costs about A$200/acre, if you are even allowed it, 1 acre
of vines produces 6-20 tonnes of grapes, 99% machine picked at a cost of A$6/minute for the
harvester which shakes the vine to dislodge the grapes.  And sure
enough there is now a large surplus, and non-contract prices are as
little as $100/tonne, down from almost A$800/tonne in 2000. Some farmers are
literally dumping grapes on the ground to rot, others are starting to turn
it into ethanol for fuel.

So on a Public Holiday (Good Friday) at the height of the tourist season,
all the vineyards are busy promoting their wines - right? Well actually they were
all shut, the whole of Aus seems to close around then, even Jacobs Creek
which offers 'tours daily' was locked. Its not religion, on Sunday, shops
were open, footy played, but then they shut again for Easter Monday. To make
up for this, next week we drank our way round 2 vineyards
near the confluence of the Rivers Murray and Darling, (having parked the car) -
Hardy's (Regnon - they have bought up most of the vineyards and production
facilities in the area and produce 250,000 tonnes/year), and Angoves, a huge
Australian owned company. Each has perhaps 20 brands. Aus wines are blended to provide an attractive
fashionable taste, and are not limited by appellation controlle restrictions,
so they produce good quality wines in large quantities. Many vineyards have
reduced prices by 20-30% in the last 4 years - from an average of perhaps
A$10-15 to A$7-10 (3-4 pounds) retail for a reasonable quality wine.
High Street wine sellers don't like this, and some vineyards are trying to
hype their products up the demand curve...

Ivan and Glenny farm 1300 ewes on 1700 acres in South Australia SE of Adelaide, so this
makes their farm comparatively productive. My last email
referred to it as a sheep station. Apparently this term is only
used for some 20,000 acres plus or so! I still think 1700 acres is big. But 50 years ago it was scrub. It
took massive amounts of super phosphate and trace elements - copper,
molybdenum, to turn it into pasture that will support sheep and some crops -
mainly alfalfa kept going by flood irrigation -
similar to the falajs of Oman and the middle east, with the 2 exceptions
that the water - currently about 1000 ppm salt (just drinkable) - is pumped up
from underground by a diesel pump, and the land
graded to a 1:10,000 gradient by laser measurement so the water floods
evenly - more water efficient than centre pivot irrigation which drives long
lines of sprayers in a huge circle. Another technique is very deep ploughing (down to 1 metre deep)
or even quarrying to bring clay to the surface where it is mixed with the
surface layer to produce an improved soil. Rabbits in Australia are now
resistant to mixamatosis, so a new cicili virus was developed, and while the
Government pondered whether it was moral to introduce it, the virus somehow
'leaked out', and now rabbits die of this.

We had met Ivan and Glenny  for only a few hours in Fiji, and we were all
a bit apprehensive as we pulled up, but our gut feel was good, they were
magnificent hosts, and we got on well. On Saturday, we all went with
Richard and Janine (who farm 7000 acres including some native bush) on a 4WD
'safari' on rutted and pitted tracks through fire blackened parks north
along the SA/Victoria border to Red Bluff a dramatic vantage point for a
BBQ. So effective are the volunteer fire crews (Richard is deputy chief of
the fire crews as well as deputy council chief in the region of 7000 people
in 70x100kms) that some of these areas have not been burnt for 50 years
making them a major fire risk as the average is 15 years. This delay also
jeopardises plants as some require fire to germinate and after 30 years the
seeds are starting to rot.

The long drought is starting to effect the land -
the pasture for sheep looks sparse and yellow, wool on the sheep on some farms is stained brown by
dust. Although southern hemisphere seasons are the reverse of the north,
rams are often put into the ewes around September, about the same as in UK!
The Merino ewes have 1 lamb/year, but Merinos are fragile and not good mothers, and only about
60% -80% survive - we found one ewe with her legs uphill unable to get up - her
unprotected lamb had already been killed, probably by eagles. Ivan got her
up, and she staggered off, another year another lamb.... On some farms
suffering from lack of water the sheep are so stressed that a number die during shearing. Average rainfall on Ivan's farm
is about 14 inches (350 mms), Kent, where we live, one of
the driest counties of England gets about 24 inches. Drinking water for
the farm is all from rain collected from roofs into 5000 litre tanks. South
Australia is very dependant on the River Murray which provides 77% of
Adelaide's water and irrigates half of its fruit and vines, so its water
quantity and quality are the subject of carefully monitoring and much inter
state/farmer argument.

But the South Australian lifestyle is calm and measured - conditions have
never been easy so they have learned how to be effective and still enjoy life, and many
Sydney professionals are moving to SA to get away from the better paid but
stress ridden big city life. Ivan finds time to go fishing and restore old
military vehicles, so one afternoon you would have seen me careering round
the farm driving a restored fully tracked bren gun carrier (mini tank)- and
you thought 4WD's are macho!

We hope that Ivan and Glenny visit us in UK one day, but we had to leave and
drove NE to Mildura, near where the Rivers Murray and Darling join, each
some 2500 kms long, the Darling coming all the way from near Brisbane. The
Paddle Steamer Melbourne is based here, built in 1912 and still steaming up
and down the Murray twice a day with her original 1912 2 cylinder compound
steam engine driving side paddles - a real work of art/engineering. Then
north to Broken Hill, discovered in 1880, probably the richest mine in the
world. The seam of almost pure lead and zinc sulphide is still being worked,
400 metres long on the surface, 100 metres wide, up to 400 metres deep
as it inclines down. The mine and those surrounding it have claimed the
lives of over 400 miners in horrific accidents and lead poisoning, and
inspired major union activity culminating in the 18 month strike  of 1923 which
included mock graves for the 'scabs' or people who continued to work. It
ended with a 35 hour week and the introduction of water to prevent the dust
that killed miners.

Broken Hill is a strange place, big for the outback, with streets named
after anions (eg Chloride St)  and minerals, large public buildings, we stayed at the 'Grand
Guesthouse', once the Grand Hotel now fallen on harder times, like much else
in BH. But with sky high mineral prices mines are being re-started. We went
400 feet underground in the original cage driven by cable operator, then
walked 800 metres along the low mine tunnel with only lights from our
helmets glinting off the lead and zinc still present in the walls, with pit
props crumbling in some places under the weight of rock. The miners worked
in gangs of 6, paid by the number of metres they drove forward, using
explosive charges detonated microseconds apart to crush the rock and force
it out where it could be loaded into wagons and taken to smelters in Port
Pirrie near Adelaide (after the Broken Hill Smelter had used all the trees
for miles around).

Broken Hill is also a major base for the Royal Flying Doctor Service,
started in about 1930 by a Methodist preacher. Now it has 40 planes and
provides doctors to remote communities in the outback. A wonderful service,
we checked out the medical kits kept by each remote farm - very similar to
the one we keep on Intrepid - although we don't have a 1 km long airstrip
which remote farms have to keep maintained. We were disappointed to note
however that Australian doctors often refuse to work in remote communities
even where numbers are sufficient to justify a doctor (say 2500), so the
Flying Doctor Service has many more flights than would otherwise be
necessary. We also heard of Aus doctors 'requiring' more consultations (at
$50/10 minutes) than are necessary, and even accepting  significant
to prescribe brand name drugs pushed by the salesmen for big drug companies.
Things are so bad that there is even a law requiring pharmacists to tell
patients who are paying for their drugs about cheaper generic alternatives -
but you have to ask why the doctor prescribed the branded drug in the first

From Broken Hill we drove north on graded roads into increasingly remote
outback, flocks of emus, kangaroos dead and alive, sparse yellowing
scrub, a few sheep, red bare earth, few cars. We saw the Aboriginal hand outline
paintings at Mutawintji park, but the real delight was the brilliant blue
sky outlining stark red bluffs above the dry river gorge. Then miles further
on, still on rough graded roads to White Cliffs where Round Ron and his son
were drilling for opals. The temperature here in summer reaches 54C in the
shade, and miners live in disused mines where the temperature remains a
steady 21-23C. Opal is formed in voids created by animal or vegetable
matter - silica rich water seeps into these voids, and if conditions are
right spheres of silica line up to refract light just so and produce the
amazing rainbow colours. Round Ron's rig was down to 23 feet, and he hit pay
dirt as we arrived, so we helped
him for a couple of hours identifying the flint like carriers of opal in the
dirt brought up by his auger. We stayed at PJ's underground - a hotel in an
old mine, elegant whitewashed rooms and corridors branching off to follow old seams.
But the White Cliffs school has only 7 kids, and will close this year, so Pete
and Joanne have to sell their underground hotel. Anyone interested?

We were restricted by time and car (2WD new Mitsubishi made in Adelaide) so we were not going
right across the middle, but nonetheless the Outback we saw is something like a reality
safari park, we saw even more emus and lots of kangaroos, alive and dead - one heart
breaking case a recently dead mother kangaroo with her 'teenage' son hopping
around wildly not knowing what to do, returning again and again to peer at
his dead mother - Nicky wanted to adopt him there and then. We didn't see
another car for the whole day, the graded
road getting rougher and rougher until we pulled up at Louth to refuel. Just
as we finished fuelling, a guy at the bar noticed petrol pouring from the bottom of
our car - a stone had punctured the petrol tank and petrol was pouring out. This
was at 4.30 pm, and we had 150 kms of graded road to go to the next town - if he hadn't
spotted it we would have run out of petrol halfway as dusk fell, even assuming the petrol didn't ignite .......How
to repair a leaking full petrol tank? This is the outback - one guy brought
a ramp, another produced a self tapping screw with a rubber washer and the
garage owner wriggled under the car and drilled the screw and washer into
the hole, jamming the washer against the hole and stopping the leak, all
within 10 minutes. To complete the repair they suggested epoxy - but they
had used all theirs up, so we drove the 150 kms to Bourke on more gravel roads, arriving
just as night fell. Bourke is a frontier town in many ways, 'Back of Bourke'
is an Aus expression for real outback, and Bourke has a large police station, a
number of shop windows that did not have metal security shutters were
broken, and there .is a sizeable Aboriginal population. But the Port of
Bourke pub has a riotous Friday night clientele,  so we partied with Jason
and friends - another Sydney boy in search of the quieter life although he
didn't find it that particular night..

Next day we drove to Lightening Ridge famed for its black opals. Whereas big
mines need millions, all you need for opals are a quirky attitude and an
inventive approach, claims are 50x50 metres square and cost just $90/year, but only
one in 100  miners make real money ( a $10,000 opal) - which by a strange coincidence is the odds on
a person playing the million poker machines (pokies) in Australia hitting it
rich - 3% of Australians are problem gamblers losing an average of
$6,000/year, as the machines are programmed to take 10% of all money gambled. Nicky has
at times surprisingly modest tastes, and chose a tiny opal studded
flower pendant -price A$31 (12 pounds), and we stayed at the old
shearers quarters on Lorne Station (A$30 - 11 pounds) where wood for the BBQ
falls from trees, and kangaroos, one with a baby joey in her pouch, graze just 20 metres away. Then the
remaining 800 kms back to Brisbane -  in all we drove 6500 kms (4500 miles) in 4 weeks
covering just the SE corner of Aus.

As we got closer to the coast, the air grew dirtier, vehicles became more
and more frequent and noisier, advertising more intrusive, the surroundings
greener but less attractive,  we start to see why people live in the

Aus has its own version of Tony Blair/Gordon Brown - John Howard/Peter
Costello. John Howard is continually rumoured to retire, but Costello, his
heir apparent has already done 6 years as Finance Minister. Meanwhile the
Solomons, our intended  4Q destination has riots following their election
and Aus has sent 400 troops and police. Politics and volcanoes can make for
explosive destinations.

Intrepid  moved into the work yard last week, changing sea cocks, deck caulking,
antifouling and fitting all the various boat parts we couldn't get in the
Pacific, but can get here in Aus. Because of the shortage of skilled
technicians, I am having to do my own instrumentation, and we are currently
waiting on an instrument coming from Sydney.  However we are enjoying being
in one place for a bit.  Then north to Cairns with the Great Barrier Reef on
our right hand side. . ......We are reviewing the Solomons situation, also Indonesia, Pirates (better news here) ,
UK, and weather so all options are open at the moment, watch this space.

Winter in Brisbane is very pleasant, we hope that northern hemisphere summer
is treating you well.

With all best wishes,

Andy and Nicky

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