Saturday, 25 July 2015

The Breakaways - The Ghan Adventure continued

Australian Dog Fence
One of the very best things about travel is discovering new and amazing places you never knew existed. For me travel is always about finding out what is around the next corner. You could say I'm addicted to it.  And what a surprise was waiting "around the corner" when we left Coober Pedy and drove further out into the desert alongside the famous Australian Dog Fence. Sometimes known as the Dingo Fence, it looks just like an ordinary wire fence but at 5,500 kms long, is also the longest man-made structure in the world. Built in the 1880s to protect ranchers from dingo attacks on their cattle it has proved to be successful despite the many ingenious ways the dingos try to breach it. An Australian icon and a symbol of man's endurance in a harsh environment the Dog Fence has featured in novels, movies and folk legend.
The stunning Breakaways landscape

As interesting as the Dog Fence was that wasn't the thrilling part of this trip, that honour goes to The Breakaways. I had never heard of this spectacular ancient  landscape, an inland sea 70 to 100 million years ago, located 33kms north of Coober Pedy.  Known as Umoona by the Antakirinja Matuntjara Yankunytjatara Aboriginal people, who are the traditional owners and custodians of the area, it is now a desert landscape which endures very high summer temperatures and very cold nights. The name, The Breakaways, comes from the fact that the series of dramatic flat topped mountains in the area had broken away from the main mountain range many millions of years ago. The mountains range in colour from chalky white to gold to russet and all colours in between. The scenery is nothing short of sensational and I was gob smacked. What an absolutely unexpected thrill and definitely one of those "round the corner" discoveries.

Our coach drove to the top of one of the mountains where we had time to drink in the amazing views and take photograph after photograph. We also had time to drink a glass of bubbly because, much to our delight, a table had been set up, complete with waiter and wine, especially for us. We were all so enthralled by the views that even the pesky, sticky, Aussie flies didn't dampen our spirits.

 Keen movie viewers would recognise the landscape from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Mad Max 3 and Red Planet. This visit to The Breakaways was something really special...a must do if you ever visit Coober Pedy.

Delighted with my "round the corner" discovery

Back at the train we were welcomed with more drinks and finger food set out at lantern lit tables in the red desert landscape. Everyone was on a high as we mixed and mingled and shared our delighted thoughts of the day.  The perfect way to spend the last evening of The Ghan trip.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Coober Pedy, the Opal Town - The Ghan Adventure continued

Well I have to say Coober Pedy must be the most unusual, funkiest town I have ever visited.  It was the first time I had been to a town which has mining as its whole purpose, and where many, if not most, of it's inhabitants live underground to escape the searing heat of Australian desert summers. This certainly makes for  an interesting place.

Mining camp, Coober Pedy

     The Ghan stopped way out in the middle of the desert at a place called Manguri Siding and then it was about an hour by bus to Coober Pedy.  First indications that we were getting close to town were the conical piles of mine tailings heaped row upon row amidst  rusty old trucks whose motors are used to power the blowers for the mines. It's a kind of wild west sort of place, dusty and untidy with piles of abandoned, broken down equipment and machinery here and there.

Mountains of mine tailings
Inside St Elijah's Church
 But there is beauty as we discovered at our first stop, the Serbian, Orthodox church of St Elijah, built underground into the side of a hill.   This was an amazing revelation - carefully excavated from cool, creamy rock with elaborate stained glass and carvings and a calm, peaceful atmosphere.  Our next stop, at an opal mine, was more prosaic but no less interesting. Here, suitably kitted out in hard hats, we were shown how opals are mined.  As with all mining it is pretty back breaking work but a good opal find must be very exciting. We had a lunch of food and wine seated at long tables right within the mine - very atmospheric. Afterwards we had time to tour the adjoining museum and art gallery before our next, and I must say, keenly anticipated, stop, an opal shop.

Coober Pedy's Raison d'etre

                                                                                 I was mesmerised by the variety, colours and fire in the opals on display and can understand how mining for them becomes a "thrill of the chase" and somewhat addictive.  Many of us bought opals, including me.  An extravagance I know but I don't expect to be back in Coober Pedy any time soon.                                                                                

Inside an underground house
                                                                                                                                                                  It was intriguing to look through a couple of underground homes; one a no longer used miner's shanty, basic but comfortable, and the other a quite large family home.  I was surprised at how spacious it was with all mod cons and even a chandelier but I know I would find it disconcerting to have to rely on a clock to tell me whether it was daytime or not. 
The beauty of these underground homes is that they are a constant, comfortable 21 degrees all year round while, outside, the summers can be searingly hot, up to 51 degrees, and the winter nights, bitterly cold.

Coober Pedy's "Boot Hill'

                                                                                                                                                              We had a good look around the town, weaving around the residential streets, noting the number of homes by the number of  air vents peppering the small hills.  We even called in at the local cemetery, a real "Boot Hill", with its makeshift headstones of beer kegs and mining equipment. 

A number of homes are under this hill
I am so pleased I went to Coober Pedy.  I found it extraordinary although there is no way I would want to live there.  Our tour guide was a German who said he had arrived in the town, to mine, 40 odd years ago and fell in love with it.  He has never wanted to leave.  On my way home from Australia I met a very friendly woman who shared her airport taxi with me.  She said she had a two year teaching contract in Coober Pedy and was loving every minute of her time there and could happily stay forever.  So, there you go, what do I know?

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Recipes - Aussie Outback Bush Tucker (refreshments)

They breed them tough in the Aussie outback - strong, resourceful people who know how to make do, still, their essentials for life are the same as anybody's - a cup of tea and a bit of fresh bread, oh, and a comfortable swag to roll out under the stars.  Here are some genuine recipes from the Australian bush, staples for the Aussie bushman.

  • First make your fire.  NB: What ever you do, don't start a bush fire.
  • Get a billy.  A billy is a tin can with a handle.  In the early days  they were empty bully beef cans, but now you can buy them or, if you are a true bushman, make your own from a large fruit can with a wire handle
  • Fill the can 2/3rds with water
  • Toss in a handful of tea leaves
  • Hang it over the fire
  • Leave to brew to your satisfaction
  • Lift off with a stick and swing the billy around your body 3 times.  Yes, I know this sounds ridiculous and requires some practice but it makes the leaves drop to the bottom.  BE CAREFUL! and don't do it near children
  • Sit back and drink and it is essential to let out a great big "Aaaah" after your first sip


3 cups self raising flour - ahem - a true bush man wouldn't have anything as fancy as self raising!
1tsp bicarbonate of soda
Pinch salt
50gms butter
2 cups of beer, any kind
  • Mix flour, baking soda and salt together
  • Rub in butter
  • Mix in beer until just combined, don't over mix or it will be tough
  • Put into a greased billy and cook over the camp fire until done
  • If you don't live in the outback you can bake in an oven at 180C or 350F for 25 - 30 minutes
  • Best served with great dollops of butter, billy tea, tall tales and a sing along around the camp fire
  • Can be used to mop up bush stew or smothered in golden syrup for desert
  • ENJOY and as they say in the outback "bonza, mate"

Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Wild life and a genuine Aussie Outback BBQ - Ghan Adventure continued

Along with several other Ghan passengers I had chosen to spend the afternoon at the Alice Springs Desert Park, a wildlife park nestled at the base of the MacDonnell Ranges. There we were met by a Park Ranger and shown into a cinema for a brief introduction to the plants and wildlife of the park.  Australia has a rich and wildly varied animal and plant life and I found the film interesting but the best thing of all happened right at the end when the giant screen dropped down to reveal massive panoramic windows and a stunning view up to the MacDonnell Ranges bathed in golden sunlight and towering above us.  I have never seen anything like that before, definitely a "wow" moment.  
The scene behind the screen - this photo
 doesn't do it justice

A captivating talk from this Park Ranger

                    I was lucky enough to join a tour led by an Aboriginal park ranger and was completely spell bound by his tales of how Aborigines find water and track animals. It was truly fascinating . The park is an authentic desert landscape and contains more than 200 desert animals, including kangaroos, emus and dingoes, and 400 plants.  There are also a number of walk through aviaries and a nocturnal house where I saw, for the first time, the cute, scurrying, desert bilby and mala. It was an absorbing place to while away the afternoon. Late in the day the Ghan passengers were special guests at a bird show.  This was remarkable with birds perfectly trained to fly in and out of the arena on cue, swooping so low over our heads that we could feel the wind from their wings. And high above, wild eagles circled the MacDonnell Ranges.

The bird show

A dingo

The Outback Barbecue with tree stump seats

                                                                                                                                                            That evening we were guests at a "genuine" Aussie barbecue held in an old quarry, 20 minutes from Alice Springs, now converted into a barbeque venue. It was like stepping onto the set of McLeod's Daughters with all the Australiana scattered around - a traditional outback windmill, stacks of fire wood, an old wagon and implements, blazing camp fires,and pretty staff in checked shirts and acubra hats. Nevertheless, it still maintained a natural, not overly commercialised feel.  It was a beautiful evening and we enjoyed drinks and nibbles bathed in the rays of the setting sun.

 Left: A perfect outback BBQ setting

Right: Riding a camel

Below: Barbeque time!

                                                                                             There were two camels available to ride so of course, you know me, I had to have a ride. Good fun! Dinner was served in a huge corrugated iron barn with a sand floor - man sized steaks, baked potatoes and salads followed by apple crumble and cream while we were entertained by a  balladeer singing outback songs and by a very humorous presentation on how to make damper, or bush bread. Then it was time to head back outside to sit around the camp fires and be serenaded with well known Australian songs, including, of course, Waltzing Matilda. 
Most people joined in and the feeling was one of great friendship and camaraderie. All in all this was a magical night.  There was only one disappointment - a cloud cover which hid the stars, said to be sensational way out in the desert, but everything else was fantastic, so I'm not complaining!