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Sailmithril - ocean cruising adventures

Inland Australia


Biddy gives up boating.

Land Cruising in Australia
Biddy camping in the bush

G'day mates,
Mithril goes "on the wallaby". After 4 weeks in Tasmania we took the ferry to the mainland and started our travels on the big island. We bought just about the cheapest van in the ads newspaper - 200 sterling. We thought it might have needed a new engine but after a lot of tinkering Peter has it going very well. Now it only lacks a new exhaust system. It is a 1984 Ford which seems old but is quite normal here; the engine is a lot newer. The body work is in excellent condition and we are well pleased with our purchase. We fitted out the inside with a bed, cooker, pumped water and space for a fridge which we will buy on the mainland as everything is dearer in Tassie due to extortionate freight charges. We also have made a large awning for the outside from PVC and net curtain on the sides acting as mosquito netting. We went on a shake down cruise last week for 4 days and spent a good part of that time unpacking and re-stowing as we had taken far too much stuff initially. We reckon that now we have reached minimum equipment levels. As you might expect we haven't been able to fit in the dinghy, hi-fi or computer all of which we originally intended taking! We have rented secure storage in Hobart and have removed just about everything of any value from the boat right down to anchors, winches and warps. The marina charges are very reasonable the only snag being that we are aground on every low tide in our berth. When we made our booking, 5 months ago, it was intended that these outer berths would be dredged to 10 feet by now but they have had problems with the contractors and a very hard seabed. The marina owner has now taken over the job himself so hopefully it will be successfully completed before long. At least it means that we can't sink no matter what happens. As we are here for a long time we have taken advantage of the marina's second hand boat bits shop and have offered for sale a lot of stuff that we bought for the boat and never had the need to use like a tri-sail and spare nav. lights. If we sell everything we might just cover half the marina fees which would be a very nice surprise.
We're very much looking forward to our voyage. In the last nine years we have been away from the boat for only 6 weeks so it will be a big change to see grass and trees every day. 
Six months later
Here we are 27,000 kms (17,000 miles) and 200 into our voyage with 2/3 of Australia under our wheels. We're having a superb time with only occasional hankering for the Big Blue. We're doing a lot more miles than originally anticipated and petrol prices have increased by 25% since we did our costings. Red Biddy, our sedate conveyance, is sticking the pace well for such an elderly and inexpensive lady - 1984 and 200 pounds. She doesn't like the outback gravel roads - everything rattles and vibrates and red dust works its way in everywhere. Other main roads in Aussie are excellent and often empty from horizon to horizon. At 60 kms per hour we're the slowest coach on the road and have yet to overtake anything; but after years at 4 knots it's positively seasick inducing at first. Apart from seeing all the roadside flora and fauna it's also a good speed for working out how long a journey will take - 1km=1 minute. To say that the distances are huge here is a cliche but they are. It's only 22,000 miles right round the world. At Alice Springs in the very centre of the continent we had the strange sensation of being futher from the sea than ever before and also futher than it's possible to get in all Europe. Despite the vast emptiness it's hard to get lost as generally there's just one road. Only in more populous regions do you have to pore over the charts working out a route. In remoter parts you can be on the same page in the map book for days looking at nothing but highway and tall brown grass or red desert sand and thorn bushes. On one occasion we counted a total of only 47 vehicles in 8 hours driving all of whom wave or toot as they pass and if you stop for a break by the roadside chances are someone will stop just to check you're ok. To describe the vastness is impossible; just as it surprises Aussies to find that Ireland is the same area as Tasmania which is considered a miniscule island. We best appreciated distance and emptiness early in the trip looking across at the Grampian mountains in Victoria from 100 kms away and seeing the complete range rise from a misty plain as if on a 3D map.

Much of Australia is unproductive desert but not the Beau Geste sand dunes sort of desert. In places it's dense low scrub covering salty sand flats and in the centre of the country the land is a vibrant everchanging red of rippled sandy earth dotted with the green and gold of flowering thorn trees - the famous wattle that gives Aussie sports teams their colours. Dominating this gently undulating landscape is the eerie monolith of Uluru/Ayers Rock; referred to as Stroke Rock between ourselves. It's quite a sight - a bare wind smoothed dome with the erosion of eons carving fantastic features on its flanks. In the evening we joined 100s of others in a curious silence watching the sun set change the rock from fiery red to deep purple and then for an unexpected finale a full moon ascended majestically to cast a pearly light over all - a splendid experience.

At the other extreme of landscape is the wet Tropics area of far north Queensland where the very last remnants of rainforest are carefully protected. Here we squelched our way along muddy jungle tracks to see ancient species of palm and cycad or gigantic strangler fig trees which begin life as an innocuous looking vine but gradually engulf and feed off their host tree until it disappears like a victim in a fairy tale encased in the now solid fabric of the fig. There are dozens of waterfalls here including the widest and also the biggest single drop falls in Australia. You have to be suspicious of so much water about and indeed we got rained on nearly every day which is miserable for us as we live mostly outside with only room for the bed inside the van. We suffered the weather long enough to witness the Olympic torch relay pass through the small country town of Atherton way back in June. The torch had a massive 100 day odyssey round Australia before it arrived in Sydney and into Cathy Freeman's hands. Selected locals get to run through their town carrying the torch and then light the 'community cauldron' while we watched some local choirs, Greek dancing, a lot of civic speeches and adverts for the corporate sponsor with very few Olmypic symbols in evidence.

The Great Barrier Reef was out of our financial reach and anyway we'd vowed to remain faithful to Mithril. We settled instead for the less well known Ningaloo reef in WA and were well pleased with our choice. Within wading distance is one of the largest fringing coral reef systems in the world. The water wasn't as clear as Cuba nor the coral as healthy but the variety of reef fish was tremendous and being a wealthy country people don't eat these leaving the snorkeller with a stunning experience. We came across a snoozing turtle which stemmed the current by jamming a flipper under the coral. Peter dived down and tugged on its shell for a photo opportunity; you could almost see it rub its eyes. At Monkey Mia, further south, wild dolphins come into paddling depths every morning to be fed fish by the admiring public.
But it's the Australian land animals and birds that are more interesting. There's an enormous variety of marsupial species from the huge 2 metre high Grey kangaroo to the tiny but spectacularly acrobatic hopping mouse; one of which hopped into the van one night. We caught it in the torch beam biting its way into a bag of corn chips and instead of freezing it jumped the width of the van to land on the torch itself and then out the open door. Emu are a commmon and comical sight in the bush and at this time of year they are guiding ungainly striped chicks. Unusually it's the male that does all the nurturing and child rearing. The koala is an endearing creature of slothful habits. It perches high in a gum tree sleeping and eating leaves and when it spots a human peering up it closes its eyes and turns its back; then of course it's invisible. Our favourite though is the kangaroo. Once we startled one from an afternoon snooze in a small cave. It bounded off and left us to discover Aboriginal rock carvings high on the ceiling of the shelter. We were delighted with ourselves, they seemed so much more interesting without the descriptive plaque and security screens.
The most famous Aboriginal art is found in Kakadu world heritage area where 1000s of years of allegorical storytelling and tales of hunting successes are painted in many layers on rock walls. Much of the park is jointly managed by the traditional owners and national park staff giving the public a chance to learn a little of Aboriginal law from indigenous rangers. The law is an enormous body of oral land lore and tribal taboos. Sadly a lot is being lost as it can only be passed verbally to the appropriately initiated men whose numbers have dwindled to basically unsustainable levels. To break the law by improper revelations will bring great destruction to everyone and as the law is closely allied to survival of the land itself its power is still strong and the old men would rather die without successor than pass the information to the wrong person and hence the whole country loses an ancient culture. The white man is directly and totally to blame for this as they converted, colonised and cultivated Australia as they did every other land they ever discovered with no notion that the indigenous culture could be worth saving. In these more politically correct days there's an effort to make the riches of the country more equally divided but it's a slow business and opinion is divided as to whether there should be a formal apology by the government for past sins. The aboriginal population is quite small and many have retreated to their ancestral lands to try and live a traditional life while the ones left in the cities have often succumbed to alcoholism and street poverty.
The walkabout syndrome of wandering the country seems to have worked its way into the white population and we have met dozens of Aussies of all ages touring the country normally in caravans towed by huge 4 wheel drive machines. You sometimes wonder who works and keeps the country ticking over there are so many on the roads. Bush camping is very popular and much of the land is unfenced and crisscrossed with old stock tracks. In the late afternoon we look for a likely looking track which is often overgrown but will generally lead to a clearing in the bush where others have camped in the past. There's unlikely to be another person for miles around and we sit by our campfire with a glass of wine listening to the BBC world service. People often marvel at the darkness of the desert sky and how close the stars appear but being used to that at sea we prefer to watch the moonlight on the landscape. We saw a total eclipse where the moon turned an eerie pink; the effect compounded by the fluttering wings of a resident colony of large fruit bats. This type of camping is of course free and we have been able to find a place every night  only paying camping fees in national parks. Nearer cities and towns we usually have to stop in the carparks of picnic areas or small local recreation parks, but always well away from urbanisation. Occasionally we have used town carparks especially near marinas where you can use the showers and it's not unusual for cars to be left overnight. In Darwin we parked very inconspicuously in the far corner of the carpark and went to bed. Later the garden sprinklers came on and we felt like we were in a tropical shower every 30 seconds for an hour as spray pelted the van. In both Perth and Adelaide we have relatives which gave us a chance to see those cities without hassle.
Between those two cities lies the vast Nullarbor plain and the southern desert. This was a real highlight of our year. The vastness and flatness of the land is amazing and as you drive along what was once a beach you are within spitting distance of the southern ocean and the justly famous Nullarbor cliffs which stretch along into the haze; a sheer jagged line of limestone as if some giant took a bite out of the sponge cake of the continent - a great Australian bight in fact. After 4 days of nothing we reached Eucla, 70 years ago a busy telegraph station and now the sand is blown in fabulous dunes up to the first floor and everyone has a mobile phone. About a week later the desert had long given way to the verdancy of the Murray river which had had proper winter rains for the first time in 4 years - all very well for farmers and ducks but for us it meant that the best camp grounds on the river bank were under water and the whole area was itchingly alive with mosquitoes. There were spoonbills and ibis where once pigeons and parrots roamed and the wonderful red gums were islands in the flood. We travelled away from the river into the rice growing region of New South Wales and through the wine regions of Wagga Wagga; a name Peter took great delight in repeating often on the videos in the pseudo aussie accent of the Monty Python sketch - chateau Wagga Wagga, with a bouquet like an Aborigine's armpit.
The Snowy Mountains are Australia's tallest and are also a very important cultural icon - a very much overworked word here - watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics you'll have heard the man from Snowy river music and seen the horses and riders which are a cherished image of aussies. We set off to climb kossiozco, the tallest peak at 2,200m, on 01 December officially the first day of summer and we had fog, hail and snow with temperatures of 1C. We wandered round the base carpark wrapped in blankets and the hammock like refugees from the battle of the Little Bighorn waiting for the weather to clear so that we could at least get a photo of the snow fields. Meanwhile local radio gave the weather forecast as fine and mild 22C but the next item would often be a newsflash about cars, caught in hail, sliding off the road only 6kms away from us. Another cherished icon is the legend of the bushranger Ned Kelly who murdered 2 policemen in his career of holding up banks and postoffices throughout the state in the 1860s before being shot and captured in a siege in the town of Glenrowan in northern Victoria. What made Ned different to the dozens of other highway men was his ingenious forging of iron ploughboards into armour - I think this picture also featured in the Olympic opening. In the village there is the big Ned photo opportunity; a huge fibre glass man with a dustbin on his head and a metal apron. Somehow he is a very suitable folk hero for Australia. Not so much of an icon but worth visiting all the same is the bark (as spelt on the crews' straw boaters) Endeavour a replica of Cook's ship which has all the seagoing elegance of a bucket and is so bluff in the bow it's hard to tell which end is which.
As a  birthday outing in December I tried archery with more enthusiasm than accuracy and by Christmas we found ourselves back once again in gold nugget country north of Melbourne. Just 3 weeks after the snow we were now in summer weather where a strong and fierce hot north wind blows over the country as a prelude to a cold front. With a day of total fire ban you aren't allowed any fires in the open not even a gas cooker for fear of bush fires. On one such day we camped beside a dam in a national park and baked in 45C and hot winds while kangaroos and wallabies overcame their shyness to spend the afternoon near us wallowing in the brackish water and overhead more than 25 different species of birds twittered in the gums swooping down every few minutes to drink and splash. Christmas too almost brought an end to poor oul Biddy. She was found to be firing on only 2.5 cylinders and the cause seemed to be deep within. None of the nearby scrap yards had a suitable replacement engine so we decided to return to Tassie early and see what could be done to fix her up. We secured a standby space on the fast catamaran that goes across Bass Strait in summer and we limped slowly back to Kettering just before new year. The cause of the ailment was found to be broken piston rings which were easily fixed and not the demise that we had envisaged. After a week we were back on the road.
Back aboard at last
Tasmania is about the size of Ireland and very different to the rest of Australia being very mountainous and weather beaten in the path of the westerlies. It is also best appreciated by people unused to hills and greenery and after being almost a year away from it we could see why mainland Australians love to come here in summer for the cooler damper weather. They enjoy the winding roads for a day or two also but thereafter tire of the slow pace of travel which was ideally suited to our temperament. We visited the west coast and all the harbours we missed in the boat as well as the mountains of the inland where we walked among glacial lakes, alpine flowers and snow gums. Apart from deserts Tassie has a little bit of all aussie scenery to offer. But after little more than a week of this walking in huge ancient pine forests and climbing bare rocky mountains for views over more hills and trees we found ourselves anxious for the smell of bilge water and the splat of a seagull's calling card from the top of the mizzen mast. Having just climbed to the lookout over wineglass bay, the most photographed sea view in the whole of Australia, and feeling only envy for the yachts anchored below we decided to call it a day, roll up the awning and drive back to the boat.
Now we're in the throes of rewiring, painting and replacing fittings while the wind cackles merrily in the empty headsail foil. The boat was in surprisingly good condition for having been closed up for 10 months. Everything was dry and clean; no infestation of mould or creatures. We were aboard Biddy for 310 days and travelled more than 42,000 kms which is about 27,000 miles - it's only 22,000 to sail right around the world. Biddy has now been decommissioned and will be sold in a week or so when we have recovered all our gear from the store in Hobart.

copyright Geraldine Foley.