Chap 7 – The Centre

A day in the Centre, in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park:

‘My nose was cold, the rest of me snug, as I lay in my swag, watching stars fade, listening to dingoes howl, smelling the smoky campfire – it was 5 am.
An hour later, we reached the Kata Tjuta (Many Heads) sunrise viewing area, about 30 km west of Uluru. Even at this distance, the shadowy monolith was an inspiring sight, while to the north, Kata Tjuta remained dark and imposing. The lookout was well located. Depending on the time of year, the sun would appear to the left or to the right of Uluru, or directly behind it, a special moment as it crested the summit. But would it do that today?
About 80 other earlybirds were also enjoying the spectacle. The crowd was upbeat, anticipating something special on this grand outback stage. The lightening sky turned pink behind Uluru, reflecting off straggling black clouds, while the rounded domes of Kata Tjuta started to differentiate in the pink half-light, taking on purple shades reminiscent of an Albert Namatjira masterpiece.
The pinky-orange glow intensified to the left of Uluru, so there would be no summit dawn today. Pink surrendered to yellow as the sun broached the desert horizon. As the first weak rays of light touched Kata Tjuta, deep purple faded and the domes took on their daily garb – Many Heads became many reds.
We drove to Kata Tjuta, where we walked the Valley of the Winds, a 7.4 km track winding through steep-sided domes. Lindsay pointed out several acacias: the wine glass mulga, its leaves tough and narrow to reduce moisture loss; the witchetty bush, host of the famous grub; and dead finish (named for the fact that its spiky phyllodes killed many cattle in days past). Judging by the numerous grass nests, the spikes didn’t deter zebra finches. These pretty seed eaters don’t stray far from water, important knowledge for Aboriginal desert dwellers and early white explorers.
The track started well but then deteriorated, the loose stones hard to walk on. Our group, ranging in age from 16 to 73, took it in their stride, all being reasonably fit. We passed through Karu Lookout, and stopped beside a red gum-lined watercourse, at first glance mistaking bunches of mistletoe for eucalypt flowers.
Lindsay found a small sharp stick and drew the first of many ‘mud’ maps in the warm red soil as he explained how Many Heads was formed. Behind him, 30 zebra finches flew into a muddy puddle to bathe and drink.
We passed an emergency radio transmitter – easily visible with its white cross on a green background. The transmitter was erected in response to deaths caused by visitors becoming lost and succumbing to the furnace-like heat. A steady climb led to Karingana, looking over a sparsely vegetated plain with several of Kata Tjuta’s heads in the near distance.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta were once called Ayers Rock and the Olgas respectively, named for Europeans who never visited. They complement each other in many ways. Uluru is one rock, Kata Tjuta many; Uluru is sandstone, Kata Tjuta conglomerate; Uluru you go around or (preferably not) over, Kata Tjuta you go through; and for Indigenous people, Uluru is more a women’s site, Kata Tjuta a men’s site. I’ve always preferred Kata Tjuta due to its rugged nature and relative solitude. And now that visitors have been pushed away from the base of Uluru, my preference for Kata Tjuta is even stronger.
We returned to the bus, tired but happy. Next stop was Kings Creek; two notable things happened en route.
We stopped at the Mount Conner Lookout as we headed east along the highway. On the northern side, hidden from the road behind a sand dune, was the southeastern edge of the huge, blindingly white Lake Amadeus saltpan.
Another bus had arrived before us; I recognised someone.
‘G’day Pierre’ I said, ‘fancy meeting you here.’ I asked him about their Uluru tour.
‘It was great; you know, while you can read about places like Uluru and see the photos, nothing compares to actually being there. And we were happy to stay on the ground but the base walk was disappointing.’
‘Why was that’ I asked, keen to hear the park veteran’s views.
‘Well, if the Aboriginal owners don’t want people clambering over Uluru, they have to provide a good base walk alternative. Several fenced-off sites had no interpretation. It should be possible to provide general information that would not impinge on the sanctity of the sites.’
A valid point: when our group went to Kantju Gorge the previous day, Lindsay had explained the spiritual significance of the Warayuki women’s site nearby. It was fascinating, and enhanced the experience. Presumably it could be made available to all visitors, not just a select few.
Pierre’s bus left and soon we were also on our way, leaving the Lasseter Highway and turning north onto the Luritja Road.
After the 5 am start and the walk in the heat, we were in various stages of snoozing when Lindsay suddenly hit the anchors and quickly reversed. We were instantly awake, curious to know what he was up to.
He stopped, leapt out and picked up something. We quickly joined him and saw that he was gingerly holding a thorny devil – a small spiky lizard with large spurs around the head and neck, giving it a Jurassic Park-like appearance. It was beautifully camouflaged in various shades of brown and cream. Canadian Meghan bravely posed with it on her bare shoulder while the rest of us took snaps. Despite its ferocious appearance, the thorny devil is a passive little chap, and one that I saw at Desert Park was using its rapid-fire tongue to deftly catch ants crawling over its spiky body. The taxonomist who named it was clearly not a fan, giving it the unflattering scientific name of Moloch horridus.’

Hope you enjoyed your visit. The pic shows our group walking at Kata Tjuta

Happy travelling.



Chap 6: Backpacker heaven

6 – Backpacker heaven
Rockhampton – Cairns – Cooktown – Townsville

After a restful night in the Criterion Hotel, beside the Fitzroy River, I went for a wander, passing elegant sandstone buildings, appropriate for a city that is the regional hub for central Queensland.
Tennis great Rod Laver is a Rocky lad. A bronze bust of ‘The Rocket’, courtesy of the city council, sits in Riverside Park, bird droppings tinting his hair. The bust lists his major victories, including two grand slams, Laver being the only player to have achieved that remarkable feat. Eleven councillors felt the need to be included on the plaque, their names occupying nearly half the space.
Mount Archer National Park provides a green backdrop for the city. Public transport would get me halfway there, a bike all the way if I was prepared to ride on the highway. I wasn’t, so I joined Greg and Gail on another bus to coastal Yeppoon, passing Mount Jim Crow National Park, a steep black volcanic plug rising from the plains.
Greg and Gail departed at Yeppoon; I stayed put, heading south alongside Capricorn Coast National Park – a thin strip of land between road and water comprising windswept casuarinas, heath, tussocky grasslands and low rocky headlands.
The day’s surprise was Emu Park Historical Museum. As with most volunteer-run collections, it was packed with memorabilia, and staffed by enthusiastic helpers, pottering about, having fun. Bob gave me a copy of Emu Droppings, the museum’s newsletter. It had a 1915 photo of a steam train arriving at Emu Park station, long since abandoned. The museum had several railway exhibits, including a camp wagon, once housing for men working in remote areas, but now filled with ‘railwayana’.
I read a handout about King O’Malley. Aged 30 and sick with tuberculosis – the disease had already claimed his wife Rosy – O’Malley left America in 1888, hoping Australia’s warmer climate would cure him. He disembarked at nearby Port Alma and was taken to Emu Park, where an Aboriginal man named Coowonga found him sheltering in a cave, weak from his illness.
The story continued: Coowonga fed O’Malley on a diet of oysters, kangaroo meat, Burdekin plums and fish and eventually, over a period of two years, nursed him back to health. Once recovered, O’Malley walked over 2000 km to Adelaide, where his political career began. Although his parents owned a farm south of the American–Canadian border, he claimed to be Canadian by birth. This was important because, as a British subject, he was able to pursue a career in politics.
O’Malley represented Tasmania in the first Australian parliament, ‘fathered’ the establishment of the Commonwealth Bank, promoted the transcontinental railway and took the ‘u’ out of ‘Labour’ in the Australian Labor Party. He twice held the post of Minister for Home Affairs and he drove the first stake to begin the building of Canberra. A temperance advocate, he made himself unpopular by banning alcohol (which he called ‘stagger juice’) in the young capital. With O’Malley’s death in 1953, Australia lost the last of its federation politicians. The alcohol hater would turn in his grave if he knew that one of Canberra’s most popular pubs, King O’Malley’s, bears his name.

Hope you enjoyed the sample.

Till next time, happy travelling



Chapter 5: a sample

Western Queensland:  Ipswich – Charleville – Longreach – Rockhampton

‘The Westlander was departing Ipswich for Charleville at 8.14 pm – I love the precision of country train timetables. With several hours to kill, I stowed my bags and set off to explore the city.
I found an attractive brochure, Ipswich Heritage Trails, at the visitor centre. White settlement began in 1827 when convicts came to quarry limestone. With paddle steamers plying the Bremer and Brisbane Rivers to Moreton Bay and the state’s first railway opening up, Ipswich prospered, once aspiring to become the state capital. Although the dream soured, the city continued to grow; its heritage register boasts some 2000 places, making it a great place for history and architecture buffs. I passed the century-old Ulster Hotel, the Trustee House with its wrought-iron balcony and snub-nose verandahs, the historic post office, and Old Court House (1859).
My town map showed Denmark Hill Conservation Park and I was soon strolling through a pleasant patch of urban bushland, a mix of eucalypts and rainforest. Narrow steps led to the top of a water tower that provided panoramic views of the city and surrounding countryside. Information panels described points of interest, including D’Aguilar Range to the north. Urban reserves such as Denmark Hill are invaluable; being able to easily connect with nature is a great asset for a community.
With only two Westlander services a week, I couldn’t afford to miss the train so I returned early. I chatted with some of the staff, learning rail lingo. ‘Counters’ count passengers on trains, ‘ticketies’ are ticket inspectors, ‘muscle’ are rail cops, ‘SM’ is the station master, ‘gaters’ are ticket gate checkers and ‘shunters’ are freight organisers. I stored this away for future use. As 8.14 pm was approaching, Keith (gater) helped carry my luggage along the platform.
‘Been with the railways for nearly 40 years, had enough train travel. We get cheap fares of course, but on my holidays I want to get as far away from trains as possible’ he told me as the Westlander crawled into the station. As the buffet car passed with a sole male occupant, Keith winked and quipped, ‘I think he might be waiting for you.’
Only two other passengers were in the 54-seat carriage. Train manager Moe told me to sit anywhere, advising that the buffet closed at 9.30 pm. ‘My’ man was watching a video; I didn’t disturb him. I suggested to Trish, the buffet steward, that she was in for a quiet trip.
‘Not on the way back though. We have 50 pensioners boarding in Charleville, so are carrying extra sleepers.’
Back in the carriage, a young woman wearing a striped bandana and with a sleeping baby on her lap answered ‘Toowoomba’ to my question about her destination. The other passenger was reading Answer Only to God, so no soul mate there. The video watcher returned and fell asleep. The 16-hour, 700 km trip was shaping up to be a social disaster. Rather than a musical ‘clickety clack, clickety clack’ as the train cantered into the night, I heard a more meditative ‘click clack, click clack’ as it strolled along. Until lights went out at 10 pm, the view out of the window was just my reflection. After 10 pm, the handsome image disappeared.
We started the long, slow climb over the Great Dividing Range into Toowoomba, travelling at a snail’s pace around tight bends. With a town and district population around 130,000, Toowoomba is Australia’s second largest inland city, Canberra being the first. I decided to wait up for our 11.20 pm arrival.
At Toowoomba, we lost mum and babe, and gained an older couple and two other women. Now we were seven, and we turned out to be an eclectic bunch. The younger of the two women was signing to her parents on the platform, each exchange of signs followed by smiles and laughter. The other woman, unable to talk to her partner through the window, phoned him on her mobile – two ways of conversing with someone you can see but not hear.
The Westlander eased out of the now empty station. The idea of being tucked up in a tiny cabin by myself held no appeal so I didn’t book a sleeper. I preferred the sit-up economy seats, and to take my chances with the neighbours. I soon gave in to the soporific sounds of wheels on track, despite the snorting and snuffling of he who had heavenly aspirations.’

Happy travelling!

Vale Tom, Vale Nev

Two national park champions died recently: Thomas (“Tom”) Lewis on 25 April 2016, aged 94; Neville (“Nev”) Gare  on 7 May 2016, aged 86.

Both Nev and Tom will be remembered for their pivotal contributions to nature conservation in NSW. I knew both men in the early stages of my national park career, and I couldn’t let their passing go without some personal reminiscences.


I met Nev in early 1970 when I transferred to Kosciuszko National Park from Sydney’s Ku-ring-gai Chase. He had been the Kosciuszko superintendent since 1959 and had a formidable reputation. I learnt ‘why’ at his funeral, when family and friends gave heart-felt eulogies.

Nev graduated with a forestry degree in 1952 and over the next 6 years worked in several forestry districts throughout NSW. However, he soon became disenchanted with forestry logging policy and began advocating for the protection of high value habitats. This did not endear him to the forestry hierarchy.

Nev solved his problem by successfully applying for the first superintendent position of the then Kosciusko State Park. I heard he had confrontations with cattle graziers, Snowy Mountains Authority engineers, and resort developers as he established a park presence in the mountains. Although Nev was a short in stature, he wasn’t short on passion when it came to defending Kosciuszko. Around the park in the 1960’s, he was referred to as ‘God’, a mark of respect, not omnipotence!

In 1966, Nev undertook a study tour of America’s national parks. The US National Parks Service was already 50 years old, while Australia had yet to establish even one state-based park’s service. There was much to see, hear, and learn, and Nev returned with armfuls of documents, one of which was to cause me some grief.

I recall that my first meeting with Nev was friendly, though his short-back- and-sides crew cut was at odds with my fashionably lengthy Beatles style.  The response was swift – within a few days a memo (taken from a US Park Service manual!), had been circulated advising rangers of appropriate dress and appearance standards. God had spoken!

However, more importantly, was that Nev supported me carrying out research for a master’s degree during the 3 years I was based in Thredbo.

In 1971, Nev’s reign at Kosciuszko ended when he took up a posting in Papua New Guinea, helping to establish a park service as the country moved towards independence.

Nev remained a mountain man in retirement, with regular visits to the high country. He gave freely of his knowledge and wisdom to those who followed him in being stewards of this great national park.


In December, 1974, I was to transfer to Sturt National Park, near Tibooburra, in the north-west corner of the state. However, before I headed west, I was to become aware of the political consequences of my pending move.  I was summoned to Sydney to meet Tom Lewis, then Minister for Lands (and hence national parks). Sturt was the minister’s favourite park, in part due to his affection for the arid zone, but also due to a family connection with Charles Sturt’s 1844/45 expedition.  Tom Lewis’ forebear, William Lewis, was to sail the expedition’s boat should they encounter an inland sea.

Tom was the driving force behind the creation of the 310,000 ha arid zone area, and he wanted to meet the new ranger who would be managing ‘his’ park. He made it very clear that maintaining the Mount Wood homestead lawns and gardens was one of his (and hence my) top priorities!

We met several times during my time out west, as every 6 months or so, Tom (a pilot) would fly in with a planeload of mates – pollies, journos, photographers, etc. He was always on the lookout to promote his outback park.

Tom’s most memorable visit coincided with the annual Tibooburra Hospital ball, the event on the local social calendar. Country folk travelled hundreds of miles to attend the festive occasion – station hands, shearers, governesses, rangers, shopkeepers, etc. The CWA hall was bursting with colourful balloons and streamers, while the Boiled Lollies – who had travelled 550 km from Enngonia to perform – kept the hall rocking till the wee small hours.

Among Tom’s entourage was David McNicoll, editor-in-chief of the Bulletin magazine. We all put on our dancing shoes and joined the revellers; a wonderful time was had by all. Tom and his planeload of travellers then visited several other locations on their 8-day outback adventure.

Not long after, David published a piece in the Bulletin, titled ‘New deal for Australia’s wildlife’, describing the conservation benefits of protecting large tracts of arid country. Separate to the main story, he wrote about the hospital ball, under the heading ‘Last tango in Tibooburra’ – it was a wonderful account of a memorable night.

I revisited Sturt in 2004. The local ranger told me that Tom was still visiting ‘his’ park.

Nev and Tom

Nev and Tom knew each other. From what I heard, there was mutual respect, maybe friendship, of the public servant-politician kind.

Tom became Minister for Lands in 1965. Nev’s US study tour was in 1966. Tom visited Kosciuszko National Park, and was impressed with Nev’s management approach; he discussed the US National Parks Service with Nev after his study tour. These discussions helped shape the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which Tom established in 1967.

Nev wrote a book about his time as Kosciuszko superintendent; Tom wrote the introduction. Hopefully, one day, the book will be published.

Vale Tom, Vale Nev – two national park champions.

Queensland’s famous islands of sand

Continuing the chapter-by-chapter previews

Chapter 4 – Sandy Islands

Brisbane – Sunshine Coast – Ipswich

I stayed at the Palace Backpackers, formerly the Salvation Army People’s Palace. My room was spartan, comprising a single bed, chair, hook behind the door and an intimidating overhead fan of propeller proportions. It had a solitary confinement feel to it, but the heritage-listed building was magnificent, wrapping around the corner of Ann and Edward Streets, with great city views from its three levels of white wrought-iron balconies.                            Leaving my heritage cell, I walked along Edward Street to the Brisbane River, where a wide path led through the city’s original Botanic Gardens, a wide, restful strip comprising lawns, rainforest patches, formal gardens, ponds and century-old trees. I knew these popular gardens well, having once lived in Brisbane.
My destination was a mangrove forest near Captain Cook Bridge, where the plants had taken root after the 1974 flood left a massive silt load in the river. A solid boardwalk through the forest was built by unskilled labour and relied, according to a notice, on the suction of the mud and a floating foundation for support as it wound through skinny trunks of the lichen-encrusted trees. Two white ibis were hunting for worms and crustaceans among the rotting mangrove leaves.
Further upstream, I crossed the Goodwill Bridge – a concrete span with seats, viewing platforms and a midpoint kiosk – to South Bank. The joggers were mainly women, the bikers mainly men, including a sprinkling of older chaps with paunches bursting the seams of their colourful corsets. Couples, stroller pushers, a few dogs and one writer completed the scene.
South Bank is where Brisbane hosted the 1988 World Expo, a six-month World’s Fair that formed part of Australia’s bicentennial celebrations. The site was then transformed into a community park and it now boasts a palm-shrouded beach, patrolled swimming area, patches of rainforest, markets, restaurants and a few Expo remnants such as the Nepalese Peace Pagoda, A Creation of Peace, Love, Fertility and Harmony.
The newest attraction is the Brisbane Wheel, a Down-Under version of the London Eye. I was admiring it when a gaggle of gasping schoolboys in blue t-shirts streamed past, maybe 14-year-olds. Was it a cross-country race or a boarding school’s weekend detention? Some older boys were taking photos; I read Churchie on their shirts, the nickname of a local private school. They told me it was a fun run; I said that wasn’t obvious from the runners’ expressions. They then explained it was a charity run in aid of the Mater Hospital; that was more appropriate – at least the boys were suffering for a good cause.
A rivercat docked at South Bank jetty. On impulse I hopped aboard, standing up front, the wind in my hair – a great way to see the city. The sleek blue and white ferry slipped downstream, crisscrossing the river from jetty to jetty, before reaching the main city wharf.
We motored past the colonnaded Customs House – dwarfed by concrete and glass – then under the Story Bridge (with a party of bridge climbers) and out to Bretts Wharf terminus, with several stops on the way. The high-priced riverside real estate ranged from the interesting to the appalling. Some trees and shrubs softened the excesses, but they diminish expensive views, so are ‘pruned’. I stayed on board till we reached the upstream university terminus, then returned to South Bank. The two-hour public transport cruise had cost me $5.20 – now that’s value for money.
Roma Street Parkland has been built since I lived here. Erected on an old railway site, the 16 ha park is marketed as the world’s largest subtropical garden in a city centre. I wandered along Foxtail Avenue, the trees bejewelled with orangey red seed clusters. Once confined to remote Cape Melville National Park in Cape York – from where the ancestors of these foxtail palms would have been stolen – the species is now widely grown.
I crossed Fern Gully Bridge, with long views over lakes and pandanus clumps to the city; witnessed a brief, frantic struggle between a small dragon and an even smaller skink, the skink still wriggling as it disappeared down the dragon’s throat; and took a zigzag boardwalk across a waterlily pond, disturbing a mother and her six ducklings. The park’s barbeque and play areas, artworks and amphitheatre create a delightful space to escape the city.
The city’s natural greenery was soft and relaxing, but in Queen Street Mall it was greenery of another sort. Wearing shades from olive to emerald – soccer jerseys, hats, hair, ribbons – the Irish diaspora was out in force. It was St Patrick’s Day and the lilting accents would soon take on a different tone. The hostel receptionist, an English girl, told me ‘There’s none so patriotic as the overseas Irish’. That night a long, green-speckled queue spilled out from Mick O’Malley’s pub. The party extended to my hostel, where an Irish lad reminded everyone of his heritage by travelling up and down in the antiquated lift, blowing a loud horn – green of course!
Aided by a pill, I drifted off to sleep around midnight, to be woken a few hours later by a sad leprechaun outside my door, strumming a guitar and singing a maudlin lament. While he could hold a tune, his friends were more booze than brogue. Exhausted, I slept until the city’s rumbling street sweepers showed no mercy for those who had suffered at the hands, and voices, of the homesick Irish.

Happy travelling!

And here is Chapter 3 – or 1000 words of it!

3 – Rainforests and glitz

Sydney – Coffs Harbour – Gold Coast – Brisbane

The sleek XPT (eXpress Passenger Train), resplendent in blue, white and yellow livery, was waiting at Central Station. The day’s journey would start with a nostalgic ride through the 22 stations to Beecroft, the names learnt long before the periodic table. For many years I travelled this way to school, then university. Would today’s trip trigger forgotten memories?

First the trains, in those days rusty red and single deck, with green vinyl seats and manual doors – Sydney’s famous ‘red rattlers’, and boy, did they rattle! Hot in summer even with doors and windows open; cold in winter even with doors and windows shut; you couldn’t help but love them. Open doors meant potential disasters. Boys would dare each other to play ‘chicken’ with approaching trains, hanging out with just one hand on the railing, pulling themselves back at the last second.

The memories began here at Central: a summer stop for Sheffield Shield or tests at the Sydney Cricket Ground; in autumn, the Royal Easter Show; in winter, alighting for the rugby league match of the day.

In 1963, I took my girlfriend Peta to the rugby league grand final – it was her first game. St George (Saints) were contesting all three grades. They won third grade, victors over Canterbury, then pipped South Sydney in second grade. And then came the big one, St George versus Western Suburbs for the first-grade title. The crowd erupted as the teams ran onto the ground. Peta turned to me with a worried look and said ‘Those Saints players must be getting tired by now’.

Redfern reminded me of four years of study, alighting here for the 15-minute walk to university, past ancient terrace houses, wrought-iron fences and scraps of garden in Lawson and Abercrombie Streets. The XPT then raced through the inner suburbs – Newtown, Petersham, Summer Hill (where my brother Neil went to school), Croydon, Burwood (where my three sisters kept the family name on the school roll for many years) – before taking on passengers at Strathfield. I thought about a skinny blond kid in short pants and boater hat, getting off here to catch the bus to prep school. Then, coming home with friend Michael, spending a threepenny bit on a raspberry jam and cream tart at the station’s refreshment room – it almost made school worthwhile.

A strong, friendly voice startled me.

‘Mind if I join you?’ asked a fit-looking octogenarian.

‘Please do’ I said, clearing my stuff off the seat.

Col was a talker; I’m a listener. My nostalgic trip was only half over but my new friend was already in full flight. How could I quietly reminisce while absorbing Col’s interesting stories? I compromised, my eyes gazing out the window, my ears tuned to Col – not easy.

After Strathfield, sadness: Arnott’s biscuit factory, closed, a faded sign still proclaiming There is no substitute for quality. Back then, delectable morning aromas of biscuits baking would waft through the carriage, leaving passengers breathing deeply and smiling appreciatively.

North Strathfield, where I first went to school, blurred past, as did Concord West, my first home. And then Rhodes, a riverside suburb that was once an industrial area with chemical factories fouling land, air and water, the stench sickening. As we approached, doors and windows would close and we would take deep breaths, cover our noses with hands or shirtsleeves (ladies used hankies) and try not to breathe till we had left the station. The stink was gone but the malodorous memories lingered. We crossed Parramatta River, then sped through Meadowbank, West Ryde and Denistone, deserted as ever. Next, Eastwood, where my friend Chris lived and my dad had one of his shops. Epping followed, a station I knew well. I had changed schools, trading boater for slouch hat, and bussing from Epping to North Parramatta. The station had also changed, now a major terminus for the Chatswood line.

We approached leafy Cheltenham, crossing the motorway where Devlins Creek had once trickled through rocky bushland – a favourite haunt for small boys catching tadpoles and yabbies. Next the tennis club, the social hub for me and my siblings. My old home was midway between Cheltenham and Beecroft, where I lived after Concord West. The house, ‘Linden’, could be seen from the train and we would wave to mum as we rattled off to school.

‘I used to live up here, Col’ I said, ready to point out one of my fondest memories. It was not to be. The dense bamboo, where neighbour Moya and I built our cubby house, had spread and was now obscuring the house.

As we slipped past the village green – the local park with its ageless gums and much-loved play equipment – my mind slipped back to 1954. Australia was in a tizz over the visit of the newly crowned Queen Elizabeth and her husband Prince Philip. Beecroft Primary School was next to the park. The Queen was to pass on the royal train; we were to line up and wave joyously. Mrs Paton told us to wear our best uniforms, as befitted ‘meeting’ Her Maj. I wore my Persil-white shirt, pressed grey shorts and shining black shoes, my hair slicked back in a cyclone-proof layer of Brylcreem – I knew a little dab’ll do ya, but I really laid it on for our Queen.

After play-lunch, we crossed to the park for the grand occasion, skipping and laughing and waving our little Australian flags. We lined up at the railway fence; with every passing train, the excitement mounted – we did a lot of practice waving! As a veteran trainspotter, I wondered what sort of train the Queen would be travelling in – steam or diesel? I heard the familiar sound of a diesel labouring up the Beecroft incline, and there it was, the royal train – no old-fashioned steam engine for Elizabeth, no soot in the eye for the Queen of Australia – two diesels, painted royal blue with yellow stripes, proudly pulling its majestic cargo. ‘Wow, blue diesels!’ I cried. My eyes remained riveted on the colourful engines till they slid around the bend to Beecroft station.

It was then I caught sight of a hand, a white-gloved hand, a royal hand, waving to its happy little subjects gathered in the green. As we returned to school, the chatter was ‘Did you see the Duke?’ or ‘Wasn’t she pretty?’, whereas for me it was all about blue diesels, not blue bloods.

Happy travelling

A sneak preview of (nearly) every chapter.

For the next 20 weeks, I have decided to post the opening 500 words or so of each chapter – except Chapter 1. I’m excluding the first chapter as, although it is quite short, it contains a surprising tale of the trip’s beginning. If you want to read it without buying the book, you can either borrow it from a library, or read it in a book store.

So, here we go, Chapter 2. And don’t forget to view the Trip Companion on my website for some great photos.

******************************************************************************2 – City of national parks

Sydney and surrounds

Sydney is my home town. I know it well, so why not just continue north? To do so would have done Australia’s oldest city – famous for its superb harbour and sandy beaches, the Opera House and Harbour Bridge, and its national parks – an injustice.
The day started with my favourite Sydney activity. I caught the train to Milsons Point, climbed to Cahill Walk, and set off across the bridge, a great way to see the harbour’s sparkling waters and pretty foreshores. It is nonstop activity, a crisscross pattern of bow waves and stern wash as boats go about their business: ferries and rivercats, water taxis, pilot boats, cruise launches, charter boats and private craft.
The bridge is always moving, rumbling with traffic and trains, and expanding and contracting with changing temperatures. I stopped halfway, 60 m above the water, feeling the vibrations of the massive steel structure.
Scores of Sydneysiders had exchanged work shoes for runners and were power walking or jogging to the office. On the western side of the bridge, others were cycling to the city, sensibly separated from pedestrians. While many people cross on foot or by bike, thousands more sit in cars and drive.
I reached the southeast bridge pylon and climbed 200 steps to the lookout and visitor centre. An excellent display discussed the bridge’s history – the decades of argument preceding its building, through to its opening on 19 March 1932. A 10-minute film included helicopter footage of the harbour and bridge, photos taken during construction, and the millennium fireworks extravaganza – without commentary, just background music: it was superb. I watched it twice.
From the pylon lookout I enjoyed panoramic views of the city – the Opera House gleaming against the many greens of the Botanic Gardens, skyscrapers dwarfing Circular Quay, and the bridge arch to the north. In recent times, climbing the bridge has become the thing to do – three groups were going up, one coming down – but the pylon has a display, audio and views – and it’s cheaper.
I left Cahill Walk and detoured through the historic Rocks precinct. It dates back to the beginning of white settlement following the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788. Transported convicts were housed here; now it’s where old and new Sydney meet: narrow laneways and worn sandstone stairways slip between double-storey brick terraces against a backdrop of steel and glass high-rise.
In the early 1900s, the government, fearing an outbreak of bubonic plague, levelled the site. Part of it became a bus yard, then a car park, protecting over a century of history under a concrete slab.
The concrete is now gone, replaced by the Sydney Harbour youth hostel. Before building began, 20 archaeologists, working with 400 volunteers, unearthed foundations and earthenware pipes. The ‘Big Dig’, as it became known, found around 750,000 artefacts, some dating back to 1790. The hostel has been built above the excavations, protecting an important part of Sydney’s colonial history.
Nurses Walk, a series of stairways commemorating Sydney’s first hospital, led to Cadman’s Cottage. It was built in 1816 for the government coxswain John Cadman, who managed the activities and crews of the colony’s boats. The cottage – one of Sydney’s oldest buildings and now a historic site – is now the Sydney Harbour National Park information centre. I picked up some brochures and walked to Circular Quay, Sydney’s transport hub.


Happy travelling.


Grey nomads and young backpackers – ships in the night (and day!)

As I travelled, I soon discovered that there are two great streams of people continually moving around the ‘wide brown land’ of Australia: grey nomads and young backpackers.

Grey nomads (GNs).

Nomads are primarily Australian, and usually retirees. They stay in van parks and pull their caravan with a 4WD or powerful sedan. It’s usually a long trip, ranging from 3 months to a year; Australia is a big country. It’s hard to take that amount of leave when you are still working, so most people plan to do the trip soon after clocking off for the last time.

It’s not long before a novice nomad hears some unfamiliar expressions, ‘on the wallaby’ being one of the more interesting.

‘On the wallaby’ derives from the 1840’s, when swagmen (aka sundowners) would fan out across the country, looking for handouts. When times were tough, itinerant workers would also be ‘on the wallaby’, looking for work.

The phrase is an abbreviation of the original expression ‘on the wallaby track’, a reference to the fact that swagmen (swaggies) would often follow tracks made by small wallabies through thick bush.Wombats may have helped to make, or at least maintain, some of these tracks, though ‘on the wombat’ doesn’t have quite the same appeal!

Swaggies humping their swags (aka blueys) were a familiar sight in the Australian landscape till well into the 20th century, so ‘on the wallaby’ maintained its currency also. However, in the 1890’s, some of Australia’s most creative names helped promote the legend.

In 1891, Henry Lawson penned his poem, ‘Freedom on the Wallaby’, as a sharp comment on the national shearer’s strike of the same year. The poem caused quite a ruckus, culminating in calls in the Queensland Legislative Council for Lawson to be arrested for sedition.

In 1895, bush poet Banjo Patterson wrote ‘Waltzing Matilda’, which was to become Australia’s unofficial national anthem. While not mentioning ‘on the wallaby’, the song is about a down-on-his-luck swagman, who, quite clearly, was on the wallaby track.

The following year, artist Frederick McCubbin painted his best-known work, ‘On the wallaby track’, which depicts a forest trail, a woman sitting with a child on her lap (McCubbin’s wife Annie and son John), and a man boiling a billy (Annie’s brother).

Nearly fifty years later, in 1942, author and naturalist, Charles Barratt, wrote a book titled ‘On the Wallaby’. Barratt broadens the meaning of ‘on the wallaby’ to involve any travel, including overseas. One of the chapters has the intriguing title of ‘Palestine Walkabout’.

These days, ‘on the wallaby’ generally means travelling around (or across, through, over, etc) Australia, which brings me to the next word in the GN’s vocabulary: laps.

When you have completed a circuit of Oz, around 20-25,000 km, you are said to have done a ‘lap’. This, naturally, gives rise to an unofficial pecking order in GN land; the more laps you have notched up, the greater your bragging rights – as you have been to more places than those with fewer laps, so you know all the best places to camp, fish, boat, drink, etc – the list is endless.

On my trip, I met a couple who were on their 7th – and last lap – before they retired to their ‘best place’: Tasmania.

Number 3 on the word list is the acronym SKI. Nomads love to tell everyone that they are ‘Spending the Kids Inheritance’. Now, the ‘kids’ don’t mind the oldies doing one lap, or 2 at a stretch. However, when the folks (Future Lump Sums and Current Baby Sitters) gear up for lap number 3, the kids start getting a bit twitchy – laps are not cheap!

Last, but certainly not least, is the word ‘Macca’. For those who don’t know him, Macca is Ian McNamara, long-time host of the ABC’s ‘Australia All Over’ radio program. Between 6 and 10, each Sunday morning, up to 2 million Aussies tune in to hear the laconic Macca chat to travellers ‘on the wallaby’, in Australia and sometimes overseas, the bulk of who are GNs. ‘Australia All Over’ is to GN’s, what ‘Blue Hills’ was to the outback – you don’t miss it!

So there it is, GN-speak. If you are really clever, you can incorporate all of these GN words into the one sentence.

For example:

A bloke comes up to you and says ‘How ya goin’?’

You reply:

‘ I’m on my 5th lap skiing the wallaby, and I’m about to have a cuppa with Macca’. (NB: This reply is suitable only for Sunday mornings. For the rest of the week, you’ll have to have your brew with the missus!)

Backpackers (BPs)

BPs could not be more different from the nomads. Most are from overseas, and in their late teens to early 20’s. BPs from the UK and western Europe are usually on a ‘gap’ year – the year between leaving school and starting university. It’s a ‘rite of passage’ for young Europeans, a chance to travel, see the world, have fun, grow up – and think about whether they really want to study the uni course they have been offered! Unfortunately, the concept of a gap year does not exist in the United States. Very few Americans backpack.

BPs travel primarily by Greyhound bus, but also use trains and other bus companies, though some buy or hire a car and travel independently. Most stay in either Youth Hostels or BP hostels, and do their own cooking. They are usually on a tight budget.

However, it doesn’t matter how they travel, or where they stay, they are also ‘on the wallaby’.

Cairns is BP heaven; the city buzzes with young visitors 24/7. Over 600 tours are offered daily heading in every direction, doing every thing.

Not only do GNs and BPs travel differently, and stay in different lodgings, they also do different things. BPs are into adventure; GNs into comfort. For example, in Cairns there are 2 popular offshore cruises – one goes to Green Island, a coral cay; the other goes to Fitzroy Island, a continental island formed by rising seas. Fitzroy is a ‘fun’ island, that’s where the backpackers go; Green is a pretty island, that’s where the nomads go.

Every day, thousands of GNs and BPs are ‘on the wallaby’ around Australia, but because of the way they travel, where they stay, and what they do, they rarely meet – ships in the night (and day!). Funny isn’t it?


Happy travelling


Skippy Post hops to the rescue

Have you ever wanted to post a book interstate or overseas with Australia Post? If so, you would know that the high cost is a disincentive to sending books to family or friends in far-flung places. I have friends in Europe who want to buy my book, but Australia Post charges more than the price of the book to mail it there – and it’s not much cheaper to North America.

Overseas postal rates:

I’d been mulling over how to solve this problem for a while, so was very pleased when Helen introduced me to Skippy Post at the recent Lifeline Bookfair.. SP takes a few extra days to reach its destination but as the following table shows, it’s much cheaper.

Parcel rates from Canberra (800 g, the weight of my book) in A$.

Australia Post (AP); Skippy Post (SP); My Charge (BG)

Canada 29.70 15.67 15.00
France 39.10 16.27 15.00
Germany 39.10 15.50 15.00
Hong Kong 25.30 20.42 15.00
Japan 25.30 16.88 15.00
Korea 26.50 21.36 15.00
New Zealand 21.15 9.55 10.00
South Africa 43.40 30.81 20.00
UK 39.10 21.07 15.00
USA 29.70 16.04 15.00


I will be charging the costs shown in the right-hand column, subsidising the SP rates to varying degrees to make the purchase more affordable for overseas buyers. I also have several more European countries listed in the system than are shown in the table. Any country not listed is charged a ‘Rest of the World’ price, which is the same as that shown for South Africa.

With the exception of New Zealand, local online book sellers don’t distribute overseas, which makes me the only international distributor for my book that I know of: I don’t know whether that’s good, bad or ugly, but at least it will be a signed copy.

Domestic postal rates:

Domestic rates with Australia Post are also expensive. Again, for an 800g parcel from Canberra, the rates are as shown below.

Domestic A$
Canberra 10.05
Sydney 13.90
Melbourne 14.35
Hobart 16.40
Adelaide 14.80
Perth 17.70
Broome 18.80
Darwin 18.45
Cairns 16.40
Brisbane 14.65

I have decided to subsidise these high prices, and charge $10 post Australia-wide for domestic purchases through my website. The moral of the story is that the cheapest way to get my book is to try your local book shop.

Online book sellers seem to do lots of deals with prices and postage so you might find a better price there than I can offer.

Whichever way you buy it, happy reading, and happy travelling!

PS This post’s pic shows the gorges’ boat cruise in Nitmiluk National Park, near Katherine, in the Northern Territory.



Canberra Lifeline’s Spring Bookfair – a Gold Medal event!

Canberra LIfeline’s bookfairs just keep on getting bigger and better. Since 1973, some 68 Bookfairs over 42 years, have raised more than $9,000,000 for Lifeline, the funds providing much-needed crisis support services for both local and regional communities.

In the 8 years that I have volunteered for Lifeline, nearly every bookfair has sold more books, and raised more money, than the preceding one. And so it was this time, as a new record of $553,000 was set, and an estimated 125,000 books were sold. Many of these books will be read and then donated back to Lifeline, to be sold again, and again, and …

With all these inexpensive, second-hand books on offer, there wasn’t much interest in the new book ‘area’, which comprised myself and a young woman (Helen) selling her fantasy novel. If you had to choose between buying one mid-range new book from a novice  author, or 10 good pre-loved reads from some of the best scribes around, you’d do the latter and that’s what people did. Helen and I only sold a few books, though one good outcome was doing radio interviews with Mark MacCreadie, a 2CA presenter who gave us a good hearing.

It’s not all bad news as the niche marketing is starting to gain traction. The National Parks Association of Qld ran a ‘Must Read’ article in their recent newsletter, and is publishing Ian Fraser’s review in their quarterly magazine, Protected, next month, both important promos for their readership of around 3,000.

Now that ‘Safari’ is published – hooray! – I have time to  enjoy my own reading. I rarely read fiction, and most of the non-fiction I read is related to my two main interests: the environment and travel. And there’s plenty around just now; both Paul Theroux and Bill Bryson – my  favourite authors – have new books out, but I chose to read another favourite, David Attenborough’s Life on Air (the revised 2010 edition).

And what a great read it is. In 1952, Attenborough joins Auntie (the BBC) in Chapter 1 and we spend the next 28 chapters seeing the world through his eyes and his eloquent writing. It is absorbing, adventurous and funny, but set against a background, especially in the latter chapters, that the world’s wildlife is  imperilled – and who would know better than him.

I am now, finally, reading Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, which along with Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, is regarded as being one of the best-ever nature books. These 2 books, together with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, are widely considered to be the three most influential nature books ever written.

But you can’t read Leopold quickly; every word is purposefully chosen, every carefully crafted sentence is intense, and in need of contemplation and reflection – and sometimes re-reading – before moving on to the next. He gives so much detail and personal insight that my  brain wearies and I feel ‘flooded’.

However, my main feeling is one of admiration for Leopold’s clever wordsmithing; I’m looking forward to tonight’s read.

Happy travelling – and reading!

PS The pic shows some nice reflections in Barramundie Creek, in Kakadu National Park.