Welcome!

Apart from this blog, I write The Bobby Dazzler Newsletter (BDN) which is mostly about the Australian Outback, but sometimes wanders off the Outback track a bit. It comes out by email every two months, and produces some interesting responses, so I decided to start this blog where these responses could be discussed, plus other odds and ends which don’t fit into the newsletter. There are now more than 200 articles (“posts”) below, most of which have not appeared in the Newsletter.

Please feel free to add a comment to any of the posts, and also to suggest new topics which may be of interest (by adding a comment to this post). By the way, you don’t have to use your real name.

To subscribe to the Newsletter, and for more details about how to use this blog, click on “About this Blog” above.

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Introducing the Mound People

There’s no denying that Outback Australia provides travellers with many long stretches of road or track devoid of anything much to make conversation about. It’s also a well-known fact that having something to do or to chat about during the two-hour drive to the next point of interest makes the time pass much more rapidly. It’s therefore not surprising that Aussie travellers have come up with a variety of ways to inject a spot of entertainment into the journey.

One is cairn building. There must be many hundreds of cairns – piles of stones – in conspicuous places around the Outback. Often on the top of a steep hill, they can sometimes provide a challenging 4WD climb to reach the site of the cairn. “Hey, looks like people have driven up to the top of that hill. Let’s give it a go!” Next thing, you’re in low range, and grinding upwards to the spot where you’ll lob a few more rocks onto the top of the cairn, take a selfie or two, and then start wondering whether the brakes will work on the way down.

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The motivation for cairn building may have something to do with the yearning for immortality – when you return to that spot in ten years’ time, “your cairn” will probably still be there, albeit a bit taller than it was. Maybe in 100 years …… ?

Another popular activity on the Oodnadatta track is “sleeper art” – spelling out names or words using the sleepers from the old abandoned railway line. I’m sure “LEVI” is secretly chuffed by the thought that several hundred people have by now seen his name right out there in the desert, and there’ll no doubt be many more in the years to come. But he’s unaware that some bright spark has already come along and changed it to “EVIL”.

Then there are “public collections” – items hung in a place that will be seen by many people, some of whom will be moved to stop and add to the collection. The venue is usually a tree, and the items thus displayed may be hats or footwear or t-shirts – even underwear.

But on our recent trip to the Kimberley and the “Top End” (roughly speaking, the top one-third of the Northern Territory, north from about Daly Waters), I realised there’s another important genre which I hadn’t previously seen: the “mound people”. These are termite mounds to which have been added various items to make them look like people.

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There are of course hundreds of thousands of termite mounds just waiting to be turned into mound people, although we’re not sure whether the termites are happy about this trend.

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Don’t Mess With Skippy

As most non-Aussies know, Australia is full of all kinds of animals which are ready to jump out on you at a moment’s notice and kill you. For example, dingos, crocodiles, snakes, sharks, spiders, etc. They wonder how it is that most Aussies actually survive as long as they do.

And then there are kangaroos, those cuddly animals which hop instead of walking, and the mothers carry their babies in a cute little pouch. We sometimes affectionately call them “skippies”. But … kangaroos can kill too. Here are two recent news stories:

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A mother living near Hervey Bay in Queensland heard her six-year old son screaming last Tuesday (17th August), and ran outside to find a kangaroo had pinned her two-year old daughter to the ground, and was attacking her. The mother said “The kangaroo was about the same size as me, and I thought I could take it on, but it was really strong.”

She was pushed to the ground and suffered bruises, but was able to pull her daughter away from the kangaroo as a neighbour’s yell distracted it. The daughter (who was unconscious) was taken to hospital and required 17 stitches.

Another story from about ten weeks ago reports that two women who were cycling in South Australia’s Clare Valley were attacked by a kangaroo which jumped onto one of them from a ledge near the road. She suffered cracked ribs and internal injuries. A doctor told her she was lucky to be alive.

We need to remember that although kangaroos are herbivores, and have no plans to eat you, they are formidable fighters and can certainly kill you (and/or your dog) if they’re cornered or if they think you’re threatening them. Their main weapons are their large, razor-sharp claws, particularly the ones on their hind legs. They can rear up on their tails, then rip downwards with their back legs and slice you open.

But we still love our skippies.

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The Mighty and Mysterious Boab

One of the distinctive features of the landscape in the Kimberley region (in the far north of Western Australia) is the boab tree. Its scientific name, Adansonia gregorii, honours the Australian explorer Augustus Gregory.

Boabs in Derby

Younger boabs are often referred to as bottle trees, due to their thick trunks. The picture shows boabs used as street trees in the Kimberley  town of Derby. As they get older, boabs get even thicker round the middle. (Where else have I heard of that problem?)

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This single boab tree is five metres wide at the base, and some of these older trees are thought to be at least 1500 years old!

Boabs store large amounts of water in cavities in their trunks, and there are instances where an opening into the central cavity has allowed the tree to be used as a temporary prison – or even as a bar!

Boab tree hollow

Aboriginal people have found many uses for the boab. Sometimes, thousands of litres of water can be extracted by tapping into the trunk. The leaves and the fruit are edible, and the seeds are very rich in vitamin C. The roots can be used to make a red dye. The seed pods can be used as bowls, boat balers, etc. The wood, which is soft and fibrous, can be used for making twine and cloth, and even rope (with a strength comparable to nylon).

Now for the mysterious part. While there is only this one species of boab in Australia, there are several in Africa, including Madagascar. One theory is that seed pods could have floated across the Indian Ocean many thousands of years ago. Another theory involves the so-called “Bradshaw” rock paintings found in the same area – the Kimberley – as the boabs.

Bradshaw was not the artist, but a white pastoralist who first brought these paintings to the attention of the non-indigenous public in 1891. (A more politically correct name for these remarkable art works is the aboriginal name “Gwion Gwion”.) I’ll be writing more about these paintings in a later post. Suffice it to say at this stage that the theory is that a group of people from Africa or some other place to the north of Australia came to the Kimberley area a very long time ago, either by boat or via the Gondwana “land bridge”, and brought with them a bunch of boab seeds, some of which took root in the Kimberley. They painted their very distinctive and non-Aboriginal paintings in the area, but then subsequently left or died out. (There’s scope here for all sorts of weak jokes about boat people, etc, but I will resist the temptation.)

Interesting, eh?

 

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Goyder’s Line

Back in 1865, the South Australian Surveyor General, George Goyder, produced a map of South Australia with a line that subsequently became known as “Goyder’s Line”. It corresponds roughly to the southern boundary of the growth of saltbush. His claim was that agricultural cropping was viable only to the south of the line, principally because of unreliable rainfall. This area was no more than about 5% of the state! Some areas north of the line, he said, were suitable for pastoral use, but trying to grow crops there would, at least in the longer term, fail.

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It was subsequently noted that Goyder’s Line was very close to the northern boundary of the area where the average annual rainfall is ten inches or more.

A good deal of scorn was heaped upon his pronouncement, particularly in the light of a series of good seasons in the 1860s and 1870s. The completion of the Overland Telegraph north to Darwin in 1872 and the commencement of the Northern Railway along the same route in 1878 brought great pressure to bear on the state government to encourage the settlement of land to the north.

“The rain follows the plough” was the catchcry, the theory being that breaking the soil released moisture into the air, which in due course would return as rain.

Various schemes were implemented to attract settlers to the vast areas north of Goyder’s Line, including one such scheme in the Cradock area, where allotments could be obtained for a very modest sum, provided a home was built on the land. Many farm cottages were built in the area, mostly constructed of local stone because suitable timber was relatively scarce. Many hundreds of acres were cleared, ploughed and harrowed, but the returns were meagre, and a series of poor seasons in the 1880s sealed the fate of many of these efforts.

The ruins of many of these modestly sized cottages still dot the countryside around Cradock. The Heartbreak Hotel was a local memorial to the blood, sweat, and tears poured out in vain. Goyder had been right!

Another tragic story due to failure to take heed of Goyder’s claim was the establishment in 1878 of the town on Farina, far north of the Line near the present-day village of Lyndhurst. It was, as the name suggests (Latin for “flour”) intended to become a wheat- and barley-growing area. It was located on the newly-built railway line, and was vigorously promoted by the state government of the day, who were keen to build up patronage of the railway. The population reached a peak of about 600 in the late 1800s, but not a single bag of wheat ever left Farina, and the town slowly died. Today it’s an interesting ghost town, and well worth a visit, if for nothing else, to remind one of the way in which governments sometimes choose to ignore the scientific evidence in order to promote their own myopic agendas. (Does that remind you of anything happening in today’s world?)

Although Goyder’s Line has proved remarkably accurate for the last 150 years, scientists now say it might have to be shifted south because of climate change. Research by the South Australian Research and Development Institute and the CSIRO suggests higher temperatures and less rain will change the agricultural landscape, moving the limits of reliable crop growth further south.

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The Inland Sea

(This article was originally published in Bobby Dazzler Newsletter #6.)

A persistent puzzle for the early European explorers of Australia was the destination of the inland rivers which flowed away from the coast. A logical theory was that they flowed into an inland sea. The possibility of discovering large tracts of well-watered farming land in the interior of the continent was a strong incentive to further exploration.

In 1844, Captain Charles Sturt led an expedition from Adelaide, with a major goal being to resolve the inland sea question. The party was very well equipped, with 16 men, 30 bullocks, 200 sheep, 11 horses, 6 dogs, and (naturally) a boat in which to explore the inland sea. Sturt had already established, through journeys of exploration in western New South Wales, a reputation as a capable and determined leader.

They headed north east, and followed the Darling River to Laidley’s Ponds (now Menindee Lakes). By January 1846, they got as far as present-day Milparinka, where there was a good supply of water at a spot they called Depot Glen. Despite repeated forays further north and north-west, they could find no more reliable water. They were caught in a time of severe drought, and even to return to Laidley’s Ponds was prevented by lack of water along the way.

For six months, they were virtually imprisoned at Depot Glen. They recorded temperatures of 69°C in the sun and 55°C in the shade in the summer. Their hair stopped growing and their nails became “as brittle as glass”. James Poole, the second in command, contracted scurvy and died. His grave under a beefwood tree can still be visited at Depot Glen.

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Ivor Hele’s painting showing Sturt making his reluctant decision to retreat when faced with the waterless desert in 1845.

Eventually, in July, rain fell, and they were able to head back to Adelaide. Sturt was too weak to walk and had to be carried all the way. His eyesight had deteriorated dramatically. Most members of the party were in poor health.

The puzzle of the rivers remained. It wasn’t until many years later that the rather complex picture was pieced together:

  • Some of the rivers follow roundabout routes to the coast. Others continue towards the centre of the continent, but due to soakage and evaporation in the intense heat, eventually peter out in the desert.
  • In times of heavy rainfall in the distant catchment areas, some streams do reach the centre, and normally-dry lakes such as Lake Eyre and Lake Blanche spring to life (whereupon fish and water birds amazingly appear).
  • The massive artesian basin (1,500,000 square kms) is slowly replenished, thus providing a water supply for parts of Outback Australia.So Sturt’s theory of an inland sea was sort of correct, but almost all of it is a long way underground. So the boat wasn’t much use. And who can imagine the energy involved in dragging it more than 1000 kms through rough unexplored country! It wasn’t your modern aluminium dinghy, either—it was a 12-foot clinker-built wooden vessel, and was left at Depot Glen (now part of Mount Poole Station). The story goes that it remained there until sometime in the 1940s, when it was broken up for firewood! A full-size replica has been installed in the main street of Tibooburra.

Worth mentioning:

  • Many Australian maps show inland rivers which simply end in the desert, without emptying into another river or a lake. In effect, they are long very narrow lakes which seldom have water in them.
  • If you’re near Milparinka, take the time to visit Depot Glen and Poole’s grave. Not far away is the three-metre high cairn of stones which Sturt had his men build on the top of a nearby hill as a memorial to Poole and a kind of occupational therapy(!) during their six-month stay at Depot Glen.
  • The National Parks & Wildlife office in Tibooburra has a fine display about Sturt’s Expedition, with a model of the whole party. One can but stand in awe of the toughness of these people who challenged the Outback to give up its secrets, and suffered so terribly in the process.
  • Seeing Lake Eyre (with or without water) is always a startling experience!

 

 

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Australia’s National Biscuit

(This article first appeared in Bobby Dazzler Newsletter #74 just before Anzac Day, and is reproduced here to encourage discussion. To receive the newsletter by email every two months, please send a request to brennan@bba.com.au)

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Since Anzac Day comes up shortly (April 25th), it seemed an appropriate time to introduce a subject of national importance: Australia’s National Biscuit.

The story is that Anzac biscuits were invented as something enjoyable and nutritious that could be sent to our soldiers overseas, because the ingredients do not spoil easily. This is one reason why they contain no eggs.

Use of the term “Anzac” is protected under both Australian and New Zealand law, and cannot be used commercially without obtaining permission from the relevant authority. However, there is a general exemption for Anzac biscuits as long as they remain basically true to the original recipe, and are sold as “biscuits” and not “cookies”.

The standard ingredients are flour, desiccated coconut, rolled oats, sugar, baking soda, butter and golden syrup (sometimes referred to in Oz as “cocky’s joy”). The straightforward recipe can be easily obtained on the internet. Why not make up a batch for Anzac Day? And remember, they can be quite addictive.

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I was surprised to get a response from an American friend in West Virginia, USA, who told me that her American “mom” sometimes makes Anzac biscuits. I hadn’t realised that their fame had spread that far! My friend also wished me a “happy Anzac Day”, but I haven’t had the heart to tell her that that’s not quite kosher. Anzac Day is not a “happy” day.

Then came an email from an Australian friend living in Uganda, who said that she’s been making Anzac biscuits at her home in Kampala, but is having trouble keeping up with the demand from her friends for more. She’s also experimenting with cooking them over a charcoal fire.

Maybe the Anzac biscuit is going global!

Which made me think that it shouldn’t be too hard to make Anzac biscuits in a camp oven. I’m sure there’ll be someone reading this who has done just that. Please tell us about the experience.

And finally, I wonder whether there are countries apart from Oz and New Zealand which have what they regard as a “national biscuit”, or even (can my lips frame the words?) a “national cookie”?

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Classic Outback #12

willy willy

The willy-willy is not an uncommon site in the Outback in hot dry weather in fairly flat areas without much ground cover.

Hot air near the ground rises quickly through a pocket of cooler, low-pressure air, and sucks up dust with it, forming a swirling column maybe a couple of metres wide and ten to 50 metres tall. Often it is moving across country at the same time. Willy-willies occur in many parts of the world, and in the US are known as “dust devils”.

Space probes have even photographed willy-willies on the surface of Mars!

 

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