Don and I arrived a day ahead of Steve and Rachel. We set up the tent in a pleasant, maple-shaded caravan park right in town, and set out in the afternoon to explore the main street, pick up a little something for dinner, and get Don a haircut. The town was gearing up for the weekend's big event, a film festival out at one of the wineries on Saturday night, which explained why Steve and Rachel had had a hard time finding accommodations.
Don and I had never done the winery thing. Our knowledge of wine goes only a little beyond the basics of red and white, and more practically usually focuses on bottles or boxes! Saturday morning, we poured over the pages of wineries in the Mudgee regional magazine trying to decipher how one goes about it. I mean where do you start? We ended up putting ourselves in the hands of the local "I" center host who sent us off to the Pieter Van Gent Winery and Vineyard which offered a "spit on the floor" indoctrination on Saturday mornings. We called and spoke to a sexy voice named Luciano to see if there was still space available, and he said, "Come now." It seemed like a good way to get a start on things before Steve and Rachel arrived midday.
There are vineyards and wineries and cellar doors, but not all proprietors do all three. The Pieter van Gent operation did. The winery and cellar were set under some trees right amidst the grape vines. We were welcomed by two unexpectedly young men, one of whom was Luciano of the sexy Italian voice, who turned out to be the assistant winemaker. Luciano was looking a little worse for wear, but we didn't find out until later that it was because they had harvested four tons of grapes the day before and had had to load them into the crushing vat without the use of their normal forklift! Luciano took us outside to show us a vat of freshly crushed red grapes, in the first day of fermenting, which emitted a most heavenly aroma.
The juice is then strained, mixed with yeast, and put into 300-liter oak barrels. There followed an explanation of the different yeasts used for various wines and of two different kinds of oak barrels: French and American. The American ones are made from raw wood and impart a more "aggressive" flavor, while the French oak is aged two years first. About this time we were joined by another couple just as Luciano started extracting tastes of young wine cloudy with yeast from different barrels.
From the keg room we moved into the cellar tasting area. Let me remind you that it was barely ten in the morning, but we proceeded to sample pretty near every one of about sixteen of the wineries products, from their famous Chardonnays, through some reds, straight into their equally famous Mudgee White Port. They even had a spiced vermouth I thought intriguing. The young fellows produced an endless supply of tasting glasses, and let me tell you, nary a drop ended up on any floor.
We tottered out to the car (having boughttwo bottles), and managed to dial the phone and determine that Steve and Rachel were just moments away from their nearby B&B. Somehow the Grey Nomad conveyed us to the correct location. Hopefully no one was watching. It was quickly decided, after greetings and hugs, that lunch would be a prudent next move! We ended up at the Blue Wren Winery's pleasant café and spent about two hours there sobering up while catching up. (The process involved a nice luncheon and some Mudgee ales and a couple glasses of their Merlots!)
Readers may recall that Steve and Rachel were at Vuda in Fiji at the same time Tackless II's paint job was happening. Their boat Apogee was also on the hard, awaiting the installation of a new engine, a project in the hands of Baobab Marine who just didn't seem to be able to get around to it. As it turned out, Steve's employer had once again offered him work he couldn't turn down, so it wasn't the disaster it might have been. And as that turned out, it was just as well they were in Australia rather than out cruising because Steve's Dad was found to have lung cancer and Rachel was able to be with him throughout the duration of his illness while Steve commuted between Sydney and Perth. A tough year for them, this weekend was one of their first getaways together since his passing.
We spent the remains of the afternoon visiting three other wineries, one specializing in French varietals, one in Iberian Peninsula varieties (Spanish and Portuguese), and one in Italians. We were much more restrained in this second go around, but all voted the DeLusso Estate's Italian reds our favorite. After our elegant lunch, we did a more homely dinner at one of the town's pubs. Unfortunately, Steve and Rachel's dinners were served about forty minutes after ours, a situation that is always irritating.
Certainly a highlight of our time with Steve and Rachel in Mudgee was as their guests at the B&B's sumptuous breakfast the next morning. Called the Myan Breezes Guesthouse, the house was a lovely modern estate with six rooms, surrounded by gardens and a vista across the valley. The hosts, Michael and Ruth, turned out to be former cruisers themselves, and so made an exception in our case allowing us as non-guests to join Steve and Rachel for breakfast. Our table commanded the premium view out the window, and the meal began with fresh brewed coffee and fresh fruit salad (with wild blackberries!) with yogurt, all ready at precisely the moment we arrived. Then we had a plateful of eggs, Aussie style bacon rashers, grilled mushrooms and tomatoes, garnished with sprigs of thyme, and home baked toast. It was altogether heavenly. I know we spend a lot of time talking about food, but, you know, when it's good, it's worth celebrating!
After breakfast we drove in two cars east to the village of Rylstone, gateway to Dunn's Swamp, a campground in the foothills of the Wollemi National Park on the west side of the Blue Mountains. We paused for a coffee in a small café with two friendly couples that rode in on their motorcycles. They pulled a table together with theirs so we could chat about their bikes – a BMW 1200RT and a Honda 1300ST – and about the famous Ulysses motorcycle club of which they were all members. The Ulysses Club has a minimum age of forty (for junior members) and claims a motto of "Growing old disgracefully," but they are a pretty upstanding group. I point this out because during this whole month Aussie outlaw biker clubs have been in the headlines daily for an ongoing gang war erupting in public places around Sydney. The Ulysses bikers are like us: "boomer zoomers" enjoying the riding for the riding's sake.
Dunn's Swamp was reached by another long, dusty dirt road. The remote campground is situated on a sinuous waterway created by a dam down river to provide, we understand, a steady water supply for a nearby cement works. We were concerned that the "swamp" might be as dry as Yarrie Lake had been, since bodies of water seem to be having a tough time surviving in Oz. We worried for naught, as the lake snaked away through yet another striking gorge, this one composed of limestone "pagoda" formations.
What was unexpected was the crowd! No place we had previously stopped had more than a handful of campers. The sites here were packed, and what empty sites there were were mostly "closed for native plant rejuvenation". Hoping most of the crowd would leave by evening, we parked the car without setting up and took off on a short walk along the lakeside path. Rachel is a great photographer and the winding lake and the unusual pagoda rock formations made great subjects. We also scared up a pair of lyrebirds, large birds reminiscent of roadrunners. While tracking them through the rocks, there suddenly came a great crash. Whipping around we caught a most embarrassed possum who had either fallen out of his tree or whose branch had broken off under him.
The good thing about arriving Sunday afternoon was the guys with the watersports concession were still there. Closed during the week during the off-season, on weekends they run a river cruise on a pontoon boat and rent out a fleet of canoe-kayak hybrids. We caught them in time to work a deal for use of a canoe on Monday, else we would have been up Dunn's creek without a paddle. (Sorry, couldn't resist!) They asked if we could swim, and we answered, hell yes, and licensed captains, to boot. They said, okay, you run the cruises and leave us the money. Unfortunately, they were just kidding!
Saying goodbye to Steve and Rachel that afternoon was the first farewell in Australia that we pretty much knew was going to be final. It was rather sobering. They have been in our lives for three years. We were very grateful they were willing to make the drive up to see us.
As hoped for, the campground gradually cleared out through the afternoon. Don and I stalked the campsites trying not to miss the ideal one. There were lots of tent sites networked into the woods and rock formations as well as along the water's edge, but we didn't want to get too far from the car where all our clothes and food would stay stashed and we didn't want a major midnight hike to a loo. We would have liked to pick a site down by the water, but several large groups lingered to the last minute, so we ended up picking a spot up the hill along the road where we figured it would be easiest for Mike and Kathleen to spot us if they made it in.
This was our first night bush camping on our own…and it was quite inconvenient without Matilda, because the campground was one of the ones with no picnic tables. We muddled through a pasta supper, and we did manage our own campfire, but the evening was marred by the crying of an unhappy child late into the night. We admit to un-grandparent-like thoughts. The next morning, we simply climbed out of the tent and into the car and drove down to a water-side picnic table to make coffee and breakfast.
How beautiful the "swamp" was in the morning mist. It was quite chilly, and we huddled around our mugs in all our clothes. Our cooking activity quickly drew the attentions of the local bush hens, a chicken-like bird with deep black and blue feathers and red legs and heads, and they amused us with their stalking. We were quite surprised then to see one fly across the water, although its water landing was essentially a belly flop.
We decided a brisk walk would warm us up so we set off down the trail for the pagoda formations. A short while and a little scrambling later, we were high above the gorge with a stunning view.
Later we ventured out in one of the plastic canoe-yaks. In the morning we paddled left a couple of kilometers down the twists and turns of the gorge to the dam, keeping our eyes peeled all the while for the elusive platypus. (Unfortunately, I forgot to bring the camera!) Not only was there no platypus, but, surprisingly there seemed very little wildlife around at all. Not even obnoxious cockatoos. In the afternoon, after several hours reading in chairs which we'd carted to a waterside campsite (by the time we were done we pretty much used the whole park!), we went for another paddle upstream, where it does finally become a little swampy. Swamp in this case, is tall dense grasses, gradually filling in the watercourse, but this direction also gave some great views of waterside rock formations.
As the afternoon waned the skies grew threatening, and we had a stiff paddle back to the campground. I landed Don on the nearest beach so he could dash up and close up the tent. When he got there, Matilda was squeezed into our niche and Mike and Kathleen were just zipping us up. Whew! We were back in the hands of professionals!
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After a proper Content-inspired breakfast, we all set off on the hike known as the Weir/Long Cave Circuit, starting with scrambling back up to share the Pagoda lookout experience. Beyond the Pagoda, the walk was long, hot and rubbly, though not terribly strenuous, but we reached the dam we had paddled to the previous day having made a big dent in the water we carried. Beyond this, around the base of a hill was the Long Cave where there were alleged to be aboriginal cave paintings. The cave was more of a long overhang, and while we identified what might have been some ancient hand-prints, all in all the graffiti overwhelmed the effect. It was a long hot walk back to camp on which we finished off the last of our water, so upon our arrival back at the beach, we all walked directly into the lake. Very cold, but very refreshing!
While Mike opted for a post-lunch nap, Don, Kathy and I carried chairs and books down to the waterside for a lazy afternoon of reading. Later, Kathy rounded Mike of to make last use of the canoe-yaks, while Don and I explored the first bit of the Waterside Walk, a trail that led off the opposite direction around the swampy end of the camp. We stumbled on two kangaroos at the start and further on with the dense brush at the turn of the shoreline caught a fleeting glimpse of the elusive swamp wallaby, but otherwise the animal life was quiet.
Drinks, dinner and a blazing campfire beneath the stars kept us awake and social until after 11pm! A big possum found some bread Don had tossed and he ignored us utterly as he munched in the firelight.
March 25, To Lithgow
Although the next day was a planned moving day, we decided that we couldn’t let a walk go uncompleted, so we all set off after coffee to do the rest of the Waterside Walk, a 5+k jaunt that swerved up hill and down in and away from the watercourse and ended up at the “gauging weir,” at the upstream end of the watercourse. Highlights were kangaroos streaking away from our approach, a tree with unusual flowers that were attracting local bees, and a sole blue and scarlet parrot. It all took longer than expected and it was nearly lunchtime when breakfast and packing up were completed.
Our drive south out of the dry forest and pagoda formations of Dunn’s Swamp and Rylestone produced an abrupt landscape change. The road dropped out into a long valley paralleling a dramatic escarpment on our left, our first look at New South Wales’ famed Blue Mountains. This is coal country and as the hills grew closer together as we neared Lithgow, we drove beneath conveyors carrying coal to a nearby power plant. On a whim, Mike turned into the Mt. Piper Power Plant entrance to see if we might arrange a tour.
We discovered that plant tours are usually offered in the morning, but we were lucky that management had a special tour for some financial mucky-mucks scheduled and they graciously allowed the somewhat skuzzy looking American campers to follow along. It proved very interesting. Unlike America, in Australia power plants are located as close to the coal fields to minimize the cost of transporting the heavy coal. The plant had two generators each capable of producing 700 megawatts of electricity out to the grid at 330,000 volts! We saw the control room where engineers try to balance production with demand, we peeked through portals at the blinding blaze of combusting coal, we felt the vibrations of the huge generator, and gazed down on the fields of coal and the rain from the cooling towers. We learned a tremendous amount about energy production, including Australia’s drive to have the cleanest coal use possible and their many strategies for conserving water, a scarce resource. Even so, the quantities of water and coal needed are mind boggling. Our glimpse at the hugeness of one afternoon’s consumption in just one plant makes very real the questions of Earth’s finite resources.
We came out of the plant to lowering clouds and the rumble of thunder. Our impromptu stop had delayed us from planned reprovisioning in the small city of Lithgow and we had no camp reservations awaiting us. We dodged raindrops to shop in a well-stocked Woolie’s in town, and as dusk fell backtracked a bit to find a campground with not just space available, but a rental cabin. With the rain now falling steadily, Don and I were keen to leave the tent in the trunk.
Evidently, it’s a fairly common amenity at Aussie campgrounds to have a row of units, usually on wheels, available for tenting and motorcycling campers to have the option of a soft bed, a hot shower, and a dry night. Not quite an RV, not quite a mobile home, not quite a cabin, these units are little motel rooms on wheels. You bring your own sheets and bedding, but pots and cooking equipment -- like a double hotplate, electric frypan and microwave -- are provided. We were lucky to find one unit available at a campground north of Lithgow.
With the rain continuing and the temperature outside dropping, we were all happy to have a warm, dry place to gather for supper. There was even Internet! And won’t deny it was a sweet moment of payback that Mike and Kathleen had to go back out through the rain to sleep in the chilly Matilda! We hardly minded that the bed sagged in the middle!
Our departure was delayed first by Kathleen being laid up with a bad bout of sciatica. Kathy is a fit and active woman, but she and Mike had just spent a couple of months in the boat yard rebuilding and refitting their two wooden masts (they ended up replacing their mizzen with a new aluminum one), literally backbreaking work in the hot Aussie sun. As she began to bounce back through a combination treatment of muscle relaxants and exercises, we were delayed yet again by late-season Cyclone Hamish running towards us off the Queensland coast. The one good thing about a southbound Queensland cyclone is that the dangerous semi-circle is on the seaward side…as long as it stays offshore and doesn't turn inland. The forecast had possible tracks that included Moreton Bay, the bay where Scarborough Marina perches on a point, but although it brought several days of strong blustery winds and rain, causing old T2 to heel in her slip, it fortunately never did get here. At that point we had delayed so many times for one thing or another, we were actually thinking of taking he tent and mattress back to the store. But, finally the cyclone doubled back on itself and fizzled, allowing us to finally hit the road Thursday the 11th, both vehicles packed to the brim.
I don't think we have properly introduced you to our Aussie wonder car. It's a 1990 silver Toyota Camry four-door sedan, and it is a jewel. Don calls it the Four-wheel Harley and I call it the Grey Nomad, the nickname here for Australia's campervaning retirees. In the trunk we had a carton of pots, pans, plates and utensils from the boat; a borrowed one-burner camp stove; a carton of food; a borrowed cooler for food; a crate of leftovers from our booze locker; a dishpan, assorted sponges and dishtowels; a bag of blue tarps leftover from Fiji; a dust pan and a fly swatter. In the back seat, we each had one of our roller duffle cases, a bag of books, a computer, two camp chairs that we have been carrying since St. Thomas, our brand-new untried tent, a double self-inflating camping mattress, and a bag with two pillows, two summer-weight blankets, and a set of dark green sheets that used to be our charter sheets. Oh, yes, two foul weather jackets and an umbrella… just in case. In the front seat were a road atlas, a campground guide, a Lonely Planet, two water bottles, a mini-inverter to charge 110v gizmos from the cigarette lighter, and a large bag of Aussie gorp – a mix of nuts, dried fruit, and yogurt-covered somethings.
Our first day's drive took us southwest from Brisbane on the Cunningham Highway through lovely rolling countryside dotted with horse farms. It's Fall here, and the fields were deep in yellow grasses dotted by glades of tress. I'm told that most all the trees you see in Australia are some variety of gum, but the only ones I recognized are the white eucalypts with the peeling bark. Then the road began to climb steeply up the Great Dividing Range. We had plenty of time to appreciate the views as we discovered that Matilda goes uphill even slower than the Grey Nomad. The tops of the mountain were wrapped in wet and mist as we climbed with sheer crags on the left side and bellbirds bong-bonging away in the adjacent rainforest.
We came down quickly enough out of the cool and drizzle into a terrain of grass prairie and dry forests. We were bound for one of Mike and Kathleen's favorite parks in the hills just over the state border into New South Wales near a town called, of all things, Texas! Around 3:30pm, though, in the midst of a stretch of woods, Mike decided we wouldn't make it before dark and turned off the pavement down an unmarked dirt track! We followed tentatively well away from the road until Mike rounded up into a gap in the trees.
Welcome to bush camping! Of course, all Mike and Kathy had to do was pop their top and they were home. The Two Captains,…err the two novice campers, had to put together their tent for first time! Mike is a very mechanical do-it kind of guy, so he had to have a finger in the job. But I must point out that the boys' secret weapon in assembling the construction of poles, netting and nylon was having someone willing to read the instructions: Namely me!
Leaving Don to pound in the last of the tent pegs, Mike set off with a shovel to dig the latrine. The Content-ers carry a folding toilet seat which is a very handy thing to have. With the addition of one of our tarps and a roll of TP, we had the nicest facility of the whole trip. What's not to like about a loo with a view?
Before departure, Kathy and I had done a whirlwind tour through Woolie's (Woolworths is one of Australia's major supermarket chains) in the course of which I happily learned we would not be eating "rough." For our first dinner, I sliced and diced as Kathy whipped up a one pot meal of pork chops with mushroom sauce and rice along with corn on the cob, while Mike built a campfire from the wood Don collected.
Matilda the campervan is a mighty nice asset. She is a 1988 whitish, diesel Nissan Urvan, a slightly longer than normal pop-top van, fitted out with a sink and counter and propane fridge behind the driver with a swing-out cabinet for pots and pans fitted with a two burner stove and broiler on top behind the passenger seat. While Kathy stood at the stove and sink, I could do my chopping at a swivel table while sitting in the seat that would later convert to their bed. With 12-volt lighting, it was a cozy place to work.
Dinner and a toddy or two around the campfire set the routine for all subsequent nights. We listened to a lot of jaw-dropping stories about the off road jeeping our gurus used to do in California's rugged Sierra mountains or in the wilds of Baja. Many of the tales involved vertical ascents by jeep up places I'm not sure Don or I could get by foot! As the fire crackled, we could hear but not see the occasional traffic on the road beyond the trees. Aussie drivers, even the huge double truckers, avoid driving at night because the kangaroos are nocturnal. We were disappointed not to see any wildlife that night, but there was bird chatter at sundown, and a full moon above the treetops.
We slept fairly well that first night, getting used to being on the ground. The hard part, of course, is how far up you have to get, to get up…especially in the middle of the night! I'm not sure I didn't feel more "out there," bare-butted in uncharted woods, than I ever felt on the high seas! I was very grateful for the Content-ers' seat of ease.
One doesn't awake in Oz to the sweet twitter of birdsong. Day starts with the inane laughter of the kookaburra (a kingfisher species who has lost its way to the water) and is followed by the screeching of cockatoos, the squawking of various parrots, and the complaining of crows. The crows here go "Ahn, Ahn ahn, awwwwwww." Very loudly.
After coffee and egg and sausage burritos (oh, YUM!) we struck camp and continued on through Texas, which is appropriately named as we were now in the midst of cattle country. At the small town of Ashford we turned up a dirt road that ran twenty-some kilometers back into hills increasing dotted with granite boulders that would do the Baths proud. Every so often the road would clatter over a cow and sheep grate or dip down through a gully with water in it. Our one wrong turn rewarded us with the sight of our first two emus, ostrich-like birds, making a getaway through the woods.
Lemon Tree Campground in Kwiambal National Park was our first official campground. The camping area was loosely defined on a grassy glade we had to share with a "herd" of kangaroos who sprawled lazily on the grass they munched. Aussie camp-sites are defined by a parking notch and a fire ring and one or more drop toilets (aka outhouses). Matilda would stay in the notch while we pitched our tent on the grass. At the bottom of the slope was a gorge of granite boulders through which ran a river so lazy we couldn't tell which way it was flowing. The midday temps were so hot that a swim was in order. The cola-colored water was surprisingly cool, especially if you stuck your feet down.
We indulged in a lazy afternoon, reading, napping and kangaroo watching. After a year and a half in the country, Mike has become quite knowledgeable in the birdlife and introduced us to our first butcher bird (so named because they are meat eating) and the willy-wagtail who boldly make their way into your camp. Aussie birds, he explained, are often named by obvious traits. In the evening the bush-tailed possums came to check out our pasta dinner, their red eyes glowing in the reflected light, their silent vigil on a tree limb above occasionally jarred by screechy territorial disputes.
The next morning we all went for an "early" hike. Well, it was supposed to be early, but Don and I slept so well snugged together against the morning chill that we actually didn't hear the "whizzz-bang" that announces the egress of Mike and Kathy from the campervan! After slurping down one coffee, we set out on the track to "The Junction". We'd been hoping with an early start we might spy a timid platypus in the river, but instead we disturbed a huge flock of sulphur-crested cockatoos that set up a ruckus. We learned later that the cockatoos actually post a watch while the rest graze!
The first leg of the hike, about 1.5km, led to a string of overlooks above a huge gorge. Clearly there have been times when a great deal more water rushed through here. Still fighting her sciatica, Kathy grudgingly let Mike turn back to camp at the halfway point, while Don and I continued on down. The trail led up and down and over great boulders another few kilometers to the Junction proper. WOW. How I wish I were a painter like my parents were! The path led down a bank of rock to a valley where two river beds come together in a granite jumble. White cockatoos flew across at eye level from one piney hill to another, and there was no sign of mankind except for the big spots of white paint on the rock that marked the way down.
By the time we trudged back into camp, M & K had another luxurious breakfast ready, this time one right out of our charter menu: bagels with smoked salmon and all the fixin's! The food must have smelled good because we had a visit from a lace monitor lizard, an Australian cousin to the Komodo dragon.
The next morning, after packing up, we detoured to the other section of the park and took the trail there down to MacIntyre Falls. This would be the "other" river course that feeds into the Junction. The actual trail was short, but it led us right down onto the sculpted rock. We spent an hour or more clambering over the backs of huge boulders to get where we could see the falls and pools cupped deep in the granite gorge. It happened to be Sunday, and I've never been in a cathedral more majestic!
Being Sunday, Don was foiled in his hope to score for his mid-morning snack an authentic Aussie meat pie from the bakery in Ashford that claimed to have the best meat pies in the country. Things are pretty quiet in small Aussie towns on Sundays. The main streets are like something out of the Wild West, parallel strings of flat store fronts that always includes at one end or the other a commercial hotel with decorative wrought iron across the façade and a pub. Parking is either in the center of the street or diagonal or both, but always stern to.
Thwarted in our quest for pies, we drove on south to Inverill, a much bigger town with a Woolies where we could replenish our stores. Our big score here was a polyester quilt for $22. Don was skeptical that there would be space for it in the car, but that quilt would soon be our salvation!
Before leaving Inverill we collected a whole slew of tourist brochures on places to go from the local "i" center. Most Aussie communities have one. We also whipped up some sandwiches in the town park where the entertainment highlight was the Lion's Club "Exceloo", a fully-automated, space-age rest room. You push a button, the door slides open, you step in, the door slides shut, and a voice tells you you have up to ten minutes! Then the muzak kicks in! TP is dosed out like an ATM receipt, the toilet flushes itself, the basin dispenses soap and water and blow dry automatically as you pass your hands by, and, if you're are lucky, the door opens again on your command! Beam me up, Scotty! I actually said that as a teenager rode past on his bike, and he looked at me like, "say what?"
Mike and Kathleen had warned us that they were prone to wandering, so it wasn't a real surprise when we swung back east into the mountains of the Great Dividing Range for our next campsite. Our destination was another of their favorites, the Mann River Campground. We climbed eastward across the New England Highway through Glenn Innes, where, by golly, the town's street trees of a distinct maple persuasion were turning fall colors. We turned off on a side road that led through deep woods and then plunged in tight switchbacks down, down, down to the Mann River valley. (Don and I wondered if Matilda would be able to climb back out again.) Rock wallabies perched on boulders by the roadside, while fern fronds attested to our nearness to the rainforest, and at one bend, Mike came to a halt in order to collect wood for the campfire from fallen limbs along the roadside!
At the base of the hill, the campground opened up in a meadow along a babbling river. Perhaps a dozen sites were strung out along the bank beneath tall pines, although there was just one drop toilet set on a rise a fair hike from the river. A couple of campers were there before us, but we got a big area to ourselves, set up and then went for a swim in the swimming hole downstream. It was as the sun was setting and we were grilling and assembling cheeseburgers, that we noticed the lightning to the north. By the time it was dark and the camp fire was blazing, we could hear thunder, even though the sky overhead was bright with stars.
By morning it was gray and COLD! Nobody was laughing at my quilt now! The thunder was now coming from the south, and by the time coffee was ready we were all huddled under the awning Mike had providentially set up as the rain began. It rained hard, and got colder and colder. Even Kathy's hot breakfast couldn't ward it off, so eventually we all climbed into our respective vehicles, running the engines for heat! We spent the whole morning, reading behind steamy windows. At lunch time we emerged, and under the awning I started a pot of veggie soup. About the time we finished, a patch of blue had begun to take shape in the south. Then a frontline of clear sky assembled and slowly but surely pushed the cellulite-puckered rain clouds firmly off to the northwest. How bizarre! We went from freezing cold to hot and sweaty within an hour!
Don had checked the tent several times during brief breaks in the rain, and it seemed to be doing fine. However, as the blue sky rolled in we discovered a puddle had formed somehow and wet the bedding, so we spent a good part of the afternoon stringing clotheslines and hanging things up to dry. Afterwards we strolled down the dirt road that once upon a time was the major thoroughfare of the region between the coast at Grafton and the hinterland behind the mountains. Kangaroos were everywhere in great bands.
That evening the stars were very bright, at least until the fog rolled in. It got so thick, it was hard to find our way to the loo. Don and I remade our bed and snugged down under our blankets and the quilt. "This," Don said to me, "was a good idea." In the morning it was Mike and Kathleen in the van who were freezing! Was it a coincidence that our route took us back through Inverill and back through Woolies? Maybe, but Kathleen came out with their own $22 special!
Looking for a drier option for the night, we pushed due west again. We came rapidly down out of the mountains, through the rolling prairie, all the way out into flat, flat farmland. Our goal was Moree, famous for its hot springs. Here we set up in Gwydir Carpark and Thermal Pools, a regular campervan park, complete with showers, toilets, laundry and even a kitchenette. We set up the van and tent on our assigned strip of lawn that we belatedly realized was directly under the security light! Don layered up several tarps over the tent's rain fly which may not have been pretty but did knock down the illumination level inside the tent from broad day to at least twilight.
We hustled into our bathing suits and made our way over to the pools. There were four very large round pools each a different temperature. It is a rare treat for yachties to immerse ourselves in hot water! For Kathy's persisting sciatica it was heaven, and I won't deny it felt pretty good to these two captains. We had our own share of sore muscles and stiffness from the hikes and sleeping on the ground, although we can't say that following the prescription of plunging into the cold pool last did anything for us.
Moree was definitely an Aussie tourist destination. The park was full of trailers and pop-ups, and the pools were well attended. Some of the accents in the pools were so thick that we just nodded and smiled without a clue of what had been said! No foreigners but we were there. However, in the kitchenette that night we did meet a fellow towing an American amphibious duck, essentially an amphibious jeep built by TKTK for World War II. Restoring the war relic was this fellow's hobby, and he was on his way back from TKTK, where disappointingly his baby had failed to run and so missed the parade.
From Moree we headed south to Narrabi to check out the Australia Telescope, consisting in this location of 6 22-meter radio telescopes. There's an Aussie movie Don and I once saw on a plane called "The Dish", about the Aussie telescope that received Armstrong's first words from the moon. That wasn't here, however. That, I believe was the Parkes scope, somewhat to the south. However, despite being set out in a hot, fly-plagued savanna, it was a pretty informative display. The telescopes, however, were idle for service.
We had thought we might stop over night out at nearby Yarrie Lake, but we barely survived a sandwich there. In the midst of hot red-clay country and thanks to Australia's ten-year drought, there is no lake at Yarrie Lake anymore. Campsites ring the dry, grass-filled depression with nice concrete pads, picnic tables and steel shelters, but the flies were horrendous. We packed up as fast as we could and beat a fast retreat south.
It was a great relief when the road rose up from the dry plain into a huddle of mountains called the Warrumbungles. How quickly things can change! The landscape coming into the pretty town of Coonabarabran lifted and rolled with nice forests and billboards for the world's largest virtual solar system. It seems Coonabarabran (don't you just love saying that!) is the "Astronomy Capital of Australia". The virtual solar system places the planet billboards around the countryside at appropriate scaled distances from the Siding Spring Observatory, which serves as the "Sun" from its mountaintop in the State Park. In the course of the next week or so I think we encountered all of the planets except Saturn!
We bypassed Coonabarabran's in-town caravan park in favor of the Warrumbungle State Park. (I also love saying Warrumbungle!) It was quite a drive out through the steeply lumpy mountains, but we were rewarded with more emu sightings by the roadside! The park's visitor center was closed when we arrived so we continued up to the campground on the hilltop and selected two side-by-side sites with a million dollar view of the surrounding mountains.
This state park was somewhat more in the fashion of US parks with four camping areas to choose from, (two with powered sites and one for actual big-rig RVs, which are fairly rare here), but there was no more than a handful of campers in the whole place. Again, instead of placing picnic tables at each site, this campground had a big eating area with four grills (each with two side burners for pots) and about eight tables. Up the hill was a service block with hot showers, toilets and a washing-up area. It was a perfect place to grill the butterflied leg of lamb we'd found at Woolies! (BBQs in Australia are not what we Americans think of as grills; they are big flat griddles…which is just a little disappointing! Still the lamb was outstanding.) It was late when we finished up eating, and while the boys were up doing dishes and Kathy and I were packing up, we were startled to notice an owl sitting on the step watching us from about five feet away! Punch another hole in the wildlife card!
Warrumbungle State Park was another great wildlife spot. We were beset with noisy cockatoos in the morning that would try to land on a power wire and end up hanging upside-down, their wings flopping loosely. There was another lace monitor as well as six emu sightings, and at breakfast one morning, a kangaroo surprised us by coming right up to our chairs. Koalas, although said to be here, eluded us. (there's only so long you can walk with your head craned back!) Warrumbungle is most famous for an all-day hike to a formation known as The Bread Knife, but at 12-14km kilometers of steep walking, it was not a destination for Kathy's sciatica. We stuck instead to easy walks around the park…much to Kathy's obvious disgust (and our relief!)!
However, the Warrumbungles really came into their own at night. The air is so dry and clear, it's no wonder the area is the astronomy capital of the world. We could easily see the two Magellan clouds, distant galaxies that can only be seen from the southern Hemisphere, particularly suitable as I was reading a history of Magellan's voyage.
And so we were motivated to make a trip to the Siding Spring Observatory the next afternoon. As we climbed the approach road in the car (the backseat excavated of stuff to carry all four of us), we passed "Earth," "Venus," and "Mercury" all huddled relatively close to the "Sun". We were able to walk up to the observatory itself and see the inside work area from a glassed off visitor balcony. Of course, the dome was closed during the day, and tourists aren't allowed up at night when the scientists are at work. But they had a very extensive, quite sophisticated display that deserved a full day to take in, not a few hours in an afternoon. We were told that in town there is a small private observatory for tourists.
It is hard to believe that at this point we had been traveling barely ten days. With Mike and Kathy as mentors we had picked up the routine of camping quite readily. Now as we prepared to leave the Warrumbungles, we had decided to part ways for a while. We wanted to rendezvous with Steve and Rachel Phillips, our friends from Fiji, who are currently based in Sydney and who had pledged to drive out and meet up with us one weekend, while Mike and Kathleen had their own friends they wanted to visit in a different direction.
From the pile of brochures we'd collected at the "I" center, we picked the vineyard area of Mudgee on the West side of the Blue Mountains for our rendezvous with the Phillips. Steve and Rachel had found it on the map, found a B&B to book via the Internet and vowed to meet us. So, after we exited the Warrumbungles on at their southwest corner (after four more emu sightings!) we struck off on our own, driving for the first time without the white square of Matilda's backside in front of us.
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