Conglomerate Creek, Vic., Australia, January 3, 2015—By some measure, it's my mother's 104th birthday but in my now it's only January 2 in Brooklyn where she was born, a universe away in terms of terrain and technology, me sitting here in the Victorian High Country in the south of Australia a century later with an iPad, her family on the corner of Myrtle and Clinton with a Victrola.
Outstralia. The Outback for sure. My camping seat is just a few grassy feet from the river bank. Lake and Finn are playing with Magna-tiles in the camper trailer and Miranda and Jay are setting up for a two-night stay, as are the other seven groups comprising three couples, two fathers and sons, and three families including us. We're on a 4WD (four wheel
drive, dummies) tour sponsored by Great Divide Tours, the company through which my kids arranged to acquire their carefully kitted out Land Cruiser and camper trailer, both customized for their adventure of which these few days involve just one interesting side-trip in their probably year-long journey.
You do not see Australia this way from a car, going to the traditional attractions. You can't get here from there. Off road. Off line. Out Back in the bush.
We're camping again, five of us sleeping in the camper trailer, a roomy set-up with canvas sides that folds up into a steel box for travel but which also does a back bend to produce a queen bed with an equivalent amount of storage space underneath, two sets of drawers, and a hard-floor platform big enough for three people to sleep.
We joined the tour almost on a whim and certainly without a great deal of preparation. We thought about it for a day, then woke up the next morning, packed up, shopped for 75 meals (5 people times 5 days times 3 meals per day), and rushed off to “Talbotville”-- which sounds like it might be a town, right?, no, wrong—to meet the tour that had started two days earlier. Our aim was to be there with enough daylight to set up camp, meet the others, have dinner, and hit the sack.
And so we drove to the original campsite following the GPS (technically "Donna") to Mt. Hotham in the Australian Alps then peeled off the paved road for some 50 kilometers of various versions of dirt—rutted track, gravel, the reddest soil you’ve ever seen—itself a windy, barely one-lane wide curlicue up into Great Alpine National Forest. And by up, I mean a 30-degree pitch, a 40-degree pitch, a 50-degree pitch, and I’m not exaggerating.
At a certain elevation the trees turned white, without leaves, without branches, with harsh black scars on their barkless trunks. How odd, how odd, not like any vegetation I could identify until one of the boys said, “There was a forest fire.” Of course. Everything is so different that I'd forgotten to throw common sense into my backpack. Fire may be a natural part of the forest's cycle but it leaves a very bleak footprint.
On we drove, to a sign for Grant, suggesting that there might be a settlement there (no), another for Grant's Cemetery (ok, something is settled there but it’s a bit hard to converse), until we started our descent, down to the Crooked River valley, so named for its meandering spine, and to Talbotville. Originally a mining town of 10,000 or so, today not a trace remains. Once the gold was scooped out, the inhabitants packed up their belongings—including their houses and shops and churches and stables and storehouses—and moved their infrastructure on to the next site of eventual abandonment.
When we arrived, we found fifty or so tents and camper trailers scattered about the ghost town, one “pump out” toilet (don’t ask), and three camper trailers that matched the description we’d been given of the group we were to meet. But no people appeared to be with the camper trailers, nor were their cars anywhere to be seen.
We wandered over to a nearby family—George and Nicole from Melbourne, and their two children Callum (6) and Michaela (3), welcome specimens to our two five-year-olds—and asked if they knew where are fellow tour-ers might be. They’d left that morning, Nicole said, in a convoy across the river and up the hill. It was getting later and later and so we decided to make dinner. Out came the camp kitchen, supplies emerged from the refrigerators and drawers, and before long we were eating and sharing George and Nicole’s camp fire with Finny playing chef to introduce the Aussies to S’mores.
By now it was 9 PM and our group still had not appeared. Miranda called Vic Widman, Mr. Great Divide Tours, and asked if he might know anything. His tracking system had detected that they had been on the side of Pinnacle Point mountain for three hours or so earlier in the day and were now making their way back, implying that there could have been a breakdown with one of the cars or they found something interesting or…
My mind traveled over much territory landing on the possibility that the Outback might be where aliens pluck their next inductees. After all, it’s so sparsely populated that who would ever know—except Vic Widman and us and George and Nicole and eventually everyone—but there would be no eyewitnesses. Yikes. My first night in the Outback and flying saucers have abducted the people we’re supposed to be four-wheel-driving with for the next five days. Time turned to the next hour and just then, out of the darkness, a line of light appeared up the hill, one car with lights ablazing, then another and another and another, unmistakably our group.
“I’m free! I’m free!” yelled Michelle, leaping from her 4WD. She turned out to be the lynchpin of the group, taking pictures, befriending everyone, offering helpful advice, and telling stories that should be on The Moth.
Another day: It is hot hot hot, so hot that Miranda and I just waded into the muddy (squish, squich) river to cool off, so hot that we just sat down on the stones beyond the mud. It worked. We drove again all day—up and down, over the innocuously named “conservation mounds,” moguls, really, that break the pitch of roads that you would not in your right mind hike up, never mind drive. Steep is one word vaguely suggestive of the impression these climbs leave; straight up might be more accurate. If you were to walk it, well, would you? You'd—or at least I—would need cramp-ons, a pitchfork for a walking stick, preferably accompanied by a mountain goat who would know where to put a foot or four.
Every turn of the wheel in our creeping caravan—which could mean there were some thirty or more tires in front of us depending on our slot in line—kicked up the dust, so thick at times that rescue inhalers were necessary, so opaque that we couldn’t see twenty feet in front of us.
Our phalanx of heavy duty robots—for these vehicles are different from normal cars (they have twelve gears, for example, and some have hydraulics that raise and lower the chassis to accommodate the furrows and grooves)—inched along ten-foot-wide black diamond trails, sometimes even narrower couloirs, sometimes more, up up up, sheer snaking slopes, then down down down at 60 degree drops, crossing water after water—22 crossings of The Crooked River yesterday—and on again, now coated in red dust, crackling UHF messages from the front of the pack to the end: “There’s an oncoming vehicle, mate, so pull over;” “it’s a bit ordinary here so walk it down;” “There’s a stump in the middle of the track so it’s a bit tight.”
It sounded so innocuous until we were walking it down, the car having been shifted into 4WD’s “low 1,” which meant the engine did the braking not the foot. After twenty or thirty of these plus a string of hairpin turns that Jay executed perfectly, they began to feel like the only places on Earth as Route 93, EZ Pass, and Rest Areas Ahead receded to their historical niches like my grandparents’ Victrola.
When a vehicle did come in our direction, we had to swing off to the edge of a ravine or nestle under a chalky cliff. It always seemed as if the oncoming cars were driving very fast as we crawl along rarely exceeding 20 or 25kmh, sometimes much slower than that.
It was day after day of bumpy roller coaster rides without the whoop and sans the stomach drop. Much of the time the forest resembled our beloved Bear Island, thick woods with dirt paths--only these were gums and eucalyptus and tea trees not maples and oaks and birches—and then it didn’t look like Earth at all.
So long as we stayed in the euphemistic comfort of our air conditioned car—which came to an end on the last day of the trip due to the need to conserve fuel—everyone was down to their last few kilometers as we hadn’t been able to fuel up since our second day at Dargo, the one live town where we stopped—a pub! a gas station! Bitumen roads!—we could tolerate the heat but once we left the car, a requirement of camping for the night, the heat sweltered us in blankets, electric spreads in which the thermostat continued to be turned up.
That was this evening when we made camp at Conglomerate Creek, internal temperatures rising for everyone, bull ants biting, adults and kids arguing, one couple exploding into a fight heard round the camp. Even the sudden wind doesn't cool these tempers until night fell and the sun moved on to the moods of other families, other campsites.
Treetop Campsite, Ripples Creek, Vic, Australia (GMT+14, 22 December 2014)—A couple of hours north of Melbourne, certainly not more, sits this Boy Scout camp, where some 1100 pitched their tents just a few weeks back. It’s a campsite in transition, as Paul, the new manager, works to bring it back from extinction.
The odd human trait to believe that everyone—or no one—is doing precisely what you’re doing tips to the all-inclusive side for me. Thus everyone on my interminable flight here had packed their long johns and hiking boots for surely there is but one way to live Down Under. Data—my own personal history—reminds me that this is not in fact the only way people travel in Australia but it is the way I travel now. This is my third trip to Oz, the first two for work with perhaps the country’s best known brand—Qantas—one of the few words in English that gets away with following a Q with an A and autocorrect doesn’t even do its sorry-mate-but-you-really-still-don’t-know-how-to-spell.
But those experiences were not camping in the least, what with being housed in an Intercon (Aussies abbreviate via the diminutive with abandon: rellies=relatives; breakie=breakfast; firies=fire fighters) and engaging in fine-dining crawls in search of the country’s most supreme crème brulee. One Saturday during our first visit, our hosts hired a houseboat so that we could motor up the Boorowa toward the restaurant that Zagat’s deemed to have the finest burnt custards in the land.
This is not that.
We, now, are crossing the land in a different style, we being four of my family plus me (the sixth member having left just a few days before my arrival), who move via 4-wheel-drive kitted out for water crossings, steep declines on rutted tracks, and hauling that weird contraption known as a camper-trailer, steel box by day, spacious tent where all five of us comfortably sleep at night, with side drawers that slide out housing a sink, a camp stove, a broiler, several pantries, and a sizable refrigerator. And a faucet, and many more drawers, and an awning or two, a prep shelf, and a dozen other things that I can’t think of at the moment.
Windmill Holiday Park in Ballarat
These comforts do not include those of the 4WD with its fridge, four more pantry drawers, a snorkel (for those water crossings that go a little too deep, which one did in not precisely that way a few months before I arrived), a kangaroo bumper (absolutely not its name but alas, no Internet access, which means I write without aid of the world’s largest encyclopedia), two solar panels that generate the power we need for this three-night stop, and two gas tanks, which slurp up $150 AUD at each filling.
Solar panels on right at Treetops
Gas prices have been falling since this excursion began, a good thing for those using large quantities of it but a bad thing for those who believe consumption monitoring is a very good thing yet again an excellent thing for those who would like to see an end to fracking and tar sands and a dozen other evil outputs of the industry that has fueled a level of comfort for a percentage of the world’s inhabitants far superior to any known before.
But back to our topic or is this our topic? Having swapped Brooklyn for the Bush, my daughter, son-in-law, and grandsons, are now into their fifth month of camping, principally in the Outback. Which is largely what Australia with its handful of large cities (wherein 90% of the population resides) and land mass that exceeds that of the US minus Alaska comprises.
The Bush, where wildlife abounds—emus, ostriches, alpacas, kookaburras, wombats, koalas, and, yes, those odd hoppers with the prehensile front legs/arms/paws. Until I looked it up in the dictionary just this very moment, I did not know its basic facts: This marsupial only found here and in New Guinea; its name came from a never-again-to-be-spoken Aboriginal language of the north Queenslanders. My kids are doing The Big Lap, a driveabout the whole continent-country, which could be some 20,000 miles, though it will be considerably more by the time they’re done.
People put such adventures on their wish lists then erase them with a dozen reasons why they could never. But these two did. Not exactly Brooklyn hipsters—though they did shop almost exclusively at the Grand Army Plaza Farmers Market, suffer the indignities of the sometimes-not-running B and the Q to take them to their from-the-outside-fascinating jobs in the city, and give birth to twins who knew their way around the Met, they decided and undecided to take this trip for quite a long time. And then they decided again, gave up their apartment, quit their jobs, dis-enrolled their nearly five-year-old boys from impending kindergarten in an overcrowded public school, put their stuff in storage, reduced their necessities to fourteen suitcases, and departed on July 30 for Sydney.
There they picked up their 4WD, which had been considerably modified from its original factory-form, and their camper trailer, and set out on their journey. They are documenting their five-Ws on their blog with such detail that the Australian Broadcasting Company has run a story on them and a camping magazine has contracted with them to write a series. It helps that they are fine writers and photographers—and that they have guts.
Within a month or so of setting out, they crossed a known challenge for 4WDrivers, Nolans Creek on the 55-km long Old Tele Track, named for the route along which the telegraph was taken all to way north in the east of the country. In their case, they happened to make that particular crossing (one of a dozen or so) in the company of three young men who were able to lend a hand when all did not go as predicted. They crossed the desert, this time without others in their wake, in 110-degree heat. They endured a night of snakes, winds, and a rainstorm so fierce that they, plus my younger daughter, who was visiting at the time, all ended up sleeping in the car. The car. Not the camper-trailer but, picture it, three adults and two little boys sleeping sitting up in a vehicle so packed with stuff that you can’t even see out the rear-view mirror.
And on they traveled—south to Longreach and Innamincka to remote stations, to The Flinders, the Great Ocean Road, and now, with my arrival, a few days first on Melbourne’s Cape Cod equivalent, the Bellarine [sp?] Peninsula; then a few more in Ballarat, an old mining town with a Sturbridge Village-like reconstruction, complete with the New York Bakery (we ordered the Devonshire Tea option, served with two scones, pronounced skons) and the Mechanics Library.
The boys were able to pan for gold (sadly, pebbles instead), peek inside the reconstructed tents of the miners, watch the melting of gold (or is it smelting) and go down into the first level of mine where gold was found both by mining companies and by father-and-son teams who picked along the vein of quartz that pulses with tiny flecks of gold; and now this campsite just outside Ripples Creek, where we were greeted by a mob of jumps. Are there as many words for kangaroos as for snow?
There couldn't be too many words for these strange creatures, who wander close to our campsite, chewing and pooping and hopping and rolling on their backs and tucking their joeys into their pouches then letting them out. They prance quickly, mostly at the end of the day when the sun is dialing down its bake temperature. And 1245 words later this writing session ends with the return of the family from a trip to town.
Nearly eight years ago, Daughter #1, Miranda Stamps, and her husband, Jay Albany, set off on a six-month trip to Asia. Although they were both gainfully employed in NY where they'd gone to college and met (she, Barnard, he, Columbia), they figured that this was a good time to chuck their 9-5s and have some fun before kids and grown-up responsibilities prevented exploring what might make them very happy. They chronicled their trip at the link above. I was lucky enough to join them for part of their New Zealand travels.
Nearly four months ago, they did it again, once more relinquishing gainful employment and a well-situated Brooklyn apartment. Instead of kindergarten, their five-year-old twin boys, Lake and Finn, are learning geography and botany and survival skills by doing as they travel through Australia, chronicled on their new blog and Instagram feed, Miles from Brooklyn.
Today Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Blythe Moore profiles their journey with the aptly titled "New York family trades urban jungle for outback adventure." Here's the pic, followed by some others from their blog that I love. Many dream of doing such things but few have the courage. They've barely met a single American so far--nor have they slept inside much! A very many Miles from Brooklyn and the life of the B and the Q (that phrase for the New Yorkers among us).