My journey to the Outback, NSW

My journey to the Outback, NSW 1000 662 Alanna Schultz

My journey to the Outback, NSW

I’m back to the red dirt roads (that I love), roads that stretch far into the distance, where you don’t see much either side of the road, often with no sign of a tree. This is the outback, well outback New South Wales, I wasn’t allowed to venture outside of the border during these State Government pandemic rules.

Let me share some of my 3,299-kilometer journey.

My first stop was my birthplace, Inverell.  I have not been to Inverell for 53 years.   The only thing I remember about the place was Uncle Allan’s farm just out of town and that he had seven sons.

I met my cousin in-law, Chrissy Mac, for the first time and she took me around to see my cousin Phillip, the eldest of Uncle Allan’s seven boys. The last time I saw Phillip was about 60 years ago at the old farm, where I fell off the white stallion. Phillip will be 70 this year and myself 65 and we both still remember those early days. It was marvelous sitting around the backyard table, drinking tea and chatting about what has happened during all those years gone by.

I decided to do a pretend parkrun (5km) in each town that I stayed during this trek. I found out that Inverell has one, so I googled the track and ran it on the Tuesday morning, starting just before sunrise. It was freezing, -2°C, and I had to wear three layers to keep warm. Once the Coronavirus issues are all over, I would love to go back and do the official Parkrun.

After the run I had breakfast at a café in town called Freckles, the food and coffee was absolutely amazing. I think too many people from the east coast think these country towns wouldn’t have such incredible eating places, wow, they do.

Most people on the East Coast think the outback is just over the Great Dividing Range. It’s not, you must go that little bit further than that. I laughed out loud when I arrived in Bourke. The welcoming sign into town read, ‘Welcome to BOURKE, gateway to the real outback’.  Now, you might ask “why did I laugh?” I was still driving on bitumen, to me that’s not quite out there yet.

On my way to Bourke I passed through several beautiful country towns. They were, Warialda, Moree, Collarenebri, Walgett and Brewarrina. I had a toilet break and a walk around at the Moree Information Centre, bought some gear from their tourist shop and then I continued on my way.

I stopped at Brewarrina for a cuppa and a bite to eat. The Muddy Waters Coffee Shop and the Gallery, a great place for a break. Made it to Bourke by midafternoon, a total of 590kms. I was lucky I decided to book ahead while I was staying in Inverell, nearly everywhere in town was booked out. Lots of people (NSW people only) heading west for a holiday.

I stayed in Bourke for two days as there was so much to see and visit here. Photos galore, over the two days, did I mention during my drive I would always stop if I saw a photo opportunity. Kenny Mac just can’t miss that one shot.

Anne and Gary Way at the Darling River Motel looked after me during my stay. They made the best breakfast each morning.  On the first morning I went for my run, I couldn’t do the Bourke Parkrun track as it was out at the racetrack. So, I did a loop of the town cemetery, just a tad over the 5km but it was great watching the sun come up. Funny thing, as I ran through town in the dark with a head lamp on, one of the locals walking to work asked where I had run from. He thought I had come from Walgett way. I laughed and said I only came from the Darling River Motel and was just doing a small jog out around the cemetery. I got back in time for a shower and breakfast.

I spent the two days visiting the Historical buildings, I especially liked the Darling River old wharf site. The town has put a lot of work into this area. The Back O’Bourke Exhibition Centre is being refurbished and is about 85% complete. It was utterly amazing, reading the history and seeing videos and the displays were brilliant. I also organised a driving tour of Mt Oxley while I was there. I also drove and walked the ‘Mudmap 3’, a 24 km loop visiting the 100 year old North Bourke Bridge (now a foot bridge), the relics of the paddle boat steamer P.S. Wave and the river bank on the opposite side of town.

I sent an email to The Family Hotel in Tibooburra requesting a room now knowing there were a lot of travellers on the road. On Friday morning after breakfast I drove around and grabbed a coffee at Diggers On The Darling before I headed off. At some point during the morning I would be traveling on the red dirt.

It was 194kms to Wanaaring and half that distance was sealed. I had read a great story about Kath and Col Brown who run the General Store. Col does the 400 kilometre mail run to the local stations twice a week. As well as the four hour round trip to Bourke to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables for the locals. I stopped for a cold drink and chat. I told Kath I would pop in on the way back and stay a night. As we chatted about the area and roads, Kath said I wouldn’t be able to cycle to the Cameron Corner Store as it was on the Qld side of the fence.

Another 240kms to Tibooburra with massive corrugations in the red sand as well as stretches of road that is smooth and easy. I love the beauty of the outback, I see more than just the red, this country has qualities that mesmerize. I often stop the Ute, hop out and listen to this land, she speaks so softly if you take the time to listen.

Arriving in Tibooburra sees the end to the flat red earth, there are millions of giant granite boulders surrounding the town, a totally different feeling.  After a long discussion with Mel (who runs the pub) I booked in for three nights because she also said I couldn’t get water from the Cameron Corner store as it’s on the bloody QLD side of the fence.

I got settled into my room in the back of the pub. Dusted off my mountain bike ‘Northern Express’ and readied all my bike gear for a cycle in the morning.  That night I had dinner at the pub, sitting next to the famous paintings on the walls. “During the 1960s Australian artists Clifton Pugh, Russell Drysdale and others spent several weeks painting the outback.” Love country pub meals, they are wholesome and big.

Up Saturday morning before the sun and I ran out to Sunset Hill to get some sunrise photos. The loop just happened to be 5kms, my Tibooburra Parkrun. How good is that!  Met Vicki (owner) at the Corner Country Store opposite the pub and ordered breakfast with a big cup of coffee. She said she nearly lost her business during the March covid lockdown. I had a big think about what I will do regarding my cycle trek.

My original plan was, “to drive to Tibooburra, visiting different places on the way, including Inverell where I was born. Stay in Tibooburra a couple of days at The Family Motel. I intended to leave my Ute out the back of the pub for five or six days and cycle to Cameron Corner and back. That idea was quickly stopped as I was told by several people that no one is allowed into the Cameron Corner Store because it’s in the Queensland side of the fence and a roadside sign displaying, “QLD Boarder Closed Heavy Fines”. I had fully intended to stock up on water to cycle the return journey to Tibooburra. Not being able to carry 5-6 days of water plus my other gear to cycle the complete loop. I had to do something else.”

After my morning run and a belly full of food I decided to go for a cycle up the road towards the Queensland border. Good time to think and enjoy the ride. It’s a long time since I have cycled on corrugations and red sand.

You must get back on the horse that threw you………After last year’s stack on my mountain bike, today was my first-time back cycling on an outback track.

The cycle was at first a little scary, not knowing how I would go on the corrugations. These outback roads are not like the dirt tracks I often ride back home. After each kilometre I became more confident and rode like an excited boy. The head wind was quite brutal heading north, “hey, toughen up” I said, coming back will be a breeze and fun. I rode a few kilometres past the Wompah Gate turn off, stopped at the top of a hill, for a drink and a gel then headed back. I was back in town by 1:00pm in time for lunch.

I spent the afternoon sitting on the front veranda of the pub. This veranda goes the full length of the Hotel and is directly on the main street, perfect spot to watch all the tourists arriving in town. There was certainly a lot of motor bikes come here for the weekend and plenty of grey nomads. I did my washing while I was there, the laundromat was opposite the pub, just so easy.

One of tourists, Geoff, had just done a circuit to Cameron Corner. He told me about the Jump Up loop. This gave me an idea for a new plan – “Plan B”.

Plan B – I will drive to Cameron Corner and stay the night at Fort Grey campsite in the Sturt National park. I’ll drive the Jump Up loop and come back via the Cameron Corner road. After I set up camp at Fort Grey, I’ll go up to the Cameron Corner brass plaque on the NSW side of the fence, about 30km, smile and take some selfies, of course. Do a walk to Sturt’s’ tree dig. I got my National Park permits to drive in and camp, cost me $22.

The drive to Fort Grey campsite via Jump Up road and Middle road took me through the centre of Sturt National Park, to Lake Pinaroo. The road criss-crosses Jump-ups, gibber plains, clay pans and rolling sand dunes. I continued to Cameron Corner and parked at the gate of the South Australian border. I walked about 70mtrs down along the dingo fence to the brass plague and took a selfie. Looking to the north, not 300 metres away was the Cameron Corner roadhouse but I was unable to go there because it’s in Queensland. So many border towns with one shop that can’t sell to us just over the other side of the fence. Our politicians sit in their plush offices in the city, they have no idea.

As I was walking back to my Ute, looking forward to camping the night in the bush, I heard a SUV coming along the road. It drove up to the border gate, people got out opened it and drove through. Hell, the border is closed, this couple didn’t know or couldn’t give a rats. The lady took a photo of the border sign and off they went.

After setting up my camp, I grabbed some gear and did the ‘Park Walking Trail’, a 7km hike which takes around 2 hours. I had plenty of water, sunscreen and my camera. The entire walk is extremely well organised with signs showing the way and other signs explaining about the landscape, flora and fauna on the way.

Walking also gave me the chance to stop and take photos whenever I liked, unlike a cycle trek where the best bits whiz by at 15-20km an hour. On foot you have all the time in the world to stop and take shots of birds, plants and some of the deep cracks in dry soil. The walk was a bit longer than the estimated 2 hours for me because I stopped heaps of times taking photos.

After walking across the dry lake bed I found Sturt’s Tree.  Lucky for me the lake was dry otherwise I would have had to walk an extra 14kms around the lakes edge. Sturt’s tree marks his 1845 camp on the mouth of Frome Creek. It’s quite amazing how these explorers trek for months in the outback because apart from Antarctica, Australia is the driest continent on the planet. Being so hot you don’t notice how much you’re sweating because it wicks away immediately.

On the way back at camp I saw a couple of kangaroos sitting in the shade of the trees on the last sand dune before the camp area. It had become quite hot over the last hour. You can understand the importance of having water on any walk or ride in this back country. It’s like when I’m trekking solo, water is reserved for drinking and cooking, there are no showers or excessive washing of dishes.

I had plenty of water to cook with and drink as I was only camping for the one night. I use Wilderness Wipes (Sea to Summit) to wash my body. It is so much nicer to sleep clean with the red dust removed. I use these when I do my solo cycles and camps on the side of the road. Now that I’m all clean, I begin my evening rituals of camping in the red dirt. I check my tent for spiders, ants or other crawlies. Then put what is needed into the tent for the night. I spray the lower area of the tent with Deet (insect repellent), zip up and head for the kitchen.

My kitchen consists of a small methylated spirits stove (Trangia), cup, utensils and a precooked meal ‘Cattlemen’s Beef Stew’ (Happy Camper Gourmet). I was lucky to be able to camp next to one of those National Park table and chairs.

I was up early, set my camera up just before sunrise. I put the billy on and made a cup of coffee and prepared my oatmeal mix ready for breakfast. It was 4°C this morning quite cold for me, so the cup coffee while photographing the rising sun was just what I needed.

Planning for the day ahead in my mind made the packing up of the campsite go quick. I decided to stop at the Tibooburra Country Store for a drink and a bite to eat before heading to Wanaaring, where I would stay the night. And on the Wednesday morning head to Lightning Ridge for a couple of days.

It was a six and half hour drive covering 585 kilometres to Wanaaring. I booked a cabin with Kath and Col and I fuelled my Ute up. After unpacking my gear into the room I went over to the ablution block and had shower. While walking back to my room, I remembered as I drove into the small town I drove across the Paroo River which was about 2½ kilometres from the Wanaaring Caravan Park. I thought if I get up before sunrise I could jog another pretend 5km Parkrun, which I did. Kath and Col have made this Store and Caravan park really lovely, a great place to stop on the outback journey.

I headed off to Lightning Ridge on a beautiful sunny blue sky morning. There was only 100km of dirt road left to do and then back to sealed roads all the way home. Not being in any hurry I stopped at Diggers On The Darling, Bourke for coffee and casually drove to Lightning Ridge taking lots of pictures on the way.

I arrived in town around 1:30pm and noticed most of the accommodation spots were full. I was lucky on the second loop of the main road I found a room at the Wallagulla Motel. I unpacked my gear, found the laundry and did all my washing which had piled up over the last three days with the camping, walking, jogging and travelling.

Over the next two days I ventured to six of the main tourist spots in town. They were all very impressive. Such a big difference to Australia’s other opal town of Coober Pedy. Lightning Ridge’s towns people are so much more friendly. Going down into the mines was incredible. The years spent digging all those shafts and tunnels. Not the sort of life I would venture on.

I drove back to Ballina the same way I came, over the range to Grafton then north. During the drive I was thinking all the time about the planned Birdsville Track cycle that Covid19 had so rudely stopped, hoping next year would be virus clean and the trek possible.

That was my 3,299 kilometre journey and I still love the Australian outback.

Cheers Kenny Mac