Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Gone like a shooting star

Murray River at Major Mitchell camp

Tooleybuc bridge

Mallee road

Murray River crossing at Euston

Take me to the moon


Karoonda railway

Stars with tent


The frost missed us, just

Murray full moon reflections

Sunset mallee camp

Morning murray

Morning from the road

Sheep country

The shooting star burned a path across a quarter of the sky before dying abruptly. Less than a week ago we were still in Melbourne where you can see the Southern Cross as one of only a few groups of stars not drowned out by the light pollution called a city. But here, camped in the Mallee scrub, we can barely identify the Southern Cross amongst the myriad of other stars burning just as brightly. We have to find the pointer stars to be sure of its location. Minutes earlier we both saw the same shooting star and exclaimed simultaneously into the otherwise silent darkness. No need to make a wish.

Last Wednesday, our day jobs on hold for six months, we caught a train out to Swan Hill to kick off the long ride that will take us to Kangaroo Island off the South Australian coast, up the Mawson Trail to the Flinders Ranges, "up the middle" to Katatjuta and Uluru. Onwards, further north to Katherine, Wolf Creek crater, the Bungle Bungles, Broome, down the West Coast through Kimberleys and Pilbera towards Perth where we will follow the Munda Biddi trail to Albury on the south coast; then traverse across the vast country to return home.

As we left Swan Hill, we were already mixing it with trucks - Wednesday must be a particularly heavy freight day in the area - on the main highway along the Murray River, and it wasn't long until the sun was in our eyes telling us to find a camp before the road (or something on it) got to us. We pulled down a dirt track to one of Major Mitchell's camps on the Murray. The sky was an amazing blue with wispy cirrus and contrails, all reflected in this quiet bend of the river. We found a spot free of River Red gums; perched with their visible roots, barely clutching at the bank, like at any moment they'd dive into the frosty river. Collecting some native nettles, we added them to some cous cous and tuna; boiling them to remove any sting.

Early the next morning, three kangaroos hopped nearby, waking me briefly to glance out of the tent at them. I love the sound of their big feet, like a strong steady heartbeat. We eventually rise also, and head to Tooleybuc. The lift span bridge warns of its limitations, and the flock of pigeons that reside on its structure leave with haste and a flash of grey wings whenever a truck passes on it, like they know something we don't.

Later that day on the road, I unexpectedly witness a fluffy white chick being stolen from a nest by a large grey bird of prey I can't recognise. Mallee gums and saltbush watch us pass from the sides of the road here; the bronze of the leaves and bark suit the red soil underneath.

When we reach camp, down a dirt river-access track off Tol Tol road on the outskirts of Robinvale, and follow its bends to the river bank, a large flock of cormorants takes off all at once. The pelicans remain, big and prideful enough to stay put for the likes of us. There is no one else around, so we scout around for a prize spot. The river reds are the frame of any picture of a wide river with pelicans lazily drifting around like sailboats, this way and that on the whim of chasing fish; the occasional water plops signal a carp surfacing; the blue sky slowing giving way to sunset gold.

Someone else arrives and sets up a campfire slightly upstream. This is what the Murray would have looked like -- campfires along the banks, but of course the Murray has changed a lot since then. More recent history of the man they called 'Possum' - a shearer who hadn't paid his dues in the 1920s and too full of pride or shame to return to Irish family, lived on the Murray the rest of his days in solitary: sleeping in tree hollows and subsiding on what the Murray would offer him. He walked the length of the Murray once or twice, and even buried himself up to the neck once to get away from the mosquitoes.

"When we were kids, we used to catch mussels in the River Murray by simply standing up in the river, looking down at our feet, and kicking up the mussels we saw. The water was that clear. The carp soon ruined that." This is the story a man who may have been in his 90s told me once when I was visiting the area.

But as we camp in the now, we see the planets Jupiter and Venus aligned on one side of the sky, and the moon rising over the river the other, reflected in perfect facsimile.

Next, we are riding on the Sturt Highway - the mix of birds of prey circling on thermals and the vehicles of prey that drive below them. But even with the graceful flight of wedge tails, with minor corrections to flight made with tail features and wing, there is little space for admiring gazes skywards because the road is narrow and doesn't like sharing; lest we become prey ourselves. We are joined by spinifex grass now, nettled amongst the Mallee gum. Ten kilometres out of the next town we spot some bush down a dirty road, so head in to make camp. The stunning sunset was the opening act before the main show: the star filled dome.

The next day we rode along a quiet, remote C-route to get to the Murray Sunset National Park. In the afternoon we were stopped for a snack, when a man in a ute pulled up on the wrong side of the road to lean out his window and say in a gruff voice "Where ya headed?". If that isn't a scene from "Wolfe Creek 15: Why do we even still have tourism" I don't know what is.

After the final 10 km of gravel track, we make it to the Murray Sunset park at sundown. The stars gradually arrive for their shift and we glance up every 5 minutes or so and get blown away again by their number and beauty. As we get into the tent, a huge orange moon rises from the low scrub; but it isn't long before we sleep.

Next morning, crossing the border into South Australia and making it through the quarantine checkpoint, we head towards the bogan centre that is Loxton, via a C-road, to get supplies for the next few days where we won't see many services. We're heading down the Karoonda Highway, which is a rail-trail of sorts: the road running close enough to the no-longer-used track most of the time, with localities (no longer towns) spaced about 10 miles (16 km apart). Karoonda is aboriginal for 'winter camp' according to Google, so it seems appropriate. The road is fairly quiet and has green parrots and wedge tails to keep my interest. After 90 km we find the bush camp with the shooting stars and satellites I mentioned earlier.

Next day we have some rain and headwinds. I spot some mammatus clouds that look a lot like a face - with puffy cheeks and a mouth. Out of the mouth sprouts a rainbow. A technicolour yawn cloud! A truck barrels towards me, bringing with it a cloud of water vapour it has picked up along the way from the wet road. I pass into the cloud of wet and turbulance like it might consume me. We are still on the Karoonda highway and make it into the town of its namesake in the afternoon, emptying it of its snackfoods on approach. This is a land of Poll Merino stud farms and wheat. Karoonda is the only town of consequence on the line, with huge silos taking the harvest from the grain trucks that pour it in over a grid at the bottom of the silos. The town is pretty much just a service station and a IGA store.

The headwinds have been wearing us out slowly like a slow release poison, but as we leave town the headwinds have kicked up a few notches - the grass on the side of the road is now at 45 degrees. Not far out of town I pull into a siding and we carry out bikes over the railway line to camp on the edge of a plot of pasture. We are exhausted and merely stare at the ground before mustering the will to pitch camp and cook food.

Recovered, the next sun up we continue on to Tailem Bend to cross the Murray on the ferry (after visiting the bakery), and then on to Wellington, whose pub overlooks another ferry crossing (and whose beer and fish burgers I can recommend). We then skirt around Lake Alexandria to head into Langhorne Creek where to take camp at a roadside stop.

The stars are still amazing at night here. We are about 60 km from Port Elliot where we will "port" for 2 nights, and do some whale watching if we are lucky. We are looking forward to Kangaroo Island and the promise of more golden sunsets and star-filled nights.

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