“Just follow the Old Ghan Railroad north until Marree and turn left”
These are my instructions to Mr T, as we are on the lookout for the Marree Man.
We’re on day 2 of our Outback flying trip and heading north after circling inside the crater of Wiilpena Pound earlier.
The Old Ghan Railroad is not that obvious to spot from the air, but luckily it runs along the Outback Highway and that is easy to follow with the few trucks and caravans leading the way.
We fly over Parachilna, which was one of our potential stopovers with its famous Prairie Hotel until it turned out too complicated to arrange a lift from the airstrip ( save it for the Overlander trip, says Mr T ).Read More
It’s been a while since we’ve had a family gathering at the house. Like everyone else, Covid-19 has been a real kill joy and we’ve been reclused since end of March, following instructions from those who know best, a.k.a experts.
Last weekend was a milestone in as much that 20 people were allowed to gather in someone’s house, up from the initial number of 5. Other rules were relaxed, I know, but that particular announcement made our day because with our family, a gathering attracts easily 15 to 20 people.
It also happened to be Sam’s 5th birthday, and since we missed out on big celebrations for the April and May birthdays, it wasn’t that much of a stretch to make it an occasion for a get together.
For these of you not in the know, Sam is our beloved Labrador. Yes, we are talking about a dog’s birthday party. We have officially joined “the other side” and become the kind of dog owners who consider their pet as family member ( he is known at the Vet as Sam Steen! )
So the family was invited for a Sunday lunch. As usual, everyone asked what to bring and my initial suggestion was for dog themed and friendly food. How different and fun!
“ We can’t take off until the fog has lifted “ It is flying rule 101, explained by Mr T as we sit on the airstrip in Cootamundra, on that cold Sunday morning in June.
This is the start of a week of flying the Outback, a plan hatched only a few days before when we heard that Lake Eyre was filling up with water for the first time in years. While heavy rainfalls and floods caused devastation in Northern Queensland in early 2019 with homes lost and much of the state’s cattle industry wiped out, a few months on, the water has made its way slowly down south filling in rivers and plains, rejuvenated after years of drought. Suspecting this kind of weather event only happens once in a blue moon ( or a lifetime ), we could not miss the opportunity to see it for ourselves.
And because we have not ventured that far in the outback before, a “quick” flight to check out the lake is turning into an air safari, joining iconic dots around the desert zone known as the Outback Loop. From mountain ranges, to outback tracks and sandy deserts, we’re off hoping to tick a few places off our bucket list.
Our aviation friends Terry and Deidre are coming along for the ride. Terry and Mr T go way back, he is an aeronautical engineer and used to fly until recently. I am happy to let him have the copilot seat so that Mr T can rely on someone with a much higher degree of competency than yours truly. Also, it means that I get to seat at the back and take photos, so it’s a win-win situation. As for Deidre, she loves these outback trips and is used to either fly or go caravanning. As we both share a love of food and Moet, we look forward to see what kind of gourmet adventure this trip will turn into.
Having held our first flight briefing the night before at the Cootamundra Country Club, we’re all fresh and bushy tailed this morning, excited for our first leg. Today’s destination is Wilpena Pound in South Australia’s Flinders Ranges National Park. The plan is to leave early, travel to Broken Hill to refuel before continuing to the Pound, another 275kms to the west. Ideally, we’d like to get there with enough time and daylight to do a fly over before landing.
So we load the plane with our soft bags and patiently wait for the fog to dissipate. If patience is a virtue, it’s a pre requisite for pilots, and I can tell Mr T’s frustration as minutes turn into hours before the sun finally breaks thru.
It is nearly lunch time by the time we take off and head north west.
The green paddocks of the Riverina gradually give way to a landscape of parched grazing lands around Ivanhoe,
the partially dried out inland lake system of Menindee
and finally the red dirt desert fringed town of Broken Hill, 3 hours later.
This is a quick stop, with no time to go and explore, as our captain is keen to make up time and arrive at Wilpena Pound before nightfall.
What is Wilpena Pound? It is a natural amphitheatre of mountains located 429 kilometres north of Adelaide, South Australia in the heart of the Flinders Ranges National Park. Mr T reckons it’s a whole bunch of rocks, but we’re talking about 800 million years old towering sandstone cliffs here, surrounding a huge circular basin, 17kms by 7kms! It is home to a host of animals, birds and vegetation and formerly used by graziers as a natural enclosure to keep cattle and horses.
There are 2 airstrips where to land around Wilpena Pound. One on the eastern face, near the Wilpena Pound Resort, which is used by scenic flights at all hours of the day and requires permission to use. Another one at the Rawnsley Park Station, on the southern face, which still requires permission but is more accessible. Since our overnight accomodation is at Rawnsley Park Station, we decide to land there. While there is a modest landing fee ( $50 for twin engine aeroplanes ), transfer from the airstrip to the resort is free ( we could have easily walked there, if we didn’t have all these bags!).
Rawnsley Park Station, was settled as part of Arkaba Station in 1851. One of the first pastoral leases settled in the Central Flinders Ranges, it was granted for a period of 14 years by the Colony of South Australia for what was then known as ‘unoccupied waste lands’. For the next 100 years, large pastoral properties were resumed for farming, with leases being issued and passed on from graziers to farmers, back to graziers as a range of natural disasters ( droughts particularly ) caused hardship on everyone. Present day Rawnsley Park Station was purchased by Clem Smith in 1953 and expended over the following 50 years to encompass 29,000 acres. It is now run by Clem’s son, Tony and his wife Julie, and while the Station still runs 2000 sheeps, its main business has been tourism since the introduction of cabins and sheep shearing demonstrations in the late 1960’s. Nowadays, it is well known for its award winning eco villas and private pool among these looking for a bit of luxury in the Outback, though I must say their more modest holiday units, in which we stayed, are extremely comfortable too. Complete with a queen size bed, fully equipped kitchen and ensuite, what more could we want for one night?
Bushwalking trails about around the property and by the time we land and are shown to our units, we have just enough time and daylight to stretch our legs on a short walk to Alison Sadle. The view takes in the various ranges and hills of Arkaba, with Wilpena pound dominating to the East.
I am busy taking photos, but Mr T is more interested in checking his phone, as this is one of the few spots were mobile reception is available. No wildlife, but plenty of shrubs.
We return in time to meet with Terry and Deidre at the Woolshed restaurant for a sunset drink and dinner.
Housed in the original woolshed, the restaurant uses local produce including their own lamb. Chicken, duck, beef and kangaroo are on offer as well as a vegetarian risotto. But we can’t go past their Lamb Tasting platter, the specialty of the house! For $37 per person, you get to to try lamb cooked in 6 different ways: lamb silverside with beetroot puree, chargrilled lamb cutlets with chimichurri, lamb sausages with red pepper pesto, lamb rump with roast pumpkin, Memphis style lamb ribs with housemade BBQ sauce and slow braised lamb leg with orange and parlsey sauce.
All we need to add is some french fries, a bowl of roasted vegetables, some greens ( at my insistence ) and we’re good. So good in fact, that we nearly skip dessert, feeling totally full.
Deidre is one step ahead however, and while I am chatting away with our waitress ( a young French backpacker working on the farm in compliance with her working visa ), she arranges for 4 serves of coconut and cranberry sponge cake and mango sorbet to be packed for us to enjoy later.
Deidre is not only a great food companion, but she also turns out to be ready for anything quirky I put to her. Like tagging along in the bush in the middle of the night, as I want to take pictures of the night sky. Leaving the boys to their nightcaps in the warmth of the units, we ventured far enough to get away from the artificial lights and try to capture shots of the milky way. Full moon doesn’t help and I obviously have a lot to learn, but it is a lot of fun and after nearly an hour in cold darkness, we giggle our way back inside, ready for dessert and champagne!
Next morning is very subdued. Breakfast is not included in the rate, nor is it provided at the restaurant, as guests are presumed to bring their own food and make use of the cooking facilities in the units. However, being fly-ins without any supplies, Deidre managed to purchase breakfast provisions from the restaurant the night before and has Terry knocking on our door with an offer to join them on the verandah. I bring along an additional fry pan, and next thing you know, Deidre and I are cooking bacon, eggs and tomatoes, Terry is making cups of tea and toasts while Mr T is putting a flight plan together. It is a gorgeous sunny day, promising a cloudless sky for our next airborne leg.
But not before we are picked up by the shuttle driver, who kindly takes us the long way back to the airstrip, giving us a tour of the resort. While the holiday units are the closest to the airstrip and the Woolshed restaurant, the road runs past the Eco Villas and leads on to the bush camping area. This brings back memories to Terry and Deidre, who visited years ago while on a caravanning holiday. Our driver delights us with stories of European tourists who book the villas in January and are surprised by the searing Australian heat, while most of the domestic clientele travels here in the winter, when the nights may be cool but the days are dry and balmy. Mr T takes tips for a possible return visit ( a tour of Australia by 4WD is on his bucket list! ) and soon, we are back in the plane.
Since we missed the opportunity to fly over the pound the previous afternoon, Mr T makes up for it by circling over twice, climbing 1000m over Rawnsley Bluff at the southern end. What looks like a wall of mountains from the outside, completely encircles the gently-sloping interior of the Pound.
There is a high saddle over which a walking trail passes and a gorge on the eastern edge which I could not locate, despite my captain best efforts to fly low. The interior of the Pound does not rise to any height at the northern end, but instead simply drops off very steeply to the plain below in a series of steep gullies. I am in such an awe of the grandeur and the scale of the Pound, that I ignore the turbulences caused by the wind drafts, until quizziness starts to creep up and I tap on Mr T’s shoulder with a thumb up.
Next stop, William Creek, 390kms to the north.
provisions[ plural ]
UK /prəˈvɪʒ.ənz/ US /prəˈvɪʒ.ənz/
provisions for the journey
Cambridge Dictionary (n.d)
The past few weeks have been interesting. Like everyone else, we have been in lockdown in our house in Sydney.
But unlike a lot of people, Mr T, Marc, Anne and I, are no strangers to self-isolation. Years of cruising around the world meant a dozen ocean passages and remote anchorages with no one around to socialise with.
It wasn’t always fun, and cabin fever hit many a times, to the extent that, in the later years made a point of joining other family boats when we could. For everybody’s sanity. But that was the trade-off for a life of adventure and excitement, where freedom and autonomy were the guiding principles. And we survived, learning to be patient, to occupy ourselves, to appreciate each other’s company and to admire what nature has to offer. More importantly, we never stopped counting our blessing for being in good health, on a safe and well maintained boat, with plenty of provisions to see us to our next destination.
I guess what I am saying is, that we approached this 2020 lockdown as, yet, another long ocean passage ( with the added bonus of internet and non-stop connections now). Fortunate enough to have a roof over our heads, the ability to work and study from home, stay in touch with family and friends online, we have been focusing on “getting to the other side”, keeping healthy and well fed.
With Mr T and I initially considered “at risk”, we started our quarantine earlier than most people. The kids were sent grocery shopping a couple of times and D dropped off a few items as well, until I decided it would be easier for all of us, if we had everything home delivered. It started with the supermarket for all non-perishables. Then, our beloved Farmer’s Markets closed, but thankfully a lot of the stall holders “pivoted” to provide online ordering and home delivery. It probably wasn’t the business model they had in mind, but rolling with the punches is the order of the day and this is how we’ve managed to buy our meat and seafood in the past few weeks.
As for our fruits and vegetables, I initially thought I would grow my own. Seriously, this idea lasted 2 days, until I found out about the Community Organic Project, a local collective offering a weekly box delivery. I started the subscription when we couldn’t leave the house due to full lockdown, and loved it so much that I am still using the service all these weeks later. All produce are organic, sourced from farmers and businesses by Alison. While we have a choice of small or large-sized box, there is no saying in what will be in the box. Alison picks whatever looks good that morning, trying to balance basics like tomatoes and apples, with exotic items for people to try, such as finger limes or cavalo nero. I love the variety and personally look forward to my “Mystery Wednesday Box”, as it takes me out of the cooking rut I sometimes find myself in. So far, I have been experimenting with jerusalem artichoke chips, eggplant gratin and even roasted white choko!
The fruit offerings though not as varied, are plentiful. Bananas and oranges are the first to disappear, while grapes and apples somewhat always end up in juices or cakes.
I would not go as far to say that our diet is plant based, but we certainly eat a lot more vegetables than we used to, as a result of this new way of provisioning.
Take this provision salad. I first came across it while cruising in Trinidad, 15 years ago. I used to think it was named after the variety of ingredients, then realised it comes from using starchy root vegetables like yams, taro, cassava, or sweet potatoes known in the Caribbean diet as “ground provisions”. In the Caribbeans, these are available year round, they keep stored for a long time, and provide a good source of carbohydrate at a very economical price. For that reason, it used to be a staple on the boat.
It is an easy mix of root and green vegetables, herbs and a dressing. There are no real rules, any veggies you have on hand will do, as will any kind of dressing. Traditionally, people will cut the provisions into cubes, and dice the rest of the vegetables. I am lazy, and tend to cut mine in wedges or rough chunks. The texture might be different but the flavours stay the same.
This is still one of my favourite veggie dish. Not only because it is the perfect way to use up items on their last leg in the crisper, but also because it brings any grilled meat to life! And takes me back to lazy beach barbecues in the Caribbean islands.
Serves 4-6 , as a side
1 kg sweet potatoes ( or any ground provisions, such as taro root or yams ), peeled, boiled and cut into wedges
1 red capsicum, sliced
1 celery stalk ( leaves included ) , sliced ( leaves chopped )
1 handful of salad leaves
1 small cooked beetroot, peeled and cubed
1 red onion, peeled and sliced
1 shallot, trimmed and chopped
1 handful parsley
2/3 cup olive oil
1/3 red wine vinegar
1 tsp garlic, minced
1 tbsp dijon mustard
- In a large bowl, combine the sweet potatoes with the capsicum, celery, green leaves, beetroot, shallots and parsley.
- In a small bowl, combine the olive oil, vinegar, garlic, and mustard. Season with salt and pepper. Whisk until you have a thick emulsion.
- Add to the provision mix and toss to coat evenly.
- Garnish with extra parsley and refrigerate until ready to serve.
As we descend thru thick clouds from 9000 feet, we emerge in the foggiest and wettest weather I’ve flown in. “ Lucky, the instruments are working “ I say, “ since we can’t see where we are going “
We’re flying into Coffs Harbour in driving rain. Thankfully winds are light and Mr T manages one of his legendary smooth landings. It’s been 2 years since our last visit, but it feels like yesterday as we park the plane and make our way into town. Nothing has changed.
Last time we came here was to visit Judy, Mr T’s sister. We’re back for her 80th birthday, looking forward to catching up with her and the family the next day.
We’re staying near the Jetty, just like last time ( different accomodation though ). And being a Sunday, the markets are on. Our timing is off, however, as the stalls are packing up. My hopes of a food truck snack dashed, I follow Mr T’s lead and settle for a light lunch: burger and wine at Attitude Burger overlooking the marina. It is a good start!
We’re actually sharing the burger, because though we’re both peckish, it is too late for lunch but still early for dinner. I have my sights on Element Bar for dinner, where we really enjoyed our meals previously. We pass the afternoon wandering around the marina, checking in the Yacht Club which is surprisingly quiet for a Sunday afternoon ( or maybe it’s just me?) and generally trying to work an appetite for dinner.
Luckily, the weather has cleared by then but I err on the side of caution and select the couch inside, just in case.
I am happy to see that Element’s menu has not changed much and our favourites are still on offer: we order the crispy coconut chicken tacos to start with.
They’re chicken tenders, coated into coconut crumbs and served in soft taco shells with charred corn, mango and avocado salsa. You know how much I love my tacos!
Mr T goes for the salt and pepper fried calamari as well as the spring rolls, perfect pairing for his Stone and Wood beers ( it is Happy Hour, what can I say?)
Thinking of Anne who is not with us but wishes she was, we order the triple cheese mac bombs. They taste as good as they sound, and I can’t help but send her a picture! We also ask for a house salad, so we can have something healthy, but really that would be optional.
It’s w a waddle back to our quarters, the Pacific Marina Apartments, and not long before bed.
Torrential rain wakes us up in the morning. You know, the kind of downpour brought on by cyclones or tropical lows hovering at sea. So much for my plans to walk down the beach for a sunrise shot. We mull over the possibility of staying in for the day, but that’s boring and we still need to go out for breakfast anyway. A quick call to the rental car company later, I am at the wheel of a nice SUV ready to hit the road.
But first, breakfast. Just across from the apartments, there is this coffee van called Supply which is part of a cafe of the same name. I originally intended to grab some cappuccinos and head back to the appartment, but the space and menu look too inviting and I phone Mr T, asking him to join me instead. The decor inside is semi-industrial, with exposed beams and timber frames, white tiled walls and polished concrete floors. There is a mix of large communal tables, smaller settings and a lounge area adjoining the bar ( not an option at 9am! ). On both sides of our table for 2, are people taking pictures of their plates, which makes me feel right at home and has Mr T rolling his eyes as in “ not one of these places… “ I am quite smitten with the breakfast menu which features wholesome choices, just what we need this morning.
I start with a Bondi Juice, while I wait for Mr T. It is a zingy concoction of carrot, orange, lime and ginger. They take their coffee seriously here, showcasing 4 types from the Pacific, South America and Africa. They roast the beans themselves and you can buy a bag to take home. I wish I did, because Mr T’s cappuccino and my bulletproof coffee were really nice. I never had butter and MCT oil in my coffee, that was a first and it didn’t really tasted buttery as I feared. I think I might try it at home.
Another nice surprise, was the grilled asparagus on rye bread with pea puree, fresh ricotta, cherry tomatoes, a poached egg and salsa verde. As they say on Masterchef, there is a lot going on that plate, both in flavour and in quantity.
Mr T wanted an omelette, and was very pleased with his, coming with mushrooms, taleggio cheese, pepperonata and toast. Like I said, wholesome awesome food.
Feeling invigorated after breakfast, we jump in the car, hoping the rain will eventually stop. We head south to Urunga, which is where we met Mr T’s old friend, Keith, a couple of years ago. We promised to come back for another visit, but sadly, Keith passed away before we got a chance. So it is with a hint of nostalgia that we drive thru the town on our way to the boardwalk.
Starting from Urunga, the boardwalk passes along the banks of the Kalang River, to the junction with the Bellinger River and out to the ocean. It has stunning views inland past Urunga town and up the river valleys to the Great Dividing Range, north across the rivers to Mylestom Spit and south along the beach to Picket Hill and beyond to Nambucca Heads.
It’s a 2 klm return walk, and while lovely and peaceful in today’s overcast weather, I imagine it would be even more stunning on a warm sunny day. The area is renowned for its local bird life and wetlands.
We’re no experts but we manage to spot stingrays shuffling sand in the shallows, pelicans sitting on old poles,
a big lizard on rocks and
my favourite wildflowers, banksia in the wetlands. By a struck of luck, the rain has stopped just in time for our walk, and we are the only people around.
I glance at the map and suggest to Mr T that we drive inland to Never Never, attracted by the sound of it. Visions of remote and sparse areas of outback Australia dance in my head, remembering the lines of Australian poet Barcroft Boake :
“Out on the wastes of the Never Never
That’s where the dead men lie!”
While we are far away from dry and dusty Northern Territory or Western Queensland, this little corner of rural NSW has its fair share of charm and mystery. With a population of zero residents, near Bellingen, it is part of the Dorrigo National Park and a haven for bushwalks and picnics.
We love the drive thru Bellingen, last visited when the farmers markets were on, but today looking more like a ghost town.
The road known as Waterfall Way, climbs the escarpment of the Great Dividing Range, skirting the southern edge of the Dorrigo world heritage rainforest and crossing the Newell and Sherrard waterfalls for which the route is named. Winding up hill thru misty rainforest, we reach the green plateau where the small town of Dorrigo sits.
Only 2 klm out, is Dangar Falls, a 30 meters waterfall with a viewing platform easily accessible from the carpark. Thanks to recent rains, there is plenty of water running and should we continue another 120 klm west on that road, there is the promise of further waterfalls and gorges all the way to Armidale. That would mean we would not be back on time for Judy’s birthday dinner however.
We meet Judy at her favourite restaurant, Latitude 30 at the Jetty. She is joined by her daughters, Leanne, Kim and Vanessa who also turned up with husbands Kasten and Derek. Some of the grandchildren, Rhiannon, Tahnee and Ben are also here. Somehow our party of 12 manages to squeeze around the table and there is nothing like a round of cocktails and beers to start!
Some dishes are local’s favourites and I guess are not allowed off the menu: oysters are a must for Kim and Derek, as are paella and chowder for Tahnee and her partner, Jess.
Mr T plays it safe, ordering flat bread and taramasalata for starters, and the mahi mahi special which comes pan fried on a bed of confit potatoes and beurre blanc sauce.
Judy decides an Aperol Spritz is a perfectly adequate starter and goes for the mahi mahi main. Both her and Mr T like their fish, then again mahi is Mr T’s favourite’s fish. Personally I can’t go past the beetroot and vodka cured kingfish. It is a very pretty dish, with orange & saffron infused champagne gel, citrus salad, pomegranate & horseradish cream and wattleseed lavosh. And it tastes as amazing as it looks. I choose the other main special, the swordfish with a salad of jerusalem artichokes, beetroot, radishes, prosciutto wrapped figues and walnuts. It is a delicious combination of all my favourite foods.
Vanessa, Rhiannon and Ben, prefer the more “classic” option of fish and chips which looks very tempting indeed.
As for dessert, the restaurant allowed Judy to bring her own birthday cake. Everyone had a slice, albeit in my case, a thin one!
Neither Mr T or I felt like getting up the next morning, but since we woke up to a dry and sunny day we shook ourselves off and headed out for a sunrise hike up the Muttonbird Island Nature Reserve.
Also known as Giidany Miirlarl to the local Gumbaynggirr Aboriginal people, this seabird rookery in the heart of Coffs Harbour is surrounded by spectacular views from coast to islands and a must-do everytime we visit.
Muttonbird Island is a great spot for watching birds up close; as one of the only easily-accessible places in NSW where the migratory wedge-tailed shearwater nests. The birds spend the Southern winter in Southeast Asia and are said to return to the same burrow in August each year in Australia. They keep one single egg warm and raise their chick, then leave in April the following year. While I spotted a few burrows, there were no signs of birds that morning. It is also an important Aboriginal place, harbouring stories of the Dreaming and a wealth of traditional resources are available at the Outdoor Learning Space located at the base of the island.
It is a short but steep walk to the eastern side lookout, and while Mr T and I are happy to hike at a leisurely pace, we are overtaken by a few joggers who clearly like the early morning challenge as they pass us multiple times. The 360deg views over the Solitary islands are well worth the effort though, as we gaze at the ocean on one side then the hinterland and the marina.
While fishing boats are returning and offloading their catch at the co-op, charter boats are heading out and the marina businesses are waking up. We stop by at the Galley, a small cafe tucked away in the marina precinct, and on recommendation from Derek the night before, order the Egg and Bacon Roll. It comes with a thin beef patty, as well as very crispy bacon and a runny egg, tasting more like a burger than a traditional egg and bacon roll. But I am not complaining. Coupled with a fresh juice and a creamy cappucino, it’s a pretty nice start to the day.
Later on, we quickly catch up with Judy and family for a morning tea of leftover birthday cake and some freshly home baked apple pie, making me feel like I am about to burst!!
As we bid our farewell, there is a vibe of excitement in the house and indeed all around Coffs Harbour today, because Elton John is performing tonight. It sounds like half of the town is getting ready for the concert and certainly appreciating the media attention.
At the airport, we can’t help being caught up in the buzz: as we taxi off, the tower warns us to be on the lookout for the star’s jet flying in! Who would have thought this regional town of NSW would make its mark on the map!