Sunday 4th Jan
Struggle out of bed at 6am to check out and catch Ando’s bus from Central Station at 7am. Our driver, Ted, is running a little late by the time he gets to us and things only get worse. Someone called Pong cannot be found nor contacted at their pickup point and two Swiss guys missed their pickup at 6am. Pong is never found and never calls either Ted or the office, but the Swiss guys have hired a car and will follow us round the tour.
We stop for a look at the 3 Sisters rocks in the Blue Mountains, climbing down a steep staircase to a natural platform on one of them. They valley around appears almost totally unspoilt and is almost completely covered in trees. The two Swiss guys catch up with us here to reveal that they have brought along a mate and there are now three in the Swiss army.
We drive to Sofala, Oz’s oldest mining town, for lunch and a swim in the river. The cafe is a small place that can just about handle the numbers on our small bus. Just as we have finished being served the Oz Experience crowd turn up in a huge 3 axle bus, so we get to sit eating in front of them as they queue up. It is here we start to realise the annoyance of the Ozzie bush fly; they are everywhere, are very persistent and seem to have a fondness for your nostrils and ear holes. Most of us are eating sandwiches but Tony has ordered the full English brekky which gets covered in flies the second he stops waving them off. The swim in the river is fun and cooling but before long we head off.
The next stop is at Hill End where we go Gold Panning in a creek. I’d done this before in New Zealand, but the technique demonstrated here was very different and far more aggressive. This may have had something to do with the mud we were panning here, instead of the fine gravel we had back in NZ. It was hot work in the creek bed, with the flies driving us mad, but we all found little bits of gold. It was clear, however, that gold panning is not a good get rich quick scheme and you have to admire the determination of those who had made it their livelihood.
Just up the road at the village of Hargraves we joined the locals who were having a BBQ for a quick game of football, tourists vs locals and a beer. We had the advantage of numbers but they had the advantage that the little kids were fairly handy with a ball, but none of us was going to go in with a crunching tackle on people under half our size. It looked like a 0-0 stalemate and halftime was going to be declared when the 1st goal was scored. I was forward on the right when a high ball came in to me; I took the speed out of it with my chest and then volleyed it past the keeper with my left foot. 1-0, half-time & I have just played the best bit of football of my life. The second half saw more goals for both sides but our team prevailed.
During the drive we found that Ted is the owner & sole full time employee of Ando’s Outback Tours. The company was started by an Andy before passing it onto his son. The two of them managed about a year before they were burnt out when Ted bought it up and has been running it for the last 4 years. Late that evening we arrived at Ted’s farm, Eulin Sheep & Cattle Station, where there was a great BBQ dinner (including roo steak) and a party into the night. Ted warned us he was waking us early and that we should not get cleaned up but should dress in closed shoes and long trousers. I took the hint and headed for the hay around midnight. Others partied on until 4am
Monday 5th Jan
We were woken up at 5:30 just before the sun rose. Within half an hour we were all in the back of 2 Toyota Landcruisers with 4 dogs and off to hunt wild pigs. The dogs were wearing wide leather collars to protect their throats from the tusks of the pigs. When we got to the hill where the pigs were meant to be, the 2 trucks headed round either side with 2 dogs in each. We dismounted and Ted led our group up the hill at a fierce pace but despite seeing a few kangaroos we didn’t find any wild pigs (to my relief to be honest). When we caught up with the other group they had had little luck either but it was blast hooning round the farm trails clinging to the backs of the 4×4’s.
It was back to the farm to get cleaned up and to have a quick breakfast before we went to shear a few sheep. Time restrictions meant we only sheared two sheep between up, doing small parts of the easy sections each. Ted also gave us the recent history of sheep farming where wool prices fell catastrophically in the early 90’s forcing many farmers out of business. Ted only retained a few sheep to shear as part of the tour.
It was then off to Ted’s house to fire a shotgun at a paint tin (it got a good hit sending it spinning away) and to pack some roo meat up for a BBQ later in the trip. We were to be joined by a couple of backpackers who had been helping Ted look after the farm for several weeks and Ted’s largest dog, Mad, who had to go and see a girlfriend in Lightning Ridge. It wasn’t long before Mad was renamed Scooby and became the most pampered mutt in the world.
We left the farm late that morning stopping at the Warrumbungle National Park for a hill climb followed by a picnic lunch. It was 44 deg C so the hill climb was shorter than usual, but we still got some great views. It was then a long haul to the Glengarry Opal Field where we were to stay the night at the Glengarry Hilton. This was a pub with a few portacabins out back for accommodation and a bag shower. Most of us pulled our mattresses out onto a tarp outside to prepare for sleeping under the stars as it was still well over 30 degrees and wouldn’t cool off much at night. The pub was a great place with a few locals keen to chat and a good supply of well chilled beer.
Tues 6th Jan
Woke up just after sunrise because of the flies and the whine of mozzies. Got an early shower before the rush and then went for breakfast. It was 32 deg C at 6:30 am and climbing.
One of Ted’s mates had originally discovered the Glengarry Opal Field and it was to his place we headed for a look at the equipment and to scavenge through the tailings of his mine. As long as we didn’t find anything stupidly valuable we could keep the stones we found. We all did find little pieces of coloured opal and several of us had ones that looked worth cutting. Down at the mine area itself was a lake of water used for washing the dirt brought up from the mines to leave only the stones. The process is done in modified cement mixers, with mounds of dirt from various mines waiting their turn. As Black Opal is one of the most valuable gems in the world it is likely that some of these mounds would be booby trapped to prevent theft. The lake itself is the colour of clay from all the dirt washed into it and this stopped many from having a dip. Not me, in the heat the opportunity to get into water was one to be taken. The swim was great with alternating warm and cool currents, but came to a sudden halt when one of the guys found a leach stuck to his arm. You have never seen a group of people leave a body of water so fast, checking their bodies to see if there were any more blood suckers. Fortunately not.
Lightning Ridge was only a short drive away and had a set of hot springs with showers. We were all keen to wash the clay off and swim in clean water but the hot springs really were hot. Most didn’t stay in long, I didn’t go past my calves as with the air temp in the 40’s getting into water also in the 40’s seemed mad. The shower was nice and cool though.
After lunch we went for a whip cracking demo from Ted’s mate Pete. Pete is a leather craftsman who did work for Mad Max III. As it happened there was a pool next to the garage Pete rented space from (strange place to have it). We all dived in with Pete telling lewd jokes and horsed around for while.
One of the local mines which was still working had also been opened up as a museum. We watched a video on the process, sweating horribly, before descending 80 feet or so down into the mine. I suddenly realised one of the reasons these guys do this without going totally mad…. its nice and cool down there. Our guide gave us a rough idea of how much Opal mining costs and the chances of finding anything that will pay this back. Except for the lucky or talented few its not a get rich quick scheme either but more like an excellent way to burn money.
A pottery demonstration was laid on before we went to a Aboriginal museum with the proprietor telling us what is known of the culture before the arrival of the Europeans and wrong assumptions made by them. Ted, meanwhile, was arranging for some of our more hopeful Opals to be cut.
Ted had arranged for some of us to go up in a small airplane owned by one of the locals. Because of the heat of the day the time was limited to the evening whilst still light. As there were limited numbers, I had flown in small planes in Samoa and to Stuart Island and had flown a two man glider before I passed the opportunity to others. Whilst the flights took place that nights BBQ was being prepared.
Ted owned a small camp just outside Lightning Ridge with a couple of small buildings, a train carriage as a dorm and a BBQ area. When we arrived after the flights the food was cooking and the beer chilled. Lots of Ted’s local mates joined us for the evening, including Pete and a couple of other with guitars. We kept going till the beer ran out and I crashed in the railway carriage.
Wed 7th Jan
After breakfast we looked at one of the more interesting buildings in the town. An Italian guy decided he had always wanted to live in a castle, so he built himself one. It doesn’t have council approval but that counts for little out here. (the local shops sell 4 times as much food as would be expected for the population registered in the area).
A local artist, John Murray, who was achieving a fair amount of acclaim designed the poster for Andos Tours. We dropped by the gallery for a look at his work which captures the scenes of the Outback and its cattle stations as well as humorous pieces. Before leaving town we picked up our Opals that had been cut, mine now worth around $200 and Tony’s around $1000.
We pick up Scooby & a Dutch girl who has spent 6 months or so in the outback for a long haul east towards Bingara where we were spending the night. 20 minutes into the drive Jan realises he has left his wallet in the gallery. We are suddenly glad the Swiss guys have a car as it will be much faster than the bus in the hills so they can head back for the wallet and catch us up for lunch at the RSA club in Moree. After lunch we passed though a rain storm with some impressive lightning. This was concerning, our packs were in a trailer and had got covered in dust every day on the unsealed roads. Adding water to the dust wasn’t going to help matters any.
We arrived in Bingara late afternoon with enough time to feed some orphaned roos and throw boomerangs by the river whilst drinking beer (some swam, I was determined to develop my throwing). I eventually got OK at getting the boomerang to come back but by this time I was holding a beer and you need 2 hands to catch the thing.
On arrival at the hotel we were told it had been 46 deg C there that day. We could believe it, the bus’s aircon couldn’t cope so it shut down and we had to rely on opening the windows. Several of us got put in a large 7 person dorm, which wasn’t great until we realise that it was fitted with aircon. Bliss, a cool nights sleep.
Thurs 6th Jan
Most of the group were up early to go horse riding but I plumped for the lie in. My last experience with horses, in the USA, was muddy, painful & humiliating. As good a recommendation as that is for a good time I decided against it. Around 11 am we set off for Byron Bay. It was a long trek so a short lunch was grabbed at Glen Innes where we were also shown some of the local Sapphire. By the time we arrived in Byron, had a shower and changed it was almost 9pm by the time we arrived at Cheeky Monkeys Club & Restaurant. Dinner was OK, we managed to rig a competition so Tony won it (and a free sky dive) and headed for the dance floor. There was a girl I’d got on OK with on the bus and had my eye on tonight; with little warning one of the other guys had swooped in there and they were off together. Despite being pissed off it was strangely reassuring that after 4 months of travelling and on the other side of the planet things were playing out as normal, I can’t have changed much.
Fri 7th Jan
Most people spent the day getting sunburnt on the beach and messing about in the breaking waves. Although the tour had finished Ted volunteered to take us round the bay to the eastern most point in Oz to see the lighthouse and the sunset before having a last few drinks and dinner together.
Sat 8th Jan
Ted & Gabi headed off early for the 12 hour drive to Sydney. Gabi was off to Ted’s farm to look after the dogs for a couple of weeks before heading south. I was staying in Byron for one more day before catching a different bus to Sydney. Most of the others were heading north up the coast. It had been a great trip, seeing stuff & meeting people I wouldn’t have seen any other way.