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Corner Country, July 2010 – Part 1

Photo album is here.

Wednesday, 30 June. We met our Outback Spirit Tour leaders at 08:00 in Eddy Avenue, by Central Railway Station in Sydney. The bus was already loading when we arrived, despite us being early. We do not know how our driver John manage to get every bag into the very limited space provided. We would be collecting five more passengers as we proceeded. We were on our way out of Sydney by 08:15. It was a beautifully clear but cold morning. The route past the airport let us see a lot of the gentrification of inner Sydney.

Our first stop was at Mittagong around 10:00. A very short drive brought us to a beautiful park in Mittagong, with a lake and a bunch of ducks seeking handouts. There were even weird cockatoos using a street light as a nest. We had a pleasant morning tea there, from supplies carried by the bus. John and Maxine did a splendid job of setting up the repast.

We bypassed Goulburn. Near Gunning there was a 14-tower wind farm on one of the ridges by the highway. Minor, but interesting to see someone thought there was sufficient wind resources in that area of NSW.

Yass for lunch, again from supplies carried on the bus. At Gundagai, the dog on the tucker box looked different than we remembered, with a different plinth. We also stopped to view and photograph the two very long wooden bridges across the river floodway.

We arrived at the Country Comfort Hotel Wagga Wagga around 16:00. The bar opened at 17:30 with a wood fire. Dinner was pumpkin and sweet potato soup, roast beef with vegetables, fruit salad but no ice cream.

Thursday, 1 July. After a hot buffet breakfast, we departed Wagga Wagga and made our way along the Sturt Highway following the Murrumbidgee River to Hay, home to the Shear Outback, the Australian Shearers’ Hall of Fame and the historic Murray Downs Woolshed. We drove around the town of Hay; during the course of the trip, we seemed to cross the Murrumbidgee River a dozen times.

At the Shear Outback, we set up lunch in the parking lot, although many of us did a bit of a wander through the museum before eating. The highlight was Billy showing us how shearing was done. He had just started using hand shears, the old fashioned variety from before mechanical shears. Despite not having done this often, Billy made it look easy. He was using a sheep not grown for wool. Back a century or so ago, a typical sheep yielded maybe three pounds of wool. A modern sheep stands twice as tall, and can produce up to nine kilograms (around 20 pounds) of wool. You can not use the old techniques or even tools these days.

Back in the bus, Maxine put on an iPod rendering of part of the 1988 TV version of D’Arcy Niland’s classic Australian story, The Shiralee, as a bit of background video.

We stopped at Balranald for a rest. The tourist information place stayed open for us to visit, despite normally closing by 15:00. They sure have a lot of frogs being depicted at Balranald.

We crossed the river into Victoria, as we were staying at the Grand Hotel in Mildura. We were given a grand suite: two rooms and a bathroom with a large spa tub. We were unable to get both air conditioners working correctly (heating; it’s cold here in July). Luckily one of the staff brought us a fan heater to solve the problem.

We had porterhouse steak for dinner, in the very nice Anna Room, and free wine vouchers, which we made use of in the bar prior to dinner.

>Friday, 2 July. Today our itinerary included Mungo National Park (see also this page) which was World Heritage Listed in 1981 in recognition of its rich Aboriginal heritage. Remains of the earliest humans to inhabit the Australian continent have been found in Mungo National Park and have recently been dated at more than 60,000 years old. Later today we were to visit Menindee, a town of 1,000 people on the banks of the Darling River and home to the Menindee Lakes. The town has ties to several Australian Explorers, including Burke and Wills, Charles Sturt, and Major Mitchell.

Alas, all of this turned out to be fiction, at no fault whatsoever of the tour company. It was raining in the morning at Mildura, and the weather radar was showing storms to the north. After a fine buffet breakfast we all gathered in the lobby to check the news. Our driver John eventually reported that the road to Mungo and the national park was officially closed. The only way to Broken Hill was the boring Silver City Highway. So that is how we proceeded. John and Maxine organised a nice bunch of alternate events to fill the day, since we would arrive at Broken Hill very early.

Everyone was of course quite disappointed to miss the Mungo N.P. and the Menindee Lakes, especially the two keen birdwatchers. But everyone understood about weather and closed roads and last-minute changes of plans. Little did we know, at that point, what the rest of the trip would be like.

We stopped in Wentworth around 09:00 to view a status of Possum, David James Jones, who spent much of his life wandering the river, assisting animals in distress. John told us of his story, disenchanted by union control of of Broken Hill, and deciding to abandon society.

We then went to view the Murray and Darling River junction, where the two greatest rivers in Australia meet. It is not that impressive a junction, but that just shows how sparse the water flow is within Australia.

Next was a morning tea stop at Wentworth Gaol. This had impressively massive stonework, although as gaols go it was small. There were two cells for women. It appears the Salvation Army had scared the local god botherers, and the women band players tend to get 7-day sentences for unauthorised music. The men tended to get 14 days. Mostly men were in gaol for fighting in the pub.

We had morning tea beside the bus, as usual. There was a lot of bird life, including a few vivid green birds with red on the beak. We were driving away around 11:00. We also got to watch the second part of The Shiralee during the drive.

There were not many places on the road at which to stop. We pulled up at Coombah Roadhouse for lunch.

We arrived at Broken Hill around 14:30 (turn clocks back a half hour, as they are on South Australian time) and checked in to our rooms at the Royal Exchange Hotel. Dating back to 1889, the Royal Exchange is a charming boutique hotel which has been tastefully refurbished over the years. Our room was warm, and had an enormous bed. It would have seemed a decent sized room had the bed not been so large. Bit of shuffling to find a place for the bags, but that was soon sorted.

Back at the bus at 15:15, as John or Maxine had organised a trip to the Pro Hart art gallery. That was a wonderful place, full of quirky paintings, and some other media. We also got to see a few of the Rolls Royce cars Pro Hart had collected. We are not art buyers. Jean was however taken by the various 1000 piece jigsaw puzzles available. She can get them via the internet. Maxine was shooing us out of the gallery at 16:00 which was a bit of a surprise, since dinner was not until after 18:00.

However John then drove us to the Jack Absalom art gallery and opal collection. This gallery had a nice range of magnificent paintings of Australian scenery. We were most impressed by the views of country we had visited. Looking at the paintings up close revealed the colours were made of vast numbers of individual tones. Jack himself was at the gallery and talked readily about his painting (since 1972), and his travels (the TV shows are available on DVD). He also talked about his life mining opals in a hundred places around Australia. The opal collection is magnificent. We were very temped by the many prints of his paintings. But how would we get them home, and where would we put them?

We drove off at 6:15 p.m. for our three course dinner at the Legion club. After a fine roasted vegetable cream soup, Eric had the battered fish (Jean’s meal is not recorded). Dessert was chocolate cake and a small ice cream. The serving staff said the chef used to work cooking for riggers on an oil platform, and did not know how to provide smaller quantities. It was very nice food. The four dollar wine seemed fine also.

Saturday, 3 July. This morning we visited Silverton, a former mining town which has starred in many films, including Mad Max and Mission Impossible 2. Silverton had a variety of old stone buildings, including the former court house. There was a nice information centre next to the old court house. There were even some new homes being built. We exited the bus on the high ground overlooking Silverton. This area had several art galleries, as well as a new house being built. The old church was also now a home, and looked like it was having some construction activity. The main street through Silverton had several tourist activity shops, and several interesting structures.

We made sure we visited the coin man. He takes an old Australian penny, the large old copper style, and saws out the voids around the kangaroo and other features on the coin, leaving the rim and the scenery. He told us he takes about three hours to hand saw each coin. He sends them of to be gold plated, and sells them for $175. He seemed to think that a good deal for him. He also had some nice seven pence (a sixpence embedded in the centre of a penny) which he sold for five dollars. These he makes with a die press.

We had morning tea at Silverton. While waiting near the pub where parts of Mad Max were filmed, we noticed a wedding party, consisting mostly of 4WD drivers. There seemed a lot of them.

We drove on to Mundi Mundi lookout for some views of the surrounding countryside. Then it was back to Broken Hill, where we had our usual picnic lunch in a park opposite the tourist information centre. This park also had a mine pit head looking very obvious.

The next visit was to the Broken Hill Geocentre, a museum of mineralogy and display about mining in the area. They had a nice range of sample minerals. One active display we enjoyed was the rotating aerial view of Broken Hill, with the (mineral) named streets being shown in turn. That was pretty neat.

Late in the afternoon we visited the Sculpture Symposium on a hill near town, before dining in Broken Hill’s premier restaurant, Broken Earth. The centre is located on the highest point of the Line of Lode remnant mullock dumps which transverse the city of Broken Hill.

At the Broken Earth, we had a deBortoli Pinot Noir. The prawn entree was just fine. Eric has what he called a “chicken unkiev” (seemed to have fennel and tarragon, and was very tasty). Jean had the steak, which was excellent. The creme broule was outright weird, but Jean liked it.

Continued in part 2…