Big Red Bash #7: Signs for the Times

I know. It’s been a long time between drinks. I had intended for this post to be out some time ago. Then life happened. A bunch of assignments, a sudden death in the family, a sick kid…

But here we are finally at the end of our outback adventure and as I promised last time, this final instalment is about a special project I had going during our trip. Travelling through the Australian outback necessitates long stretches of driving. Sometimes the scenery doesn’t change all that much. Occasionally we spot some livestock or pass another vehicle. We also have to keep a look out for kangaroos who decide the grass is greener on the other side of the highway. But there is one thing that often catches our attention – town signs.

Not so long ago, the town signs around Australia were pretty standard – a simple white sign with black lettering. But this is not the case any more. I have noticed a  change in recent years to utilise a wide variety of designs which reflect something about the town’s location, industry or history. I think it’s a good idea. Not only are there some really interesting and beautiful designs, but the signs give little clues to the history that might be discovered and inspire travellers to stop a while to explore.

As we set off on our trip, I thought it would be interesting to get a photo of every town sign on our route, after all it might be quite a while before we were back that way. I managed to do this for almost all of the towns we passed through, stopped for a cuppa or stayed for a while. Here are some of the interesting things we noticed on route or have discovered since coming home.

 

Australian towns have some very interesting names and sometimes you wonder where they came from. Towns like Cunnamulla, Thargomindah and Wallumbilla are believed to originate from the indigenous names for the area. Others, like Condamine, Mitchell and Roma are named after Colonial figures and explorers.

 

It became quite apparent that towns within the same shire often shared similar designs, shapes and backgrounds, yet included a feature specific to their own area. I really liked the signs for Bollon and St George, which I thought were not only beautifully designed but also quite original.

 

I also liked some of the signs in the Maranoa shire which had a very pretty purple, pink and red sunset background with a striking black silhouette.

 

Four of the towns on our route – Condamine, Cunnamulla, Birdsville and Wallumbilla – are all featured in the Australian version of the song “I’ve Been Everywhere”. Even Toowoomba gets a mention too.

 

As rural towns decline and the population migrates to the big cities or the coast, tourism becomes an essential industry throughout the interior. Much as we always say that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover or a town by its sign – the truth is that we do. So anything that might encourage people to stop for a while in towns they would usually drive straight through, is a really great tourism initiative. The signs remind us that every town is unique, and despite the dwindling population, that these little places have been home to many people over the years and have their own place in our history.

Big Red Bash #6: Finally – the BRB

View from Big Red

Finally, after travelling the Adventure Way, reflecting on the Burke and Wills Saga, and hanging out in Birdsville, it was time to head out to the Big Bash campsite. To ease congestion and prevent long delays, Roll In to the campsite had been extended over three days. We didn’t take up the offer of early entry but there were still plenty of  vehicles heading out with us on Tuesday morning.  At times it did seem a bit like a free for all on the road, as at one point there seemed to be almost four lanes of vehicles, all travelling in the same direction, all jostling to get further ahead in the pack. We just took it easy – after all, we’re all going to the same place.

Arrival at the Big Bash was well organised with plenty of guides to point us in the right direction and help us find a spot. It was quite a unique experience camping among a crowd numbering in the thousands and there was plenty of dust floating in the air as campers walked back and forth from their campsites to the stage and Big Bash Plaza. Definitely not a place for wearing white.

West of Big Red – Version 2

The View from Big Red

One of the top things to do at the Bash is climb Big Red. The sand dune is quite deceiving. You don’t realise how tall or steep it is until you start climbing. Luckily, I had Dan to tow me up the side, although I do think he picked the steepest route possible. It is only from the top of Big Red that you really get a sense of the size of the crowd.  It was also the only place where you could get a signal, so everybody had their phones out, taking selfies and sending messages. If you wanted to make a call, you had to climb Big Red.

Beach Volley Ball on Big Red – Version 2

Big Red was a fantastic playground for the kids who spent all day and some of the night climbing up and sliding down, over and over again. There was also a beach volley ball court on top. You probably couldn’t get a court that was further from the ocean than the one on top of Big Red.

One of the most interesting features of the Big Bash Campsite were the self-composting toilets. I thought they were really cool. Port-a-loos are standard fare at any festival these days, but these worked more like long-drops, except that the drop was into a wheelie bin parked underneath, rather than a pit in the ground. The loos were located all around the campsite, mostly in sets of about eight, and a sprinkle of sawdust was used to facilitate the  composting process. By the time we got out to the Bash we were quite used to lining up, but the line up first thing in the morning was always especially long. The thing I liked the most, though, was the unique artwork on the doors. No two doors were alike.

Big Red Bash Toilets – Version 2

The Big Red Bash provides a lot of opportunities for campers from across Australia to get to know each other. People socialise with the campers next-door and give a hand with a flat tyre or leaking water tank. On Wednesday morning the crowd came together to cheer on the participants in the Bashville Drags Race. Competitors, dressed in drag, climbed to the top of Big Red and then raced down the dune and into the campsite. I was impressed with the array of glitter, feathers, sparkling tiaras, flowing wigs and gorgeous gowns on the mostly male field. It was hugely entertaining and raised money for a very good cause – The Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Then on Thursday morning, there was the Guinness World Record attempt for the Biggest Nutbush Dance. Aiming to beat 522, practice sessions were held so participants could perfect their technique and then they nervously lined up in place, hoping they wouldn’t be the one tapped on the shoulder for being out of time. With about 2000 participants, I think the record was well and truly achieved.

The crowd

Of course, the real reason we had all gathered at the base of Big Red in the dust was for three days of classic Australian music entertainment which kicked off on Tuesday afternoon. Campers trekked down to the stage area loaded with rugs, folding chairs and eskies packed with refreshments. Hats and sunscreen were a must for the afternoon and coats and scarves for the evening, because as soon as the sun slipped below the horizon, the chill of the desert could be felt.

It was so good to see big name artists willing to endure a little discomfit, the dust and the desert to put on a show at an iconic landmark like Big Red. Not only does it raise essential funds for the Flying Doctor Service but it brings tourists into small rural towns feeling the bite of the drought. We enjoyed all the acts. Adam Brand got the crowd on its feet for a tribute to the soldiers who fought and died for their country. Dan really enjoyed The Angels and Hoodoo Gurus rocking out the desert. And on Thursday night we sang our hearts out with John Farnham and his classic “You’re the Voice”.

Camel Rides – Version 2

Camel Rides Were A Popular Activity

And then it was time to pack up and go home. There were about 7,000 people and over 2,000 vehicles camping out at the Big Bash and most of them wanted to leave first thing Friday morning. Getting 2,000 vehicles out of the gate in an orderly fashion was going to be no mean feat. We had already heard stories about the long delays of previous years, so we got up early, before 6am, when it was still only -3.5 degrees, packed up and joined the line. We were in the line up by 6.45am and that’s where we sat for the next hour until they opened the gates at about 8am. Tempers were getting little testy when some campers, who thought they could just sleep into 8am, tried to push into the line. We didn’t have a radio in our car but apparently there were some choice words being said over the airwaves!

Considering the large number of campers lined up, the Roll Out did proceed pretty smoothly and we were out the gate by about 8.30am and heading back towards Birdsville. Again, it felt like travelling in a long convoy, although by this time, we weren’t strangers so much anymore, but fellow bashers. As we all headed down the highway, I don’t think we expected to be pulled up in a drive-thru random breath test, west of Windorah, in the middle of nowhere.  I guess the police thought they might catch some campers who had had a heavy night, but it did slow the traffic down a little coming into Windorah, where, of course, everybody wanted to fuel up.

Incoming!

Fortunately, the Windorah locals were ready for the onslaught. No doubt they probably saw the cloud of dust drifting in from the West and yelled “Incoming!” They had a detour all set up to divert the campers away from the main street and through the fuel stations in a steady but orderly fashion. From Windorah we went on to Quilpie for the night, where, in the middle of town, we hit our only kangaroo for the entire trip. Fortunately, it was only just a little stunned.

We were now approaching the end of our outback adventure, and needing to be back home for Monday, we took the most direct route along the Warrego Highway through Roma, Miles and Chinchilla. We had a really great trip and enjoyed our time at the Bash. We’d like to go again some time in the future, but perhaps next time we’ll bring some friends too. Throughout the trip I had a little project going on, which will all be revealed in the next and final post about our Big Red Bash adventure.

Big Red Bash #5: Lining Up in Birdsville

Birdsville Hotel – Version 2So far, on our Big Red Bash adventure, we have followed The Adventure Way, been sobered by the tragic tale of Burke and Wills and the Dig Tree, and been quietly impressed by the revival of the Betoota Pub. After four days of travelling the outback roads of Queensland, we rolled into Birdsville – two days ahead of schedule! This turned out to be a good thing.

As we drove in past the town sign, we couldn’t help but see 4WDs and caravans pulled up and camped – everywhere! Birdsville is a small outback town – a very small outback town. The population only numbers a little over 100. Except for two events in the year, when it explodes to about … 7,000 (+/-). The Big Red Bash is the first event and the Birdsville Races, held in September, is the second.

With such an influx of visitors the town’s resources are stretched to the max and beyond. You quickly get used to lining up – for fuel, for bread, for pies and just about everything else. When we arrived in Birdsville on Friday, we had very little trouble fuelling up and booking into the Caravan Park. But by Sunday afternoon – it was a different story. The line of incoming vehicles stretched out along the main road, out past the bridge and out of sight. This was the line up for the fuel station. Only thing was – the town had run out of fuel. People just had to wait in the line for the fuel tanker. I think the whole town heard the cheer go up when it finally arrived.

Fuel Line Up – Version 2

As the Big Red Bash only started on Tuesday afternoon, we had a few days to explore Birdsville and socialise with the other Bashers camped in the Caravan Park. One of the good things about a town as small as Birdsville is that you can walk everywhere. In fact, with so many vehicles everywhere, it was probably quicker to walk anyway.

The Bash organisers had set up a registration and merchandise centre in the middle of town. So on Saturday morning we strolled down and joined the line to register, get our wrist bands and entry sticker for the car. Then we lined up to get some merchandise. After coming all this way, we wanted some proof of our adventure, and who knows if we would get the chance to come again. I was impressed at how well it was organised. A display area had been set up where you could look at everything, check sizes and so on, and once you had made your choice, one of the attendants would check things off on a list. Then you lined up with your list to collect the merchandise. Then you joined the line to pay for the merchandise. It was actually pretty streamlined.

Bash sticker – Version 2

Then we took a walk around town and joined the line streaming out of the Birdsville Bakery. Every morning there was a long line of people queueing up for freshly baked bread. This time we were lining up for camel pies.  Yes, I did say “camel” pies.  The Birdsville Bakery has a reputation for their camel pies. Are they really made from camel? Apparently so, and they tasted pretty good.

Birdsville Bakery 2

Of course, you can’t go past the Birdsville Pub. You need to at least step through the doors into the bar and look up. See the hat collection attached to the ceiling! With so many visitors in town, patrons needed to eat in shifts for the evening meal.

Birdsville Pub 2

Another building well worth seeing is the Australian Inland Mission Hospital Museum which has a good display of medical equipment and photos of Birdsville’s history. The hospital was once housed in the Royal Hotel which was built in 1883. The hotel is now heritage-listed and its ruins are pictured below.

Version 2

Despite the pressure that a population explosion places on a town like Birdsville, events like the Big Red Bash and the Birdsville Races are critical for the survival of outback towns. Okay, so the town ran out of fuel, and out of bread, and out of pies, but as tourists, we didn’t mind having to line up. It’s all part of the Bash experience and it gives us plenty of time to chat with each other as we wait. Besides, we’ll have to do plenty of lining up out at the Bash. That’s we’re headed next.

 

 

 

 

 

Big Red Bash #4:Betoota – Ghost Town

 

Arra Road – Version 2

The word “outback” brings to mind visions of an open barren landscape, sparsely populated, dotted with the ruins of abandoned homes and towns. Yet the journey into western Queensland has been anything but solitary. All along the way, we have been part of a long convoy of caravans and trailers, many heading to the same location – the Big Red Bash.

Whenever or wherever we stop, one of the first questions to be asked of a fellow traveller is, “Heading to the Bash?”, followed by, “Where are you from?”. From all over Australia, music lovers have hooked up their vans and trailers and headed for the Bash. Some are travelling in groups, while others, like us, are travelling on their own. But it doesn’t matter where you stop, or who you meet, the friendliness of strangers is always the same. There is a sense of camaraderie. We are all heading into a remote and harsh landscape, and you never know when you will need to depend on the kindness of strangers.

As we headed north from the Dig Tree along the Arrabury Road, we could see the direction of the road by the long dust cloud that preceded us. We could even count the number of vehicles in front of us by the number of dust clouds. Sometimes we would pass a group of caravans that had pulled off onto the side of the road for morning tea or smoko, as it is often called in regional QLD. With a friendly wave, we would move up a few places in the convoy.

The landscape was indeed quite barren but possessed a stark beauty. You might wonder what could survive out here – but then, we are currently in the middle of one of the worst droughts in living memory. It would be interesting to travel out this way after a wet winter and see the difference.

Haddon Corner

 

We took a little detour off the main road out to Haddon Corner, the point where the borders of Queensland and South Australia meet. It wasn’t until we actually got almost to the end of the road, that we discovered you had to cross two sand dunes. We made it over the first sand dune, but decided to ditch the trailer to cross the second, and pick it up on the way back. I must admit, after all that, Haddon Corner was a little disappointing. I was at least expecting a sign, but there was a monument.

And finally we arrived at Betoota, a ghost town, with a population of zero.

 

Betoota Sign 2

So, why go to Betoota?

In Australian culture, the song “A Pub with no Beer” has achieved iconic status. Immortalised by Australian country singer, Slim Dusty, the words go like this…

But there’s nothing so lonesome, so morbid or drear                                                    Than to stand in a bar, of a pub with no beer…

The story of a pub with no beer actually dates back to 1943, when a farmer called Dan Sheahan wrote a poem about a pub with no beer. His poem became the inspiration for  Slim Dusty’s song. You can read more about Dan’s story and poem here.

 

Betoota Hotel

For the last 20 years, the Betoota Pub has been a pub with no beer. Like Noccundra, the Betoota Pub is the last standing building in what was once the town of Betoota. But not for much longer. The Betoota Pub is currently under renovation, with the aim of reopening in August, in time for the Betoota Races. The new owner happened to be there and was quite happy for all the tourists to have a wander through the pub and see the progress so far. The idea is that the pub will be open during the peak tourist season and perhaps for private functions. So, if you’re thinking of getting married in outback QLD, you might like to keep Betoota in mind!

After wandering through the pub, we headed down to the creek to find a peaceful little spot to camp. Plenty of other travellers had the same idea too. It was nice to enjoy the quietness before joining the throng of the gathering masses in Birdsville – our next stop.

 

Betoota

Big Red Bash #3: Burke, Wills and the Dig Tree

Coopers Creek

Cooper Creek

The Dig Tree is an important site in Australian history and in the sorry saga of the Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition. Set on the bank of Cooper Creek, it is a popular camping spot for Australian tourists and the place where we stopped for our second night on our way to Birdsville for the Big Red Bash. It is a peaceful spot. It is almost 160 years since the ill-fated expedition and the landscape has changed little since Burke and Wills first clapped eyes on it and yet, it is a stark reminder of the need to respect the outback.

Dig Tree Campsite – Version 2

The Burke and Wills Story 

Robert O’Hara Burke was the leader of a Victorian expedition to cross the Australian continent from Melbourne, on the south coast of Victoria, to the Gulf of Carpentaria, on the north coast of Australia. Leaving Melbourne in August 1860, the team experienced a series of calamities, including broken wagons, torrential rain, rat plagues, starvation and disease.

Three months after leaving Melbourne, Burke established a Depot Camp on the bank of Cooper Creek, where the Dig Tree is now located. From the Depot Camp, Burke set out with three men (William John Wills, Charley Gray and John King) to continue on to the Gulf of Carpentaria. The men left at the Camp were instructed to wait for four months.

Burke and Wills did make it to the Gulf, although they didn’t quite get to the open ocean. However, the journey had taken two months and 2/3 of their rations. Gray died on their way back to the Depot Camp and when they finally staggered into the camp, it was deserted. Finding a coolibah tree emblazoned with the words: DIG (the Dig Tree), they discovered buried provisions and a note explaining that the rest of the team had left – just that morning. 

Dig Tree

The Dig Blaze

By this time, King and Wills were so weak they could barely crawl, so instead of following the departed team, Burke, Wills and King followed the Cooper Creek and this is where Wills, and then Burke, eventually died. Of the four men who set out from the Depot Camp, John King was the only one to make it back to Melbourne. He only survived because he was taken in by an Indigenous tribe, who cared for him until he was found by a Relief team in September 1861.

The bodies of Burke and Wills were eventually recovered and buried in Melbourne where they received a state funeral – the first for Victoria – and in their honour, the expedition was renamed The Burke and Wills Exploring Expedition.

The Dig Tree is believed to be about 200-250 years old and is now protected by a board walk and guard rail. On a tree nearby, there is an image of Burke’s face, carved by John Dick in 1898.

 Brave or Foolhardy?

Seven men died.

Three men, Burke, Wills and King, walked a total of 5,000 km from Melbourne to the Gulf of Carpentaria and back to the Depot Camp at Cooper Creek.

But… Relief teams mounted by Victoria, South Australia and Queensland did succeed in surveying and mapping areas of the interior, which up to that point, were unknown to the white community.

This is just a brief summary of a story that is both fascinating and tragic and you can discover more about Burke and Wills here. From the Dig Tree we head north to a small town called Betoota, with a population of …0. But that’s next time.

 

Source: http://www.burkeandwills.net.au

Big Red Bash #2: The Adventure Way

Car & Camper Trailer 2

On the first day of our outback adventure, Dan woke up very excited. He knew what was happening and he couldn’t wait to get going. As soon as breakfast was out of the way, he was in the car, quick as a flash, sitting in the back with a huge grin across his face. Unfortunately, Bec couldn’t come with us this time as the Bash clashed with the beginning of semester two. 

Fine drizzling rain made a wet start for our trip, but we were heading west, so the weather was likely to improve. To make our trip more interesting, we were going to travel to Birdsville via the Adventure Way which follows the old Cobb and Co route through St George, Cunnamulla and Thargomindah to Innamincka, which is just over the border in South Australia. In the old days it would have been a bit of an adventure travelling  in a horse-drawn carriage on roads that were little more than a track. Today though, it’s a sealed road almost all the way to the state border, so it was an easy drive.

 

Riversands Winery – Version 2

On the first day we dropped into the Riversands Winery at St George. Wine tasting is one of my favourite activities when holidaying and Riversands is always a regular stall at the country shows west of Toowoomba. I’ve had Riversands wines before, but this was the first time I have had the opportunity to visit their winery. Driving in past rows of grape vines, we noticed how thick the trunks were and assumed they must be very old vines. However, not so. Those vines were table grapes which have thicker trunks than the wine varieties. One of the unique things about Riversands, is the range of pottery flagons shaped as boots, quart pots and bells. We have a set of their pottery boots which were moulded on the boxing boots of Fred Brophy, an Australian boxer who toured throughout regional QLD with his tent boxing troupe.

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 We spent our first night at the Cunnamulla Tourist Park. It was going to be our only camp with power, and a shower, for quite a while (or so we thought). As the park manager was directing us to our camp site, a large kangaroo provided some excitement as it bounded through the park, dodging caravans and tents and almost collecting a lady on it’s way through! According to the park manager, it’s a regular occurrence.  

kangaroo-1277622_640

As we continued along The Adventure Way, we stopped at a town called Thargomindah which has an interesting place in Australian history. When we called into the Information centre, I noticed a lot of souvenirs with the words:

London

Paris

     Thargomindah

 What could Thargomindah possibly have in common with London and Paris? Well, London was the first city to use hydro-electricity to power electric street lighting, followed by Paris, and then….in 1898 Thargomindah was the third place in the world, and the first in Australia, to do the same. I think that’s an impressive achievement for a small outback Queensland town.

After Thargomindah, we took a little detour off the main highway to visit a town called Noccundra. It’s not really much of a town anymore. The only building still standing is the pub which is still in operation. So, of course, we just had to call in for a drink.

Noccundra Hotel 2

We had originally planned to spend our second night at Innamincka, just across the QLD-SA border. Innamincka has a place in Australian history due to the sad tale of the explorers Burke and Wills. I had wanted to visit Burke’s grave which is located at Innamincka, however recent rain meant the road was closed – oh well. Innamincka is one of those towns with a very low population; except during Winter when everyone heads to the outback. So there were 4WDs everywhere, lining up for fuel and stocking up with supplies. As you can imagine, the Innamincka store does a roaring trade at this time of the year. Some people, like us, had travelled from the east. Some had come from the west over the Simpson Desert and others had come up from the south on the Strezlecki Track.  Since we had actually made better time than we expected, we headed back out of Innamincka to camp at the Dig Tree for the night. Sitting on the bank of Cooper Creek, the Dig Tree has an important part in the Burke and Wills story, but that will have to wait for another day.     

Big Red Bash #1: Camping in the Outback

camping-1845906_640

I love camping. There’s something restorative about getting away from the rat race and heading for the great outdoors. Camping is a family tradition. I have many happy childhood memories of family camping trips. Our family first started out in a caravan, and then, when we outgrew the caravan, we graduated to a tent. At first we explored the popular scenic and historic tourist routes of Australia, but then we started to venture out into the National Parks and the Outback. Away from the city you can actually see the stars, toast marshmallows over a campfire and observe the native fauna in their natural habitat. It’s certainly an experience I wanted my own children to have too.

Dan and Bec love camping as well. Our first camping trips were in a purple and green dome tent, and when we outgrew that, we graduated to a camper trailer. Every year while visiting family in QLD, we would take a few days out to go camping in one of the National Parks close by. Before Dan started school we took a few weeks exploring the south-west corner of Western Australia. We tended to gravitate to the natural settings – the beach, the mountains or the bush, but we had never gone into the real outback. A few weeks ago, that all changed.

the world’s most remote music festival

In early July, Paul, Dan and I hooked up the camper trailer and started out on a trip to the 2018 Big Red Bash. The Big Red Bash, also called the Bash or the BRB, is the world’s most remote music festival. It is held at Big Red, a 40 metre sand dune west of Birdsville, QLD. The Bash began in 2013 and has continued to grow each year. It’s a really great celebration of Australian country and rock music and raises money for the Royal Flying Doctor Service. When we saw this year’s line up – The Angels, Hoodoo Gurus, John Farnham (just to name a few) – we knew we just had to go.

We have been camping before, but this trip was going to pose a few challenges. First of all, it would be the longest camping trip we had taken for quite some time. After 10 days together in a car and camper trailer, would we still like each other? Would we all make it back in one piece?

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Big Red Bash Campsite

 

Secondly, camping in the outback means: no power, no running water, no supermarkets. Camping without power and running water isn’t really an issue. We’ve done it before – just not for 10 days. We were also going to an area that was kind of remote and an environment known for its harsh conditions. It would require careful planning and carrying certain items in case of emergency. On the bright side, however; we were not going to be alone. Approximately 9,000 other people from all around Australia would also be heading to the same location.

Thirdly, we were going to be covering some big distances. By the time we would get back home we would have travelled over 3,000 km. However, as you travel west, the towns get fewer and much further apart. Apart from our first night and the days out at Big Red, our itinerary in between was a little hazy. A reasonable part of our trip would be on unsealed roads and road conditions can change quite quickly if the weather turns wet. So we would have to be flexible and play it a bit by ear. We were on holiday, after all.

Needless to say, we made it back safely, still all in one piece and still liking each other. We had no major incidents, met some great people along the way and had a fantastic time. Camping in the Australian outback is not something to be embarked on without due care and thought, but the stark beauty and harshness of the landscape inspires awe and respect. 

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As you can probably tell from the title, this is just the first part of a series on our Big Red Bash experience. It’s the first time I have done a series so I hope you enjoy reading about our adventure in the outback and be encouraged to explore the great outdoors in your own part of the world.