Sunday, June 1, 2014

Neither Rain Nor Snow Nor Dark of Night

Mail carriers in Coober Pedy, South Australia don’t need to worry about snow, but rain and dark of night can be sources of concern, as we learned during our day with Peter, one of the local posties. Going on the mail run was one reason for coming to Coober Pedy, the other being the chance to stay in an underground hotel room and drink at an underground bar. Our room at the Desert Cave Hotel was not underground in the sense of being down a hole; it was underground in the sense of being dug into the side of a hill. My dad would have loved it there; he once showed me several things he’d read about dugout houses and commented how much he would like to try one. Well, Dad, I got the chance and you would have loved it.

Our day on the mail run started a bit late. The tour was full—12 people—all Aussies save for us. Peter started by reminding us that it was a real mail run and that we would be stopping at two towns and five cattle stations while driving through three additional stations for a total of 600 kilometers. The first leg would be 200 kilometers to the town of Oodnadatta. As we left Coober Pedy proper, he noted that 60 percent of the local population live underground. One such residence actually has five bedrooms, each with its own en-suite facilities. There is one dugout residence in a somewhat skinny hill that features front and back doors to above ground. Peter said that he had lived in his underground residence for 40 years, perfectly comfortable despite having no heating nor air conditioning. Keeping with the underground theme, it is worth noting that the starting point for the mail run was also underground.

As we left Coober Pedy onto what is called the Oodnadatta Track, Peter noted that we were somewhat lucky in terms of seeing the surrounding fields dressed in green rather than the reddish brown usual at this time of year. The green came thanks to an unseasonably timed rain in the last week.

Not very far through those fields, we crossed the world’s longest man-made structure, the dingo fence.

It stretches some 5,600 kilometers across the country and serves to allow Australia to have a sheep industry. A dingo is a dog, not a wolf or some sort of crossbreed; it may be the oldest type of dog on the planet. Unlike a domesticated dog, it yips and howls but does not bark. It is also supposedly four times more intelligent than a domesticated dog. The other big difference, and the one that makes the dingo fence necessary, is that a dingo kills for fun not food. One dingo has been known to kill 20 sheep in one night. Peter told us of one sheep farmer who went on vacation and came home to discover he had 268 fewer sheep than when he’d left.

After the dingo fence, Peter noted that the land around us was the Moon Plain, in no small part because it resembled what people thought the surface of the moon would look like.

The Moon Plain is part of the Great Artesian Basin, the world’s largest internal drainage basin and containing 20 percent of the land mass of Australia. This means that the water here does not flow into any ocean but remains part of the water system here. Fossil evidence suggests that the basin was formed as an inland sea when what is now Australia broke away from the land that is now Antarctica. The basin is a semi-desert. The average rainfall is five inches, but it comes in torrential rains rather than throughout the year. When the rain falls in the summer, grass grows; when it falls in the winter, the result is flowers. The air temperature can get as high as 64 degrees Celsius in summer; for those more familiar with Fahrenheit degrees, that’s 147. Besides the aquifer, a large field of shale oil, possibly holding 330 billion barrels, sits underneath the Great Artesian Basin. Unfortunately, the only way of getting at that oil is through fracking.

The harsh landscape is well suited for cattle farming. The barley grass that grows provides excellent nutrition. The grass grows in clumps around the salt bushes. The roots of a salt bush move rocks away making a depression around the bush that helps the grass to grow. Peter said that after a heavy enough rain, a person really can see the grass grow over a matter of hours. The fact that cattle must also walk for water leads to a higher muscle mass, making for some great beef. Most of the cattle stations we crossed or stopped at were roughly 5,000 square kilometers with about 3,600 to 4,000 head of cattle.

The first station at which we stopped was Mt. Barry. The husband made the observation that it looked much like the farms in Saskatchewan, with the house being miniscule when compared to the barn and other work buildings.

Mt. Barry was also where we put a stop to the Aussie salute of waving flies away from our faces and instead donned bug nets as a fashion statement.

The folks at home who loaned us these nets get a special shout-out from across the water and the Equator. We’ve used them a lot so far and will use them more before we head for home.

The stations in this area got phone service in 1986. There is still no cell phone service here. Before the phone lines, all communication with the outside world was by radio. Somewhere in the midst of before the phone lines came, there was a “red phone” that converted the radio waves to phone waves meaning that someone on a radio in the Outback could communicate with someone on a phone in Adelaide or beyond.

Depending on your background, you may have had the chance to watch an old (I watched it in 1989 on the BBC) television series about Australia’s Flying Doctors. Health care in the towns of the Outback is handled by nurse practitioners. If a doctor is needed, the Flying Doctors come in. Peter told us one story about medicine in the Outback that is somewhat funny but only in retrospect. At one point before phone lines, Peter served as an ambulance driver. As such, he was summoned once to a car accident. One of the victims was a young girl with a head injury. There happened to be a Flying Doctor flying nearby who was able to land and get to the accident site. The red phone got patched through to a neurosurgeon at the Royal Hospital in Adelaide. The neurosurgeon advised the doctor on-site to drill a burr hole in the girl’s skull to relieve the pressure. As this was a somewhat advanced procedure, the appropriate implements to perform it were not available. Here’s the part that may remind you of a certain scene in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. There just happened to be a man there who offered that he worked for the telecomm company and had in his tool box a brand new (as in had not been used and was about as clean as you could get out there) drill along with brand new (again, think cleanliness) drill bits. The neurosurgeon was asked how big the burr hole should be in terms of the drill bits available. Peter’s role was to wave flies away as the hole was drilled. Once the burr hole had been drilled and the girl otherwise stabilized, she was loaded into the Flying Doctors plane and taken to Adelaide for treatment. Peter said he was notified six weeks later that the girl was going back to school and showing no ill effects of the accident or the treatment.

Children on the cattle stations get their education through the School of the Air. In the radio-only days, this was done over the radio. The teacher would call roll every morning, and children needed to be by their station’s radio to respond that they were there and ready. As you might imagine, the telephone was a very helpful learning tool and helped speed up the turnaround on assignments. The government decided, though, that even that was too slow and placed a priority on getting satellite and broadband Internet to the stations. The School of the Air now operates via online classes. At the secondary level, many students attend boarding school in Adelaide. Supposedly, 80 to 90 percent of the School of the Air students arrive at boarding school better prepared than the graduates of conventional schools. There may be a bit of selection bias here in terms of the socio-economic status of people who can own a cattle station and afford to send their kids to boarding school.

Aside: If you read my post about our train journey from Perth to Adelaide, you might remember that I mentioned boxes with solar panels that sit beside the train tracks. Before I could ask Peter what they were, he mentioned that they amplified the telephone signals.

And in a final note about education to remote areas, Peter mentioned that a 92-year-old woman had recently earned her doctorate studying interactively from the Outback.

Peter told us that to the east, behind some hills, was Lake Eyre. If the water level in the lake got high enough, brine shrimp hatched and turned the lake a pink color. (This answered another question we had about a pink lake we had passed on our way to Coober Pedy the day before.) When this happens, birds and animals, some from as far away as Siberia, come to the lake to eat. In 1989, 32,000 pelicans from the coasts arrived at Lake Eyre, one of which had been banded on the Swan River that flows through Perth. Three years later, this same bird was located back on the Swan River. The mechanism by which the animals know when the brine shrimp hatched is one of the animal kingdom’s great mysteries.

We eventually arrived in the town of Oodnadatta, where we would be having lunch. Peter had passed around a menu from the Pink Roadhouse and radioed our orders in so that they could be ready when we got there. Oodnadatta was formed in the 1890s as a rail station. While at one point in time, 500 people lived there, the current population is 180. In its days as a rail station, Oodnadatta was where the train from Adelaide ended, meaning that after three to four days on the train, folks heading to Alice Springs got off the train and began a nine-day camel ride to get there. Given that the highest temperature recorded in Oodnadatta is 53.1 degrees Celsius (128 degrees Fahrenheit), that may have been one uncomfortable camel ride.

Lunch was eaten at the Pink Roadhouse, so called because, yes, it’s pink.

It even has a pink car out front to go with the pink canoes.

There were also pink table cloths.

If you wondered why we would be delivering mail to a roadhouse, it’s because it is not only a roadhouse but also the post office not to mention the bank.

With only 180 people, Oodnadatta did not take long to drive around. Houses were small and basic.

If you thought you saw a bird atop the very bare tree in the last photo, you did. It’s a Major Mitchell cockatoo.

There is also a railway museum in the old train station.

The husband and I went over to see it with another couple. It assumed a lot of knowledge I didn’t have, so I headed back to the van before the others. People who know some of the travel adventures I’ve had will appreciate that on my way back, I rolled the usual ankle (left) stepping on something unknown in the yard of the museum and fell forward onto my right knee. Walking in the street, still on my way back, a small dog (one of three walking off-leash with a couple) decided I merited attacking. When I got back to the roadhouse where the van was, I figured I should check the right knee onto which I’d fallen. Yep, it was skinned and bleeding and as soon as I could see that, there were two flies making the acquaintance of my type O-positive blood.

In the fields beside the road are little shiny specks of gypsum. Also found in the fields are tectites, which were highly prized by the indigenous people when sharpened into cutting implements. We also stopped at one point to check a beside-the-road mailbox.

Peter said that there probably would not be any mail in it (there wasn’t) but since he was on the mail run he really should check it. Peter also pointed out a small something on the side of a hill. Being curious about what it was, he stopped one day and climbed up to inspect it. It was labelled as a Tsunami Seismic Testing Station. He also pointed out some bare trees which he said were known as dead dog trees. (Do you see where this is going?) They have no bark. (I could have included a lot more of Peter’s jokes, but I’m sparing you.)

As we turned and drove up to look around an old railway building, there was a rather load clunking noise from under the front of the van. As we explored the site, Peter looked to see if he could find what had caused the clunk.

In the distance, you could see a windmill that looks surprisingly akin to the one my grandfather had on his Nebraska farm.

Peter said that when one of these windmills breaks down today, it is typically replaced by a solar powered pump. As for the clunk, Peter had been unable to find the cause, so off we went. It wasn’t long before we noticed a lack of air conditioning. Peter noted that the clunk must have come from something hitting the fan in the engine. He pulled off at Algebukina Bridge, a trestle on the old railway. While he and most of the men investigated the van situation, the women and a man or two not interested in or knowledgeable about engines explored the trestle.

It wasn’t clear to me if the railings and flooring would have been sufficient in the litigious U.S., but the end of the explorable part of the trestle definitely would not have been.

In terms of the investigation into the original clunk, the men determined that something had sheared off the fan. Fortunately, the fan had fallen back onto some wires rather than falling totally out or cutting through those wires. The husband was glad that he’d brought along his leather jacket. He was one of the men who checked things out underneath the van, and the leather jacket really helped protect against the gravel-covered ground. We were also extremely lucky in that it was late autumn rather than summer. It is one thing to deal with no air conditioning or engine-cooling capability in the late autumn, but in summer, it could easily be fatal. Even with the radio operational, it would have taken quite some time for someone to get out to us with the parts to make the van drivable.

As we continued, we passed what once had been the Warrina rail station. The former population of 300 had trickled down to the current population of three. We also saw several wild kangaroos, fortunately just sitting alongside the road rather than jumping across it. As the van approached they scattered out into the grass.

We also watched, first from the van

later from the roadside,

and then from the van again

another incredible sunset. We had marveled the night before at a sunset that stretch around half the sky. This one stretched around the entire sky. When I took this shot, my back was to the setting sun.

When we were all back in the van and heading for dinner in William Creek, Peter told us that as sunsets here go, he would have to rate the one we had just oohed and aahed over “mediocre.”

We stopped for a later-than-expected dinner in William Creek, where the pub will let you affix your business card to the ceiling if you make a donation to the Flying Doctors.

There’s also a guardian just inside the door.

Outside the door was a dog avidly engaged in eating a rat. There is no photo of that; you’ll just have to take my word for it.

On the way back to Coober Pedy from William Creek, we passed through the Prince Anna station which, at 24,000 square kilometers or roughly the size of Belgium, is the largest cattle station in terms of land area in the world. With only 18,000 head of cattle, it is not the largest in terms of herd size.

The last tidbit of information I gained was that the cowboys of cattle stations no longer ride horses. Most now get around the fields on motorbikes. I tell you; it’s just not the same world it used to be. I wonder if they still wear cowboy hats.


Caroline M said...

Once upon a time when I was a child "Skippy" used to be a tv staple. School-by-radio was a common story event.

Thank you for taking the time to share this, I felt that I was there with you.

Va said...

Having you in my small, select group of friends is further emhanced by affording me the chance to read your blogs! Lots of ooos, and aaahhss throughout this one. Husband and I recommend the movie "Nebraska" by the way!
Comfortable and Happy Flying!