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Trip Report 2006 Australia: Opals Down Under

Jun 07 2006Leaving Billings

Saying good bye to our boulder opal miner friends we met June 10 2006. They are living "the good life" during the months off from mining in the harsh Queensland outback, in Lennox Head NSW. Just a couple blocks walk from the lovely ocean beach.

June 7 Arrived Billings Airport early and had lunch at the restaurant in the airport. A visiting B-17 Flying Fortress was parked outside the window and made a great diversion for travelers. Flights were prompt, packed and eventless. Seems that going to Oz is becoming routine. Our connections were Billings, Salt Lake and LAX. Salt Lake was over-booked and there was a bit of a delay in getting out, but not bad. Had a relaxed dinner at the LAX airport and boarded a Boeing 747-400 Air New Zealand flight on time. But during check in at the ANZ desk we made an interesting discovery: our flight wasn’t nonstop to Brisbane. We made a 1-hour stop in Auckland and changed planes to a nice new Airbus A-340 that took us the last leg of our journey. Great planning Steve…read the fine print next time!  Maybe a travel agent, for booking the flights, would be worth the extra $45.00 they charge.

Jun 09 2006Brisbane…Britz disappoints

Our reserved campervan wasn't available so they gave us a smaller ant infested Backpacker unit...bummer dude!

June 9 Skipped June 8 when the international dateline was crossed (time travel). Arrived Brisbane on time and took a friendly cab to the Maui/Britz dealer where our campervan was supposed to be waiting. We were to rent a medium sized RV (in Australia called a Campervan). It’s just big enough to have a shower and toilet and is based on the Mercedes/Chrysler Spirit commercial vehicle with a 5 cylinder, 3-liter turbo diesel. The vehicle that we had reserved had not been returned to the Britz depot and we were forced to come up with plan B. After 4 discouraging hours (while Dar spent the hours chatting with some lovely people from England) we were downgraded to a similar unit with less amenities called the Backpacker model (with a 2.2 liter turbo diesel, 5 speed manual transmission…a bit slower and noisier and a LOT less room). Again, we were now in the road less traveled (I’m getting real tired of that over-used phrase…sorry Mr. Peck). Our first destination that day was the WestPac bank for funds from our Oz account. Telstra for a new cellular phone card was next. Once behind the wheel again, we headed south on the Pacific Highway toward the crowded Gold Coast region of Queensland. After going south for a couple of hours, we found our way to fairly recently made friends (met in Tucson) in Tallai. Their delightful abode was sitting up on a hillside nestled in the gum and umbrella trees that were home for kookaburras, parrots, and noisy Aussie crows. Spent the night in our friend’s driveway and took up the kind offer to use their shower.

Jun 10 2006Lennox Head For Boulder Opal

Stormy weather the night before produced heavy surf at Lennox Head New South Wales.

June 10 Good food and good rest, and now we are off to the town of Lennox Head along the coast. An unremarkable jaunt, except for the scenery, which was fabulous, found us at a coastal town as it rained, and rained, and rained. While the guys chatted opal talk, the ladies took a stroll in the rain, to visit the beach and to take a walk around the freshwater lake about ½ block from the ocean’s edge. A nature trail surrounded the lake and we took about ½ of it, while the naming of the tree species (most foreign to the Montana) took place. Upon return we gathered ourselves up, checked into the caravan park and then out to dinner with new friends. We stuffed ourselves with superb food, and then directly to bed. With rain pattering on the roof of the camper, we slept well.

Jun 11 2006Made It To Inverell…The Sapphire City

Australian Road Hazards! We needed to drive slowly along this narrow grazing area near the road that bordered fields of crops called "the long paddock"

June 11 Morning greeted us early, and we were up and raring to go. We stopped at the farmer’s market and picked up some fresh fruit and vegetables (along with local Aussie grown coffee and freshly made pastry). Went over to say good-bye to friends and then off to the west.
Our drive through the hills was slow, narrow roads, high winds, and many hills and curves…speed limits ranged from 35km to 100km, varying almost with each breath. As we watched the shoulders of the roads, we also enjoyed the parrots, Brahmas, and by later afternoon, we had sighted a couple of gray kangaroos and a few galahs as well. Our drive was called off by 5:00 P.M. as we pulled into The Sapphire City Inverell and stayed at Fossikers Rest Caravan Park. We were hoping to get a bit further today, but the slow rate we traveled limited our mileage. Tomorrow may be a bit better. The bed will feel good again tonight. Fixing a bit of supper in the camper, beef, new potatoes, and green beans…tasted good, and after a quick clean up, we were off to bed. We have not seemed to get our body clocks adjusted yet and seem to be ready for bed: way too early.

Jun 12 2006Made It To Grawin

Signs for the Grawin Pub along the dusty Mining road to Willie and Neil Tooth's camp.

June 12 Showered and with a bit of breakfast in us, cleaned up the camper, and started on the westward ho. Breakfast was truly Australian style: Weet-Bix, paw-paws with limejuice, toast and coffee. As we were packing up the camper, Steve began making phone calls on the cell phone to check on miner availability. The water pressure was VERY good at the park, and the water hose got away from him, spraying all about, including Steve. As I arrived from the shower, I thought I’d help him, and turn the water spigot off, but turned the wrong way (ed…remember Darlene righty tighty lefty loosey) and the old water snake took off again, chasing him about. Hey, I was just trying to help!
As we started down the road, we were fortunate to be entertained with the many galahs, green parrots and then some sad wallaby road kill. But we were enjoying our first sunny day in Australia. This was a nice contrast from the earlier rains and heavy frost the previous night in Inverell.
Today, our new adventure was the slow travel, with the many herds of cattle on the road, even though roads were flat and straight. I saw the Hereford and Angus cattle, but most of the cattle were more of the narrow head, longer floppy ears and humped back. Don’t know the breed (ed…we now know them to be brahma), but not what we are used to…and so as we plodded through the many miles of cattle, I took many pictures. Steve was a bit amused that cattle would warrant so many pictures, but I assured him that I was only taking shots of the different ones. We later found out that the area that we were in was called “the long paddock”. This is the only place with adequate food for these herds during the winter months.
Lunch was prepared in the camper, sandwiches and fruit. After lunch, we had an opportunity to see a mama emu (ed…later found it was the male…they hatch and care for the chicks for up to 18 months) with four chicks, in the tall grass. When I crept up to get a closer look, the chicks hunkered down and out of sight…I did get some photos of mama though. Our destination today is Grawin, north of Walgett. On the section of the road from Walgett to Grawin, we saw a number of emu and kangaroos, though not close enough to photograph.
Neil met us at the corner to turn off to get to Grawin. Again, entertained by the rural “bush” type lifestyle, we were following the markings, all on yellow car doors hung in mulga trees. After looking for the next yellow car door, we saw a sign hung in the tree, indicating where Neil and his wife Willie lived. It simply said, Willie and Neil’s 300 km. Once in the camp, we enjoyed the self-sufficiency of outback life. They look so primitive, but in reality, they have many of the comforts of home…just rigged to make it outback compatible. Most, if not all, are off the grid. Steve and I went for a walk-about and took in all of the sensory outback. Supper consisted of steamed pumpkin, steamed vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, carrots and onions) and marinated beef steaks. They were cooked on 2 of the burners of a propane camp-stove type cooker and were all done at the same time, served up to us fresh and hot. A short visit following dinner, pouring over opals, we hit the hay around 9 PM in the camper.

Jun 13 2006Grawin Bird Life

Gorgeous red/green parrot in Grawin. I believe this is the mate to the solid green parrot in another photo as they were seen together.

June 13 Morning served us up another lovely sunny outback dawn. I fixed rashers of bacon, eggs, and bread along with fruit and coffee for breakfast. We traveled to Lightning Ridge, to secure some money, do some laundry, grocery shopping, and put a deposit down on Len Cram’s newest book on South Australian opal. Len wasn’t home, but we had a nice visit with his wife. The Laundromat was full and had a line waiting. Our next thought was to go to the caravan park and see if they would let us use the washing machines there. We were in luck, but had to take the wet laundry back to Grawin with us and use the clothesline in Willie and Neil’s yard; which we did. The green parrot pair (Neil calls them Groucho’s) was busy having a snack on the feeder. The Grouchos are also a parrot variety that has more lemon yellow tinge to their main coloring. Yes, more and more pictures of the birds…and then of course, another dark bird came around (about a dozen of them). They try to take over the bird feeders…and since they come in groups of a dozen (?), they are often nicknamed Apostle Birds (some call them funeral birds as well).

Willie had just finished making some homemade yogurt and brought it out to us…will make up a fruit cup (fresh Australian bananas, oranges, apples…covered with homemade yogurt, and topped with passion fruit and chopped nuts). Just topped off the meal of spaghetti expertly prepared by Willie while we were off to town. Thanks Willie, you are a marvelous cook!!
Steve was able to meet up with a few miners while I was off taking photos of the birds. He and picked up a little parcel of dark seam opal. The bed in the camper was calling us again, and we were off to bed.

Jun 14 2006Miner Gathering in Grawin Camp

Group of Miners wives and Willie and Neil chatting with tea and pumpkin scones.

June 14 Wednesday morning, we used our little shower in the camper, and cleaned up a bit. Our plan was to see a few miners today as well. Pulling up to the yard, were 3 miners and one wife heading off to their mines for a days work. Steve knew them from last year, and we made plans for a 1:00PM rendezvous at their camp…they promised us wood fired homemade scones. Meanwhile, we looked at parcels that miners brought over. Some phone calls had been made the day before for this arrangement. Dar checked e-mails and then a walk about to the P.O. and the airport. Lunch was fixed in the camper. One o’clock came and we followed Willie and Neil over to the miner’s camp. And, as promised, hot buttered pumpkin scones were served, off of the wood fired stove in the middle of the camp. I took some pictures of the primitive and yet so efficiently run camp, along with the birds that delighted me. Soon the ladies of the camp (not of the evening), offered a walk about tour of the area, complete with a photo-op of kangaroos resting (as daytime is their resting time) on old mullock heaps (mine dumps). However, they did stand up for us, pose a bit, and then hopped off to a less disturbed area to complete their rest. I really think they were noodling for opal. While we hiked around exploring old mining sites and holes, we came upon another resident who had been given (some time ago) a little piglet to fatten up for Christmas. Well, since that time, Christmas (now the hog’s name and a thankful pet) has grown up and hangs out at the mud hole just outside the camp, on a leash. We took some photos of the nearby historic Richards Hill opal mining field and talked a bit…the wild boar showed us his tusks and we enjoyed our time with the resident “pet”? We understand from the story that one-day when Christmas was a bit younger, and resting in the mud hole, the two neighborhood goats came along, one of whom thought the best resting spot for her, was on top of Christmas. Christmas did not evidently mind too much and the goats and pig are best mates.

Upon returning to camp, Steve looked at opals, while Dar enjoyed watching the 3 different kinds of green parrots as they came in and fed, as well as the mature and juvenile honeyeaters. Soon a top crested pigeon joined the group…and lastly the large galahs arrived. Peter needed a guitar turned, and Dar took care of that for him. We had thought about going out to eat, the group of 9. But there are 3 places that might have a meal….none of them could accommodate us tonight. So, Lorraine and Joan kicked it in high gear and began fixing a meal…some in the campfire, and the balance on the wood stove. As it cooked, the ladies, all 4, began a rebel rousing game of cards, “Ping”. Nightfall was creeping up on us, the card table was getting dark, so the guys got the lights going (via the generator…the genny) so cards and loud giggling could continue. Before we knew it, dinner was ready…campfire roasted corned beef, accompanied by potatoes, white sauce, pumpkin, green beans, and cabbage/peanut dish. Dessert of baked apples/custard/and ice cream followed the scrumptious meal. There is not a restaurant that could hold a candle to this feast. Good conversation, friends from another camp, and the campfire kept us there for a couple more hours. Occasionally, we would hear a trumpet sound (a neighbor was announcing a score from a Queensland/New South Wales rugby game that was been announced over his radio). Each time a trumpet sounded, Queensland had scored. We went home to the camper, tired, well fed, and happy!

Jun 15 2006Get Thee To Wilcania

Two Galahs posing in gum tree. You must be getting tired of seeing pics of Galahs, but they are my favorite Aussie bird.

June 15 Thursday morning, we said our good-byes to the Grawin area and headed west. Our route involved going south to Walgett and then west toward Wilcannia. The day was filled with wildlife…tons of sheep, goats, emus, birds, and finally more than our fill of the hazardous kangaroos. Mid-day, I was pouring coffee from a thermos to a cup as we tooled on down the road and Steve hit the brakes and says “HOLD ON!” I looked up and saw 2 emus on a collision course with our campervan. The emu in the lead continues to cross the road, stops, and goes again (seemingly in slow motion), the emu falters, hunkers down as if to be hit. He dips down a bit more and scoots just out of the path of our tires. The second emu stopped and then backed out of our path. Whew! I could taste the feathers! No coffee was spilled, but no pictures were taken either!
We did see a sign that amused us a bit…along the side of the highway it read “Slasher Ahead”. We waited to see just what was intended here! Soon we saw a large mower trimming the grasses/weeds on the shoulder of the road.
Stopping in Bourke for some groceries and some cash we went on to Cobar. Along the way, we happened to see a fox and an echidna. The only other echidna we had seen, a number of years ago, was on Kangaroo Island. What a treat! We traveled till after dark to make it to Wilcannia. Once there, we pulled into a caravan park and tried to check in…but only the groundskeeper was there. He said the owners were out for the night and we could stay for free…and so we did. We were in much need of a real shower, and were glad we had the place to ourselves. Showered, and then we fed ourselves in the camper…went to bed shortly thereafter.

Jun 16 2006Wilcania To Port Augusta: Mulga, Gum Trees, Spinefex, Saltbush and Red Dirt

Emus along the road almost seem to be racing us...but we won.

June 16 Friday morning was chilly with frost on the ground. After brekkie in the camper, we began another full day of driving. Our wildlife viewing was much diminished today. Our only stops today were in Broken Hill: for fuel, postal supplies, and lunch. Back on the road again with most of the scenery for this leg of the road consisting of gum trees, mulga, saltbush, spinifex and red dirt. We did see a few emus, roos, wedge tailed eagles, sheep, and some cattle. At Olary, we stopped and took a short walk just to keep us awake. Finished the day by going over the Flinders Range, just before Port Augusta. After checking into a deluxe caravan park in Port Augusta, we cooked some supper, worked on packaging some of the opal we have purchased and went to bed exhausted from 2 LONG days of driving!

Jun 17 2006Coober Pedy At Last

Casualty of one of the many dry years common in South Australia...sheep skull.

June 17 After breakfast in the camper, we headed down the road with our destination being Coober Pedy. This stretch of the road is only 536 km but seems much longer as the view varies little for 500 km, and then you are able to see diggings that radiate out from Coober Pedy. We stopped for fuel and took a coffee and cookies break at Glendambo. Once in Coober Pedy, we immediately checked into the Mud Hut Motel where we had reservations. The comfortable motel beds were a nice break for our road-weary backs after 3 long days of flat-out driving. I began doing the laundry, 2 washers, and 1 dryer. It took quite some time to finish the loads of clothes. The clothesline helped as well. We LOVE the Mud Hut Motel!  Meanwhile, Steve hiked uptown to see if the TAFE (Coober Pedy vo-tech that specializes in opal cutting) was open (it wasn’t) and a stop at the Miners Store for ant poison …as the van was infested with tiny sugar ants.  We would amuse ourselves in the evenings by keeping score on how many sugar ants we could each kill…mostly Steve won.   And then he returned to the room for some R & R 😉 and a shower. After completing the laundry, we walked to Tom and Mary’s Greek Taverna for our favorite meal…seafood dinner for 2 with barramundi, calamari and shrimp. It was a delectable feast, as usual. Anne and Joe, friends from our first trip here, were also dining there, and we began catching up on Coober news. Back to the Mud Hut, for some much needed rest.

Jun 18 2006Church and packing up opal shipments for home…

Underground Catacomb Church in Coober Pedy. It's much larger than the dugout homes in Coober but similar, as it's just mined from the native bulldog shale that the opal is found in and stays a constant 70-72 degrees summer and winter.

June 18 Sunday. We packed up the camper again, had breakfast at the Mud Hut, and then scouted out the Catacomb Church. We had not attended church in Coober Pedy on our other visits, and wanted to attend a service this year. The Catacomb Church is a large dugout, and uses a table topped with a winch and drum for the altar. Was a delightful service, though the hymn music did not include any tunes we knew (did recognize the words to one song, but the tune was not familiar). In the middle of the service, there was a 15-minute break for “tea” and visiting, and then the service resumed…wonderful idea for fellowship.
We drove out of Coober Pedy into the Hopeful Hills opalfield for some privacy, and weighed, recorded, and packed the opals up for mailing home. As we rolled back into Coober Pedy, we stopped and spent some time visiting with Anne and Joe. Anne had just launched a new book: Digging Around Coober Pedy, of which we bought 2 copies.
Rolled back to Coober to find a comfortable caravan park. Checked out the amenities of all 3 parks before selecting the Opal Inn Caravan Park.  This caravan park is clean, well kept and convenient.  It’s only a short walk from the Westpac Bank, grocery store and favorite restaurants.  Supper in the camper, fixing chicken tarragon of sorts, and then spent some time reading before the lights went out.

Jun 19 2006Buying Opal Parcels Here And There….

We found this lovely native South Australian plant at our caravan park...the Sturt Desert Pea...what a gem!

June 19 We slept in a bit, waiting for the sun to shine in the camper and warm up the shower facilities to a comfortable level. Showered and had some cereal and toast in the camper. We hiked to the TAFE, sought out instructor and master opal cutter Stewart Jackson and visited about carving and carving tools, and then put out the search for miners with opals. A quick stop at the grocery store preceded our travel to the Post Office to mail Package 1 and 2. The highlight of the day was connecting via phone to our 3-year-old grandson, Trevin: whom we are missing greatly at this point!! After lunch, we stopped into the Opal Cutter and visited with the owners, also friends from our first trip, Piet and Barbara, only to discover that Piet is not well and has traveled to a hospital in Adelaide for a battery of tests. {We learned after returning home that our friend Piet had died shortly thereafter from liver cancer…very quick…he will be sorely missed by us and many others!} We stopped at the Old Timer’s Mine intending to spend quite some time there, as there were parcels of opal waiting for us to take a look at. After much conversation, we did agree to buy 1 large parcel, and made an offer on another one. Off we went to another contact to look at more parcels. We were successful in acquiring a bit more there. We had agreed to meet Trevor and Rose for dinner and so went back to our campervan to freshen up a bit. After dinner, we discovered the people who were adjacent to us in the camper park were also at the restaurant; we stayed a bit and visited with them. What a sweet evening we had. Off to bed we went, about 10:00 p.m.

Jun 20 2006And More Opals…

My adorable wife (and willing adventurous traveling companion) Darlene finishing supper cleanup.

June 20 Up and showered, Steve went to the bank to withdraw more cash, as we had two miners scheduled in to look at parcels today. As the day progressed, Steve looked at 4 small parcels, and bought some of them…but not all. We enjoyed lunch at John’s Pizza Bar again, and happened to see a friend from our first trip…what a nice reunion with Ed Radeka! After our business uptown was completed, we began our work in logging, weighing and packaging the opals. We worked until suppertime, and walked to the Chinese Restaurant, which we know has excellent food. More than adequately full, we returned to the camper for the evening.

Jun 21 2006Last Days In Oz…..

Mileage sign seen as we were driving south out of Coober Pedy, heading for the southern tip of the Fleurieu Peninsula and Kangaroo mIsland.

June 21-June29 Up and showered, with a quick breakfast in the camper. Dar checked e-mail one more time before we would be leaving this site, a quick trek to the Post Office for more mailing supplies; and then finished our packaging of the opals. We mailed the last 5 boxes home! Stopped at Tim and Sam’s home for a quick visit, but they weren’t home. Dad was, and because Steve knew him from last year, we visited him instead. Lunch out, and then back there with a last effort to see Tim and Sam. The brothers were both home and so all enjoyed a visit. We enjoyed seeing them nurse along some fruit trees and some tomato plants at their dugout as well. They had a spectacular opalized snail for us to view as well.

OK…we are headed out of Coober Pedy around 3:00 P.M. Stopped to take some photos of a new sign just on the outskirts of town as well as the mileage sign as we leave. Nightfall caught us at Glendambo at the caravan park…we did stay there…with the adventure of killing more ants in our humble abode, and the event of waking to the camper toilet overflowing…ugh. We cleaned up the camper completely before heading down the road, which delayed our departure till 10:00 A.M. Southbound we trekked, stopping for coffee, and lunch …accompanied by a short hike into the outback of red sand and mulga trees. And then, on down the road to Port Pirie where we knew an excellent fruit/vegetable stand was just north of the town. We stopped at the fruit market and picked up some goodies, as well as their dynamite smoked fish and locally produced olive oil. Then on to Port Pirie for some fresh fish at the fish market in town. We checked into the “Port Pirie Beach Caravan Park”. While Dar worked on the laundry, Steve cooked up the fish. We ate like kings tonight…fresh fish, shrimps, smoked calamari and oysters on the half-shell.

Ferry that we boarded for the rough 1 hour trip to Kangaroo Island.

The next day was “off to Adelaide” and down the Fleurieu Peninsula to Port Elliot for an overnight stay on the beach at Port Elliot Caravan park. The Park was nearly empty so we got our pick of spaces…right along the beach!

The next morning dawned sunny and bright and we watched humpback whales passing close to shore along with fur seals putting on a show. The next morning we drove to Cape Jervis and spent the night at a quaint farm that had been converted to a B&B…Cape Jervis Station.

Fairy Penguins just outside their small den on Kangaroo mIsland.

The next morning we boarded the ferry for Kangaroo Island and a two-day tour unwinding on the island. The night was spent on Kangaroo Island at American River booked in at Kangaroo Island Lodge. This was a beautiful seaside motel with a wonderful restaurant. And we enjoyed our walk through the village of American River as well as our two days of tours. And we were able to take advantage of a night tour viewing tiny (but noisy) fairy penguins.

After K.I. we slowly traveled back to Adelaide for a 2-day stay in Glenelg on Jetty Road, before our flights back to the Billings Montana. We tremendously enjoy our outback adventures, but are always ready to get back home. Thanks for reading!