Monday, April 28

Dinosaur country

Our Queensland outback adventure continued with a two-day excursion in sleepy Winton.  This quiet country town is 177kms northeast of Longreach.  It takes less the two hours to traverse the straight, monotonously flat highway.  The journey's scenic highlights consist of mainly Emus which can be seen grazing the area's sparse vegetation.

However, our journey did have one unexpected highlight. Along the way encountered a strange convoy of white trucks trailing miles of cabling.  At first we thought we’d encountered an NBN work crew.  However, we later learnt that we’d seen the Queensland State Government’s deep crust seismic survey team in action.  The survey consists of 40 people, travelling in 20 4WD vehicles, supported by five logistics trucks.

The survey is being conducted along 670kms of highway from April to June this year.   The crew work 7 days a week, travelling 15kms a day.  A team of surveyors lay positioning pegs, which a trailing team of cable layers use to spool out temporary cables attached to geophones (microphones that listen for sound waves).  Four Vibrosel trucks then traverse the route stopping occasionally to drop a giant vibration pad that sits mid-chassis.  Each pad sends vibrations rolling through the ground for a distance of up to 20 kms.  It’s an impressive set up.

We stopped for the afternoon at the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum.   This facility sits on the lip of mesa plateau that rises above the surrounding Outback.  It’s home to Australia’s most famous dinosaur discoveries.  Less than two decades ago, very little was known about the nation’s Jurassic past.  All this changed after a chance discovery of fossils by local farmer. 

Today, we know that the entire Winton area is littered with fossils, sitting less than two metres underground.   Visitors are invited to join the scientists and chip away at bedrock surrounding the museum’s recent most discoveries.  The museum is also one of the only locations in the world where you can see an original holotype.  That’s what they call the first fossils used to identify a new species.  Every other museum usually displays casted replicas.

We spent the following day exploring all that Winton has to offer.  The town has two claims to fame.  It was here that the Qantas board first met to establish the airline.  It was also here that the iconic bush anthem, Waltzing Matilda was first performed in 1895.   The town now hosts a museum dedicated to the song. 

We wondered if a museum devoted to a song could occupy us for long.  However, we spent almost two hours unraveling the mystery of its quirky language and its surprising role in modern Australian history. I learnt that a jumbuck is a sheep and that the song's Matilda isn't actually a woman, its a bedding roll.  It also should have come as not surprise to learn that Waltzing Matilda was replaced the Australian national anthem after Shirley Strickland received gold medal for the 80 metres hurdles at the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympics.
Our final day in the Outback was spent making our way back to Longreach, where we spent the afternoon exploring The Great Machinery Mile in nearby Ilfracombe.  This is a roadside collection of industrial and agricultural machinery, some it more than a century old.  Perhaps the most interesting item on display was a yellow grader, reputably one of only three in the entire country.  Who knew!

Saturday morning saw us catch a flight back to Brisbane and on to Sydney.  Our verdict?  Longreach is worth a visit.  We learnt more about the Australian Outback here than on any other trip we’ve taken.  As me, I’m making plans to buy McKinnon & Co.  They’ve got the local tourism market cornered with some incredibly well-crafted pioneering experiences.  Now I know what I’ll be doing in retirement.

Sunday, April 27

Going bush

When asked to name a quintessential Outback town, names like Broken Hill and Birdsville typically come to mind.  I visited the former more than a decade ago and have plans to see the latter someday soon.  However, from a pure tourism viewpoint, Broken Hill proved to be a one day wonder.  I suspect Birdsville will prove no better.

The same cannot be said for Longreach, the same proclaimed capital of the Outback.  This cozy regional centre sits on Queensland’s Landsborough Highway, midway between Mt Isa and Rockhampton.  Midway means 700 kms in either direction.  Longreach sits on the rim of the Thompson River’s floodplain.  Its location marked the western terminus of a rail line stretching inland from the Queensland coast.

Garry and I spent the Easter weekend exploring a surprising variety of activity that awaits visitors.  We arrived late on Sunday afternoon courtesy of the daily Qantaslink flight from Brisbane.  I’d made a last minute change to our itinerary and booked a cabin at the Kinnon & Co Outback Lodge.  This proved to be a savvy decision.   We enjoyed three nights in air-conditioned cabin on the edge of a dry grass paddock grazed by the occasional kangaroo.

Our first Outback adventure began that evening with a steak meal at the nearby Stockman’s Hall of Fame.  The dining area sits under an open-sided shed.  This is the Outback after all.  Temperatures rarely fall below 20C at night.  Patrons are kept cool by the whirling 3-metre blades of a giant ceiling fan.

The following morning we made our way to the Qantas Founder’s Museum.  This venue, based on the southern fringe of the local airport, was the first permanent base for Australia’s national airline.  The airline was founded in 1920, just up the road (all of 177 kms away) at Winton.  The original hanger is still there.  It’s now a heritage listed building.  The museum houses many of the airline’s most famous aircraft including its first jetliner, the Boeing 707, and it’s last Classic Series Boeing 747.

Garry and I booked the Wing Walk Tour.  This behind the scenes tour took us through the bowels of a Jumbo Jet, before culminating in a walk out onto one of the plane’s expansive wings.   We discovered the location of its infamous black box, made our way from first class into the avionics bay and on into the forward cargo hold.  We saw where the emergency oxygen is kept and discovered just how enormous its central fuel tank is.

We finished the day with a sunset cruise along the Thompson River.  We had hoped to travel on the historic Thomson Belle paddlewheel steamer.  Unfortunately, the boat was full and we found ourselves riding a rather plain flat-bottom skip.  However, it did give us an opportunity to photograph the old lady as she steamed into the sunset.  Our river cruise finished with a fireside plate of bushman’s stew; some truly tall tales from Scotty, a local bush poet, and the cinematic retelling of an infamous cattle-rustler’s grand heist.

Our second day was spent exploring the halls of the Stockman’s Hall of Fame.  We found spent more three hours wandering through its exhibits learning about the nation’s Outback pioneers.  The Stockman’s main building consists of three soaring corrugated iron arches.  It was officially opened in 1988 by Queen Elizabeth.

On Wednesday we took a trip back in time to the days of the Cobb & Co stagecoach.  Kinnon & Co have faithfully reconstructed stagecoaches that take tourists on a horse-drawn joyride through the local bush.  Garry and I were invited to sit on the top of the coach.  It seemed like a great idea at the time. 

However, by the time we’d galloped along bone-dry dirt tracks we found ourselves covered in a fine layer of dust.  It was rather sobering to contemplate how dusty we were after 30 minutes.  I admire those early travelers who rode the coach for days on end.  It's not business class Qantas style.

Saturday, April 12

Welcome to Middle Earth

It’s been more than twenty years since I last visited Queenstown, New Zealand.  It’s a magic place, surrounded by breath-taking scenery.  Here, the epic landscapes of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings triology were brought to life.   The town itself sits on the shores of picturesque Lake Wakatipu, framed by the soaring granite peaks of the Remarkables.

I was fortunate enough to relive my memories of Queenstown in late-March.  I attended a three-day business conference at Millbrook Resort, ten minutes from the town.  The excursion began with a stunning afternoon flight from Wellington that took us down the eastern coast of the South Island

I’d booked myself a window seat in anticipation of good weather.  As luck would have it, the day dawned bright and sunny, a perfect day for flying.  For more than an hour I sat glued to the window watching the Southern Alps glide by.  I could see how each meandering, braided river had been forged from the melt water of gleaming white glaciers and snow-capped peaks.
While the conference itself was intense, we did enjoy an afternoon respite on the second day.  My company surprised us with a helicopter excursion into Mount Aspiring National Park.  We flew along Skippers Canyon, home to the Shotover River.  Our track followed the winding Skippers Canyon road, before branching off to fly past Lochnagar.  This small lake was formed in the aftermath of giant landslide that swept across a narrow river valley.  The scar of the cataclysmic event is still visible today.

The climax of our flight saw us fly up the slumping icy ramparts of an isolated glacier before sweeping back across a neighbouring valley where we landed on the summit of a slopping ice field in the Forbes Mountains.  The view was spectacular.  It truly was New Zealand at its finest.

The remainder of my “afternoon at leisure” was spent walking into Arrowtown.  The main street of turn of this century gold mining outpost has been beautifully restored in recent years.  It’s just as I recall it from the pictorial calendar images of my childhood.  Tiny miner’s cottages nestled among towering Autumn-coloured Popular trees.   I spent almost an hour wandering along a new walking trail that follows the banks of the Arrow River.

Saturday, March 15

Hotel de Wheels

Everyone raves about the Museum Art Hotel in Wellington.  The hotel had a great room rate on offer last week so I decided to try it for myself.  The fish sculpture you can see above greeted me every morning as I waited for an elevator.  However, the most interesting exhibit in the lift lobby was a display case capturing the story of the building's relocation several years earlier.

The building once sat on the edge of Wellington harbour.  In 1993 the 3,500 tonne reinforced concrete structure was moved 180 metres along the waterfront and then back across a major road to its current location  It was relocated to make way for the new Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa.  The entire feat was achieved by carefully cut its foundation piers, then lifting the  building onto giant rail trolleys which were then pushed delicately along temporary rail tracks by enormous ram jacks.

Here's how summed up the relocation on its 20th anniversary last year:
  • 3000-tonne, four-storey building - the largest ever shifted in New Zealand.
  • $2.4 million cost ($3.7m in today's dollars).
  • 3 months of preparation for a 3-day move, in two stages
  • 120-metre shift - 80m east along Cable St (August 14-15, 1993), a 90-degree rotation and 40m south across Cable St (August 21).
  • 5-10 metres an hour - the average speed of the building when moved
  • 3 kilometres of rail line on 8 tracks.
  • 96 "bogie" rail trolleys pushed by 8 hydraulic rams.
  • 120 tonnes of push needed to move the building.
  • 48-hour closure of Cable St for final track-laying and relocation.
  • 1000-strong crowds watching the various stages of the move

The Art Deco Capital of the World

Napier, located on the Hawkes Bay coast of New Zealand, is a unique city.  Large sections of the city were leveled by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake on the morning of February 3, 1931. At least 256 people lost their lives in Napier and neighbouring towns.  The toll made it the nation's most deadly natural disaster.  Such was the scale of the quake that it lifted the surrounding area an average of 1.8 metres above sea level.  In fact the regional airport sits on a coastal plain that was once the floor of a large lagoon. 

Despite the devastation, local were determined to rebuilt.  At the time, Art Deco was architectural style in vogue.  Hundreds of buildings were erected reflecting its colourful, geometric forms.  The result, is an incredible architectural time capsule. Today, a preservation society actively works to preserve the city's stunning heritage. I can recall only one other location where a similar concentration of Art Deco can still be found; Miami Beach, Florida.

I spent last weekend in Napier while enroute to Wellington for work.  Over the years I've tried unsuccessfully to visit the Hawkes Bay. This time luck was with me.  My flight from Auckland landed shortly after 3:30pm on Saturday.  I collected my rental car and made my way to south to Te Mata Peak.  This craggy ridge rises 399 metres above the surrounding coast, offering near perfect views of the entire region.  A narrow, somewhat hair-raising road winds its way up to the summit. 

However, the white knuckle ride is worth the effort as the view is inspiring. You can look across to Napier and the Mahia Peninsula, down on the Tukituki River and local vineyards and across the rolling, fertile Heretaunga Plains.  While I was at the summit a car club on an afternoon tour pulled into the carpark. The group included an assorted of immaculately maintained vintage cars and convertibles.

I then drove up the coastal road to Napier, enjoying the ocean views and my first glimpse of the white limestone cliffs of Cape Kidnappers.  This cape sits at the southern tip of Hawkes Bay.  It distinctive coastline finishes with a small pyramid-shaped island.  The headland was named after an attempt by local Maori to abduct the servant of a member of Captain James Cook's crew in 1769. The crew member was Tiata, a Tahitian accompanying Cook's interpreter Tupaia.

The local tribesmen assumed that the Europeans had enslaved Tiata and attempted to rescue him.  Cook's journal states that Tiata was in the water near Endeavour when a Māori fishing boat pulled alongside and dragged him aboard.  Sailors from Endeavour′s deck immediately opened fire on the fishing boat, killing two Māori and wounding a third. Tiata promptly jumped overboard and swam back to Endeavour, while the remaining Māori paddled their craft back to shore.

On Sunday morning I joined an Art Deco walking tour of the central business district.  An enthusiastic local resident spent an hour sharing tales of the city history, interpreting Art Deco's forms and pointing out it expression on the surrounding buildings.  I enjoyed the tour more than I'd expected.  Afterwards, I visited the recently opened regional museum to see its earthquake exhibit and watch a film that captures the personal memories of those who lived through the disaster as young children.

After lunch it was off to the Bluff Hill lookout to see Napier's harbour and take in the expanse of coastal land that rose from the sea in 1931. My weekend visit coincided with the arrival of the Sea Princess, an Australian cruise ship.  As a result, the harbour was dominated by the vessel and the town was filled with exploring crowds.  The influx did have its benefits as the locals were out in force with live bands, vintage car displays and other regalia. 

My weekend in Napier finished with a real highlight.  By chance, weeks earlier I'd come across a tour of the famous gannet colonies at Cape Kidnappers.  Australasian gannets are beautiful sea-faring birds.  They've found along the southern coast of Australia and eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island. Gannet pairs typically mate for life, breeding only one chick each season.  At Cape Kidnappers, four large breeding colonies have developed, with more than 20,000 nesting birds.  Incredibly the birds return for 16 weeks every year, between October and April, to raise their chicks.

Reaching the colonies is an adventure in itself.  The tour involved being towed in a trailers by two antique tractors along 8kms of spectacular cliff lined beaches.  The beaches are only accessible at low tide.  Each trailer has comfortable padded seats and welded footrests so the journey is more comfortable than it sounds.  The coastline is extraordinary.  The tectonic forces of New Zealand's restless continental plates are on full display.  Fault lines cut the cliffs at crazy angles, ancient seabed fossils can be seen in the sedimentary layers rising up from the waves.  It's all rather magic.

The tour ends at the start of walking track that takes you up to the gannet colonies.  The largest colony is situated on wind-swept plateau, more than 200 metres above the beach.  A 20 minute walk along the coast and up a steep, winding track takes you to the colony. The sight of thousands of birds is amazing, as are the rather potent, chocking guano fumes that greet you as you crest the hilltop.  I spent almost 40 minutes soaking up the view and marveling at the fact that I'd finally made to this famous, stunningly beautiful corner of New Zealand.  I can't wait to show Garry.