The desert! Unchanged for millions of years, yet witness to a biblical prophecy come true that one day the meek shall inherit the Earth. If that sounds too much like an 80's computer game, you're probably right. Let me try that again.
The Outback! Unchanged for millions of years, yet I've been witness to countless endeavours to get me out there and see it for myself that I finally relented when I was able to do a quick 4 day dash in the middle of March of 2015.
About a decade ago, my wife starting teaching at a primary school North East of Melbourne in the Yarra Valley. It was there that she became good friends with her then Vice Principal and mentor. It wasn't long after that we were invited over for dinner to properly meet, and that's where I met Doug. In the most basic of terms, Doug is your quintessential larger than life Aussie and he's passionate about this great land of ours. Every time since then, whenever we've caught up, he would always tell us the tales of his recent trip up to Northern New South Wales, more specifically the little mining town of White Cliffs.
You see, Doug has been going up to White Cliffs a fair few times each year for nearly 4 decades. It was back in the late 70s when he and a friend ventured up to Broken Hill during one of their annual leave periods from work. From there, they zeroed their odometer and followed a map that took you to various mining locations in the area. It wasn't until they came to White Cliffs that they found a jewel of a town, with the added bonus of there being opals in the ground.
And still, each time we caught up with Doug and his wife, he would always let me know in no uncertain terms "You'll have to come up one day and see it for yourself". Then in January of this year, he mentioned on in passing, that he was doing a quick run up to drop off some materials, before heading back for a month in April. This piqued my interest and I asked him to clarify what he meant by a 'quick run' and he said "I'll be leaving Tuesday morning and most likely back Friday evening, in mid March". I was sold and the opportunity to see first hand what he had so passionately talked about all these years and to document it with my photography was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
So come Tuesday morning, it was a 4am wake up to be on the road for the 12 hour trip up there. The main reason was to avoid the hundreds of kangaroos just outside of White Cliffs that will usually be out on the roads at dusk and at dawn. And so it began...
Allow me to introduce Kamikaze Emu. I spotted him on the side of the road. Normally as we got close to the wildlife, the sound of the car would cause them to turn back inland and scamper off, but this girl just kept eyeing our car off. As we got closer I gestured for Doug to slow down and sure enough, not 10 meters from the car she dashed out in front of us as Doug slammed on the brakes. She looks further away than she really was as by the time we just missed her she was right beside me flicking stones up against the car as she bolted off. Hilarious.
The drive up is a long one, most of it being done on the Cobb Highway just over the Victorian border and about a tenth of it on dusty red roads which can be avoided if you take a 4 hour round trip on tarmac to avoid it but that doesn't stop Doug and I wasn't going to miss any part of this country just for the sake of a few bumpy bits.
We made a few stops on the way up, mostly to grab some breakfast in the morning and a quick bite for lunch, but also for refuelling and there is one spot in Ivanhoe run by Wendy where all the locals make an effort to fill up on Diesel as they pass through to help support her. It's little touches like this that prepared me for the way the community comes together in the outback, sadly something we see less and less of in the big cities.
It was just on 4:30pm when we pulled into White Cliffs. Doug had mentioned it was only a small town so I was picturing... well I wasn't picturing much at all to be quite honest but there's definitely a town here with the obligatory Pub, a School with 8 students, a General Store, a Town Hall, a Caravan Park, a Medical Clinic and the requisite tourist attractions scattered around the town. Oh and there's a golf course, you know the kind where the grass is dirt coloured and you get a key to access the 10x10 mound of artificial turf you take around with you to tee off from. Yeah that kind. :)
When Doug and his wife normally come up here, they stay in their caravan. Doug is putting together a little shed on a small plot of land he leases for only a few hundred dollars per year which is practically peanuts. He's been getting it into a habitable state over the past few times he's been up here and it will have running water and solar powered electricity but for now the caravan is their home. But since he was bringing up various pieces for the shed on his trailer this time around he couldn't tow the caravan so he had organised for me to stay in a dugout with good friends of his, Dave and Tina.
A dugout you say? Well yes, it's one of the more common ways people live up here where you basically 'dig out' your house from the side of a hill and live underneath the ground. The benefits of this in this dry and hot country of ours is the huge heat reduction, some 10 degrees cooler than outside, but also that if you need to extend you can just dig another room out.
Dave has being working on his dugout for about 7 years now. He and his wife have been around White Cliffs for nearly 2 decades but his dugout has only been a recent acquisition. The main area where we stayed housed a small dining area, a kitchen off to the right, some guest bedding to the left and a main bedroom down the back. Under his huge verandah area he's made a further 2 rooms off to the left with a section allocated for more rooms on the right. I never would have thought I would have enjoyed sleeping underground as much as I did. I know people get claustrophobic at the idea but it honestly felt like I was in a room with some fancy rock wallpaper.
Many a time Doug has shown me pictures of the sunsets he had taken at White Cliffs. I agreed, they looked fantastic but it's not until you are there and experience them for yourself that you truly get a feel for the colour in the sky and the glow on the ground. I was thankful that the first night was full of clouds so I could see the textures and colours as the sun set.
I was standing on top of the dugout, and many other dugouts, as I walked around getting different vantage points, looking at the town centre off to the North but panning around all 360 degrees and just taking it all in.
Oh and if you need a toilet run in the middle of the night, grab your torch and some footwear and head on out to the standalone bathroom area that Dave has put together. There's running water and an actual civilised cistern and 'funny' but there were a few steps to getting hot water to come out in the shower. In all honesty I just wanted to experience living off tank water so I had my showers direct, no heating, just whatever warmth they absorbed during the hot, mid to high 30s, days.
I learnt quickly that it was best to shower in the evenings whilst the water was still warm because in the morning, it was COLD, but very invigorating. :)
Day 2 saw us trekking out to visit Kim and Karen who Doug had taken on his now famous White Cliffs Tour not 3 years ago. They had come through and were staying in the Caravan Park when Doug went up to them to make them feel welcome and took them through the mining fields. Doug specifically took Kim noodling (digging through the extracted mounds of dirt) and mining in the 30-40 foot deep shafts. This experience brought new life to both Kim and Karen and it wasn't long after that they both got their mining claim where they've now built their living quarters near by.
Doug could see they were home when the flag was flying near their shed but after tooting and yelling out to them we realised they were already down in their shaft and mining. I learnt quickly that because of the heat out here it's best to get your work done in the morning and then just relax and literally do nothing in the afternoon/evening. So down the shaft we went, along this thin ladder mounted to the side of the shaft and when finally hitting the bottom, in a much cooler locale, both Kim and Karen took me around their mine whilst Doug was still making his way down. I can see how peaceful it can be down here and what the attraction is. You can literally switch off from the world above. And it wasn't nigh on 10 minutes before a short in one of the lights threw a fuse in the generator above. Hello darkness. Wearing the only helmet with a torch atop it I was soon lighting the way for everyone to make it to the stair way where Kim would soon deduce the fault and took me down for a longer stretch the next day.
What a lovely couple Kim and Karen are, absolutely welcoming into every part of their life and so eager to share what they love about this place, much like Doug had been doing all these years.
Doug took me for a drive around the mines and also to his little claim which he hadn't yet opened this season, given most of the work is done during the cooler months of the year. I was basically doing the same tour that he took Kim and Karen on and even Karen joined us on the drive because she loved hearing Doug tell these stories of his. To be honest, I quite enjoyed hearing them too. It's not until you're out here and can put images to the words that you truly understand what he has been talking about.
People around here are all too eager to say hello and spend some time having a chat. We passed a shack that had recently been claimed by an artist, I'd forgotten his name, but he wanted to let us know of all the changes he had done and how long he was here for and what his plans were going forward. I thought Doug could talk the ears off a rabbit but this lovely guy just kept going and going and going. I'm going to call him Ernie Jizer, like the bunny. :)
And who pulls up for a chat, but Kim, so Karen departed with her husband as Doug had some ideas of where to go next.
Undoubtedly, Karl was my favourite character to meet on this trip. An old man in his 80s who lives on the side of a nice hill with a direct view of every sunset in White Cliffs. He even named his house Sunset View.
When we drove up the hill to his home, Karl was on the front porch, in just his shorts, just watching the day go by, but even not realising who was coming to visit he was up and out of his seat waving his hands hello in such a welcoming way. Doug was taking up a memorial printout from a recent funeral of a dear friend of both of theirs. Karl was quick to bring me into his home and before we could finish entering the door he was pulling out magazine clippings of his mining adventures that had even made it to magazines back home in Germany. Apparently a few years early some German backpackers had come through White Cliffs and taken photos of Karl in his mines and when they got back home some publications picked up the photos and they sent copies to him as a thank you. He was so proud that he was 'in print' back home.
Seeing my camera over my shoulder he darted off into his lounge room to find an album of his whilst Doug took me into a side room and showed be a collection of Karl's mining work boots. Karl literally took the steel caps out of actual boots and glued them onto his thongs (flip flops). "It's too hot in boots" he said and I just laughed. He came back with a huge thick album of photos of sunsets. So many sunsets, all so different, all taken by Karl from his porch and why wouldn't you from what I had seen the night before.
We needed to head off but not before I asked Karl if I could take his portrait photo and he was happy to oblige. He asked if I wanted him to put a top on but I said that I wanted him to be himself so he just went with his current attire. To be honest it is one of my favourite photos, both because of the detail of this lovely miner but also because of the lovely man I met this day.
It wasn't the hottest day of our 4 day trip but being out in the open for a few hours it was wise to head back under cover and cool down before dinner.
Doug wanted to do one more stop off at a friend's home just to check up on it and it was here where I found these lovely purple colour bottles made into a wall. These beer bottles are pelted with some form of ultraviolet radiation causing them to turn a purple colour and they look lovely on a wall.
Today was Wednesday, which is delivery day in town. On Saturdays, locals will place orders with a market in Adelaide for the likes of Fruit and Vegetables, Milk, Breads, Ice-creams etc and for $10 in shipping, they are brought up fresh on Wednesday and dropped off at the General Store, so Doug, Dave and I drove out to grab some groceries before cooking yet another BBQ dinner tonight.
I love a good BBQ and out here your most common cooking method is either a gas stove of sorts or your BBQ, and I am totally fine with that, again. :)
We had a few visitors at the dugout this afternoon and I got to meet a few of the locals and hear a few of their stories. Dominic, the little Italian builder from next door was a lovely man and was happy to see Doug again. Hearing his surname, I asked him if he was Italian, to make some small polite conversation with what very little Italian I knew. "Not anymore" he laughed as he responded as he considered himself a true blue outback Aussie. Doug told me the story of his first wife who worked in a mine and she would collect these lovely crystals that she thought looked pretty and over the years she had amassed a few tonnes of the stuff. It turns out NASA was starting this thing called a space program and needed Beryllium to make the panels for the space craft and the only people in the world that had them were the Russians, who weren't going to relinquish their own stash to their competitors. It turns out, this lovely lady had been mining Beryllium crystals herself and NASA came knocking with a very nice cheque and bought ALL of it. She passed away a fair few years again but it was great to hear how Doug was such good friends with her over all those decades. That's beautiful.
Young Rod, the local electrician, was visiting Jane who lives a few dugouts down and they both came over for a coffee and to sit in the cool shelter. The talk of the town was the wedding that was going to occur on the weekend at a Woolshed some 10km away. Jane works in the pub so she hears everything and keeps everyone up to date. Forget the town noticeboard, word gets around White Cliffs very quickly. It's not gossip, it's just keeping everyone informed and up to date and it's here where everyone throws in their help to those that may be in need. "Such and such is trying to get their solar panel fixed", "Oh I've got some spare panels they can have", "I can wire it up for them" and it's settled. This is community.
Last night there were clouds everywhere and I knew we'd be getting a great sunset but the clear skies today had me thinking it wouldn't be something to write home about, but here I am writing. That "Golden Hour" glow is so different out here; it really is Golden and it really does Glow. Suburban life does not do that term justice. I grabbed my gear and went for a walk after dinner whilst my hosts sat chatting away. "Be careful of the wrigglies" calls out Doug as I remembered the stories Dave had told me about the deadly snakes he had been finding in the area. You get used to walking and 'spotting' very quickly out here, you really have to plan your path and your steps.
Walking around above the dugouts, the glow was just ridiculous. Everything was bathed in amber and the ground and the rusted out abandoned machinery just had this rich redness to them. And then the sky opened up a palette of colours that I'd only artificially put together before. No matter where I looked, I was seeing colour like I had only just seen it for the first time. The golden colour graduating into a dark blue hue in the West to the deep purples and pinks and greens coming up in the East. I didn't know where to look, I didn't know what to shoot. I just kept pointing and shooting and taking it all in in-between.
On the first night, I had rolled over in my bed at roughly 3am in the morning. I knew it was 3am because as soon as I did Doug called out to me and said "Are you awake? Go outside now!". I was half asleep but did as I was told. Still finding it hard to focus I made my way through the pitch black night, and then I looked up.
Holy Freaking Moly. I have NEVER seen the sky like this. There it was, right in front of me, clear as day, the Milky Way. I was mesmerised, transfixed, in awe of the heavens. I made a conscious effort to get outside the next night and see what I could capture with the camera. I didn't try very hard, I was still in awe myself. The camera just wouldn't do it justice.
Today is going to be hot. 42 degrees hot. 108 on the old scale. Coming from Melbourne where our Summer officially ended before it even started, this wasn't something I was looking forward to, but as the day progressed I found the complete lack of humidity to be a blessing. Look, I don't do heat well, but this was more than tolerable. Sure it was sizzling out in the sun but you're not meant to be stupid enough to be out there for that long as you're either in the mines where the heat is non existent or you're indoors or under shelter where the breeze blowing over you is actually quite cool. I was completely fine with it and quite enjoyed the heat.
Every morning you could hear the drone of the Flying Doctor overhead. You're never an hour away from a hospital if something serious occurs out here and that is not very often, unless you're being completely stupid or careless. But today was about checking out Doug's shed, unloading the trailer load of materials we brought up from Melbourne and getting some measurements done for obtaining further supplies.
Even at around 9am in the morning, the temperature in Doug's shed was sitting on around 29-30 degrees. He hasn't yet finished bulking the interior with insulation just yet so that should see a further drop in the future but it really was a hot day.
I can't thank Doug enough for looking after me the entire time we were up here. He is just supremely special and an absolute joy to be around and most of all he is utterly dependable and always willing to lend a hand to friends and family and those he's just met and he's got a great sense of humour as can be seen by what he intends to name his little shack. :)
Doug, and the locals, made it known that I had to go and visit the White House to see what can truly be done with a dugout. I had seen what Dave and Tina were planning on doing with theirs by smoothing out the walls with concrete and render but I wasn't expecting this at all.
Lyndsay and his wife had been working on their home for a few years so parts were still unfinished but the rest, my goodness, how could a hole in the ground be made to look so good. The finished walls were properly sealed and rendered and painted white to allow light to flow around as best as possible. Floors were tiled with recycled tiles found on their travels and any off cuts we further reused for a more rustic tiling in hallways and it just worked. A giant tree root is front and centre in the kitchen as you walk in and from a particular angle it looks like a rams head. The kitchen itself is just re-used desks and filing cabinets from a centrelink office costing about $40 to reclaim. It's this fascination with recycling that Lyndsay and his wife make do with what they find. Rusted out bowls and gears make a feature light wall, an old singer sewing machine is used for a body of an angel on a wall. Absolutely brilliant.
And the cool air flowing through the house. Forget air conditioning, convection and calculated venting allows air to come in from the front of the dugout and snake through the tunnels to ALL the bedrooms cooling as it passes along the cold cavernous walls so that there is always air flow no matter where you are. And the snaking stair case that leads to the 360 degree lookout on top of the dugout is magical.
I was blown away.
I love coincidences. I don't believe they are random but planned. The day after I get back will be my sister's birthday and my wife and I hadn't organised a gift for her but travelling up to White Cliffs it dawned on me that I'm heading into opal territory so surely there was someone selling jewellery that would be suitable as a gift.
I mentioned this to Doug and his first response was "Yup, I'll take you to visit my mate Dick and he'll look after you". And so he did. His little opal store is nestled in his own home/dugout and when we got there he was babysitting his little granddaughter who just wanted to play face-makers with me. She won convincingly but that's only because I was around adults and needed to act all adult like.
We had a nice chat and some tea and then when more customers arrived it was time for ourselves to make a purchase and move on. Dick was very accommodating and knew exactly what I was after once I described my sister's tastes. All the opals on sale in his store are what he has dug up in the mines himself as well as some other opals from Queensland that Lyndsay brings back for him.
Only a few dugouts down from where we were staying was Otto. He's been photographing the Australian outback for decades and was recently retired so when Doug and I went to visit him in the afternoon we sat and talked all things photography and technology. I think he was quite happy that someone else in the town was able to talk shop with him and he just shared experience after experience about his time as a photographer. From stories of buying one of the first CD burners for a measly $4000 to trying to understand why people would come to his gallery and photograph his prints so they could print them themselves for cheaper. The nerve. We discussed his Hasselblad collection as well as his more unique pieces of equipment such as film printer, yes printer, where you could take a digital image and print it onto slide film for use in a slide projector. Back in those days Powerpoint wasn't as common for use in presentations.
He still had a few amazing prints in his gallery that he allowed us to have a look at and I was thoroughly impressed. I picked up one of his printed books about his White Cliffs photography as we said our goodbyes but I'll be sure to prod him for more photography related topics in the near future.
Doug and I weren't the only ones who drove up to White Cliffs. We picked up the lovely Barabara along the way who Doug and his wife had met in White Cliffs years ago. It just so happened that Barbara and her late husband lived only a few blocks away from Doug and his wife in Melbourne. Small world indeed.
The most fascinating thing I learnt about this remarkable woman was the work she and her husband did back in the 1950s. Back then a chap by the name of Len Beadell surveyed and built, yes built, the roads of what is now known as Central Australia. He is widely regarded as Australia's last true Explorer. Barbara and her husband Charlie were then called in to map all the roads he had built and spent the next few years travelling these roads and making note off all notable landmarks and ridge details. An absolutely fascinating tale and here she was, sitting with us on the way to White Cliffs. I am in total awe of these accomplishments and have the utmost respect for these true pioneers.
Tonights sunset was going to be much the same as the night before so I just went for a walk and captured whatever I could find on the grown, hopefully no wrigglies tonight. The colour on the dirt was once again mesmerising. There is so much detail to be seen but what was more fascinating were all the little creatures. There were plenty of grasshoppers and locusts to keep my arm waving busy and as the cool air took over the evening the frogs came out for water and a feed.
But when you're looking down at the earth and thinking you're seeing the biggest balloonist you've ever seen only for them to take flight as you got near them, I soon realised I was near a hornets nest. The sound, the sound is like you've only hooked up a subwoofer as they just hum around you. It's incredible.
This last night, we ate indoors. It really was hot outside so the cool underground dining area was where we spent the evening. And the scraping at the door meant electrician Rod was in the area as his dog was wanting to come in knowing that he'd get fed some biscuits here.
It is here, our last night in the dugout, where I'd like to thank Dave and Tina for their hospitality. They both made us feel so welcome in their dugout and provided everything we needed to make our short week enjoyable. Dave had wonderful tales to tell me about his mining days, now that he's retired, and how much he loves it up in White Cliffs. I remember on the first night once we had unpacked our respective 4x4s that we sat outside under the verandah looking out at the countryside and he leaned over to me and said "Yup, this is pretty much it, Get used to it". I laughed but I soon realised that when you're underground and even undercover that there is absolutely NO reception so you're just forced to switch off. It's not until you experience true disconnection that you really can switch off. I was relaxed, totally.
Sadly, it was the morning of the last day. There was no 4am alarm this morning because we needed to avoid the kangaroos just outside of White Cliffs so it was a 6:00 alarm for a 7:00am departure. We said our goodbyes to Dave and Tina and headed off to pick up Barbara before we left for Melbourne.
As lovely as the sunsets are out here, the sunrises are just as impressive. Doug mentioned how there are times when he is leaving at this time of morning and he's had to push away kangaroos from the side of his car as there are just hundreds of them on the roads. So with the camera at the ready I reckon I shot about 6 of them all up. SIX.
The road trains coming through the area during the night means carcasses on the roads in the morning and looking ahead, you see crows littering the sky as they circle the fresh meat. As the sun rose, the sky got brighter and some lovely golden light lit up the country side for some phenomenal sights.
On the way in we had the Kamikaze Emu but on the way home we had Gallivanting Goat, Jumping Jimmy, King Kanga and the Cow Sign Cow.
Finally home. Our first major intersection we stopped at, I noted that there were more cars stationary on the road here than in total at White Cliffs. It hit home just how busy suburban life is but it was good to be home.
In saying that, the experience was mesmerising. I can understand why Doug would always mention why White Cliffs was so special and I see now how hard it is to describe in words and static photos. You really had to go and experience this small town for yourself.
Most of all, it is the people that make this place. The opal mining is the hobby there but without the people the town would just disappear. Everyone plays their part in the community. Everyone. I have neighbours, not a few meters away, who turn their head away from you as if you're going to intrude on their precious time, but out here neighbours from a kilometre away will make the effort to be there for you at the drop of a hat. As much as goods and services costs money out there, and probably more so than in a big city, the bartering that goes on means everyone lives beyond what they can afford and they make do with what is available to them. It's really quite special and I look forward to going back.
I'm really, really looking forward to it. :)