Sunday, October 16, 2011

A wee drive in the country

After five and a half years working on the Eagle Downs project, I decided it was time for a change of scene. The whole point of being a geologist is to travel and see new rocks, and I'd been staring at the same coal seams since 2006. So I found a new job starting in November, and finished at Eagle Downs on Friday 14th October.

Gerald the Herald came to Moranbah in 2008. The company had provided a house with a huge garage, so the wee red terror was hauled out of storage in New Zealand, shipped to Brisbane and driven north to the Coalfields. I took three days for that journey because the car hadn't been used in several years and I wanted to take it slow in case anything wasn't working properly. As it turned out, Gerald was in rude health and never missed a beat.

Three years on, we were heading south again.

We sneaked out of Moranbah at 0525 on Saturday morning, as I wanted to get as much of the first day's journey out of the way before the heat built up. The sky was already light, and an orange sun rose above the clouds as we passed Eagle Downs. The first part of the drive was slow because of mist, and passing traffic threw up sprays of dirty water. We stopped at Dysart, the first town on the road south so I could clean the windscreen, and then headed out down the Golden Mile Rd.

The most worrying leg of the journey is officially called the "Suttor Developmental Road". but everyone calls it the Beef Road. It's about 250km in total, with no towns, settlements or rest stops. And no phone coverage. Break down on the Beef Road, and you'd better hope someone stops and helps you. As it turned out, the Beef Road section was uneventful. Just boring. The stretch from the Golden Mile Rd intersection to the Capricorn Highway is about 140km, or about an hour and a half at Gerald speeds. No towns, just signs and driveways every few kilometres, leading to farmhouses somewhere over the horizon. We were squeezed off the road by wide loads of mining equipment on its way north, and passed frequent patches of charred bush, burned either by farmers to control scrub, or by lightning. It was with a sense of relief that we reached Dingo. From then, we wouldn't be so isolated.

The Capricorn Highway runs east-west and is just about on the Tropic of Capricorn. We headed east, so the tropics were to our left. They don't look any different to the rest of inland Queensland, just flat or gently rolling brown grasslands, scrubby trees and stands of grey-green eucalypts. It's a landscape that the eye can struggle to focus on simply because there is so little to see. A landscape that only emphasises how big the sky is. After an hour or so, we turned south again onto the "Country Way", the Queensland section of New South Wales' New England Highway, which reaches all the way to the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, about 1500km south.

I was impressed at Gerald's fuel consumption. Half a tank to Dingo was great! Over the next hour though, I saw that the second half was disappearing a lot faster. Maybe the new fuel gauge wasn't as accurate as I'd hoped... so I decided to refuel at the first town, a tiny community called Dululu. Well, that was the plan, but when I got there I found that the service station had closed and the pumps were gone. Fxxk! Down to 1/4 tank now, but we had no choice but to keep going. We eventually found fuel at Jimna. They only had 91, so I put in $10, enough to get to Biloela and fill right up with 96. If we hadn't filled up at Jimna, Gerald would have been down to the last 2 litres!

From Biloela it was an easy drive to Cania Gorge, where I planned to camp for the night. We arrived in plenty of time to set up the tent and then drive down to the dam before doing one of the walks up the side gorges.

Finally it was time to sit back and enjoy a couple of Matilda Bay beers. The late afternoon sun dropped behind the cliffs, leaving clear skies slowly dimming and turning silver-yellow. The smells of damp earth and eucalyptus trees mixed with smoke from a camp fire. After a day of wind and engine noise, the sounds were the quiet conversations of other campers, evening birdsong and the buzz and chirp of insects. It felt as though the world was letting its breath out.

Later, I stood outside the tent in the dark. No wind, the only sounds were music and laughter. The sky was the stage tonight. Clear and bright, Scorpio above us, a satellite cruising past. The horizon flashed constantly with the echoes of lightning far away. No sound, just light, someone else's battle, somewhere outside the Gorge.

Cars don't sleep. They either move or they are silent. That night I dreamt for both of us.


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