The delivery truck was due so our restocking of fresh fruit & veg at Menindee was limited, & not the freshest, but that’s how things often are in the outback, so no complaints, at least they had something.
Northward again, this time to Wilcannia, again though similar but ever changing country. The road was in good condition & we averaged a conservative 60kph. On the the outskirts of Wilcannia we followed signs to the BP servo, a single large above ground tank ‘guarded’ by an initially but typically brusque outback lady with a damp diesel soaked rag permanently in one hand. It seems that if one ‘goes with the flow’ & does not become defensive in the face of the brusqueness that the brusqueness is quickly dropped revealing warm & helpful personalities. I’m not sure why this should be but it appears to be a common outback trait. Almost like you are being tested. Would’ve loved to have taken a photo of her, but I wasn’t game! 🙂
The other servo in town sold hot food as well as fuel which was 8 cents a litre more expensive than the BP outlet.
The town, I hate to say it, whilst friendly, was a sad looking place. Boarded up shops, partially demolished buildings in the main street & the only other place (than the hot food servo) open was a small supermarket with it’s windows whited out & covered with metal bars. Wilcannia is a town with a history of ‘aboriginal problems’. All the blackfellas we spoke to there seemed pleasant enough, & the pub seemed like any other without evidence of grog abuse, but really the main impression we were left with was a small struggling town with little to sustain it. Local newsletters talked of ‘Positive Wilcannia’, & clearly there is more substance to the community than a passing eye sees, but ‘neglect’ is probably the word which reflects what we saw. It left us feeling saddened for those living there with little hope for anything different & wondering if that is the intent of authorities happy to relinquish responsibility.
From Wilcannia there is again a choice of two roads northward – dirt all the way Wanaaring, or 93kms of super smooth bitumen to the troglodytic opal mining town of White Cliffs & then dirt from there to Wanaaring. We chose ’super smooth. Stopping for the night about 30kms south of White Cliffs we pulled off the road & into the scrub, about 400 metres so we were hidden from the road among the low scrub & small trees which survive in the red fine gibber topped ground. MrsTea walked ahead of me as we drove, directing me to avoid the often very pointed dead timber poking out of the ground ready to stake our tyres. 400m from the road could just as easily been 400kms! As soon as the road was out of view it was so easy to become disoriented & the next morning saw us take three times as long to find our way back to the road as it had taken to find our camp spot. It was a good overnighter though, no tent,just the open back of the Tvan with us awaking to watch the sun rise from our bed.
First sight of White Cliffs was a nice surprise. Hills rising up from predominantly flat country are welcome & always manage to look appealing. White Cliffs, although having no evidence of ‘White’ or ‘Cliffs’ was no exception. We stopped in town for long enough to check out the visitor centre, walk the main street & to visit the only two shops we could see, a house built from beer bottles & selling opal jewellery & the tiny general store. The 80 or so permanent residents do their main shopping in Broken Hill just over 200kms away, but place orders with the general store for fresh produce trucked in every week or two. Whilst at the general store we ordered some hot chips, intending to eat them & then continue on our way. The chance dropping of a chip changed that! Our $8 bag of chips was enormous & we grabbed a second bag to divide them up before going outside to sit on the verandah in the morning sun. As we sat eating them, a lady came out of the shop & said in a thick accent (German) “Thank you for the chip”, explaining quickly we had dropped one on a table inside. We offered her more which she readily accepted. As she nibbled them, she enquired as to whether we might be interested in seeing her dugout (underground home), adding that “I don’t usually do this”. Of course we said ‘Yes please”. She gave us directions to find her & left us. Finding her was easy, the landmarks very obvious. Our expectation of seeing inside someone’s underground home were surpassed from the moment we arrived. Barbara & her partner Doug took us through their love filled vegetable garden, a miracle in it’s own right in this desert environment which has no top soil, no rain for 8 months & exceeds 50 degrees regularly during the summer. Tomatoes grew on vines 7’ tall, & the garden, all under shade & fed from multiple water tanks filled when it does rain, was a lush oasis. A testament to Barbara’s passion & Doug’s ability to create a successful support system. But this was just the beginning. Inside their home was a glorious catacomb of tunnels & rooms, all hewn from the rock in a freeform expression. None of the square slab sided nature that one sees in Coober Pedy where the underground homes are made using tunnelling machines. The ground here is different, requiring hand & pneumatic picks to do the work. Barbara is a retired goldsmith, artist & world renowned jeweller. Her eye for detail is reflected in every nook & canny throughout their home. Doug’s mining expertise has made it all possible. Barbara & I shared a childhood dream – we both always wanted to live in a cave. She & Doug have made this their lived experience for the past 27 years! One might say I am just a tad envious!
We expected to view a home, but instead were offered far more. This lovely couple extended their hospitality to us for the rest of the day, feeding us from their garden, giving us a copy of Barbara’s autobiography, taking us out to the opal fields where they still have a claim & introducing us to other miners, inviting us to camp out on their claim & patiently satisfying our curiosity about all things White Cliffs & opals. To top it all, as we said goodbye to them to drive our vehicle back to their claim for the night, they offered to fill our freshwater tanks from their own precious supply. We declined, but boy, how generous is that! We have resolved to try to ‘drop more chips’ in the future. Thanks again Doug & Barbara if you are reading this, we won’t forget you, your spirit & your passion.