The Riley family has wrapped up our year-long meandering lap around the continent of Australia. And what a year 2021 was for the Gypsy Express as the five of us trekked deserts, saw cities, walked beaches, kayaked with crocodiles, swam with dolphins, and enjoyed each other’s company….mostly.
The year saw us drag our caravan for longer than the length of this planet’s equator, and visit people and places on this great south land we will remember for a lifetime… and even longer (you might have expected me to throw in a slice of eternity on a blog titled: “Reverential Ramblings”).
We pulled away from our family home in Queensland just prior to Christmas 2020 and headed south through New South Wales, spending time with extended family until the beginning of the New Year. The Rileys were strategically avoiding peak travel congestion on the road. For those who have road-tripped with a van you will know it is the accepted wisdom to hide away if you can during school holidays, especially Christmas.
Down the centre of NSW during the dog-day heat of January to find the cooling Murray River. This river had mixed meanings for me as a child, and now my kids were swimming daily in its murky depths. The Riley Gypsy Express stalked the Murray for a few thousand kilometres to see it spew its contents into the Southern Ocean. Fresh water meets salt meets the town of Goolwa in South Australia.
Joanne nervously watched a hundred nervous people watch me nervously reverse our caravan onto a narrow boat. Have I mentioned how nervous I was reversing our long caravan in public? Well, I nailed it at the first attempt, and the crowd roared its appreciation (that last description might not be exactly accurate…). The boat’s destination was Kangaroo Island off the south coast of Australia.
K.I. has a wonderful mixture of wildlife and wild beaches. The catastrophic Australian bushfires of 2019 (remember them?) had significantly reduced animal numbers on Kangaroo Island, and also the number of visitors to the place, yet there were still echidnas, koalas and remarkable rocks calling to us from across the waves. Our most memorable day on K.I. was swimming with a pod of dolphins and spying on a mama dolphin feeding her very cute baby calf underwater. We did try to entice the seals lazing in the sun on nearby rocks to dive into the water with us, but they saw our shouts and splashes were made with blue lips and shivering hands and knew they had best stay lazing.
Our drive ‘up the guts’ of central South Australia took us through the Flinders Ranges. Some lappers of Oz miss this part of the continent as they fix their eyes west. I would tell them “Don’t!” Make sure you explore this ancient part of country, and if you do, tell me who you think the supernatural voice is, speaking to you as you stand atop Ikara (a.k.a. Wilpena Pound) in the early morning light. Surely there is an ancient Creator who communicates to each one of us through nature. Ikara is the local Adnyamathanha word for ‘meeting place’ and the Rileys were blessed to meet their Maker on this mountain top. We had begun our walk to its heights well before the sun was awake, and we still brag of being the first sightseers to summit for that year’s climbing season.
The reason I had purchased a heavy-duty off-road caravan was to gypsy our family into the wilderness and still make it back again. So, as we headed out of the Flinders and towards the Oodnadatta Track, I strategically neglected to tell Joanne our route would involve driving a sometimes flooded Brachina Gorge. This dry river canyon tested my inexperienced caravanning skills as we slid almost seven tonnes of vehicle around sandy river beds. The most memorable part of our drive wasn’t the sighting of rare yellow-footed rock wallabies – it was Joanne’s occasional stressed yelps of: “Where have you taken us, David?!”
At the small town of Marree where the infamous Birdsville and Oodnadatta Tracks fork out either side of Lake Eyre, the Riley Gypsy Express headed north west. The inland Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, home of the Arabana people, is the lowest point on the Australian continent and for years will lay empty and caked in salt. It is 10,000 square kilometres of whiteness as far as the shimmering horizon will allow you to see. As the Riley kids strolled out upon the dry lake into the 42 degree heat, they imagined themselves walking on top of the Universe’s largest cake.
We hadn’t planned to be outback in the late sumer of early March, but here we were. There is a freedom to having time and no fixed programme, and a small house hanging off our car’s tow-bar.
The Riley kids began complaining about the flies and the heat, and the nothingness. Talking with a local he told me I was lucky – because there was a southerly wind blowing keeping the heat and flies down. That news provided no solace to the kids who, after a few days, were refusing to get out of the airconditioned Landcruiser whenever I came across a landmark I thought was interesting.
Driving into the town of Coober Pedy is like driving into no other place on Earth. The town’s name is of Aboriginal origin meaning “White fella in a hole” and that’s exactly what it is. When opals were discovered in Coober Pedy a century ago, white fellas came in their thousands and dug huge holes underground looking for fortune. When the day’s diggings were done, the white fellas slept in the holes and Coober Pedy was born. Today, there are hundreds of cave-homes in the town – built with modern kitchens, lounge-rooms and bathrooms. All of them built mostly underground where the temperature is cool and constant, unlike up above on the surface where it can vary from zero to fifty degrees celsius depending on the time of year (that’s a variation of 32 – 122 Fahrenheit for you American heathens).
Jim, a local prospector, took us to his opal mining claim. His cavern was once mined by a conglomerate who had taken as much as their machines could munch, and then moved on. Jim took over the claim thirty years ago and had spent the last three decades noodling around for left overs. The kids were fascinated by the cave, but I was fascinated by Jim. What drives a man to hammer away in the semi-darkness for most of his adult life, looking for hydrated amorphous forms of silica (I looked up that description of opal on Wikipedia…)? I asked Jim some questions, and he told me of the time he was lured to Coober Pedy in his early twenties with the promise of a good job. They lied, he stayed, and each day for the last thirty years he’s wondered if today’s the day he becomes rich and makes it all worthwhile. I asked Jim if he knew what he knows now would he do it again. Jim unexpectedly began to cry when I asked him my question. Should I hug the man I’d only met that day, or simply allow him answer the question? “No” was his one-word response that spoke of a lifetime of regret. It wasn’t the right time to let Jim know that his precious opal was being built into the walls of a heavenly home promised in Scripture.
To be continued…(my next Reverential Ramble will describe the Rileys’ journey to Uluru – the heart of Australia. Afterwards, the Riley Gypsy Express heads west across the Nullarbor to the hermit kingdom of Western Australia).
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About this blog: Pastor David Riley is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and was blessed to be granted a Sabbatical year during 2021 to drag his young family around Australia in a caravan. This article is from his “Reverential Ramblings” series that meanders around a series of subjects pondered and stuff seen. You can subscribe to this blog by clicking “follow”.