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The World's Longest Mailrun: Into the Australian Outback

by Walter and Cherie Glaser

Every Saturday, come rain or shine, a 6-seater Aero Commander aircraft flies out from Port Augusta on the South Australian coast. It heads for Boulia, a tiny township in the middle of Australia's dry center, carrying a maximum of three passengers and the mail that is such a critical link between the cities and the handful of people who live in this part of Australia's outback. Walter Glaser takes the trip and learns much about life in this remote part of the world.

The little South Australian town of Port Augusta is like the old gray mare in the song "She Ain't What She Used To Be." Augusta was little more than a hamlet when it first came into prominence as the base for the exploration of Australia's vast, dry and empty Center. There, conditions were so hostile that only camels could survive the dry, treeless countryside and so some of these "ships of the desert", complete with Afghani drivers, were brought in from the Indian sub-continent.

Burke and Wills, Central Australia's most famous exploration team, forayed into the yet-unknown inland until lack of food and water on their final expedition led to their death. Subsequently hardy pioneers conquered these adverse conditions to open up "the outback" and Australia's first telegraph link with Europe was established at Alice Springs. Augusta became the setting-off point for the camel trains that took supplies to Australia's "red heart."

There were no sealed roads to cover these vast distances, and the dry, dusty 'bush' tracks along which the brave travelers had to bump their way had a habit of washing out every time the infrequent, but torrential rains came down in Central Australia.

Then came the railway boom, and once the track was laid, the fastest, most reliable way to get from South Australia to Perth in the West, Alice Springs in the North or Sydney in the North-West was by rail. Augusta became the very hub of Australia's southern railway network, reaching the height of its importance early in the early l900's.

Today Port Augusta, like most of the world's other railway towns, has declined in importance as trucks and planes usurped the railway monopoly. Now it is a spotless township of 15,000 people, many of whom make their living from servicing what remains of the rail links. Others work in the tourist industry or at the this town's large power station, a major electricity supplier to Adelaide, 300 km away.

Now we are setting off from Port Augusta's small airport, flying in the 6-seater, twin-engined Aero Commander aircraft that has three of the seats piled high with mail and a little freight. In the next two days we will cover what is claimed to be the world's longest mail run, a distance of 2,600 km.

It is early Summer and even at our 8.30 a.m. start the day is already hot, with the breeze at over 30 degrees Celcius. This part of Australia is prone to temperature extremes, consistently hot and dry in the summer months from November to April and almost freezing at night around August when it is winter in this part of the world.

Within minutes of take-off we are flying parallel with the Flinders Ranges and heading into the sparsely populated Australian outback. Now Lake Torrens appears on the left. Central Australia was once completely covered by ocean, and the sand left behind when this retreated is loaded with salt. It doesn't rain much in these parts, but on the few occasions when it does, flash floods carry water, sand and salt down to this lake. The water sinks into the sand and disappears leaving the lake behind as a dry, shimmering salt-pan.

On we fly into the distance, heading out over the Great Australian Emptiness. The vegetation grows sparser. We pass countless dry river beds, some lined with trees that doggedly survive from one rare rainfall to the next, shedding most of their foliage during the droughts to conserve moisture and then resprouting when life-giving water again becomes available. Below this hostile environment is the Great Australian Artesian Basin, a strata of underground sand that holds huge amounts of water.

Experts say that this water is the result of rainfall in the New Guinea Highlands which has then sunk underground and has flowed subterraneously to come to rest in the Great Artesian Basin. In some areas this is too saline for crops or cattle, but in others the water is quite drinkable.

By locating their homesteads near the trees lining the waterholes and the riverbeds that carry water during the wet season but dry up during summer, bore water can be pumped up to supplement or replace that from the very unreliable inland rivers. Amazingly, it is in this seemingly inhospitable terrain that free-range cattle not only survive but produce some of the world's finest quality beef.

As we fly across this seemingly barren, uninhabited landscape, we see no houses to hint at human habitation, but it's there. Every now and then we fly over tracks of four-wheel-drive vehicles that seem to unwind into the distant haze like the erratic thoughts of a person demented.

We are at an altitude of only around 3,000 feet when the pilot points ahead. There, right before us, is a bitumen landing strip big enough to take a Fokker F-28. Nearby, some neat look-alike clusters of houses all appear as if they have been cloned. This is Leigh Creek, where all 1,100 inhabitants work for the South Australian Electricity Commission, which operates the open-cut coal mine that is the township's reason for existence.

Three times a week, coal trains heaped to the limit chug their way to Port Augusta laden with fuel for the power generators that create a large part of that town's employment.

At Leigh Creek we re-fuel, loading up with more mail that will occupy most of the plane's interior. Our pilot and his assistant make sure that this is neatly tied down before we take off again to head for the individual cattle stations. As we wing even further north, and deeper into the Great Australian Emptiness, the till-now-rugged terrain of the Flinders Ranges undergoes a subtle change.

It is even drier now. Lines of jagged hills denote geological faults that were pushed up by earthquakes aeons ago. But now there are also flat areas seemingly without any kind of vegetation, so much so that these might easily have been on the moon. Then the sparse vegetation appears again as we land at Moolawatanna, a relatively small cattle station covering 485 square miles. There is nothing else there. No shops, no schools and not even the great Australian essential -- the outback hotel and saloon ...known as 'pub' in Australia.... These homesteads must be the loneliest places on earth.

The man sent out to pick up the mail from our aircraft doesn't like to be photographed, our pilot tells us. I am not surprised. The outback is full of strange characters -- recluses, illegal migrants, and men on the run from irate or demanding families. The person who lives and works in the Red Center is very often not able to handle the pressures of life in Australia's large coastal cities, but then the same can apply vice-versa.

Now we are flying further inland still. Suddenly I notice some small steel structures randomly located in the desert below. They look like mechanical drinking ducks. Our pilot announces that we are coming in to land at the Moomba gas and oil field. Should be interesting!

And so it is. Moomba is about as easy to get to as the oil-drilling platforms in the North Sea. The oil and gas deposits were discovered here after scientists assured Australia for many decades that there was absolutely no chance of finding either of these on the Australian mainland. Now the book is being re-written with the use of high-tech methods that include soundings from subterranean explosions and spectrographic satellites that can photograph and analyze the terrain from space, even recognizing, in some circumstances what minerals are hidden underground.

The Moomba field is so prolific in natural gas that it is now taking care of the total requirements of Sydney and Adelaide, with the surplus being exported and some oil being produced as well. Four hundred men work here in the often-40 degree Celcius heat, laboring daily for 2 weeks and then enjoying two weeks rest and recreation in Adelaide.

There are no women in this area, as the oil and gas consortium that operates this field considers conditions are too harsh for them. At the tiny air terminal we find what our pilot says is the least-used ladies toilet in Australia. Airport regulations say there has to be one, even in this female-free zone.

From here we "station-hop", landing at cattle station after cattle station, dropping off mail and the occasional box of groceries or other deliveries, picking up outgoing mail and flying off to the next station. These stretch with substantial intervals along the line where after the rare rains, rivers run across the "dead center" before emptying into a series of inland lakes that evaporate when the dry season resumes.

We are here at the beginning of "the wet" as Australians call the short rainy season in this area, and it rained six weeks ago. The land still looks like semi-desert, but with a green stubble. It can rain at any time of the year here, but it's November to March that this is most likely. However, it is quite unpredictable and in some years the area misses out on rain completely.

Our pilot comments that we are about to land at Innamincka. This is yet another interesting station, settled in 1882 and situated on the banks of Coopers Creek. Explorers Burke and Wills passed east of this in their expedition of 1860 and died here near the famous "Dig" tree under which they had buried the notes of their expedition.

Today the population has exploded to a full twenty-five people, most looking after the 8,000-square-mile Innamincka cattle station. There's one store, one pub, and not much else. Durham Downs and Arrabury follow and then we arrive at Birdsville, perhaps Australia's most famous outback "town." It boasts a population of 70 people when everybody is "in town" and the Birdsville pub is the social center for whites and Aboriginals alike. Everyone gets on well in this little town -- no evidence of any inter-racial tension or even segregation. Perhaps the reason is that everyone is doing well. There is no unemployment while cattle are getting good prices.

Once a year Birdsville has the famous outback races, when people from every corner of Australia and overseas come in for this event. The race track is simply an oval shape marked out in the dry soil, yet horses are brought in from various parts -- mainly from South Australia and Queensland -- and an incredible crowd of 4,000 people descend on Birdsville for its one annual weekend of glory. With them come a supply of portable toilets, food stalls, and even souvenir sellers. Accommodation is in tents and sleeping bags alongside 4-wheel-drives and under the wings of private aircraft.

Outback Australians seem to distrust drinking water so truckloads of beer arrive for this event. The thirst is summed up by a sign on the wall of the Birdsville Pub "Try our 7-course meal -- a six-pack of beer and a meat pie." We spend an hour at the pub to give the pilot a break ...although he, unluckily for him, has to restrict himself to lemonade and soda water..., and talking to the locals gives us a chance to learn something about what makes this part of the outback "tick." And we find that one has to "think big" when it comes to this sparsely populated part of Australia.

Free-range cattle raising is the life-blood of Diamantina Shire ...formed in 1886... which, with an area of 95,000 sq.km., is the second-largest Shire in Queensland. To support this vast area there are 1,683 km. of Shire roads of which 1,676 km. are gravel or dirt track and 7 km. are bitumen.

This Shire, which has a total population of 260 people, both Aboriginal and Caucasian, is made up of three "towns" -- Bedourie ...the administration center... with 60 people -- Birdsville with 100 people and Betoota, ...176 km. from Birdsville... where the population has dropped to one person who runs the Betoota Hotel and Store. Unemployment is virtually non-existent in this part of Australia, because it is only the jobs that keep people living here.

There are many other fascinating aspects to Birdsville. It has a small thermal power station, using the energy from the very hot underground water. Water comes from underground bores, and reaches the surface at a steady temperature of 99 degrees Celcius, and is then piped to all houses at this temperature and used for heating where this is necessary. Although the area can have a Summer temperature consistently over 40 degrees Celcius, and frequently reaches 50 degrees Celcius, night-temperatures in Winter can be quite cold, though never freezing. The town is surrounded by 14 cattle stations some of which belong to the Kidman family, a clan that has the largest cattle holdings in this part of Australia.

But before I could start to feel sorry for these outback inhabitants, I was told that last year the 14 local cattle stations had shipped out $55 million of cattle which, in spite of the drought, obtained premium prices because of their high standard. Talking to locals at the pub also revealed other interesting facets of Birdsville life.

The Queensland/New South Wales state border is only 12 km. away and two brothers, both reputed millionaires, have their farms near to this. They have also had a double fence, with a few feet of "no-man's-land" in the middle, erected between their properties, the result of an ongoing vendetta, and have not spoken to each for years.

There are, however, occasions when the brothers have to communicate, and when these arise one brother will call one of the drinkers over and ask him to pass the message on to the other brother. That way they overcome the communication problem, honor and the vendetta prevail -- and everyone in town knows what is going on between them. News in the bush travels fast incidentally, a process known as "getting it on the bush telegraph", though the solar-powered radio-telephones operated by Australian Telecom are usually the real channel by which the bush-telegraph operates.

The pub has billiard tables and every imaginable kind of Birdsville curio. A section of the large wall is covered with wide-brimmed bushman's hats ...known in Australia as Akubras, after the largest manufacturer of these, and made famous world-wide by being worn by golfer Greg Norman and movie character Paul Hogan of "Crocodile Dundee" fame....

When the stockman's hats are old, tattered and due for replacement no-one in Birdsville throws these out. The ritual here is that a new hat is purchased and then the old one, with due ceremony, is presented to the Birdsville Bar for the collection. But strangers cannot donate their hats. There is a minimum qualifying period of 12 month's Shire residency before anyone can offer hats for the collection. Medical services are supplied by Australia's famous Flying Doctor Service, with two trained Nurses in residence at Birdsville to provide First Aid.

There is also a primary school, currently consisting of one teacher and 16 children, but as these get older they may go off to boarding schools in either Brisbane, Adelaide, Warwick or Longreach. The alternative is a program called "School of the Air" -- an outback radio school which has proved a boon to those living in the remote parts of Australia's center.

It's time to say goodbye to the drinkers at the Birdsville pub and reboard the aircraft. Soon we are stopping at other stations just long enough to touch-down and drop off our mailbags. Just as the sun is setting on the horizon, we land at Boulia, our northern-most stopping point.

Like Birdsville, Boulia is on the very edge of the desert. But unlike well-to-do Birdsville, which relies on its wealthy cattle stations for employment, Boulia is a poor relative by comparison -- a town where the major employer is the local Shire Council.

This gets grants from the Queensland and Federal Governments to build and maintain the road system in the area, in the process providing the major employment opportunities for its population of 260. Now this small town is our overnight stop, and staying at the Boulia pub gives us an insight into another aspect of outback life in this town.

As in large, sparsely populated rural towns all over the world, the young, the adventurous and the capable tend to leave, heading for a new life in the big cities. Many of those that remain in Boulia work on the roads during the day, come home for an early dinner, and then head straight for the pub which is the hub of Boulia's social life.

Serious drinking starts around 6.30pm, with Aboriginals on one side of the pub and whites on the other. "There is nothing else to do here except drink and talk" a local resident tells us. By about 8:30pm everyone has reached the end of their alcohol tolerance and the place gets pretty noisy.

The next morning finds us exploring the little township of Boulia. It is spotlessly clean and very obviously a place of pride to its inhabitants. A sign explains that this is the last stop before heading into the great inland desert.

Once passed Boulia, you are "on your own." And those who venture further are well advised to register their names with the local Police Station, advising the officer there of the destination and estimated traveling time. It is a time-honored tradition for the outback police to then "check out" that the travelers have arrived, and in the rare cases where this has not happened, to instigate a helicopter or light-aircraft search.

To have a vehicle breakdown in the desert, run out of water and have no-one know that you're there can be a fatal experience. Fortunately the friendly local police will always be happy to assist the travelers.

Yet a sojourn into the desert can be an exhilarating experience. The unpolluted air, the arid yet beautiful landscapes, the sense of space and the million brilliant stars one sees on a clear night, the amazing flora and fauna that somehow manages to survive in this harsh environment, and the interesting characters one meets are just some of the never-to-be-forgotten outback experiences.

Mid-morning sees us back on the plane and heading South. On the way back, we land at other vast ranches similar to the ones we had called at on the way up. At each we touch down on the stations compacted-earth airstrip, drop off mail, chat for a minute or two, and move on. Again we stop at Birdsville. Many of the same drinkers are at the bar and greet us like long-lost friends. New faces are rare in the outback.

We zig-zag to yet more stations until our mail compartment is empty and the nose of our plane is pointing towards Port Augusta as we make our return landing.

Our pilot explains that Augusta Airways, who have the mailrun contract from the Australian Postal Service, need the revenue from the tourists who take this trip to survive. Most of the guests who take this trip are overseas visitors who want to see what life in Australia's outback is all about. But even for us who reside in Melbourne, a large international city of 3 million inhabitants, the "longest mail-run" outback experience has also been an eye-opener and one that has really given us a glimpse into the vastness that is Australia's interior.

When to go
Unless you are unaffected by 40 degrees C heat, the best time of the year to take this trip is between April and November. Port Augusta is usually the starting-off point for this journey, but packages are available that include the flight from Adelaide to Port Augusta, accommodation and meals.

Walter & Cherie Glaser are an international travel-writing team based down under in Melbourne, Australia.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the businesses in question before making your plans.

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