The Romance of the Swag Diary

Andy and Rens van der Zalm drove through the bitter winter of July 2012, camped in the wilderness and kept warm by building camp fires out of old railway sleepers. Slept in swags, drank Cooper’s Sparkling Ale and recorded an album in old historic woolsheds, shearers quarters and old forgotten schoolhouses!

This winter trip, which was planned over a year before in the famous Session Bar at the National Folk Festival in Canberra, came into being in July 2012.

Thur 5. July - The travellers assembled in a servo at Hay.

Hargraves and Stewart having driven from Bathurst and lucky to be there after leaving the cap off their oil tank (amazingly still sitting there after 500k) and Andy, Rens and Cian fresh from Melbourne with new swags, sleeping bags and warm clothing.

Fri 6. July - Camped near the Murrumbidgee out of Balranald, a place called Yanga. The coldest night in years, and a strange astronomical phenomenon? A Comet in the sky?

Along with all the old favourites - the Southern and False Crosses, Milky Way, and Magellanic clouds - brilliant stargazing out in the bush.

Sat 7. July - Kindness and a good vibe in Balranald, then out onto the flat land and dirt roads to Lake Mungo, to learn about and ponder ancient Aboriginal civilisation 40,000 years ago, the hardships of sheep farming, the vernacular beauty of big shearing sheds.

Riotous drunken night round the camp fire - how did we get back to the bunkhouse? Evidently outraged some of the other guests with our hysterical laughter as we continued partying in the shearers quarters.

Sun 8. July - Hangovers, drive round the lake perimeter to see boxing kangaroos, foxes, and to tramp the sandhills on the Eastern lakeside - slowly spreading East, driven by the Westerly wind.
A choir of snores kept Rens awake and reading half that night.

Mon 9. July - Went walking with a park guide to see the archaeology. Much struck that the archaeology had come to light through erosion caused by white fella’s farming activities and his introduced pest, the rabbit. How to cook an emu in a camp oven - leave the head sticking out, and it's ready when steam comes out the mouth.

With rain imminent, we headed for Menindee on dirt roads, which turned more than tricky in 2" rain. Irvine's trick driving at no extra charge to the passengers. The road quickly turned to mud and we slithered and slid for 50km before finally escaping into. It was a scary enough experience, sometimes completely out of control and doing 180 degree turns.

An elephant on a skateboard. Over one of the hardest earned beers of the trip, in the Burke and Wills bar, we told of our trials. Nobody was impressed and as we left the bar, we noticed photos on the wall of 4WDs bogged up to their axles on the same road. Pushed on to Broken Hill on sealed road. Night of relative luxury at the Silver Spade Motel.

Tue 10. July - More and widespread rain overnight, so abandoned plan to head for Tibooburra / Strzelecki track, ate huge amounts of fruit and veg for brekka to avoid having to throw them away at the S.A. border quarantine. Coffee and lunch at Yunta, where a dirt road up the Eastern side of the Flinders might have got us to Arkaroola, if the rains held off. Decided to play safe and take the bitumen up to Wilpena Pound, where firewood was expensive.

Wed 11. July - Awoke to a cloudy, very cold day, we were bearded in our den by the appalling *********** ****, complimenting us on a little music played round the camp-fire the previous night.

He is so appalling that one of Sydney's fairly right-wing commentators wrote "every time he stands up to speak in Parliament, I feel like lighting a mosquito coil."
There were wondrous wee birds over towards the escarpment - red-capped robins, maybe a jacky winter. We walked to Wangarra lookout, via an old homestead where early settlers had eventually been defeated and sent packing by the forces of Nature.

We played some tunes back at camp and after spag bol and copious Cooper's Rouge, we were warned of a huge thunderstorm by the cries of masked lapwings just as it broke.

We retired to our swags and lay, snug if not warm, listening to the thunder rolling across the sky as thunderstorm followed thunderstorm, the lightning flashed and the rain beat down on our little canvas havens.

Thur 12. July - Misty morning and all the gear wet. The celebrated bacon sanga and oranges for brekka. Drove out to the lookout NE of Wilpena to watch the sunset - fekkin' freezing. There was an iconic old gum just outside Wilpena, made famous by photographer Harold Cazneaux, whose work is much admired.

Curry and rice for dinner (and next day's breakfast) - cold and windy and we all crashed fairly early. Gentle rain overnight, and strange noises around the camp, revealed, by dawn's early light, to be roos eating the Coopers cartons.

Fri 13. July - Recycled fried rice and the inevitable bacon sangas for brekka. Finally left Wilpena & made for the north to try & escape weather pattern. Had thought to go via Blinman but after the bit of rain in the night decided to go back down to Hawker. Got there to find whole town out of power and running on diesel generator.

Up to Parachilna. At the Prairie Hotel, beers a bit dear but girls beautiful – chose to camp up the road, just east of the railway line (though sadly, no trains came through). Rens looking flash in his new leather “Jakaru” hat, a sortie to collect firewood, and a fine meal at the pub – kangaroo chorizo, camel sausage, emu wrapped in bacon, kangaroo fillet and mash. Light rain overnight, and always the North Flinders mountains to the East, and completely flat land to our West - mighty sunset skies.

Sat 14. July - Bastille Day and Woody’s Centenary - breakfast at the Pub, served by lovely girl called Louise, little black velvety gecko in camp, and an almost impromptu performance of “Never Tire of the Road” out front of the pub to celebrate Woody’s birthday.

Off North, views of Lake Torrens far to the West, and memorials to the surveyors and gangers who’d driven the telegraph and the Ghan line through. Up to Marree via Leigh Creek, where the beer was cheap (mining town) and Lyndhurst, where the signs confirmed the Strzelecki track still partially impassable. Marree a wonderfully battered and scattered old town, with the Lake Eyre Yacht Club, and a thatch-roofed mosque, and decaying diesel engines on a line which fades away, somewhat sadly, just north of town.

Amazing session/concert in the bare but cosy camping area, with a memorable crowd of adventurers and travellers as audience, till a cranky man complained that his children couldn’t sleep. Forty stubbies of Cooper’s red consumed - was this a record?

Sun 15. July - Up the Oodnadatta Track for magnificent views of S. Lake Eyre. It was filled with water & we walked down to the edge & looked at the islands that were miraged up into the sky.

The road to Roxby Downs uranium mine was closed because of a protest, and on to the oasis of Coward Springs (named after Thomas Coward, a policeman who, in 1858, accompanied Peter Warburton’s expedition North, finding said springs, later involved in the arrest of famous bushranger Frank Gardiner in Northern Queensland, and discharged dishonourably for gross ill-treatment of his horse. He ended up a publican and unsuccessful politician).

Camels, warm spring, date palms & lots of room. Became our base for a couple of days. Old Ghan track sleepers for firewood, the Laphroaig malt emptied! Cooper’s red as usual.

Mon 16. July - Spent next two days here. Ian and Roger drove to William Creek early one morning for a flight over the North Lake with a lady pilot from New Zealand.

We three set up computer, Motu Traveller & mics & tried to figure out how to work it. Wind was big sound problem and if the day was overcast it was too cold to record outside. With the sun came the flies and with the moon and the stars came the chill. We tried to record sitting round the fire but the burning cross ties from the old Ghan Railway made too much noise.

The flies eventually drove us back to Parachilna where ‘The Luvly Louise’ (as Roger insisted on calling her) organised the room of an unused schoolhouse opposite the Prairie Hotel. There we spent the next days recording on the edge of the South Australian desert and had a Friday night gig in the hotel.

Sat 21. July - Roger had to leave us to get back to Bathurst. Sad parting and we moped around till Roger left with Ian driving him to Broken Hill airport. A bit bereft without Roger's impromptu goon show humour and fund of very funny stories. Also not sure we would see the generous Ian again, who had done so much of the cooking and providing.

First thing we discovered was that we had nothing to cook in! We had plates, knives & forks but no pots or pans! Tins of tuna fish but no tin openers! Seemed like a good idea to drive to Leigh Creek for supplies. However, being Saturday, cafe & supermarket were closed & we could only get beer!

Recorded “Mother Jones” & “Come to the Bower” in the evening with the aid of a couple of beers but had had enough after that. Dinner at hotel & sat outside by the fire talking with Louise.

Sun 22. July - Still feeling lonely next morning, we decided to head for Broken Hill and meet up with Ian.

We had a last recording session in the Schoolhouse, doing “Kellswater” & “Champion at Keeping them Rolling” before striking camp & going up to Prairie Hotel for coffee. Said our goodbye to Louise & leaned over the counter to kiss her. She shed a tear...

We hit the road, a bit sad at leaving but it was well time to go.

We kept in touch with Ian who sent a message saying “Roger, over & out” as Roger flew off from Broken Hill. Rens did stirling work driving from Orroworro to Broken Hill. Arrived just after 7 & met Ian at Silver Spade. Had a couple of beers in the pub & then dinner at Barrier Social & Democratic Club. All very tired after that & bed.

Mon 23. July - Drove to Silverton which was great, had Bushmans Burger & Damper in the cafe & looked at all the old stuff they had for sale. Silverton Hotel & then drove back to Broken Hill where we bought stores. Then to Menindee. We had the whole National Park to ourselves. Really gorgeous evening, lovely light & endless flotillas of pelicans & other birds. Built a fire but had to wait for Tom to come from Broken Hill with the keys. We were the only people there and had a room each in the shearers quarters. Brilliant dinner by outdoor fire. Thinking of recording in Woolshed.

Tue 24. July - Cold night & beset by bladder problems.

Ian was up & making tea at about 8:30am. Also bacon & egg sandwiches.

Carried all the gear over to the Woolshed, set it up & recorded “Moreton Bay”, “Braes of Moneymore” again and others. Had trouble with “Reynardine” & we were having a break when visitors turned up. Decided it wasn't a good idea to leave the gear set up when people wanted to view the old historic Woolshed!

Rens & Cian spent the afternoon downloading the music on to an MP3 stick for listening to.

In the late afternoon, we went for a drive, the light was magnificent and the birds were flying in every direction. Cian drove for the first time on the trip. Dinner was cooked & we built a fire in the 'sitting room' with a view to recording some more.

Spent the next days exploring the lovely surroundings and finishing the recording. It came time to call it quits. Rens & Ian loaded up their wagon and hit the road for Bathurst and Cian & Andy loaded theirs and started off back to Melbourne. Heavy hearts but great memories.

We promised each other to do it all again in a year or two but maybe head further north if we were going to do it at the same time of the season because of the weather.

The days were rarely warm and the nights were bitterly cold. “Dressing for bed” involved putting on a thermal vest, thermal leggings, being fully dressed with a woollen coat, thick socks, woolly hat and warm gloves. Because of the cold, we all had bladder problems and would have to struggle out of our sleeping bags at least three times in the night.

It’s an abiding memory of the trip, standing under a cold desert sky, looking with wonder at the infinite star fields. With relief came the morning and the sounds of blessed Ian & Roger reviving last night’s fire and boiling the billy. Rens, Cian and me always seemed to be last up but always in time to great the new day with a bacon sandwich and a mug of warming tea.

If we were recording that day Rens & me would sit and practice by the fire and if we were travelling on, we’d pack up and stow the bulky swags on the roof of the landcruiser.