Strange Geographies: Almost the Outback

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Last spring, a friend and I took a trip to Australia and Vanuatu. Our main reason for being in Australia was to go diving on the Great Barrier Reef -- mission accomplished -- but even though we were in the humid, tropical northeast portion of the country, I'm a desert lover and made it my mission to see if we could find something like "the Outback" in the short time that we had between dives and our flight out of the country. So we rented a 2WD sedan that was laughably inappropriate for any sort of rough-road adventure and drove west as far as car like that could go in rural Australia during the wet season -- which, as it turned out, was only a few hundred kilometers. But that was more than far enough to discover a country that was a world away from the green, beachy surf towns we had left on the coast: landing in a tiny mining town on the edge of nowhere called Chillagoe, we stumbled upon an unexpectedly rich vein of history and natural beauty.

The first thing we noticed about Chillagoe is that there were kangaroos everywhere -- in the fields, in the streets, and in people's backyards, to such a degree that locals had to lock their doors at night or 'roos would hop right into their houses, looking for food. We'd been in country for nearly a week but hadn't seen any until we got to Chillagoe, so naturally we were excited; the locals, however, were anything but. "They're pests," the local bar owned told me, "and they're very stupid. They'll run right in front of your car." Indeed: the first kangaroo we'd seen was roadkill.

The other thing we noticed about Chillagoe is that there was almost no point from the town where you couldn't see this giant chimneystack rising over the landscape. When we finally asked what it was, we were told with some pride that it was the town's number one tourist attraction: a disused ore smelter from the Chillagoe's mining days, located atop a ruddy pile of rubble just outside of town. "Past the Fords and up the hill," explained the woman running the petrol station.

"The Fords?"
"Another tourist attraction," she assured us.

We checked into our motel. There wasn't much to do in the town itself but drink, and the drinks fridge in our motel was rather seriously padlocked --

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-- so we went to look at the smelter. (By the way, I hope the condensation on that fridge door gives you an idea of just how hot it was; it was, quite literally, beer commercial hot.)

The smelter was actually rather impressive; I thought it looked a bit like some old Roman funerary monument. It opened in 1901 and closed in 1950 and was the economic lifeblood of the town during that time. Since 1950 the population had dropped significantly; now there were only about 250 people living in Chillagoe. It reminded me of the boom-and-bust stories behind many semi-ghost mining towns I've visited across California.

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It was only after I'd climbed the hill and peeked inside the charred belly of the smelter that I noticed signs everywhere warning me not to do either of those things. Luckily, there was no one around to enforce the warnings -- though the angry-looking trees poking out of the hill like scarecrows probably should've been enough to ward me away, signs or no signs.

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Later, we drove around town aimlessly, went swimming at a local swimming hole, and then wandered into a peaceful-looking graveyard. It was cool and deserted, except for a dozen or so kangaroos, who studied us for awhile before hopping away into the bush.

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Among the many old, historic grave markers in the cemetery were more recent, seemingly impermanent markers made of plastic and painted wood. It took us a little while to figure out that they were there to mark the graves of aboriginal people.
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Bordering the cemetery were enormous termite mounds, some of them three and four feet high. Later we found out that these were nothing -- in other parts of the country, termite mounds can grow up to twenty feet high.
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There were amazing karst rock formations surrounding the town; they're enough to make anyone want to become a miner. This one was in an area important to aboriginal people, who had lived among the hollows for untold thousands of years and covered some of them with ceremonial drawings.
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The area also has an impressive network of limestone caves -- more than a thousand. We joined a guided tour of one cave system and were taken into this cathedral-like room, where enormous tree roots grow hundreds of feet down into the cave just to reach shallow puddles of water that collect at its base.
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The next morning, I ventured out alone to see the Fords, which turned out to be a junkyard full of old Ford cars that had mostly been stripped for parts. After taking this picture --

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-- I was chased by a seemingly vicious junkyard dog. I jumped onto the roof of one of the cars to get out of range of its snapping jaws, and I stood there like that, in this deserted junkyard, the dogs snarling and barking at me from just a few feet away, for at least ten minutes. Finally, some aboriginal guys in a pickup truck drove up, gave me a placid nod like my situation was totally normal, and the dog left and ran after them, happily wagging its tail.

We left a few hours later. On the way back to the coast, we saw two of the strangest signs I've ever seen while driving, a perfect cap to a weird couple of days in the not-quite-Outback.

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I thought $2 for a bag of poo -- even with the exchange rate in our favor -- seemed a bit high. (BTW, the bottom of the sign says "Moo poo too.")

You can check out more Strange Geographies here.

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January 11, 2010 - 2:08am
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