Space, history and a fortunate delay – Carnarvon

Just as we finished packing up our tent ahead of strong winds and rain at Coral Bay, we noticed a huge crack across the car windscreen. We’d had the tent fly attached to the roof rack to give us some shade while we were camped, so hadn’t driven it anywhere. Or looked at it, obviously! A stone chip near the bonnet must have been affected by the big temperature ranges for the three days and nights, and inched its way halfway across the glass.  This meant a two night stopover in the next town, Carnarvon, while the windscreen came up from Geraldton. We wimped out with the rain and the wind and checked into a motel.

Of such delays are opportunities made…

Carnarvon perches on the coast at the mouth of the Gascoyne, a wide brown river – brown, because there’s no water in it. With an average rainfall of about 8 inches, I guess it doesn’t flow all that often. The population of around 4500 supports mining (mainly salt), fishing, agriculture and tourism. It grows 80% – 80%!! – of WA’s fruit and vegetables which is hard to believe when you’ve driven across thousands of kms of dusty dry Pilbara to get here. (Their bananas are wonderful)    Carnarvon was also the home of the Tracking Station and OTC Satellite Earth Station. It was an important part of the manned space missions in the 60s and 70s, and very involved in the first manned moon landing. Proof that parts of Australia are truly the end of the earth, the space base was the last communications contact for spacecraft departing Earth’s orbit. On the flip side, it was the first to hear from them when they came back. It was dismantled some years ago, and replaced by the Carnarvon Space and Technology Museum, full of memorabilia,  scientific information, and antique computer gear you wouldn’t think would print you a shopping list, let alone help man walk on the moon. It’s very interesting, and really should not be missed!

and just in case anyone thought we were cool, elegant travellers…

…we can do kitsch as well as anyone.

Space and scientific frontiers aside, Carnarvon has a lot of history. It used to boast the longest jetty anywhere, stretching out across the mangrove mud flats, loading wool onto ships until road transport finished the shipping industry. Below is a wool wagon, which brought bales to the narrow gauge trains that trundled out on the mile long jetty to where the ships waited in deep water.

I was taken with this particular sculpture in the main street:

and then the next one! I took this one home.

See you in Denham next. Shark Bay and Monkey Mia await…



From the surreal to the sublime

When I was a kid, our Mum hung a map of Australia in the toilet, hoping that we’d get some extra benefit while we were in there. Onslow was a place I remember because it just seemed so impossibly far away from anywhere (and also because my cousin Sue was sent there for her first teaching post, I think). Well, now I’ve been to Onslow.

Onslow is – interesting. It has you wondering why a town this tiny and so far from everywhere can exist at all. It produces salt, more recently, and it’s become the onshore point for gas from offshore, but other than that, it’s a favourite spot for a lot of grey nomads who return every year for the peace and quiet. No surf here! However, it has the world’s most vicious and prevalent SANDFLIES, and coming from someone who lived on the Mary River floodplains for a few years, that’s quite an accolade. I won’t inflict any photos on you. (but the lumps are huge and itchy) The photo below is of a little old house for sale in the main street. The contrast with the shiny modern car in its driveway caught my eye.From Onslow, we headed for EXMOUTH. We set our camp up below the Lighthouse at the tip of Cape Vlamingh, and the first thing we saw looking out to sea, were whales breaching in the distance. Instant exhilaration! At Exmouth you can watch the sun rise and set over water. We exited the sleeping bags early to watch the dawn over Exmouth Gulf.

Later, whale watching, aided by – surprise surprise – great coffee! It was the last thing we expected when we pulled up near the dunes to stare out to sea, but it was very much appreciated. An innovative way to see the country by this young barista!

The next photo was our first view of Exmouth Gulf, after hours of dry scrubby dusty red country. The colours out here are just extraordinary…

And another plant – this time I absolutely know it’s NOT a weed. This is the green bird flower, Crotalaria cunninghamii. It looks for all the world like a tiny green hummingbird.

And now to the Sublime —  Coral Bay was the next stop. It’s so small it only sports a general store, a pub, a newsagent/PO, and two campgrounds (and a flash resort lodge, but who goes to them). We walked onto the beach and fell in love. White sands, clear blue water, and whales splashing around in the distance. We booked a tour to swim with the Manta rays for the next day, the whale sharks having already departed for the Antarctic, or wherever they go when they’re not slumming it with tourists up here.

Swimming with calm, gentle Manta Rays was wonderful. No photos to show (I’m not that proficient) but after some great reef snorkelling, looking at fish and coral, and then swimming with the Mantas, we saw a whale breach only about 200 metres from the boat, suddenly flinging his whole body into the air, and smashing down in an explosion of white and blue mayhem. Oh my… that has to be the most awesome sight you can imagine. This behemoth from another world suddenly leaping out of his into yours… The above photos are not as good as the real thing – and I can’t upload the videos – but it might give some idea. The whales came over to our boat and swam around us for about 15 minutes, rolling, spouting, fin slapping, all as close as 4 metres from the boat, staring at us with their big whale eyes. We sailed home in a kind of quiet, happy daze.  Bliss!

Then the next day we packed up our tent in a great hurry and booked into a cabin. We hadn’t seen a cloud in the sky until then, and discovered that our comfortable, light, easy-to-erect tropical tent was just not suited to the rain and the strong winds that rocketed in. What were we thinking…  Watch this space for the next moves…  Off to Carnarvon.




Karijini National Park

Port Hedland was the next stop after 80 Mile Beach. It’s a strikingly industrial town to a visitor. About the first thing you notice are huge glittering crystal mountains, with a conveyor belt cascading more onto the top – the salt works. There are square miles of salt pans around here, clearly too salty for mosquitoes because we didn’t notice any. As well as producing industrial salt, Port Hedland is an industrial port, so there are cranes and heavy machinery everywhere as you drive into the centre of town. South Hedland is where most people live and where the shopping centre is located.

The drive out to Karijini from Port Hedland is daunting. There are more heavy mining trucks on the road than anything else, all pulling a body and three trailers. But they’re well-mannered and indicate to tell you when it’s safe to pass. At Karijini, we were thoughtfully given a tent site where we had a chance of hammering our pegs into the hard ground – volunteers staff the campsites and organise the camping. They’re retirees who bring out their own caravans and stay a month, helping run the park campsites. A great idea! It’s bush camping – no water so no showers, just very efficient long drop toilets.

What is it about a hole in the ground that attracts human beings? Maybe it’s the danger element. These gorges are amazing – they are much deeper than I’d expected, and as a bloke said to us in PH – “you wouldn’t want to be stumbling around in the dark in this country, these gorges just suddenly open up in front of you”. And they do! You drive to the gorge, and walk over to a little fence, and there it is, hundreds of feet to the bottom, straight down. Absolutely breathtaking, and beautiful. Paths follow along beside most of them, not fenced at all. Natural selection can do its work unhindered. It worked for me. Discovered a fear of heights combined with crumbly vertical goat tracks…and stayed topside mostly, I’m ashamed to say!

It was lovely camping in the bush for a change – the sites are set in amongst the scrub and trees, and well apart, unlike caravan parks. So many wild flowers – although I think (like the rosy dock I was admiring in Central Aust on the last trip) that the flowers I was photographing are a weed too, because they’re everywhere along the roads. Stayed here three nights.  (and those purple flowers I was admiring WERE weeds…)

Tom Price was a place I heard a lot about growing up. I think the mining boom was hitting its stride then. And I’m sure it was called Mount Tom Price. Perhaps the mountain was made of iron ore, so now it’s just plain Tom Price. It’s a pretty little town to reach after travelling through a lot of hard red country. Green and tidy. We avoided the crowds lining up for the Rio Tinto tour, and headed for Onslow via the shorter gravel road. Not another vehicle the whole way, and through some majestic country.

Next stop – the jumping, jiving metropolis of – Onslow!




Anti-clockwise round the country…

16 August 2018:   Lex and I are on a road trip for a few months, which could mean I write posts more often – or not! We left Darwin about 10 days ago with a tent, sleeping bags and some camping gear in our Prado. We’re travelling in company, for the first stage, with old friends Patsy and Richard Creswick, who sailed out of Darwin with us exactly 10 years ago on board Malaika, on our way to Ambon and beyond. First stop was the campground at the Victoria River Wayside Inn, which used to be my local pub in the 70s when I lived at Fitzroy Station. The old bridge used to go underwater every couple of wet seasons (I recall being stuck on the wrong side a few times) but a very tall, very new one has replaced it.

It was very nostalgic, being back in this country after so long. The roads and bridges may have changed but the country hasn’t. I’d forgotten how beautiful this part of the NT is – photos just don’t do it justice. We stopped at Timber Creek and paid a visit to old Les Little’s resting place. He was an old man on Bradshaw Stn when I was there in the late 70s. Timber Creek has changed completely, and the old pub was knocked down and rebuilt – nothing looked the same at all, except for old Les. But that’s life.

Our next stopovers were Keep River National Park, Parry’s Creek Farm near Wyndham, and then Fitzroy Crossing. Keep River was a find, and one we’ll go back to on a local trip to explore further. At Fitzroy Crossing, we walked along the ancient limestone reef at Geike Gorge – once the seabed some millions of years ago. The night time temperature kept dropping…  can’t recall being this cold. When we reached Broome, we bought new sleeping bags! Beautiful Broome – the next photos say it all, I reckon.

The Indian Ocean has a colour all its own.

We left Broome – and our friends headed back to Darwin -  and we’re now in Port Hedland, via a couple of days at the famous 80 Mile Beach. I can’t get used to cars driving on the beach! But it’s such a magnificent stretch of white sand and that pale, crystal blue water. This is the first internet access since leaving home so excuse the rushed post. We’re aiming for slow travel this trip, and I hope to get some serious writing done in the quiet spots. It’s also the first time either of us has been along this coast, from Broome to Perth, so we’re taking our time. Karijini National Park, and its seven gorges is next.

Where I work. Where I keep stuff…

You know you’ve been neglecting your website when you can’t remember the log in details. I’m supposed to be maintaining a relationship with my readers by writing regular posts on this blog, but I’m afraid I’ve been very slack. It’s over a year since the last one!  I also have an Author page on Facebook, which is almost as neglected as the blog on the website. Perhaps if I do both at the same time, I’ll cover the bases. I think my reluctance stems from knowing just how much we all have to read every day. Perhaps subconsciously I just want to leave you time to read books!  Anyway, here’s a start:

The most often asked question of writers is “Where do you get your inspiration from?”   But I’m also asked:  “Where do you write?”

To answer that question, I thought I’d share a photo or two of my workspace. I confess to tidying it up a bit before I took the photo, but apart from being a little less cluttered than normal, this is what it looks like.

This desk has had three of my books written on it. Most of my first book, Outback Heart, was written on a door balanced on a filing cabinet and a box, beside the computer table. Remember when computers needed a table of their own? My first one had a whole 16MB of Ram and was considered very fast. And it took floppy disks which held 1.4 Mb of data. My most recent book, Ronan’s Echo, was written onboard Tramontana, our home for 7 or 8 years, on an earlier version of the laptop I now use. Just as well someone invented the laptop. My old Apple LC11 wouldn’t have fitted on the boat.

I like having a pinboard. Keeps the desk a bit tidier, and means I do less archaelogical excavating when I need to find that interesting thing I cut out of the paper. Bits of inspiration go up there too – photos, postcards, quotes from famous authors, reminders…  It also lets me put up photos of the family so I can remember who they are when I’m in the middle of a book.

I’ve put up some of my old work as well, from my time as an illustrator and cartoonist. When I’m struggling with writing and feel like I’m hopeless, it’s good to remind myself I can do stuff. (One day I WILL write that children’s picture book I started illustrating about 20 years ago…) It’s interesting how we change. When I was drawing, that was all I wanted to do, although I guess it’s no surprise that my artwork was always word-based – cartoons or illustrations for articles.

Here’s the other side of my room:

It’s a mish-mash of a library – books about writing next to cook books. Reference books for the last book alongside tattered old treasures printed 100+ years ago. Favourite classics and children’s picture books. Ephemera. Boxes of photos and slides I swear I will sort out one day. Found objects that I just love for themselves, or which have something to do with a book idea. Old objects from my extended family. Old letters. Diaries. Things that just remind me of other things. It’s all part of being inspired, dreaming, meandering. It’s fertiliser for your imagination.

My husband will stand at the door and mutter that there must be heaps of stuff in here I could chuck out. If opposites attract, we are a great match. He loves taking stuff to the dump. I like the dump too – except I would be bringing stuff back from the recycle shop, so he never takes me on these expeditions. I admit to being a bit (just a bit) of a hoarder. My defence is that if it weren’t for people like me, social historians and anthropologists of the future would have nothing to work with. Imagine a world where the last few hundred years was all digital.  Who remembers floppy disks, and who can read one today? Who doesn’t have old files that you no longer have the software to read them with? My 1Terrabyte back up disk died recently. So much for storage solutions.

Don’t get me wrong – I LOVE my laptop. It comes everywhere with me. It would drive me nuts to try and write a book with pen and paper. I think my study reflects this. It’s as much a testament to the things that I love and that inspire me, as it is a product of the digital age. But my books won’t run out of batteries, my letters won’t need a software update for me to read them in 20 years’ time, and I don’t need a power supply to look at old photos. Well, that’s my story and I’m sticking with it!

Have a great day. Read something, write something, and tell someone you love them.




The Gift of Life


On the 23rd of February, it will be the 8th anniversary of the day our daughter Ali became an organ donor, the day we accepted there was nothing more that could be done, and allowed the hospital staff to wheel her warm but lifeless body away from us. We felt so strongly about the struggle we’d gone through to make that decision, because of our own ignorance of the process involved, that I wrote about it for the Australian Medical Journal a few months later.

The hidden trauma of organ donation    Joanne M van Os, Med J Aust 2009; 191 (11): 612-613


Ali was 16 when she died in Phuket, Thailand, with barely a day’s illness in her short life. Her heart saved the life of another teenager, a 15 year old Thai girl, and her other organs saved or improved the lives of six other people. Organ donation is not something we think about very often. Most of us think it’s a good idea, but too few of us take the next step and actually sign the forms or register on line as donors. The other important – hugely important – thing you must do, is let your family know what you want to happen. If you’re in the unfortunate position of being a potential organ donor, then your family may be too traumatized to be able to give permission unless they know your wishes beforehand.

Then, read the information, and understand the process. If we had done this ourselves, we wouldn’t have spent a whole night in anguish, trying to make the right decision. We knew it was what Ali would have wanted us to do, but there are facts about organ donation that can be confronting, especially when you have lost someone you love, and the hospital bedside is not the place to find out about them for the first time.

Read the information provided by the Donate Life organization, on their website at

There have been several articles in the Australian press lately about organ and tissue donation and about the lives saved and improved. This is wonderful to see, and hopefully will reopen the conversation our country needs to have, about making organ donation an “opt-out” decision, not an “opt-in” as it is now.

We have never regretted making the decision to donate Ali’s organs. Knowing that seven other people would have a chance at a healthy life themselves, made the death of our beautiful daughter so much less wasteful.

Register with DonateLife now, and talk to your family, so that the people who love you know what you want.



Dreaming of a quiet Christmas


Bliss: definition – (entirely subjective) – A cool day, a fresh wind, a pot of tea and a good book. I’m almost tempted to add “what could possibly go wrong?” but that might invoke a cyclone, so I’ll stay quiet. (Note the bookmark – a little bit of self-promotion can’t be avoided…) The gorgeous tea cozy was knitted by my friend Clare – and yes, they’re useful in Darwin! Tea goes cold fast under ceiling fans.


It’s my favourite time of year to be at home : that lovely interim between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when the town is quiet, half the population seems to have either fled north to Bali or somewhere south, and the remainder are working at half pace, or going out for breakfast and reading the books they were given for Christmas last year. People linger over coffee and newspapers in cafes, and move more slowly. The word languorously springs to mind. No one minds the rain. A torrential downpour brings people out with grins and bare feet, shoes carried across the gushing streets. It’s COOL. It’s humid, but it’s not 36C either.

During this quiet time, Lex and I have read books, spent time with friends we don’t see enough of, written long overdue letters – real letters – and taken grandkids to the movies. We’ve also put up a pin board in my writing room, setting me up to start work on the 2nd of January. I’ve pinned up props and prompts that will hopefully keep me on track, spark ideas, and remind me what I’m trying to do.  (When I’ve figured that out enough, I’ll tell you.) The grey is a bit boring, but I reckon I’ll have it hidden in another few weeks.

So for now, I wish everyone a peaceful and happy festive season, and a safer, saner and more constructive year ahead. Here’s hoping.

Happy New Year!

100 years ago today…

Today is the 100th anniversary of the battle of Fromelles. Until 2008/9, few Australians had heard of this tiny village on the old Western Front, or of the fighting that took place there in 1916. Very few towns in Australia included the name “Fromelles” on the war monuments listing their dead sons.

Photo courtesy Bobbie Ruben – Poppies in a Fromelles field

In 2008 my husband Lex, our daughter Ali and two friends were sailing our boat Malaika in southern Borneo, where we met Caroline Barker, a British forensic anthropologist. I was fascinated by Caroline’s stories about her work, which had taken her to some of the worst atrocities in war-torn parts of the globe, including Bosnia, Guatemala and Timor, recovering and identifying victims of mass killings. Her next job was a dig at a place called Pheasant Wood, in northern France, a WW1 battlefield. She said, “You Australians are obsessed about Gallipoli, and rightly so, but Fromelles was a much bigger disaster.” As soon as I was home again, I began reading.

In 1916, some 6 months after the evacuation from Gallipoli, Australian soldiers fought their first major battle in Europe. The Battle of the Somme had begun on 1 July, and the action at Fromelles was intended to draw German troops away from the Somme. It was a complete disaster.

The fighting began at 6pm, along a front of less than 4000 metres. It ended about 9am the following morning, but most of the casualties were sustained by 9pm the first evening. Three hours. In that time, 1701 Australians were killed, a further 216 died of wounds, 470 were taken prisoner, and 3146 were wounded. 5533 Australian soldiers taken out of the conflict in just one night. As Robin Corfield writes in “Don’t forget me, cobber” : “These losses were the highest for one Australian Division in one day in the whole war, the 60th Battalion’s losses the highest for any Australian battalion in a single action.”

The morning after, the Germans asked for a ceasefire in order to collect the casualties. The generals, including Australian General McCay, refused, so young German soldiers were sent out under cover of night to collect as many of the dead as they could. They recovered enemy dead as well as their own, and the bodies were searched for ID which was later sent to the Red Cross. 250 Allied dead were buried behind the German lines at Pheasant Wood, near the village of Fromelles.

Many years later, a Melbourne history teacher named Lambis Englezos met survivors of the battle and became interested in the history. He realised after much investigation that there were men not accounted for on the lists at the VC Corner cemetery. In his words: “…the number of Australian soldiers who died at Fromelles and the numbers recorded at the VC Corner Cemetery just didn’t add up.”

It took Lambis Englezos years of effort to convince authorities in Australia and Britain to agree to a search, and on the first survey in 2007, they found evidence of Australian soldiers. The following year 250 bodies were exhumed, and by 27 May 2016, 150 soldiers have been identified.

The result of my research into the battle of Fromelles was my novel Ronan’s Echo. Everything I read about it affected me profoundly. One line in particular influenced me a great deal. A woman who bought of copy of Don’t forget me, cobber, told author Robin Corfield: “The battle of Fromelles has ruined four generations of my family…at least I will know where it all started.”  That’s the nub of it – the tragedy is not just the loss of life, but the damage that echoes down through the following generations from the trauma and horror that soldiers experience in war. I decided my contribution to extending an awareness of Fromelles could best be done in a way that reached people who might not read war histories.

And just last night I had the great pleasure of meeting Adjunct Professor Bill Gammage of ANU and his wife over dinner at our friends’ home. In 1974 Bill first published his ground-breaking work The Broken Years: Australian Soldiers in the Great War, and it’s been reprinted many times since. He has an abiding interest in Fromelles, so we had some great conversation – he has visited Fromelles and was an advisor to the search for the missing Australians. [and yes, I gave him a copy of Ronan’s Echo!]




Singing the Technical Blues…

The Sun must be in Scorpio or the Moon in the seventh level of Hell, or something, but we are cursed with technical misfortune at the moment. My uncle would have said it less politely, but I must have run over an electronics technician recently.


We’ve been without internet since we moved into our new place. NBN was the recommended way to go (the new, much hyped National Broadband Network, for non-Aussies), so we chose a service provider, paid the money and waited. About two weeks later the modem arrived, the NBN box was installed, and the nice techie even connected the modem for me. There it was, flashing away seductively as we slid the cd into the laptop and opened the instructions. All 158 pages of them.


Suffice to say we couldn’t get past number 1. Instruction number 1, not page, that is. After sending messages for help to the provider (who is impossible to contact directly) we finally had a callback which revealed that a crucial button on the modem wasn’t switched on. Simple! No, of course not. It’s still not working and we’re waiting for another call back, and another booking for another technician.


The day after that, our brand new Smart TV stopped working: no signal, or else a picture like shattered china wrongly glued back together. Antenna problems it seems, so now we have to navigate real estate agent>Body Corporate>technician… still waiting for a callback.


Lex has been using a mobile remote to connect, but that’s gone on the blink. And his computer is showing signs of joining the rebellion.


This morning I wanted to write a short piece about old stuff. I have, and use, my grandmother’s old rotary beaters, a worn but working piece of egg and batter beating equipment that needs no electricity, batteries, instruction manual or warranties. They were first made in 1932, and hers is probably an original. I thought it would be good to take a photo of it, for the youngsters who’ve never seen one. Yep – my trusty (and only 6 months old) Lumix digital camera won’t download the photos. It sits there dumbly, not doing anything.


I’m at my local café, using their internet. In the New Yorker today, in a serendipitous bit of synchronicity, there’s a cartoon with the title “Apple Comes Up with Phone that’s Impossible to Unlock” and beneath it is an old black Bakelite telephone with a dial and a handset. Just what I need. My mobile phone will probably be next…