Outback in Yowah: A school fossicking trip that unearthed more than just Opals

The bus rolled into Yowah late one afternoon; our twenty Shearwater School children travel-tired from a nine-hour drive but so excited to have finally arrived at our outback fossicking base for the next four days. The five adults relaxed too, with nerves just a little frayed after spending the last two hours of the drive out from Cunnamulla on the edge of our seats with all eyes peeled, scouting for rogue kangaroos or emus that were randomly bounding onto the road with frequency and could have meant our school’s class six fossicking adventure into the outback might well have started with a bang, literally. Unfortunately we did end up hitting a ‘roo on the way home but that’s another story.

Nevertheless, we were nine days into a sixteen-day fossicking camp for class six, and had already packed so many wonderful experiences into our time so far that expectations were high as we rolled into the desolate, dry and uniquely beautiful opal mining town of Yowah.

After the long drive west, we gladly pulled the bus into the free camping entrance and rolled to a stop in order to get our bearings in the waning light. As we took stock of our dry and dusty surroundings, barely making out the deep red colour of the earth underfoot, we noticed someone walking towards us across the open ground, barefoot and blond girl in tow, and were warmly greeted by a woman wearing an Aussie Rules Collingwood jersey with a huge smile. Being a former Victorian, this wasn’t a sight I was expecting to see in outback western Queensland, yet came to typify the culture and sense of individual freedom that we saw was embraced amongst the Yowah townsfolk.

“Welcome to Yowah!”, the woman grinned.  “I’m Linda, and you must be the Shearwater school! “

“We were worried about you lot, you’re a bit later that we expected so thought you might have hit a ‘roo or worse, an Emu, stupid chickens they are! Not to worry, you’re all safe so that’s the main thing and we’re all really excited that you’ve come out to visit us.  We can’t wait to show you around our amazing town we love so much, but let’s get your camp sorted tonight so that you can set up before it’s too dark.”

“You know we’re expecting rain? Haven’t had any decent rain for two years, although we did get a bit in January. Not to worry though, we’ve sorted you out with backup accommodation at our little school in case it does. Cara, our principal, is more than happy for you all to bunk down in the library.”

“Our P&C are putting on a BBQ for you too, we’ve all been looking forward to having you here and are really happy that there’s schools and people like yourselves who want to come out visit. So just let me know which night you’d like to do the BBQ and we’ll arrange the rest.”

“Now, follow me. I’ve got you placed way down the back of the free camping area as you’ve asked so you can get a feel for the outback away from town. My husband, Sean, will bring down some firewood for you a little while too, he won’t be long.”

“Oh, and drinking water is available for you at the big rain water tank in town, I’ll take you up there later and show you where you can fill your jerry cans, but first just follow me”.

All in one breath, we had just met the amazing and generous spirit that is Linda, one of the many people and town treasures we were to encounter over the coming days on our adventure into the Outback.

Camps are an integral part of the learning program at Shearwater, the Mullumbimby Steiner School, a K-12 school and preschool of almost 700 students in the Byron Bay hinterland of northern NSW.  They support our students to engage in community and broaden their cultural experiences; to build resilience and bond with their classmates and teacher; and to immerse themselves in the history and geography of the areas they visit. Our time in Yowah proved time and again just how important it is to experience different places and cultures.

Having set up camp, water reserves refilled and with fire loaded to last an expected chilly night, we bedded down in our swags laid out on the red ironstone dirt and quickly feel asleep under a clear sky and our very own million-star hotel.
The next morning spirits were high as we set out on a fossicking hike led by 20 year local Scotty, a great character who was lovely with the kids. Morning tea was courtesy of the P&C (Linda) and generously hosted at the local store/cafe by Anne and Maddy. We were luxuriously treated to a selection of juicy, sweet and colourful fruit that seemed magically to appear in the dry hot soundings and after a morning of fossicking, it was a much appreciated gesture. Incidentally, Anne and husband Rick are also the caravan Park owners and now bring much needed fresh meat and veggies into the town, making the 260 km round trip to Cunnamulla for supplies twice a week. Scotty then appeared again with a number of large polished opals from his own possession which he generously proceeded to give out to the class — including some small opal hat pins, one each for the children.

A pleasant surprise for the children was a guided bird walk on the way back to camp, with local twitcher and guide, Irene. We were shown Zebra Finches, Mud Larks, Lousy Jacks as well as a Western Bower Bird bower as we walked past an abandoned historic brick home, handmade using a local kiln and with walls embedded with pottery/opals.

On the way back to camp, we all remarked at the incredible generosity that the Yowah townsfolk were extending us, quite a humbling experience.

The pending rain had started to sprinkle during the morning, perhaps as a sign of things to come, so when we returned to camp laden with the fruits of our morning’s labour, our camp had been relocated to the local school. Meeting us when we arrived was Linda and the school’s teaching principal, Cara, who we learned was “living the dream” with her husband and co-teacher. Cara and her husband had been holidaying in Yowah for over 15 years and after completing their studies in Brisbane followed by a short stint in the remoteness of Broken Hill, had landed their dream jobs teaching and living within the community of Yowah. When the rains did hit in earnest later that evening, we were extremely grateful for their hospitality and willingness to open the school to us.

After walking around and fossicking in the dusty landscape, a visit to Yowah isn’t complete without a relaxing soak in the local swimming pool. Once settled into our new camp in the school’s library, Linda led our group across town for a late afternoon treat and for many of us, the first hot water we’d had to bathe in for several days. Fed by water from the two-hundred-year old Artesian bore head and cleverly delivered into the pool at a very comfortable 40 deg.C, the healing properties and minerals of the warm Artesian water was a blessing we enjoyed each day.

Having soaked our tired muscles and recharged our batteries, we finished day one with an evening sausage sizzle again courtesy of the P&C, organised and cooked by Linda and her family.

The agenda for day two was “A walk in the Outback” and as we walked the five kilometres out to The Bluff, it was hard not to become entranced by the ironstone landscape and seemingly infinite Mulga scrub that surrounded Yowah in all directions. The calming effect stayed with us for hours. Once on top of The Bluff, we marvelled at the 360-degree view that a 50 m elevation in remarkably flat country gives of the land in all directions, and found an appreciation for how flat and remote it all is. While enjoying the view, we were treated to stories and information about the area from 25 year on/off local Jeff, who proudly shared some of Yowah’s history and how he’d observed life change over his years of living there.

Not to leave any stone unturned while at The Bluff, Jeff then directed us to a series of caves that have been eroded into the steep sides of the raised landmass and we could have spent hours exploring the enchanting structures. Generosity of spirit was again on show during our walk back to camp as Jeff proceeded, much to the delight of some hot and dusty walkers, to shuttle the children back to our school camp one carload at a time. A gentlemen through and through.

If the walk out to The Bluff wasn’t enough exercise, we decided that the uniquely lush green grass curated at the Yowah primary school was just crying out for a game of soccer! Ensuring the local children were represented on each of the teams, we spent the next hour or two running around on the soft thick grassed area, which felt like an oasis for the children after lots of walking and fossicking in the dry open landscape of red earth.

Day two finished with another relaxing swim and soak in the Artesian pools courtesy of Linda, with a camp concert and singalong with local school kids back at the school after dinner.

We were again humbled by the generosity of the Yowah community on our final day, whereby locals Susie and Shorty generously gave each of our children an Opal to add to their collections which they then proceeded to polish for them. The children were mesmerised all morning during the process and we were so impressed with the results that some of our parents back home have decided to make their pieces into jewellery. Once the Opals were all polished though, Susie and Shorty once again surprised us by giving each of the children a parting gift — another polished Opal. We are truly grateful to have been the recipients of such generosity.

The rain over the previous few days was a welcomed relief but quickly soaked into the dry earth, so concern from the locals was whether there would be the much needed follow up rains that really make the difference out there. As a parting gesture before heading off on the long drive to our next camp, we joined together in a circle with the Yowah primary school (and Linda!) and then all led the school in a rain dance. We hope it worked!

There was much goodwill and laughter as we posed for a parting group photo in front of the school buildings, and a mutual desire shared in continuing to build on the new relationship established between our two schools.  All agreed it would be wonderful if we could reciprocate and play host to our new friends back in our comparatively lush community and school in Mullumbimby, New South Wales, at some point in the future. It would certainly provide us with an opportunity to extend in our own unique way, the same humbling generosity and warmth that was afforded to us by the community during our stay in outback western Queensland. With a bit of planning we hope to make this a reality.

Our short fossicking adventure in Yowah turned out to be a deeply rich experience in a multitude of ways, one that unearthed more than just Opals and an experience that will live on in our memories for years to come.

Ash Martin and Tori Heath

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