After bidding farewell to Jess and Ben – the next time we’d see them would be in 3 months time for their wedding – we chucked our remaining XXXX beers in the back, and hit the road once again for the inhospitable Outback. For the next day we’d be retracing the drive we’d made up to Darwin the previous week, along the beginning (or end, depending on which way round you’re doing it) of a route excitingly named the ‘Explorer’s Way’; named after John McDouall Stuart, the first explorer to successfully cross Australia from south to north and return.
As had now become the norm, our first stop was dictated by our stomachs and turned out to be Pine Creek, where we’d stayed on the way up. After a quick tuna sandwich, we made a gold coin donation at the quaint steam train museum, and left feeling like experts in the field of restoring old locomotives! While driving through Katherine our conversation got the better of us, and we forgot to fill up (again); finding ourselves with a range of just 11km left, before pulling into the forecourt of the next petrol station – yikes!
Fortunately this risky strategy of minimising our weight by avoiding carrying unnecessary petrol, meant we’d made good time thus far, so could afford a quick detour past a natural spa…
Swimming with snakes in Bitter Springs
Having decided to skip the more popular Mataranka, we drove on to the lesser known Bitter Springs that was pleasantly far less busy. Instead of a large pool, Bitter Springs is probably best described as a natural lazy river, which takes you on a relaxing journey past luscious tropical undergrowth, under scenic palm trees.
When we’d well and truly been lulled into a false sense of tranquility while drifting down, a local pointed out something up ahead that we initially took no notice of. It wasn’t until we were mere inches away that we realised, rather than a pretty parrot or rare plant, the something turned out to be a large snake – woah! Fortunately it casually zig zagged past, through the water, taking no notice (we hope) of us… From that point on we understandably paid a little more attention to our surroundings!
That evening we made it as far as Daly Waters, where we avoided the touristy pub and campground, instead opting for quieter road house just down the road. After saying a quick hello to our buffalo neighbours, then cooking up a delicious satay chicken and rice dish, we hit the hay.
Playing with the Devil’s Marbles
Our next mornings drive was a little stop and start, while we frequently pulled over to get rid of the many mosquitos that had taken refuge in our car :-/ Once the remaining hangers on had reluctantly buzzed off, it was time for a pitstop past the ‘Pebbles’ – an outcrop of medium sized granite boulders, peculiarly dotted across the stark red plains of the Outback. Although these were fairly impressive, they were to be a mere warm up for what we’d see later on…
The next oddity to break up our day was in the form of an old overland telegraph station. These repeater stations setup in the late 1800s, from Adelaide to Darwin, connected South Australia to the outside world, via telegraph lines stretching across to Singapore and beyond. It was also fascinating learning how important these stations were to weary travellers needing a bed for the night, and how appreciative lonely station workers were to receive these visitors to keep them company.
After reading most of the information signs dotted about, we reluctantly carried on driving South, now on unchartered roads as we passed the T-Junction we’d travelled on from Cairns. For lunch we ducked in past one of the larger Outback towns of Tennant Creek, just missing the PM – Michael Turnbull, who’d been in town due to troubles in the local community. After grabbing food at the supermarket, then struggling to find the arts centre, we rejoined the highway in a bid to reach our final destination before dusk.
Just before the sun began it’s final journey south of the horizon, we pulled into the busiest campsite we’d come across so far. After managing to squeeze in alongside a camper van and large ute, we raced to have a look at the awesome spectacle that surrounded us: The Devils Marbles. These huge, almost alien like boulders were strewn all around us, some stacked upon one another, others scattered on their lonesome far and wide. While strolling amongst them as the sun set, their brilliant golden orange colours continued to become even more striking.
After a broken nights sleep serenaded by the howls of our neighbours being violently sick – we can only assume food poisoning got the better of them – we hit the road. First to Wycliffe Well, Australia’s UFO capital apparently, for some cheesy photos with aliens; then to Alice Springs, in time for a cheeky lunch at Hungry Jack’s.
Discovering the tenacity of desert wildlife, while in Alice Springs
Having heard that nights in Alice can get mightily cold, we treated ourselves to a stay at the cutesy Alice’s Secret Travellers Inn. Although our private room wasn’t much more than a portacabin, partitioned off using thin plywood, the place itself was extremely homely and the garden full of hammocks, deck chairs and hypnotic lights truly did feel like an oasis 🙂 While mooching about town we experienced the sad racial plight that’s rife here, with many aboriginal homeless begging on the street, often clearly intoxicated or completely passed out.
With David Attenborough having proclaimed that there’s no no museum or wildlife park in the world that could match Alice Spring’s Desert Park, paying it a visit was really a no brainer. Given that the place is huge, and entry is on the more expensive side, we set out at the break of dawn, arriving soon after opening. Even before entering the park itself, we were impressed at how well kept everything was, as we walked past a team of uniformed park rangers (happily including multiple aboriginals) carefully seeing to the entrance display of native foliage.
Our visit began as any trip to the zoo or wildlife park does; attempting to strategically plan a route, while trying to make sense of brochures, maps that aren’t to scale and timings for various talks. Once we’d decided our plan of attack, we set off to explore just what the deserts of Australia have to offer. It was fascinating to discover just how much animal and plant life there is in what seems to be an unliveable environment featuring mostly sand, scorching daytime temperatures, and freezing nighttimes that often drop to below freezing. Take for example the awesome Thorny Devil Lizard; that walks cautiously with a stutter, has a false head on its tail and is able to drink if any part of its body touches water – thanks to a clever capillary system under its scaly skin.
Once we’d had enough of the various peculiar, and often very lethal reptiles in the impressive nocturnal house, we took the opportunity to try our hand at some aboriginal activities – we couldn’t spend over a year in Aus and not have a go at throwing a boomerang! Frustratingly mine never came back, leaving me to embarrassingly go and collect it from the shrubbery, in front of smug 10 year olds… Although Joella didn’t have any more luck when it came to her weaving (it didn’t seem as tight as it should be) but hey, we had fun! En route back to Alice, we took in the awesome Simpson Gap set within the Western Macdonald ranges, before heading home for dinner and another excellent episode of Alienist on the iPad.
Utterly in awe of Uluru
Based on how incredible our trip South from Darwin had been so far, it was hard to imagine that the highlight was yet to come – Uluru (previously known as Ayers Rock). Although there’s a campsite at Uluru, it’s extortionately expensive, and apparently not so nice, so we headed for the nearby (by Outback standards – an hour and a half drive away) Curtain Springs: a cattle station with over 1,000,000 acres, offering free camping. After attempting to brave sitting outside on camp chairs in the middle of what felt like a dust storm, we came to our senses and grabbed a beer at the bar. Before bedding down for the night we did our bit for the local community, and prevented a runaway emu by closing its gate that had blown open.
Wanting to see the sunrise at Uluru, we got up well before dawn in the freezing dark of the outback – no time for showers; with a quick sip of water and a cereal bar, we hit the road, taking great care of straying kangaroos. Despite our early start, we found ourselves locked in battle with the impending sunrise, especially so, after having to spend time fuelling up at the astronomically expensive filling station in Yuluru village.
Arriving in early dawn had the added benefit of semi-cloaking Uluru from our view, to avoid spoiling the surprise, and what a surprise it was! Fortunately we’d grabbed our park tickets online the night before, so avoided delays at the gate, leaving us to speed through to a suitable viewing point to take in the unveiling of Uluru in the heavenly golden sunrise. Although there are dedicated viewing platforms, we were more than happy standing on our car, parked up on the side of road looking in awe at this enormously large body of rock rise up from the flat plains of the outback. Really no words or pictures can do it justice, you just have to see it for yourself, it’s honestly spellbinding.
Brilliantly, the park entrance tickets included a walking tour around Uluru, that excellently added another depth of information to the incredible sight that lay before us. The impressively knowledgeable and engaging tour guide did a fantastic job of bringing Uluru and the Aboriginal culture to life with various facts about how they lived:
- There are two species of shrimp that live within the craters on top of Uluru
- Aboriginals tend to only kill the last Emu in a group, to prevent others from seeing and avoiding the area again (Emus are renowned to have good memories)
- Honeypot ants store sacks of sweet nectar, that Indigenous Australians dig up and eat as a treat
After the tour, we took the opportunity to stretch our legs further, and circumnavigated Uluru. Throughout the 2 hour walk we were constantly rewarded with its ever changing rock formations, and peacefulness at times when no-one was around. Reluctantly we left before it started to get dark, and struggled to take our eyes from the site in the rearview mirror while driving away… After a surreal shower back at Curtain Springs, serenaded by the surrounding cattle lowing, we had an early night so as to get up once again before dawn; Nathan, a fellow Aussie traveller recommended we got up at 4.30am to check out the blood red moon eclipse, which proved to be quite a sight, although my camera wasn’t really up to the challenge of capturing it :-/
Sleeping underground in the odd town of Coober Pedy
Another day, and another journey once again to another Australian oddity – We were headed to the famous mining town of Coober Pedy, known mainly for the fact that the majority of its population live underground due to the harsh Outback conditions above. This means a) there are a lot of unusual things to visit underground, including the likes of churches and museums; and b) many ‘characters’ have been attracted to Coober Pedy and made their mark on it.
After a civilised stay in the local Big 4 campground on our first night, we spent the next day visiting the peculiar sites, including the likes of:
- A life size spaceship, used in the Riddick Film, Pitch Black, that filmed partly in Coober Pedy
- Another grass free golf course (similar to the one we found in Lightning Ridge), in which players carry around pieces of astro turf to hit the ball from
- The lookout from ‘The big Wynch’, another of Australia’s famous ‘Big things’, that included a lot of eerie signage
After spending the evening sipping a tasty Aussie Shiraz while watching the sun go down, we couldn’t resist checking into an underground motel, to experience sleeping in a sophisticated cave.
Next stop, Adelaide – civilisation once again!