I wond’r if we’ll ever wake from this trance? Hypnotised by the awesomeness of Uluru, while journeying from Darwin to Adelaide

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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  • 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:

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  • 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!

I wond’r if we have enough petrol to make it to the next town? Petrol scares and kayaking with crocodiles en route to Darwin

Our first days drive from Cairns to the nice little historical town of Croydon was a rather sophisticated affair by our standards, seeing us drop past Coffee Works in Mareeba, the region that grows 80 % of Australia’s coffee. There we took the opportunity to sample some cold brew nitro – silky smooth icy cold black coffee that tricks your tastebuds into thinking it’s been sweetened and has milk added, by being poured from a tap with the help of Nitrogen, similar to beers like Guinness, mmmm…

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Settling back into outback life

The next days travels took us past Normanton, where we checked out the impressively large tourist information centre that reminded us more of a museum, staffed by local Aboriginals with great local knowledge. Before heading off we couldn’t resist taking some obligatory photos with ‘Krys the Savannah King’ – a massive life-size replica of the largest Saltwater Crocodile ever caught. It was hunted and killed in 1957 by Krystina Pawlowski, a Polish crocodile hunter who amazingly switched sides and became an outspoken crocodile conservationist in her later life! That evening we camped in a sunny show ground with plenty of space for a spot of badminton – a great way to stretch our stiff legs after a long days drive 🙂

The following few days saw things become even more desolate, with towns growing further apart and roads deserted, except for the occasional monstrous road trains we overtook once having plucked up the courage!

Surprisingly we didn’t often know where we were headed each night, as the maps hadn’t finished downloading on the WikiCamps app (Australia’s campers bible) and we rarely had any signal. Amusingly this meant all we had to go on was distance and direction, while trying to home our flashing blue dot in on a campsite, shown on a blank background. It certainly provided some entertainment at the end of tedious afternoons full of monotonous driving!

A benefit to being in the wilderness of the Outback however was the enormity of the nights sky; with no light pollution, the infinite twinkling stars that flooded the sky above us was truly spellbinding.

Despite the emptiness of our surroundings, there were usually things to see along the way to reward us for driving these long lonely roads. A couple of notable examples were the never ending magnetic termite mounds that stretch out into the horizon (so called as they’re always aligned North to reduce heat from the sun) and the brilliant Royal Flying Doctors Museum in the lesser known town of Cloncurry. John Flynn is famous for setting up the innovative Royal Flying Doctors Service back in 1928, bringing much needed medical help to the remote towns of the Outback. The impressive museum features three floors full of fascinating history and enthralling stories, brought to life through a variety of galleries, exhibits and film.

Almost running out of petrol, en route to Katherine

With such large distances between anywhere, comes an element of risk. We’d done well so far to always fill up with fuel when having the chance, but unfortunately forgot while wrapped up in the awesomeness of the museum. We only noticed we were running on empty once half way to the next town, so couldn’t turn back. The next hour was therefore spent in nervous silence, as Joella and I struggled to take our eyes from the petrol gauge, willing the car to keep going. Thankfully our seemingly never-ending tank did us proud, and we made it to the forecourt of BP in Mount Isa, wearing the biggest Cheshire Cat smiles imaginable! To prevent a similar occurrence in the future, I taped a reminder to the steering wheel so it wouldn’t happen again.

After spending a night in Camooweal – the last Queensland town before the Northern Territory border, we intended to hit Tennant Creek the following day and explore the surrounding area. But following a friendly chat with the groundsman of the campsite, our plans soon changed. He recommended avoiding Tennant Creek due to the seeming collapse of the community (petty and violent crime among parts of the Aboriginal population continues to grow). Instead we headed to Banka Banka: A cattle station full of cowboy charm, featuring fire pits, dangerous bulls and camels!

Now a day ahead of schedule, we were nearing true civilisation once again; in the form of Katherine – the town “where the outback meets the tropics”. But before arriving, we couldn’t resist stopping in past the famous Daly Waters Pub for a quick feed. The old world establishment (by Australian standards) is as you’d expect from an Outback pub, but with one significant difference; there’s random stuff hanging from every inch of the ceiling and walls. As the story goes, this peculiar ritual originally started with a bunch of bras being hung up by a bus load of women, who’d lost a bet with their driver! While pretty much draped in lingerie and tucking into our steak pies, we conveniently used the free wifi to book some kayaking the next day, to explore some nearby gorges…



Attempting to avoid crocodiles and snakes in Nitmiluk Gorge

After a very early start the next day, we eventually arrived at the jetty and climbed aboard the boat that shuttled us through the first gorge. During our briefing en route, we were surprisingly advised the signs we’d spied earlier were in fact correct and there are crocs about!

With relief, we learned these are of the fresh water variety, and have brittle jaws that prevent them from tackling larger prey like humans, although can still bite if provoked. Apparently, we can be sure there are no dangerous Salt Water Crocs present from the annual floods, through the use of three methods: 1) Low level helicopter surveys during the day, 2) Night time boat inspections using search lights to look out for reflections from their eyes, and 3) Traps. Although reassuring to a point, these practices don’t sound very scientific or entirely foolproof :-/

Once we’d arrived at the end of the first gorge, we picked up our double kayak and began exploring the second, then third gorge beyond. Kayaking proved to be a fantastic way to witness the beauty of these natural geological formations in such tranquil surroundings, while they slowly changed colour from reds to oranges as the sun rose higher in the sky. Following multiple foul mouthed tirades from me, Joella can confirm it did prove difficult finding a rhythm while paddling together, but we eventually got the hang of it. On our return leg through the first gorge, we were pleasantly rewarded to a double sighting of Freshwater Crocodiles, thankfully from the safety of the boat 🙂

That evening we treated ourselves to a stay in the more expensive campsite within Nitmiluk National Park, allowing us to fit in a longer trek the next day without any driving beforehand. We opted for the charmingly sounding ‘Butterfly Gorge Trail’ that proved to be full of diverse surroundings; first we began with a hike up to a scenic viewpoint of the first gorge below, followed by trails through arid landscape then finally down into a gorge enclosing luscious rainforest.

During this last section through the thicker undergrowth I heard an ominous rustling sound that led me to immediately scream: “RUN, THERE’S A SNAKE!” despite failing to see anything that resembled a threat. We then embarrassingly spent 10 minutes trying to decide whether to proceed or turn back. It was only until some fellow hikers casually strolled past without any sort of issue, that we decided to continue, feeling a little stupid in the process! Thankfully our bravery was eventually paid off, with a beautiful waterside view of the second gorge, appropriately surrounded by fluttering butterflies.

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Next stop: Darwin, to visit my Cousin Jess and her fiancé Ben!

I wond’r how much it’ll cost to fix our car? Costly adventures exploring the Daintree Rainforest and Great Barrier Reef in Cairns

Arriving in Cairns was a significant milestone on our Australian Odyssey – marking the completion of our drive North up the East coast. Although Queensland’s fifth biggest city isn’t anything to write home about, that really isn’t an issue considering Cairns is famously the gateway to both the tropical Daintree Rainforest and the worlds largest single structure made from living organisms: the Great Barrier Reef!

We’d fortunately lined up a housesit on the outer edges of town that perfectly matched our dates, featuring an outdoor swimming pool, cinema room, pool table and an expansive balcony looking out to the surreal rainforested hillside overlooking us. While there we had the fortune of caring for a rather boisterous American Staffy named Bosun, who turned out to be the biggest (and strongest) dog we’d looked after thus far. Although this made me feel like a bad ass gangster, it did mean we weren’t comfortable walking him further afield.

Therefore we opted to go dogless for our first days expedition to Cairns’ impressive Botanical Gardens; where we walked through never ending walkways surrounded by tropical fauna and explored galleries set up in old WWII naval oil tanks, to the exotic soundtrack made by the many colourful birds above us.

Underwater adventures in the Great Barrier Reef

Despite seeing a myriad of stunningly colourful fish off Whitsunday Island the week before, we were keen to spend some more time in warmer waters while we had the chance. Having decided against another expensive tourist package deal, we initially struggled to find availability on a boat that would take us to one of the nearby islands before the weather turned. Eventually however, our relentless efforts proved fruitful and we successfully booked ourselves tickets to Fitzroy Island, on board the aptly named 1,000 bhp ‘Thunderbolt’ high speed reef boat!

Even with the additional time for the Captain to complete a series of doughnuts to show off the power of his impressive vessel, we made it to Fitzroy Island in little over half an hour. After disappointingly finding out the Turtle Sanctuary tour was fully booked, we set off along the rocky pathway to Nudey Beach, which has recently been voted the best in Australia. Wanting to make the most of our time, we briskly and carefully changed into our swimmers (it’s strictly NOT a nudist beach despite its name suggesting otherwise) but stopped short of putting our snorkel gear on after realising the conditions; to say the water was choppy would be an understatement :-/

So, with a glimmer of hope that the other side of the Island would be sheltered from the prevailing winds, we headed back in the direction of Welcome Bay from where we’d arrived. Just as we hoped, the water was far calmer, so we continued up the beach to the famous reefs that surround ‘Bird Rock’ – a prominent boulder so named because of the large quantities of bird poo that cover it like icing on a cake (it even glows in the moonlight apparently)!

Almost immediately on entering the water — the reef is handily just metres from the beach — we were greeted by a welcome party of assorted fish that grew larger as we snorkelled further out, consisting of Parrotfish, Wrasse, Surgeon Fish and Butterfly Fish. Although we were truly entranced by the cloud of colours that surrounded us (despite the murky waters due to the choppy waters), we secretly wished for the opportunity to meet a Green Turtle in its natural environment. You can therefore guess our astonishment and joy, as a turtle calmly paddled past! We couldn’t resist following at a distance, mesmerised at the beauty of how gracefully such a large animal moves from rock to rock, grazing on the sea grass and algae. Although we planned to do a walk or two around the island, we ended up far happier spending our entire time underwater.

Rush hour in the Daintree Rainforest

Understandably, given the impressive size of the Daintree Rainforest (almost 500 sq miles) there’s a plethora of walks and trails to choose from, and as per usual we were struggling to decide on which to attempt while keeping in mind the four hour return journey from Cairns. Eventually we settled upon Mossman Gorge, as it had good reviews, no entrance fees and meant we weren’t going to need to take the ferry further North.

After some beautiful driving along relentless hairpins that hugged the cliff edge with the beaches below, we arrived at the Centre. There we fought with our conscience, while considering whether to ignore signage requesting visitors pay $10 per person for shuttle buses to the beginning of the trails. After completing the pleasant 20 min walk, we were glad with our decision; especially considering at no point did we go through any Aboriginal settlements, which was a key argument for taking the bus.

Unfortunately, once beginning the trails, we realised we’d made a bad decision. Rather than being greeted with spacious, peaceful walkways surrounded by nature, we instead found ourselves feeling like we were on the London Underground: shuffling along narrow paths, constantly queued up behind large groups of tourists almost the entire time :-/ Despite this, we made the most of our time there and completed the full Rainforest Circuit Track that did have some picturesque streams and pools, but were ultimately glad to leave the hordes behind.

Nursing a poorly car back to full health

Rather than making a speedy getaway, we did the complete opposite: While driving back to Cairns, our trusty steed suddenly lost all power, requiring us to swiftly pull over before coming to a complete halt in the middle of the road. Fortunately we made it, just, to a garage in the nearby town of Mossman. After taking a look, the mechanic reckoned the transmission had gone, and would need to tow us back to Cairns where they’d have the parts and could fix automatics. His initial estimate was $2,500 🙁

The next day we played a spot of pool, trying to take our mind of things, as we waited for a phone call from the garage to confirm the damage and when they’d be able to get it done; we were on a tight schedule needing to get back to Sydney at the beginning of August for a house sitting assignment, and still had over 8,000 km to go. Hating the suspense, I gave the garage a call and we immediately breathed a sigh of relief – the work was almost complete and was going to cost just $650; phew!

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Once we’d replenished our food supplies — consisting mostly of tinned cans — we set off once again towards the dusty world of the Outback, on our way to Darwin…