Location: Brisbane, Australia
Home again. Since my last entry, we completed the journey south down the Stuart Highway through Coober Pedy and Woomera back to the ocean at Port Augusta.
Coober Pedy is a corruption of two aboriginal words that mean 'white digger' since Europeans first appeared there looking for gold, opals and other precious stones. The town is visible across the empty stretches of flat desert as a line of low mullock heaps, each representing another abandoned hole. Ten thousand of them gleam whitely against the dun reds of the sand and dirty green of the low shrubs that cover the landscape. There are no trees and the wind howls across the terrain.
It is a miner's town with total disregard for presentation and order. Rusted machinery lies everywhere and the buildings are drab and dirty. Someone told me that the town holds the greatest number of criminals in South Australia but that suits the police force. Knowing they are there stops them trying to keep track of them elsewhere. A tale no doubt but easy to believe when standing there.
Next stop was Woomera, which holds some unique history for Australia. Surveyed by the legendary Len Beadle, also famous for the east/west Gunbarrel Highway, as a rocket range after the second world war, it was a military town consumed by secrecy. At first women and families were not allowed there but later that was relaxed. What wasn't relaxed was the fierce class structure of rank that made a misery of every aspect of daily life for the enlisted men and the many contractors that serviced the town. Although intended for strategic rocket and weapon development, it actually mainly was used for testing tactical missiles, and produced many of the surface to air and air to air missiles used by the British, American and Australian armies and navies until the 70's. It was also the first place to develop unmanned aircraft that were used for target practice.
Woomera is still in use for research today at a small scale in partnership with the US and Japanese governments. It remains the largest and longest rocket range in the world. It is also adjacent to the nuclear weapon testing sites of Maralinga and Emu, where radiation effects were studied by exposing Australian military personnel to fallout radiation from the tests.
We passed through Port Augusta, pleased to see the sea again after so long, and turned inland to the Clare Valley. We visited three wineries there over a couple of days and pressed on to the Barossa. The age and maturity of the Barossa community was obvious here as was the preference for German wine styles. We ended up buying an oak wine cask and filling it with white port. Mustn't touch for 5 months! On the way down to Maclaren Vale, we went through Harndorf on a market day and sampled German sausage and sauerkraut, icecream and bought a scarf for Rose.
We stayed in Maclaren Vale for a few days while we visited Casey and Isaak and saw Casey successfully through day surgery on her ear. Loaded with wine and good things we then drove north and turned east through Broken Hill. We didn''t stop there, colony of artists notwithstanding, as we were getting anxious to be home with the family. The balance of the trip was a long series of one night stands except for Dubbo, where we visited the Western Plains Zoo and of course, visiting Natalie and Matthew at St George before we turned for the coast.
In all it was a great trip. The inland has captured us and we will travel there again next winter, circumstances allowing, and this time make it to Western Australia. If we make it down to the Nullabor, on that trip, we will effectively circumnavigate the whole continent.
Location: Coober Pedy, Australia
Well I certainly have some catching up to do. I can't fully blame the remote area for lack of updates, as the cell coverage has actually been quite good, except that it wasn't always there when we stopped for the night and I had time to write.
After Longreach we visited Winton, home of A B (Banjo) Patterson's Waltzing Matilda and then rolled through Cloncurry, birthplace of the Royal Flying Doctor Service and made for Mt Isa. This town has featured in my family's life many years ago, but it hasn't changed much in the interim, other than shrinking from about 35,000 to about 22,000, courtesy of scaling back of the mines. It is still very much a mining town in looks and character. We took a tour through the Hard Times mine which was created for tourists but is real in design, condition and equipment and forms the safety training facility for the working mines nearby.
We put on full miner's kit and went below ground about 25 metres, rode on the diesel miner's train to the face area and wandered around the crib room and galleries. We each tried the pneumatic rock drill and got a lesson on laying the explosive charges. We also tried it with all cap lamps turned off to see just how dark and disorienting it is in the pitch blackness.
We also watched Queensland win the first match of the State of Origin at the largest Irish Club outside of Ireland. It was a great night.
We departed for Camooweal which is considered a suburb of Mt Isa, making the 188 klms the longest suburban street in the world. Shortly after that, we crossed the border in the Northern Territory. NT had no speed limits on the highways until quite recently. It is now restricted to 130 kph. Where is my motorbike when I need it! The roads are generally quite good, mainly straight and with miles of visibility.
From about Charleville on, the air has been extremely dry and the nights cool. The dry air has proved to suit Rose (and me) very well with little sinus, no coughing and a generally dry chest. Hurray! It is now a year since she has been in hospital for her chest complaint.
After Camooweal we ran for 266 klms to Barkly Homestead. This was a lovely spot with a traditional homestead fronted by a roadhouse. The caravan area allowed us to drive right through into our site and stay hitched up - great for a quick getaway the next morning. The stars are magic out here. The Milky Way looks like powder dusting the sky's black cloth. From horizon to horizon, every bit is filled with bright points of light.
Diesel was $1.98 per litre though we didn't buy it here. This starting to hurt. With the van behind it costs around 30c per kilometer and we are doing lots of kilometres. The next morning we ran the 186 klms to hit the north/south Stuart Highway and stopped in at Three Ways for coffee and to read the Big Rigs magazines. Turning south we ran through Tennant Creek, stopping only for some groceries. All the shops had metal grates and shutters at the doors and windows. There is quite an oppressive feel here from disaffected, almost militant local aboriginal folk.
Further south, we stopped at the Devil's Marbles, heaps of huge granite boulders just sitting on the sandy plain. We took a million pictures and clambered over many of them. We pushed on, doing more that 500 klms for the day and stopped at Ti Tree roadhouse and camping area. This turned out to be the land council centre of the tribes north of Alice Springs. On a little more is the small town of Aileron which has some huge statues of an aboriginal man, and separately a woman and child. Beneath them, beside the roadhouse, is an art gallery. We ended up coming back here later and bought a watercolour by Gabriel Namatjira, grandson of Albert, painted before he died at 27 in 1966. I will include a photograph of it.
Next stop was Alice Springs where we pulled into one of the largest caravan parks we have yet seen, with hundreds of caravan plus trailers and campers. From this base, we explored first the East MacDonnell ranges and Emily Gap, Jessie Gap, the Corroboree Rock, Trephina Gorge and the Artlunga mining town remains. That included a round trip of 70 klms on some rough dirt roads. The Nissan ate it up.
Next was the Desert Park which is one of the best things we have seen on the trip. The park has about 40 hectares of land and they have managed to find an area where river country, sand country and desert woodland meet together. In each area they have an aviary with all the birds that inhabit those areas, plus a nocturnal house, a free-flying bird display and presentations on bush food, medications and survival practices. In addition, everyone who wants one can carry a small audio player with a commentary about all areas of the park. Just press the number matching the corresponding number on the path to hear the explanation. It was very well done and we spent the whole day there. Enthralling. We found that the subsequent ramblings including Uluru and Olgas meant much more, recognising many of the plants, birds and even some animal tracks, for having spent the day here.
The following day we went into the West Macdonnell ranges and walked Simpsons Gap, Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole and Serpentine Gorge. There was more there including the drive through to Hermannsburg, the birthplace of Albert Namatjura and the Hermannsburg school of painting, but we decided to leave some things for our next visit, since we are confident there will be one. We just love it out here.
From Alice Springs we drove to Curtin Springs on the road to Uluru, opposite Mt O'connor, which is another monolith similar to but smaller that Uluru. This was the first time we free camped and we enjoyed the experience. On the second night we built a big fire and hosted some other travellers to some music. It was a great night.
Uluru was impressive. We didn't particularly set out to climb it but went part way up, over the tree line to get an uninterupted view of the Olgas, which seem close, but are nearly 60 klms away. It really seems like the spiritual centre of our continent. It is facinating and inscrutable. The textured rock is like the scale of a lizard with complex hues of ochre, black and silvery facings. The many waterway marks suggest that it would be truly amazing
in the rain with falls cascading all over the gullies, gorges and pockmarks in the rock face. We walked around the northern edge to the main gorge, marvelling in the caves and features.
In the later afternoon, we took a helicopter ride (a Bell Jet Ranger) first around the Olgas and then around the rock. Uluru seems oval shaped from the groung but it is more triangular from the air. We noticed again the almost complete absense of wild life that has been the case all through the NT. We were told by a local that it is because of a number of factors. Kangaroos and emus are heavily hunted by aboriginals in this area, plus the mobs are quite mobile and have largely moved towards NSW and Queensland western areas because of the good forage there after all the rain. We have hardly seen roadkill since Mt Isa. We saw a couple of dingoes, but otherwise all there is out here is a plague of bush mice.
We also travelled out to Kings Canyon and walked the gorge. On the way in, we were very impressed with the achievements and vision of the Conway's that own and run Kings Creek Station nearby. The canyon is a little oasis amongst the burnt red rocks of the mountain range.
The final day in the area, we climbed around the Olgas, taking photos by the score, a post card before and behind at every step. There are millions of finches here, weighing down the branches and chattering a mile a minute. The Olgas are conglomerate rock, nothing like the sandstone of Uluru. The textures and colour are quite different with subtle grays, blacks and pinks among the ochre reds and even yellow. It was a good 7klm ramble in an inspiring place.