The Chewy Red Centre

Monday, July 23, 2007

If you were alive three thousand years ago and living in Australia, you’d probably think that the Earth ended at the coasts of this sprawling continent. And when you found its centre, a massive red monolith rising impossibly from the desert sands, well, it’d probably be a holy ground of sorts. Even today, with Australia tucked away and all but forgotten in a corner of a small planet orbiting a small star in an infinite (and growing) universe, that sense of awe is palpable. It is a place to be beheld, and it has a presence that nothing short of two eyes and your own beating heart can do justice. It glows and lights the colour of the sun before the sun has crossed the horizon; it pulses and fades to black as the sun sets and the sky darkens. Somehow, it connects the earth to the sun, you to the universe. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. I left from Adelaide on Thursday, July 19 to begin my 4000 km journey to Cairns through the desert and virtually deserted middle of Australia. Me, Betsy, a jerry can, 15L of water, and a road map that said “Ernest” on it. This is my story.

My target for the first night was Coober Pedy, some 800km and change from Adelaide. I had a bit of a late start as I got everything packed and made sure I had all the supplies I could manage, but I made decent time up to Port Augusta. From there, new ground, straight north into increasingly barren land. Green faded to olive, olive to brown, all the while the brown soil faded to red. It would be a lie to say the entire ride was devoid of scenery. First of all, there were several times where I was struck by the desert beauty enough to stop. Some of those photos even survived my now-desert-experienced purge of redundant and uninteresting pictures. There was a lake. There were salt flats with boulders and small mounds. There was an outback town with 22,500 sheep, an estimated 2,000,000 flies, and 30 humans, plus a windmill that looked very rustic in the sunset. And there was a LOT of space in between.

As soon as I hit the desert and empty roads, the speed moved up. 110 wasn’t good enough; not only did I want to cover as much ground as possible in the daylight, but I needed to check in before 9:00 or I didn’t have anywhere to sleep. I would’ve called to tell them I’d be late, but there was only one small pocket of telephone coverage (signposted and all) which I only reached when my adjusted speed had me arriving well on time. Plus, I was quite a bit more entertained at 130-140. Not that there was nothing to do. Road trains, three trailers long to pass and get out of the way of. Bounding and stupid kangaroos. And, at that speed, cameras and cops. I arrived in Coober Pedy, the Opal town, with an hour to spare.

In the summer, it gets so hot here that the residents started setting up their homes in their opal mines. The town is insanely dry, and wouldn’t exist at all except for the fact that some teenager found opal and struck it rich many years ago. Now it’s still being found, and people will add ‘wings’ to their underground homes in hope of finding opal there. It wasn’t hot now, not even warm, but I was staying underground for the warmth. I checked in and grabbed a gyro at a little Greek place. The owner (Maria) was very nice and brought me some fresh tomatoes, olives, and beautiful feta with bread when I finished. Then, I chatted with an Iranian girl and an Italian photographer (he works freelance for magazines like National Geographic and Time) in the hostel before calling it a night.

That was a lot for one day, but I was really packing in a lot of stuff. I woke up the next day before sunrise and was driving down a dirt path to see the Breakaways and moon plain and the dog fence before returning to the Stuart highway for my journey. The plan was to see all that and make Yulara in time to check in and go see Uluru at sunset. The dirt road was fun, I felt quite adventurous out there. I think I drove past the moon plain without knowing (there were a few spots that looked quite moonlike), and hit the dog fence. The dog fence is the longest fence in the world, 5600km long to be exact. It’s not much to look at, but it runs from Surfer’s Paradise in Queensland all the way to the Bight in WA, and protects the sheep to the south from the dingos to the north. Apparently farmers built their own fences individually and then as more had fence built, they joined together to become a huge border.

The dog fence past, I came upon some towering hills. I parked Betsy beside the tallest one and hiked up to the top. It was a cool view and a good little morning exercise besides. Then, further down the dirt road, were the salt and pepper mounds. One is quite white, the other a golden brown, hence its name. They were pretty neat to see and worth the offroading (I’m proud of Betsy, by the way) to get to. Plus, I’d already covered a lot of ground and it was only 8:30. I crossed the border to the Northern Territory at high noon and was delighted to see a realistic speed limit – 130! That made me a lot more relaxed about going 140. After hearing from so many people how the most exciting thing was a junction in the road, I was surprised how quickly I came on it. I wasn’t bored at all. Actually, that day I was listening to the One Percent Doctrine, and I found it quite interesting. So not only was I doing all this traveling, I was reading too.

After a false start at 2:00 where I thought I was mistaking a mountain for Uluru, I finally came on the real deal at around 3:30. Plenty of time to check in, shower, and drive down to Uluru for a few photos and sunset (with, you guessed it, some more photos). I had dinner and a beer at the resort hotel/hostel, and they had live music – someone playing two didges and an acoustic. This was what I class as a great day. The next day worked out pretty well, too. I went back to Uluru at sunrise and was going to climb it but the trail was closed. Figuring the wind would calm later in the day, Betsy and I drove over to the Olgas, part of the same formation that Uluru and that mountain I’d mistaken are from. They were quite pretty and it was a beautiful 7km walk into the Valley of Winds – appropriately named, I should say. I also walked the gorge there to kill some time, it was nice too, the domes are so massive as they tower on either side of you.

Then, back to Uluru where I was hoping the winds had died. My hopes were realized when I saw tiny silhouettes on the red slopes. The climb was on, and what a climb it was. There are lots of signs discouraging, but I guess being this remote they don’t want to kill the tourism. Or maybe they figure people will climb it anyway, so they might as well mark the safest route. Either way, I was surprised how steep and treacherous it was. There was a chain to hold for the entire first half up, and it was lucky, for there were plenty of places where a slip or tumble would pretty much mean death. 52 people have died climbing it. But I wasn’t leaving without trying. I made the hike to what I thought was the top only to realize I was only halfway – after I’d had my triumphant photo taken. This is no rock. It’s a space station. Thankfully, the second half was more gradual and no chain was required. I made it to the summit, enjoyed the views, found a small alcove out of the wind, and ate my orange, looking out over the Olgas 50km away. Then, back down, and I had done everything I wanted to for the day. I grabbed some gas for an early start tomorrow, had a shower and dinner, watched an AFL game with some very excitable WA supporters (the one woman reminded me of mom watching hockey), and tucked myself in to bed.

After a couple toasted bagels, I was heading off to King’s Canyon, my last real stop in the red centre as such. The canyon is about three hours from Yulara, and I wondered how good it could be. I got there just before noon and found there are two trails, a short 1.5km along the canyon floor and a more challenging canyon rim circuit that was 6.5 km. I took the short one first figuring I’d get some nice photos from the bottom up while the sky wasn’t washed out, but that particular hike was pretty missable. The rim hike, which starts with a steep climb up to scare off would-be hikers, was absolutely spectacular. I don’t know why this place doesn’t get more press, really. You get to the top and look down into the canyon, and that’s pretty. But what amazed me was the top of the rock walls are their own little ecosystem. With the moon hanging in the midday sky, the red rock below and all around forming little domes, and ancient vegetation growing out of the flat, it was surreal beyond imagining. The walk also did a great job of showing how extensive this desert oasis is and how it has served to hold many plants that are otherwise extinct from the days of the dinosaurs. On a hot summer day, there was also a small pond held by the canyon surrounded by what looked like rainforest, that I’m sure would’ve been a lifesaver. Even in the winter, where the desert was still mid-20s, it was a sweaty climb. I’d hate to do it anywhere near 40. Though I would. This place is worth it.

I finished my quite excellent hike and drove into Alice Springs. There were two options: double back down towards Uluru and stick to the sealed roads, adding an extra 150 km to the trip, or else taking a dirt track through the desert. With the price of gas in the desert as high as $1.80/litre and the day almost gone, I took the dirt road. Man, was that a bad idea. When they say dirt road, they don’t mean nice gravel like back home. They don’t even mean washboard like it gets before the grater comes along. No, this is in a league of its own. The washboard is now more like a series of mountain ranges, rattling fillings from my teeth, the dirt is generally sand, so you can’t go too slow, and well, let’s say that it was a mistake. That said, two positives came from it. One, I was thinking of taking a 1000km dirt road from Alice to Halls Creek. That is firmly off the table. Two, I got to stop and see the site of a meteorite strike. The meteor was the size of a fuel drum and the crater was huge in comparison. Very cool, and I just got back into the car as the sun was setting. There was one other car there and I had visions of Wolfe Creek as I felt very alone and isolated at that particular park.

So, now I’m in Alice Springs. I shared a dorm the first night with some guys from Holland. We went out for a couple beer at Bojingles, a local pub that streams a live radio cast as well as webcam. Not sure who would watch, but maybe someday, bored at home, I’ll see what’s happening back in Alice Springs. They met a Scottish and Danish girl and also introduced me to a German girl that was looking for a ride to Cairns, though unfortunately she’d just bought a plane ticket since she couldn’t find a ride. After closing that place (it was a Sunday night), we went to the casino, the only place still serving drinks. We got ‘randomly’ pulled over en route and breathalyzed, but our driver only had one beer, so no problems. I didn’t wind up drinking or playing at the casino as I didn’t want to break a 50 there, but Leen did and he won $40 on Roulette. It was a fun night all in all.

The next day, the Dutch were gone and I met up with the German girl, Maike, and two other girls from her hostel, and we drove to the desert park, a little eco sanctuary for the desert. I was skeptical, having seen plenty of desert already, but it was one of the best $20 I’ve spent here. The park was really well done, informative, interesting and even fascinating, and best of all, it made the time fly in a town where there appears to be quite little to do. There are a lot of aborigines up here, I’m noticing more as I go further up, and more art and crafts from them than I’ve collectively seen in all the rest of Australia. Lots of ranchers and ‘bogans’ too, but I’m fairly impressed with this city in the middle of the desert. It’s no Vegas, but it’s probably as close to Vegas as it is to Perth, so the remoteness is impressive, too. Back to the park though, they had a great show on the desert birds, lots of animals including a great nocturnal display, and the information on the vegetation and what it has done to survive were all fascinating. Maybe it’s because the desert is such a harsh place that those mechanisms are especially interesting, but I know my dad would love it here regardless. I also didn’t realize how much life and variety there was in the desert, and heard some cool survival tips that sustained the aborigines for so long. That night, I had a drink with Maike, we climbed Anzac hill to watch the sunset and look out on Alice Springs, and caught up on some blog and photos.

Finally, I began the first leg of my trip out of the outback, leaving Alice Springs early the next morning. The drive north was pretty uneventful but I was at the Devil's Marbles by noon. The photos don't do it justice, it's a really cool scattering of boulders and rock formations. The boulders are in piles and precariously perched upon each other. I tried to set my timer up to take some photos of me at the top, but I couldn't get far enough even running, climbing, and throwing myself on boulders at full speed. The timer only goes for 30 seconds, after all. Luckily, I solicited some other backpackers to take my photos. I probably played around on the boulders for 45 minutes before I went back on the road. I had to make Mt Isa tonight, where I anticipated some climbing and hiking tomorrow. So I set off again, covering a total of over 1200km that day (Mariah, that's like driving to Calgary and back again in the same day). I made Mt. Isa by nightfall, had some pizza, and discovered that this mining town has no hiking of any sort not much else to it besides outback charm. I would be leaving the next morning for the remaining 1000km to reach Townsville on the east coast once again. And I will be saying goodbye to the outback until I head to Darwin in a few months.
Central Australian Outback Photos

No comments: