Roadtrippin’: Driving across the Australian wilderness, Part Two

Mt ConnorBetween the first and second roadtrips I took in Australia, I hung out and wasted time in Adelaide (with a notable exception of heading out to Port Lincoln, as blogged earlier). Despite for a few interesting points in the city (like the natural history museum there), as a whole Adelaide was the worst place I visited in Australia. It had few reasons to stay, so I got hold of a new relocation deal as quickly as I could.

The new journey was to take a 6-berth campervan north to Alice Springs, 1531 km by the shortest route. I decided to take a bit of a detour on the way, and go to see Ayers Rock.

Part 2: A journey into the Red Centre
Distance Covered: 2,438km
Dates: 1st – 4th May 2012

I’ll admit, when I first got behind the wheel of my home for the next five days I was a little nervous. I was heading into the heart of a vast desert, and taking easily the biggest thing I’d ever driven. The van was huge- I’ve lived in places smaller. It even had a camera mounted on the back to help you reverse, as there was no hope of seeing behind you otherwise. But it was that or stay in Adelaide for a while longer, so with an inadvertent salute of windscreen wipers and a narrow miss of the gateposts, I was off again.

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IMG_1486The terrain immediately north of Adelaide is beautiful. I skirted past the Flinders Ranges, and through the Painted Desert. The roadside through this region is covered in multicoloured sand and gravel – orange, yellow, red, white, grey and brown, mixed with the greens of vegetation – as if someone has thrown around handfuls of dye, or recreated the soil with crushed crayons in a vast art installation.

My first major stop was Coober Pedy. It’s a strange old opal mining town, half dug into the rock. It was settled in 1915 and back then air-conditioning wasn’t an option. To make living possible in temperatures of up to 48ºC, the miners carved their houses into the bedrock, keeping them in the mid-twenties all day. Everything was dug underground; bars, shops, even churches.

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Since the early days, a lot of newer buildings have sprung up on the surface, somewhat ruining the feel of the town, but it was still a cool place to stop off at.

Spaceship junker sculpture

Spaceship junker sculpture

The tombstone of Karl Bratz, apparently a big drinker. His epigraph: "Have a drink on me"

The tombstone of Karl Bratz, apparently a big drinker. His epigraph: “Have a drink on me”

Back on the road, I had hours and hours and hours of monotony; ruler-straight roads, with little to look at. I got through a lot of podcasts and audiobooks. Every now and then I passed another motorist – usually the terrifying road-trains – and I even passed a few cyclists. Considering they were travelling thousands of kilometers through a desert, I saw way more cyclists than I ever expected to.

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Eventually I made it to Ayers Rock (Uluru). I managed to time it so that I arrived for dawn, and it was truly magnificent. The rock itself is utterly mesmerising. It’s the only thing around for many miles; a monolith dominating the surrounding scrubby desert landscape. It draws the eye. You can’t help but stare at it; the rock somehow occupies the background and foreground in every view.

Uluru

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IMG_1561There are a number of trails around Uluru, and I walked the Mala track, Mutijuju track and the Dune walk. These get you close up to interesting parts of the wind carved monolith, or just get you yet another great view of it. There is also the 10km base walk, but I didn’t have time to get around this, electing instead to drive around it a couple of times, to see it from all angles.

IMG_1547Uluru is covered in significance to the Aboriginals who live near it; there seem to be cultural stories of legendary hunts and mythical animals associated with most sections, and there are ancient rock paintings hidden in caves.

The cultural centre tells you about many of these, and also holds the ‘sorry book’. This is made up of letters sent in to the centre, apologising for taking stones from around IMG_1629the site.

25km to the west lies the only other thing on the horizon, Kata Tjuta, or The Olgas. I thought that these wind carved rock formations were actually better than Ayers Rock! For one thing, they are more intricate, and interesting to look around. Uluru dominates, but the Olgas although not exactly what you’d call subtle, are more absorbing.

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IMG_1646The ‘Valley of the Winds’ walk is also more fun than those I’d done over at Ayers Rock, leading you through canyons, over steep rises, and through a small plain of exposed towers of rock. I also spotted a couple of wild kangaroos on the way around.

Having watched dawn at Uluru, I stayed to watch dusk at the Olgas. They go through a stunning transformation, turning deeper and deeper red as the sun paints them with it’s dying rays.

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The following day, I drove another 340km out of my way to visit another impressive geological feature: Kings Canyon. This isn’t nearly as well known as the others, but definitely deserves to be, as I think it was my favourite of the three.

Kings Canyon has been eroded from a plateau of sandstone by the force of a small river, and lots of time.

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IMG_1711There is a beautiful walk around the rim of the canyon, along the sheer drops of the cliff edges. You pass many cool geological features, and at the end of the canyon drop down into the ‘Garden of Eden’, a pool of water permanently hidden in the shade at the base of a curve of the cliff. It’s surrounded by trees and green bushes. Watching the birds flit over the surface of the pool, cool in the shade, it feels a million miles from the sunburnt desert surrounding you.

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After refuelling at the most expensive petrol station in Australia, I was back on the road. Being so far from civilisation most of the time, I encountered a lot of animals. Nearly hitting most of them. Animals I nearly ran over included: cattle, kangaroos, herds of camels, a dingo, wild horses and a huge Wedge-tailed Eagle that took off from the side of the road right in front of me. Animals I didn’t manage to avoid: two small birds, countless bugs.

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Zeus, the Olive PythonEventually I made it to Alice Springs, a town I really like. It combines the frontier-like feel of being ridiculously far from anything else with the convenience of any decent sized town. There are charming museums showing off aboriginal heritage, early exploration attempts, the Royal Flying Doctors and some natural history, as well as a couple of brilliant desert and reptile parks.

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Thorny Devil IMG_1794 Death Adder

On the plane to Perth, I managed to get a couple of shots out of the window, Uluru and Gosse Bluff. The latter is something I really wanted to see from the ground, but you need a serious 4×4 to get there. It’s a bit hard to make out in the photo, but it’s the remnants of a 140 million year old impact crater with a 5km diameter.

IMG_1917Gosse Bluff - Meteor Crater

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