Alice Springs (Part B)

Or Three Caterpillars and a Wedgie.

ASPtB a1.jpg
Tjoritja in panorama. I can see caterpillars and eagle claw marks.

We started the day early, the pink alarm clocks squawking having woken us around dawn. With a coffee imbibed and a quick look over plans made the night before, the wife and I headed out for the West MacDonnell Ranges following the route laid out before us.  Now the indigenous origin for Tjoritja (The MacDonnell Ranges) is a story of three Caterpillars which I won’t tell here out of respect, but it’s details like that, that give a unique life to the whole place. So as the thermometer rose we pointed the X-Trail west and went in search of wonders. Tjoritja didn’t disappoint. The journey would take all day, doing a bit over 250 Ks and the sun was already making its presence felt. Though not tall by world standards, the ranges run like a wrinkle in the bedsheet-flat outback for hundreds of Kilometres East and West of Alice Springs. This country can make you feel very small.

 

 

Once you turn onto Namatjira Drive you are suddenly surrounded by a landscape that defies adequate description. Even photos don’t do justice to the scale of the ranges. Early on we had to stop several times, just to try and record it photographically. (Thank God for digital photography. In my younger days, I don’t think I could have afforded to print that many hundreds of photos. You’re also lucky I’m selective. As I keep telling my wife, I just need another few photos of rocks and birdies.)

First serious stop was Ellery Creek Big Hole, a waterhole that belies its name, turning out to be a beautiful little Waterhole at the end of a short walk from the car park. Still early in the day, and after a toe in the water told me how cold the water was, we forewent the opportunity to swim, enjoying the serenity, as it were. We weren’t the only people there, but in country this big, you hardly notice the handful of other tourists. Here’s a quick walk through.

 

 

I could’ve stayed for ages there, as birds flitted between the trees and cycads, but we’d barely scratched the surface on what Tjoritja had to offer and there were a lot of klicks to go. Back to Namatjira Drive, driving west, following the caterpillar. Next stop was Serpentine Gorge. It’s hard to drive through the country and not think of Albert Namatjira, whose iconic paintings are probably better than any photograph when it comes to doing justice to the landscape. 20 Ks down the road we turned right onto a dirt road that’s pretty close to our 4×4 limit, following the rippled dirt track until we reached the carpark. Shank’s pony from there.

 

 

As one of the few permanent waterholes around it is a refuge indeed.

 

 

You’re not allowed to swim, so you only get a little window into the gorge beyond the first waterhole. The printed guide for the Gorge said that there was a nice view looking down if you do this little climb up to the lookout. Backtracking to the stone steps, we began our ascent in the morning sun and by half way I was reminded of those gym memberships I never owned. As we rested, three quarters of the way up, we were passed by a handful of people who offered encouragement “Not far to go.” “You’ll be glad you did it.”, though the first guy jokingly said, “It’s not worth it.” We continued to the top and were rewarded for all that sweat.

 

 

Not only a beautiful view, but a chance to see a cute little earless dragon. Bonus! (That’s what they’re called, I swear.) Down was much easier than up and it wasn’t long before we were down, across the dry and rocky creek bed and back to the X-Trail. Next stop the Ochre Pits, an important cultural site, another 20 minutes further west. The Ranges look clawed here scarred with long lines, and the legend is a giant wedgetailed eagle created some of the landscape as it flew between Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and the Ochre Pits.We arrived with only one near miss on a goanna that tried to become a speed bump, but we got there.

The Ochre Pits are a traditional peoples’ site and they ask only that you respect it and not touch the colourful ochre. Of course some people have no respect, leaning up against the ochre wall for selfies (Grrrr. Don’t do things like that, people).

There were a few other tourists at the Pits and intriguingly a handful of them were taking turns hugging a large ghost gum in the dry river bed. On closer inspection, I saw that they were pressing their ears to the trunks, apparently to hear water, they said. Of course, always the sheep I walk up to the tree and press my ear to the smooth white bark, and sure enough there was the sound of running water. It’s times like these I remember why I love this planet. The scientific explanation is the sound of the movement of the branches transmitted through the wood, but that doesn’t take any of the magic away from it. I feel like a kid whose just discovered the ocean waves in a conch shell.

Peeling myself off the tree, we returned to the car and headed for our most westerly stop, Glen Helen Gorge. By now the thermometre was beginning to boil as we followed the trail along the salt encrusted Finke River to the large, permanent waterhole. Inviting as the water looked, we were saving the swimming for our next stop.

We checked out the shop at the camping ground but the Lodge/café/gift shop was a little overpriced for us, so we went up to the Mt Sonder Lookout to see how much more of the country we’d missed. Time was against us, and we still had a couple of stops to go on the return journey.

 

 

Back in the car and backtracking east, we turned left up the long track to Ormiston Gorge. Now I have to confess, my knowledge of Ormiston Gorge was limited strictly to the level of, I’ve vaguely heard of that, so I had no preconceptions. With a kiosk at the car park offering frozen delights (choc ice cream for me, 😊 ), we walked down to the waterhole that’s nestled between the impressive red walls of the Gorge. By now the temprature was a shade below forty celcius (That’s 104 F on the old scale.) and the dark waters seemed very inviting. Wading in, the bottom drops off very quickly (the waterholes, not mine) and it’s quickly apparent that none of the air’s heat has transferred into the water. The wife refused to do more than paddle her feet and once the fridged waters hit my nethers, make my externals become internals as parts of my body retreated to somewhere behind my kidneys and refused to come out. When this happens, you just have to dive in and wait for the hypothermia to numb your extremities. I told my wife it wasn’t too bad once you got in… She didn’t believe me.

Having cooled off, (or more accurately, frozen me backside off,) we dressed in more suitable walking attire and followed the track up to the platform lookout above the gorge. This takes you passed a variety of wildflowers and wildlife, as you ascend the relatively easy climb up to the lookout. From here you get a clear look up the gorge, the afternoon sunlight casting colours and shadows across the rock walls. If you’re afraid of heights, be warned. The platform is made of steel mesh, giving you a little of that “standing on nothing” sensation.

Back down I watched a crow try to crack open a bush coconut and wondered how many millennia, birds and people have been living off these very Australian bush food. The nut, about the size of a tennis ball, is created by a wasp larva and when you crack through the woody shell there’s the grub for protein and a starchy white lining for the carbs. I restrained myself from trying either, deciding to stick to a muesli bar. Back in the car park, we found the Spinifex Pigeons chilling in the shade of the kiosk’s rainwater tank. It was a lovely end to a long but worthwhile day.

We’d seen things, learned things, and heard things we’d never expected. And we were only half done in our exploration of the MacDonnell Ranges.

It was late afternoon when we arrived back at camp, tired but happy.

Next Blog we explore the East MacDonnell and are privileged to see an art and light festival, Parrtjima.

ASPtB l
Looking back west at the end of a long day just near our camp.

 

Advertisements

Alice Springs (Part A)

Or An Old Fart in Wonderland

Alice Pano 1.jpg

The temperature had been steadily rising the closer we got to the middle of the continent and we drove into Alice Springs Just before lunch, after a short leg, (140 kms) from Gemtree. Being thoroughly ill-prepared by exhaustive research, trying to get a picture of what was coming, “The Alice” was still a complete surprise. I’m not sure which one of the multiple images in my head I expected to encounter, but Alice was none of them. Bryan Brown was nowhere in sight. This was nothing like the movies would have you believe. This is a little town with a big personality, but very small parking areas. I had to drive around to find somewhere to park the Jayco, getting a firsthand look at the centre of the town in the Centre. Before finding a place on the banks of the mighty Todd River, in all its dry glory.  For those who’ve never heard of the Todd River Regatta, the river is dry most of the time like a giant sandy snake that runs through the town. With the MacDonnell Ranges on its doorstep, it’s no wonder it’s been the inspiration for so much of Australian folklore. It was here that I first heard the term Centralian.

After parking, we went into the main part of the city, a small area covering barely a few blocks, a small pocket of civilisation in the vast empty Centre but they cram into that space all you need. The first thing you are hit by, is the alive nature of Alice’s Indigenous culture. The Arrernte (pronounced Arunda) people are the traditional owners of Mparntwe (Alice Springs). Their language spoken in the streets, immersing you immediately into sure knowledge that this Arrernte land, and you are their guests. These are a proud people who are still linked to the path their ancestors walked which saw them survive and flourish for countless millennia. To try to describe the culture shock, is hard. Despite my best efforts to stomp on prejudices beaten into me in a Catholic High, I felt a little afraid. Should I be afraid? Why is there an edge to the place? Police are a constant presence, and each bottle shop has an officer on guard, while the locals just try to get on with their lives. This is a place that has a history of alcohol problems. This is a people working hard at fixing that problems. Look beyond that and you start to see something different. The best boot for stomping on old bias is to talk to people. Street sellers sell hand painted canvases to tourists and there’s nothing that breaks barriers like buying a painting from a woman as she works on her next piece.

From this the artists eke out a living and if you listen carefully, you will learn the story behind every painting.  The local indigenous culture is rich with storylines and it is heartening to see it thrive and grow. Our stay in Mparntwe would teach me just how little I knew about the first Australians, but more of that to come.

After orientating ourselves to the city we returned to the X-trail and Tux and headed for the Temple Bar Caravan Park just outside town. We arrived at the van park, via a small detour as google maps tried to take us through someone’s property. (This wouldn’t be the last time google maps lead us astray.) Driving over the dry creek, past the massive gum tree, you are greeted by the lovely Fiona, a woman that is filled with a love for, as she calls it, “Her Centralia.” I would soon learn that this is the truth of all people who live out here. Everyone takes ownership of the land and their relationship with it. After some time running through all the things you can see and do around the Alice, we settled into our spot, in the shadow of a rusty ridge, surrounded by the galahs squawking like teenagers in the trees. Most of the time there, they behaved themselves.

The first night we were unplugged, as it were, because the guy who potentially was in our spot had decided to stay an extra night. (We’d been forewarned this might happen. Alice is like that, as we were to find out. Our first day was spent orientating ourselves, grabbing shopping to cram into Tux’s tiny cold heart, (The mini fridge,) and doing all the basics you do when you’re stopping for a few days. Now as I said, I was going into Alice with little to no idea about the place, and apart from the whole, get your license scanned before buying beer, most everything else is pretty normal. Locals still crowd the food court of the small mall, the air filled with loud conversations in Arrernte, the big two shopping giants, Coles and Woolies, still have the only supermarkets around and a wander through the shops reveals a small selection of everything from hair dressers to a hippy shop that sells smoking requisites.  Then back to Temple Bar to feed ourselves and dip into the stash of decent beer.

With Tux unpacked and a meal prepared, eaten and cleaned up, we settled in for the night, our plans laid out for the morning.

D1
Beer o’clock.

The day awoke with sunshine and promise, and the fella leaving at six opening up our powered site. So coffee, pack up move and unpack the Jayco and get ready to roll. The temp hitting high 30’s, so armed with sunscreen, hat, water, snacks and reams of tourist leaflets, we headed out to Alice’s Wonderland. (You know I’ve been dying to say that.) First and only stop, the Australian Desert Park, which packs in a truckload of awesome, if you’re into wildlife and indigenous culture like I am.  With walk in aviaries and enough information to blow your mind, we spent the entire day there, under the blistering heat, learning so much it’s hard to pick just a few highlights.

Needless to say, the day was packed. The birdlife is the thing that strikes you about the red centre , life in all its chaos, clings to life, and the diversity is astonisjing. The Desert Park gives you an up close and personal view into the lives of the local wildlife. You soon realise how cute our feathered and furry friends, even our thorny scaley friends can be. (Check out the night house while you’re there. Bilbies, need I say more.

The highlight for me was the talk by an indigenous guy who really brought home where the local people stand now and into the future. He told a story of hope for the future generations of the Arrernte people. His talk was funny and informative, being much more about building bridges while holding onto 60000 years of history.

With mind blown and camera full of pictures, we left the park feeling like our horizons were just that little bigger. This was Alice, and we were barely out of the car park. It was clear to both of us, Alice deserved more of our time. We returned to the van to shuffle the rest of the itinerary to accommodate an extra day. After several hours of rearranging dates on a spreadsheet like a really bad game of magic squares, we were set.

Phone calls made, bookings changed, dinner made then eaten under another glorious Central Australia sunset. With ring neck parrots arguing in the trees, we settled in for the night. There was too much to see, too much to experience too much to tell, and way too much to be contained in a single blog post.

Continued in Part B. (MacDonnell Ranges.)

Gemtree, NT.

Or Budgies, Bees and Bloody Big Bugs.

Leaving Barrow creek, we took the first left, 245klms down the road, and then follow the road for another 70Klms to Gemtree Caravan Park and Gemstone Fossicking. It’s a little bit of a sidetrack to our main route, but as the driving hours mount up, an extra 140Klms out of our way to try and find some Garnets sounded like a short stroll. The earth starts to become more of what I expect for out here, red to burnt orange coloured sands, low stunted gums and a few scrubby bushes, what we didn’t count on was the flock of budgies encountered at Barrow Creek, was just the leading edge of a mass explosion of the cute little green and blue buggers across the whole region.  Again, the feathered bastard moved too fast to get a photo, appearing In great clouds, sometimes flying so close to the cars I thought they joined the smear of bugs on the windscreen.As we drove south towards our the left hand turn, we were saw perhaps a dozen flocks of the wild birds some with hundreds of them.

Budgies aside, the road to Gemtree was long and flat, mirages mirroring the sky, with rare escarpments that pop up like the earth has shrugged, saying “It’s too bloody hot.”  To be fair, at 38 degrees in the shade, it was bloody hot. This is a dry and lonely place, the kind of place used as the backdrop for movie thrillers and where people really do disappear.

We’d only had one incident so far with a potential serial killer, just south of Tennant Creek the previous day. We’d had to swerve to avoid some random guy laying junk, a branch and an old car wheel, across the road, presumably in an attempt to add us to the roadside car wrecks you see. Of course, he could have had a different motive, but I thought it wise not to stop to ask.

Once you turn left, you find a single lane of tar down the middle of the dirt road. Signs tell you that the road-trains get priority. Who am I to argue with 80 tonnes of thundering death machine when it’s belting down the road towards you at 130kph. You just drive off into the dirt when they come along and let the many wheeled behemoth have the tarred bit of road. The few other vehicles encountered were 4×4’s, some towing caravans, who moved courteously to the left with one wheel on the tar and one in the dirt, sharing the road and a friendly wave or nod. It was all very civil, and none of them displayed any sign that they might be the kind of psycho killer Wolf Creek had convinced me was out here.

Then Gemtree finally rolled into view. This is a nice little park, (little being relative in a territory with a cattle property bigger than Texas,) owned and operated by Aaron and Kate McMaster, a lovely couple who have created a family friendly place that also appeals to an old fart like me.

At reception, we were met by friendly staff who had the kind of genuine friendliness that you don’t see enough of in the city, and we were escorted to our van site by one of the girls from reception, who rode a quad bike. Now if that doesn’t speak volumes about the country colour of a place I don’t know what does. The site was bare earth, but the place still had the feel of a little Aussie oasis in the middle of nowhere. After setting up Tux the van, putting a load of clothes onto wash, (a necessary chore after several days of travel and free camping) and scoping out the facilities, all clean and civil, (and modern, if it was the 1980’s), we took a walk along the nature trail set up by the owners. These pictures give you an insight into what to expect on the 3km loop trail that runs through the scrub.

Along the way, following the handy guide available at reception, we got a peek into the wonders of nature available, though trying to grab a look at the wild zebra finches was like trying to spot bullets in flight. Those little buggers are fast and camouflaged. This is a place where birds, reptiles and small furry animals converge as one of the few water sources for a long way in any direction. Keep you eyes open and you never know what will fly, slither or crawl into your campsite.

After booking a fossicking expedition for the next day, we went back to Tux, cooked a meal of something stewy and had a very nice beer, (Mash Brewing’s Copycat A.I.P.A. if you’re interested) and settled in for the night. We had our phones running on two different networks, surprisingly, the Optus phones were working and I was able to catch up on the world, (Trump hadn’t started WW3, none of my rock heroes had died) and upload one of the blog posts.  Telstra has precisely zero coverage out there, but we didn’t come to the middle of the country to check Facebook, so we settled in to watch the sunset and have an early night.

Early the next day, we assembled with another couple and their kids, to equip ourselves for the fossicking trip and meet our guide. Introductions were made, equipment distributed, (Seives, a shovel, a large bucket and 20ltrs of water for washing the stones, not drinking.) We then played follow the leader for thirty kilometres, a convoyette of three 4x4s, with Dave the guide at the lead and us in our own X-trail eating dust in the rear. To be fair, the dust only happened when we had to move onto the dirt verge to make way for the occasional oncoming road-trains that played chicken with us in the sure knowledge that only kangaroos and cattle are silly enough not to get out of their way. After the short drive, (short being a relative term after this many kilometres,) and one short stop to deal with a grass fire, we arrived at one of the mining leases owned by the McMasters. This one is rich with garnets which, despite being semi-precious, are pretty in a Ruby kind of way. (The other lease is for zircons. Maybe next time we’ll go after those.)

After a quick lesson from Dave the guide and a query about whether or not we were allergic to bees, ( a question that had been asked both on arrival and when we booked this fossicking jaunt,) we were set. Dave got us started and then left to dig in the dirt for hours, with only the proviso that we return by 2pm if we’d like the stones appraised. And so, once again, I found myself in a hole, in the dirt, looking for pretty rocks.

Now it’s hot and dry country out there, but as Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, nature finds a way. Bees, we discovered, have some sort of magic, water divining capability that borders on the supernatural. Within minutes of putting some water in the wash bucket, bees converged on the water like tourists at an outback servo. (That’s a gas station for my American readers.) Trying to dunk a sieve in a bucket occupied with dozens of bees requires a gentleness and steadiness of hand, I’d been previously unaware I possessed.

Three hours later, with our old tin rattling with garnets like coins in a beggar’s cup, we packed up the equipment and headed back, leaving the other family to continue collecting more little petrified blood drops. (That’s what they look like to me, but I occasionally write horror, so…) We drove back to camp, only playing road-train dodgems a couple of times and took our beggar’s tin to Aaron for appraisal of our semi-precious spoils. We made an arrangement to have two of the stones made into earrings for the wife and the rest were sorted by size they could be cut to and bagged up in ziplock baggies like street drugs, earmarked for my growing rock collection. (Yep, I’m that much of a nerd, geek, dweeb, use whatever term you feel comfortable with.)

That evening, after a stir fry dinner and a shower to remove the thick layer of accumulated fossicking dust, we settled in for an early night as we were continuing our trek through the outback. As was our habit we parked our shoes by the step of the van outside in an attempt to keep the dust levels to sub Saharan levels inside. As a Sydney boy, born and raised in that city of light and venomous creatures, I should know better than to do this. I should at least know to tap your shoes a few times to make sure nothing nasty has climbed in. (Well nothing nastier than smelly socks and feet anyway.) Despite this childhood rule drummed into me by a arachnophobic father, I slid my shoes on and got to work packing up Tux for the Alice Springs leg of the journey. The wife, being more fastidious that I am, shook out her shoes to remove any dirt or stones that might still be in them after our Garnet hunting the previous day, only to have this little fella fall out.

Considering she (by the shape of the abdomen, probably female in case you’re interested) could’ve chosen my shoes as easily as the wife’s, I consider myself lucky. A spider bite, even one from a non-dangerous species like this fangy little girl, would really put a dampener on the next day or two of our holiday.

Packed up and ready to go we head for Alice Springs. The Alice. Nothing can quite prepare you, (I mean that in a good way.)

 

Barrow Creek WWII Historical Site

Or The War Is Over, but the Budgies Remain.

Sunset stretch 1.jpg

We packed up and left Barkly Homestead early in the morning, after filling the tank with fuel. (Forget leaded petrol, at $1.80 a litre it was obviously a golded petroleum. Later we would find that the Northern Territory also has platinumed petrol, but I digress.) Today’s leg of the journey would take us to one of the “Middle of nowhere” free camps available along the route, which cost nothing and provide exactly that much in facilities, sometimes less.

There were two possible routes to take according to Google Maps and we chose the longer route as the shortcut, about 40 kms less in distance, would take about 9 hours longer. (Corrugated dirt roads like that have the same effect as trying to negotiate 360 kms worth of teeny tiny speed humps.)

Map.jpg
Shorter but longer, go figure.

This free camp is an historical site near Barrow Creek, where troops travelling north from Alice Springs during WWII camped. Unfortunately, the latrines, mess halls and everything else has long since been removed and only the track, dust and some concrete slabs remain, but hey, it’s free. It was a bit over 400 kilometres from Barkly Homestead where we’d spent the broken night’s sleep the previous night, and I only had some chocolate, George R.R on Audio book and the occasional alarmed “Honey!”, from the wife to stave off the driver-fatigue drift, though the intermittent threat of the road trains did also assist in maintaining a state of alert panic. An occasional break along the way for tea and food, was welcome, along with the essential fuel top-ups that we’d been advised to take at every available opportunity. (Signs warning, next fuel is XXX klms away remind you that it’s a long way to the corner shop out here.)

First stop was the Three ways, (Turn right for Darwin or left for Alice Springs,) to abuse our finances with some more golded petrol, only to discover that a little down the road it was ten cents a litre cheaper. (Must have been 9 carat instead of 18.)

 

Next break was a brief stop in Tennant Creek, a place I’d actually heard of, but knew only slightly less about than I know about quantum mechanics. (Hint: I know precisely nothing about Quantum Mechanics.) Tennant Creek was apparently a mining town, though it’s mainly known to tourists now as a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else. I did think it looked like it might have been an interesting stopover, but we didn’t have time to find out. We stopped briefly at the Battery Hill Lookout, where you can see all the places that aren’t Tennant Creek, and then another quick stop at the cemetery to make tea, transfusing my caffeine stream which had dangerous levels of blood in it, and continue on our way.

 

Beyond Tennant Creek, the road stretched on and on, with nair a barren sand dune in sight and I was beginning to think the Northern Territory tourist brochures were all lying to me. Out here were trees, albeit stunted trees, but trees none-the-less. There was grass, dead looking, dehydrated grass, but still, GRASS! And while large mammals were nowhere in sight, the bird life was unbelievably prolific. Black kites, wedge tailed eagles, parrots and finches and … you get the picture. Far from being the dead heart Midnight Oil sung about, this place was alive. By the time we stopped at Karlu Karlu, (the Devils Marbles,) I was beginning to wonder if any of my preconceptions were correct.

 

These monolithic… monoliths were a welcome distraction from the sleep inducing blur of the broken white line running down the centre of the highway. Here, also is our first real inkling of the deep and powerful link between the indigenous people of Australia and the land. There are parts of the walk around the stones where you are asked to refrain from taking pictures, (or anything else for that matter) out of respect for the deeply held beliefs of the local language group, the Arrernte people. We observed those wishes and hope others will too.

There is a campground at the site and we were sorely tempted to change our plans, the romance of awakening to a sunrise over the place was tantalising, but in the end, we decided to continue on, as staying there would add a further 100 kms on the morrows journey. So we piled back into the X-trail, dragging our feet and Tux behind us, and continued onward to the planned stopover another hour or so down the road.

As I was discovering, many of the free camps are not well marked. Blink and you’d miss the small brown sign that read WWII Historical Site, pointing off the main highway, so keep your eyes peeled. Along the dirt track you’ll find another smallish sign that gives a little history and has a useful mud-map to explain which concrete slab is which.

 

Just past the sign, and under the massive flock of wild Budgerigars, (okay the Budgies might not be there when you are,) you’ll find a large flat area of sand, dry grass and occasional concrete slabs that will make setting up your van, tent or bivvy a piece of cake. The creek was dry when we were there, and looking at the gum trees growing in the middle of it, I suspect “dry” is its natural state. We went for a wander along the sandy bed, fascinated by the holes from something, (Crabs or frogs perhaps?) and the tracks left by the animals and people. Proof we weren’t the first there, though we nearly had the entire place to ourselves. (There were only two other camps and they kept their distance. Maybe I looked scary.)

 

If you’re not into the historical significance of the place, then maybe the airborne fauna will be more your speed. As I had discovered in the two days since crossing the border, far from being the dead heart, Central Australia is a thriving hub of all sorts of colourful and interesting birds. I’ve never considered myself one of those weird, slightly awkward birdwatchers that you come across sometimes as you traipse through the bush, but this place could possibly get me wearing long white socks, shorts hitched up to my neck and buying a pair of binoculars to hang around my neck like an oversized pendant. (Who am I kidding? Give me jeans and a t-shirt every time.) But as a bird photographer I have a bloody lot to learn, as the blurry Ring Necked Parrots below will testify. And of the hundreds of wild budgie flocks we saw, I didn’t manage to get one single photo. (Apart from the solitary budgie at The Devils marbles. (I think his name was Jonathan Livingston Budgerigar.) 

 

Whilst not as interesting as Mary Kathleen in the ghost town stakes, this place was a nice little free camp with enough interesting features to keep me occupied. And of course, it came with the obligatory stunning sunsets.

 

During the night, as I collected firewood, I was privy to one of the most spectacular sights you can see anywhere, a massive fireball of a falling star that blazed across the night sky, nearly from horizon to horizon. It broke up into a number of mini fireballs as it fell filling me with a sense of awe, (and only making me think a little about North Korea’s ICBM tests.) I ran back to the van to get the wife but it was too late, like all great metaphors it burned bright and then burned out, leaving only a memory. I wasn’t the only one who witnessed it, and you can see some blurry footage of it here. 

Come morning, we packed up quickly, made easier by the fact I’d not unhitched Tux from the X-trail the night before, and off we went again headed for the biggest surprise of the trip so far. Alice Springs. But first we’ve got Gemtree, NT and fight budgies, bees and bloody big bugs all in search of some more pretty rocks.

Stay tuned.

Barkly Homestead

Or Welcome to the Northern Territory. Everything You Think You Know Is Wrong.

BH1.jpg
Where the hell are the sand dunes??? I was promised desert in the brochure.

Leaving Mary Kathleen Ghost Town with a less than lethal dose of radiation and returning to the highways and their road sign warnings of the car devouring cows, we continued our relentless trajectory towards the Northern Territory. In our path was still another 260 kms of Queensland and a bloody big pile of rock and dirt called Mt Isa, ( a mere 50 klicks up the road.) After a quick stop in the Isa for essential supplies– fresh vegetables, petrol and (of course) beer—we were really truly on our way, leaving behind all traces of civilisation to face the great big wide unknown.

This was it. This was the day we left Queensland, (Beautiful one day, giant open cut mine the next,) and headed into the Northern Territory. The Red Centre, That great desert of rusted dunes and scorching sunshine, following the path taken by idiot explorers like Burke and Wills, who’d had no idea how to survive mother nature’s harshest wrath. Their bones littered the blood coloured desert sands, but we would survive. We were prepared. We had enough food, water and beer to make it all the way to the heart of this wild untamed land and no one would have to carve any words into anything to try and keep us alive.

Beyond Isa several things became slowly apparent, though the full weight of these revelations would take hours to truly dawn on me, (Perhaps even days.) Firstly, the road kill began to diminish rapidly. That constant roadside carnage seemed to all but disappear, like the marsupials finally got the message “Cars and Trucks, BAD!”  The other thing that became obvious was that, unlike the Pre-Isa highway, the roadworkers seemingly decided that it was easier to just lay the road over the existing undulations rather than level everything first. Not that the gentle waving motion of the road was unpleasant, but when you’re towing a van at 100 plus KPH, you kind of want to avoid any motion that might lull you to sleep. Luckily the wife had a supply of pod casts and e-books to entertain and waiting for George R.R. Martin to kill another favourite character is better than amphetamines for avoiding driver fatigue. Of course, the occasional road-train doing its best to break land speed records as it thunders past you helps keep the adrenaline pumping too. You haven’t known edge of your seat terror until you’ve fought to control your X-trail and Jayco as it tries to get sucked from your lane into a road-train’s vortex like a tapioca ball from a cup of bubble tea.

Roadtrain Pano.jpg
Make no mistake, these things ARE out to kill you.

None-the-less, after just one stop for a cuppa and snack, and despite the best efforts of the oversized trucks to assimilate us into their undercarriages, we made it at last to that invisible line that marks the end of the state of Queensland and the beginning of the Northern Territory. I can’t tell you the excitement that I felt, nor the anticipation as we waited for a couple of British backpackers to finish taking selfies so we too could do the touristy thing.

What the photos don’t show is the constant waving of hands that is known as “The Great Australian Salute.” Anyone who has been to the outback will know of the persistence of the Aussie bush-fly These little grey buggers are worse in some places than others, but had pretty much been our constant travelling companions since Emerald. I hadn’t thought they were terribly bad here, but they had the backpackers waving their hands around like orchestral conductors with full blown Tourette’s. I’m not sure how they were going to cope if the swarms got really bad.

Back in the car and back on the road we continued the drive towards the Barkly Homestead, a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere that offered fuel, food and a place to set up Tux for the night. As we drove I realised with a minor shock that the landscape had not suddenly changed at the border. The dotted line on the map didn’t denote were the dehydrated grass and short scrubby bushes ended and the red sand dunes began, in fact the stubby, scrubby bushes kept right on lining the highway for some time, with only glimpses of the red earth this part of the country is famous for poking out between the spinifex and other grasses. What was this? Could all my preconceptions be wrong? I suspected I was about to find out exactly how wrong I was in the days and weeks ahead.

At last, just as the dreaded driver fatigue was beginning to descend on me, the Barkly Homestead appeared on the horizon like an Aussie oasis in the middle of Flatland.

Around the Service Station/Pub/Restaurant/Caravan Park/Motel/Working Homestead, the dry grassland desert stretches as far as the eye can see. This is the only boat afloat, as it were, and as the sign forewarns, “this place runs on a diesel generator using about 300 litres of diesel a day, so please don’t complain about the fuel prices.” Out the back of the place are large caravan sites, both powered and unpowered, and while the ground is mostly dust, there has been some attempt to keep some patches of green grass alive. Trees grow, guinea fowl wander free and the place even has an aviary where you can get your first taste of the birdlife that is surprising prolific in NT.

Inside the bar, the décor looks a little like Slim Dusty and every other icon of the country music scene here in Oz threw up, walls covered in rusting artefacts from a time when men were real men and you could hear their leather hides creaking as they walked. And outside, the theme continues with old machines from the age of steam and iron line the entrance.

But the sunsets were beautiful/

But this was just an overnighter, a momentary respite from the seemingly endless road ahead. After a so-so night’s sleep, lulled by the gentle white-noise hum of the generator indulging it’s 300 litre a day drinking habit, I awoke early to the sound of corellas arguing like ill-tempered teenagers, so I took the opportunity to take a few more photo’s, all the while watched by guinea fowl in the trees who seemed to wonder why anyone would be up so early. The sunrise, however, was worth it.

A quick breakfast and a halfway decent coffee from the roadhouse before the inevitable pack up of Tux and road hitting that was already becoming routine, we set off again hopefully getting the jump on the monstrous behemoths asleep in the carpark.

 

Next stop, Barrow Creek WWII site.

Mary Kathleen Ghost Town

Or Concrete, Copper, Cows and Camels, (but no ghosts.)

Pano 1 MK Mine.jpg
A uranium mine in all its horrific beauty

Along with the road being paved with dead mammals and the occasional dressed termite mound, the stretch between Winton and Mary Kathleen Ghost Town now had the addition of the occasional car wreck, of which I will not provide photos on the off chance that they are markers of a fellow traveler’s death. (I said it before and repeat it here, Stop, revive, survive people.) What there also is for the first couple of hours is a whole lot of empty, again prompting questions of what we’re missing out on in the back-roads of the region.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some things to see along the main highway as you pass through the McKinlay Shire and Cloncurry, but when your destination is a ghost town near a Uranium mine, history and movie props just don’t quite cut it. Here’s a selection of what you might see along the way.

Beyond Cloncurry, the landscape begins to change and so does the chance of running into trouble. Along with driver fatigue and bush fires, the road signs warn of a far greater danger. Car eating cows.

So now we had to not only dodge the stray cattle, but run away from them or risk our vehicles being consumed. This country is full of all sorts of hidden dangers.

Lucky for us, we reached Mary Kathleen without incident, (apart from the bushfire which I still suspect may have been started by some pyromaniac bovine.)

Now the entrance to Mary Kathleen Ghost town is easy to miss, but by using Wikicamps, our goto app for all things travel, we had no problem. If you’re going here I also suggest you download the map of the old town’s layout as it will help make sense of the concrete slabs that are all that remains of this once-bustling little town.

While the sign at the gate, (the word gate is used very loosely here) tells you a bit about the origin of the township, it doesn’t tell you much about the people who lived here, about 1200 at its peak. This place had almost everything, including a cinema and, for some reason that defies explanation, a p0ttery club and Gymkhana Ground. Although the buildings are all gone, the concrete slabs where they were remain, marking the places they stood like the shadows left behind after a nuclear explosion. Not only do these make intriguing points of interest as you try to work out what each was, they also make nice flat places to set up a caravan, very useful if you run the fridge on gas. (Gas fridge/freezers are notoriously temperamental, going into an involuntary and inconvenient defrost cycle if they are anything other than dead level.) Our chosen slab was the tennis courts, just next to the old school. The lines on the court are still visible some thirty odd years later, though the school’s slabs are a little more difficult to make heads or tails of.  After setting up the Tux the caravan, ensuring everything was so level it would’ve passed a council building inspectors test, I prepared the evening meal.

Leaving the stew to cook, we set off up a four wheel drive track because we’d hear a rumour that, apart from uranium, there was also an old open cut copper mine which might yield some nice malachite and chalcedony specimens. Now I’m not much of a rock hound, but I do like a pretty stone now and then so off we went, taking the X-trail 4x4ing like it had never been 4x4ing b4. Bouncing over rocks, avoiding old tire ruts and desperately trying not to stress the wife out too much by pounding the X-trails underside with the crunching clang of rock against undercarriage, somehow I managed to negotiate all of those possible pitfalls to make it to the legendary copper mine. It was worth the trip. We found some lovely specimens and avoided upsetting the large rock python snoozing right where the good bits were.

All of these were found in time to return just as the stew in the thermal cooker had finished doing its thing. Dinner and a nice beer, (Hop Hog by Feral Brewing, if you’re interested in that sort of thing,) partaken under a glorious outback sunset sky. It doesn’t get much better than that.

The next day we awoke to a camel stopping by to say hello. Our sleep had been undisturbed by the dead, though another herd of cattle wandering through at midnight left some evidence of their passing to be avoided underfoot, but the sight of a dromedary was an unexpected surprise.

After a quick breakfast and a strong coffee, we decided to have one more 4×4 jaunt up the 7 kilometre track to the Uranium mine because everyone should have a little background radiation with their caffeine in the morning. The track was made of cracked tar and gave an insight into what our roads will look like thirty odd years after the apocalypse. (The answer is okay, but not great. Large sections were more pothole than road.) We followed it past another family of one humped weirdos to find two caravans, (of the modern variety,) setup in the shadow of the abandoned uranium mine. Their inhabitants were friendly and showed almost no sign of radiation sickness, so we figured it was okay to hop out of the car and take a couple of pictures. (I should say however that it was daytime, so there was no way of knowing if the overnight campers now glowed in the dark or would mutate anytime soon.) They’d apparently missed the turnoff into the Ghost Town and decided to spend their night with the radioactivity, hoping to see some B-grade movie monsters from the 1950’s whom were disappointingly a no-show.

And then, all too soon, it was time to pack up Tux the wonder van and set off again. Mary Kathleen was a surprising little gem and we would have liked to spend more time exploring the place, but time and holidays wait for no one and we had a state to leave. Next stop, the Northern Territory.

 

Winton

Or Dust, Dinosaurs and Waltzing Matilda

Dino 1.jpg
This is Banjo. He says welcome to Winton

Leaving Longreach in the blurry part of our memories where all fleeting moments are kept, we continued our westerly journey, heading for the border which was still two legs and several days away. Winton was the aim of this leg of the trip, where we planned to spend a couple of days so we could actually see some things, rather than arrive sleep and leave. Along the road, (which much as the roads before it was lined with bone dry grass, dead marsupials and the occasional cow), was a somewhat disturbing phenomenon, the meaning of which eludes me. (If anyone can explain it to me, please enlighten us all in the comments section.)

 

Yes, those really are dressed termite mounds. I don’t know how it started, but at some stage long ago, (judging by the dishevelled fashion sense of some of the mounds,) somebody thought, “OMG. THAT TERMITE MOUND IS NAKED!!!” Since then an astonishing number of these sun-baked earthen mannequins have been dressed in everything from hats, tees and dresses, to bras and undies.

Dried mud couture aside, the drive to Winton was relatively uneventful, as we played spot the emu and the always fun cow or speedhump. (Fences? Who needs stinking fences.) Winton has a couple of claims to fame. First and foremost, it is said to be the birthplace of that classic Banjo Patterson verse Waltzing Matilda and also claims some of Qantas’ birthright.

 

 

Now Winton has seen more than its fair share of hard times. Along with the recurring drought that comes too frequently to this outback region, one of the main pubs has burned down three times in its history, only to be rebuilt each time, rising from the ashes like some phoenix/emu hybrid. This is a place where the locals know how to start over. Where no bloody disaster is going to stop them from rolling up their sleeves and resurrecting that which would have stayed dead in most other places. These people don’t know the meaning of the words give up. So, when the local Waltzing Matilda Centre burned down a couple of years back, (honestly people, stop playing with fire,) they didn’t roll over and let the dream of becoming a tourist mecca die. No, they seized the chance to build a newer, better version, which was under construction at the time of our visit. In the meantime, the exhibits that survived are displayed in a series of corrugated iron sheds around the back in the combined Matilda/Qantas museum, (Qantilda.)

Qantilda.jpg
Rising from the ashes of disaster, the new Waltzing Matilda centre

We didn’t go into the temporary Qantilda premises, partially because of time constraints, but mostly because we’d come here for one of Winton’s other great claims to fame. No, not boulder opals. Dinosaurs. Long before Banjo penned Australia’s unofficial National Anthem, giant prehistoric creatures roamed the region around what is now Winton, living, eating and being eaten, and until not long ago, nobody knew much about it. Oh, sure, occasionally some cattle station owner would find a lump of fossilised dinosaur bone, but farmers don’t make very good palaeontologists.  Then, in 1999, a cattle farmer by the name of David Elliott found a bloody big rock and thought, “That looks a bit like a dinosaur bone.” Unlike so many fossil finding farmers before him, David marked where he found it, took photos and sent the pics to some real experts, who basically went, “OMG, you’ve found a Dinosaur’s legbone. Got any more?”  And so began the dinosaur bonanza we have today. Through the impressive hands on work of David Elliott, his wife Judy, the Queensland Museum and countless others. the Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum was born, a complex that has more than a few echoes of Jurassic Park to it, without the chance of being eaten by the exhibits. This has meant that Winton has become Queensland’s (and arguably Australia’s) dinosaur capital.

The price of admission goes towards expanding both the displays and the research facilities. All the fossils are being processed on site and you can not only see the bones being painstakingly extracted from the surrounding stone, but if you have the time, you can become a part of the team digging up and cleaning up the prehistoric finds. I can’t begin to tell you all how interesting this place is, nor how exciting the future plans for the centre are, except by saying, both the wife and I are seriously planning on returning in a few years to find out.

Apart from the Age of Dinosaurs, there are several other dinosaur sites around the region, all of which are well worth a visit if you’re a dedicated Dinophile.

Two Types of Camping. With or without a Gale.

As for camping, we chose to spend our first night in Winton free camping, about ten minutes outside town at a place with the unimaginative but nonetheless accurately named Long Waterhole. This large puddle in the middle of a dustbowl, (it’s been five years since Winton saw rain,) is the major drawcard for every animal in God knows how many kilometres, so if you’re interested in wildlife as I am, and especially if you are avid birdwatcher, this is the place to be. (My birdwatching expertise consists mostly of me pointing and saying “oooh look, pretty birdie.”) After parking and setting up camp, we were treated to kangaroos, parrots, galahs and emus, all coming down to drink as the sun made its descent towards the horizon.

A couple of warnings about freecamping at Long Waterhole. This place is dusty. I mean really, really dusty. You will find dust in every nook and cranny. Secondly, there are precisely zero facilities here, so you will need to be fully self-contained. And lastly, some of the visitors you get may be bovine, so if, like me, you have to visit the ensuite tent in the middle of the night and are confronted by a herd of cows in the darkness, be prepared for unsettling visions of an undignified death being trampled to death on the toilet. It doesn’t make it easy to answer the call of nature.

Our second night was much more civilised, staying in the Tattersalls Hotel Caravan Park in town, ostensibly so we could use the washing machines and showers, though personally speaking my motives were more to do with a pint of Guinness and a nice cooked steak from the pub. (Very nice by the way, thoroughly recommended.) That night the wind picked up and as I lay in bed, feeling Tux shudder in the gusts and wondering if the camper had the structural integrity to survive a gale, I did not sleep well.  By morning, sleep deprived, but clean, we packed up and took one last stroll around town. Even through bleary eyes I could see that there was a whole lot more to Winton than we’d seen, between the opal vendors, craft shops and historical buildings and monuments, I felt that, once again, we were missing a lot of what these places have to offer.

Tired but happy, and with Tux hitched to the X-Trail, we left Winton and headed on to our last Queensland stop, spending a night in a place called Mary Kathleen, a ghost town. Cue creepy music…