Alice and its wider surrounds have been a real treat for us in many respects. It was nice to have access to the benefits of modest urbanisation of which we’ve had little in the past three months, apart from Darwin. We knocked ourselves out shopping in a well-stocked supermarket, found the bits and pieces we needed in a hardware store, and even had network access on our mostly useless Vodafone mobile (these days we have up to 1000km between coverage areas). All that felt luxurious given the tremendous geographic isolation of this town.
For the first time in months, we also found ourselves in the presence of large numbers of international tourists. They jet in and out of Alice on their sightseeing tour of duty and are easily spotted around town. Having spent the best part of the past few months in the bush, we couldn’t help noticing how immaculate those tourists were in the look and smell department. Eventually it occurred to us that it’s not them, it’s us! We’d obviously gone a bit feral, trading style for practicality – wearing only whatever is comfortable in this hot climate and what can be easily washed … over and over and over again. Non-essential accessories and pieces with more than one layer of fabric (or anything that contains an underwire) were long ago deemed unnecessary, or reserved for “special occasions”. Admittedly, we might need to broaden the definition of aforementioned occasions in preparation of reintegrating ourselves back into civilisation sometime.
There was also another reality check in store for us at a certain location just south of Alice. I’m talking about the infamous Pine Gap facility where the USA spies on the rest of the world, with the blessing and indeed cooperation of the Australian government. Among other things, the facility is also used for the clandestine PRISM surveillance programme.
Maybe I should take this moment to greet the snoops at the Gap…
Desert delights and otherwise
We clocked up nearly 1000km exploring the wider surrounds of Alice and were bowled over by it all. The gazillion of superbly amazing rock formations, the captivating beauty of the desert, the mind blowing night skies (you seriously need to experience it to believe it), and of course the palpable vastness of it all – it somehow gets into you. A bit like the omnipresent red sand which they say runs in your veins after some time. It’s not hard to fall in love with it.
Admittedly, there’s the matter of high temperatures, which can limit one’s physical activities this time of the year. These last few weeks we’ve either had hot or very hot weather, i.e. high 30s up to 42°C, but thankfully pleasantly cool during the night (nudge, nudge, wink, wink).
The near total absence of humidity is a huge contrast to the sticky ‘Build-up’ heat along the Top End. It still remains somewhat of a novelty factor and we continue to be amazed at the speed with which water is absorbed. Washing practically dries the instant it’s hung up; faster when it’s windy. Baking bread twice a week is something which we normally look forward to. Over the last months we’ve started dreading it. After all, who wants to turn on an oven and further increase the inside temperature when it’s already stinking hot. Also, my preparation has required increasing adjustment as the dough kept drying out during the proving time, sometimes producing a club-like murder weapon after baking. Drying fresh pasta on the other hand was a breeze. I actually had to slow down the process with wet tea towels so I could cut the pasta sheets which then dried before my eyes!
The unpalatable reality is also that the moisture is similarly being sucked out of one’s body at an astonishing rate. Despite consumption of enormous amounts of water this leads to some unpleasant side effects (the inside of the nose feel decidedly like a vegetable grater. Gross, I know!).
Moving right along.
On another note, I was intrigued by the bizarre entrance constructions of some ants – check out the photos:
Feasting on the Big Mac
The Western MacDonnell Ranges extend some 200 km from Alice, like a massive rocky spine. It’s an area of great natural beauty with awesome rock formations some of which would make you believe you’re looking at wall remnants from an ancient city; there are several dramatic chasms and a few permanent water holes that are the lifeblood for much animal and plant life. And then there’s the Finke River which doesn’t run to the sea and instead meanders for nearly 700km across plains and through rugged mountain ranges before soaking into the sands of the desert.
As it hadn’t rained in some time – it’s an arid area after all – we experienced it largely as a dry riverbed (apart from a couple of water holes) but that didn’t detract from its beauty nor the allure of what’s described as the world’s oldest river. It has been flowing the same general course for about 100 million years; that sounds like rather a long time, even when you say it quickly. In any case, it seemed a great excuse for a little private party in the Finke riverbed where we found ourselves a choice camping spot at the end of a dirt road (what else) in the river sands right next to a majestic ghost gum. It was the perfect occasion for philosophical masturbation about the concept of time which, by the way, became creatively elastic as our shenanigans progressed. Memorable stuff. You had to be there to get an idea …
Our camping spot was one of those never-to-be-forgotten places – the waterhole right before us was frequented by the wildlife in the area and our view was framed by rocky outcrops and Mt Sonder in the background. And obviously not a soul to be seen anywhere. The picture perfect Outback idyll, right down to the dingo that trotted past us on its nightly round, as we sat outside gazing at the stars. We pinched ourselves daily and if it weren’t for dwindling food supplies, we would have had to’ve been surgically removed.
There are several gorges in the MacDonnells which begged inspection – Simpsons Gap, Ellery Creek, Ormiston Gorge, Glen Helen Gorge and a few more. All of them places of great scenic beauty. As for the swimming holes that some of them contain, well, they might as well be renamed freezing holes. ‘Seriously frigid’ does not begin to describe the water, notwithstanding the high ambient temperatures. I dipped my foot in once and was glad I got away without chilblains. Bleedin’ unbelievable I tell you! Mind you, it didn’t stop the bathing fun for a bunch of tourists that spilled out of an “Adventure Bus”. They rushed into the water and astonishingly half of them actually continued for a swim … with laboured breathing and fairly swift strokes I might add. I reckon they may have been Innuits.
Pretty much at the far end of the MacDonnells, and at the end of a pretty long drive, is the King’s Canyon. Its name suggests grandeur and that’s spot on. We encountered rock royalty which revealed its immense beauty when we climbed the plateau and trekked the 4-hour rim walk. Needless to say it’s a perspiration inducing activity on a hot day when the rocks seem to radiate as much heat as the sun (sensibly the track is closed when temperatures exceed 36°C), but boy it was worth every step of the way.
The big guns – Uluru and sidekick Kata Tjuta
What to say about Uluru, the biggest rock star of them all?
We experienced an almost nervous anticipation which curiously fizzed somewhat on the relatively long way there (it’s 450km from Alice Springs), largely on account of the busloads of tourists that were heading the same way. No matter which way you look at it, mass tourism changes the atmosphere. We obviously knew we had to adjust our mindset and thought we were well prepared for it when we drove into Yulara – the resort town which provides the necessary tourist infrastructure just outside the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park. But after a brief visit to the resort information centre, where various tour packages and every conceivable manner of Uluru/Outback experience was available from a dozen different tour desks, we just couldn’t hack it, turned around and headed back into the desert for yet a few days of solitude. We had to prepare ourselves for the culture shock that we see as conveyor belt tourism.
But our sensitive souls eventually got over it, as you do. And so we finally came to be up close and personal with the most famous rock of them all.
No matter how many photos you see, I bet you just can’t help ooh and aah as you catch the first big glimpses up close. Yes, it’s bloody huge, yes the colour is amazing, but what really took our breath away were amazingly different detailed rock formations, surface features and the imposing feeling around the place. I concur with our mate Tim who dryly proclaimed it “a cool piece of kit”.
We knew that the rock climb, while discouraged by aboriginal custodians, is still open but not for much longer. However, we didn’t have to concern ourselves with making a decision as the track was closed due to high temperatures. We cycled around the base a couple of times (to see it in different light conditions) which was really cool anyway … apart, that is, from encountering gaggles of ill equipped tourists on foot, without so much as a sunhat or water(!) and visibly impacted by physical exercise in the severe heat. A park compliance officer with whom we became friendly told us that every day they treat 4 – 7 tourists who fail to heed the advice plastered everywhere, becoming victims of their own laissez faire approach for the conditions in the Outback.
Oh well, it takes all sorts I suppose.
That’s perhaps also what a group of Japanese tourists thought as they experienced a “Sounds of Silence” walking tour to one part of Uluru where the rock formation creates particularly impressive acoustics and silence. There they’re encouraged to experience the silence in quiet contemplation as their tour guide helpfully informed us. Unfortunately just a few moments later, some pollen in the air made their way into my nostrils and produced an unstoppable and acoustically colossal sneeze that reverberated like a sonata right in the midst of their zen moment. That wasn’t my day for winning a popularity contest.
Now, a pop quiz: What do you know about the other massive rocks, some 55km to the west of Uluru?
Here’s an admission from us: much to our shame we were wholly ignorant about Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, until we started our trip research. It’s almost hard to believe once you see them. It’s a massive omission because Kata Tjuta is, if anything, at least as impressive as Uluru, and a great deal larger to boot. Uluru is 3.3 km2, Kata Tjuta is 35 km2. It took our breath away and simply had us gazing at it from various vantage points in wonderment. A nice long walk through the aptly named Valley of the Winds opens up very cool but (for me) impossible to photograph 360 degree perspective within the huge dome formations.
Here’s a detail view, up close and personal. To get an idea about the size, click on the photo below to enlarge it and find the people in the centre of the chasm.
Caring about sharing … not
As I mentioned earlier, the mass tourism side of things doesn’t really do it for us, but we’ll endure it within reason. A few times, however, it caused us to raise our eyebrows. One of those times was during sunset (and sunrise for that matter) … when every tourist with an image capturing device turns up and starts snapping like mad to get the desired photos of the glowing rocks. It’s a well orchestrated event with a 24h repeat cycle; the sunset time is advertised at the park entrance and there are designated sunrise and/or sunset carparks (one for buses and another one for cars) where tourists arrive like clockwork followed by an incessant clicking of shutters that sounds like you’re surrounded by hordes of locusts.
Travellers who shell out for “Premium Bus Tours” to make things extra unforgettable, get to experience the unique visual spectacle accompanied by wine and canapés, served by obliging bus crews who cart the lot, along with a makeshift buffet table complete with white table cloths, to the viewing site. Unsurprisingly, the huge fly population find the canapés as irresistible as the premium bus tourists. This results in a lively and entertaining race for consumption. Said tourists – visibly disadvantaged by the fly nets around their heads which most of them seem to wear – resort to acrobatics in order to hold the wine and pick up the canapé while simultaneously lifting their fly net, swatting 50 hungry flies and eventually devouring the food. It’s all decidedly Mr Bean, and you can tell from the disappointed look on their faces that they had genuinely intended to accomplish all tasks without spilling wine, dropping canapés, ingesting flies, inadvertently shoving food and/or flies up their nose or somehow wearing drink or food. Frankly, I think they could sell tickets to this entertaining parallel spectacle.
A long road to nowhere
At Uluru we applied for a permit to drive the Great Central Road towards WA. It’s a 1500km dirt road through utter nothingness ending up at Leonora near Kalgoorlie. It was a bit of a long shot, in more ways than one. We enquired at the information centre about the condition of the road. “Umm, it’s a 4WD only road, so if you have a 4WD you should be ok,” was the laconic response from a young Asian employee who clearly spent her days in the resort and had never set foot on a dirt road in the Outback. The bloke at first tried to get more detailed information out of her. It just resulted in her confidently asserting “If you have a 4WD I think you will be fine .” We might as well have consulted the road map to get that degree of information quality.
The bloke in his infinite wisdom sought out the local mechanical contractor. As it turned out, he also had the retrieval contract for vehicle breakdowns along the Great Central Road. The guy was a wealth of information … even if it wasn’t what we hoped to hear. “Mate, the road is in the worst condition it’s ever been,” he said. “If you drive out there with your rig, you’ll have the suspension hanging on the ground in no time, and you’ll end up with a whole heap of other damage. If you ask me, it just ain’t worth it.” He showed us a vehicle they’d retrieved that week, and the highly modified truck they use for the job. It was sobering. Like looking at the 4WD hall of horrors.
That sealed it. We made our way towards South Australia instead. The famous SA Outback town and “opal mining capital of the world” Coober Pedy was practically around the corner, just a paltry 750km away. On the upside, we were now also looking forward to sensibly priced fuel, having regularly paid eye watering 40 – 60% premiums in various Outback locations.
On the topic of prices: the cheapest beer at the bottle store in Yulara was $100/slab. It made us glad we’d long ago switched to water! The irony that followed was that Coober Pedy has the highest priced water in Australia.
Opal hopefuls abound in Coober Pedy
The first thing we learned about Coober Pedy was that it’s not “Cooper”. Silly us, had it wrong all these years. The name derives from the aboriginal Kupaku Piti which translates as “White Man’s hole in the ground”. It dates back to a time when the place, which had been left alone and practically uninhabited, experienced a sudden burst of activity after the discovery of local Opal Fields. Every man and his dog started digging here, hence the name. Before then it had been known as Umoona, named after the long-living Umoona Tree that withstands severe drought over many years.
Like so many old mining towns, its distinct character is undeniably linked to the whole mining milieu, the treasure hunting gene of its inhabitants, their pioneering spirit and flexible morals. Liberal use of mining explosives, which are readily available, appear to be part of some sort of democratic process here. Among other things the council buildings were blown up once, the police station copped it twice, cars go boom frequently as does (possibly well-insured) mining equipment. But what really sets this town apart is the remarkably inhospitable climate. It’s extremely dry, very hot – one of the hottest places in Australia – and insanely windy. At well over 40° it felt like we were in front of a hair drier on its hottest setting.
In fact, the environment is so harsh that many people live underground in what they call “dugouts”. This provides an amenable living climate year round and has also been adopted by many businesses around town. There are (literally) cool underground hotels, backpacker accommodation, opal shops, and even churches. But when the locals can’t bear to be above ground, that’s gotta tell you something about the hardcore climate, ay?
All in all, it makes for an unusual and interesting townscape that creates a curiosity and desire to see more. The latter turned out to be short-lived. The novelty factor of dugouts wore off (even though you want nothing more than to hang out in the cool interior rather than in the scorching heat outdoors), and apart from churches, accommodation and a couple of cafes, there really are just a whole heap of opal shops where miners sell direct.
In the interest of research, and because the town had seemingly precious few other visitors, I dragged the bloke into several opal shops, far too many if you ask him. But as any girl knows, looking is free, and besides it was a great opportunity to see loads of beautiful gemstones. But that was only the beginning.
A couple of shops looked decent, the others were dishevelled, run by tragic looking miners who desperately wanted to sell you anything. You also hear stories about synthetic stones being sold as genuine. One shop was so full of thick overhanging cobwebs, it made the Adams Family house look like a display home. I first thought it was a drab Halloween display, honest! In the next shop, the miner/shop owner suffered from a bad case of halitosis which didn’t stop him from following my every move, remaining 30 centimetres away from me at all times and breathing into my face at every opportunity. Yet another miner, whose formerly white shirt showed traces of at least three different meals, told us of the hard times in recent years, the falling tourist numbers, and then cheered up when he told us about big money he used to earn mining in Tassie. Interestingly, few shops had prices on their wares, but most offered percentage discounts that increased exponentially the closer you moved to the exit. The last shop had us thinking we’d landed on the set of a TV sitcom. The miner/shop-owner’s scruffy looking off-sider had just arrived after us, having deposited a bag of horse manure outside the shop. The chap looked about 70, had a resemblance with Wurzel Gummidge and, after being reprimanded by the shop owner for not greeting us, decided to share with us his secret for his success with women, totally unprompted and for no apparent reason. “You just have to make them laugh,” he said “then they’re yours.” And he never goes with a woman over 40 either he proclaimed proudly and curiously credibly. Quite the Casanova of Coober Pedy apparently, however questionable his appearance. After that little interlude, the two of them candidly discussed the pile of horse manure outside, which they evidently intended to use for, ahem, smokeable plants. At that point they’d all but forgotten they were in the presence of (unlikely) customers and the conversation proceeded to comments that are best left to your imagination.
- The shop front and business end of the local Catholic Church (above).
The Magnificent Breakaways, Oodnadatta and Mad Max
While in the area, we also took in the Breakaways – a striking formation of sedimentary rocks covered by a colourful layer of silcrete, amidst a Martian looking landscape which looked desolate yet magical. The wind was blowing so hard we could barely stand upright, which by the way was painful enough as you got sandblasted to buggery. All the same, for extra points, we hung around a day and were rewarded with a view of the hills dipped in gold during sunset.
A bit further out, along the famous Oodnadatta Track, the landscape could only be described as godforsaken. It’s not surprising that movies that required glum or otherworldly scenery – the likes of Mad Max, Ground Zero, Priscilla Queen of the Desert and many more – have chosen this location as a backdrop.
Beyond the Breakaways, the landscape is painfully bleak, flat as a pancake with no discernible feature as far as the eye can see, has barely any grassy vegetation and an unrelenting wind and regular sand storms. I had what seemed a good idea at the time – to camp near the “Dog Fence” (it’s the longest fence in the world, erected to stop dingoes from entering the sheep grazing lands in the south) from where I could get a nice sunrise photo of the Breakaways in the distance. Well, we both suffered for my stupid idea. All night long a crazy howling storm shook our truck like a matchbox and gave us a hideous sleepless night. The worst we’ve had on this trip yet. Sleep deprived, grumpy, and with sand being blown around our ears I could barely be bothered with photos the next morning, let alone the concept of getting out of bed. The only thing we wanted to do was get out of this place. Fast.
We did and headed south to hopefully cooler climes.