Monday, July 5, 2010

Through the red centre

Our last week or so has been a mixture of ‘off the beaten track’ and ‘on the beaten track’. We’ve basically been driving through desert country, first on the Plenty Highway skirting the northern edge of the Simpson Desert (one of Australia’s harshest), then popping up in Alice Springs and moving on to Uluru through the Central Desert. Funny that, we’ve had more rain in the past 4-5 days than anywhere else on our trip! About 20 mm in Alice Springs on Thursday and early Friday (average July rainfall in the Alice is 10 mm), and more rain now at Uluru. Deserts get rain of course, and Australia’s deserts have a highly variable and unpredictable climate – they can go for years without any rain at all, then get deluged in a few days. There is vegetation and wildlife in these deserts, and a few sand dunes, but where we have been driving is not through the real desolate stuff.

The trundle from Comooweal to east of Alice was a breeze. For 300 km south of Camooweal we drove across the Barkly tablelands, home to some of Australia’s most well-known cattle stations such as Anna Downs, Barkly Downs and Headingley. It is dead flat and mostly treeless, but there was a heap of cattle farming activity and various other things to keep us entertained – including 19 car wrecks on the road side (Jen bet there would be 30, I bet 15, so I win, nah nah na nah nah), and a locust swarm on the Georgina River (one of the rivers that feeds Lake Eyre) near the interesting indigenous and way-out-back town of Urandangie. The unsealed and dusty Plenty Highway was cruisy from Tobermorey to Gem Tree. Highlights were:

- best-ever camp fire at Jervois Station
- being stopped for a random breath test at 9:30 am near Harts Range by 2 NT coppers (their opening line being “have you been drinking this morning sir?” – ah, no, bit early for me) – what, way the heck our here they still do random tests, wow
- the classic giant termite mound 50 km east of Harts Range

Incidentally, the Plenty is seen as part of a future bitumen link between Perth / Kalgoorlie in WA and Townsville in Q’ld – a diagonal route across the centre of Aus of roughly 3000 km from Laverton in the SW to Winton in the NE. This project requires co-operation among 2 States (WA, Q’ld), one territory (NT) and the Federal Govt, so needless to say it ain’t going to happen soon.

From Gem Tree (on the Plenty Highway), and en route to Alice, we dropped in to the East MacDonnell Ranges, which get less visitors that the better-known West MacDonnells. We had a fab time exploring:

- the old gold mining town of Arltunga, which bloomed from about 1895 – 1915 then withered, but the relics of mines, buildings and rock-crushing plant can still be seen
- John Hayes rock holes in the Trephina Gorge Nature Reserve, with a nice camp site reached by a bone-jarring 4WD-only track (another doozie of a camp fire)
- Trephina Gorge panorama walk, with outstanding views of the East MacDonnell Ranges
Alice was, well, wet and cold, and also packed with visitors, this being school hols time. Main attractions for us were looking for some indigenous art work to bring home with us (mission accomplished, bank balance impoverished) and the Alice Springs Desert Park – which we recommend as a must-do in Alice, we spent over 4 hours there getting the low-down on desert ecology and indigenous culture.

Cutting and running from Alice to Uluru we:

- by-passed the West MacDonnells, which are known for their gorges and chasms – which we figured we have seen enough of further north
- visited the historical Lutheran mission town of Hermannsburg, founded ca. 1885, and now basically a living museum of early attempts to change indigenous cultures and beliefs – this one a tad more successful than most, apparently
- bumped and ground our way over rock and sand into Palm Valley and did a quick walk of the gorge
- walked the rim of Kings Canyon (about 7 km, including a steepish climb to start with) on a still but overcast day – this is a ripper walk, and a MUST DO (but don’t stay at Kings Canyon Resort – far too bloody crowded, Kings Creek Station is a better option)
- watched a non-existent sunset over Uluru – described by Jen as follows: “The funniest part though was when we all debunked down to the sunset lookout 2 hours before sunset, sat ourselves down in front of our vehicles and spent 2 hours staring at a bloody rock! Not only did it not talk but it sat there and did nothing!! At least the wine was great even if the sun buggered off and hid behind the clouds. So much for memorable sunsets at Uluru!”
- walked the Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjutu (a.k.a the Olgas) – another ripper and a MUST DO, and
- walked around the base of Uluru, 10.5 km. From a distance, and in comparison with the Kata Tjutu walk, the Uluru base walk might seem a little ho-hum, but it was anything but. The rock is marked all over by water courses, caves, rock collapses, lichens and algae, bird roosting sites and so on, such that it offers constantly changing vistas.

Tomorrow we head SE, into South Australia, to get onto the Oodnadatta track and go through to the Flinders Ranges. One long day’s driving should get us most of the way. Will be in touch again in a week or so.

Hope all is well for you.


The Chappies

13,000 km in 63 days ...

On the road to Urandangie - or not, in this case

Locust swarm at Georgina River

Termite mound, Plenty Highway, plenty big

Old police station and lock-up, Arltunga

Trephina Gorge panorama

Kings Canyon

Kata Tjuta walk

Uluru - this rock is no push-over

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