Friday, 25 March 2016

Uluru and The Olgas

After the climb we visited the Aboriginal Cultural Centre and then to the sunset viewing area.  We joined in a large collection of cars, campers and people with their cameras ready.  This was more than a sunset; this was an event!  The evening sun illuminated the rock in a deep orange colour which then became a series of deep reds. As the sun set over the horizon behind us, it transformed again into a faded brown colour and the sky filled with different colours behind it. It was an majestic and truly unforgettable sight.

Uluru at sunset

We stayed at a campground about 20km from the rock so that we could return for sunrise in the morning.  We nearly missed it because of a flat battery but just made it after some frantic asking around and nifty work with some jumper leads.  The early morning sun creates similar colour patterns to the evening, but in reverse order and on the opposite side.  There was another crowd there to witness the new day dawning and after getting our photos we had breakfast and prepared for the 10km base walk.

Uluru base walk

The hike around the base of the rock offered great views of its contoured surface, Aboriginal artwork and culturally significant sites such as caves.  It was even more impressive in the knowledge that about two-thirds of the rock is believed to be lying under the sand! It took about two hours to complete the 10km walk but a couple of people nursing a hangover decided that sleeping in the car was a better option! At mid-morning we left for Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas) - one of the few drives that we actually completed in under an hour!

Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas)

The Olgas are a striking group of domed rocks huddled together to form deep valleys and steep-sided gorges. There are two walks at the Olgas so after quickly doing the 2.6km Walpa Gorge Trail, I then hiked the longer 7.5km Valley of the Winds.  There are a couple of lookout points that offered wonderful views and some great photo opportunities of the unique landscape.  It was only towards the end that I realised walking 20km in the desert after drinking cask wine till 3am is not that easy!

Hiking the Valley of the Winds trail

That was the final stop of our tour and we set an immediate course back to Alice Springs.  Our original plan was to camp somewhere along the way but the general opinion was that everyone was just too tired and wanted a real bed!  So I drove a quiet, but very content little group the 450km back to our hostel where a hot shower and restaurant meal was oh so good!

Friday, 18 March 2016

Kings Canyon and Uluru

It’s funny the way distances can be deceiving. Somehow, I imagined that once we arrived at Alice Springs, Ayers Rock (Uluru), The Olgas and Kings Canyon would be within easy reach. It doesn’t look far on the map, but our exploration of these amazing places would mean another 1,500km of travel! It’d take three days but what a great three days it was!

Arriving in Alice Springs

Our travelling group was enlarged by one the night before we left after meeting a friend from Cairns at the hostel here.  Travel offers these little quirks of fate and we were all happy to make space for her.  There wasn't a lot to spare though because we only had an eight-seat car. However, with some careful packing we managed to fit the tents, sleeping bags, camping gear, food and the alcohol we needed and hit the road again.

Setting off on another desert adventure

For this trip our chariot was christened (I've been through the desert on a) 'Horse With No Name' and we arrived at Kings Canyon late afternoon.  There are a couple of walks to do so we chose the shorter one that goes along the base to an area called the Garden of Eden.  It's not as idyllic as it sounds but it had a large pool of water which was nicely shaded by the surrounding trees.  The water wasn't exactly pristine but we enjoyed a swim anyway after a hot day travelling.

The next morning I did the 6km Canyon Rim Walk that firstly ascends and then follows around the edge of the canyon.  It was spectacularly beautiful and many travellers rate it as a highlight of their trip to the area.  The best views were at the far end where you can see right back to where the canyon opens.  All along the track though there were fascinating rock formations and desert plants.  It took about two hours to complete the circuit before joining the others and leaving for Uluru.

Rim Walk, Kings Canyon

We stopped along the way to photograph a group of feral camels and it wasn’t long before a huge monolith appeared on the horizon. Our initial thought was that it must be Uluru but it had a unique table-topped shape that is different from the distinctive curves we’d all seen in photos. What we were actually looking at was Mount Connor and we received even better views of it from the lookout just before turning onto the Lasseter Highway. Once we made the turn the majestic Uluru was waiting and looming ever larger as we approached.

The imposing sight of Uluru

Uluru is undoubtedly an awesome sight.  It has a powerful presence and I could see immediately why it is sacred and so revered by the traditional Aboriginal owners. Through the day, it seems to have different moods that are represented by its changing colours. The mid-afternoon sun had turned the rock a ochre-brown colour and for the boys it was our immediate mission to climb it.  The girls decided it was either too challenging or preferred to abide by the plea not to climb out of cultural respect.

350 metres above the desert!

Personally, I thought the climb was an awesome experience and didn't feel any sense of being culturally disrespectful.  The first part is very steep and requires the help of a chain to pull yourself up.  Once that initial section was negotiated, it became easier as we continued on to the summit which is some 350m above the car park.  There wasn't a cloud in the sky so we got amazing 360 degree views over the outback.  In one direction was Mount Connor we'd seen earlier and in the other was the distinctive shape of The Olgas.

Friday, 11 March 2016

Going West

The second day took us across to a place called Cloncurry which is famous for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, is that it holds the record for the highest temperature ever recorded in Australia - 53.1C back in 1889. It's also the first place that a flying doctor flight departed from.  We stayed just outside the town because the camper was completely self-sufficient and didn't need to be at a camp ground.  The only thing we missed out on was not being able to use the TV/DVD player and microwave.

Warm welcome to Cloncurry

The morning of the third day I decided to leave before the van and run for an hour or so.  By the time they filled up with fuel and water I’d run about 24km through the desert heat.  Then I was the one that had to be filled with fuel and water! I enjoyed the experience and even had a group of about 20 cattle jogging along with me on the other side of the fence for a couple of kilometres. From where they picked me up, it was only a short drive to the mining town of Mount Isa. It’s best at sunset but we took in a quick panoramic view of the town from the City Lookout before pushing on.

We aimed to get to Three Ways for our third night. This is the aptly named point where the Barkly and Stuart Highways meet. From here, it's north to Darwin, south to Alice Springs and east back to Townsville. However, distances are vast and we ended up staying in a rest area about 150km short of our target.  It gave us the opportunity through to enjoy a silent, starry night and a beautiful sunrise early the next morning. We then saddled up and started driving because it'd be a long day with nearly 700km to cover.

Outback sunset

We had breakfast in the Northern Territory town of Tennant Creek which was established as a result of a small gold rush in the 1930’s. Today about half the population is of Aboriginal descent and it services a vast region of cattle stations and indigenous communities. Many travellers have little choice to stop here because it’s the only town between Katherine, 680km to the north and Alice Springs, 511km to the south. Convenient maybe, but it is also dusty and rather unattractive so we didn’t stay long.

Barrow Creek Telegraph Station

The landscape changed again down the Stuart Highway.  At the Queensland/Northern Territory state line the land was flat and stretched as far as the eye could see.  Closer to Alice Springs, the landscape became more undulating and the horizon was punctuated with brown hills and rocky outcrops. We stopped at Barrow Creek, which has a historic telegraph station and the most authentic outback pub you could imagine.  We had a beer and enjoyed the local ambience for a while before continuing on our way.

Devils Marbles

Our last stop before Alice Springs was at the gigantic and precariously balanced boulders called the Devils Marbles. For the Aboriginal people, they are known as Karlu Karlu and the rocks are believed to be from the Rainbow Serpent. The ‘marbles’ are actually the rounded remains for a granite layer that has eroded over aeons. Either way, the phenomenon of huge boulders seemingly balancing on each other is an extraordinary sight and we all enjoyed getting some photos before doing the final 400km down the road to our final destination.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Into the Outback

By September, the dry season in Cairns was coming to an end. It was the perfect time to continue the journey and my next destination would be some 2,500km southwest across the Australian outback. Amid the vast surroundings of the red desert, I was headed for Alice Springs and I was delighted to have five friends that I’d be sharing the overland adventure with.

Our transport for this epic journey was a six-berth campervan that a hire company needed to relocate from Cairns. The arrangement was that we only paid $25 a day and in return we had three and a half days to complete the distance. We christened the campervan "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" and she drove like a dream. It was like an apartment on wheels complete with shower, toilet, cooking facilities, microwave and DVD player.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert

The best route to Alice Springs is going down the coast to Townsville and then west through Mount Isa.  When we met Stuart Highway near Tenant Creek, it would be a six hour run south to our final destination…

The scenery on the five hour drive down the north Queensland coast to Townsville would be in stark contrast to what we’d see for most of the journey. At various times we had mountain ranges on one side the Pacific Ocean on the ocean. There was lush green rainforest and fields of sugar cane. The first town we passed through was Innisfail which is rich in art deco buildings of the 1930’s. Aside from sugar cane, this is banana country and there are plenty of plantations in the area.

Big golden gumboot, Tully

Not far south is the town of Tully is the sugar-mill town of Tully. The big golden gumboot at the town entrance proudly boasts that it is the wettest place in Australia. The upside to this is that it’s a great place to experience white water rafting in the nearby Tully River. It’s also just a short drive to beautiful Mission Beach where the World Heritage rainforest meets the Coral Sea in a 14km stretch of palm-fringed inlets and beaches. Aside from hiking and various water sports, it’s also one of the closest access points to the Great Barrier Reef.

So we’d love to have stayed a day or two but we were on a schedule and had to keep moving. The city of Townsville would be the ideal place to stop for lunch and more fuel. We decided it would be a great idea to eat our sandwiches on the landscaped waterfront esplanade. It’d be the last that we’d see of the ocean for quite some time!

The Strand, Townsville

The landscape changed as we drove inland. Lush green rainforest, banana plantations and cane fields were replaced by tussock-like grass, gum trees, rocks and earth which became a distinctly red colour as we moved toward the Northern Territory. We were in the awesome frontier of the Australian outback. It’s harsh country that also has a unique beauty to it. This would be a road trip like no other I’d ever done and we all had a sense of excitement about what we were experiencing.

Dinosaur Museum, Richmond

We stayed the first night in a truck stop at the dusty town of Charters Towers. There’s really nothing of interest here other than the impressive road trains with four trailers that were also parked up there for the night. The next day we’d cross the Great Dividing Range and truly appreciate the sheer size of the country we were traversing. The dusty opened wide and the sky above even wider. As far as the eye could see, the sun was beating down on the ancient landscape in a relentless but almost mesmerising way.