We travelling from Adelaide to Darwin by campervan for a month in May and June 2006. On our travels in other countries people we have met have told us about their fabulous time in Australia, so now it’s our turn. Winter is a great time to travel the Outback, it’s still green, not too hot and there is plenty of wildlife.
Home is where your Van is: No visas, no international flights and no foreign language. The afternoon shadow is pointing in the right direction, and about the right amount of gravity is holding the camper to the road. So far so good!
Steve from KEA Rentals in Adelaide briefs us, we pick up three trolley loads of groceries, and with a van full supplies we head off full of excitement in the afternoon peak hour. The Adelaide drivers show plenty of patience as John reacquaints himself with manual gear change.
From Adelaide to Darwin 3,000kms due north on the Stuart Highway. First we head south to visit Carol an old friend of Cathy’s who lives with her partner Paul and the family at Willunga just south of McLaren Vale. Their house was built about 1860 but has had a few additions since, her son Max points out the original well and Paul provides tips on the Flinders Ranges while Carol and Cathy discuss old times.
Grape Country: Next morning we head north, first to McLaren Vale for some quality provisions – we anticipate further provisioning in the Barossa and Clare valleys. The tiny hamlet of Hahndorf is chilly, and the Onkaparinga scenic drive is full of autumn colour. We spend our first night at Nuriootpa Caravan Park surrounded by other Vans – one Kea and two Maui. We dine and down a couple of Coopers Ales while we watch the sun set over Nuri to the sounds of local footy practice.
On through undulating hills to the Clare Valley passing historic hamlets with lots of original sandstone homes. With over 40 wineries we choose carefully and pass on any that would improve with cellaring.
Port Augusta: Through sheep and wheat country we head north then west and pass the Southern Flinders Ranges basking in the afternoon sun and reach Port Augusta, the ‘cross roads of Australia’. The BIG 4 caravan park has a queue back to the highway, it seems the entire Peugeot around Australia 50th Anniversary Rerun is present, we park next to car 47.
At the park’s BBQ, as others cook chops, sausages and eggs, we sizzle our kebabs, thought by some to be ‘a bit fancy’. We chat to Mike from Mildura, he and the family are travelling to Darwin, his first holiday in 20 years. All is quiet by 7.30, so we watch old Bonanza DVDs on the lap top and sip a nice red from the Clare Valley. In the morning we visit the Wadlata Outback Centre and tour the town, but much of the town is quiet by midday on a Saturday.
Wilpena Pound: We head to Quorn, to catch the historic Pichi Richi railway to Woolshed Flat, it’s Mother’s day so there are lots of mums queuing for tea and cake before the return journey. Then north to Hawker it’s starting to get drier now.
We take the turnoff to Wilpena Pound it’s flat, scrubby, red soil splattered with salt brush green. Wilpena Pound Visitor’s Centre is well presented and we get the last available powered site. A flat site with lots of trees but it gets cold as soon as the sun sets. We camp next to a young German couple who are touring Australia. When John asks them why they need a powered site they proudly show him their power lead, adaptor, toaster, kettle, electric fry pan, heater, reading light, two camp chairs and a card table all bought they boast at Kmart for less than $10 each. John takes the kebabs to the BBQ and chats with Stan from Sydney who is cooking chops, who thought they were ‘a bit fancy’.
We are up early for a walk across the Pound to Bridle Gap a 20 km return hike. We enter through Siding Creek Gorge with its permanent spring and on past the original homestead. It’s cool and sunny with a gentle breeze the terrain is flat and surprisingly treed with native pines, heath and Mallee. We spot wallabies grazing and birds going about their business, there are great views from Bridle Gap across the plains and across the Pound. On the way back we detour via the Wangarra lookout for afternoon views back across the Pound.
Return to Port Augusta: We intended to head to Arkaroola in the Northern Flinders and Gammon Ranges but had been warned by Steve that our insurance is void if we take the camper off sealed roads for more than 2kms. We ask around the camp and decide to head back to Port Augusta and up the Stuart Highway.
Woomera: At Woomera we are greeted by a beautiful sunset, followed by a sky full of stars and serenaded by the occasional passing tankers from Roxbury Downs. Next morning during a short tour of the town we learn its history. Established in the 1940s as a long range rocket testing facility, Woomera has had a fascinating life.
Coober Pedy: On the 370km drive to Coober Pedy we sing along to the Box Tops classics -’Reach Out, Don’t Walk Away Renee, Bernadette, and Sugar Pie’. It’s a good road with little traffic, the scenery is dry scrub with a few salt pans, occasionally interrupted by eagles and crows dining on road kill with a handful of motorists and truckies giving the country wave.
Coober Pedy is dry, dusty and deserted as 80% of the residents live underground. That night we drink beer and eat pizza underground and learn that CP has the most expensive water in Australia. We take a morning tour and visit the 18 hole desert golf course where sump oil is used to smooth the greens, the underground church, an underground home, a mine and then just for luck we find a few opals noodling.
Toured out Cathy stays home while John does the sunset tour to the Breakaways, moon plain, and the dingo fence at 5,600 kms it’s ‘the longest man made construction in the world’.
We learn that the best homes are underground, the best ‘suburbs’ are on the hillsides ‘CP heights’, where some houses can fetch up to $80k. On the flat a residential block will set you back about $5k with both air and underground rights. It’s about another $20k (plus fit out) to dig a moderate size home, and yes there is a building code (it’s on the web), and there are even local building inspectors.
The Red Centre: The novelty soon turns to monotony on the long stretch from Coober Pedy to the NT border, red soil sparsely covered by dry scrub. This is cattle country and the journey is only interrupted by and occasional GRID signs followed by the drrrrrrrrrr drrrrrrrrrrrrr of the tyres. Along the road eagles and crows dine in style on the smorgasbord of road kill. We continue on to Erldunda a roadhouse and campground and the turnoff to Uluru that’s enough for one day.
Yulara: It’s about 250kms down the Lassiter Highway to Yulara the jumping off point for Uluru and Kata Tjuta (Ayers Rock and the Olgas). On the way we pass Mount Conner a 350m Mesa 30 km to the south this would be a geographic destination in itself if it weren’t for its siblings just down the road. But like Cain and Abel, history has overlooked it in favour of its two siblings. We drive on round a corner and over a dune the rock emerges from the horizon – it’s big and I’s red. Half an hour later the Olgas appear in mauve and punctuate the horizon.
At sunset viewing – there are many others from around Australia and the world but despite the grandeur of the moment there is no hush or spiritual contemplation here. They have come to see, photograph, chat and then snack. There is talk of travels, sport and food, but the rock is not concerned after 20,000 years of sunsets it’s just the end of another day in the desert.
Up early for sunrise viewing, it is pre-dawn and chilly, there are less travellers and less chatter. Dawn approaches, clouds come in, the sun is hidden and the viewers leave. Ten minutes later the sun peaks above the clouds and delivers a second sunrise it’s magical and it is all ours.
We drive to Kata Tjuta (Olgas), breakfast in their shadows and then hike the 10km Valley of the Winds. Towering red domes contrasted with deep gorges of green, birds call as the breezes sing through the gums. There are no others it is quiet and peaceful except for the bush flies who telegraph our presence to their in-laws. We picnic here and in the afternoon, watch the colours change, then drive back at sunset scaring the life out of a camel grazing on the side of the road.
The Climb: Although discouraged by the Aboriginal owners and in spite of Cathy’s less than comfortable height trepidation we begin the 1.6km climb. The rock climb is in three stages after an initial scramble, a chain is provided for the first and steepest part of the ascent. Cathy holds onto the chain, focuses on the rock and follows in John’s steps.
It seems longer than it looks and because the rock is convex you can’t see the top and you are never sure how much further there is to go. We rest and tackle the second stage we are now quite high and it is still quite steep but there is no more chain.
With some anxiety Cathy asks ‘where is the chain?’ John explains there is no more chain. Cathy asks why didn’t you tell me that. John answers you never asked me that. We scramble chainless up the next section. Cathy squeezes John’s hand. Final stage, now the wind is up a bit but its flatter as we make our way across the gullies at the top to the cairn.
It’s a quiet day for the rock and there are few others so we rest and picnic and take in the quiet and enjoy an amazingly flat 360 degree horizon, punctuated by Kata Tjuta 40kms to the west. Confidence has returned now and it’s only the knees that are stressed on the way down. Reaching the bottom we rest and take a short quiet walk to the peaceful Mutitjulu waterhole.
Kings Canyon: We find ‘Spike’ the hand carved echidna in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, like a lost dog we take to each other immediately. Spike now sits on the dashboard and is primarily responsible for navigation and security, but can also be held accountable for misplaced items as well as resolving domestic disputes.
It’s 300kms north east to Kings Canyon, except for one left turn it’s flat, dry, and straight as a die. We reach the George Gill Range and drive along its base then we take a break and walk into Kathleen Springs. Onto Kings Canyon campground it’s shady, treed and looks west over the range we anticipate a sunset view from our camp site. At sunset there are only a few viewers and once the sun sets we are left to ourselves, dusk continues for an hour as the sky turns purple and then black and the stars come out.
Next morning we take the 7km scenic rim walk. It’s a steep climb followed by an undulating walk around the rim and past a myriad of striking geographical features. It’s the bluest cloudless sky against the bright ochre cliffs, their 100m sheerness seems to be cut by a knife. Down into the Garden of Eden with ancient cycads and red river gums, we spend four hours walking.
Sunset at the park again and tonight the whole park turns out many have travelled continents, all have travelled at least a couple of thousand kilometres to watch this magical moment, but too soon the small talk turns to the State of Origin game.
It’s dawn and the sun is yet to rise over the Kings Canyon Caravan Park. The sky turns from black to a deep blue, the horizon is a fine slither of gold, and then the flashes of colour begin to appear. First we glimpse a bright purple dressing gown, then from behind a camper we glance a soft pink nightie, then floral flannelette jammies floating on fluffy red slippers, now its colourful beanies with pom poms, ugg boots and thongs. Morning has broken and the grey nomads are grey no more. The red tailed black cockatoo and mulga parrot are no match for this kaleidoscope. ‘Spike’ thinks we are losing it and wants to move on……..
Back to Alice Springs: We plan a shortcut back to Alice via the Mereenie Loop, most of it is gravel but its good scenery and we will save a couple of hundred kilometres. We discuss shredded tyres and cavernous corrugations with other travellers and then take the 495kms paved alternative, left, left and left again. To break the monotony, we practice different hand waving signals to other drivers (one finger, two fingers, five fingers, one hand and both hands), we change drivers regularly, play ‘I spy’ and then try our luck with a crossword puzzle.
We make camp and rest up and take in the local sites, find an internet café and drink coffee in the mall while soaking up the sun. We visit the museums – Cultural Precinct, Central Australia, Strethlow, Transport, Ghan, Aviation, and Old Telegraph. We take a day to drive out along the West MacDonnell Ranges perfect blue sky again, Simpson’s Gap, Standley Chasm, Ochre pits, Ormiston Gorge. We pass on the evening entertainment – bikini jelly wrestling at the local pub, because ‘you can usually count on a fight’.
Cathy’s skin turns flaky we visit a doctor, the first available appointment is in 2 months, rural doctor shortage. We call at the chemist ‘yep, dry skin luv have tourists in all the time with that, sun, air, wind, hard water it all adds up, rub this on, it’ll be better by the morning’ and it is!
Johns keeps adding to his collection of used thongs, he spots a couple in an abandoned supermarket trolley, hesitates then moments later a homeless local rounds the corner and begins to push HIS trolley down the street. Spike says it’s time to move on again.
Tennant Creek: Alice Springs is having a Sunday morning sleep-in as we sneak out of town, we forgo the park’s free pancake breakfast. As we head further north the roads are good and the traffic is light. There’s a bit more grass about and it’s a bit greener and this contrasts nicely with the new addition of scattered red ant hills, which Spike of course spotted first.
We pass the Tropic of Capricorn our arbitrary border to the North, then a brief photo stop at the old Telegraph Station at Barrow Creek. We push on to the spectacular Devil’s Marbles for a walk and little lunch, a bit later we pull into the Tennant Creek Outback Park and are greeted warmly ……tonight is bush poetry and bush tucker night, lucky us.
Katherine: Again, its good roads but not much else including traffic as we head from Tennant Creek to Katherine, about 700kms. We pull over twice as extra, extra, extra wide convoys come south loaded with mining dump trucks. It’s greener with trees and there’s water and water birds on the side of the road thanks to Cyclone Monica. We pass Three Ways (turn right here for Mt Isa), Daly Waters, Larrimah and Mataranka (Capital of the Never Never), then into Katherine for supplies, internet and petrol and we make camp at Katherine George in time for the sunset.
Rest day today and morning coffee with the camp’s resident Great Bowerbird, his bower only 30m away is littered with things white and silver including floating candle holders from House and Garden, a real catch for some lucky Mrs Bower. That night we dine with a local kangaroo ‘Skippy’ he stays for ‘entree’ it seems he is having his usual progressive dinner going from camp to camp, ‘Do Not Feed Wild Animals’ does not apply to him, ‘I’m not wild, I’m cultured he offers’.
Following recent flooding, Rangers suspect that Salt Water Crocs are still in Katherine Gorge so there is no planned canoe trip. Instead we book a four hour boat ride up the Gorges – there are only a few of us on the boat but just as we cast off a bus arrives and our enjoyment is somewhat tempered when 40 others join us. Later as we share morning tea of orange cordial and fruit cake we glide past the ancient escarpments and the local wildlife. We are bemused by the woman behind us who quietly repeats the ranger’s comments, Cathy plucks up courage and turns around ‘she’s talking to her video camera’ she whispers to John.
Edith Falls: One hour up the highway and turn right to Edith Falls a beautiful small peaceful green camping area. We watch sunset’s reflection on the huge crystal clear swimming hole at the base of a waterfall. In the morning we take a loop walk up the escarpment past the lookout where we spot birds and fish as we pass more rock pools at the top of the waterfalls. We are back for morning coffee and then a few hours’ drive north to Kakadu.
Kakadu: East along the Kakadu highway and through the woodlands, we’re heading to Kakadu, Australia’s largest National Park covering almost 20,000 square kilometres. Spike begins to salivate at the 3m high termite mounds and cringes as we pass a couple of dingos. We make camp at Cooinda, and are confronted by reality: ‘You may be able to choose your friends, but you cannot choose your camp neighbours’. At close quarters we have air-conditioners, radios and afternoon TV game shows all in our common grassed living room.
On the Yellow Water cruise we see a spectacular dawn with Jacanas walking across lily pads, Sacred Kingfishers, Jabirus and Magpie Geese. After drifting through the paperback forest, our part Aboriginal, part Swedish guide points out a White Bellied Sea Eagle hooking a big barra on the fly and then struggling to gain altitude eventually making it to the nest. There are plenty of crocodiles standing by to plunge in if the prize is dropped.
We drive on to Jabiru and amazingly get lost in this small town, ‘Excuse me which way is out?’ We head 40 kms north east to Ubirr. The local rangers guide us to gigantic rock murals, recounting the dreamtime stories and then we climb up higher for a 360 degree panorama of the park horizon. Escarpments, stone country, woodlands and flood plains, all in the soft light of sunset.
Half the camp ground is still closed from the mayhem of Cyclone Monica, we have few camp neighbours we dine to the crackle of a camp fire lit by the starry night. We breakfast on baked bean jaffles a camp delicacy it seems. John prepares them in a jaffle iron procured in Port Augusta and especially blackened in the fire overnight. Cathy feigns delight so more are prepared for lunch – lucky her!
Onto the South Alligator River, past crocs sunning and black kites soaring, we scare a Jabiru loitering at a floodway crossing. We stop at the South Alligator for a break, the late wet and Cyclone Monica have closed some of Kakadu and this given us a couple of spare days so we push on 200kms to the highway and then south to Litchfield National Park.
Litchfield NP: In the afternoon sun we cruise the park’s many windy roads and make camp at Wangi Falls. The late rains means several of the tracks are closed and there is no swimming because of crocs. We walk the escarpment loop through the rainforest and up to the lookout and watch the sunset, a brilliant red enhanced by the scores of burns offs.
Next morning, we discover Spike has left the jaffle iron at Kakadu so after a breakfast without jaffles we visit Tolmer Falls but it turns out to be Wangi’s poor cousin. Spike is in the dog house but begins salivating again as we visit the magnetic termite mounds, then John spots the Rum Jungle turnoff but the visit is thwarted by road wash outs.
Darwin: Afternoon at the Territory Wildlife Park we walk through the aviaries and tick off a few birds not yet spotted. We spend time watching the Raptors perform in free flight and then watch two crocs fornicating at the aquarium. We make Darwin by nightfall.
We walk downtown and visit Cullen Bay, and then catch the sunset from the Esplanade. For our last night on the road we dine out at Fisherman’s Wharf on barra and chips. The next morning we say goodbye to the van put Spike in our carry-on and catch the plane to Brisbane.