The Red Centre

The red centre sits at the heart of Australia. Not just geographically but also spiritually and is home to ancient cultures that have survived out in the harsh environment for thousands of years. It’s also home to some of Australia’s most well known iconic sights but it is much more than this, it’s a land of red, red soil that stretches for as far as the eye can see broken up with small arid ridges. At night there is no light pollution and the stars and Milky Way light up the sky. It’s a magical place and whilst there are a lot of tourists in some places you can get away from it all by finding your own spot to camp alone in the desert.
We set out from Alice Springs and planned to take a leisurely 10 days or so doing a loop around the main sites and spending some time in the desert solitude. It was a long drive south east heading towards Uluru (Ayers Rock). We pulled in to camp at a quiet spot about 30kms before the National Park and climbed a sand dune for our first view of the giant monolith ( the largest in the world) in the distance.

   
 
We spent 3 days in the National Park. Each morning we were up before first light to drive to see sunrise from a variety of different spots each giving a different perspective of the rock or the equally impressive Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). As the sun rose the rocks would change colour from a purplish grey through red to a golden orange once the sun had fully hit the surface. It was a wonderful sight and one we did not tire of.

   

  

  
 
After enjoying the sunrise we then headed off for our walk for the morning before it got too hot. The walk at Kata Tjuta twisted in and out of the rock formations and gave us great close up views. It was a lovely walk with wonderful views out across the desert beyond the rock comes. Once it was too hot we retreated to the truck to do school before doing another shorter walk up the gorge. It was still cool as the sun had not penetrated between the deep gorge sides. 

   
 
   
 
 The next day we walked the full 10.5km around the base of Uluru. This gave us the opportunity to see the rock close up as well as the many culturally sensitive sights and some wonderful water holes that were hidden away in crevices in the rock. The next day we repeated part of the walk with a ranger who explained to us a lot more about the ancient Aboriginal culture and why the rock was such a special place to them. We had already decided we were not going to climb the rock out of respect for the people who lived there. The ranger gave a very good explanation of why they did not want people to climb the rock and this was also explained further when we visited the interesting cultural centre.     
 
Each evening we would find a spot to take in the sunset. Here the colours worked in reverse. The magnificent orange of the rock gradually dimming, becoming red, then purple then grey. One evening was particularly special as we sat on top of the truck enjoying the spectacle. It was a great grandstand view as we were above all the tourists and more importantly away from the flies.

   
   
As it was dark when we left the park and as it would be dark again when we came back in we did not see much point in camping at the campsite and be jammed in with everyone else. Instead we headed a few kms out of the park and headed down some small tracks to have our own space in the desert. I would say it was a lovely spot except we never saw it in the light but it was still beautiful in the starlight.
From Uluru we headed to Kings Canyon. It was another early start the next day so we could do the rim walk around the canyon before it became too hot. If the temperature is forecast to exceed 36 degrees the Rangers close the walk at 9.30. We were there early so would be well through the gate before then but in any event it was slightly overcast which made the temperature more bearable and the walk much easier. However one disadvantage of the clouds was that the sun did not light up the canyon and the sandstone rocks as much. Nevertheless it was an amazing walk with wonderful views of the canyon below and the sheer canyon walls. Along the way there was also lush little oasis at certain points in the canyon walls as well as wonderful sandstone formations that had been carved out by the effects of erosion.

   
    
    
 
We found another wonderful spot to camp that evening at a look out. The moon was now rising early in the evening and as it was almost full it would light up the night sky. While relaxing after dinner we were visited by a dingo which gave me a bit of a start but it soon ran away when I stood up. We could hear it howling in the distance later in the night.

   
 
It was a rough drive on a corrugated dirt road through Aboriginal land for which we needed a permit to the West MacDonnell ranges, a low mountain range that stretches either side of Alice Springs that is studded with narrow gorges and rock pools all set against the red mountains. We camped near Redbank Gorge with an amazing view of the mountain and it was a perfect camp spot. For some reason, perhaps it was the wind, there were no flies as we relaxed during the day and after cooking dinner on the fire there were no bugs at night too.

   
 
Really, you don’t say!

  
The next morning we headed down into the gorge. The rock pools were already drying up and fish were dying in the few that remained. Eventually we reached the end of the gorge and could go no further as a permanent pool of freezing cold water filled the gorge entrance.

   
 
We spent several days exploring the MacDonnell ranges. Walking in the gorges and even swimming in the cold waterholes. On one loop walk we had walked seven of the eight kilometres when we came across water. There were only two options. Wade across the waist high cold water and walk the remaining kilometre back to the truck or retrace our steps seven kilometres. We took the only sensible option and waded across (or in Lucy’s case swam). Each night we camped at a different place either with wonderful views or down in the drying out river beds. With us been early in the dry season there were still pockets of water around which was a nice contrast from the arid surroundings.

   
    
   
 
The girls even tried some Aboriginal painting in school with some ochre they had found on the path on one of our walks.

  
As we headed back into the bright lights of Alice Springs, the red centre, the heart of Australia had found a place in our hearts too and the red dust had found its way into everything. 

 

On the Dirt To Alice

The Western part of Queensland and the Eastern part of the Northern Territories is very sparsely populated with very few roads. There is a tar road connecting Mount Isa to Alice Springs but we wanted to experience more of the Outback so decided to take the less travelled dirt route. A distance of just under 1000km, about 700km of that was on dirt roads.

Mount Isa is one of Australia’s largest mining towns but still with only a population of 22,000. The mine looms large over the town with just the highway separating it from the town itself. The huge piles of different coloured soil, waste from the copper and zinc mine, could be seen at the end of each street heading west in town. But it was a useful place to stock up in the good supermarket before heading out to the bush.

The tarmac became a single lane a couple of kilometres south of town where we stopped for a quick bite of lunch. While eating lunch Steve found a nail sticking in the front tyre, rather than pull it out there and run the risk of having to change the 120kg tyres, we headed back to town to a tyre place. This was one of the journeys we knew it would be wise to have two good spare tyres. Thankfully the nail came out without a puncture. However, our tyres are wearing and picking up more cuts. After the long and expensive fiasco we had in Chile getting new tyres, we have planned ahead purchasing 6 when we entered the country. The type of Michelin tires we have are unusual and not usually in stock, so we had to search far and wide for them. They are now being stored in Perth ready for the Asian leg of this trip. However with the rough roads ahead in this part of Australia we are hoping our existing tyres last us through to Perth.
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We were aiming for a camping spot near the small settlement of Boulia but saw a short cut that would knock a couple of hundred kilometres off our route. It was a smaller road but it looked interesting so we swung west. I’m so glad we did, as we ended up in the small town of Urandangi, official population less than 20. Consisting of a hotel – what we would call a pub, school and a few houses. It had evolved from a place where the drover’s driving huge herds of cattle across huge distances across the outback, would stop to let the cows drink. The town was completely surrounded by a huge cattle station. On the 100kms approach, signs made of old car bonnets counted down to the delights of town. After such a build up we had to call into the pub for some cold drinks. We got a real outback welcome from Pam, the landlady, and I think we met half the locals. Most people weren’t drinking just popping into the hotel to pick up groceries, as it also served as a shop and bank. Apart from the town itself there is the Aboriginal community of Marmanya just outside with about 30 people in it, in town it seemed mostly Aboriginal with a few whites. Asking about exact numbers, people seemed a little hazy who belonged exactly where but everyone agreed that there were 11 kids in the school. As it was after school there was a swarm of kids, who all called Pam “Nana”, playing on the pub’s veranda. We chatted to the teacher’s husband who had two small girls. He said they had been there a year and really liked the community spirit of the place. He had a guitar and got all the kids singing on the pub’s veranda and Pam gave them all bread to feed her three miniature ponies. The foal was no bigger than a medium sized dog. She then took us all out into her yard to meet her orphaned kangaroo mob. The smallest one “Frankie” was just 5 months old, she gave him to Lucy to cuddle while the other kids helped her feed the rest. The local Aboriginals still hunt Kangaroos to eat but they don’t touch the joeys, so they give them to the kids to take to Pam for her to bring up. Frankie was too wiggly for Lucy, so I got a long cuddle with him. He was so soft and when he got tired he turned himself upside down, as he would in his mother’s pouch. I almost dropped him then, until Pam took him back and snuggled him into his towel pouch. They suggested we camp by a river a few kilometres away, perfectly secluded it even came with its own “outback dunny”, it even came with a proper seat. However, no one was tempted to have a true outback experience and we all opted for our onboard facilities instead.
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Urandangi

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The following day it was just a short 100km drive on the red dirt to Tobermorey Station. The camping area was right next to the homestead, so we could see the comings and goings of station life. The scale of these farms are just mind boggling for us Europeans. Tobermorey Station was 40km by 140kms, 5,600 square kilometres. The distance away from town was brought home to me by the notice in the bathroom asking campers not to steal toilet rolls (yes, I know people stoop that low). It wasn’t the expense they were upset about but the 450km, 12 hour, round trip they had to make to replace it! Bizarrely we hardly saw any cows, they are all spread out throughout the property. They had huge sheds of vehicles and equipment and looked very self-sufficient with their own fuel pump. It was hot but as the sun started setting we went for a walk to admire the grey green spinflex grasses and the red sand. That night we had a campfire, it was lovely sitting out under another clear starry night. Shower time for the girls and I was livened up by the tiny frogs that were hiding in the plug holes. The temperature at night has dropped as we have headed south-west and was now down to the low 20’s, perfect for a good nights sleep. DSC09821

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Can you spot the spelling mistake on this official Northern Territories sign?
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DSC09850Tobermory Station

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Over the 700 kms we took on the dirt we only saw about 20 other vehicles. We loved the whole experience especially the big skies, both during the day and at night, and the stark beauty of the place. We could have done without the flies though. The next day we headed for the tar and the bright lights of Alice Springs. The Outback is all around Alice, you can see the looming red roads of the MacDonald’s range from town. It may be the second biggest town in the Northern Territories but you don’t have to go far out of town to be back in the wilds. DSC09914
The original School of the Air is located in Alice. I remember reading about it as a child and being fascinated about the concept of a school where you learnt over the radio, with your teacher being hundreds of miles away from you. We went into the school to see how the lessons were taught and the history behind it. These days there are no radios just a computer connected to a satellite dish. The teacher sends out the work to the remote cattle stations; some Aboriginal communities; and National Parks, wherever the family lives, then conducts the lessons over the Internet. The Primary children get 1 to 1 1/2 hours teacher contact a day, then have to do work outside that time with an adult at the station to supervise. The work then gets scanned or sent back to the teacher for marking. This year they have 123 children in the school and the children learn in classes, according to their age range. In one of the classes the students are over 2000kms apart. However the students and their families do get together 3 times a year in Alice for special events, exams and socialising. That afternoon we also took in the Central Australian museum and an art gallery specialising in Indigenous Australian art to compliment our children’s education.

The following day we had a look around town and went to the Royal Flying Doctor’s Museum, another service that is unique to the Outback. Way back in 1928 they started flying out to treat patients and bring them back to hospital if needed. They invented a pedal powered radio to allow the remote settlements to communicate with medical professionals. Apart from their flying ambulances, they provide dental and preventative healthcare to some of Australia’s most remote inhabitants. It was a very impressive institution.
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As my birthday was going to be on the day we left Alice, Steve wanted to take us all out for a nice meal to celebrate on our last night in town. Whilst Alice is the biggest town for many miles it is still not know for its fancy restaurants. There are a few steak houses but that is not really my thing. Anyway Steve found the one fancy Thai place in town. Unfortunately it was so popular it was fully booked so we ended up in a cheap and cheerful Indian restaurant. It might not have been a special birthday meal but the food was good. We will be back on the road again on my actual birthday so will be eating in the truck but hopefully we will be ending it with a rather special view.

Where The Outback Meets The Sea

How do you know when you have reached the Outback? There is no sign when you drive so we have designed this simple test:Is the earth  red? Check

Is it hot? Check

Are the road trains(trucks) over 50 metres long? Check

Is there no one around for miles and miles? Check

Are there lots of flies around? Check

Are there amazing views of the stars at night? Check

If all these tests are met then it is likely you are out in the Outback.

  
   
 
Our adventure into the Outback started at Undara. The reason for coming here was not to see the Outback, we would soon be seeing plenty of that, but to see the amazing lava tubes from a volcano that erupted a couple of hundred thousand years ago. When the volcano had erupted the lava had flowed and then cooled on the outside while continuing to flow underneath. Over time these had formed long tubes that now looked like deep caves. We took an interesting tour to explore this unusual feature and to take a walk inside some of the really large tubes.

   
 
From there the real outback begun. It was miles upon miles of dusty terrain. Fortunately the road was good although the tar did go to single lane in places. Along the way we passed tiny little towns with familiar names such as Croydon. We spent our first night camped near the road with silence all around. The stars and the Milky Way were magnificent overhead.

  
We arrived in the large (population 1,400) town of Normanton. Here we got to understand just how dangerous Saltwater Crocodiles can be. In the middle of town there is a life size model of the largest ever such crocodile that was shot nearby. Mmm, certainly don’t want to be tangling with anything like that.

   
 
From there we headed to Karumba, on the Gulf of Carpentaria – their slogan “Where the Outback Meets the Sea”. As the town is westwards facing towards the gulf it is famous for its spectacular sunsets, so we headed to the pub on our first evening there to enjoy it with a well needed cold beer.

  
But Karumba is actually more famous as a fishing mecca. The sandy estuary attracts plenty of fish and in season, lots of fisherman. We were there just before the season took off so were able to secure spots on a boat going out the next morning with two other couples. It was a great morning. We all caught plenty of fish and everyone thoroughly enjoyed themselves. I am really pleased that the kids enjoyed it so much and didn’t get bored as it means we can all go another time. In fact we caught far more than we could fit in our little fridge and freezer so only took a select few blue salmon and a Queenfish. Gilly was also pleased that the gulf was as flat as a millpond so she could enjoy the fishing too.

   
    
  
That night we headed back to the pub. Not just to enjoy the sunset but also to enjoy the fish. The pub would cook any fish you had caught and serve it with chips and salad so that seemed far preferable to cooking it ourselves, plus we could enjoy the view.
It was a long drive to our next stop, Lawn Hill National Park. We were also not sure if the roads there were open as some were still closed after the Wet. We arrived in Gregory (population 40),the biggest place of note for quite some way. From Gregory there was two ways we could approach the park. The shorter route had a sign saying ” Road Closures ahead, phone council on ..” The only problem was that there was no mobile phone reception in town. There was a public phone but it wasn’t working. Just one of those Outback things. We met a couple of Council workers who just shrugged that the phones were not working, they said their office phone didn’t work either. However they recommended we took the longer route which we did.
On this route we still had to cross a couple of rivers. There were causeways across the rivers but as they were covered in algae and very slippy I am not sure they helped matters. On the way to the National Park we stopped at Riversleigh Fossil Area. This is a very important fossil discovery area and is a World Heritage listed site. There was not much to see on the walk around though and it was very hot (39 degrees) doing the walk in he middle of the day. Alisha and Lucy thought we had gone back to Africa as the scenery reminded us of Namibia.

   
   
Lawns Hill National Park is set around a series of deep flame-red sandstone gorges with the Gregory river running through it. It was very hot while we were there so most activities were best done in the morning. While we were there we hired some canoes and had a lovely trip canoeing up the gorge. We also did some nice short walks. For one of the walks, as the pontoon bridge was away for maintenance, we had to swim across the river to get to the walk. The scenery was spectacular and it was a lovely place to spend a few days.

   
    
 
And when it got too hot there was one activity you could still do. It felt so good taking a dip in the river – thank goodness we are too far inland for the salties (saltwater crocodiles).