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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.