Take Me Home, Country Roads: Alice Springs to Adelaide

Thursday 27th February
I had one free day in Alice Springs and hadn’t really thought to much in advance how best to spend it. Plans to visit the museums had become a less favourable idea after I’d seen the town and realised it was more spread out than I expected. I had been told that the West McDonnell Ranges were a bit of a secret gem that most backpackers missed and as it got me out of the town that seemed the best way to spend the day. Erec had been stuck at the hostel for 3 days so decided to join me.

We left at 7.30am and our first stop was to the spot where John Flynn’s ashes were scattered. John Flynn was a missionary who was founder of the Flying Doctor Service and devoted his life to helping those in Central Australia. The stone marking the site was originally taken from Devils Marbles however over the years the local tribe had pressed for its return as it was from a sacred site. Eventually a compromise was reached, the original was returned and a replacement stone was found by the Aboriginal community as they acknowledged he had done a lot to help them.

Our guide explained that John Stuart was the first European to travel from Adelaide to Darwin and it was he who named the mountain range the McDonnell Ranges. The West McDonnell Ranges formed over 300 million years ago and they were originally taller but they have been exposed to erosion which has formed current shape. The Aboriginals believe the range is the remains of a caterpillar and this is what they refer to in their dreamtime creation stories.

As we made our way in to the ranges we came to Simpson’s Gap and as it was still fairly early in the day this was the location that would give us the best opportunity to see the Black Footed Rock Wallabies. We made our way to the gap which was nice enough when on the way back we saw some movement towards the top of the rocks. The wallabies looked small compared to the boulders but we were lucky enough to see a total of three, including two that were sitting on a rock before they decided to hide under a small gap.

We then made our way to Standley Chasm where we did a short walk which forms part of the 230kmn Larpinta Trail. On our way in to the gorge we walked along a creek bed which was quite rocky and our guide pointed out ghost gums and cycads to us. Cycads are particularly interesting because fossil records indicate the species of plant has been around since the time of the dinosaurs.

After the walk we had morning tea which included some lamingtons before embarking on the long Namatjira Drive to Glen Helen Gorge. Just outside we stopped at a lookout over the Finke River looking towards Mount Sonder. The view was much greener than I expected and I mentioned this to the guide who said it was a common misconception that the area was bleak.

We drove back to Glen Helen Gorge where we had a nice salad lunch which included a complimentary beer. After lunch Erec and I walked down the path towards the gorge. The water didn’t look very nice and whilst we had a chance to swim at the next stop the brown colour had put us of. On our way back to the bus I saw an old building in need of restoration which used to be a meat house.

On our way back to Alice Springs we stopped Ormiston Gorge which those from the centre consider to be the closest thing they have to a beach and sea. The gorge was named by Ernest Giles in 1872 and was a popular place with the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira. Some of the group went for a proper swim and whilst the water looked nicer than I expected I’d left my swimmers on the bus so just went for a paddle. On our way back to the bus where we saw a small yellow, black and red lizard which our guide had forgotten the name of so somewhat jokingly called it a tartar lizard. Personally I reckon it was a Watford fan.

When I was at the Kings Canyon I saw a small ochre mine however the colours at the Ochre Pit in a dry creek we visited next were even more vivid. There were a number of different colours within the limestone ranging from yellow to a browny-red colour and the colour depended on the amount of time it had been exposed to iron-oxide. The Aboriginals mixed the ochre with animal fat to create the pigment and as some areas like Ularu did not have any ochre it became a product to be traded.

Our final stop of the day was to Ellery Creek Big Hole which is the biggest permanent water hole in West McDonnell Ranges. It was another very scenic gorge and it seemed popular with swimmers as there were already a small group there however none of our group went in. Instead we returned back to the bus where we had an afternoon snack.

Throughout the day we had been pestered by flies and quite a few had joined us on the bus for the ride back to Alice Springs. As we got to 100km an hour we opened as many windows as possible to suck them out. It may not have worked but was funny. Apparently for every person in Australia there are 250,000 flies. I’m not sure how reliable that is but I seem incredibly popular with them where ever I go.

During the journey back we were told W.W Mills was finding the route for the telegraph system when during his journey he found a waterhole near what is now the old telegraph station. He thought the waterhole was permanent so he named it Alice Springs after the wife of the former Postmaster General of South Australia, Sir Charles Todd. The water hole wasn’t permanent however as a settlement subsequently built up the name Alice Springs was still favoured over Stuart Town. It had been a very nice day out and it seems a shame that so few people visit the ranges despite their close proximity to Alice Springs.

That night we met up with Finja and whilst we were going to have the barbeque it seemed to be taking to long so we ended up going to subway. We then spent a couple of hours chatting and getting to know each other better beyond the standard backpacker questions. Eventually we returned to the room as all of us had to pack as we were all leaving the next morning.

Friday 28th February
Although I’d set my alarm for 6.45am I woke up slightly earlier as I had heard Erec getting ready to leave. Marianne, Finja and I got up shortly afterwards. Whilst I was checking out of the hostel I saw Ray (my guide in Kakadu and Litchfield) and he said he wanted to try and leave early so I quickly went back up to tell the others, to grab some toast and to collect my backpack.

Ray had told me to sit up the front so I did and we started the long journey to Coober Pedy. The first part of the drive was over 2 hours and we just chatted about travel experiences and how its easy to become detached from the outside world. Our first toilet/food break was the roadhouse at Erldunda which according to Ray I’d been to two times before (on the way to/from Kings Canyon/Ularu). I recognised it when we arrived due to the Emu enclosure but the name had meant nothing to me and it could have been any roadhouse in the middle of nowhere.

The only ‘highlight’ between Alice Springs and Coober Pedy was the sign welcoming us to South Australia which did look slightly more grand than some boarder signs. We were quite a small group so it was easy to get everyone together for a couple of group pictures. The crossing also meant the clocks went forward an hour which meant lunchtime was nearer than I had expected. When we did eventually stop off at Marla a couple of hours later I was hungry and had to settle for a pie as the roadhouse had even less choice of food than Erldunda.

There weren’t any other features or highlights during the drive to Coober Pedy. I kept expecting or rather hoping to see a kangaroo hoping along the side of the road but there weren’t any and as there was still more vegetation than I’d expected it is likely they were seeking shade somewhere. It was over 30 degrees so if I was a ‘Roo I’d have been anywhere but the side of the road as well. The only living wildlife I recall seeing was cattle. We did however see a lot of roadkill. At some point I also saw a dust devil but mainly during the drive I tried to keep myself amused by putting together a 70+ song playlist which still wasn’t long.

Ray explained Coober Pedy is the Opal Capital of the world and the name is an aboriginal word meaning ‘white man’s hole’ (due to people living under ground) People live under ground, or rather in houses dug in to the hills, because regardless of the temperature outside the heat inside will be fairly stable around the mid 20s. On our approach to the town we started seeing mullucks (mounds of dirt and rock) which are caused by a blower (big vacuum machine) sucking dirt from the Opal Pitts and dumping the contents on the ground. There were also cartoon signs warning us not to run or to walk backwards because there are a number of unmarked holes and shafts in the ground. We got a picture outside the ‘Coober Pedy Sign’ because it was slightly quirky as it had a blower on top. As we approached the town it looked an errie place and it’s no wonder it’s been used as a set for movies such as ‘Pitch Black’.

After seeing our accommodation which had been dug in to the hill we went for a tour around an underground mine museum. First we watched a video on the history of the area, how Opal is formed, and how it is refraction of light. The museum also included a display on how the early settlers lived compared to a more modern room. Due to the early settlers digging by hand the roof was lower than the more modern room which had benefited from machinery. The modern room looked very cosy, especially the bedroom and with the bare rock walls it really felt like living there you’d be at one with nature.

Finja, Marianne , 2 other girls and I then walked to a public area where we could noodle for Opals amongst the dirt and rock mounds. Unfortunately by the time we got there Marianne and I barely had any time so just got a couple of pictures of us pretending to have discovered our fortune. I looked at the map and it appeared there was a shortcut but it probably ended up taking even longer than the original route. It was quite frustrating because we were on a path parallel to the main street but on a much higher level and when we considered taking the steep path (shortcut) down a local told us not to. This meant we had walked pretty much all of the settlement by the time we finally reached John’s Pizza Place however luckily we arrived just as the pizza came out.

After dinner we went to Josephine’s Art Gallery which was also a Kangaroo Orphanage. This was a bonus and not something I had expected to do. We got to feed some of the Kangaroos that were being looked after by the centre and most of which had been rescued a few years before, for example from the pouch of a mother that had been killed in a car crash. The absolute highlight though was seeing a baby joey being bottle fed and watching it hop along the ground before it climbed in to its makeshift fabric pouch the owner was holding. It was utterly adorable but quite heart breaking to think of the reason it had arrived at the centre.

A few of us then headed to an underground bar which for Marianne, Finja and I meant our last night together. It had been a bit strange travelling with a constantly changing group of people but it was nice there had been some continuity and it was a bit sad that our journey together through the centre was nearly over.

As we had another 5.30 departure we left after a couple of drinks and headed back to the accommodation. There weren’t individual dorm rooms but instead a big bunkhouse which had net curtains to divide each section each of which contained 2 bunk beds. The room temperature was ok but it initially smelt a bit stale though I’d probably slept in worse hostels and feeling quite tired had no issues sleeping. During the previous few days Finja had tried to teach me various German phrases and after forgetting it on numerous occasions I was pleased when I finally got “Träum Schön” (Sweet Dreams) correct.

Saturday 1st March
As has been the case with all the very early starts it was still dark when I emerged, literally from a cave, to get some breakfast. We got in the bus and Ray said he’d turn the lights out so we could sleep until our next stop about 2 hours away. For some reason, despite the fact there was nothing to see, and even if there was it was to dark to see it anyway, I felt excited and wanted to stay awake.

The excitement lasted longer than it should have done as I didn’t see anything except a rabbit that ran out in front of us. I went to sleep and when I woke I could see the beginning of the sunset but by now I had little enthusiasm to stay awake so dozed off again. I don’t know how much time had passed Ray then woke us up and pulled over so we could get a picture of the final sunrise.

Now the sun was up, I felt guilty going back to sleep because as I was in the front seat I felt I had to stay awake to chat to the driver. Luckily I finally saw a kangaroo bouncing along the road, the exact scene I had imagined. That woke me up a bit and I got my camera out in case it happened again. Amazingly it did but the bright sun meant the camera wouldn’t focus and I missed it. I didn’t get a 3rd chance but it’s unlikely a picture out of the squashed fly stained window would have done the scene justice.

After Glendambo the scene had become even more desolate and unfortunately all we saw was roadkill (mostly  kangaroo’ s) providing food for birds and some looked particularly gruesome. There was nothing living and as the land was flat and dry with only a few small shrubs our view of what lay ahead undisturbed. Apparently there were some Emus on the drivers side but I somehow missed them, as I’d become hypnotised looking at the road ahead which glistened like water.

Eventually we reached Lake Hart, a salt lake and the main highlight of the day. As we were crossing under the railway a huge freight train approached which really showed how vast the landscape was. Due to the flat landscape we were able to get a number of funny false perspective pictures including one of me ‘holding’ Finja and Marianne.

We briefly stopped in Port Augusta for lunch and then Port Wakefield for a final toilet stop. At this stage I moved to the main section with the others and with a seat to myself stretched out and slept not waking up until we got to the outskirts of Adelaide. After more than a month I had finally completed my journey. I had finally seen the south coast, the west coast and the centre. Aside from the north coast which doesn’t have a highway I feel over the course of two visits here I can say I have now circumnavigated an entire continent/country.

Finja and I were at different hostels but they weren’t to far apart so we had made plans to meet up to get some food. Neither of us really knew the city so eventually we settled on Nandos before heading to ‘Gluttony’ in Rundle Park to check out the famous Adelaide Fringe Festival. We asked at the information desk and we were told that there was a free cabaret show starting in about 30 minutes. Whilst we waited we were given a flyer to another cabaret show involving puppets but as it was $20 we weren’t really tempted.

Instead it seemed they came to us as they provided a free preview to try and gain some audience members. It was quite clever as each puppet was operated by 3 people but I don’t think it would have been something I’d have wanted to pay money for. The guy we were there to watch only performed for 15 minutes but it was quite funny and certainly had us shocked at the end when he appeared to swallow a balloon. We knew he probably couldn’t have put it still looked good. The information desk had suggested we take the bus to another venue but we were both tired so decided headed back to our hostels.

Sunday 2nd March
I was due to leave Adelaide for Port Lincoln but first I had to do laundry and to pack another day bag in order to leave the bulk of my stuff at the hostel. This was because when I checked the terms and conditions I realised Rex Airline had quite a small luggage limit of only 15kg. I therefore had to wake up early which was quite annoying as it would have been nice to have had a lie in after a month of early starts. All the tasks done I made my way to the airport and boarded a plane even smaller than the one from Exmouth. I was about to cage dive to hopefully see some Great White Sharks…