Thursday, September 11, 2008 Australia Australia

A fair dinkum road trip

The UK, Ireland and Australia at the same scale
For us Poms, Australia is quite big [Enlarge]

Note to reader: this post should be read in an Aussie accent.

Mate, Australia is a big country. If you're a Yank you can probably understand but if you're a Pom you can't. No matter how much you think you can imagine how big this country is, you're wrong. It's way bigger than you reckon.

We thought we knew it was big, but we're Poms and so we had no real idea. Our plan is to go south straight through the 'Red Centre' of the country to Adelaide, and then round the coast a bit to Melbourne. The main road north-south is the Stuart Highway, named after the famous explorer John McDouall Stuart, whose route of 1861/62 it roughly follows. It's sealed and has just one lane in each direction. Most of the other few roads in northern and central Australia are either gravel roads or dirt tracks only passable with a 4WD.

Home (for the next three weeks). [IMG_5074]
Our van beside a termite mound [Enlarge]

As we left Darwin behind, the Stuart Highway was eerily quiet. We were so close to the state capital, yet we probably saw one other vehicle every ten kilometres. We did see a lot of termite mounds though. All along this section of highway, and as far as you can see off it, these teeny tiny bugs have constructed towering termite cities, many bigger than our van. In one area they were so impressive they had a tourist attraction sign!

We detoured off the Stuart Highway onto the Arnhem Highway into Kakadu National Park, to visit Ubirr, home of some famous Aboriginal rock art and cave paintings (our pictures here). We spent our second night at a campsite in Jabiru, near the paintings.

Past Jabiru the sealed road runs out and if you continue on the tracks (permit required) you enter an Aboriginal Reserve called Arnhem Land. Occupying a corner of the 'Top End' of the Northern Territory, Arnhem Land is bigger than Portugal or Hungary. In that space it has only about 16,000 residents. We couldn't go further as we didn't have a permit and anyway you're not allowed to take rental vans off sealed roads. So we turned back towards the Stuart Highway. In all, our little detour to see a few paintings was about 425 kilometres. Did we say Australia is big?

We'd heard about Australia's big skies. Heard about them, but never fully understood what they're like. The landscape spreads out around you in vast, sweeping bands of colour. The road stretches to the horizon, dead straight, disappearing into a shimmering heat haze. The sun beats down, white hot in a pure blue sky. You can see forever and you feel very small and vulnerable. Britain's skies are shrunk by buildings, trees, pollution, clouds, street lights—you're hemmed in, unable to see the horizon, except on the coast. Outside of the cities, Australia is absolutely empty. However, it's also a dessicated, inhospitable place. In places, bush fires have burned away almost all the grass and low bushes along the side of the highway, but the trees seem to be able to cope with it as they still have leaves on their top halves. The wind is as dry and hot as a paint-stripper, whipping up dust devils that surge across the road in front of you and blast the harsh dust into everything. It coats every surface and gets everywhere.

Porridge with banana and a mug of tea. [IMG_5091]
Breakfast [Enlarge]

The landscape was unlike anything we've seen so far. In the Top End it's a tropical climate and so there are lots of trees. In places it seemed to belong in Africa—there should have been elephants roaming and wildebeest stampeding, but instead there were kangaroos, hopping we presume. You see a lot of kangaroos on the Stuart Highway, but sadly they're all dead at the side of the road. Kangaroos are mostly nocturnal and anyone driving at night runs a real risk of hitting one. If you're in a car this is bad news for you as well as the roo. A male red kangaroo is about two metres tall and weighs 90 kilos (14 stone / 198 lb). Regularly we saw trashed cars by the side of the road, which had hit roos, or else swerved to avoid them, and then rolled into the bush.

At our third overnight stopping place, Nitmiluk National Park (formerly known as Katherine Gorge before it was handed back to the native people) the temperature on the walking trail was posted on a sign as 50 degrees Celcius (122 F), in the shade. We didn't go for a stroll.

Only once did we see a pair of live roos hopping away across the desert. However our campsites each seemed to come with their own unique wildlife features. At Nitmiluk semi-tame wallabies boing'd about the campsite. They were very inquisitive so everything had to be locked up so they couldn't get into it. As we were drifting off to sleep we could hear one of our fellow campers chasing them out of her rucksack that she'd left outside her tent.

Attack Creek [Enlarge]

Every few kilometres the road would pass over (or rather 'through') a dry creek-bed. The road signs would warn of the danger from flooding. Marker posts allowed you to gauge the water height before driving through it: the posts went up to 2 metres. At this time of year this seemed crazy, as there was not a drop of water in the creeks. It felt like the area had never seen rain at all, let alone floods, but actually in the summer the Top End gets a lot of rain and the minor roads become impassable. The highway deliberately dips into each creek to create a natural flooding point, to stop the whole lot from being washed away.

The Stuart Highway is the major road across this continent, yet the "towns" along its route are just tiny collections of a few buildings. The main focus of each town is the filling station, without which it would be impossible to continue. The fuel stops are so infrequent that we fill up at nearly every one. On day four, we stopped for the night at one such fuel stop, at Elliott, a dustbowl whose unique wildlife offering was a flock of peacocks! Out here there's no mobile phone signal for hours on end, sometimes all day. The van radio only receives static. Even now, in our high tech world, the outback feels unconquered. We're loving seeing this area, but we honestly can't see what would make anyone choose to live here.

Daly Waters Pub [Enlarge]

One thing we've found is that the people out here are friendly in the extreme. Everyone talks to everyone, presumably because they don't know when the opportunity to have a chat might next arise. One of Glenn's goals for his big road trip was to be called "darl" by an Aussie sheila when he went into a shop, and sure enough it happened at Elliott when he went in to pay for petrol ("Fifty bucks thanks darl!")

1324 kilometres into our journey, we paused to refuel at Renner Springs, the generally accepted boundary between the Top End and the Red Centre. When we set off again we could indeed see a subtle shift in the landscape, to a grassy savannah. Here the drought hardly ever breaks. It was 14:00 and yet there were no shadows. A raptor looked up from the kangaroo carcass he was pecking at to watch us pass, then went back to his lunch. The paint-stripper wind blew tumbleweed across the road.

The Devil's Marbles [Enlarge]

That evening we arrived at the Devil's Marbles, a bizarre rocky outcrop where massive boulders of ancient lava lie perched on the bedrock, as if placed there. According to Aboriginal tradition, the marbles were formed when... Sorry, we're not allowed to tell you the story according to our Barkly Region Tourism booklet. You'll have to visit for yourself. We had plenty of time to enjoy the view at sunset and then took a couple of cold tinnies of Victoria Bitter (a very fine beer indeed, considering it's made by Aussies) out of the esky as it got dark. Above us millions of stars came out across 180 degrees of sky. True magic. The Devil's Marbles Conservation Reserve campsite set us back a princely $6.60 (GBP 2.97 / USD 5.53).

On day five we got up before sunrise so that we could see the whole light show in reverse. It didn't disappoint. On the road that day not much happened, we were fully in the travelling groove and sharing the driving between us. There was no rush: we went at a steady 85 km/h (53 mph) and only did between 300 and 500 kilometres per day. Two notable incidents that day were crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, and being overtaken by a road train. Eventually, five hot but incredible days and 2,034 kilometres after we left Darwin we rolled up at the first real town, an oasis right in the centre of Australia: Alice Springs.

Map of Days 652-657

Days 652-657
Darwin to Alice Springs

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.


Lee said...

Where are you guys?

Glenn Livett said...

We're OK, just m-i-l-e-s behind with the blog :-(

More coming real soon.