Thursday, 8 October 2009

"If you panic, you will die": Part One

Have landed at Alice Springs after 11 days on the road, and so much has happened I'm going to have to do this in stages! First off, to introduce our crew: Jarrod, our guide; Audrey and Romuald, a lovely French couple who have been travelling for six years now, via Scotland, Canada, USA and Fiji (basically, barring Scotland, my journey in reverse); Julian and Elisabetta, an Italian couple at university; Kevin, an extremely taciturn Dutchman; and four German teenagers ranging from 15 to 17 - Charlotta, Roxana, Stefan and Victor. We piled into a Land Cruiser on 28 September and very quickly became acquainted - sitting face to face and shoulder to shoulder will do that, particularly when you have to disentangle your legs from each other when you hit a dirt track (and we hit plenty of those).

First up was a "quick" walk up Devil's Peak - devilish indeed, particularly with the tail end of a satanic cold; I never made it up to the top, I confess, though I did get to sit in the bush and the sun (hallelujah!), watching lizards and soaking up the scenery. Then on to Quorn and a camel ride through the bush into our camp for the night, before going yabbying at the creek (yabbies are small crayfish; we didn't catch much, but enough for hors d'oeuvres; the food throughout the tour was excellent, particularly when Audrey and Romuald took over cooking duties - any hope I had of losing weight went right out of the window!). That night Jasper, a local Aboriginal man, came over to our campfire to tell us some stories about the landscape (the Rainbow Serpent; Yurla, the kingfisher spirit, and so on); it was fascinating, but quite uncomfortable - understandably given how they've been treated Aboriginals are usually fairly stand-offish, and it felt unnatural to have someone performing for us. Very interesting, but for a white colonialist oppressor not a cosy experience.

The next day we visited Wilpena Pound, a huge crater surrounded by mountain formations, one of the many geological phenomenons of the last 11 days and at one time a sheep station, though how they got the animals to market with no viable road I don't know. We also climbed to some Aboriginal rock paintings - some claim them as 30,000 years old, and though that's unlikely they're certainly thousands of years old. We don't know what all the markings say, as that's a closely guarded secret that the oldfellas only pass down to the initiated; it's a good guess that they relate to good waterholes and food sources, and the tribe's responsibilities under the law. Aboriginal law is written only in paintings such as this, which is partly why the community is in so much trouble now - as it's passed down orally, the Stolen Generation lost touch with their roots completely. Apparently there are some moves afoot to teach the languages in school, but much of the lore has gone for good.

Day 3 was mostly spent on the road - we were now into the Outback proper, in towns that had once grown up around the old Ghan railway line and are now windswept places where you can see the desert on either side of the high street. Cook may have been a ghost town, but some of those places are not much more lively, and certainly just as inhospitable. We fetched up that night in William Creek (pop. 3 - one at the airfield and two at the pub), near to Lake Eyre, and next morning took a flight over the salt lake - absolutely beautiful. Sadly the birdlife that comes when it fills had disappeared - they can only stay about two weeks because of the extreme salinity of the water - but the sweep of the salt flats was amazing to see, contrasted with the red sand around it. I've waited 20 years to see the outback, and it is as beautiful and awe-inspiring as I thought it would be.

It's also just as eccentric. On Day 4 we hit Coober Pedy, really everyone does live underground. Fortunes have been made and lost and made again on the opal fields, and it's a great Australian story - no big companies have moved in because opal mining is hit and miss; you can only guess where you're likely to find it and hence a lone miner is as likely to be lucky as a conglomerate. Thus an eccentric outback town has grown up around the mining - it's slightly less lawless than it was (at one time, only 10 years ago or so, people resolved arguments with gelignite; the local bobby who tried to put a stop to some of the antisocial behaviour had his car blown up twice before he got the message and left them to it!), but pretty rough and ready. The houses underground are great, though - it was pelting with rain (we went through the driest part of the driest continent, which is lucky to get 4in of rain a year, and saw 16mm in a night). Thankfully we were allowed to sleep indoors at this point, and living underground in a place hewn out of the rock is actually pretty cosy; I'm not sure I want to try my luck mining for opals, but perhaps those green people who are building under hills in the UK aren't so eccentric after all... Though they wouldn't have a kangaroo orphanage, run out of an art gallery. Here a couple take in joeys, usually ones who've survived their mother being hit by a car, and try to release them in the wild once they're weaned. It doesn't always work - Bella frankly didn't want to go back into the wild and now lives in their home, toasting herself in front of a gas fire! If I don't come back as a koala in the next life, I'm coming back as that kangaroo.

From there, the weather cleared up beautifully and we were on the road again via the Painted Desert just after dawn, which was sensational (every sight we saw was more spectacular than the last), and on to Dalhousie hot springs. These are bang in the middle of the Simpson desert and large enough to swim in; they're about 37C, bathwater hot, and surrounded by birdlife and native mulgas and red gums. We bathed in the afternoon and under the stars that night, which was a magical experience. It was also a riot with Romu and Julian, who decided they needed to form a human pyramid for the photo album and roped in Roxana. Actually, the photos turned out pretty well, despite Julian nearly drowning!

And then we were on the road towards Uluru - or were supposed to be. Most of the driving was four-wheel drive on dirt roads, and that was the good stuff. We were luckily not far from a way station when there was a grinding of gears and the car stopped, for good: the rear axle had sheared straight through. As misadventures go, this one was fine - Jarrod got on the CB to the Mt Dare Hotel (pub, campground and mechanic's, though we never did discover where the mountain was) and a fantastic bloke with a beard the length of my hair and swagman's hat came out to give us a tow. There we stayed while Heading Bush drove through the night to bring us another vehicle - quicker than getting a part from Alice, which takes three days. And here ends Part One, with our intrepid crew stranded in an Ocker pub. But a pub with showers - the luxury was indescribable!

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