Seeing Red on our Outback Adventure

We exchanged gifts and goodbyes with the Modras and began our mammoth drive. Only 500km to Cairns, then 2000km to Tennant Creek, 1000km to Ayer’s Rock, 1500km to Adelaide, 1000km to Melbourne, a few hundred k’s round Tassie, and 1000km back to Sydney to go…

The run up to Cairns started well. We got to Murdering Point Winery just before closing time and spent a while sampling almost everything on the menu. We tried wines made from Lychees, Davidson Plums, and Mangos, as well as herbal wine, and three different types of port: Pineapple, Plum and Chocolate Pudding Fruit, otherwise known as Black Sapote. We took a few bottles for the road, as you do.

We stayed that first night at Innisfail, falling asleep to the sound of giant flying insects pinging off the van, and awoke to the laughing of the Kookaburras. On the last hundred k’s to Cairns the rain hit, hard, but the locals are obviously used to it: We parked in a shopping centre car park with a sign that said: Caution, this car park can flood in in heavy rains. To make matters worse, despite all the work we and Trev had done to the engine, the oil light came on again, after only 500km.

So, knowing about the vast uninhabited distances we were about to drive when we went West, we spent a day in Cairns debating whether or not our van was up to the task, or if we’d end up stranded at the side of some deserted highway. We were both pretty despondent, truly gutted that we could make it this far, and put in that much time effort and money into our van just to fail before we’d even begun our Outback adventure. We spent the night in a caravan park for a much needed shower, and hundreds of earwigs appeared from our mosquito net. We spent days after that killing the little bastards as they crawled out of every nook and cranny.

We talked to the RAC in Cairns with the intention of getting one of their policies so we could get 300km free towing distance, even in the outback. It turned out that because we aren’t Queensland residents they could only offer us free towing for 50km either side of major towns. That left us with a 4000km hole with no breakdown cover, so in the spirit of adventure we adopted a new attitude: Screw it. Let’s just go for it!

And we did.

We drove the 700km Savannah Way from Cairns, up and over the Great Dividing Range, and across the outback to Normanton on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The lush valleys, dense forests and neat farmland on the East coast soon gave way to red dust, sparse bush land and roadkill in the West. The distance between civilisation on the Savannah Way is about 200km, and the roads are incredible – often a single tarmac strip with 6 feet of flat red dirt either side. If you meet someone coming the other way you just put your left wheels on the dirt and keep going. That’s quite scary when the thing thundering towards you in a cloud of dust is a 53m long 4-truck road train!

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In Normanton we found the world’s biggest crocodile. Actually! It was a life-size replica of one caught nearby, measuring over 8.5 metres! Glad we only met the plastic version. In Normanton too, we started seeing the petrol prices really go up. From paying $1.40 on the coast, a litre was now $1.62, but that was still cheap compared with what was to come.

The road South from Normanton is the Matilda Highway, and like much of the savannah way, is 300-odd kilometres of single strip tarmac with big trucks and caravans all wanting the space. We got a sense of things getting more remote as we passed through a town that was just one small hotel, and a phone box, 250km from anywhere!

We got to the Overlanders’ Way, which runs East-West between Townsville in Queensland and Threeways Junction in the Northern Territory. We joined it at Cloncurry, filled up with $1.70 petrol and drove the last chunk to Mt. Isa. There we found a friendly mechanic, who lent us the tools to check our new front wheel bearings were tight, then drove to an old World War II airfield to spend the night.

550km later, at the end of our longest day’s drive yet, we arrived in Tennant Creek. Someone had warned me about Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, saying they were full of destitute Aborigines who literally sit around on the street, all day every day. They were right! While neither Chrisie nor I have any problem with Aborigines in general, we didn’t feel safe or welcome in that town. We had to be there, though, as now was the time and place to transfer our little van into our name. Thankfully it went without too many hitches, but you wouldn’t believe the vehicle inspection: The mechanic we’d been told to see came wandering into his shed as we stood around waiting beside a car blocking the entrance. The first thing he says is: “Oh shit, eh! I must have left the handbrake off this one and it’s rolled back.” And you’re the best mechanic in town… Right…

He checked our front tyres, which he said needed replacing, checked the lights and wrote down the engine and chassis numbers. That was it. We had to get the rear left brake light fixed as he said the blue duct tape was illegal. He said to get red cellophane and sticky tape instead! We had to wait around a bit for the tyres at the Bridgestone garage, and got a little nervous when the guy jumped in our van and drove out without saying a word, but it was all good in the end, and we even lightened our van by $295 for the pleasure.

Driving South now, and the nights really started to get colder. We reckon it was -2 Celsius some nights. We arrived in Alice Springs to discover it was much, much bigger than we expected; a welcome break from the dusty outback. In the few short hours we spent there we met a guy from Bangor (the Northern Ireland one), ate a camel burger (really!), and bought a didgeridoo made from Woolybutt Gum in the key of E. It’s on its way home air-freight so at least Chrisie is safe from late-night practice sessions.

Didgeridoo, Alice Springs

Approximately 2500km after we left Cairns we came to the junction of the Stuart Highway and the Lasseter Highway. The Stuart continues South to Adelaide, but we wanted the Lasseter, which heads 250km due West to Uluru / Kata-Tjuta National Park, home of Ayer’s Rock and the Olgas (big rock features, not a band…). On our 500km detour we met a Croatian lady and her Aussie-born sons at the viewpoint for the magnificent Mt. Conner. We ran into her and the family the next day too, walking among the towering conglomerate domes of The Olgas.

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Uluru at sunrise

The real attraction, though, was Uluru itself. We paid our $25pp entrance fee for the park. That’s right, $25 a head to see a bloody big rock. We had a look round the Aboriginal cultural centre, then walked the Liru walk to the base of the rock and the start of The Climb. For anyone who doesn’t know, the agreement between the Australian government and the Anangu Aborigines when they were handed back the land was that Ayer’s rock would remain open to tourists to climb it, however the Aborigines ask that people not climb it as it is a sacred place of theirs. Our feelings were that they don’t ask you not to climb until after you have driven 250km off the highway to get there, and paid your $25 each to get in, so one  our goals was to get to the top. In the end, though, the choice wasn’t ours, as high winds for the two days we were there meant the climb was shut.

Uluru at dawn

We did get to see an incredible sunset. The rock, already a deep sandstone red anyway, turned an amazing crimson in the setting sun. An early start was had the next day to catch the sunrise on the South side of the rock.

Uluru by sunset

Leaving Uluru behind us, and after filling up with $2.03 petrol, we found wild emus at Curtin Springs. We watched one inquisitive bird the size of an ostrich poke its head into the open side door of a campervan, much to the fright of the guy leaning inside, and to our great amusement.

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We continued our long drive and crossed the border into South Australia. After a couple of days through the outback we pulled in to Coober Pedy, which a tourist magazine describes as “a place like no other”. They were right. It was rather peculiar, as half the population lives underground to escape the fierce heat of the summer. There are houses, hotels, shops and churches, all tunnelled into solid rock. Coober Pedy is also the opal capital of the world, and the flat land for 100’s of kilometres around is covered in little mounds of waste soil and rock. It’s like a huge mountain range, where the tallest peak is about 30 feet!

From there we drove the final chunk to civilisation. We arrived in Port Augusta for much-needed fish and chips. We had arrived at the South coast, after all. We saw our first sign for Sydney since we drove out of it heading North some 4 months ago. Now we have South Australia to explore, home to the Barossa Wine Region, before heading East to Melbourne and Tassie.

Sunset over the Outback

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