Day 443 – Darwin to Alice Springs
It was a difficult decision to enter the red centre of Australia. The work on the Mango farm was being prolonged by another two days, then another two days. Ricky, Luigi and the other friends on the farm had decided to follow the farm work into Queensland, but with four months remaining on my visa and a burning desire to tick off the second great rail journey, I opted to travel alone and rejoin Ricky and the group in Tasmania in January. After much umm-ing and ahh-ing, it was wth 36 hours to go I booked my ticket.
After sleeping the night in Darwin, Wednesday at 8:30 I trotted across the road to catch a shuttle to the station. When travelling in comfort of a pair or group it is easy to neglect one of the greatest elements of travelling, other people. Two minutes into the shuttle I had befriended Chiara, an Italian girl and Simon, a Swiss Canadian. We were all sitting close to each other on the train, and wore ourselves out talking to the double about travels so far.
But anyway, the Ghan. The railway connects Darwin- Alice springs- Adelaide. Alice springs to Adelaide was completed in 1929 however it was only connected all the way to Darwin in 2004. With the wet season closing in on Darwin it was an opportune time to catch the train. It didn’t feel nostalgic and old fashionably romantic though. It had new facilities and at least double the leg room of an airoplane. Measuring 710 metres in length with 31 carriages, the 1000+tonne train plodded along, pulling out very slowly and progressively reaching its maximum speed of 115kmph. The vegetation between Darwin and Katherine was red soil and burnt trees, another way to retrace the steps we took in getting to Darwin. There was a 4 hour stop in Katherine and guests took transfers to Katherine and the gorge. Having seen both and feeling rather stingy I sat in the air conditioned room with Simon chatting away. Eventually getting to know you resulted in pulling items from our bags to discuss. As the other hot guests returned from our trips, we were smugly cool.
As the train pulled out of Katherine, 8 hours from departure we had travelled only 300km. The sunset and we made our way to the restaurant carriage to have our evening meal.
It was an early night and with the cool air con everyone was awake for sunrise over the desert. It was a beautiful change, the clouds laced with the silver light of the morning sun and the slowly undulating red soil.
Day 444 – Alice springs
The train pulled in to Alice springs at 9.45 after first passing through the mountainous scenery of the East and West McDonnell ranges. Part one of this epic rail journey complete. The platform had a camel statue marking the Ghan’s history. It was originally pioneering Afghan cameleers who traversed this route. The name Ghan is taken from ‘Afghanistan.’ The town crier introduced us to the town. Sir Charles Todd, Alice’s former postmaster is the reason for the naming of the Todd river, the town named after his wife Alice so named in 1933. Before this it was named Stuart town after John McDonnell Stuart, an explorer who led an expedition through this part. Stuart is still the name of the highway which connects Alice Springs to Alice, otherwise known as ‘the track’ due to its important wartime use. With Alice’s population of 25,605 it makes up 12% of northern territories population. As one Alice local once told me, this is not the most isolated place in Australia but actually the most conveniently located for everywhere- a unique way of looking at it.
My hostel collected me, the bossman who was quite a character. He drove a tour of Alice’s three streets and past the bone dry Todd river bank. If you see this flood three times you’re considered a local, a phenomenon which can take 20 years. There is water under the surface making it effectively upside down.
I checked in and not feeling tired I headed back to the town centre. I perused the few gift shops and got a snack lunch. By 12pm I text Simon and Chiara and said, ‘seen Alice, what now?’
We met late afternoon for a coffee in the sunshine. The centre is very simple but welcoming. There is a higher population of Aborigines here and they live a very outdoor lifestyle which heightens awareness of them. For dinner my new friends came back and I made a curry for us all. They provided the desert and we sat around playing cards in the hostel bar until late. I introduced ‘Newmarket,’ a horse racing game, and we used rocks for betting. We attracted a few intrigued others and the rounds grew and grew in number. Never travel without a pack of cards.
I followed the river bed into town, past the Botanic garden which exhibits the tough plants and trees of the centre. The brownest botanic garden I have ever seen. I met Simon in town and we walked up the Anzac hill which sits in the South of the town. Only 30 metres high, it commemorates the ANZAC fighters and has a great view over the town. From that perspective you realise the flat town is nestled in mountainous countryside. To the north two mountains protrude with a gap in the middle.
Back to the centre and we sat on the green in the morning heat. Joined by Chiara we whiled away time chatting and playing cards. On our hostel come dine with me tour we prepared a salad, and then all went our separate ways for an afternoon resting.
In the evening we joined up to catch a movie, Interstellar. This movie is a more complicated version of inception, with less satisfaction to be found. The evening continued at ‘the rock’ bar, and before we knew it it was 2am!
We joined a free walking tour of the town. Our guide talked us through the birth of tourism in Alice (which is still an incredible 460kms from Uluru!) as pioneer groups from Sydney were taken into the hot, red centre to explore the natural wonders here as early as 1940. He also talked about aboriginal dreamtime stories and the complex way they are passed from grandparent to grandchild forming an understanding of morality, tradition and survival information layered over years. Some stories are for women and some for men.
Alice springs was at one point it’s own state with government, between 1926-31. During this time ‘the residency’ was constructed to house the government resident. When they rejoined Northern territory it was used to house the highest local politician, and in the 1970’s Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stayed here.
The walk continued past the old, old jail, the Stuart town Gaol. Used between 1931-38, it is now situated between the modern day court house and police station. It originally housed aborigines and eventually a separate compartment for white man. When it shut in 1938 the 40 inmates were moved to the old jail. Aborigines have a much higher incarceration rate to this day. The guide explained this could be due to conflict between Australian laws and aboriginal common law, for example when an elder asks you to drive them and your license is suspended, family and common law is the higher priority. To this day there also remains a big discrepancy in life expectancy, almost 20 years less than white Australians. Drinking, another issue was explained to us too. If Northern Territory was its own country it would have the second highest drink consumption in the world, however only 2/3rds of aboriginals drink while 88% of white Australians drink, 15% to a dangerous level. Whilst there is undoubtedly a visible problem in places like Alice springs and Tenant creek, the aboriginal communities are dry by law so this is the area where they will have to come making it more visible to tourists. It was also shocking to realise that Aboriginals were not recognised as citizens until 1967!
Our guide asked ‘Have you been to the rock yet?’ And I replied, yes, last night thinking he meant the bar. Turns out he’s probably used to a higher calibre of tourist as he actually meant Ayers Rock.
Back at my hostel I packed for tour the next day, a 5.30am departure, and got talking to others around the hostel. In the evening I met Simon and Chiara at Montes bar in town. Simons sister lived in Alice springs for 6 months and a burger at this bar was her sole recommendation. We sampled the food, me a Camel and Date sausage and had a great evening. Despite early impressions of Alice, it doesn’t take long to adapt to the laid back way of life and appreciate a different side to it.
Day 447 – Kings canyon
Our tour was to commence at 5.30am. A girl in our room had flown from WA and not realised the 1.5 hr time difference so when I told her it was 5.15 not 3.45 she ran around the room panicking. Our group was a mix of nationalities but all of similar ages.
We drove out 5 hours to kings canyon. Can you imagine flying to Leeds as the closest city to visit Stonehenge? Half way we stopped at a petrol station which had a large number or aborigine men on a ceremonial day painted in red ochre. A woman from another bus took a photo, culturally insensitive as aborigines believe if photos of them are still being circulated after they die it will prevent there spirit from going back to the earth. They got angry and told the owner of the petrol station who came around to is each to explain this is unacceptable.
Our first stop, Kings Canyon was an incredible sight but a hot climb to reach the peak in 38 degree heat. The small cloud cover was welcome. Alec, our guide explained to us on the way about plants such as the spear tree, rock mint which has a drugging effect, used by aboriginal periods in hard times to capture kangaroos or food sources. With everything in aboriginal culture, sustainability is important and use of this herb must be approved by aboriginal elders. The punishment for overuse is another plant rubbed into the eyes which causes temporary blindness. The perpetrator then has three days in which to find and return to the tribe, blinded.
The canyon walk culminated in a steep drop as two rock faces have weathered further and further apart. The canyon had greenery growing in it due to a permanent water source and is nicknamed the Garden of Eden. Parts of the rock face have slowly broken off leaving smooth sections of face.
We left the Canyon for our nights camp nearer the rock. On the way we pulled up roadside for some firewood. Joy, a very entertaining South Korean girl started collecting twigs until Alec explained he actually wanted to uproot the dead trees from the ground and then smash it into the ground to get rid of the excess branches. We all came out of the woods black with filth!
It was still a long drive to where we would spend the night. We passed Mount Connor in the distance which we all mistook for Uluru in the half light. From this site there was a look out over the salty remains of the internal sea of Australia. There was so much residue in this pan it did look like there was still water there. The lightening storm going on in the clouds on horizon only made the whole scene more impressive.
It was a bush camp for the night so we lit the fire and started preparing dinner, a curry and fire baked bread. We sat around sharing travelling stories following an impressive sunrise. Aware of our 4.45 wake up call we eventually crawled into our swags, essentially a roll mat you can get inside. There were a few snorers in camp and a few drops of rain overnight but mostly a good nights sleep.
Day 448 – Kata Tjuta and Uluru
Breakfast was followed by a welcome shower and then a walk at Kata Tjuta (silent T) or the Olga’s as they were previously known. These are 6km from Uluru and an interesting formation of 39 bulbous rock formations. The aboriginals believe these to represent the creation beings. We had an incredible outlook from a sand dune, the scale so much bigger than I had imagined and at 548metres, a formidable and beautiful structure.
I am going to simplify the geology Alec told us as the rock names surpass me. The Peterman ranges were mountains originally in WA (but when Australia was still connected to the other continents 550million years ago. They were crumbled overtime and the huge rocks which made them up rolled into Central Australia and the inland sea. An erogony forced the rocks out of the ground and since then the drop in land height has exposed Kata Tjuta and Uluru. KT stands at a 15% angle but what is amazing about Uluru is that it is one monolith of sandstone but it has been turned 88%, basically standing on its head! It’s 348 metres really are only the tip of the iceberg as it is estimated it extends for 6km below the surface! As rocks form in layers, when you look at Uluru understanding this it is easy to understand the lines running vertically not horizontally, but also incredible to think that one side is millions of years older than the other.
Large holes can be seen in the side of the rock caused by lightening. The red in the soil and rock here is caused by iron so these structures regularly get struck by lightening and then weakened rock crumbles or is washed away. When you walk through them, the series of valleys and peaks are quite on another scale! The climbs were difficult and you had to keep reminding yourself to look up and where you were. Where we finished was a look out into a great valley and beyond. The small breeze made the hot walk all worth it.
After lunch we had a swim in the pool. The water was so cold it could have been a highlight of the tour. We then drove back into the park to the Uluru visitor centre. The centre explained further about Tjukurpa (siletnt T) the laws, philosophy and knowledge of the aboriginal people. As non aborigines stories which are shared with us are shared in the simplified version as they would be with children, intended to be built upon when they are ready to know more. Due to this there is no words for what, how and why in their language as they believe if they are meant to know something it will be told to them in time.
The centre also told of the sacred nature of the rock and why people shouldn’t climb. Despite this climbing is not illegal but heavily discouraged. I heard another tourist getting advice on the climb from the staff who were heavily discouraging the climb but still saying its up to you, something like I wouldn’t come to your house and go climb into your bed. As a mock of the original souvenirs, souvenirs now read ‘I didnt climb Uluru’ and ‘I walked around Uluru.’
Uluru which is far more multi faceted and intricate than it looks from far away. Alec told us more about the Mala (or rock wallaby) people who inhabit this area. Each area has it’s own localised stories and ways and would have been viewed as it’s own countries. Originally there was around 250 languages although now there is only around 150 in existence. The Mala people were monogamous and their rock paintings were always drawn as if from a birds eye view, unlike ones seen before. Women were represented with their ‘wana’ or digging stick and picking bowl, men with their spear and spear thrower.
We saw the learning cave, decorated with rock paintings layered on top of each other much like a blackboard. We then visited the kitchen cave, a bedroom for the elders and a ceremonial cave. A lot of the stories tie in to markings in the rock and it is a special place.
We drove a distance away to watch the sunset with a view in Uluru. The sunset was not behind the rock but we saw various shades of the rock as it passed in and out of shadow, not however it’s burning red. We prepared and ate dinner there, watching other tour groups pull up and be served champagne with a view.
The evening was an entertaining mix of cards and charades and a bit of rain meant we all slept packed under the shelter rather than outside. Just as we turned out the lights Trav pointed out a strange phenomenon. In the dark nights sky was an area of real red illumination through the clouds but not from the moon or any obvious explanation.
Day 449 – Uluru
It was a 4.20 wake up call for sunrise. The sky had cleared from the night before and as we drove towards the grey rock the bus soundtrack was aptly suited for sunrise. We had breakfast at the viewpoint, the air still warm and the sun illuminating the few remaining clouds with gold tinges. It still felt magical to be infront of Uluru.
When the sun was up we made the most of the cool start to walk the base walk, about 10km. Once again it was amazing to see the intricacies of the monolith, some bits completely different colours and interesting shapes. There are water marks on some points and aboriginal stories for different surfaces. Some areas aren’t allowed to be photographed as they are a men’s sacred area to women’s sacred area and should not be viewed out of context. There are also two permanent waterholes on site, one of which we could visit. It is incredibly peaceful and beautiful.
The walk ended at the place the climb commenced, the path shiny and well worn, little banisters marking the path like needles in a beasts back. The sign at the bottom encourages not climbing due to cultural and safety reasons and asks that we connect with this place not conquer it, but they are petitioning to have it officially closed.
We enjoyed some snacks on the bus as we headed back to Alice Springs. We stopped off at a camel farm where some people opted to have a camel ride, this one slightly different from the sedate walks down the beach as the camel runs. As a human is controlling it it only runs as fast as them but they can reach 70kmph!
It was so hot on the bus that it was torture trying to keep yourself awake and eventually everyone succumbed to sweaty uncomfortable sleeping.
After returning to the hostel for a welcome shower we dressed up to all meet at the rock bar for a goodbye dinner. It started off with a meal and ended with a bit more of a party mood. Alec, the guide, certainly let his hair down and led the way with the shots. It was a great end to a special trip.
Most people were moving on to their next destination and for me the morning involved careful repacking as my two bags seemed to had multiplied to three!
I met Chiara and Lianne for lunch and then we went to the Royal Flying Doctors museum. We had to dodge a flash midday storm midway through our walk there. With Alice experiencing 320 days of sun per year and maybe only 20-30 of rain, it is almost a privilege to have moody clouds hanging overhead.
With such a vast country the Royal Flying Doctor service helps 295,000 patients each year who need medical attention. The service has 63 planes manned 24 hours a day and an interactive map in the reception showed you exactly where each one was so you could see how many were in use. The service means anywhere in Australia can be reached in 2 hours. The service was started in 1928 by James Flynn and has expanded since then as a not for profit organisation. We were shown a short film about there work and role. Alice Springs is the only base in NT and services 600sq miles of land. The museum displayed radios and developments in communication (and medicine!) in this time which has enabled the service to become so effective.
Day 451 – Alice Springs to Adelaide
The morning had arrived for my onward journey to Adelaide. I must admit to thinking a week would be a bit slow but it is with fondness that I regard this friendly town now. As I sat over breakfast reading ‘a town like Alice’ the bossman of the hostel called out to me, ‘Hey Lauren, come to work with me!’ So I jumped in the shuttle and we went to pick up passengers from the Ghan which pulls into town at 9am. After my outing, I gathered my stuff to be dropped to the Ghan for a lunchtime departure.
Here’s a passage from ‘A town like Alice’ which describes it pretty well,
Alice is a bonza place. Plenty of water in Alice; people living there, they leave the sprinkler on at night, watering the lawn. That’s right, they leave the sprinkler on all night. Course the Territory is dry in most parts, but there’s usually good feed along the creeks. Red around Alice where I come from, red earth and the mountains are red. The McDonnells and the Levi’s and the Kernits, great red ranges of bare hills against the blue sky. Evenings they go purple and all sorts of colours. After the wet there’s green all over them. In the dry parts of them go silvery white with the Spinifex.
As it leaves Alice, the train pulls through ‘the gap’ between the east and west McDonnell ranges. The landscape was incredibly dramatic, red and rocky. We passed an Iron man figure created by railway workers after they laid the 1 millionth sleeper on the Ghan railway line. Shortly after we crossed into South Australia marked by a border post. We moved forward one hour into South Australian Summer time, but continuing with the annoying half time zones we are still GMT+10.5.
As the day pulled on, Chiara, Lucas, Timo and I moved through to play cards in the restaurant cart. The sun illuminated the clouds and made for a spectacular sunset.
Day 452 – Adelaide
When I woke the landscape was much more green, fields of wheat and sparsely populated land. On our left we passed the flinders mountain ranges, home to kangaroos, emus and wallabies and a site of lots of rock art, on the right we sighted the ocean, then a giant wind farm and lots of fruit and veg production.
We pulled into Adelaide at 11:30, suburbia building for 30 minutes before which felt rather strange after compact little Alice. The temperature a modest 25 degrees.