Mount Isa to Alice Springs, via Stuart Highway.

Trip Start Jan 13, 2011
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Sunday, February 12, 2012

About a third of the way through our trip we hit Camooweal Roadhouse. We actually got phone signal here so sent a couple texts, ate a massive burger each and got back in the van to start the 267km stretch of this, the most desolate part of the journey. I could tell Vicky was nervous as she sat in the passenger seat, phone in hand, checking repeatedly to if we'd lost signal again yet. It disappeared very quickly but the phone-checking continued, now to see if we regained contact with the rest of the world at any point. I enjoyed the sense of freedom. Of course part of my brain was working out roughly how long it would take someone to find us if we did break down and dividing our supply of water into equal rations, but the majority of my mind was watching the horizon and feeling more free than I can recollect feeling at any time before. We crossed the Northern Territory border shortly after Camooweal and left our cares behind.

It was a lot of driving for one day and by late afternoon the long, straight, flat roads had eventually worked their hypnotic magic on us both. Wide eyed and gormless, we were relieved to see the sign for Barkly Homestead. We stretched our legs and rubbed our faces as we set up the tent for the night, reserving just enough energy to make it to the bar for a well-deserved beer or two. Australia Day celebrations (which mark the day the white man arrived in Australia) were rather muted here bearing in mind that the nearest community to the homestead is an Aboriginal community…a lot of Aboriginal people prefer to call the day "Invasion Day" and for rather obvious reasons don’t see it as cause for celebration. After congratulating ourselves on surviving a rather epic part of the journey (not for invading Australia) we watched the sun set. The sunsets are getting more and more beautiful the further west we get, tinting everything with the luxurious warmth of liquid caramel, casting long shadows across dusty red earth. As the sun slips below the curvature of the earth the crickets strike up the night-time orchestra, with other insects joining in, adding clicking and hissing and humming to the concerto, lulling us into a deep slumber.

The weather was kind as we set off the next day and a thick layer of cloud covered the sky once more, keeping the temperature around 35degrees as we headed the furthest west we could get without going off-road. We had reached The Threeways, so called because there are only three ways you can possibly go at this point. Up North to Darwin, East back where we just came from, or South…down the centre. Vicky indicated left and we headed South down the Stuart Highway, feeling the excitement build as we headed for even more unknown territory, unsure of what to expect but ready for the adventure.

We entered the land of the Waramungu people as we neared Tennant Creek. The land in this area is owned by the Aboriginals, the traditional owners. It was given back to them when white people started to realise that their ancestors had been utter bastards for ripping off the Waramungu people and stealing their land in the first place. We first visited the sacred women’s site of The Pebbles, where dancing and rituals are held, and then we headed into town. Tennant Creek was once a gold mining town where rich white men and their families thrived and the aboriginals would have worked for them. Now the gold mining industry has collapsed the white men are few and far between (hence the fact they gave the land back.) Families sit and shade under trees, men sit drinking “Victoria Bitter” outside of the pub and glare at the two travellers in their van as they pass. We felt intimidated. As far as we can see there isn’t much going on. The women look out of place in loose dark t-shirts and men’s shorts, children wander around nude and almost everyone looks unfulfilled as they trudge around the local supermarket, stooped and expressionless. It’s as though this western life isn’t working out for the Waramungu people. Why should it? We are two groups of people with very opposing ideals, contrasting beliefs and different lifestyles. The government throws money and housing at these people as they presume it is what will make them happy, but it clearly isn’t. Giving their land back might be a start, but how about empowering them enough to make the land their own again, rather than leaving them to live in the remnants of a white mans’ gold rush town, littered with VB cans?

That night in Tennant Creek was most definitely, without a shadow of a doubt, the worst nights’ sleep we’ve had so far. A completely different night time orchestra to that of the crickets lulling us to sleep. Instead we were lulled into a mild anxiety as the streets came alive with shouting, yelling and wild screaming. Car alarms echoed off of buildings and the night was punctuated with the repeated banging of a metal fence. Loud and angry voices boomed throughout the night and women cried violently. The two of us tossed and turned until the noise eased at about 4am. We were up again at 7 to start driving.

Sluggish and bleary eyed we hit the road, continuing our journey south with the planned stop off at Devils Marbles only an hour and half away. We’d been getting excited about this bit if the trip for a long time. The Devils Marbles are a sacred aboriginal site and as we drove down the dirt track we glimpsed the top of the first few stones. Huge boulders balance precariously atop of one another, bright orange and surreal. We marvelled at the majestic poise of each, defying the laws of gravity and defying whatever we just read on the information board. Cracked granite and sandstone worn down over years? But it looks like I could blow it over as easily as I could extinguish a candle. Some boulders lay cracked like eggs, split by the heat of the sun into two pieces. Some hang over edges just a little too far to be real, or melt slightly like giant orange cookies would in a Salvador Dali painting. We played like children, laughing, climbing up and around the giant rocks, and laid under them tempting gravity’s fate. Our sleepless night seemed many moons ago as we got lost in the wonder of the Devils Marbles.

We hadn’t planned to travel quite as far as Alice Springs that day but the day was going well so we pushed on. The great thing about long journeys is the many quirky roadhouses you get to stop in along the way. The fuel gauge was running low so we pulled into Wauchope Roadhouse. Wauchope is apparently the UFO capital of Australia and the owners of this road house don’t want you to forget that. I certainly never will. We posed for photos with our faces in the cut-out-holes of a painting of two aliens. We used the toilets, making sure to use the ones marked “Femaliens” not “Maliens.” And while sipping a long cool drink we read stories of how various people from Wauchope and surrounds had seen all sorts of lights, seen all sorts of things flying over and been probed in all sorts of places. The guy behind the counter asked if we’d seen any UFO’s yet, like we really should have and must have been blind to miss them. We began to think he was a little too involved in his job as he donned the alien mask and pounced on an unsuspecting and consequently petrified female customer. Good job it wasn’t Vicky or he may have landed himself with a black eye or two.

Back on the road we encountered a moral dilemma. We promised ourselves that we wouldn’t stop for anyone unless they happened to have a rather convincing siren and flashing lights. But there at the side of the road, looking lost and hopeless were three men and their apparently broken down car, trying to thumb a lift. This is the middle of nowhere. As I kept my foot firmly pressed on the accelerator we both felt a pang of guilt because we would want someone to stop for us should we break down somewhere so desolate. We decided to tell someone at the next roadhouse so they could send help instead.

Our next fuel and drink stop was the quaint Barrow Creek Roadhouse. We informed the lady there of the guys who had broken down and if I’m being honest we were only mildly surprised at the response. “Aboriginal guys? Don’t worry, one of their own’ll be along soon to pick 'em up. You don’t know how many of them are hiding in the bushes. They do it all the time. Happened to me years back when I stopped for a guy on his own. 8 or so of them appeared out of nowhere so I locked my doors and got moving.”  Reassured that we made the best decision our attention turned to the roadhouse itself, where passing travellers from over the years have pinned signed bank notes to the wall. The tradition began when long distance truck drivers would sign a bank note and pin it to the wall so when they next passed they knew they would have enough money for a cool refreshing beer. Most people passing nowadays will probably never return as they are merely ‘passing through’ on their once-in-a-lifetime travels. Notes from England, America, Europe, of course Australia and many weird and wonderful countries adorn each visible space in a blanket of green and scribbles. The owner must know that should he encounter any financial trouble down the line he has a financial safety net in the wallpaper.

Later that day we hit Alice Springs and boom! We were back in civilisation. I think I’d forgotten what traffic lights were, and I’d certainly forgotten how to queue for anything. We thanked Billy for getting us to Alice safely, 3,000km in 6 days, an achievement for the three of us. Then we slipped into the pool at the Heavitree Gap Caravan Park and relaxed as eagles soared above us against the backdrop of red rocky cliffs. It was there in the pool that we met Melody and her kids Joshua (11) Dylan (7) and Phoenix (5.) Melody sat on the edge of the pool nursing a bee sting, her shaved hair not at all harsh due to her soft features and warm eyes. Around her neck hung beaded necklaces; Tattoos of green and purple dragons crawled up her arm and back. Scott, her partner works at the park. The family have been living here for 3 years after intending to stay for only 2 weeks; apparently Alice Springs has that effect on people. They previously travelled around Australia in the Doug-Doug Van, where one of the kids was born, and plan to keep travelling as soon as Scott gives the nod. The boys are home schooled and all three are bright, eloquent and beautiful.  This family are living proof to me that yes, you can live life like this, you can have a family like this, and you don’t have to stop and settle down and give in.

On our first evening we caught up with family and friends. I took the laptop up to the top of Anzac Hill and Skyped my mum as the sun set over Alice Springs. It was great to say we were safe, halfway through the journey and very happy indeed.

While in the town we took advantage of a free didgeridoo workshop with Andrew Langford at Sounds of Starlight in the main street. We blew raspberries, dribbled and drooled and eventually we both succeeded in playing the didgeridoo. It turns out I picked it up very quickly and I spent some time picturing the two of us busking our way around the rest of Australia. We also visited the reptile centre. Vicky was in her element holding the lizards and snakes. I however, was rather apprehensive as the 4ft Olive Python squeezed my neck just a little too tightly. I was ‘reassured’ that she was ‘just feeling my pulse.’ Great. I didn’t want a snake to feel my pulse, thanks. Why does she need to know my heart rate? Hmm. At dusk I was much more comfortable with the other wildlife around. Rare black footed rock wallabies came bounding down the rocky cliffs and surrounded us, like miniature kangaroos, holding onto us as they ate from our hands. To be honest, they did me more harm than the snake…one over-eager wallaby took a good bite of my thumb.

The Todd River in Alice Springs is completely dry. It is clear where the water has flowed as the sand swirls between the banks, but footprints also wind down this river. Aboriginal people sit and shade under trees where the water once flowed. Apparently, the water flows several times a year when the storms hit Darwin further up north. No rain will fall in Alice but the river will surge its way through the city. Every other road is closed as they haven’t been bridged over the river so they inevitably flood. If the river flows the annual boat race has to be cancelled. This is because the annual boat race is a ‘dry’ boat race where competitors cut the bottom of their boat, hold it up Flintstones style, and run through the river to the finish line. Sounds a little too much like a running race for my liking.

After a few days we headed off to start the next big leg of our journey. First stop: A slight detour to The West MacDonnell Ranges. The main reason for this is that somewhere at the end lies Glen Helen Gorge. And it has my name in it. This demonstrates the incredible level of insight and precision with which we organise our travels. So off we went on our little detour to the West.

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