The Epic Sydney-Alice Springs Road Trip

Trip Start Dec 18, 2011
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Trip End Sep 15, 2013


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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Sunday, April 28, 2013

We just returned from a 4,000-kilometer road trip between Sydney and Alice Springs, in the very center of Australia. Did you ever watch Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? Instead of meeting creepy guys in outback roadhouse taverns, we met nice families and retired couples in campgrounds. We did follow the same route, mostly because it's the only way to get to Alice Springs and Uluru (Ayers Rock) from the southeast. There aren't many roads in the barren outback.
The kids finished term 1 of school in mid-April, which was followed by a two-week vacation. There are three more terms and two more two-week vacation periods this school year before summer vacation, which begins the week before Christmas and lasts until just after Australia Day, at the end of January. We've traded a three-month-long summer vacation and week-long school breaks for a shorter summer vacation and longer breaks.
While Chris drove the entire 4,000 kilometers, I wrote a journal of my impressions, typing on my smartphone's miniature keypad.
Day 1: Liam was so excited about going to the train station in a taxi. He just couldn't get over beginning a trip in a taxi, which we haven't done before. We've taken taxis in the middle of trips, but never been collected from home by a taxi driver before. We had a "no dramas" morning train ride to south Sydney, where we picked up the absolutely filthy motorhome. Now where is that freeway?
Day 2: Katoomba in fog, but lovely as always. We saw a huge change from the morning in the Blue Mountains to the afternoon driving on a flat, straight road to Nyngan. Liam's comment: "All we do is drive all day, with no time to do anything. Who planned this vacation?"
We have crossed from the bush to the outback. Nyngan sits along the banks of the Bogan River, which draws snickers from Australians. A bogan is someone stuck in the acid-washed jeans and mullet haircut era. Nobody wants to be a bogan, but everybody wants to feel superior to the bogans.
Day 3: Nyngan to Broken Hill. For kilometer after kilometer, besides the stunted trees and shrubs, the only life I see out my window are the goats grazing alongside the Barrier Highway. The goats aren't in groups or with a herder, but spread out eating what little vegetation there is. They aren't fenced, but they don't seem to get run over, unlike the kangaroos, which are plentiful alongside the road, dead. The landscape reminds me of the Yucatan peninsula, with scrub trees, saltbush, red sand, and flat, flat,flat land. Out of the blue an emu darted right in front of us. Chris braked enough that the bumper didn't get it. Otherwise we might have had emu on the barbie!
Day 4: We enjoyed a layover day at Broken Hill. Yorkshireman Adrian Bennett, who created the Mad Max 2 museum at nearby Silverton, says locals have to get their drinking water at Broken Hill because no significant rainfall has occurred in the area in more than 12 months. Residents usually draw water from a nearby reservoir, called a dam here. Clouds that look promising form, but nothing comes of it. Bennett moved his family from Yorkshire to outback New South Wales solely because the Mad Max movies had been filmed here and he is obsessed with the movies. Unbelievable.
Broken Hill was Chris's prime destination along the route. He studied the Line of Lode in college. Due to ancient oceans and later pressure and heat, different ore bodies formed and were layered atop each other. A later uplift sent the ore bodies to the surface, where their appearance as a "broken" hill drew interest. Iron and lead sulfides and silver have been mined in great quantities at Broken Hill. It's believed to be the largest iron and lead deposit in the world. The town is an oasis of trees in the outback.
Day 5: We are on the road to Port Augusta in South Australia. Riding along, I see two men moving sheep, Australia-style. Both men are on motorbikes and one is wearing the iconic high-visibility vest.There isn't much for the sheep to eat. The landscape here makes the 'dobies look lush. My South Australia impressions: There are pockets of pretty. A station truck on a dirt road makes a plume of dust visible for miles. We cross several dry, red-dirt riverbeds.
We visited with a representative of the interstate quarantine program at the official checkpoint. He inspects every vehicle, entering motorhomes and looking in refrigerators and cupboards. South Australia takes its fruit and vegetable restrictions quite seriously. We complied with an "area" restriction before Broken Hill, finishing off several pieces of fruit and placing the apple cores, banana peels and grape stems in the bins before the checkpoint. We saw the signs about South Australia restrictions, but because there were no specific fruits or vegetables listed and Broken Hill is quite near the state border, we assumed the same things were banned as at Broken Hill. It turns out that South Australia allows virtually no fruit or vegetables to cross its border. The patient inspector took most of our remaining veggies but did not fine us, which he could have done. When I asked him what specific foods were banned, he kept repeating that fruit and vegetables can't cross state borders. Finally he gave me a booklet with a series of tables. The restrictions are clear as mud.
Turns out you can bring leafy greens and cabbages, broccoli and cauliflower into SA. Pineapple is fine, as are mushrooms and asparagus. I read the booklet he gave me, wanting to make sure we didn't end up wasting food again as we crossed the border into the Northern Territory in a few days. And what's banned there? Weeds, feral animals, fishing bait, grapevines and yabbies. We're good! No restrictions on fruits and vegetables. As I said, clear as mud.
We saw another emu running alongside the road coming down off Horrocks Pass in the southern Flinders Ranges, just before Spencer Gulf. Here's an Australian version of "Stupid Deaths": The pass is named for John Horrocks, one of many explorers who died in the center of the country in the first half of the 19th century. While on an expedition searching for good agricultural land, Horrocks went hunting. His camel bumped him, causing his gun to fire, somehow knocking out many of his teeth. The expedition returned to civilization, but Horrocks died of gangrene from his injuries a month later. He requested that the camel be executed. "Next!"
Day 6: The flies are getting intense. We ate lunch at Woomera, a former closed military town and the site of British nuclear weapons tests during the middle of the 20th century. The Woomera test site is still closed to the public. NASA worked on deep space projects nearby during the 1960s. There are quite a few missiles and rockets on display in the center of Woomera. The Woomera museum is only open Monday through Friday, so it is closed today, Sunday.  Liam's comment: "This is the stupidest vacation."
Driving north from Woomera, we come upon the landscape features that defeated most of the explorers who left from the south and the southeast: Enormous dry lakes with their bottoms covered in salt so thick that the hills rising in the middle look like islands in a foggy lake.
We've seen our first three-trailer road trains.
1,000 km remaining if we went straight to Alice Springs.
New South Wales has a steel shortage, which is why the streets aren't adequately signed. South Australia has a complete lack of steel, which explains why Port Augusta streets have no signs. Instead, the street names are painted discreetly on the kerb. Very discreetly.
Day 7: We have another layover day at Coober Pedy, a place I wanted to see ever since reading about it in National Geographic as a child. We walked around town. First stop--Shell petrol store to get fly hats, which are necessary every time you step outside here in daylight. We visited a Catholic church dugout and Opalios opal shop, run by a Greek immigrant family who have been in Coober Pedy for 40 years. They first lived in a converted bus with no electricity (which means no air-conditioning) and no running water. They planned to stay three months and are still here, 40 years later.
We visited the Old Timers mine and museum, where Liam was a pill--"hurry up, come on"--because he wanted to do some "noodling" for opals at the end. $32 pretty much wasted. However, I saw glimpses of a hand-dug opal mine and a four-room home called a dugout. Coober Pedy took off after World War I, when returning veterans and immigrants realized they could survive the heat (50C = 122F) by living in abandoned mines underground. The town only really grew after World War II, when many immigrants arrived in Australia as refugees. About half the town's structures are underground, where the temperatures remain 23-25C year-round.
In Coober Pedy we saw our first significant numbers of Aboriginal people. Like native Americans in New Mexico or Arizona, many spend at least part of their days sitting on the sidewalk, steps of closed businesses, or under trees--but always in the shade. Aboriginal women usually move along the sidewalks in a group with other women, kids of all ages, and at least one pram. Often the sitting groups are only men. An Australian friend explained that Aboriginal people have men's business and women's business, and often the genders don't mix.
Signs all around Coober Pedy warn: Danger. Do not walk at night, do not run, do not walk backward. Exposed mine shafts can be up to 30 meters deep. The signs have illustrations of all three scenarios.
Andy is quite taken with Coober Pedy. He wants to return and actually dig for opals. He was surprised when I suggested he keep in touch! I told him that I had wanted to see the place, but once was plenty for me. He may be making gap year plans.
Day 8: We are on the road to the Northern Territory, driving past mounds of white earth around Coober Pedy for the first 30 kilometers. Groundcover is minimal--the gray, almost white grass called spinifex growing in clumps here and there, some small mounded shrubs with flat, rounded gray leaves, some shrubs that are bright green and knee-high, and others that are larger with black bark and tiny, dull green leaves, and the occasional scrub tree about 8-10 feet tall. The one trait all the vegetation shares is tiny leaves, in order to preserve life without moisture. It is flat.
My last sight before leaving South Australia--a skinny orange-yellow dingo eating something about 10 meters off the side of the road. My first impressions of the Northern Territory--green, hilly, and nicer than I expected. The change from desolate South Australia really occurred right at the border. There are rounded, rocky hills, small, jagged escarpments, and even mini Ulurus visible. This part of the Northern Territory is definitely more visually interesting; I hope it stays this way.
Day 9: We are on our way to King's Canyon. Interesting that it's the word canyon of the Spanish-influenced world, as that's not a word usually associated with Australia. There are actual trees here. The desert oak looks like a green bottle brush, with no branches until at least 12-15 feet above ground. Their leaves are like an evergreen's needles, except they are up to 12 inches long and billowy rather than stiff.
We're stopped at a roadworks, and I have to chuckle. The sign-holder is wearing a serious fly hat. His photo is in this album. He's also wearing his folding chair around his neck. There is plenty of evidence of recent bushfires here--some areas only have charred trunks without any shrubs or grasses. This area is called the Liddle Hills.
Diesel this morning at Erldunda Roadhouse cost $1.98 per liter. Definitely the most costly so far.
Day 10: We completed the rim walk at King's Canyon yesterday afternoon. Hot! We drove all morning, had a quick picnic in the parking lot, filled our water bottles and set off. The stone steps climb at the start set the tone for the hike. There was a little breeze, from time to time, and there was a little shade, from time to time, but mostly it was unbearably hot. At 70F it would be a nice hike. I don't know know how hot it was on the rim, but after we returned to
the camper, drove to the campground, and parked beneath a eucalyptus
tree, the air-conditioner gauge read the outside temperature at 33C (91F).
This was also at 4:30 p.m. We hiked between 1 p.m. and 2:40 p.m.
It's interesting to think that King's Canyon is unusual enough in Australia to be such a draw. There are hundreds of red-rock canyon hikes in western Colorado and southern Utah, and many as nice or nicer that we've already hiked.
We stayed the night in the fairly remote Kings Creek Station, a working cattle and camel ranch. It definitely wins the sticky fly competition. They take a moment to find you, but that is because they are bringing the whole brigade. As long as I'm wearing my hat, it's tolerable. I don't like them on my arms, back, and legs, but at least they are not in my eyes, nose, or mouth. Andy took a photo this morning of the flies on my back and arms. He
estimated there were more than 150 flies on me. Locals call them sticky
flies because they get at your eyes, nose and mouth, and waving your
hand at them doesn't move them off.
The area is quite busy with European visitors. Andy was driven mad by the smell of cooking bacon as we sat in the air-conditioned comfort of their snack bar and mini-store, trying to connect to the Internet.
Just like in the North Fork Valley, drivers in the Outback greet one another with the steering wheel wave. But there are certain rules on who gets a wave. Anybody driving a motorhome or towing a caravan gets a wave. Anybody with an Outback-style roof rack stuffed with gear and red fuel cans gets a wave. In fact, anybody carrying any sort of gear gets a wave. Who doesn't? People in cars, people in the rent-a-hippie-vans with not-so-veiled hints of drug use, usually with a destination or comment written on the body with black or red electrical tape. We saw one this morning with a Che Guevara-style picture of Jimi Hendrix and the word 'Hendrix' painted on the side. Liam's comment, quoting the movie Cars: "Respect the classics, man."
Actually, the wave makes sense in the same way it did years ago in the valley. We've met several families and couples driving the same routes as we are. You meet at the barbeque, the pool, the laundry room in the campgrounds. You see each other again at the roadhouses when you're fueling or having a picnic. We saw a family from the Coober Pedy campground again at Gecko's restaurant in Yulara, just outside the Uluru National Park. I met a nice grandmother at the laundry at the Yulara campground. She's on the road a lot since retiring in the early 1990s. This trip is with a son and grandson. When she returns to Perth, after a fortnight she'll leave for another trip with her  husband. Her favorite place in Australia: Coober Pedy.
Days 11 and 12: What to say about Uluru that hasn't already been said? Perhaps a comment on the cult of sunrise and sunset. People are on the road in the early morning just to get to a place to watch the sun rise. Same at sunset. You can't just pull off the road due to parking restrictions, so the lots that are quiet during the day are jammed for half an hour in the evening. Andy commented that no photo can really capture just how big Uluru is.
After our death march around the top of King's Canyon, we decided to hike on the south, cooler side of the rock. On one walk we visited a reliable waterhole that draws all sort of birds. The sounds are remarkable: bird calls amplified by the vertical rock walls, murmuring water, the incessant whine of thousands of flies trying to find a way under my fly net.
We didn't climb. The local Aboriginal people ask in every way possible for visitors to respect their sacred places and stay off the rock.
Day 13: We didn't leave much time to explore Alice Springs, but it seems to be a vibrant large town. There are groups of Aboriginal people sitting in the dry Todd riverbed, plenty of young, white people on bike rides or jogging, and a large business district. The campground, unique on this trip, has a security gate that is locked each night, as well as three strands of barbed wire along the perimeter fence. Residences have iron fences with gates closed across their driveways. I would guess crime is a problem in Alice Springs.
We ate at an Indian-Thai restaurant staffed by immigrants and were driven to the airport (after turning the motorhome in) by a Sudanese immigrant. Alice Springs seems as multicultural as Sydney.
Day 14: While it was interesting and educational to drive from Sydney to Alice Springs, I am very glad to get on an airplane for the return trip!
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Comments

Cami on

Dear goodness! Firstly, it sounds as if most of Australia = kinda' post-apocalyptic. Secondly, the detail about the mandatory fly hats gave me the heebie-jeebies. Thirdly, you are an amazing, adventurous family, aren't you? Finally: glorious photos! I liked the heart-shaped detail fr. Uluru, & to be honest, found all the photos of the opal-mining town simply fascinating! - Cami

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