Red Centre looking Green!

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Flag of Australia  , Northern Territory,
Wednesday, May 18, 2011

 

Tuesday 10th May we flew to Alice Springs to start our short visit to the Northern Territory. The plan was to go south west from Alice to visit Uluru and King's Canyon for a couple of days, then return through Alice Springs to take the Stuart Highway north to Darwin. There is only one surfaced road which is why it is necessary to retrace back the same way.

What can I say about Alice? The only way I can describe it is as small Frontier settlement meets totalitarian Council New Town. Jim said he thinks of it as the modern equivalent of the Foreign Legion i.e. somewhere you go when your options to stay elsewhere have all disappeared! I can see what he means.

As we were late arriving we spent the first night at Alice's Secret Backpacker Hostel. It was very basic but the young owner (from South Africa via New Zealand) said he should warn us about the plague of mice that the Red Centre is suffering. (What has Australia done to deserve all these plagues?) He was keen to make it clear that they were not just in his hostel but everywhere. I saw one mouse that night but it went under our room, not into it. The next day we collected our new van, a much newer version of the Hi Ace than we had used in W.A. and set off to find Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock. We visited the Royal Flying Doctor Service centre in Alice and discovered the idea was originally put forward by a Presbyterian minister, John Flynn, who wanted to provide what he called, “a mantle of security” for people living in the outback. They now have 54 planes, cover thousands of square miles, and take a quarter of million people to hospital for treatment each year, and most of those are emergencies. The next day we camped near a couple and discovered the husband had personal experience of the service as last year he had heart attack in a remote part of Queensland and he was airlifted to hospital. The RFDS is a charity supported but not fully funded by the government and Aussies have a very strong commitment to it and fund raise constantly to support it.

Uluru is interesting and seeing the red ground is fascinating (although the area is much greener than usual at present because of the unusually heavy rains they have experienced), but we thought that Mount Conner, which is within sight (but not reach as there is no road there) was more impressive. The colour of the earth varies from delicate pink right through to deep dark terracotta. We watched the sun set on Uluru and then went to our camp site.

The next day King's Canyon was on our itinerary and we went for a walk up the Canyon before driving to King's Creek Station (a working cattle and camel station) to camp. Before sunset we walked around the site and saw a pair of kingfishers – a long way from water. I was taking a final look at the sky as it darkened, standing by the side of the van and alongside a huge area of spinifex grass about 2 feet high. There was an amazing rustling sound across the spinifex as though a strong wind was blowing through it but the air was still. Then I saw 2 whole families of mice come out of the grass and realised there must be hundreds more to make so much noise. I stamped on the ground and they disappeared back into the grass. I reminded myself that I enjoy seeing wildlife.

We went to bed and I fell asleep to be awoken shortly afterwards by the noise of lots of mice squeaking and running around. Eventually they started running all over the outside of the van. We were under seige. Jim said they would not come in but I could not get back to sleep. It was the first time I was grateful for Jim's snores because the louder he snored the quieter the mice were. Then I heard rustling in the van and jumped up and put the light on but I could not see anything. Because Jim was able to sleep I thought it best to leave him in peace so he could drive the next day, but surprisingly after lying there a while I did drift off, to be woken 3 or 4 times when they were very noisy. I lifted my feet in the sleeping bag and thumped them down a few times, told myself I still loved wildlife, and then turned over and went back to sleep again. It was not a good night.

The next morning I don't think Jim believed that they had been in the van until we found that the soap had been nibbled, they had bitten through a plastic bag and eaten some pear and, of course, left a few droppings.

That day we drove back through Alice Springs to start our long trek north but we made sure we stopped at a site early enough to buy a couple of mouse traps (the enclosed cage ones so you can't see a body) and go through every inch of the van checking for mice or a nest whilst it was still light, unfolding every item of clothing, looking behind every curtain etc. Then I decided to use our double bed mosquito net as a second line of defence. I know a mouse could chew through it quickly but I tucked it well in under the bed cushions in the hope it might deter them. Thankfully we had a peaceful night.

The distance to be covered from Alice to Darwin is approximately 1000 miles with only an occasional roadhouse, a couple of village sized communities and the small town of Katherine along the way. The road was originally just a track used by the men who erected the telegraph line. Then during the war some 200,000 troops were moved to the north in case of invasion. They needed supplies so the Stuart Highway was constructed at top speed in 1941/42, sometimes constructing a mile each day, to ensure supply lines could be maintained. The road has been upgraded since but the buildings along the road are from that era and they don't seem to have been updated! Fuel along the road can be as much as 25% more expensive than in other states.

The roadhouses where we camp usually provide petrol, a few basic items such as bread (usually frozen) and milk, simple snacks, motel accommodation and campsites. They look like shacks and sheds. Some look like cricket pavilions from the same period in England. The amenities range from basic to use only if you have to. We went 2 days without a shower as it seemed safer than using the facilities. (The shower was freezing in one and it was a cold morning, and the water was muddy the next day.) Having said all that it is a fascinating experience, and apart from the mice, one I would not have missed. Where there are tourists around Uluru, the Olgas, and Kings Canyon to the south west of Alice, and Katherine in the far north, the facilities are of a good standard, but the no-mans' land of 750 miles between Alice and Katherine, which does not have many visitors, has not had any investment that we could see, apart from the road, which is why it is so run down.

En route we visited the Devil's Marbles, a collection of boulders spread over a huge area of land, with some being precariously balanced. At Wycliffe Wells we encountered the place most visited by UFO's in the world. In March this year there was a special conference held there. (Only attended by humans as far as I am aware.) It is a very run down roadhouse in the middle of nowhere so why the aliens choose to visit we could not imagine.

Tennant Creek is the only place of any size between Alice and Katherine with 3,000 people and it is how I imagine Alice Springs might have appeared in the 40's. Tennant Creek has a very good Aboriginal Culture Centre which explains the history of the traditional landowners, as they are called, but only since Europeans arrived. A personal audio machine makes it possible to walk around the displays inside and listen at your own pace and then it takes you outside around the gardens to learn about the different trees and shrubs used by Aboriginal peoples, for food, medicines and the making of artefacts.

The visit helped me to understand the dreamtime concept a little better. Because there is no written heritage all the knowledge of the people, their mythology, history, family relationships, law, survival skills, awareness of the flora and fauna, where and how to find water etc is embodied in stories which are told time and time again to ensure their culture and expertise are retained. The stories are combined with dances. Individuals are only allowed to tell certain stories and dance certain dances depending upon their name, and that is determined by their parents names. Men and women each have their own stories and dances. Men and women do not dance together. It would seem a good way to ensure that essential survival information as well as their cultural heritage is spread across different members of the group acting as an adhesive binding everyone together.

No map is needed for the journey – it is one road, the Stuart Highway, from Adelaide through Alice Springs to Darwin. It is no better than a B road in the UK but the speed limit is 130 kilometres per hour (81 miles an hour). It is mostly straight and used by travellers/tourists and roadtrains. Roadtrains were created here and there is a memorial to the man who originally came up with the idea. They consist of a drivers cab with a number of trucks linked together behind, like railway freight trains, and they can be up to 54 metres long. The roadtrains are assembled in special areas on the edge of towns because obviously they are too big to go into most towns and then off they go on trips that might take days. They are separated into individual trucks when they reach the outskirts of their destination town. There are very few overtaking lanes on the road.

Although the distances are great the scenery changes so much it does not get boring, and something always seems to be happening, birds overhead (there are many more raptors above the road than cars on it), smoke and fires, the occasional kangaroo, (live and dead), dingo, cattle etc. Plus there are a number of ranges that appear and disappear, such as the McDonald Ranges.

Eventually we reached Katherine which is a lovely place with real buildings, and we had a superb day when we went to the Nitmiluk Gorge and spent the morning walking. We saw birds, our first snake, a whip snake which is venomous, and a tree full of fruit bats.

Then we visited an old homestead, which was established in 1879, the first in the area. An English man, Dr Brown, wanted to establish a farming area in the region as he thought the gold rush of the time would create a demand for food, and any surplus he planned to export to Asia. He employed an experienced man to drive 12,000 sheep, plus cattle and horses from Adelaide to Katherine. The journey was successful but took 2 years, and once the stock had arrived they then built the Springvale Homestead. Unfortunately the conditions were not suitable for sheep and by the end of 4 years only 70 were still alive. So as a stock station it was a disaster and Dr. Brown lost his investment of 200,000. However, the old homestead building has been retained and now lies in the grounds of a camp site. Adjacent is the original spring which forms an amazingly beautiful billabong that has crystal clear water, lilies, and is home to birds, fresh water turtles and freshwater crocodiles. We were watching all this and being reassured that the croc on the edge of the billabong was not dangerous, when a man moved too quickly near the croc and startled it. It instantly leaped up and snapped at him. Everyone kept their distance after that!

Despite only having a day and a half in Darwin we managed to have a good look at the town which has some 80,000 residents. It was almost totally destroyed by Hurricane Tracey in the 70's and had to be rebuilt so is one of the most modern towns in Australia.

Tomorrow we fly into Denpasar, Bali. Should be interesting as we have not had chance to carry out any research as getting online wasn't possible. There is not even a mobile signal in the centre or until Darwin. Things really have not changed much on the Stuart Highway.
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Comments

Aranza Hurst on

It looks very nice! Your photos are really good.

Aranza
xx

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