Day Fourteen Dunmarra to Alice Springs
Overheard two 60 something women on their way to the swimming pool telling Trevor “what a treasure he is and what a paradise Dunmarra was!”
Big day of driving, set off at 7.30 am. Took photos of road trains, the vast open plains
– the distances are mind boggling with not much change in the terrain – and some of the many, many termite mounds near the edge of the road that had been dressed in adult or children’s clothing.
It was almost a straight road the entire way, so driving the Kea was easy thanks to cruise control but it would have helped to pass the time if the CD player was in the dashboard rather than located at the back of the ‘bus’ in the media centre above the microwave (we’d bought book tapes especially for the trip). We managed to get the ABC radio near the towns and caught two brilliant programmes about famous artists we’d never heard of which were a bonus. A reminder of how important the ABC is to national discussion and awareness. At some point the dirt became redder and the terrain scrubbier.
Drove straight through Tennant Creek – sad looking place.
We’d been recommended to see a rock formation on the way called the Devil’s Marbles – quite extraordinary and you can see how they got their name. Both a natural feature and part of the Aboriginal creation story for the region.Thankfully the customary owners had finally been granted possession and had prevented a railway line from going through the middle!
Stopped at the Tropic of Capricorn for a photo. This was not only a stop commemorating the Tropic of Capricorn it was also a free place to stay overnight.
We passed several of these along the Stuart Highway but at this one (right beside the highway so road trains, trucks and traffic were a constant noise factor) we saw quite a few caravans including one that looked like they were there for a week with their awning up and their canvas chairs set up with the woman knitting and her husband in his singlet and shorts sitting beside her swatting the flies.
Eight hundred and sixty three kilometres after leaving Dunmarra, we arrived in Alice Springs at sunset, strange to arrive in a city after so long in the wilderness, parked opposite Bunnings and rang Kerrie’s youngest sister Janine who lives in AS.
She arrived with her eleven year old daughter, Mia and the two ‘handbag’ dogs and we followed her to her house, originally owned by the German man who had a camel farm and gave Robyn Davidson her first experience working with these beasts as described in her book Tracks.
We were initially worried as we were not meant to drive the Kea on dirt roads and the road to Janine’s house involved crossing a dry, rutted river bed, the same river that Robyn Davidson lived in.
The house had undergone changes since the German guy was there but the main room and fireplace were the same. The garden was full of artworks made out of society’s detritus – fencing wire, old cans, metal and tins – done by former tenants.
Distinctive and quixotic. There was a hill behind the property which was a reserve from which dingoes often came down. Most of the hills in the city were kept bare, as they were sacred.
Mia wanted a bonfire that night so after a shopping expedition for food we sat in the garden watching Mia create and attend to her bonfire and enjoyed a cooler climate for the first time since we’d arrived in the NT.
Day Fifteen – Alice Springs
Sunday day off in AS. Stayed with Janine, Vincent and Mia. Had to take the Maui van in for repairs, (from the moment we’d picked it up and for the entire 2,800 kms or so we had driven so far we had had a beep sound and a warning sign in German light up on the dashboard every ten minutes saying we were overdue for a service, plus the flyscreen needed repairing, plus a significant piece of plumbing came off when we last emptied the grey water).
Went to the Beannie festival, world famous apparently, featuring knitted beanies from around Australia. Kerrie bought one for Mia and one for herself.
Caught up with washing, comms, emails, finances etc. Kerrie watched “Tracks” DVD, which featured Vincent as part of a group of Aboriginals who found her in the desert and guided her.
Day Sixteen – Alice Springs to Uluru
Monday drove to Uluru, 500 kms away. Stopped to see view of Mt Conner – known colloquially as Fool-uru as it’s often mistaken for Uluru. We’d never heard of it before but it was impressive with sloping sides and flat as a pancake on top.
Bought cappuccino made by a Kiwi at Mt Ebenezer. They have an art gallery selling Aboriginal art which makes more money than the garage they used to operate.
Breath-taking moment when Uluru appeared on the horizon.
This was the start of the Australian school holidays so we arrived at Yulara resort to find the camping ground packed and a queue of motor homes, caravans and cars waiting to check in. Andrew stood for an hour and a half in the queue waiting to get our allocated space. At one point Janine took him over a cup of tea made by Kerrie in the Kea and came back saying he had made friends with everyone in the queue and was chatting away. NT bureaucracy is SO SLOW.
The most infuriating part was that we actually thought we had a confirmed 3 night stay but when we rang up to check the day before they had no record of our booking. So, they put us in the coach bay for the night – we were surrounded by teenagers in tents – but we did have our own covered eating area.
Sunset was approaching so we ran to the nearest viewing point to watch the sun go down on Uluru.
After negotiating the Kea into our designated spot, we christened the Kea fold out BBQ by cooking kangaroo steaks and kangaroo sausages. Talking to one of teenagers as we did the dishes, she said she almost had an emergency situation as she’d come away without makeup but thank goodness she managed to buy some foundation and mascara at the Yularu pharmacy! Such are 15 year olds!
Janine, Vincent and Mia stayed at Vincent’s niece’s house in the ranger village on the other side of Uluru as Yulara was packed, and Vincent wanted to spend some time trying to get Green party votes for the forthcoming State election.
Day Seventeen – Uluru
Tuesday – Uluru sunrise. We set the alarm and in the darkness navigated our way out of Yulara, and drove to the entrance to the park. At 6.30am the line for purchased entry passes started moving, we didn’t have a pass and our line moved at the typical and immensely frustrating snail pace we have come to expect in the NT.
It was still dark by the time we finally got to the head of the queue and got our 3 day pass, but we knew sunrise was not far away. We then missed the extremely poorly signposted turn off to the designated sunrise viewing area and only realised we had gone too far when we passed Janine and Mia driving the opposite way. We turned back, found the signpost and the turn off, drove to the to the car park and ran to the sunrise viewing platform. It was so jam packed with tourists and their cameras it looked like the paparazzi had arrived.
We found a spot on the fence line and waited along with everyone else for the magic moment when the first rays hit the great monolith. It was absolutely freezing, around 5-6 degrees and we had underdressed for the desert winter temperatures! What a contrast to Kakadu’s 34 degrees!
Drove back to camping ground to have breakfast and watch and listen to Vincent give a free talk about the creation story of Uluru to the teenagers that were packing up to go.
Due to the bureaucratic bungling with our booking we had to get a new powered space for the night, so Andrew wanted to get to the office before the queues began. Our next site was on the outer perimeter of the ground with red earth dunes behind it, but with a caravan six feet away on one side – Kerrie described it as like living in suburbia, or ‘tenturbia’.
We met Vincent back at Uluru and had a guided tour of the Malu section. Vincent’s half-brother and nephew were guiding a group of school kids and deferred to Vincent saying you couldn’t get a better guide – he had taught all of them.
Vincent is a traditional owner of Uluru and renowned story teller. The two had the same grandfather but different grandmothers who were cousins.
At a waterhole at the base of the rock, Vincent pointed out petroglyphs, concentric rings just at the water level, saying they were incredibly ancient, predating the time of his people, saying there was a much earlier occupation. Apparently these engravings in the rock are mostly concealed beneath the current waterline.
Andrew and Kerrie then walked around the base of the rock – 10.5 kms. It took about 2 and a half hours with stops to marvel at the different formations in the rock, to eat, drink, look at the flowers that had appeared after the heavy rains from the previous week.
The rock had been closed to walking due to instability after the rains but had re-opened to climbing when we reached the far side. We were disappointed to see people climbing the rock when we returned to the carpark – despite large clear signs at the base asking people not to as it’s both dangerous and disrespectful to the Aboriginal owners.
Clearly the only way to stop people is to close it altogether. This is being considered. Extraordinary that it hasn’t been already given around 5 people a year die either in the attempt or afterwards of heart attack or other complications. Visited cultural centre afterwards. Decided too tired to watch Uluru at sunset and cooked up chicken stir fry back at our site with Janine, Vincent and Mia joining us.
Day Eighteen Wednesday – Uluru
Drove into the Park to meet for breakfast with JV and M near a permanent water hole at the base of Uluru on the south side.
Vincent gave us another guided walk and talk explaining the origin and formation of the waterhole and shape of the rock by a giant serpent. The waterhole used to be a guaranteed source of fresh drinking water to local people but is now contaminated by climbers of the rock who relieve themselves on top! Tragic.
Then we visited the Aboriginal community – taken in by Vincent in their car, to show us the living conditions of the customary owners, the village tourists never see as the conditions are a disgrace, a marked contrast to Yulara. Back to the camp ground to register for next night’s spot – this time an unpowered site and crammed in between a Maui and an Apollo.
Had coffee at resort shopping centre facing town square, coffee shop packed, everywhere packed. From there we drove to Olgas – now known as Kata Tjuta. This is Vincent’s true country with lots of sacred sites which means he can’t tell us much about the story – too secret.
Walked up the spectacular gorge, could get almost to the end with view behind looking back to Western Australia on the horizon– had a cuppa tea and biccie, then headed back to see Uluru at sunset.
By the time we got there it was packed, many eating and drinking and creating quite an occasion out of it with tables set up, cups of tea, wine and cheese etc! We managed to find a space and it was worth it. Uluru changed from moment to moment through a cascade of colours to a final fiery orangey red with Kata Tjuta behind us in shadow.
Drove back to Yulara – tuna and pasta dinner in the campground. Discovered it was Vincent’s birthday – so we celebrated with a glass of wine.
Day Nineteen Thursday – Uluru to Alice Springs
Up early, showered and set off – Kerrie took last photos of Uluru signs, hit the road back to Alice Springs, filled up with gas at Mt Ebenezer – the cheapest place before Alice.
We reached Alice around 1:30. Topped up with fuel and gas before dropping off all our luggage and remaining food at Janine’s house. Returned our van to Maui – Kerrie registered unhappiness at problems we’d had with the van and asked for a refund of the drop-off fee, which they agreed to the next day.
Day Twenty Friday, July 1st. Alice Springs
A slow start getting packed up etc. Walked through the state heritage reserve behind Janine’s house to get to the old Post and Telegraph station. After a bit of – oh we seem to be slightly lost moments, Janine consulted GPS and we bush bashed our way and ducked through three fences, avoiding a women’s sacred site that Andrew couldn’t go through. But it was all worthwhile – after refreshment at the coffee shop we paid to enter the historic site – which was incredibly interesting and informative. Extraordinary that they built a trans-continental telegraph line from South Australia to Darwin in 1872, that connected to a submarine cable from Indonesia, connecting Australia to the rest of the world, enabling communications to take just 48 hours instead of 3-6 months. Walked back to Janine’s house, loaded up the car and had lunch at the Botanic Gardens, the only place open as it was time of the Alice Springs Show and the entire town was closed! Janine dropped us off at the airport – flew to Cairns and checked in at the Rydges Hotel on the Esplanade. Good location, on the waterfront but the room was the furthest room the lifts that we have ever experienced, almost needed a map to find it and refreshments along the way.
Kerrie found a number for her Mother’s cousin Ron (who we had met and stayed with 35 years ago). His wife Joan Brigden, now 84 and still alert, answered the phone and said that Ron was now 88, and had recently had to move into a home and was suffering some degree of dementia. Joan, however, said she was on no medications and very fit and healthy. Joan was the reason why they moved to Cairns from Sydney all those years ago as she suffered badly from asthma.
Rang Karen and the girls – Miranda and Serena staying the weekend.
Day Twenty One Saturday – Cairns
Had booked a water view room which we got but the water view was behind the building site immediately below us and we woke to building noise! Our flight to Townsville wasn’t until 3.30pm so we went for a swim in the swimming pool and a walk along the sea front before we went shopping for gifts
Cairns was very hot and humid which we hadn’t expected given that it’s winter but it’s surrounded by undeveloped lush green hinterland and mangroves. The sea front is mostly mudflats so not so appealing but there were lots of free exercise machines to use along the walkway and was a popular walking exercise route. On our shopping expedition we saw lots of empty shops and old Queensland pubs desperate for patronage but we walked past them and straight to the air conditioned shopping centre where I’m guessing three quarters of the population of Cairns were, too.
Bought some gifts and headed back to Rydges to wait in air conditioning until we headed to the airport.
Once more we had a cowboy Qantas pilot who landed the plane in Townsville like we were in a cyclone when we weren’t. Picked up our hire car and were told it was a good thing we weren’t arriving next week as there was a V8 car race starting in a few days ….groan.
Both Andrew and I recognised almost nothing as we drove into town, nearly forty years is a long time between drinks, found the Islington apartments where we had booked a one-bedroom unit and discovered the street address was now a car park and where the train line once used to run. The old train station had been kept and was off to one side as it had historical significance – WW1 – but the tracks were concreted over. The units were directly behind a half empty massive office block and surprise, surprise, our unit was not located in the picture that was on the website. Think housing commission towers and you’re close. We had to go through a locked wire gate to get to the lift and then walk along an exposed concrete path to get to our Unit which faced another block of units. We did have a view of a vacant block of land to one side and the river was in the distance.
The unit had mod cons but the air conditioner in the main room emitted a piercing whine and the bedroom had a corridor light immediately outside the window that made you think it was daylight 24/7. Went for a walk and ate out at a Japanese restaurant.
Watched Federal election results and debates that evening on the ABC and Channel 9. No result this night – looks like Malcolm Turnbull’s gamble didn’t pay off. While Shorten has almost pulled off an upset!