Waved goodbye to Darwin on Friday morning (whilst vowing to return.. I'd seriously like to spend a few months working there later in my aussieland trip) and set off for two weeks of southward traveling that I am most excited about!
The first few hours were mostly retracing my steps from my trips to Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks, bussing it down the Stuart Highway (named after John McDowell Stuart, the explorer that became the first to track a route though the centre of Australia from Adelaide up to Darwin, after several failed attempts, he finally broke through in 1862 after what must have been an almost unimaginably difficult journey accross rough and uneven terrain in baking heat, exposed to the elements and never knowing how far it was to the next source of water). ANYWAY. The Track is now a sealed road, mostly just single lane in each direction, although parts are wider, which runs from Darwin right down to Adelaide, and upon which I am going to spend most of the next two weeks!
Whereas in Englad, single lane in each direction-roads are generally a complete nightmare, it matters not with the Stuart because a) the traffic is pretty sparse, think on average one car coming in the opposite direction every 5-10minutes and b) huge great stretches of it are dead-straight, stretching to a point in the horizon obscured only by heat-haze, so it's easy peasy to overtake!
Although certainly remote and parts are very far from civilization, the Track is used regularly by toursits wanting to see a bit of the middle, and by the Road Trains that ferry stuff between the south and the north; I had heard about these beasties first from the lips of Bill Bryson and I have to say, he made them sound a lot bigger and more impressive than they were, I was expecting vehicles the length of TRAINS (which in Aus can stretch to a km or more) but infact the legal limit of length for a road train in the NT is three coaches (triples) which is something like 52m. Incidentally, I DEFINITELY saw at least one cab towing FOUR trailers, and also, the guinness world record for the longest road train was last beaten in 2006 in Clifton, QLD when a truck towed 112 semi-trailers, length of 1474m! That's long! THAT might have impressed me, but as it was the ones I saw seemed to fall short of expectations. They are fun to overtake, though, especially in a seriuosly underpowered minibus.
So.. although outbacky, The Track does have service stations, motels and small communities along it. These outback pubs compete for the travelers business, so they seem to each have developed a unique reason why people should stop there, they all claim to be "famous" for something or other. The claim to fame of the first place we stopped, a hotel in Adelaide River, was that it was teh home of the big bull that Mick hypnotised in Crocodile Dundee.. apparently the bull used to live outside the pub until it died and now it has been stuffed and lives INSIDE the pub.. it had very big horns.
Our first day of traveling, we were still in a wetter region of northern Australia, so we got to have a couple of swimming stops, at Edith Falls, where a small fall cascades into a nice big, clean, refreshing pool. We swam from one side to the other and sat on rocks and a couple of members of the group got nibbled by fish! Our second swim was somewhat different, in Bitter Springs, at Mataranka thermal pools, where water heated underground flows out of a spring and is at constant 32C. The pools were nice and warm and clear, although a proliferation of REALLY SLIMY algae made putting ones foot down a fairly unpleasant experience.. quite a strong current meant that we could float downstream with a minimum of effort (or being able to concentrate all of our effort into not putting our feet down into the sludge). The sludge was not only on the riverbed, big lumps and clumps of it alsofloated on the surface, occasionally into our faces. It was still nice though, very clear and clean, and knowing it was a thermal pool made it feel like it was good for us, very pure and minerally and stuff (possibly this is the influence of the large number of good-for-you toiletry scrubs claiming themselves to be "mineral spa").
In the raging heat of the first afternoon, we disembarked at Cutta Cutta caves, huge underground cave system formed of limestone and sandstone, with stalactites. Wasn't really listening as much as I should have been to the talk, but something about calcium carbonate in the water dripping through the layers of rock, drying and leaving a calcite crystal that glittered? Cutta means stars in the local Aboriginal language, so Cutta Cutta means "lots of stars" referring to the glittering of the crystals on the rock. The caves were impressive and a welcome relief from the heat of the land above.
We camped for the night at Mataranka campsite, had dinner cooked by our guide, Leigh and a few drinks before bed. Part of the reason why I enjoyed this trip so much was thanks to the other group members and Leigh, two english guys in the group I got on really well with, we were constantly chatting, and Emi, a lovely japanese girl who was also great company; we were a fairly multicultural group with three frenchies and an aussie and the others were great too. Our guide was very VERY knowledgable about the area and stuff, told us loads of interesting things and was good fun and very chilled out and just always went out his way to help us, the veggie food was great and he worked incredibly hard to look after us. I really couldn't fault him. I love Groovy Grape (the company) so far..!
Day two dawned with a bright n early 6am start.. we HAD been sleeping in the legendary swags (big canvas sleeping bags) but inside the mosquito net domes of tents, to keep the mossies off, so it didn't QUITE feel like proper outback outside swagging. That is yet to come!
Day2 was a day of outback pubs, and great fun at that! The first was Larrimah Country Pub (claim to fame having the highest bar in Australia, although it didn't seem THAT high to me, I could still see over it..), with a giant pink panther statue outside and a million rainbow lorikeets in the trees, which made my moring as I was able to get the long-coveted clear and perfect photo of them. They also had a few crocs and wallabies and other birds in too-small cages, but I concentrated on the free and happy ones.
Stop two.. the MUCH anticipated Daly Waters Pub, where I hunted in vain for Nicky's mark.. was a bit disappointed to be unable to find it but soon decided to leave my OWN mark, with a little mention of him on the back (just in case for whatever reason you don't make it back here). This pub was spectacular and characterful and unique road-side pub, absolutely crammed and covered from celing to floor in things left behind by passers-through. Some just left a photo (like me), some just a message or signature on the woodwork, but others were more creative with T-shirts, knickers, bras, caps, shoes, stubby coolers, hockey sticks, postcards, beermats, plane tickets and I cannot even list the varitey of stuff that was personalised and staple-gunned to the walls. To stay and read everything there would be almost a lifetime commitment and with the constant passage of new visitors, certainly akin to painting the Golden Gate Bridge. It was fantastic, brimming with spirit of the past, and I loved it.
South of Daly Waters, we really began to see a change in the landscape from that up by Darwin, the vegetation became progressively sparser and the earth redder (due to iron oxide) and it got drier and drier. My expectations of the "big red centre" had been of essentially, a desert. It is not a desert, though, even in the most rural and driest places, the land either side of the track is vegetated, I was told that this is because it is an ARID zone and not a desert. There ARE deserts in the centre (eg the Simpson Desert) where there is very very little vegetation, but I did not see them. Some people might think the road for such a long distance (1,500km in total from Darwin to Alice) with fairly uniform vegetation might be boring, but it was anything but. Even when basically similar, there were differences in the landscape rises and gullys. The redness of the earth, with the yellow grass, green trees and wide expanse of blue blue sky was just captivating. I could, and did, watch it for hours without getting bored. tired, certainly, the heat and sitting still meant I had a number of midday naps, but I never ever bored of watching the surrounds.
We had a brief refuelling stop in Tennant Creek, not long enough to see anything there but sufficient for me to become fairly certain that it's not a place that I ever WANT to spend longer than about 5-10minutes. Maybe it's great and I just couldn't see it, I'm sure there is a lot more to it than meets the passing-through-travelers-eye, and it is unfair to judge it so swiftly but I'm sorry, I just didn't like it much and I didn't feel as if I would be safe there alone and I don't like to feel that.
Barreling on down the road, with 30minutes at a time with no bends (!), our mission was to make The Devils Marbles (Karlu Karlu) for sunset. I had previously seen pictures of the marbles, which are somewhat of an icon of the NT, but the reality of them was just amazing, giant round Granite boulders balanced on their points in impossible positions in a red red sandstone landscape. They were just beautiful, and the setting sun threw the most photogenic rays on them to light up their iron-oxidey-red faces. Excellent photo opportunities and one rock, split down the middle to form two peaks was just TOO much resembling a bottom for me to resist putting the timer-function on my camera and legging it over to expose my own in front of it! It made a brilliant photo that I resisted temptation to make my profile picture, for fear of facebook realising and censoring it!
We had about 45minutes to wander amongst the rocks before the sunset, then after the quickest pee of my life in a pitch-black corrugated metal hut straight out of a horror movie, on to the campsite at Wauchope (pronounced War-kup). BBQ dinner then we had a couple of drinks in the bar, which was full of horrendously drunk and highly amusing aussies and employees, where we were invited to do a special sambuca shot (which I wisely declined, bearing in mind the 7am busride of the next day).. consisted of a shot of black sambuca.. the guy put the shot into a wineglass, lit the liquid and swirled it around before tipping the burning liquid back into the shot glass (and a bit on the barmat, which set it alight) and upending the wineglass over a napkin and a drinking straw. The taking of the shot required inhaling the alcohol fumes through the straw from the upended wine glass, knocking back the shot then tipping the last couple of drops onto the BASE of the upended wineglass, lighting it then SNORTING it, whcih burnt all of your nasal hair. Once again, I was WISE to decline! It was all great fun though, and I walked away with a "Wauchope hotel" singlet, which our tourguide got for me from the owner, as a momento of our stay!
After 700km on day2, day3 was a shorty with just 400km to go into Alice Springs. We had a morning stop at the Barrow Creek motel, which was yet another quirky and individual roadside outback pub, crammed with souvenirs and momentos of people passing through. I wanted to fill up my water bottle from a tap there but was awakened to find that there was no drinking water atall, just the bottled stuff. It makes sense I suppose, but it was the first place I have been that DID NOT have drinking water, and kindof highlighted the remoteness of where we were. I left another photo with my name, date and a little message (walk in the door to the bar, it is round to the right, at the far left end of the pinboard, just beside the hot food cabinet).. finding a space big enough for one passport-sized photo on the walls was a mission in itself!
We stopped a couple more times, in Aileron (12m high statue of an Anmatjere man) where we looked round a very good aboriginal art gallery, and saw the artists at work, then at the tropic of capricorn line to wave good bye to the tropics (I did shed a few tears! I'm not tropical any more :() then finally into Alice. Our tour guide lives in Alice Springs, is passionate about it, loves it and thinks it is a brilliant place.. throughout the trip he had been telling us stuff about the town which was interesting and refreshing, the backpackers impression of Alice I have heard most often being that it's a bit scary and a little grotty. He took us first up Anzac Hill, to get our bearings and look out over the township. The landscape around the town is rugged and mountainous, dusty and red and very dry with a lot of rubble. To me it looked like nothing so much as Afghanistan.
But could see the appeal of the rugged red mountains underneath the endlessly blue sky. An afternoon in alice then we had end-of-tour drinks and food in TheRockBar in town. Sadly, none of the group are going on to do the Alice -> Adelaide leg of the trip on Tuesday, we got on well, it is sad to see them go! We had a nice evening the got a taxi back to the hostel (on the advice of absolutely everyone, you DO NOT walk around Alice after dark). As I said, it's a nice place.
Today was my Alice day. I spent the morning at the Informtation Centre for the Royal Flying Doctors of Australia, which organisation has had a special place in my heart ever since childhood days watching "The Flying Doctors". It did not disappoint, there was a fascinating museum and a great video then we got to see through to the office where the actual AS branch of the flying doctors do their office work from. It was just... awe inspiring. At many MANY points I found a lump in my throat and tears p****ng my eyes and I can't really expain why, I'll try.. it's just the though of this service all over such a vast area of australia, people in areas so remote that they have to have their groceries flown in my monthly-plane, and this team of medical professionals in radio contact with them, jetting all over the contient to save their lives. NOWHERE in Australia is more than a two-hour plane ride away from a Flying Docors depot, and medical assistance.
It's just an amazing feat and to see the testimonials of people living in these remote areas, saying that they would not be abe to live there wihout the service provided by the flying doctors... In a way I wish I had been born in Australia, that I had know about the flying doctors growing up, that I could have known to choose it as a career and devote my entire life to becoming part of it, I can think of NOTHING more worthwhile. Understandably, it's a pretty coveted profession, most of the pilots have trained for 20 years and most of them have been flying with the RFDS for ten plus years. I actually can't express in words how much the RFDS impresses and moves and inspires and affects me. Oh god that sounds cheesy, but it's true. It's not the only flying doctor service but it is the largest and covers the greatest area and treats the most people and saves the most lives.
An English couple I exchanged a few words with, the guy started to say "I've admired this service ever since watching a TV series in my childhood..." and I finshed off his sentance "... The Flying Doctors" and he said "It just stays with you" which is it exactly, and no more needed to be said.