Destination: Uluru, Part 3

Day 7 : Monday 19th December : Erldunda Roadhouse to Williams Creek

It is safe to say I had no idea what to expect on this part of the trip. While I am well aware of the nature of the iconic Outback tracks, I am not one for studying them in detail and I certainly wouldn’t be able to name any beyond Birdsville. So when we decided to travel back via the Oodnadatta Track it didn’t mean a whole lot to me, other than dust. While today’s overall distance wasn’t as great as some others, the unsealed section was certainly going to slow us down and so an early start was needed.

img_3068First stop was Marla, a roadhouse on the edge of the Stuart Highway and the perfect place to grab some breakfast, a coffee and to contemplate the track to come. This was a 255km section of nice smooth tarmac, the last we would see for a couple of days.

From Marla we took a left turn and headed out into the unknown on the Oodnadatta Track.

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What an experience; what amazing views; hard to contemplate just how remote we were; how far from any form of civilisation or even other human beings.

Even with lowered air pressures traction was often hard to find sending the car sliding or snaking. Breaking and corners were contemplated with extreme care; you are always on the lookout for a cattle grid, floodway or pothole which could cause damage if taken at speed. When this remote you really don’t want any damage.

While we have UHF radios in both cars so can scan the airwaves and call for help, these only have limited range. No mobile signal or satellite phone and so extra care was taken to avoid any need to make an emergency call.

210km of gravel track took us through to the small town of Oodnadatta. The town grew around a water hole as a stop over for the Afghan cameleers as they worked their way from the south up through to Alice Springs and beyond. In 1890 it became the terminus for the Great Northern Railway and remained a stopping point when the railway was extended in 1929.

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After the railway was dismantled in the early 1980’s the town became a centre for the indigenous population.

Many remnants of the railway still exist as you drive the track. Stations, workers cottages, bridges and watering points, complete with desalination plants.

I love history and so was perhaps a little disappointed that time didn’t allow us to stop and explore all of the structures along the way. The heat was also a factor which simply emphasised the harsh, remote and extremely dangerous work the railway workers undertook.

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Afghan Express : Having returned home I have read up a little about the railway which was originally called the Great Northern Railway but become known as the Afghan Express and later, and even to this this day, simply as The Ghan. The story goes that one of the cameleers was in a hurry to get through to Oodnadatta and so the name “Afghan Express” was born.

On YouTube I found the following program which was recorded back in 1980 as the original Ghan railway was coming to its end. While dated in their appearance they do provide a fascinating incite into a bygone age of the railways and how the towns we traveled through looked back in their day: The Ghan is Going, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

I have read somewhere that Australia has the largest mob of wild camels anywhere in the world. These animals are not native to the continent but were imported from the middle east, along with their handlers, the cameleers, in order to move goods, assist with construction of the telegraph and then the railway. As mechanisation increased with the railways and then trucks the need for the camel reduced. With no work there was no money to feed them or to pay the licenses that government imposed. The Afghans named every camel as they were far more to them than simply an animal and so when they could no longer feed them they simply set them free to run wild and survive if nature allowed. It was from these beginnings that the wild camels of Australia grew.

track-and-fliesAt one point a long the track we thought it had begun to rain. You could hear the rain drops hitting the windscreen. Not rain but flies – millions of them pelting into the car as we drove!

We continued on the track to our overnight stop at Williams Creek. A remote roadhouse hotel and the permanent home, we were to discover that night in the bar, to just two people. The following day the owner was flying out on business and so the official population would be just 1! The town, settlement, hamlet – not really sure what to call it – is made up of the hotel, camp site, petrol station and air strip. They are very proud of the fact they have a sealed landing strip as well as a grass one and are part of the emergency search and rescue network. When an emergency beacon is triggered in this part of the world they would be dispatched to fly out and establish the nature of the incident.

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While the food was interesting, we were warned by the cook that she wasn’t very good, the drinks were cold and the stories about the area and way of life fascinating to hear. A storm blew through as we were in the bar, the noise of the rain hitting the tin roof deafening, followed by the lose of the television picture and then failure of the generator. The owner reestablished the power within a few minutes but the isolation was compounded at that point.

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Post Script: Generally when I’m traveling I like to try and write the outlines of my posts at the end of each day. Sometimes this can just be notes, other times it’s complete bar the addition of pictures and links. The reason for this is the amount I forget as time goes by. So much can happen during the course of a day it’s too easy to miss a detail if I try and catch up later. Destination: Uluru was written after our return, several weeks later for some elements, and as such some small details were missed.

One such item was the story of the “Second Best Outback Pub“! For several days prior to visiting Williams Creek Phil kept telling us that he had read an article which listed the Williams Creek Hotel as the second best pub in the Outback. The second best! Not for us the best, but only the second best! This became a standing joke leading up to our visit, and continued as a source of amusement after, mainly at the expense of those on the rest of the list. if Williams Creek was the second best, just what are those on the rest of the list like!

Well it turns out that number three on the list is The Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta. We had tried to get a drink here as well but it was shut! Perhaps if it were open it may have been number two!

Update: 21 January 2017

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Flooding : During the week after Christmas heavy rains affected both Uluru and the Williams Creek areas. Pictures of waterfalls on the rock were posted by every media service, particularly here in Australia, but also around the world. During our drive along the track we commented many times about the size of the riverbeds and the rocks that were littered within them. They were dry and dusty as we pasted through. It was impossible to contemplate the amount of water needed to fill them.

The following pictures were posted on the Williams Creek Hotel facebook page and show clearly what happens when the rains come. Without doubt we would have been cut off if this had happened while we were there.

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Distance covered; 665 km.

Day 8 : Tuesday 20th December : Williams Creek to Peterborough

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img_2878We packed and headed out of Williams Creek reasonably early. There was a lot more gravel to drive today and it is essential on these surfaces to drive to the conditions.

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About 100km along the track from Williams Creek you get your first view of Lake Eyre, or the south lake to be more accurate.

The lake has a number of claims to fame – it is the lowest point in Australia at 15m below sea level (where we pulled over to have a better look we were 12m below sea level), when full,¬†which doesn’t happen very often, it is the largest lack in Australia, and perhaps most interesting to an Englishman, it was the site of Donald Campbell’s 1964 land speed record,a YouTube video of which can be seen here. Note the series Land Rover doing its bit!

The view out over the lake was, like so many things we have seen, incredible. It simply went on as far as the eye could see. It is only when you look at a map you realise that what you can see at this point is only a small part of the lake as a whole.

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We pushed on.

Our time on the Oodnadatta Track was coming to an end. After 547km we were about to turn right on to Borefield Road, the name doesn’t seem appropriate for a track in the middle of no where, and head for Olympic Dam, one of the largest mines in Australia.

We had thought this to be an open cast mine, but chatting to a conservation ranger we found out that it was all underground, with tunnels big enough to drive the huge dump trucks down into the center of the earth. After doing our right turn we had noticed a large pipe running alongside the track. At one point what appeared to be a huge pumping station had been constructed. The ranger told us this was for taking the waste water away from the mine where it was pumped deep under Lake Eyre. You have to hope that this is done with the best possible precautions as Olympic Dam Mine has the largest deposit of uranium in the world!

Now back on tarmac we pushed on for our overnight stop in Peterborough, skirting the Mount Remarkable National park.

Distance covered; 665 km. (Amazingly the same as yesterday!)

Destination: Uluru, Part 2

Day 4 : Friday 16th December : Coober Pedy to Uluru

We had another long drive ahead of us but our destination was now very much in sight. A few days before we had booked ourselves a special treat for when we reach Uluru and so we had a deadline to achieve.

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Having left Coober Pedy we headed north on the Stuart Highways for 490km before turning left on to the Lasseter Highway for the final 260km into Uluru. Had we not had a couple of breaks along the way this would have been our only turn!

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One of our stops was at the Northern Territory border, the forth state we would enter on this trip. After this I only have Western Australia before being able to say I have been to all the states in Australia!

Not sure why but it seemed like an amazing achievement to have reach this far!

Continuing on our next short break was to check out the amazing sight of Mount Conner which appeared off to our left.

img_2640So far I had been happy just to push on and reach our destination, but increasingly there were places I would have liked to have visited. Unfortunately when time is limited you simply cannot stop and admire every sight; but you can note them and go back. Mount Conner is one such place that is on my list.

As you approach Uluru the rock slowly comes into sight. It is without any doubt an amazing sight. After such a long lead up to this trip and an incredible drive over the preceding fours days our destination didn’t disappoint. Uluru is truly one of the wonders of this world; impossible for me to describe or for my photo’s to do justice. All I can say is if you haven’t already, go visit. Everyone needs to see this place!

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As we were slightly ahead of schedule we headed straight for the national park to get a closer view. When we arrived the temperature was 40C+ and so while we did take a walk to get up close and personal, it was a short one.

Uluru, as most people are aware, is a sacred site for the local indigenous population. I had heard before going that while climbing the rock was still possible it was discouraged as a point of courtesy. When we arrived the climb was closed because of the extreme temperatures. A sign near the climb entrance stated that the park was working towards closing it on a permanent basis. While not wishing to cause controversy, I really don’t understand what there is “to work towards”; just close it. You don’t need to climb this place to appreciate its size, magnificence and wonder!

img_2655Our campsite for the night was at the Ayers Rock Resort; this wasn’t a difficult choice as there are no other camp grounds any where nearby. We setup, had a much needed shower and header off for the evening.

uluru-1As mentioned previously, we had decided to treat ourselves for reaching our destination. We booked “A Night at Field of Light“; watch the sunset while drinking a glass of the sparkling stuff – or beer as my companions preferred – followed by dinner under the stars, a talk about the constellations and then a walk through the the Field of Light, an art installation by Bruce Munro.

It was a brilliant experience and the prefect way to end the first leg of our journey; too much to drink, amazing food in the middle of nowhere (not sure how they managed to produce such good food in such a location), good company, both my fellow travelers and the other guests around our table, and an incredible view of both the rock and the stars.

Distance covered; 750 km.

Day 5 : Saturday 17th December : Uluru to Kings Canyon

After a late night and too much fun it was a very early start!

It is essential to see Uluru at both ends of the day and while our alarms were set it was still a struggle to get up and going after the night before. Rather than pack all our gear we simply emptied the back of my car – currently I only have the two front seat – and set off on a mad dash to make the viewing point in time. It is safe to say my car isn’t made for quick corners and so Phil had a rather uncomfortable journey.

However we made it, just, and what an incredible sight.

The Outback is amazing in the way that it transforms as the sun moves across the sky and the light patterns change. Uluru was truly spectacular in the dawn light. Every bit as magnificent as it was during the sunset the previous evening.

An amazing experience. An amazing adventure. An amazing destination.

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img_2702Having had four long days in the car, today was to be a little easier; if you can call 320km in +40C temperatures an easy day!

img_2704We left the Ayers Rock Resort after a leisurely breakfast and headed for the Red Center Way and our next stop, Kings Canyon. A much steadier progress giving plenty of time to enjoy the views.

Once at the canyon we took a slow walk. The temperature hadn’t let up; there was a storm in the air which increased the humidity and discomfort further.

At the canyon car park there is a sign giving details of the various walks. One was around the rim of the canyon itself. Without doubt it would have been incredible, but there was an almost vertical 100m “staircase” climb to get to the top! Thankfully, due to the extreme temperatures, the walk was closed so we didn’t actually have to bottle out.

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Instead we took a gentle stroll along the canyon floor which provided spectacular views up the almost sheer walls. The sights were just amazing adding to the ever increasing list of incredible, spectacular, sights we had seen so far on this journey.

One negative however, were the bloody flies! They were everywhere and extremely persistent.

Camp for the night was at Kings Canyon Resort. Hot showers, cold drinks and very tasty pizza’s. A quiet and relaxing evening.

kings-1We hadn’t seen that much wildlife on our travels so far. A few kangaroos as we left the campsite in Baroota and emu’s on the side of the road in various places but that was about it.

As we drove through the campsite there was a sign warning about dingo’s and advising caution. We didn’t take much notice other than to make a general comment, but as we walked back to the bar we came across a female scavenging for food. One more species for our list.

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Finally before bed we decided to take a walk out to the sunset viewing platform. None of us were sure we had the energy but it was definitely worth the effort. As the sun slowly descended a storm began to build. It had rattled around earlier in the day and now it was back. The clouds building combined with the lowering sun to create some incredible colours in the sky and across the hills in the distance. At one point fork lightening struck the canyon in the distance to complete the impression that the gates of hell itself were opening.

Nature can certainly beat any man made light show when it decides too.

Distance covered; 320 km.

Day 6 : Sunday 18th December : Kings Canyon to Erldunda Roadhouse via Alice Springs

Breakfast and then off. Our destination today was back down the Stuart Highway in preparation for the next step of our adventure.

I said at the beginning of part 1 of this blog that we had a destination but no defined return route. There were a number of options, one of which was to take a track north of the Simpson Desert back round to Birdsville. Well that will have to wait for another time because in the end we decided to head south and a track which, to be honest I hadn’t heard of before, that would hold a whole new set of memories and destinations to which one day I would like to return.

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From the campsite we hit the first proper dirt road of the trip heading for Alice Springs. While we had seen plenty of red dirt over the past few days this was our first experience of really being part of it. The proper Red Center!

It is true to say I am beginning to run out of different ways to describe just how incredible the scenery is. I have used “incredible”, “amazing”, etc., so many times but still this journey and this country continued to give new views, new scenes and new memoirs. If you are reading this and can’t get your head round what I am trying to describe then get on a plane, hire a four wheel drive and get out there. If you don’t drive anywhere else in the Outback do the Red Center Way. You will not be disappointed and I have no doubt you will end your holiday knowing that you have experienced a real Australia adventure.

camelsSomewhere along this section we came across some wild camels. Australia has the largest population of wild camels in the world, but more of that later. I have included a picture which unfortunately isn’t the best as we were too far away, but it does go to prove their existence.

glen-helenAs we continued towards Alice Springs we crossed through the West MacDonnell Ranges. img_2788So much to see but no time! However we did make a couple of stops. First at the Glen Helen roadhouse, sorry Homestead Lodge to be correct, for a cold drink and a short break in the cool and then at the Ellery Creek Big Hole where one of our number was brave enough to go for a swim – she was warned about the wildlife but we decided if the worst happened one less passenger would increase my cars fuel economy.

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As today was Sunday it turned out that Alice Springs was shut! Well that may be a little unfair but we did try and get something to eat in a bar but they didn’t server food. We tried to get some beer for the evening stop but all the bottle shops in Alice Springs are shut on a Sunday – this apparently being due to a considerable problem with alcohol abuse in the area. Woolworth’s was open, just, so we stocked up on provisions, found a McDonalds to grab some lunch, they never close even in the very center of Australia, and headed south to our overnight stop.

Our final 200km of the day was down the Stuart Highway on nice smooth tarmac with a cold drink and dinner waiting for us.

Distance covered; 530 km.