Published: October 21st 2006October 10th 2006
The road to Undara was rather optimistically titled the Kennedy Highway, a grand name for what was essentially a single lane of tarmac with rough dirt on either side. If a car was coming in the opposite direction you were expected to drift your left wheels into the dirt so that there was enough room to pass. If a road train was coming in the opposite direction you were expected to get off the tarmac completely. The larger road trains trailed a cloud of dust and grit behind them like a comet's tail, which resulted in you driving into something akin to a sandstorm.
There were very few settlements along the way, so it was a real back-country drive with few signs of humans. At some roadworks where traffic was only allowed in one direction at a time, a guy twirling a Stop/Go sign had a chair and shady umbrella, like some beach concession selling icecream, a lone figure in the middle of nowhere.
Undara is famous for its lava tubes, created a couple of hundred thousand years ago when the Undara volcano (one of over 160 in the region) erupted. When the outer surface of the lava flow
hardened, it created insulating tubes through which the molten lava inside eventually drained away. Hot gases popped holes in these tubes, creating the entrances that can be seen today.
The only accommodation at Undara is the Lava Lodge, consisting of various options to suit all pockets - from stifling dorms in a set of prefab buildings (i.e. my choice) to sumptuous suites in a number of converted railway carriages (connection with lava: unknown) that sit incongruously near the reception building. The complex is well-integrated into the surrounding countryside, so on the various signposted walks and even in the site itself you can see tame kangaroos and wallabies nibbling without concern, plus assorted other bird and reptile life.
I attended a campfire presentation in the evening about the wildlife to be found at Undara. It was rather let down by the presenter - supposedly a professional guide - having as little knowledge of the subject as me. For several slides, he cheerfully admitted he knew nothing about the creatures pictured on them. The one interesting fact he came up with was that there is a species of termite that, when threatened, blows itself up.
The lava tubes themselves
can only be seen on a tour. I doubted that my attention would be held for particularly long, so I chose the shortest tour, of 2 hours duration. Unfortunately the tubes turned out to be essentially just large caves, but without much of the detail (stalactites, etc.) that makes caves semi-interesting. Moreover - and unlike the caves I saw in Western Australia - there were no light sources in the tubes except for natural light near the entrance and the guide's torch. This made photos almost impossible to take - with the walls and roofs often some distance from the walkway, no normal flash would reach. The basalt surfaces were patterned in red and orange swirls created by the lava but you could only really appreciate this near the entrance.
More interesting was that we saw (actually, disturbed) a rock wallaby and encountered a couple of wallaroos (so-called because they are intermediate in size between a wallaby and a kangaroo, not because they're a cross, as I'd originally thought).
I came away feeling it hadn't been the worth the ~400km detour.
There are more photos below