The Devil's Marbles, Barrow Creek and UFOs

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December 8th 2009
Published: April 30th 2010
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After a couple of days chilling out in Alice Springs we were picked up at ridiculously early o'clock by two ladies from Adventure Tours Australia (I can't remember their names - they were rather bland and mechanical) in a vehicle that was even more daunting looking that the bruck. Like the bruck it was essentially a four wheel drive bus but this held 22 instead of the measly 12 or so that the trusty bruck could seat. As we were first to be picked up (hence the very early start) we chose the best seats just behind the drivers and stared blankly out the window at the slowly dawning sky as we toured around the other hotels picking people up for an hour or two. Eventually, and with 21 passengers and only one spare seat we set off on the long journey to Darwin!

The tour we had booked onto was meant to be for six days. Three would get us from Alice Springs, right in the barren centre of Australia up to Darwin on the north coast set amongst the lush tropics. A further three days would then be spent touring around Darwin and the national parks surrounding it. We had assumed that this would be done as one tour but our guides explained that we would do the trip to Darwin with them and the other passengers before transferring to a different tour for the second section around Darwin. This wasn't a problem but then they went on to warn us that the first part would, in their words "be what we made of it". They elaborated that it was essentially one long road trip with little in the way of sights and that we would have hour upon hour sitting in the bus watching the landscape slip by so would enjoy it if we could keep ourselves amused. However, as if trying to soften this blow they said that, even if the trip was boring, it was still cheaper than the greyhound which offered absolutely no interesting diversions so we had chosen well nonetheless. With that unencouraging welcome to the tour, we hit the highway and headed towards the first stop.

Sure enough, when we pulled into an almost unmarked lay-by just off the highway and poured out of the bus it did seem a little underwhelming. However, the sign at the side of the road where we had stopped marked the point at which we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, one of the five major circles of latitude that circle the globe along with the Tropic of Cancer, the Arctic and Antarctic Circles and, of course, the Equator. Although the site itself wasn't anything spectacular it was quite cool to think that we were straddling an invisible line that stretched all the way around the world. After snapping a few photos and doing the obligatory dance over the line ("Now I'm in the tropics - now I'm not! Now I am again!!") we got back in the bus and set off for Aileron. On the way our guides told us that, although section of the earth north of the Tropic of Capricorn and south of the Tropic of Cancer is usually considered the tropics this wasn't technically the case in Australia. For a further 800 km the landscape would still be semi arid and that we would be most of the way to Darwin before we started to see the outback give way to tropical scenery.

On the way to Aileron we were told that the town is one of the few places that Aboriginals are still allowed to exact their traditional form of punishment and retribution. Other Aboriginal communities bring their criminals and "troubled youngsters" to the local Walperi tribe in Aileron for punishments such as a spear through the thigh or poisonous tree sap in the eye. An effective deterrent you would think. Aileron also has an interesting history as the site of one of the worst Aboriginal massacres in history. In 1923 a white general promised food in exchange for a night with the chief's beautiful wife but then reneged on his deal. He was killed by the tribe which brought swift and brutal retribution from the white colonialists. They arrived in their dozens and slaughtered masses of the tribe indiscriminately and without trial. Despite this interesting history all we saw of Aileron was a large Aboriginal statue on the way into town and a truck stop that had an injured wedge tail eagle in captivity outside. We bought some of the iced coffee that most Australians, and now I, am utterly addicted to and set off again.

Shortly down the road we stopped off at Ti Tree, another Aboriginal town. The only thing of interest was a grocery shop that is run and staffed entirely by Aboriginals, quite a rare thing in Australia. We stopped to give it some well needed trade before hitting the highway again.

Next up was Barrow Creek which is famous for several reasons. In the late 1800s, as Australia was being colonised, the European settlers set up 15 telegraph stations that stretched all the way through the outback from Adelaide in the south to Darwin in the north and then on to Europe. Messages were relayed from station to station until they ultimately reached home and in this way, Australia, a far flung colony, was linked the motherland. Barrow Creek was chosen as a location for one of these relays and in 1872 a small telegraph station with a house attached to it was opened. It was an incredibly solitary and difficult life for the three men who operated, and lived at the station.

The Barrow Creek area is also home to the Kaytetye Aboriginal people and the opening of the telegraph station caused friction between the two groups. The Aboriginal way of life is very nomadic and they simply did not understand the concept of land ownership so when large areas of their settlement were bordered off for the telegraph station, the house and the farm that supported it they simply climbed over the fences and killed the animals for food. Of course the men at the station regarded this as theft and there were numerous small conflicts over the issue that culminated in an Aboriginal attack on the station a couple of years after it had opened. One of the white men was killed instantly, another died later from his wounds and the third was speared in the leg. He managed to get word back to Adelaide and a police patrol was sent to Barrow Creek. When they arrived the killed around 100 Aboriginal men, women and children. No prisoners were taken.

The area was also home to one of the last major Aboriginal massacres in Australia. By 1928 Barrow Creek had grown to a small town and when news that a white dingo-trapper had been killed by Aboriginals the local constable, William George Murray, organised a mob of local white men and set off for revenge. An estimated 70 Aboriginals were killed in a series of bloody reprisals but by this time people had started to question the brutal way in which the indigenous Australians were treated and Murray was called to Canberra to explain his actions. Reports suggest that he was treated like a returning hero. In court he was asked why he had taken no prisoners and replied "What use is a wounded black feller a hundred miles from civilization?" He was acquitted of all charges. It was only when telling us this story that our usually bored-looking guides became animated. They said that even today William George Murray is regarded as an outback hero amongst some quarters. He was a veteran of the Battle of the Somme, a fearless and resourceful bushman and was very well regarded by the white people of the outback in the early 1900s. However he was also violent and racist, even by 1920s Australian standards. They said that we should make sure we tell anybody who is interested that he does not deserve the acclaim that he still holds. So I am doing just that.

For such a tiny and remote place Barrow Creek definitely has its share of stories. In 2001, just 20km north of Barrow Creek, British backpacker Peter Falconio went missing. Falconio's girlfriend Joanne Lees claimed that the pair were stopped by a man on the highway who shot Falconio in the face before binding and abducting her. She claims to have escaped from his Ute and hidden in the bush while he searched for her before flagging down a passing truck. The story received worldwide media attention and Bradley John Murdoch, an Australian drifter and self-confessed drug runner was eventually convicted of Falconio's killing and the abduction of Lees. However, Lees' story had several inconsistencies and many Australians believe that Murdoch was wrongly imprisoned. The film Wolf Creek was loosely based on these events.

For some light relief from these gruesome stories we stopped for a quick drink in the lonely pub near the telegraph station. Like most peculiar outback pubs the walls were festooned with paraphernalia and souvenirs from passing tourists. The rather strange but very friendly owner asked where we were from (as is the custom) and then excitedly pointed to various English coins and notes on the wall that he had collected, often with a little note from the contributors. We decided to help the collection out but the only English money we had was a solitary pound coin that we had been given by the Welsh lads Dave and Matt in Vietnam. Upon further inspection it was actually a Welsh minted coin complete with dragon so we decided that a Welsh coin, given to a pair of English tourists in Vietnam was a suitable gift to an Aussie oddball in the outback and scribbled a note to go with it before attaching it to the wall. Our new found friend then told us about his project to get the name of every British football team written on the wall. He already had Crystal Palace and Leyton Orient so I wrote Welling United on the door.

Further on up the road we stopped at a roadhouse in yet another odd little outback town called Wycliffe Well, the UFO capital of Australia. As we pulled into the roadhouse that was attached to a caravan park we were greeted by several alien-themed signs and model UFOs. Inside the roadhouse were hundreds of newspaper clippings "proving" the various sightings that have been reported since the area become such a hotspot for extra-terrestrial visits around the end of the Second World War. Apparently Wycliffe Well was recently ranked 5th for UFO related activity in the world but unfortunately we didn't see any while we stopped for fuel.

Our last stop of the day was at the Devil's Marbles, something that both Amy and I had been very excited about. The Devil's Marbles are a collection of enormous red granite boulders that sit serenely in the middle of the outback and provide a very bizarre experience to over 100,000 people every year. They were formed millions of years ago from hardening magma below the earth's surface and have risen slowly to the surface where they have been smoothed by the elements. The larger rocks are up to seven metres in diameter and some sit precariously on ledges or other boulders in seemingly gravity-defying arrangements.

It seems repetitive to keep mentioning the heat in the outback but by the time we had got to the marbles in the early afternoon the temperature was intense and the air was so dry that the group had drained the enormous pair of water coolers in the bus. Before our guides could let us explore the marbles we actually had to double back down the road to a roadhouse so that we could fill up on water or we'd dehydrate quickly.

When we finally got to wander around the marbles it was fantastic. Their size is daunting and the site provides yet another example of something natural and spectacular being formed in the outback. The Aboriginals believe that the marbles are fossilised eggs of the Rainbow Serpent, the Dreamtime creature who formed the earth. It is easy to see why they believe that the site is sacred. We posed for some photos with several of the boulders including the most famous of them all, the split apple. Without wanting to get too geological, one of the largest boulders has been split right down the middle due to solarisation and the two halves rest as if cleaved by a huge axe.

After around an hour of walking around and drinking massive quantities of water in the heat we climbed back on the bus and drove several hours down the road to our campsite for the night. We had permanent tents instead of swags which we initially thought was great but in the outback these tents reach astonishing temperatures during the day and don't cool much overnight so we were quickly hankering for our cosy swags!

Although the day had consisted of lots of driving it certainly wasn't the disappointment that our guides had suggested it might be. But then again, maybe that's because Amy and I are fascinated by gruesome stories and pretty rocks!

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