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Published: December 28th 2006
A minimalist rest stop somewhere between Port Augusta and Woomera. Goodness knows where - it all looks the same.
Today we will be leaving the genteel world of wine-quaffing and cheese-tasting far behind. Leaving the ocean behind in the rear view mirror, we are heading due North towards the very centre of the Australia continent. Between us and our destination, Uluru - formerly Ayers Rock - lie thousands of kilometres of baking hot, dry and dusty outback and three days of driving. Three days that will hammer in the message, as if it needed hammering, that Australia is one very
Leaving Kapunda nice and early - the town's principal attraction is a giant statue of a Cornish tin miner (see later entry for the explanation) - we head in the direction of Port Augusta, supposedly the last settlement of any size before the immense expanse of the Southern Australian desert begins. The first hour or so takes us through further tracts of yellow and brown farming properties, where sheep vastly outnumber any humans. Then, abruptly, the scenery changes once again and we find ourselves in yet another of Australia's famous wine-producing regions - the Clare Valley. We linger for no more than a quick glimpse at the village of Mintaro, a charming place rich in old stone
Just like on the telly...
The Royal Flying Doctor Service visitors' centre in Port Augusta. It's a fully-functioning operations centre which coordinates medical care to the vast desert lands to the North.
buildings and much atmosphere. The Clare Valley is definitely on our list of places to stop, not least because it produces some of the New World's finest Riesling, but that will have to wait the return trip.
The valley is over in a matter of a few miles and we are back into a greenery-starved landscape. There is not much to hold the attention until Port Augusta, where we stop for lunch (pasta cooked in a car park...) and a quick peek into the Outback Visitors' Centre, where the staff, hearing of our intended trip, warn us that petrol stations are few and far between here and Uluru: some 1200 kilometres and enough filling stations to count on your fingers. We'll be keeping that in mind - there's definitely something unsettling about the idea of breaking down in the middle of the outback, highway or no highway.
As well pull out of Port Augusta and join the Stuart Highway - which links the Southern coast and Darwin up in the Top End, as they call the Northern Territory here - all urbanisation comes to an abrupt stop. Against the backdrop of the desolate Flinders Rangers to the East,
Mile after mile after mile...
Of dry scrubby desert and vast dry lake beds, which see water only very rarely during the wet season. Not a drop now...
it's reddish, dusty soil and scrubby bushland all the way. A roadside sign helpfully points out the distances to major towns - all but one or two are in four-figure territory.
The first leg takes us to the small "town" of Woomera, a few hundred kilometres from Port August up the highway. I am being charitable here, since Woomera is hardly more than a small collection of prefabricated bungalows and a few breezeblock structures. Woomera is one bizarre place, let me tell you. Until a couple of decades ago, Woomera was off-limits to civilians. And not just the town. We are now at the Southern border of the Woomera Prohibited Area, the world's largest missile testing range. At 127,000 square kilometres, the Area is roughly the size of England. From the 1950s onwards, hundreds of missiles were tested jointly by the Australian and British military. Nowadays much of it has been abandoned but launches are occasionally conducted - the Area has been nominated as a launch site for future International Space Station re-supply missions. Today Woomera itself is open for business - of sorts - but the huge Area above it remains closed. No deviation is permitted from the
F.A.B. Thunderbirds are GO
Woomera's space museum - dozens of planes and rockets displayed under the cloudless desert skies. An odd sight if ever I saw one...
course of the Stuart Highway. The town is an odd place to say the least - apart from a rather Spartan supermarket, a small campsite and a theatre (curiouser and curiouser…), the town’s main attraction is the Missile Park, a permanent outdoor exhibition of restored rockets, aircraft and missiles. Wandering around this collection, plonked in the middle of a town plonked in the middle of, frankly, nowhere, is decidedly peculiar. Still, the featureless horizon and lack of any polluting light made for a memorable sunset and night sky (complete with upside-down constellations).
The following morning heralds a “driving day” - the intended destination is Marla, a town (well, the map says
it’s a town) some 600km up the Stuart Highway. I say “intended”, but frankly we don’t have much choice…in order to make it to Uluru over three days Marla’s the only place to stop for the night !
Driving, driving, driving. As we speed northwards (in the literal sense of moving with speed
- concerned others you may now pause to untwist your knickers) the featureless outback is seemingly endless. There are few distractions to break the tedium - one of the them however, is certainly worthy
If only...Could be useful in case of imminent roo impact !
The centre of Australia is exceedingly sparsely populated - it must, however, be kept supplied, most importantly with food and fuel. Most of these essential commodities are transported up and down the highway by road, where various economic and other considerations make frequent deliveries impossible. How to solve the problem of transporting several truckloads of goods on only one truck ? Why, the Australian way, of course - the road train. Or, to be correct, the roooooooad traaaaaain ! This monster (behemoth, juggernaut - pick a hyperbole, any hyperbole) consists of two or three massive trailers coupled together like train carriages (via very long connecting bars) behind a truck. They give a whole new meaning to the words “long vehicle”. These thunder up and down the highway at 120 km/h and are a force to be reckoned with. Passing a road train coming in the other direction is bad enough - at a combined speed of 240km/h or so, the huge rush as they pass the campervan seems enough to simply blow it off the road. But the real
fun comes at overtaking time. For some inexplicable reason the Stuart Highway has hardly any, long, straight sections
I especially liked the nose-diving one. These were all tested in the vast Woomera Prohibited Area since the 1950s.
- I would love for somebody to tell me why, since the road runs through the middle of a conspicuously flat nowhere. Regardless of the reason it is most annoying when attempting to overtake a vehicle as long as a road train - you need about 2km of clear road ahead to complete the maneuver. Combine this with Smoggie’s distinct lack of accelerative power (we’re still waiting for turbocharged campervans) and the result is quite, quite unnerving. And not made easier by the fact that you can’t see how long the road train is until you’ve started overtaking it - we tried to predict this by looking at the train’s shadow. It doesn’t work. Having said that, we did overtake one who helpfully indicated to us that it was safe to go ahead - the driver, perched metres above the road, obviously had a better view of the road ahead than we did. We had to overtake half a dozen of these things on the trip to Uluru, each time feeling like the campervan was about to take off.
Another noticeable feature of the road to Uluru was the truly mind-boggling amount of road-kill by the side of the
Al fresco...bonzer !
Dinner in Woomera - the setting Sun dying everything pink. Pork chops washed down with a bottle of Tasmanian Cascade Beer. Mm-mmm...
highway. We had been warned on several occasions of the dangers of driving after dark in Australia - kangaroos and wallabies make a speciality of jumping onto roads mere metres ahead of an oncoming vehicle, where they proceed to freeze in the headlights. Adult male kangaroos can be very large animals, and a collision at 120km/h has been known to leave more than kangaroo-burger on the road. Even more dangerous is the temptation to swerve away from wandering animals, a mistake far more deadly than an outright collision.
Hundred upon hundreds of carcasses, in various stages of putrefaction - luvverly - line the highway. They are mostly kangaroos with the odd cow or even camel thrown into the mix, to keep things interesting. Occasionally huge, hulking wedge-tailed eagles can be seen feeding on the remains - these massive birds of prey like to play chicken with the campervan, lumbering out of harm’s way at the last possible moment. The endless procession of bloated kangaroos, usually legs akimbo pointing straight up to the sky in a distinctly immodest pose, is unsettling and, combined with the road-trains and endless expanses of flat scrubland, somewhat reminiscent of a Mad Max
Rooooooooad ! Traaaaaaaain !
I like this photo. It captures the primeval terror that comes from passing or overtaking a road train. This one's a beaut - a triple fuel tanker.
The 270-kilometre stretch between Glendambo and Coober Pedy is utterly, utterly monotonous and devoid of any sign of human life. No petrol station, no inhabited structure. Occasional “rest stops” - essentially a table and a rubbish bin - are the only respite from the drive. This section of the drive ends in Coober Pedy, a hot, dry and dusty town plonked in the middle of the desert. As you approach Coober Pedy the landscape become progressively more bizarre. The flat reddish desert morphs into a succession of conical mounds - it looks like a giant mole has been at work here. Perhaps this is not so far from the truth...large odd-looking machines are crowded around these heaps: large trucks with what look like enromous hair-dryers mounted on the rear. What is going on ? Who knows...we'll be stopping here on the way back.
Next stop for the night is Marla, the last "town" in South Australia as you make the drive north towards Darwin. Marla is, we discover, not a town at all. It is a campsite, a pub, a greasy spoon and a petrol station. That's pretty much it - I guess the criteria to qualify as a
Sign at the Glendambo turn-off. Last fuel stop for over 250km. Exciting or what ?
"town" in this deserted part of the world are somewhat more relaxed than usual. Miraculously, the campsite here has a swimming pool ! Is there no end to the surprises ?
Another non-existent border checkpoint takes us the next day into the Northern Territory, past further "towns" - Kulgera, Erldunda...both of which make Marla look like a heaving metropolis. Erldunda does, I suppose, have a giant papier mache sculpture of an echidna - it all gets too much ! At Erldunda we make a left turn down the Lassiter Highway which connects Uluru to the main North-South highway. We follow this road but our first stop is not Uluru but King's Canyon, one of the region's truly extraordinary rock formations.
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