The Red Centre to Brisbane via the Great Ocean Road

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Oceania » Australia
August 5th 2016
Published: January 1st 2017
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After days and days of driving, we had finally arrived in the Red Centre and were keen to get out and see the sights. Our first stop was the MacDonnell Ranges, a long stretch of mountains full of impressive gorges and waterholes, just west of Alice Springs. We camped at Ellery Creek Big Hole and explored the ochre-red gorges over the next couple of days, hunkering down in our van at night. We had officially crossed from the tropics into the desert when we traversed the Tropic of Capricorn north of Alice Springs and whilst the days were still warm and sunny, the nights were decidedly chilly for the first time on our Australian tour.

Our next stop on our tour of the Red Centre was the big one, Ayers Rock or Uluru. The rock itself is over 500 km away from Alice Springs, so it took a day or so to arrive. Driving at night isn’t a good idea in the Australian countryside because of all the rather large animals that seem intent on throwing themselves in front of your van as soon as night falls. After a close shave with an emu and two large, suicidal, red kangaroos in the early evening we learnt our lesson. We checked into the Ayers Rock campsite and headed off to see the famous rock we had driven such a vast distance to see.

Uluru certainly didn’t disappoint. The giant, orange rock (3.6 kilometres long and 348 metres high) is incredibly impressive. We took a short walk around the base, passing rock paintings and learning about the importance of Uluru for the aboriginal owners, the Anangu, before watching the rock change colour from bright orange, red and finally dark brown in the sunset. The following day we set off for the Olgas (Kata Tjuta), a group of domed rocks, the tallest of which is over 500 metres high. This collection of rocks form deep valleys and steep gorges which we spent a long time wandering around and exploring, before watching the sunset turn the rocks a deep red-brown.

After two great days at Ayers Rock and the Olgas, our last stop in the Red Centre was the King’s Canyon. We spent one night in the King’s Canyon campsite, where dingoes would wander around looking for scraps, and completed the King’s Canyon Rim walk the following day, giving us spectacular views of the canyon.

We had now visited all the major sites in the Red Centre so travelled south to the South Australia border, with a brief stop at the remote roadhouse where Ross had been dropped off many years ago before starting work on a cattle farm during the annual muster. The place hadn’t changed one bit in the last 20 years.

Whilst camper vanning around Australia, we mainly came across a group of people known as “grey nomads”. These nomads are Australian retirees, mainly from South Australia and Victoria, who leave their southern homes during the winter and travel north in search of the sunshine. We on the other hand were heading in the opposite direction towards some very grey and stormy skies. As it began to rain on us for one of the first times in Australia, we questioned whether we’d made the right decision.

The Stuart Highway heading south from the South Australia/Northern Territory border crosses vast spaces of nothing, with hardly a tree or feature in sight. However, as you approach the town of Coober Pedy, little piles of light coloured dirt start littering the desert. These piles of dirt have been created by years of opal mining, something Coober Pedy is famous for. We arrived in Coober Pedy needing to stock up on fuel and food and began to realise there was something strange about this town of 3500 people - there didn’t seem to be many houses. It was not until we did a little research that we realised that most of the residents of Coober Pedy have adapted to the intense summer heat by moving underground. After visiting an underground home dug out by hand by three women and complete with a swimming pool, we realised that the small hills and mounds of earth around the town were all riddled with homes, identifiable from the outside by their ventilation shafts and maybe a shed. When a resident requires a new room in their house, they simply dig one out and if they are lucky, they may find a few opals in the process. We heard of one man who lived in an underground house with over 20 bedrooms…

Continuing south from Coober Pedy our next major stop was the Flinders Ranges, a few hundred kilometres north of Adelaide and home to some spectacular mountainous scenery. We camped in a lovely spot just outside the Flinders Ranges National Park, where we were able to have an evening campfire (with exploding rocks to keep us on our toes) and hike around the Wilpena Pound the next day, a huge natural basin.

Our travels then took us south through the wine regions, passed Adelaide and down to the coast, where it was lovely to see the sea again after miles and miles of desert. This sea was also croc free, albeit pretty cold. After sitting out some horrendous weather on Liz’s birthday with coffee and some delicious cake, we travelled south east through the wetlands of the Coorong National Park, through the attractive coastal town of Robe and into Mount Gambier, where we met up with Wayne, an old colleague of Liz’s from Derby City Council. It was great to catch up with Wayne, meet his family, try Zimbabwean food and hear about their new life in Australia, as well as see the famous Mount Gambier Crater Lake.

From Mount Gambier we travelled south to Cape Bridgewater and the start of the Great Ocean Road, one of Australia’s most famous touring routes. The Great Ocean Road follows the limestone cliffs and passes some spectacular arches, caves and stacks, including the London Bridge, which has unfortunately fallen down and the famous Twelve Apostles, of which there are only seven. The coastline is stunning and very impressive in the stormy weather we experienced down there. Each evening we drove inland to find small, off the beaten track campsites, driving through gum trees complete with the odd koala.

We followed the Great Ocean Road north east through the seaside towns of Apollo Bay and Lorne before stopping off to admire Bells Beach, a famous and powerful surfing break. We watched the Aussie surfers catching incredibly long and rather large waves for quite some time (obviously we would have been in there ourselves had we have packed the boards…). From here Melbourne loomed above us, but we decided to skip the big city by taking a ferry across the bay from the pretty town of Queenscliff to Sorrento, one of Victoria’s first European settlements. Further east from Sorrento we ended up on Phillip Island where we spotted of orcas, as well as seals and a passing southern right whale.

We had been reasonably lucky with the weather so far in Australia, however, heading north from Victoria along the coast to New South Wales, our luck ran out. We drove through days and days of torrential rain interspersed with brief periods of drizzle, fortunately keeping just one step ahead of the floods. Sometimes we would drive out of the rain only to find it caught up with us the next day. We finally broke free at Sydney and were rewarded with one reasonably dry day and one lovely sunny day, enabling us to admire the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour in all its glory. It turns out we were treated to the wettest June the south of Australia has experienced in 117 years, which is not ideal weather for camping.

Having basked in the Sydney sunshine for a day, we decided to head up to the chilly but beautiful Blue Mountains, named after the bluey haze that sits above the eucalyptus covered mountains. We admired the famous sights such as the Three Sisters rocks and completed a long circular walk through the valley and then back up to the cliff tops.

From the Blue Mountains we descended into the Hunter Valley wine region, where we experienced our one and only frost. We woke up to ice inside the van and Liz promptly broke our one source of heat (the very cheap, flimsy and second hand) fan heater we had purchased just in case. With our heat source destroyed, we waited for the sun to fully warm up the van and retreated north to the coast and to warmer climes.

Our couple of weeks were spent travelling towards Brisbane, along the coast, where we spotted a number of whales, including one humpback that hurled itself out of the water whilst we were walking along the beach, and through the mountainous hinterlands. We drove north through the hippie towns of Bangalow and Nimbin before crossing back into Queensland and dropping off our trusty van back where we started in Brisbane.

Things we have learnt on this rather wet leg of our journey:

- When it rains in Australia, it really rains a lot.

- “You don’t want to hit a wombat. They’re really hard.” Good advice from our friendly grey nomad neighbours. They also told us that if you can’t find anywhere to camp, “there’s always the cemetery, the residents there won’t mind!”

- There’s an animal called a quoll, but we don’t know what it looks like.

- In three months we travelled over 10 000 miles and visited five of the six mainland states of Australia. There’s still so much more we could have seen though and will have to return to explore Western Australia and Tasmania.

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