Australian Travels 2004

Devils Marbles

These are the travels of Trev the Troopy and his people through the Australian outback. As many of you will know when we started this trip we didn't know much about where we were headed, although we did want to visit the Red Centre, and we wanted to get to some more out of the way places. When we first arrived we discovered that this is a relatively cold and wet winter. In fact, it was colder overnight when we first arrived than it had been back in Auckland. Sunny and warm days but near freezing at night. So our choices were to head North up the coast (warmer near the water but boring big roads and lots of traffic and tourists), head West into the desert (freezing cold nights) or head North via a compromise inland route. On our previous travels we had covered a fair sample of the Queensland inland area, especially the sandstone belt National Parks (hereinafter abbreviated to NP). We also wanted to take in Lawn Hill NP because we had heard good things about it from a number of sources.

We stayed a few days with Bev and John Cochrane who are the foster parents of Trev while we are home in NZ. As usual they looked after us very well, and we spent our days getting outfitted for our trekking. Since we were considering remote deserts this included lots of extra tools and spare parts. The biggest thing we added to our kit is a second spare tyre. You don't go into the remote desert unless you have two spare tyres, extra tubes and patches, and a pump so you can fill them. Our vehicle has split rims so that with a couple of tyre levers (like giant bicycle ones) you are supposed to be able to change tyre and tubes yourself. We haven't tried yet and hope we don't. In fact we hope we never need any of the large collection of extra tools we got.

Next we went on to Toowoomba to visit Jan's old training college friend Carol Barben. Trev was much heavier for all the extra stuff we acquired. The biggest hassle was the second tyre. We tried strapping it on the front bull bar but it made a "whooooooooo" sound which drove us crazy so we brought it inside after an hour. But what to do with a big dirty tyre inside? Carol very kindly sewed us a tyre cover out of an old shower curtain. We are undoubtedly the only 4WD on the road with a powder blue tyre cover. We decided against the "West into the desert" plan when we were confronted with some rather chilly temperatures in Toowoomba. We're talking cold during the day, not just the night thing. We decided to head off for Lawn Hill via the "compromise" route which was basically head North to the Tropic of Capricorn and turn left. Along this way we overlapped a few of the places we visited last time, including camping two nights at Blackdown Tableland NP which we enjoyed last time.

On the way out from Longreach to Winton we took a dirt road diversion to camp at two NPs, and see Lark Quarry, site of a dinosaur stampede. Although the stampede happened some time ago they are still making a tourist attraction of it. There are lots of fossils and such about this region, and my favourite name is Muttaburrasaurus named for the town where it was found. Even the rubbish bins on the streets of Winton have large molded dinosaur feet over them.

While talking to other campers at Bladensburg NP, we were told about a great route on from Lawn Hill which is a 4WD road much of the way and comes back out on the main highway at Mataranka (south of Katherine). This is after about 900 km of seriously back roads. Sounded good to us so that became our plan. Before Lawn Hill we made another visit to a teacher training colleague of Jan's who lives on a huge property (we're talking 20 minute drive to the letter box) out of Cloncurry. We managed to be in "The Curry" (local name) on the day of the big Parade leading up to the Rodeo so we checked in on some real local culture. Harold and Cathy McMillan treated us with great hospitality including taking us out on a couple of drives around the property. This clocked up a few hundred km doing chores like checking the little diesel pumps which keep the water supply working for the cattle. There are a few picturesque windmills left around the outback, but really it all runs on diesel: pumps, generators, and Trev as well.

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Lawn Hill was wonderful as expected and we met up twice with some local fellows like this. These Mertens Water Dragons are a meter or more long and will let you get close when it is a bit cold. They like sunning on the edge of the river and don't really want to jump back in. So unless you are a real pest they will just keep an eye on you. We also hired a kayak and spent half a day paddling up the gorge and back. This made a nice change of transport from rattling along on heavily corrugated dirt tracks wondering if something was going to fall off the vehicle. Actually, only one or two things have come lose so far, and all have yielded to bush mechanic repairs. Mertens Water Dragon
Lawn Hill Lawn Hill is yet another sandstone gorge and you can see some of the "onion skin" peeling on the rock, plus the "old Australia" Livistona Palm trees which survive in the well watered gorges.
We travelled on from Lawn Hill to Kingfisher Camp whose signs along the 4WD track say "KFC" for brevity. They never thought about anybody arriving and expecting a chicken dinner. What a pleasure to be well beyond the multinational corporation fast food line. KFC is a delightful spot along a long water hole and we went of on a 7 km trek. We still aren't sure when to use the terms: water hole, billabong, lagoon, wide spot in the river, etc. Here is Jan looking to see if she can still see the log which turned out to be a croc eyeing us up...but they assure us these are the fresh water ones which eat only fish never people. The trouble is it is hard to tell the difference unless you have the two close together side by side to compare -- which is not where you want them!

Jan Croc spotting at KFC
Lost City Next we moved on to a few days camping on a station called Lorella Springs, and took in the sites. These included the usual repertoire of gorgeous water holes and swimming places (croc free). We didn't get to the local "Lost City" which we had heard about, and were relieved to discover that there was another one just up the road. Somebody has been very careless with cities in this region. There are "Lost Cities" everywhere. The particular erosion formation will remind some of Bryce Canyon in Utah. And speaking of nearly lost, we drove off without our mat and had to backtrack over two creek crossings and several km of 4WD tracks to recover it.
So after a lot of time out in the bush on dirt tracks taking full advantage of the 4WD Troopy capacity for corrugations and bulldust and deep creek crossings we rolled up to the sealed road at Mataranka. This is familiar territory from our 2001 "sealed road" travels in the rental 2WD Campervan. So we immediately headed to Bitter Springs for a warm soak, and we also revisited Katherine Gorge but this time by walking rather than the tourist boats. We swam in the gorge in the middle of this walk and were greatly refreshed thereby, which was a good thing because it was a very hot day. So hot in fact that we thought it must be safe to head South. Katherine Gorge
Devils Marbles So we turned South at Katherine, and headed down to the Red Centre. We spent a few nights along the way. We were enchanted with the culture centre at Tennant Creek where we stopped to get Trev his 5000 km service. We also stayed overnight at Devils Marbles (same naming convention they use as in Death Valley). We had previously seen Devils Pebbles (you guessed it, smaller boulders) where we had lunch on a previous day. Another overnight stay was at Banka Banka station, which has just begun hosting caravans to get a bit more income. Most of their cattle are now off on adjacent stations (all owned by a big company) but their lease requires them to maintain and improve the facilities including the homestead. This explains why so many stations are choosing to meet the lease requirements by making improvements which happen to allow visitors to stay.
We proceeded along to Alice Springs and took a right turn out Larapinta Drive to begin a tourist loop thing. First we spent about a week getting around the West MacDonnell ranges, then around to Hermannsburg, and on to Kings Canyon. The first part is sealed, then dirt road until you get back around to Kings Canyon. This is coming up to Kings Canyon from the unsealed lesser travelled side. We saw our first wild camels just before this photo of wild flowers. The flowers stood still longer so it was an easier photograph. Wildflowers on the Way to Kings Canyon
Kings Canyon on Top Kings Canyon was delightful although overrun with coach tourists. (We don't call ourselves "tourists" but rather "travellers" these days). Alas Jan hurt her knee (since recovered) and didn't make the big trip around the top -- just the little trek up the canyon itself. Up on top the erosion formations were like old fashioned bee hives and reminded Steve of the Bungle Bungles which we visited on the big trip of 2001. These are made of more solid sandstone, but have a similar geometry to them.
From Kings Canyon it was on to Uluru (formerly Ayres Rock although that name lives on in lots of signs and places). The spiritual centre and tourist mecca which is the Red Centre of Australia. It was worth seeing in person. Just as the books say, no matter how familiar you are with it from photographs it always affects you the first time you see it in person. We walked around it (rather than climb it) respecting the wishes of the traditional owners. We also took a side trip to another formation nearby (Australian "nearby" meaning 100 km return trip) which is equally spiritual and spectacular but less well known: Kata Tjuta.

At Kata Tjuta (formerly The Olgas) we meandered along the 3 hour walk through the valley of the winds which was stunning.

Kata Tjuta
Blue Moon Uluru One of the tourist things to do at Uluru is to watch Sunrise and Sunset. There are special parking lots set aside for this, with separate ones for buses and cars! We never made a sunrise (too cold) but we checked out two sunsets. We were really there to watch the tourists, honest! But we did happen to photograph a blue moon coming up over Uluru. Very unusual. As was the storm which came through with lightning and buckets of rain. Very odd for this time of year, but it brings on more wildflowers.
As usual there were large numbers of people in attendance. Chairs come out, as do the wine glasses and the champaign and nibbles. We were convinced that one group was so intent on their canapes that they weren't looking at Uluru at the crucial moment when it lit up red. In order to be part of the moment we brought along a Corona beer (yes, Mexican beer available at the bar in the tourist resort where everybody has to stay whether they be campers in tents or those paying $AUS 600 a night for a luxury room). It is easy to spot when you are back on the major tourist loop. Sunset Watchers at Uluru
Sunset at Uluru While most people were facing Uluru watching it glow red, the clouds and setting sun conjured up a magic sunset for those of us who spotted it by turning around. And so we leave you with the traditional sunset shot for this update of our travels.

We are still deciding where to go next. The plan is to continue South via the Oodnadatta Track and then to Wilpena Pound which is renown for its spring wildflower display and eventually to Melbourne and back up to Queensland by mid-October. We have had fantastic displays of wildflowers around the Centre already thanks to an unusually cold and wet winter, but each area has its own blend of floral bouquets so we look forward to seeing Wilpena Pound's offerings.

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Jan for being a patient and kind travelling companion. Special thanks to our Troopy sitters Bev and John, our tyre cover fashion designer Carol, and station hosts Cathy and Harold.


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