Friday 29 March 2013

Road to Uluru

Last weekend I reread 'Down Under', Bill Bryson's book about his travels in Australia.  So much of what he wrote about Alice Springs and Uluru echoes my own scribblings that I'm tempted just (in the words of my eldest nephew) to write 'oh yeah, know dat.'  One of the things Bill Bryson points out is that Alice Springs, though commonly regarded as a jumping off point for Uluru, is not actually that close to it - nearly 450km away, in fact.  In Ireland, that would be regarded as a MAJOR JOURNEY, and, as it was, I had to get up at 5 to be ready for my bus trip to the Rock.  (Because I was limited on time, I booked an all-in coach trip with Emu Tours.)  The trip takes the best part of five hours each way, so it was just as well that the scenery was worth looking at.

Beginning with sunrise over Alice Springs ...

After about two hours, we stopped at Erldunda Roadhouse (incidentally, the geographic centre of Australia is just over beyond those satellite dishes).  This is the last place with phone reception before Yulara (the resort at Ayers Rock).

That was the biggest excitement for a while.  The view for the next hour or two looked like this:

And then!  In the distance, you see it ... a long, low rock appearing on the horizon.

And it turns out to be Mt Conner, not the big rock you were expecting.  Though beautiful, none the less - and, like Uluru, a sacred site for the local indigenous people.

We stopped when we got a bit closer so that we could step into the red sand and see a typical lakebed - now just a salt flat.

As we got closer to Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park, I noticed that the underside of the clouds was pink - reflecting the red earth all around.

Our first stop in the park was not 'the' rock but some other rocks: the Olgas or Kata Tjuta.  Here's me with my unattractive but necessary fly-proof hat.

And here are a couple of pictures of Kata Tjuta, a group of domed rock formations.  The snake king Wanambi is supposed to live on the top of the highest dome.

And if you think they're impressive - just wait for Uluru!

Thursday 28 March 2013

Rock Wallabies

I admit it, I am a very gifted procrastinator.  I'm currently putting off posting about Uluru (Ayers Rock) because, frankly, I don't know where to start and I have HUNDREDS (no exaggeration) of photos.  It was, in fact, The Trip That Broke The Camera, though happily the camera has been repaired.

All of this is by way of explaining why today's post features rock wallabies and not rocks of the big, red, magical, mysterious variety.

Pop along to the Heavitree Gap Outback Lodge on the edge of Alice Springs and (for no charge) you can view the local population of black-footed rock wallabies.  Food is available to buy from the lodge reception and the wallabies will eat it out of your hands.


And yes, boxing wallabies.

Thursday 21 March 2013


A Town Like Alice is one of my favourite books.  In it, the town of Alice Springs features as a kind of icon, a vision to cling to in the midst of war (most of the events of the book take place in the Malaysian jungle during World War II).  In my head, it was a kind of oasis in the middle of the red desert of the Northern Territory and although I was assured that it had changed a lot since Nevil Shute wrote his book, I was still determined to visit.

I arrived mid-afternoon (me and a few hundred other train travellers), stepping off the Ghan into the dry desert heat.  I was lucky: temperatures the previous week were above 40 degrees, but it was only about 37 the day I arrived.  Be prepared!  Because of the dry heat, you should wear a hat and sunglasses, apply sunscreen liberally and, above all, make sure to carry a bottle of water wherever you go.  I myself nearly succumbed to a nice case of sunstroke, so you can't be too careful.

Another thing to be prepared for: Alice, for all that tourism is a major part of the economy, is not your cosmopolitan flat-white-purveying, designer-shop-hosting town that you encounter all along the south/eastern seaboard.  Being isolated as it is, I imagine freight costs must be prohibitive - whether this is the main reason or not, I couldn't say, but don't expect to find a wealth gourmet cuisine in the town.  I did hear tell of one hipster cafe, but I had to make do with Gloria Jean's where the staff were friendly and the iced coffee hit the spot.

After I checked into my hotel (an Ibis - Alice is not blessed with a great range of accommodation, especially of the independent/boutique type - at any budget, see above) I headed, first, to the HQ of the Royal Flying Doctors.

The RFDS was very much a part of my romantic notion of the Outback (doctors! flying! in shorts and long socks! bringing health to the wilderness!) and visitors to their Alice Springs centre provide them with much needed funds.  However, there isn't a huge amount to see: a film about the service (which is certainly inspiring) and a small museum showing changes in medicine since the RFDS was founded.  I will add, however, that the film did get me a bit choky as you realise that people literally owe their lives to this service.

I wandered around town, taking photos of some of the original buildings, all of a similar single-story, tin-roofed style.

I then made the slightly less than wise decision to walk out to the old telegraph station which is what Alice owes her existence to - the town was founded around, first, the telegraph and then the railway.  The walk was beautiful and not that far (around 4km along the dry Todd River) but I underestimated the toll the heat would take and I found the 40 minute walk pretty challenging - despite hat/sunglasses/sunscreen/water.  Hint to future visitors (at least those visiting in summertime) - minimise walking!

One thing I did notice as I walked - the Indigenous population is much bigger (as a proportion of total population) in the Northern Territory than in Victoria and hence you are much more aware of the social inequality they are experiencing.  The 'no grog' signs dotted around Alice are testament to the toll alcohol abuse has taken on Aboriginal Australians.

Everywhere I walked I saw groups of Indigenous people, old and young, sitting in the shade.  Let me stress that this is not a problem in and of itself but it was a reminder that the wrongs experienced by the Indigenous community are a long way from being addressed.

The telegraph station eventually reached (and duly photographed),

and I fell in with some kind fellow tourists who gave me a lift back into town - via Anzac Hill where we got this great view:

The other place I wanted to visit in Alice - and did, the morning before I left - was the School of the Air.  My primary school library randomly had a copy of an old 1960s book about boys and girls in Australia and I remember being fascinated by the notion of doing your lesson by RADIO with no teacher even in the same room to keep an eye on you.  The whole thing seemed entirely wackadoo and fantastical.

These days, lessons are done via the internet (they have a special Skype-like programme customised for the school's particular needs) and we watched a teacher teaching a class of 4 and 5 year olds who were all learning, not just the usual things 4 and 5 year olds learn, but how to use the equipment.  (When they want to raise their hands, they click a hand icon on their screen...)  I found the school inspiring but also unexpectedly sad.  One of the pupils (though this is at the extreme end of the spectrum) lives 1000km from school.  Can you imagine?  I'm not sure I can.  Once a term, our guide explained, they try to get all the kids into Alice for a week and the kids look forward to this like Christmas.

As well as seeing the lessons (you can see into the broadcasting studios/classrooms where the teachers transmit their classes) there's a film, and a small display of equipment - including the famous pedal radio that enabled services like the School of the Air and the Flying Doctors to keep in touch with their community spread over such a vast distance.

This map - showing the thousands of kilometres covered in the school catchment area -  charts all of the children who are enrolled in the school and where they live.

I loved visiting Alice Springs and am glad that I could fulfill the dream of - well, not quite a lifetime but a long time.  But if the Ghan really made me appreciate the vastness of Australia, Alice Springs made me question the price paid for trying to inhabit such a fundamentally uninhabitable (or scarcely habitable) place.  But it did make me appreciate Nevil Shute's evocation of Alice Springs as an icon and an oasis.  To someone who lives on a remote Cattle Station and doesn't see a neighbour - let along a stranger - from one week to the next - a town like Alice must be like heaven.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Overseen: Ironing Board in the Outback

Overseen from the Ghan, March 2013 (it's a miracle that I got the photo because I was so surprised that I literally fell over.)

Friday 15 March 2013

Into the Outback

My goodness me.  I have been racking up the kilometres of late (good) but not blogging (bad).   Also my camera is not working, which may be pique as a result of the 800 photos I took on my trip to the Northern Territory.  However, there will be many posts to come about my adventures, starting now.

When last I posted I was waiting to board the Ghan - the train that travels from Adelaide at the bottom of Australia (in the handily named state of South Australia), over 3000km to Darwin (at the 'Top End' of the Northern Territory - those Australians don't seem to have much imagination for names.)  I was booked to go from Adelaide to Alice Springs and really, if you want a sense of just how vast Australia is, the train is far and away the best way to travel.

I had booked myself on a recliner chair (cheapest option) for reasons of pure economy.  The Ghan isn't cheap and I didn't feel like paying upwards of $1000 for a cabin.  The chairs are fine, but I warn any would-be train travellers that the 'Red' class accommodation on the train is fairly basic.

My sense is that the operators are trying to rebrand the train more as a luxury travel option so most of the train was given over to the 'Gold' and 'Platinum' coaches.  That all said, my seat was comfortable, and the views spectacular.  The only down side was the food available, which was pretty grim: sausage rolls in plastic and packets of cornflakes.  BIG HINT: bring a picnic!  Still, the retro green interior of the cafe appealed to me.

For $10 extra chair-travellers (as opposed to those booked into cabins) could sit in the observation lounge, which I did and where I spent most of the journey, surrounded by friendly Danes.  They adopted me as their own and we discussed Borgen and The Killing, and specifically whether Sarah Lund-style jumpers might be required for cold Outback nights.

So, you leave the Pennsylvania Station ‘bout a quarter to four, read a magazine and then you’re in Baltimore you leave Adelaide at lunchtime and at first the train passes through fairly typical industrial areas.

After an hour or so (at a top speed of ~60kmph this is not a fast way to travel), industrial suburbs give way to farmland.

This was the moment when the train (781m long) went around a bend and from my vantage point towards the back I could see the whole thing:

After nearly four hours we reached Port Augusta, where the Outback meets the sea and where the train stopped for a little while.  Port Augusta was once the terminus for the North/South transcontinental railway and an important hub for anyone heading into the Territory.

It's still a hub for freight:

After Port Augusta, the earth started to get noticeably redder, though still not as intense a hue as I was expecting from the Red Centre.

As the shadows grew longer, I amused myself by taking photos of the train's reflection.

The Stuart Highway (main North/South road) runs alongside the railway for much of the journey and occasionally we would see road trains (ie lorries pulling two or three tankers/trailers).

Sunset was around 8pm - and I went to bed not long after, tired from my early start - plus once it's dark in the Outback, it's really dark.

I slept on and off, waking up occasionally when the train stopped (cows on the line?  break for the driver?  not really sure.)  I woke up fully around 5 (or, 5 in the Northern Territory, 5.30 in South Australia and 6.30 in Melbourne.  Complicated time zones.)  Just in time to catch the dawn.

And once it was light enough to see the ground, it was clear that it was, yes, truly and unmistakably red.  Not just that, but we were in full-on desert: no people, no buildings, no roads, just scrubby trees and red sand.

Oh, and occasional cows.

As the morning progressed, we started to see a few more signs of what you could loosely call civilisation: this road, for example - which is shown on the maps as a reasonably major byway ...

We also passed a few rivers - yep, rivers.

I learnt that in this part of the world, rivers flow inland, not out to the ocean.  During the 'big wet' (i.e. the wet monsoon season) rainfall collects and flows inland to fill the dry creek beds.  But obviously nothing was flowing when we passed.

I also noticed that the colours weren't as monochromatic as I expected.  For all that it's desert country, it's semi-arid desert and there's a surprising range of greenery.

Eventually, 26 hours after setting off, we arrived into Alice Springs.  But that's a story for next week.

The Ghan is not the most comfortable way to travel across Australia (at least not if you're travelling economy class) and it's not the fastest way to travel across Australia (flying, even driving, much quicker) and if you get bored easily it might not be for you (no in-flight entertainment and the recliner-seat carriage doesn't have power points).  To put it in perspective, the 26 hours the train takes (and that's only half the journey - Darwin is another  day and a half beyond that) is longer than the time it takes to fly from Australia to Ireland.

But if, like me, you love the idea of experiencing Australia's hugeness and understanding how it changes between the coastal cities and the vast interior ... if you want to fall asleep in one landscape and wake up in another ... if you are enchanted at the idea of arriving at one of the remotest cities on the planet by train ... if you can gaze for hours at the subtle shifts in the colour of the ground outside your window ... then the Ghan is most certainly for you.  

Sunday 3 March 2013

The Ghan

Sitting at Adelaide Parklands Terminal, waiting to board the Ghan. This is something I've wanted to do for years so please imagine me bouncing up and down with excitement. The 24 hour, c. 1500km trip to Alice Springs will take me the length of South Australia and into the Northern Territory.

I'm looking forward to red earth, brown rock, wide open spaces, camels ... And who knows what other adventures.

And at the end - not a town like Alice, but the veritable Alice herself.