Friday, July 31, 2015

31 July - Mt Isa, Qld

A very relaxing day here in Mt Isa. Finally took the electric blanket off the bed, plenty of warm weather now. This morning we visited the Mt Isa underground hospital. When the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942, there were great fears that Mt Isa would be the next target. During World War 2, Mt Isa as well as producing a lot of metals for war construction, also served as a major transport hub with a constant flow of trucks travelling some 2,500 miles to supply material to Darwin. A decision was made to provided underground hospital facilities to which patients could be moved in case of a bombing raid. This emergency hospital provided surgical and natal facilities but was never used in anger. After the war the excavations fell into disrepair and it is only recently that a restoration was carried out on the basis of photographs taken in 1942.
It was a fascinating insight into the ingenuity and resourcefulness often necessitated by war.
In the afternoon we relaxed and read and then relaxed some more, in preparation for our next leg tomorrow which will probably be to Winton, the site of major dinosaur fossils discoveries.
Late in the afternoon I drove up to the lookout to get some shots of the town. It was a fascinating experience as a large number of wedge tail eagles were using the hill to soar on the updrafts from the warm ground below.
Just as the sun set in the West, a full moon rose in the east. As I pointed my camera at the moon a large eagle soared into the frame - perfect.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

30 July - Mt Isa Q

We left Tennant Creek at first light this morning (7:15) knowing we had a long trek ahead of us. The drive to Mt Isa along the Barkley Highway is 670km and the road is almost dead straight through the desert. Only two signs of life along the way, both roadhouses offering fuel, accommodation and food. The first was at Barkley Station and we filled up the tank here, because the next fuel was at Camooweal - over 250 km away. In this part of the country you really can't drive past any opportunity to fill up because there will not be another for a few hundred kilometres. The scenery doesn't change much driving through the desert but today we saw the first appearance of termite mounds - thousands of them. We arrived in Mt Isa at about 4:30 and started looking for a caravan park. The first one couldn't fit us in, and we just managed to squeeze into the second one. I think the issue is that there are a lot of people working in the mines up here on short term contracts and staying in their caravans. We'll stay here a couple of days and then continue to move east through northern Queensland. After a couple of weeks of red dust, it will be nice to reach the coast to see grass again. Hope to post some photos tomorrow after a look around Mt Isa.

This morning while we were enjoying our first decent coffee for a while at the Barkley Homestead, a very friendly 'cowboy' approached us and took an interest in where we were from and where we were going and so on. He and his wife, his little girl and brother had just driven all night from Townsville and were on their way to Darwin (a 2,500 km trip). After a while I asked him what he did for a living, and without a trace of irony replied, I am Knackers Brooker and I'm Australia's top rodeo clown. At the age of 45, and after two broken necks and a ruptured testicle, he still rides and wrestles bulls here and overseas at least once per week. It is then we really realised we were in the 'top end'. Tonight I thought I'd Google Knackers, and I did. He's the real McCoy. I wish him luck, he is a nice guy and we enjoyed our chat with him.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

28 July - Day 14 - A Town Like Alice

Today is our last day in Alice Springs, and we've enjoyed it immensely. To do it and the surrounding areas justice would take a lot more than four days but we've enjoyed the little sample we've had.
This morning we had an amazing visit to the Alice Springs School of the Air. This service was established shortly after the Royal Flying Doctor Service to provide educational opportunities for children in remote communities, initially using radio technology. Today 'school' is delivered using the internet delivered via satellite. Teachers can teach classes of 15 or 16 pupils who are located hundreds of miles apart. We were able to see one of the classroom sessions in action - a really inspirational experience.
The town of Alice Springs is located on the Todd River, and before this engenders images of quiet waters and black swans, you should know that the river only has water in it for 5% of the year. This photo is taken standing in the middle of the river.
The locals have a sense of humour about their river and once a year organise an event called The Henley on Todd Regatta, which features bottomless boat full of people running.
Our last visit of the day was the local cemetery to visit the grave site of Albert Namatjira who was once of Australia's foremost watercolour painters. Albert, born on the nearby mission of Hermannsburg and a member of the local aboriginal community has his paintings hanging in galleries all over the world, and he really captured beautifully the spirit of the McDonnell ranges landscape.
If you would like to know more about Namatjira there are lots of web sites devoted to his life and art including this one here.
Alice Springs is a major centre for aboriginal art with lots of galleries and opportunities to look and to buy. I was also taken by some of the street art.
We'll spend the rest of the afternoon preparing for the next leg of our trip, Alice Springs to Tennant Creek which will be our farthest point from home. From here each km we travel will bring us closer to home.

Monday, July 27, 2015

27 July - Day 13 - Alice Springs

As  mentioned in an earlier post, we bypassed Kings Canyon due to poor weather there and travelled straight to Alice Springs. We are really enjoying Alice Springs. It is a beautiful little city with lots of facilities and of course many interesting activities. Alice Springs was initially established as a location for a repeater station on the Telegraph line which ran from Adelaide to Darwin and which was Australia's only communications link with the rest of the world. Yesterday we visited the old Telegraph station which is beautifully preserved as a museum.

We also visited the Alice Springs Cultural Precinct and viewed the Albert Namatjira art collection - Albert was an internationally recognised watercolour artist who produced some of the most stunning images of the local area.
Another feature of this precinct is the Central Australia Aviation Museum which features many of the iconic aircraft responsible for opening up this remote part of the country.
This morning we drove out into the West McDonnell ranges to visit Standley Chasm, which is reached after a spectacular walk.

Then, after some lunch back at the caravan we visited the Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) which from about the 1930's on provided the only available medical support to the isolated rural properties and communities. The area they cover is truly amazing and I think they attend to something like 80 calls a day.
Today services are provided in modern and fast aircraft which can operate almost anywhere, and the museum provided a fascinating insight into the amazing operations of the RFDS over the past 80 years. Tomorrow we will visit the School of the Air which provides class room tuition by radio to remote communities.

Friday, July 24, 2015

24 July - Day 10 - Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)

Our second full day here in the Red Centre. Our plan for today was to visit the Olgas, a group of dome shaped rocks the locals call Kata Tjuta. They are located about 50km from our campsite and visible from here. We travelled with a young couple Pat and Katie who arrived here by plane and were astounded that the local tour company wanted to charge them $150 each to take them to either Uluru or Kata Tjuta. They approached us when they learned of our plans they asked to join us. We were only too pleased to have them along for company. Like Uluru, the impact of Kata Tjuta only becomes apparent as you get closer.
Like most attractions around here you can select from a number of walks ranging from easy to strenuous, and we chose a couple of medium size walks. Unlike the walks around Uuru the walks here are rocky and in some places quite steep.
No matter which direction you look there are amazing views everywhere and at the same time you have to keep your eyes on the ground to check your footing.

We had a fair bit of rain overnight and there were pools of water everywhere which is probably a rare occurrence around here.
By early afternoon we had completed both our walks and I was ready to head back for a coffee and a bit to eat.
That completes our stay here at Uluru. Tomorrow we head off for a couple of nights in Kings Canyon which by all accounts is also spectacular.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

23 July - Day 9 - Uluru

Our first full day at Uluru today. After a leisurely bacon and eggs breakfast we drove to the Uluru national park and purchased our 3 day entry tickets. Once through the gates it is then a further 14 km drive to a spot where you can park the car and choose from a variety of walks around 'the rock'. We have both found that the impact of seeing this Australian icon is surprisingly profound. Initially there's the excitement of catching the first glimpse, after driving nearly a week, but the real effect takes hold as you get close to the rock. The size is imposing of course, but the majestic beauty not only of the rock itself but also of the surroundings is very powerful.
We drove around to the car park for the Mala walk which takes you right to the surface of the rock. Once you get close there is an infinite variety of details to capture the imagination.
Even in the short walk we undertook we discovered many caves which to the local Aboriginal people all have significance - many of them feature rock art.

One of the strange effects of visiting Uluru is that it seems to command reverence and stillness. While there are hundreds of visitors there at anyone time, everyone seems talk in hushed tones as if they're visiting a cathedral. It is no wonder that the local people treat the whole area as a sacred place.

We've been extremely lucky with the weather. The cool weather which has blanketed Australia has produced mild and very pleasant weather here. I can imagine that during the summer when the temperatures can reach 50ºC our walk would have been rather challenging. On the way back to the campground we visited the Uluru Cultural centre which was very interesting and a great example of architecture which is sympathetic to its surroundings. Unfortunately at the request of the local people we refrained from photography here. Tomorrow we plan to visit the nearby (50km) Olgas.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

21 July - Day 7 - Elrdunda NT

Left Coober Pedy this morning after a milder night and continued our trek north to the centre of Australia. Our planned destination for today was Erlduna which is where we leave the Stuart Highway tomorrow for out trip to Uluru (Ayers Rock). The very good road continued to cross desert cattle stations with very little signs of wildlife, or cattle. The only relief is the odd roadside service stations which serves as fuel stop, motel and caravan park. We stopped for fuel at Marla and reached Elrdunda mid afternoon. We spent the night in a very pleasant caravan park at the back of this huge service station complex. It is quite an amazing feeling enjoying the comforts of our caravan in the middle of one of the largest deserts in the world. Right next to our van a flock of Galahs had their afternoon chat in a nearby tree - quite a sight.
One great feature of this park is that it features an elevated viewing platform for viewing the sensational sunsets which are part of desert life and although it originally didn't look like much we were really grateful that we made the effort to walk up there after dinner and witness the most amazing sunsets we've ever seen.
I took about 40 photos because every 10 seconds or so the sunset changed completely. At one stage as the sun reached the point where is was shining horizontally through the desert atmosphere, a huge orange glow erupted almost like an explosion.
Within a few minutes the sun disappeared and started illuminating the underside of all the clouds in front of us, a completely different effect again.
An incredible end to the day and one we'll never forget.
Tomorrow we turn on to the Lassiter Highway for the 270km trip to Uluru. 

Monday, July 20, 2015

19 July - Day 6 - Coober Pedy, SA

After another chilly night we woke to a brilliant sunny day, the first on our trip. We decided to check out the visitor information centre and develop a plan for our two days here. We decided the Desert Cave tour was the way to go and as it started at 2:45pm that gave us time to walk into town and get our bearings.
In the caravan park you are soon reminded that you're in the middle of a desert and that water is scarce. There are no water connections to the caravan and the showers are coin operated. We carry water in the van but you become conscious that it is a scarce commodity.
Coober Pedy is the opal capital of the world. This little desert community of about 3,500 produces 80% of the world's opals.
For miles around the town the signs of mining are everywhere. All you need is a permit to become a miner and start digging but the odds are against you - only 1 in 100 digs result in any opal and 98% of opal is pretty but worthless. Given that summer temperature can reach in excess of 50ºC here, it is a hard life. From the surface, the town doesn't look much but 60% of the population live in 'dugouts' - underground homes. There are underground homes, hotels, motels, churches everywhere and in these the temperature only varies between 21 and 25ºC.

After a walk around the town and lunch in the caravan it was time to join our tour led by a local miner Jimmy (real name Demitrious) who has lived here all his life after arriving from Greece as an 18 year old. Our tour included some local sites as well as a visit to the Breakaway (a local geological formation). First visit was a mine and an underground house right under the main street.

Then it was time to drive out into the desert to visit the Breakaways.
The tour was timed to provide the perfect late afternoon lighting for photos of the desert and we reached the Dingo fence while there was still enough light left. This fence which runs through Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia for over 5000 km, literally divides the country into a northern beef cattle area and a southern sheep grazing area by keeping the dingoes (wild native dogs) out of the southern region.
By the time we returned to Coober Pedy it was dark and we had one more place to visit, St Elias an underground Serbian Orthodox church. This was certainly an amazing sight and one of the highlights of the trip.
Tomorrow we continue our trip to Ayer's Rock and beyond.

Friday, July 17, 2015

17 July - Port Augusta South Australia

We left Hahndorf this morning just before 10 am. Today's leg was relatively short so there was no hurry. Fortunately there was no rain - packing and hitching up in the rain is a real pain. As we missed the early morning traffic in Adelaide, the trip through the city outskirts was pretty calm and before to long we were headed due north along the shores of the gulf of St Vincent. We had an early lunch/coffee/toilet stop in a place called Lower Light (?) and then continued north. It wasn't long before we had become an unofficial member of a convoy of caravans heading in the same directions. Switched the UHF radio to Ch 18 and found they were all chatting to each other - obviously travelling together. We left them behind before Port Pirie and we arrived in Port Augusta just before 3pm and secured a drive through site. It is amazing how many caravans there are on the road. Had enough time for a short walk and to take a few photos.

While it is still overcast here the temperature has increased a fair bit and the bitter cold we experienced over the last few days seems to be disappearing. Port Augusta is right on the edge of the Great Australian Desert and tomorrow we start our foray into the Australian outback. Our target for tomorrow is Coober Pedy the famous opal mining town.