Alice Springs to Melbourne and Back to Dowerin

Thursday 4th  to Friday 5th October – The main task over the next couple of days revolved around driving as far south as possible each to reach Mornington, Victoria. We were very keen to get down to see new baby Evie, and her parents Azba and Mike of course. We researched flying from Adelaide but by the time a hire car and accommodation was factored in, doing the big drive made sense.

Between us and Port Augusta lay Coober Pedy and Woomera, both of which we have visited before. A count of our remaining days before we must be back in Perth told us that there was a definite need to put in some long hauls so there would be limited time for sight seeing beyond what was available from the drive. A long haul drive is often an experience in itself. In times past we were capable of 800-900km days but now we find that 650km is a good enough target if successive days of driving are involved.

As one travels south from Alice, the population of the majestic desert oaks steadily dwindles and so the country takes on a more open desert-like appearance. The roadhouses are the major attraction and any plot of land that rises more than 100 metres above its surrounds suddenly becomes a mountain. We really struggled for points of interest. To keep up a routine, we always run a 100km driver swap pattern, meaning that the driver does not get fatigued and the passenger does not get too bored.

The first night, we overnighted off the road at the Pootnoura Creek 2nd Channel. We were nestled up against the Ghan rail line and expected some night interruptions but all was quiet.

The approach to Coober Pedy is always fun. The surreal landscape dotted with what look like large anthills makes one question man’s sanity. To see the sheer industry and effort that has gone into digging little holes in search of little chunks of colourful silicate rock is almost laughable. However, a day or so in Coober Pedy and the opal fever starts to strike everyone and the insanity of the place fades. This time, we by-passed one of Australia’s great frontier towns, apart from refuelling, and pushed on.

Not far south of Coober Pedy is an area of Defence Dept land that has a restricted status. Currently, all access along the Stuart Highway is stopped between 3pm and 11pm on a daily basis up until between 1st October and 10th November. It is quite a large stretch of highway that one does not want to get held up in. It mystifies me that an area of land set aside for the defence forces to test out weapons actually lies across a major national highway but there it is. National security and all that. We have to do our bit eh chaps?

Woomera was also bypassed and we crossed the large flat and treeless area  south of Pimba until the beautiful Flinders ranges come into view near Port Augusta. The large expanse of the salt lake chain provides some spectacular views along the way. Lake Hart is relatively small but accessible from the highway. The Island Lagoon is much bigger and a few good lookouts present along the road. The size and grandeur of these flat expanses of glistening white makes me wonder just what a spectacle the vastness of Lake Torrens or Ayres Lake must be. We haven’t got out there yet but it is on the big list.

From Top Left – The Ghan railway, A night camp, The Murray River at Mannum, Approaching the Grampians, Horsham CBD.

We made Port Augusta in good time and pushed through to check out a camp site in the Horrocks Pass, 30kms south. The worth of the camp proved to be grossly exaggerated in Wikicamps and we decided to drive to the top of Horrocks Pass and stay at a caravan park in Wilmington, a cute little village just over the Flinders Range. An older type guy greeted us, cricket bat in hand, threatening to smash his computer to pieces out of frustration at trying to pay some bills. However, he managed to book us in with a laugh and a smile and we settled down for a pleasant night in bush surroundings. This is a really charming little place and with all the wonderful walking trails and gorges to explore in the Flinders it would make a wonderful cheap base to stay for a few days.

Saturday 6th October – On a previous trip, we had been through Wilmington on a Sunday morning, hoping (but failing) to find a nice little cafe serving breakfast. We can now attest that Wilmington is no livelier on a Saturday morning.

The road south took us through the beautiful Clare Valley. A couple of standout looking little towns grabbed our attention, including Melrose, with a gorgeous little pub, a lovely stream and numerous walk trails into the Mt Remarkable National Park. Could be worth investigating at a later date. There were some markets on in Clare that prompted us to stop and partake in a sausage sizzle, although Christine’s Eagles shirt nearly got her barred.  Fortunately, the guys running the Lions stall hated Collingwood more than the Eagles so we still got served. Christine managed to get her eyebrows done (threading) in the markets (apparently a priority after a couple of weeks in the desert) and I picked up some homemade fig jam (always a priority).

At Tarlee, we left the A32 and cut across to Kapunda and on into the Barossa Valley. At this time of year, the valley is covered in green. As we headed south, the crops gradually improved, from poor pathetic things up around Wilmington that already had been given over to the sheep, to lush fields of wheat, barley and canola. The vines are just starting to sprout their spring coats and the many deciduous fruit trees around the area still bear the flush of flowering. It was a very pretty drive.

We finally settled in for the night on the Murray at Mannum. We have never been to Mannum before and were very taken with both its setting and its streetscape. There is no bridge nearby so a ferry service carries cars across the river. The town, unlike many Murray towns, is built down near the river rather than higher up to escape flooding. Although this has meant some problems for the port in past years, it makes for a very picturesque setting. The caravan park is right on the river itself and there were a good number of water skiers and families fishing. We only saw carp caught.

Sunday 7th October – We packed up the camper and walked down the road to the Mannum Sunday markets. There was the usual craft and potpourri type stuff and an excellent range and variety of street foods, although it was still a bit early for us to indulge. A gadget man sold us a wonderful 12V double fan for the camper. It would have been useful back in the hot weather.

From Mannum, we drove through Murray Bridge, Tailem Bend and picked up the Dukes Highway to go east all the way to Horsham in the Victorian Wimmera District. The roads by now are either full dual carriageway or single lanes with passing lanes every 5 kms so driving is easy. The country continued to be green, with hay cutting starting into the Mallee Region. Some crops in the Wimmera had obviously got off to a poor start and it was by no means a good season. However, the dams appear full and the stock fat so the Victorians have not suffered like the NSW and Qld farmers.

The caravan park in Horsham is a small council affair on the banks of the Wimmera River, an interesting river that flows out of the Grampians and into a series of swamps and lakes. It is said to hold good stocks of fish and I found myself wishing I had packed a rod. Horsham itself is a decent sized city with around 17,000 people and all amenities, yet still easy enough to move around in. We went for a walk into the CBD to find a supermarket and found all the shopping that one would expect anywhere.

Monday 8th October – After a leisurely rise and a spot of shopping, we drove on to the Grampians and Halls Gap. The map indicated two ways to Halls Gap, the short way along C222 and a longer way on C216 through Stawell. Naturally, we chose the short way. As the road began to enter the National Park, a sign indicated that the road was unsuitable for caravans beyond Zumsteins (wherever that was). Mmm? We pressed on and the road looked fine. Zumsteins proved to be a quaint little picnic area so we stopped to read the information boards. No mention of caravans or road conditions. Four people sat having a picnic and we enquired with them about the road. “Oh it’s fine,” was the answer. “You will be OK.”

The road indeed became unsuitable for caravans and only just barely suitable for our camper. It was a full mountain climb with numerous hairpin bends and totally blind corners. There was quite a lot of traffic coming towards us, mostly appearing suddenly around corners taking up considerably more than their fair share of road. Christine refrained from screaming and I crushed the life out of the steering wheel while we put up with 24kms of torture. Numerous signs pointing to lookouts and walk trails flashed by but we ignored everything until we finally reached the sanctuary of Halls Gap.

It is very easy to fall in love with Halls Gap. A delightful village with lots of little eateries is strung along the main street and bisected by Stony Creek. The caravan park is strung out opposite, bringing campers right into the town. All around are the rampart walls of the mountains, with beautiful tall eucalypts, lush ferns and lots of wildflowers. There were a good number of campers, mostly South Australian, with Victorian school holidays coming to an end.

We set up camp, had lunch, explored the village then set off back onto the road that had tortured us to investigate some of the lookouts and waterfalls. Without a camper trailing behind, it is a lot less nerve racking but care is still needed on the blind bends, a safety point lost on some people. There must be some nasty accidents.

We visited the beautiful Silverband Falls, well named because they present as a narrow long fall of silver set in a fern filled gully. Reed Lookout is a forestry lookout giving superb views over the ranges to the farm lands beyond. A 1km walk down a good track takes you to The Balconies, where a number of rock ledges hang precariously over a sheer drop to the forest far below. The scenery is absolutely breath-taking. The Boroka Lookout offered equally magnificent views. An afternoon’s driving and walking does not even start to scratch the surface of all that there is to offer in the Grampians. It is a definite “must return”.

The Grampians

Tuesday 9th October – We travelled SE through Stawell, Ararat and on past Ballarat. The freeway took us all the way to Melbourne and over the West Gate Bridge. Somehow, we narrowly averted the disaster of the last time we entered Melbourne this way and managed to change lanes at the last minute to avoid exiting prematurely in South Melbourne. Then it was into the dreaded tunnel, which seems to run for ever and is filled with huge car eating monsters. Enormous growling trucks occupy every lane and travel at a terrifying speed. The electronic signs say “AVOID LAND CHANGES” but this obviously does not apply to trucks, which fill every available gap as soon as one opens up. I should have worn the same underpants that I wore in the Grampians so I didn’t  have to ruin two sets.

The freeway took us most of the way south to Mornington and the Nepean Hwy did the rest and we were soon set up in the Mornington Caravan Park. We had come this far to drop in on Azba and Mike to meet little Evie, now all of 4 months old. They live in Mt Eliza, only about 6kms from where we camped so we headed over in the evening. Apparently, all babies are cute but Evie is definitely right up there on the cuteness scale. She has Azba’s eyes so that would do it. She had some shots the previous day so the grumps had set in a little but she still seemed to acknowledge us. Pickle, the tiny little miniature dachshund with attitude, demanded far more attention than little Evie. It was scratch behind the ears, give me a tummy rub or I’ll bark you off the planet. Mike seems to have her measure though with a kibble controlled food approach. Christine had knitted Pickle a wonderful multi-coloured coat, a thing she does as “passenger therapy” on long drives. Pickle seemed to like it for a while then showed signs of wanting to eat it. It will probably be put away until next winter.

Wednesday 10 October – The first order of the day was to get the car in for a much needed service. As always seems to happen, they found more that was needed so it took most of the day to give it a birthday. We hung around camp and shivered. The maximum for the day was forecast at 17 but I doubt that it got much above 14 with a fresh breeze to add to the wind chill. Christine used the camp kitchen to cook up some meals and lunch meats, while I read and did a few little repairs on the camper. We did take a 2km walk down to the local Aldi but the wind froze us solid.

Once the car was retrieved, we went over to Az and Mike’s before turning in.

Thursday 11 October – We had a much needed sleep in today. In the late morning we drove into Mornington itself to walk the streets. The temperature was a definite improvement on the previous few days and there were quite a few people out and about. Mornington is a pretty little place with a main street full of great cafes, restaurants and a couple of pubs. It must really hum during summer holiday times. We liked the name of a spot called “Albert’s Burgers and Beer”. We shared a burger called “The Albert”. The patty was hand pressed using Angus beef and there was a delicious cheese, amazing pickles and a spicy sauce. We shared one in order to reduce the damage but I hated having to share such a wonderful creation. We washed it down with a local Mornington Pale Ale. Why not?

Around Mornington and gorgeous little Evie

In the evening, we were back with Az, Mike and Evie to say our farewells. It is wonderful to see them both happy. They are tired, what new parents aren’t.  Azba is a wonderful mother and Mike makes a great dad. Thanks guys for sharing a little part of your life with us.

Friday 12 October – We packed up ready for the long trip home, a distance of 3365km (to Dowerin). To save a few kilometres and avoid a trip back through the dreaded tunnel and Westgate Bridge, we booked a car ferry ticket on the Sorrento to Queenscliff ferry. At around $120 for the car and camper, it was not a saving but it was a very pleasant way to go. The drive along the coast was great, seeing all the beautiful little coves and headlands that dot the Mornington Peninsula. We had booked a noon ferry but the ticket was good for an earlier departure so the fact that we were ahead of schedule did not matter.

Once aboard, we could leave the car and wander around the boat, a three deck affair with food, coffee and bar available. The scenery is worth watching as the ferry follows the coast past Portsea and across the entrance to Port Phillip and on into Queenscliff. The trip takes around 40 minutes and is well worth the little bit of extra money for the experience and the lack of panic.

Queenscliff is a gorgeous little town, full of quaint wooden buildings and some impressive stone structures. It boasts an extensive rail museum and a working steam train. After a short drive around to take in the sights, we drove north to Geelong, skirting the worst of the city and picked up the highway to Ballarat.

Somehow, we had to go through the centre of Ballarat (I’m sure that could have been avoided) but we were at least quite familiar with the city from our last trip and soon joined the A300 freeway to take us westwards in comfort. The towns we had been through only a few days before flashed past, Ararat, Stawell, Horsham etc and by the time we stopped for the night in Kaniva on the Western Hwy we were only 20kms or so shy of the SA border.

Saturday 13th October – Another day of driving, swapping every 100kms. We followed the Western Hwy into SA where it becomes the Dukes Hwy and traverses wheat/sheep farming lands and towns such as Keith and Coonalpyn and on to the Murray River town of Tailem Bend. We had heard a radio program that talked about an art program that involves the painting of the many wheat silos that dot the landscape in SA. It was with great delight that we took in some of the magnificent artistic efforts. Indeed, some people make a tour out of following the silo art trails. The ones we saw were amazing examples.

Once at Murray Bridge, the choice is to stick to the expressway to Adelaide and put up with getting through the city, or head north through the Barossa and put up with lesser roads and frequent small towns. We chose the expressway, whizzing through the Adelaide Hills, taking the dizzy descent down the seemingly endless pass to the coastal plain then pushing through the Saturday shopping traffic to find the A1. We spent most of the trip sitting behind a large semi trailer, figuring it would guide us through the traffic, which it did until eventually peeling off and heading on the road to Gawler.

The A1 heading north of Adelaide must be one of the ugliest approaches to a major city anywhere. It traverses some low saltbush scrub country and seems to be covered in a ramshackle arrangement of light industry and poor farmlands that are littered with decaying machinery. It is really not a good look at all until after Port Wakefield.

We drove hard, through Port Pirie and Port Augusta and on to Kimba. Once heading west from Port Augusta, we really felt as if we were going home. Kimba is a wheat/sheep town at the top of the Eyre Peninsula. It has one of the best pieces of silo art we came across, a “Big Galah” and a free caravan park. What? Free? Yes, they make their recreation facilities available to caravanners. It pays off. We have used it before and the town benefits from the extra customers that results. There were more caravans in Kimba than many of the actual caravan parks we had used on the way over. Way to go Kimba!

Sunday 14th October – Oh no! Not the Nullabor! Some love it, I hate it. A couple of days driving staring at low scrub does not make for a magic experience but then, each to their own. We had a glorious display of lightning with thunder to accompany during the night and a steady amount of rain, which fortunately abated in the morning, allowing us to pack up without drama.

After Kimba, there is still quite a bit of farming land and woodland through to Ceduna before the real open country is encountered.

Most of the drive west was wet, if not overly so. It seemed as if there were some really terrible looking storms around us but they never actually hit us too badly. We passed through Nullabor and on to Eucla. The aim was to get through the quarantine process (always a pain) then stop for the night. However, 25kms short of the border, we were hit by torrential rain, so bad that driving on was not really an option, and we joined 4 or 5 other rigs in a large gravel pit, close to the cliff edge. It took a few goes to actually set up camp and at one point we were setting up in a large shallow lake. The rain was savage!

Monday 15th October – The rain stopped during the night but the morning was still overcast we the occasional small shower. We got through the quarantine with the usual sense of frustration. I really don’t know why they bother with all the advertising of how to prepare because it does no good. You rock up with veges sorted according to the web site rules, the pot of honey ready to hand over and all uncertain things ready to declare. “That’s OK, that’s good, etc etc. Now we need to look in the camper and all through the car.” One might as well just leave everything as is and let them have all the fun of discovery.

After Eucla, the weather steadily improved, although a steady headwind did nasty things to our fuel economy. The boredom of the open treeless plain slowly gave way to woodlands and we pushed on through Madura, Cocklebiddy and finally, Balladonia, the last stop before the “civilization” of Norseman. We reached Norseman with a couple of daylight driving hours left but I felt drained and a roadside stop about 15kms north was enough for us. It was hard to find a spot that wasn’t a mud patch, after all the recent rain and we ended up quite close to the road. The thundering road trains really didn’t bother us because we just crashed out.

Tuesday 16th October – The final leg, at least to Dowerin. The rain had almost completely gone, with just the odd few spots as we drove north to Coolgardie. Then it was heading west again back towards home, watching the woodlands give way to low mallee scrub then, near Southern Cross, the familiar sight of wheatfields. The crops in Western Australia are so much better than those in the eastern states this year and even those improved dramatically from Merredin through to Dowerin. We had lunch in Merredin and got home in the early afternoon, giving us enough time to conquer the main part of the unpacking and cleaning. The rains over the last month had sported a fresh crop of weeds to deal with in the back yard. On entering the house though, there was a very noticeable smell of gas and Christine discovered that the oven was on a very low setting. No flame was present, it had probably gone out and the dregs of the bottle seeped out. We opened everything up and aired out the house, thankful that we did indeed have a house left. Perhaps an updated oven is in order or maybe we even turn the gas off when we leave would be smarter.

All in all it was a whirlwind trip, with some 8,500kms covered in a month. We keep saying we will slow down and take time to smell the daisies but somehow…….

  1. Bradley Roberts

    WTF!.. GLAD YOU FESSED UP TO NEAR BLOWING UP DOWERIN! wasn’t me mom!.. and I was thinking you were a bad housekeeper Christine..i went hunting for a dead !
    ..illywhackeps damn.. I rued to enter your home here as.. The Sandpiper

  2. Piscicelli

    WOW! I’m exhausted just reading about it all. However, so very interesting. Great descriptions of all those places and the drive itself.
    By the way, we have a new granddaughter and her name is Eve, born on October 9, Mark and Rhema’s first. Enjoy your time back home. Cheers, Yvette and Rob xxx

  3. What a mammoth drive! Thanks so much for the visit, was wonderful seeing you both as always. Very happy to hear that the house is still in one piece. Looking forward to seeing you again come tennis time!

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