The Red Centre – October 2018

Tuesday 25 September – We came off the Great Central Road a little beaten and happy to see a touch of civilization and paved roads. We passed the Olgas and Uluru before reaching the campgrounds at Yalara. We already knew that a regular camp site was out of the question but a large overflow area was in operation and we were in a position to be self sufficient. The line up was extensive, mostly Vic and WA cars, their school holidays matching. Finally, we headed to the overflow, a large open space with caravans and tents dotted haphazardly all over the place. Signs warned us that we needed our own toilet facilities because it was too far to walk to the camp ablutions. Neither was any water or rubbish facilities provided. Not bad for $30 a night!

Yulara has all the basic essentials with an excellent IGA, fuel at $2.11/L and limited take-away alcohol at a minimum $30 a bottle of wine. It is a place that gives the plastic card a good workout.

Wednesday 26 September – The morning saw us head to Uluru to take in the rock (after paying $25 a head to enter the National Park). The bikes were unloaded from the roof and we set off for a circumnavigation while John and Julie visited the cultural centre. It is a 12km ride around and the temperature was in the low 30s so riding rather than walking was the way to go. Only one boggy section forced us to walk and we completed the ride in around 1.5 hours, with stops to read the notes along the way. Uluru is truly a beautiful place. The variety of surface features and weathered features is amazing and the ever changing faces, shadows and colours make it seem like a living entity. When our ride was complete, John and Julie set off while we made lunch and sat opposite the point that is used as a climbing face to watch the continual straggle of people moving up and down the face. They looked like a line of ants on the move.

Around Uluru

The climbing of Uluru is a controversial issue. It will be banned on 26 October 2019 (the 34th anniversary of the return of Uluru to its traditional owners). At the base of the climb is a large sign in a number of languages that clearly outlines the reasons the traditional owners do not want you to climb it. Put simply, this boils down to:

  • The climbing route is a sacred path of spiritual significance that is only taken by few Aboriginal men on special occasions.
  • People have been hurt and people have died when climbing Ayers Rock. The traditional owners feel responsible for these accidents.

We saw literally hundreds of people climbing up the rock but in the time we were there, not one stood in front of the sign to read it. The failure to actually engage with the issue probably upset me more than their decision to climb. There certainly seems to be an attitude of, “I’ve driven this bloody far so I’ll do what I want.”

The afternoon was spent back around Yalara settlement before heading out again with John and Julie in the late afternoon to catch the sunset colours on the rock from the viewing area. The parking area was packed with people set up with cameras, canapés, bubbly drinks and excitable children. Just as popular folklore maintains, the rock does go through quite a dramatic set of colour changes just prior to and after sunset. If anything, it seems to glow brighter just after the sun as sunk below the horizon.  Ah! The big rock at sunset. Another box ticked.

Thursday 27 September – We were bad today. The plan was to do the Olgas and John and Julie got all geared up to head out early and get in all the walks. We lagged behind and then lazed around instead of hitting the walking trails. We have been to the Olgas before and just didn’t feel like walking so we luxuriated in a good slack day. We spent a bit of time exploring the shopping centre which was surprisingly well stocked with a variety of goods.  It was pleasing to note that the majority of workers appeared to be indigenous, a far cry from other tourist centres around the outback, and that the jobs board was full of positions, both skilled and unskilled. Seeing the jobs board made me a bit less critical of the campground conditions. It could be that they would provide more services if they could get the staff.

By late afternoon, we decided we needed to pay some homage to the Olgas and drove out to the sand dune viewing area to take in a few perspectives of the range before heading back to camp. John and Julie had returned by this stage looking quite shattered after a very full day in the heat. They had managed to rack up every walk but were paying for it. Plans to go out after 8pm to see the moon rise over Uluru were abandoned.

Views of the Olgas (Kata Tjuta)

Friday 29 September – Today we broke camp, fuelled up and drove east then north to Kings Canyon. Along the way, we refuelled at the delightful little roadside stop of Curtin Springs that offered free camping, a far cry from the horrors of Yalara campground.  Before turning off the Lasseter Highway onto the Luritja Road we took in the beautiful sight of Mt Conner, a huge flat topped plateau to the west of Uluru. The road swings north before turning north-west and following the George Gill Range. The vistas are constantly changing and a far cry from the vast plains that we had travelled across in previous days. We stopped at Kings Creek Resort, an inviting little spot just outside the Watarrka National Park and within an easy drive of Kings Canyon.

Kings Canyon Resort was also fully booked but had promised us an overflow area and assured access to a TV for the AFL Grand Final. We managed to score a good spot with some shade and very close to some ablutions. The resort is very well appointed, although looking a little tired. From our campsite, we had a magnificent view of the canyon itself and surrounding hills.  Nearby, a track led to a ring of stones and logs that marked a paved “Sunset Viewing Area”, a great little touch. The only trouble was that instead of providing a facility that could bring guests together in the evening it was set up as licensed premises which meant that rocking up with a couple of cans and a chardy was out of the question. It was also out of the question to pay $8.50 for a can of Carlton Mid. We stayed in our camp and saved up for the Grand Final.

Saturday 30th September – This is the day that will be forever revered as the great Eagles AFL win of 2018. We geared our day around the great event and got up at 6am, so we could get to the Canyon Rim walk early, before the heat set in, and allow enough time to bag a good seat in the pub.

The wind was up anyway, but the canyon took it and turned a fresh breeze into a howling gale. The wind tunnel effect pushed gusts up to around 80km/hr, making the first 500 step climb up to the rim of the canyon quite scary. Christine voiced a desire to turn back but we went back our teenage years and held hands for most of the walk to get her around the course. The 6km walk was expected to take 3-4 hours but we did it in 2 and a bit, and Christine’s adrenalin levels never dropped a bit. Aside from the fear of being blown over the edge by the sudden blasts of wind, the walk was outstanding, with incredible views of the plains beyond. Once up on top of the range, a broad expanse of domed formations, like a mini Bungle Bungles, presents. The drop over the edge is mostly sheer, with amazingly flat and straight rock falls of the past leaving perfectly faced canyon walls. The variation in land forms and rock structures makes it like you are looking at more than one canyon, the view changing at every turn.  No previous canyon or gorge walk compares, and we have done plenty. Kings Canyon Rules!

Kings Canyon

We relaxed back in camp while John and Julie secured a prime table in the pub in readiness for the footy. We joined them with an hour to bounce down. By this time, the small room with two large screen TVs was occupied by a dozen or so Eagles supporters and another dozen of neutrals while out the back a much larger space was filling with Collingwood fans. When Collingwood kicked the first goal, the noise from out back was horrendous and after four more it was getting quite upsetting. I started to feel the way the Melbourne fans felt in the Preliminary Final. However, by the time the final few minutes came around and Dom Sheed kicked his magic goal, the noise in front drowned out the moans of the Collingwood faithful. It was the stuff of dreams.

Christine and I were once again the only ones in Eagles gear and it paid off. The publican came over and asked what we wanted to drink. Julie said she would have a white wine, Christine a red, and me, thinking Julie had asked for bubbly, said I’d have bubbly too. John ordered a beer. We all got our free drinks, except I got a whole bottle of good bubbly. Thanks Eagles! A great win all round. We left in a state of euphoria.

Sunday 1 October – Today we drove the Red Centre Way from Kings Canyon to Ormiston Gorge. The bulk of the trip, some 140kms, was unsealed. The unsealed part has not seen a grader for 18 months and was in very bad condition by any definition. Long stretches were devoid of any earth, the surface down to bare rock, and even that seem to be corrugated. We drove up on the side of the embankment seeking relief from the corrugations, we tried speeding up and slowing down. Nothing worked. It was bone jarring stuff.

We came across a 100 litre water tank in good condition, complete with protective cover, lying in the middle of the road. It was 100m down the track after a creek crossing so some poor unfortunate had taken the crossing too fast and ripped it out from underneath their camper. They weren’t far ahead because there was still water on the road. I stopped and made room on the roof rack for it, prepared to return it if we found the owners. We never did so we are still carrying it around. It will come in handy.

The scenery was nothing short of spectacular, like driving through the best of the Pilbara or Kimberley. The road starts to enter the region dominated by the magnificent West MacDonald Ranges, with numerous noteworthy peaks and a great many gorges. Every so often, there was a lookout or special feature to take in but some of these were ignored because we were driven to complete the unsealed section.

Finally, the bitumen road came and we stopped to pump up the tyres and shake off the dust. A short distance down the road was Gosse Bluff, a strangely named formation that suggested a single edifice of rock. What we found was a circle of low peaks and crags with an area of flat land in its centre. The formation is actually a crater formed by a 600 metre wide comet striking the Earth some 142 million years ago (I remember it happening). Later, we got to see the crater from a high lookout 20 km away and it looked just like one of the moon formations. Quite stunning.

We had to wait at Gosse Bluff for a while because the corrugations had damaged the electrical connection to John’s camper and a re-wiring job was needed. It was a pleasant enough place to sit except for the large number of honey bees. The very dry conditions meant they were desperate for water and they soon figured out that the water tank on our roof rack had some water left in it and an easy access point through the missing filler point. The top of our car became a mass of bees, as did the whole area. Julie and I avoided them but both Christine and John got stung. We left to wait for John further down the track, taking our bee swarm with us.

At one point on the drive, there was a sign indicating a rest stop with mobile phone reception. After days of no phone, this was worth a stop. We were greeted by the sight of a parabolic dish with a cradle to rest your phone.

As we headed east towards Glen Helen Resort, the scenery just kept getting better. The road ran parallel to the southern face of the West MacDonalds, a must do drive. Glen Helen Resort however, is not so inspiring. Situated on the site of a pretty little gorge (Glen Helen Gorge), it is a ramshackle collection of dongas, corrugated iron buildings and bough shelters. The carpark was in as bad a condition as the unsealed road. What a terrible advertisement for a so-called resort. You drive in on a nice bitumen road then drop over a nasty suspension damaging edge onto bare earth and rock that hasn’t seen a grader for ages. There is no apparent system of parking nor useful signage helping people line up for fuel. John needed fuel, which he purchased after a run-in with someone trying to jump the non-existent queue and we left.

Ormiston Gorge, only a few kilometres further on, was the exact opposite of Glen Helen. The National Park here is very well set up and has wonderful facilities, all for $10 a head per night. The camp ground is small and was full, but the ranger arranged for us to use the “coaches only” area, along with a few other late arrivals, and so we had our own set of hot showers and toilets. After a hell of a day’s travel, it was a wonderful end.

Monday October 1 – We rose quite early to fit in a walk of Ormiston Gorge before packing up. We took the “Ghost Gum Walk”, only 2.4km but quite tough because it climbs a series of steps and follow narrow trails cut into the shale cliffs to a lone ghost gum perched half way up the gorge’s northern face. The views are quite stunning. Ormiston is a very deep gorge by any standards, bigger than those in Karajini and most in the Kimberley. As with Kings Canyon, Christine needed the security of my hand because the pathways were often so narrow. I pictured us both plummeting to the bottom, hand in hand to the end. Thankfully, it didn’t happen and we reached the end of the walk intact. It amazes me how the level of protectiveness varies so much from location to location. Sometimes, handrails and fences are provided to excess and actually spoil the experience while in other places, a goat track carved into a shale hill side is deemed sufficient.

Ormiston Gorge

Once packed up, we drove east towards Alice Springs, skipping a lot of off-shoot sights. The West MacDonalds are easily worth four or five days.  We did stop at the Ellery Big Hole, a pretty little gorge with a decent body of clean swimmable water. The four of us stood up to our knees in the icy water until we could no longer feel our toes. John and Christine eventually took the plunge but Julie and I felt that some of us needed to remain sane and refused a dunking. We also diverted into Simpsons Gap, a narrow gap in the mountain chain a mere 15kms or so from Alice itself. The temperature had climbed into the mid 30s but swimming was out of the question with the only water presenting as a stagnant green slime pool. We walked, we saw, we photographed, and pushed on to the Wintersun Caravan Park in Alice Springs.

The Red Centre Way – Namatjira Drive

We booked in for 3 nights while John and Julie chose to stay 2. We need some serious cleaning to rid the camper of the excess red dust. Alice will be a parting of the ways anyway, with us heading to Victoria and John and Julie aiming for the Eyre Peninsula. Who knows, we may meet up for the Nullarbor crossing.

Tuesday 2 October – Today was a day of relaxing, cleaning, reading, trying out the almost too cold swimming pool and wandering around Alice Springs. First stop was Bunnings (of course) for a few bits of necessary hardware but unfortunately,  there was no sausage sizzle running. Another great stop was ANZAC Hill, a wonderful lookout right in the middle of town. This is the perfect spot to get a full understanding of the layout of Alice, set nestled between the West and East MacDonald Ranges.

We made a few purchases in town, including a HEMA Map book. We have been relying on the HEMA Map app on an Android tablet but it is not as good as the good old paper book when it comes to planning ahead.

Around Alice Springs

Wednesday 3 October – John and Julie were up early and packed up ready to hit the road. It is around 600km south to Coober Pedy, a full day with a van behind. We farewelled them, knowing that fate would probably bring us together again before we hit home.

The first job was to take the car down to Windscreen O’Brien to have the back window replaced.  The guy down there was fantastic and very patient while Christine did a lot of phone work to ensure the RACWA and the National Windscreens O’Brien chain got their act sorted. She was a champ and everything got sorted in the best possible timeframe. It is good to be able to see through the back window again.

We did some more cleaning before the heat settled in. The days are hitting 35 degrees now and we are dependent on a good breeze for relief. We stocked up on alcohol too. Alice Springs has long had heavy restrictions on alcohol purchases but today a new initiative by the NT Government came into force. They have set a minimum price of $1.30 per standard drink. This means that the cheapest price that can be charged for a bottle of wine (approx 8 standard drinks) is $10.40, putting an end to all the very cheap wine flooding the market. Beer is largely unaffected because it already sells for more than the minimum. A 4L cask white wine would cost $50.70. It will be interesting to see how it goes. Other states are watching with interest and it may well be adopted elsewhere, although the states with wine industries would come under a lot of pressure from growers needing to move their lower quality wines.

Tomorrow we hit the road south and will find the lower temperatures welcome after the last few days. Of our time here, Kings Canyon was the big standout for me, a must visit place.