Fri 14 Aug - From Coober Pedy to short of Cadney Park Roadhouse - 140km
Our last dinner at Coober Pedy was take away pizza from the award winning Johns pizza and pasta place. We ordered one for dinner and another for the morning because there's nothing as good as breakfast pizza before hitting the road. We had planned to get up stupidly early to beat the caravanners out of town. Our alarms went off and we tucked into the 'coat of arms' special, a delicious pizza with Kangaroo and Emu salami, spinach and Camembert cheese. This was our last taste of civilisation for more than a thousand kilometres.
As our phone reception bars dwindled we used the last of our internet connectivity on the edge of town to tweet a photo - 'Alice Springs 684km' with two long bike rider shadows. We were going dark for the best part of a month, but using that time to see the trophy sites of Central Australia, Uluru, Kata-Tjuta, Kings Canyon and MacDonnell Ranges. When we return we'd have a tale to tell. It would be awhile before we returned to a city, but the we were heading into country that was really special.
The road out of Coober Pedy wound through opal mining leases. Mullock heaps – white piles of crushed sandstone piled around underground opal mines. The landscape had an eerie out of scale quality, as if we were passing though the territory of giant ant colonies.
Further north we return to mulga country, gibber plain and sandy heath – home of the reptile. Central netted dragons (Ctenophorus nuchalis) sun themselves on the highway as we ride. The beastie remains motionless as we take a few photos and we continue on. Later we pass a roadside rest area. It has bins and a water tank. It appears that unlike the Woomera defence area, the road north of Coober Pedy has good facilities. Our spirits are lifted for the road ahead.
|Into the big dark - well at least as far as internet access goes.|
|There be dragons|
Sat 15 Aug - From Cadney Park, past Marla to just short of the SA/NT border.
We awake to the chill of the pre-dawn. My efforts to prepare a hot breakfast a thwarted by a trangia stove that just won't light. The trangia runs burns methylated spirits (more specifically the vapourised metho sitting just above the metho) so when it's really cold the metho won't catch. I attempt to warm the metho by tucking the burner under my jumper. One touch of the cool metal against my skin and I abandon the idea of hot food. I settle for a breakfast of biscuits and the knowledge there's a roadhouse an hour or so down the road.
Cadney Park roadhouse is a working cattle station, a railway stop and a roadhouse all rolled into one. Satellite dishes in various states of repair pepper the roof and cattle truck road trains fill the space between highway and bowers. Inside the place is a little bit country – cattle skulls and old cattle grazing equipment mounted on the walls, a Big Buck Hunter video game and jukebox featuring an album called 'Songs for my ute'. We order a trucker's breakfast and soon receive a a greasy plate loaded with bacon, sausages, eggs, baked beans, hash browns and toast. We might have missed first breakfast and entered starving hungry but we struggled to finish our meals.
As we eat a white Toyota Hiace minibus from the local Aboriginal community rocks up. These buses are a popular choice for grey nomad campervan converstion – Instead of two shuffling oldies out poured two old blokes, a bunch of young bucks trying to look tough, several aunties and a gaggle of young kids. It was quite satisfying to see a minibus used for its intended purpose – and to speculate that it probably that community's link to the outside world and would most likely be driven until the wheels fell off.
After a late breakfast we are back on the road and are passed by several road trains, mostly empty cattle trucks heading north and full ones heading south. What does this means for cattle farming in the Northern Territory. Is it a sign that condition are good and sales are strong, or are they doing it tough and moving cattle to southern pastures to escape the drought? Such thoughts provide a diversion from the sensoury assault of piss and animal fear that accompanies the passing of each of these trucks.
Around lunchtime a caravan heading south slows to pull over. Maree ignores it. This is a regular occurance that usually involves photos taken without our consent and stupid questions. As I pass the I hear 'Do you know Jess Parker?', I say 'yes' and give a cheery wave as I pass. Jess helped us out when we walked the 'Cape to Cape' walk in Western Australia, and parent to an old friend from high school. Our caravanner is a family friend of the Parkers. The common link was Facebook. The encounter was a strange two degrees of separation meeting in the middle of the desert.
Several hours of thirsty riding later we arrive at the northern end of the Oonadatta Track and the Marla Traveller's Rest Roadhouse. Somewhere between a petrol station and a small town this roadhouse has a supermarket, bar, motel, and more importantly for us several shady spots where we could take a break. (It had bottled water for sale, but the taps were supplied with bore water). We treat ourselves to an ice cream and soft drinks and take an hour out to listen to a podcast. 'The Thrilling Adventure Hour - Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars'. It's a very silly space fantasy told in the style of a 1950s era western but we've be come fans.
Sun 16 Aug – Heading towards the SA/NT Border
The south Australian desert country from Woomera to here was largely flat. Sure there was undulating sand dunes, salt lakes and the like but as we approach the Northern Territory we start seeking more hills, ridges and rock formations on the horizon. These formations are the remains of millenia of erosion. The plugs and seams of solid rock left projecting above the ground as the softer ground is eaten away. As we ride I'm reminded of Monument Valley the iconic rock formations made famous by so many John Ford westerns.
It's our third day on the road and we are getting into a rythmn of awaking early, breaking camp, riding, stopping for meal breaks at ten, twelve thirty and three, riding till an hour before dusk when we hide our bikes in the bushes and make camp. It's working well, but we are getting grubby. My shirt has white bands of salt from evaporated salt and we both sport dirt mostashes of sunscreen and road filth. Today it's not a problem. We ride all day without passing a single roadhouse and our only human encounter is with a grey nomad who talked at us whilst we filled our water bottles at a road side rest area.
Our biggest issue are burrs. We are in arid cattle grazing country and more than a few plants spread their seeds with vicious prickles. There are big woody ones the size of marbles, nasty little caltrops and these fine sharp buggers that get stuck in everything like splinters. Each time we pull over for a meal break or rest our sock and pants get covered in them and we must spend a few minutes getting rid of them before we ride on. If we don't they work their way into our feet and spike us with each push of the pedals. These seeds are also a problem when making camp. Our matresses are inflatable and one of these suckers could spell the end to a comfortable sleeping for the rest of the journey.
With the last hours of the day we ride on toward the NT border. As we approach we see a grader scrape snaking its way roughly parallel to the highway. It is the remains of the old, unsealed Sturt Highway and provides a reminder of how tough this route once was. It also provides a flat spot out of sight from the main road that was not accessable for caravans so became our camping spot for the evening. As the sun we felt that sense of achievement that only comes with crossing a state entirely under your own power.
Mon 17 Aug – From the border to the turnoff to Uluru
Once again we started the day with the bushman's breakfast (a scratch, a fart and a look around), and started headed down road for a roadhouse second breakfast. Around 15km north of the the SA/NT border is Kulgera roadhouse, a place of exotic meat sandwiches, and oldies who buzzed around our bikes like so many flies.
Our early start allowed us to reach the SA/NT border rest stop, take on water and slip away before anyone in sleeping in the caravans surrounding the water tank knew we were there. A few kilometres down the road we snuck into the bushes for a few nibblies to get us to the rest of the way to the roadhouse. Around morning tea time we arrived at Kulgera – a roadhouse proclaiming itself as the first and last pub in the Northern Territory.
A new state means a new supplier of iced coffee – and the local brew is pretty good (but the South Australian one is better). Inside the drinks fridge there are choclate bars, premade sandwiches and other items of deliciousness. We buy up big. I pick up a venison salad sandwich for now and a silverside beef and chuckney for lunch. We munch our second breakfast and watch as the parking area gradually fills with four wheel drives and caravans.
Rested and ready to hit the road we return to our bikes three older blokes converge on us. All have seen the bikes and are just dying to ask questions of their riders. We had deliberately sat away from our bikes to avoid this. As we sort out our helmets one of the shufflers asks “Which way you headed?”. This question strikes us a particularly stupid. There's only one road and we've been on it for several hours. It heads north – south. We've been on it for several hours and many caravanners have passed us. If they haven't seen us on the way in to the road house, it's fairly safe to assume we are heading in the opposite direction. It's apparent the question is only the opening gambit in the traveller's twenty questions game designed to put us in a 'freak show' box and invitibly ends in them informing us why they prefer driving in a caravan to riding a bike. It's a game that we have no interest in playing.
North of Kulgera the road is fenced and there's a marked difference in the roadside vegetation and the dusty remnants of plants within the cattle pens. The country is sick from over-stocking. We have our answer about the NT cattle industry. Perhaps this explains all the cattle trucks heading south.
Around three we arrive at Eldunda, 'the gateway to Uluru'. It's a huge roadhouse, busy with caravans, hired campervans and all manner of tourists using it as a staging post for their Uluru trip. It is crazy busy – and feels “white”, by which I mean popular with the tourists and a place that the locals and truckies avoid. The sign “Centrelink basics card not accepted” on the door confirms my suspicion that this place is a well honed tourist trap. This place makes a good living out of caravanners looking for a place to store the van for a few days while they take 4WD day trips to escape the super premium accomodation prices of the Ayres Rock Resort.
We take care to stash the bikes a little beyond comfortable walking distance for a motorist – ie about 100m away from the entrance – and walk in. Following our experience at Kulgera roadhouse, we are pleased to see two cycle tourists sitting next to their bikes right near the front door, getting photographed and playing along with the inane question game. We leave them to it, glad that they are prepared to be the 'sacrifical anode' for the tourist's attentions.
We turn east along the Lasseter Highway towards Uluru, and repeat our trick of riding most of the way to the next roadhouse before finding rolling out the swag and sleeping under the stars far away from prying eyes.
Tue 18 Aug – Mount Ebenezer and Curtin Springs
The Lasseter Highway is a strip of bitumen with an international scale tourist destination at its end. A constant stream of caravanners, tour buses, motor homes, hire cars and trucks pass us. There sounds of motors accompany us all day. It is much busier than the Sturt Highway (or is it Stuart Highway now that we are in the NT). Not everyone knows how to pass a bike, and very few have the respect to slow down and wait till it is safe pass if there's something coming the other way. Riding the Lasseter is pretty hairy and not much fun. Maree copes by swearing like a sailor at the worst of the motorists. I try to chill out using a podcast - 'Revolutions' – a history of the English Civil War. Neither option is ideal.
The only real option for dealing with traffic is getting an early start helps. The caravan traffic doesn't really get heavy till after ten, time enough for holiday makers to have a sleep in and a lazy breakfast before hitting the road. We are on the road a little after six thirty with the first light of day. Unfortunately on this road, the tour buses also make an early start as backpackers try to squeeze as much as possible into a day trip.
However, our first encounter for the day is a hitch-hiker – or more specifically three blokes standing around a clapped out Falcon station looking for a way home. As we approach the oldest stands in the middle of the road thumb out whilst his two mates fight the morning chill by a blazing mulga bush they're using as a campfire. Hitch-hiking man speaks no English, but makes signs to Maree implying “Can I have a dink?”. We shake our heads. Unable to get them home, he asks for food or water. I hand over three muesli bars and feel dreadful about my decision to hang onto my limited water supplies. I ride off reminded that Aboriginal culture is one of compulsory sharing and reciprocity, and that I hoarded my limited water supplies out of fear - not knowing where the next drinking water tank would be. My sense of shame was slaved a few minutes later when I we were passed by a community minibus and there inside are our three hitchhikers waving like mad.
We arrive at Mt Ebenezer roadhouse before nine, nice and early for a second breakfast. However, a tour bus has beaten us and as we select our breakfast goodies (and treats for the road) we see a queue of people form to order cooked food. We wait to see if the queue clears, but as we do so another tour bus pulls up. This is obviously the place the savvy tour operators go to avoid the caravanners' tourist trap that is Eldunda.
In the afternoon a large block shaped mountain projects over the horizon. At first we think it is our first glimpse of Uluru – it is instead Mount Crawford, an amazing plateau mountain that most closely resembles Devils Mountain, the igneous plug mountain featured so prominently in 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind'.
As the day ends we approached Curtin Springs, a station cum caravan park that wikicamps proclaims has parking for over 50 vans and there's a campfire sing along every night. Maree's special hell. She's keen to find somewhere, anywhere to camp before we get there. Unfortunately the road is fenced on both sides. Eventually we find a spot where the fence moves away from the road and bushes obscure a sandy patch. It's too small for the tent but fine for Bivvy swags. We heave our bikes over the soft red sand and make our camp for the night. I sleep snug in my swag, safely zipped within waterproof fabric and mozzie netting but barely able to move.
I am awoken in in the night by the howl of a dingo. It is close. My snug swag feels more like a body bag as fear strikes and fumble at the zips. Maree on the other hand, is unphased. She makes hissing noises and angrily yells “Go away dingo”. It slinks away. In my mind the howl was the beast that savaged Lindy Chamberlin's kid, in hers the dingo was just another annoying dog. A moment of panic can play awful tricks some time.
Being so close to Curtin Springs we sneak in just after seven and feast on a big breakfast. We time it right and miss both the tour buses and the caravanners sleeping on site. The meal is another one of these egg, bacon, beans, hash browns monstrosities that only a day's riding can burn off. We relish it in all of its greasy glory.
The riding conditions on the Lasseter remain as awful as ever, but fortunately we have less than 100km to ride and the wind is in our favour. We arrive at Yalara, aka Ayres Rock Resort, the main tourist service centre for the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park in the early afternoon and with our first phone reception for days we arrange a place to stay. Accommodation at Yalara is extortionate, ($250 per night for a room that is basically backpacker dorm to ourselves). It does, however, have showers and for that we are prepared to pay. Six days on the road, sweating all day and sleeping on the dirt and we stink. A chance to get clean and to wash our socks is well worth it.
We watched the sun go down over Uluru from a hotel lookout. There were lots of people around. The constant chatter seemed to diminish the experience, but it's difficult to explain the concept of natural awe to someone who's so engrossed in getting the perfect photo. We satisfied ourselves that we'd do our best to get away from the crowd tomorrow and made the most of being in a town – which meant ordering a beer and watching 'Adventure Time', a crazy cartoon on Impaja TV.
With phone reception I took the chance to call mum – and ranted a bit about how the number of caravanners were the biggest change from my 2003 ride and my current one. The two biggest changes from that ride and this one are that in the intervening decade portable media devices a thing, and so too grey nomadism. Both were around on the earlier ride, but neither had the cultural force of today.
Overall Yalara is a weird place. It offers the promise of a sacred desert experience without either sacredness nor real contact with the desert. Manicured gardens provide both shade and the illusion of abundant water. Air conditioned vehicles and buildings provide insulation from the heat, and tour buses and structured activities mean the visitor need never be confronted with the solitude of remote living. What remains is a great photo opportunity, the chance to brag that you've “done” Uluru as you work your way through an Australian itinerary of sights. Natural wonder has become an item in an experience economy – and the visitor is denied the chance to be humbled by the scale and age of country.
Thu 20 Aug - Uluru and the road to Kata-Tjuka
Waking early we donned our high viz and hit the road joining the procession of vehicles heading to Uluru to collect the 'dawn on the rock' photo. As we rode we passed 'No Stopping' signs. Here in the middle of Australia, on a remote desert road there were parking controls. This, to me, was proof of the extent that Uluru had become a managed resource rather than sacred site. The signs were needed of course, for without them people would stop in the middle of the only road and take photos, completely oblivious to the impact that stopping their oversized vehicle has traffic flow. We abandon the idea of the dawn photo and instead attempt to get moment with the monolith before the crowds descend.
Fortunately our bikes helped. A track snakes its way around Uluru, and we had the ability to see its wonders and keep ahead of the tour groups. Uluru does not project directly out of the ground. There are crevices with waterholes and lush vegetation, and all manner of caves and rock shelters. From these caves, kids learn the art of hunting, women prepare seed cakes, and people meet for ceremony. Some of these places are sacred and signs ask visitors not to photograph them as a sign of respect to the traditional owners. On the whole people seem to comply with these signs, but I can't help but think its a compromise in favour of supporting visitor access rather than one favouring its sacredness. Clumsy comparisons with tourists and cathedrals come to mind but nothing quite works. After all if a place is important because its where an a youth learns his art of hunting emu, how can that importance be retained if the emu are scared away.
After a morning tea at the visitors' centre we head towards Kata-Tjuka – a fifty odd kilometre ride into a headwind. We approach the Olgas around four, much later than we had expected. It's late in the day so we decide to take a side road out of the national park, find a place to camp and see Kata-Tjuka sites in the morning. We were lucky, we found a spot with a view of the rocks and got to spend an evening watching the rocks change colour with the sunset in solitude.
** The remainder of this post are the brief comments I made on the road... It's taken more than a day to write an account of my time away from the internet..
Fri 21 Aug - Kata-Tjuka
Kata-Tjuka is a mens' business place related to the poisonous snake. Uluru is a women's business place related to the python.
We stash our bikes and walk the Valley of the Winds walk.
Rode to K-J valley of the winds walk. Lots of people, but far fewer than Uluru at the time when we departed.
We have a surprise encounter with a bike funnist who has been on a winery tour with us.
We ride to W Gorge. Lush plant life in shaded gorge – including a native tobacco nicotine plant.
After the walk we return to our camp spot outside national park and spend lazy afternoon in the shade.
As we head out of the Uluru Kata-Tjuka National park we are passed by lots of motorcyclists. As we return to Yalara and internet access we find out that today is the final day of a Black Dog charity ride, with motorcyclists converging on Uluru from all parts of Australia.
Uluru seems to attract motor vehicle clubs. In our travels we've seen fifities buses, seventies muscle cars even Citreon 2CVs travelling in groups towards Uluru. If there's motoring enthusist group out there, it appears that somewhere along the line they'll plan a road trip to Uluru as a get together.
We return to Yalara to find it really busy. The Saturday markets are on, the cafe is full and a small crowd sticky beaks a the collections of aboriginal arts available for sale. True to form we sneak in for supermarket shop and and do our best to avoid the crowd. We do a big shop. It will be over ten days till the next supermarket at Alice Springs so we go a little overboard and buy so much stuff we can barely stuff it into our panniers.
We hit the road and are well on our way to Curtin Spings before we pull over to camp.
Sun 23 Aug – On the road to Kings Canyon
We are getting pretty good at timing breakfast at Curtin Springs. We missed the big crowds. Our only company were a few motorcyclists who probably had to be in a capital city for Monday.
Winds were in our favour in the morning and we make good time along the Lasseter Highway. Then we turn north towards Kings Canyon. Unfortunately that meant trading our tailwind for a cross wind. Despite this we make good time and total 135km for the day.
Dinner provides an opportunity to experiment with goodies we bought at Yalara. The supermarket caters for international tourists so had a fairly diverse selection. I make a creation of lentils with turmeric, sultanas and vegetables including carrots, sweet potato and red cabbage. Its delicious, but farty. Then again, I'm back to several days feeling grotty with several days road grime caked to my clothes.
Stars are prominent, Scorpio and moonlight.
Mon 24 Aug - Kings Canyon
At Kings creek roadhouse a calf bucks rodeo style in response to a bit of toilet paper that's blown into its paddock. It is comical, but bury your loo paper folks. It's gross.
I'm becoming frustrated at the constant hiding from tour buses, and silent treatment to tourists asking unsolicited questions. Its either be rude or be their performing dog.
It rains overnight and I have an uncomfortable night's sleep in my bivvy bag.
Marvellous, see it if you can. The beehive rock formations are the home of the Quoll or 'Native cat' men
The canyon is made up of eroded slightly harder rock with soft rock underneath, Great slabs of the hard rock fall off the sides of the canyon as they are undermined.
Within the canyon plants grow in every crevice – including cycads, remnant vegetation from the age of dinosaurs.
A road maintenance crew call us 'Bloody legendary' and force food onto us.
It rains while we ride
We return to Kings Creek Station in late afternoon for the speciality 'Camel burger'
We see unsealed road Gillies track, back to Sturt. We ride 1km of sandy soft corrugations and agree continuing would be a dangerous folly.
We do laundry by the road – using tank water to hand wash shirts, jocks and socks.
A dingo chases Maree for about a kilometre. Unfortunately it runs off before I can take photo.
At camp I make dinner of red cabbage, apple, sultanas, salami and pumpernickel on a bed of polenta. Its my attempt at camp German food – it is good.
Thu 27 Aug – Nearly back on the Sturt Highway
Morning fog gives everything an eerie glow
We turn east, into a headwind. Strong winds all day hard riding
Gaffer Tape, cotton wool and detol finger dressing.
Luke’s' parents get the bird
First puncture (for either of us) of the road trip – my front wheel.
The aboriginal art at the Mt Ebenezer roadhouse reminds me about the many aboriginal languages in the area, and how we are passing through many nations on this trip that I know nothing about.
Fri 28 Aug Henbury Meteorite crater
Second breakfast at E Roadhouse
Ranges and rivers
We encounter a cyclist heading south. He is Korean, possibly Japanese and riding from Darwin to Adelaide. Since he's heading south I give him my Mawson Trail Maps, but I leave thinking he'll probably not use them. It looks like he's trying to stick to the good roads and complete the trip as quick as he can.
We pass a dead wedge tailed eagle. Later we pass a dead and freshly killed Kangaroo. We stand over the carcass debating weather we should try kangaroo tail, but the thought of hacking off a roo tail with a pocket knife then occy strapping to the back of the bike leaves me squeamish. Later down the road I feel silly about my qualms. So perhaps later on we'll end up having slow roasted road kill for dinner – but not tonight.
15 km of corrugations to get to the meteorite site,
Sunset on unstable 'breast-like' clouds.
|Most critters live underground. Its the sensible response to the heat|
Sweary Maree on gravel track
Over the MacDonnell Ranges
Rivers and ridges
Stuarts well roadhouse – outback character 'How could you be fine, you are riding a bike?'
Camel burger with the lot
VB is “soup of the day” - grey nomads over hear, don't get the joke and ask what soups are available.
At Roadhouse outdoor area smokers chatted in Language.
Awakened at night by a family group talking and laughing in Language,
Oldies on folding chairs watch us enter the city.