[Uluru - south side]

[Bush fires at Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)]

[Uluru - north side]

Red Centre Trip - September-October 2002

Pictures from our September-October 2002 Red Centre Trip

Our last major trip was to Tasmania - a place we loved at first (and last) sight. However, it was very reminiscent of many of our favorite places in the States - mountains, forests, lots of water, and not many people. We felt that for our next trip, we should explore a part of Australia which is uniquely Australian, and different from any areas we had experienced before. We decided on the Red Centre - this is part of Australia which can be considered as part of the Outback (or the bush.)

The Ghan

We left home for Keswick Station, the home of the Great Southern Railway in Adelaide on the morning of September 30. We had loaded everything we thought we'd need for ten days inside Tim's Tribute (no roof rack, as we were shipping the car on the train itself). No fishing gear either this time, as we were heading far from the oceans as well as into an area where the single most valuable commodity is fresh water - there is none to spare for fish - although that has not always been the case. To quote from The Centre: The Natural History of Australia's Desert Regions, by Penny Van Oosterzee:
"Not a particularly good area for fishing at the best of times, central Australia nevertheless has a rich fossil fish record from the distant past."
And also:
"In 1959 a scientist poking about on a sandstone ridge on the edge of the Simpson Desert in central Australia discovered an imprint, 1 cm. square in a sandstone block; part of the headshield of a very ancient fish. From later, more complete finds, an Australian Museum scientist reconstructed and described Arandaspis (named after the Aranda tribe of central Australia and 'aspis', Greek for shield. Arandaspis, the first discovery of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere, is the oldest known fish in the world."

We were scheduled to travel on "The Ghan" - a passenger train which runs a couple times a week between Sydney / Melbourne and Alice Springs (via Adelaide). The Ghan is named after the Afghan cameleers who ran camel trains between Alice Springs and the outside world for many years. The camel is the animal best adapted to the Central Australian climate (and, although the camels are not native to Australia, the only remaining wild camel herds in the world are found today in the outback of Australia, derived from escaped or released camels.) We arrived early, as is our habit (and as the travel information requested), to a nearly empty station. We checked the car in, and settled down to await the arrival of the train. As we ate lunch, we watched our car driven over to the Motorail yard, where it was loaded onto one of the two car carriers being sent to Alice this trip.

Even after a year in Australia, we still get occasionally tripped up by language differences. Tim ordered a bacon cheeseburger for lunch in the the terminal - what arrived was the Aussie interpretation of that - a sandwich consisting of bacon and cheese - but no burger. It was still good, just different than expectations!

Later, we explored the station and it's tunnels, which allow access to all three platforms from underground. We found what we thought would be our sleeping car, shunted onto a siding, awaiting arrival of the main train from Melbourne. We also found the fully-loaded car carrier, with our Tribute in the front top position (which worried us a bit, as it would intercept any debris coming down the line).

The train arrived a little after noon, nearly on schedule, and we boarded just before 3 pm. Our car turned out to be the one we thought, and was an Indian Pacific Car, rather than a Ghan car, since they had a crowd heading north on this trip (presumably since it was school holidays, and spring is one of the best times to visit the centre.) The girls quickly settled in, after a quick exploration of a couple of the sitting / sleeping cars, the club car, and the dining car. They got out the magnetic card set, and Clara set about teaching solitaire to Lucy.

The bathrooms were an amazing exercise in the use of space; the entire bathroom was somewhat smaller than a standard phone booth; both toilet and sink folded down to use (only one could be folded down at a time). They included a shower - using it involved folding up both sink and toilet, pulling a curtain around in front of the door and the sink / toilet (reducing available space even more!), and then attempting to shower. Tim was quite dubious, but the shower actually worked far better than seemed reasonable. The closest analogy we could come up with would be to the "plastic bag" showers used in some spacecraft (not that we've ever had occasion to test-drive those!) We had a minor problem when we first tried to use the sink - the hot water tap stuck on and would not shut off. Fortunately, the conductor was right outside, and she managed to get it to stop, promising to call a technician to actually fix it.

Our car, being an Indian Pacific car, was not wired into the Ghan sound system, so we were reliant upon our car conductor to pass on information and announcements. Thus, we were caught by surprise when the car began to move, and the girls became very excited, as our latest adventure had begun. We left a little late due to mechanical troubles, but were soon traveling through the Adelaide suburbs, heading north. As with most in-city railroads, you get a dramatically different view of a city from the train tracks than from the roads. Back yards, junk yards, industry sidings, the "Lake Torrens" dam (which converts a bare trickle of water you can jump across east of the city into an apparently wide, slow-flowing river through the heart of downtown Adelaide). We soon left the heart of the city and picked up speed, then slowed again for the "Australian National Railways" yards (where there were LOTS of old diesels engines sitting about - perhaps because until very recently, ANR still operated on three different gauges of track! A good reference page, with pictures of the engines is here.) Once again we picked up speed and soon left the suburbs behind. Then we were traveling through green paddocks (fields) with occasional sheep or cattle herds. Not too far out of the city we began passing occasional tumbling-down stone huts (small houses), presumably from the last century, which had been abandoned. We also saw quite a few galahs (pink and grey members of the parrot family, which tend to move in large flocks, and which are quite loud), and some emus, which inspired the girls to get out their drawing notebooks.

Taking pictures on the train proved a little difficult due to the combination of close quarters and very bright sun streaming in (usually from the wrong window), as well as the motion. Here is a picture of Sandy and Clara in one of our two rooms. Both girls also proved to be avid writers in their diaries on this trip. Lucy wasted no time in getting started recording her thoughts. As we moved further north, we came into the foothills of the Southern Flinders ranges. Then it was off to dinner. We had a choice of either early (the "Sunset Seating", i.e., 6 pm) or late (the "Starlight Seating" - 8:15 pm) dinner. Since the girls were normally in bed by 7:30, we decided we had better take the early dinner - even though it meant we then had the early seating for breakfast (7 am) as well. The girls dove into their diaries to write up the first few hours while waiting for our meal. We saw a few kanagaroos and did get a reasonably pretty sunset over the Spencer Gulf during dinner.

After we came back to our rooms after dinner, our bunks had been turned down. Another surprise was that there were NO BARS on the upper bunks (to keep the occupants from falling out), which caused us to rethink our original plan. We had originally intended for Lucy and Clara to be on top, and Tim and Sandy to be on the bottom. We rearranged to have Sandy and Clara on top. We put Clara in the room where the wall was to the front of the bunk, so a sudden stop would press her against the wall, rather than hurl her out of the bunk. Sandy, unfortunately, got the bunk with no wall on the forward-facing side.

As we were preparing for bed, the hot water tap got stuck again, and started flooding the bathroom. This time a technician showed up, and, in fixing the tap (by dismantling a goodly portion of the bathroom), he discovered that the drain was plugged as well, so he had to snake it clear. Finally, all was working, and we could get the girls settled. Here's a picture of Clara in bed with her three essentials - Spunky the (stuffed) dog, her diary, and a book to read.

The girls slept reasonably well (although the night was shorter than they were used to.) Sandy had rather nervous night on the top bunk. Meanwhile, Tim discovered that the bunks were about 6 inches too short for him. However, he did get a great opportunity to stargaze during the night, and watched the moon rise low in the east, looking very much like one of those big, orange moons out of a fairy tale. He is, however, still unused to seeing Orion upside-down! We woke in the morning to dramatically changed scenery. We had left the (relatively) green and lush fields of Adelaide for the Mulga woodlands a few hundred kilometers south of Alice Springs. Where the Mulga has been burned off, you can really see the red soil, and the lack of any substantial ground cover.

Tim thought once again of the stuck taps, and all the wasted water again the following morning, when he decided to chance a shower with full expectation of our car running out of water in-between soap and rinse cycles! We had breakfast at the shockingly early hour (for vacation) of 7 am, and saw a few kangaroos about. Then we made our way back to our rooms, where we found our beds had been remade into seats for the last couple hours ride into Alice Springs. The girls were excited, and ready for the day (here's Clara.)

We arrived on time in Alice (we had heard beforehand that the train occasionally ran late, depending on how many freight trains were using the same track and whether The Ghan had to pull onto a siding to let them pass - however, while we passed a couple trains on sidings during our waking hours, our train only stopped, as scheduled, at Port Augusta, at least while we were awake.) It took about 90 minutes before they offloaded our car - whereas in Adelaide, they had what appeared to be a semi-permanent ramp / loading car system in place, they had to use a forklift to move ramps into place in Alice Springs. When Tim first saw the empty forklift heading towards the car carriers, he began to worry that they weren't going to bother with ramps! However, the car was in fine shape, and was unloaded without drama.

Alice Springs

We took off to "downtown" Alice Springs, and parked next to the Todd River. Although we didn't realize it at the time, we passed our last river with water in it sometime in the night on the train, and all the rivers and creeks we would see over the next week would be dry. The Todd was no exception, and, apparently, this was NOT one of the years when the annual Henley-on-Todd Regatta had to be canceled due to water. Each September, there is a "bottomless" boat race in Alice, down the Todd - and if there is rain, the race has to be canceled!

As suggested by all the dry rivers, lack of water is the one constant in the Red Centre. In most other deserts around the world, hundreds if not thousands of varieties of succulents (i.e., cactus) grow. In the Red Centre, there are only a handful of known species which grow, because the rainfall is not regular enough to support them. The flora and fauna of the centre have developed a variety of methods for dealing with a lack of water - as well as handling the irregular floods which happen from time to time. The leaves of the plants tend to have hair to reduce transpiration, and are vertically oriented to reduce exposure to the sun; some of the creatures have adapted to survive on only the water in what they eat, never requiring an actual drink of water.

We wandered about a while, and eventually picked a restaurant for lunch. Afterwards, we picked up a few postcards, then stopped by the Sounds of Starlight theatre, to confirm our reservations for the evening show. Just as well we did, as they had us down for the following week. After sorting that out, we headed back to our car. Lucy and Clara wandered across the "river" for a bit, then we went in search of our apartment at the Alice on Todd. Another snafu - they had never heard of our reservations! However, they managed to find an apartment for us, and said they could have it clean in a couple hours.

Then we headed north to the Central Land Council to get a permit to travel on Aboriginal Lands. Just up the road from the Land Council was the School of the Air. We stopped in for a tour; however, since it was school holidays, no lessons were being conducted. Here's an empty "classroom." This school covers 1.3 million square kilometers, and has 127 students (Here's Lucy checking out the 127 students and where they are from.) The thing that really made Sandy realize just vast the distances are for these families was the fact that they receive mail deliveries only once per fortnight (i.e. every two weeks!). Each grade (or class) has a fixed time of day when they are supposed to be in front of the radio, and interact with their classmates and teachers. Prior to the School of the Air, kids either had to learn via home schooling or correspondence courses, or go away to boarding school. The big problem with this was that kids on remote stations never saw other kids until they went away to boarding school (usually after Year 6). Having radio contact with other kids and their teacher at least helps them get to know some other kids, and how to interact with them. The teachers travel to each student's home once per year, and four times a year the parents and kids come into Alice for activities with their teacher and classmates.

Then it was off to the apartment again, where we unloaded most of the car and settled in for a couple days. Time for dinner, so we went to a grocery store and then to a Chinese restaurant (we once read that almost every town in Australia which has any restaurant at all will have a Chinese restaurant!)

We hadn't arranged many fixed tours for our trip, as we like to adapt our plans as we go - but we had decided that the didgeridoo concert / outback overview at the Sounds of Starlight Theatre would be a good introduction to our trip. We were not dissapointed - Andrew Langford is a horticulture graduate from Sydney, who went bush 17 years ago to work with some of the replanting / restoration initiatives in the Northern Territory, and never looked back. He took up the didgeridoo 16 years ago, and has spent a lot of time with Aboriginal people, learning their language and culture. Along with a keyboard player, percussionist, and projector / light operator, he put on an excellent show, which had both girls quite interested, in spite of the late hour and their lack of sleep. Lucy sat up in particular during one piece he wrote to emulate the sounds of city life - he could create an amazing variety of sounds on the didgeridoo, from a truck shifting through the gears, to a small airplane circling overheard, to various animals.

Andrew went to a music festival at Joshua Tree in California shortly after September 11, where he was introduced to what the Americans call the "YuccaDoo" - a didgeridoo made from the Yucca plant, and reinforced with fibreglass. He had an interesting experience clearing airport security on his way there - to quote from his website:

Andrew was carrying various didgeridoos including a "slide didge", a plastic tube which enables the player to slide up and down the keys rather than droning on one note.

"They thought it was a bazooka," laughed Andrew.

"It's a didge," I said, "A what?" they said. I had to play it to prove it was not a lethal weapon.

"That brought the tension right down."
After the first part of the show, Andrew asked Clara and another girl to assist him with the next number. They went up on stage, where Clara was handed a Swiss percussion instrument which sounds like water falling over rocks, and the other girl was given a thunder maker. Andrew briefed them on when to play (his show also incorporates a slide show of images on a large screen, so they could use the pictures as a cue), and they were off. Then, at the end, more people were invited up to try their hands at various drums and other percussion instruments. Andrew had perhaps a dozen different didgeridoos on stage, from his standard one, through very large ones, double didgeridoos, his PVC slide didgeridoo and his YuccaDoo. Throughout the show, Andrew kept up a running commentary on different types of didgeridoos and their sounds (with demonstrations), the Aboriginal people and culture, and the Territory in general. All in all, it was an excellent show!

Afterwards, it was straight back to the apartment before the girls could fall asleep. There was a TV in our apartment, so Sandy checked the channels just for fun - turns out Alice has four over-the-air channels - not bad considering that Adelaide only has five. The next morning we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast at the apartment. Then it was time for our first serious exploration - off to the East MacDonnell Range. We headed south out of town, then east. We saw our first Northern Territory speed signs on the way - black circles with a black slash through them - meaning there is no speed limit (the Territory is the Aussie equivalent of Montana in many respects.)

Our first stop was Emily Gap - there were two other cars in the parking lot, and that was to be the most we saw all day. Here is a picture from the south side of the Gap. We were told that this is a good time to see Emily Gap, as the water is low enough to cross. Inside the Gap, there was a small amount of water remaining in the waterhole, which we waded through (Tim carried Clara and Lucy across; he wasn't willing to try carrying both at once though, as another dad was doing at the time!) This picture shows the markings on the rock beside the waterhole, but doesn't clearly show that the water does indeed extend the entire breadth of the Gap (Clara and Lucy were game to try climbing up the cliffs to get around, but we vetoed that!) They had to be content with climbing a smaller rock instead; once they were up, we decided to take a family picture as well. Inside the Gap are caves and crevasses in the rock; in one are some Aboriginal paintings illustrating stories from the Dreamtime. These particular paintings were made from crushed ochre and white lime, and commemorate the spot on which Intwailuka cooked and ate caterpillars on his Dreamtime journey.

Dreamtime is the western word for what the Aboriginal people (in some dialects, at least), call the Tjukurpa. This is often translated as meaning "Aboriginal Law." However, it is actually broader than what westerners would view as law. Tjukurpa describes the past, present and future. It "starts" with the creation time for the earth and its inhabitants - plant, animal and people. During this time, ancestral beings emerged from the earth. These ancestral beings had multiple facets - they could be both human and animal (or human and plant - for example, some of the Uluru-related stories talk of the Mulga people, which are both trees and humans). They were the ancestors of the Aboriginal people, developing and passing on their knowledge, laws and rituals. Much of this knowledge can only be told to the initiated, so we only can know part of the story. During their lives, these ancestral beings created or changed many of the striking landmarks we see today - for example, many of them worked together to create and modify Uluru into it's current shape (more on this later). Eventually, the ancestral beings returned to the earth, leaving behind their people and the laws by which they should live.

However, the Tjukurpa is an all-encompassing body of knowledge, not just rules. It includes a natural history of their environment, skills needed to survive and thrive, and ceremonies of a religious nature. It is hard to get a true feeling for it, given that we can only be told fragments. Here is an official site developed by the Anangu (the name used by the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara Aboriginal people who live in the vicinity of Uluru to describe themselves) which decribes the Tjukurpa in more detail. Some additional (albeit unofficial) information and pictures are available from this website.

There is a tremendous contrast between the Aboriginal culture sold to tourists in places such as Alice Springs and Uluru, and the reality of the Aboriginal "experience" which can be imagined when out away from the towns and tourist traps. In the "cities" and resorts, one is constantly bombarded with Aboriginal crafts (many of which look hurriedly done, and with little invested pride on the part of the creator) and fragments of stories, history, and culture. The Aboriginal people maintain a great deal of secrecy over their stories and sacred places, and as uninitiated outsiders, we only get fragments, without any overarching framework to hold the pieces together. And, at times, the fragments are overlain with a "preachiness", for lack of a better word. However, when one is out in the bush, looking at these amazing places and seeing the artwork put in place hundreds of years ago, or listening to an Aboriginal guide describing the stories of the Tjukurpa, how they lived, and how they view their relationship with those people who came later - one gets a better sense of things.

That said, we return to Emily Gap. Along with Jessie Gap (the next Gap east, and known as Anthwerrke in the local Arrentre tongue), this general area is the origin of the three ancestral caterpillar beings Yperenye, Ntarlke and Utnerrengaatye. These three caterpillars represent three different species of caterpillars which currently exist in the area. After they created Anthwerrke, they spread out, creating other important features of the general area.

Jessie Gap was much like Emily Gap, but without the water. The girls quickly sought out some shade (here and here.) It was much cooler in the cracks / caves in the rocks. Jessie Gap is, as mentioned above, also an important sacred site for the Aboriginal people. There are cave paintings here as well. We also saw a lot of black kites in the trees. They are the only raptor to move and live in large groups. We were to see a lot of them in trees, gliding in the air currents, or pecking on roadkill over the the next week.

After leaving Jessie Gap, we headed on towards Corroboree Rock. As we cleared a rise in the road, Tim saw what looked like a large stick in the road, and maneuvered the car to straddle it. At the last instant, he realized it was a huge Perentie lizard sunbathing. (Actually, he thought it was a goanna at first, until he realized how big it was.) Unfortunately, the Perentie also noticed the car at the last instant, and raised it's head to look. As we passed over, we heard a "thunk." So, expecting the worst, we stopped and headed back to see what had happened. The Perentie was lying still in the same position. As Tim and Lucy approached (Clara did NOT want to leave the car), the 4 foot long Perentie raised it's head and looked at them. Tim shooed Lucy back, took some pictures, and then tried to shoo the Perentie off the road. The lizard took exception (or maybe revenge!) and thwacked Tim a good one across the shins with it's tail, then eventually ambled off the road. Once off the road, it quickly moved into the scrub, where it blends in even better than on the road. While this was the largest lizard we had ever seen in the wild at about 4 feet long, the Perenties actually grow up to 2.5 meters (about 8 feet!) long, and are the second-largest lizard species in the world. Sandy thought it was giving Lucy more of an eyeballing than Tim, maybe it thought she looked about the right size for a snack...

Corroboree is an Aboriginal word for meeting or ceremony. Ceremonies were held at this rock up until a few years ago. We decided not to explore here, as when we pulled into the parking lot, we found it full of what appeared to be bees, which swarmed our car. Tim grabbed a couple pictures, and then we headed on east towards Trephina Gorge.

Trephina Gorge isn't terribly deep, but it has some beautiful colors in its cliffs, and the contrasts between the gorge walls, reddish-gold sandy bottom (when dry, as it was when we visited), and the ghost gums are fantastic. The gorge walls are primarily various shades of red and orange, but there are also pink and purple quartzite sections which add to the beauty. We visited in early afternoon; having the extremely bright sun directly overhead makes for difficult pictures, but a couple are here, here and here. We also came across a couple dead kangaroos, which Clara really didn't like. Also heard from some other hikers that there were supposedly a few pools which still had water further down; however, it was getting late (and hot), and we had a fair trip back to the apartment, so we contented ourselves with exploring the main part of the gorge. As was becoming usual, Clara and Lucy sought out cool places to explore.

Another feature of the area is the ghost gums (this one was about 60 feet tall). These trees have the unique, twisty gum shape, with relatively sparse foliage and stark white bark. They are particularly striking in the areas where the underbrush has been burned away, standing out even more strongly against the red soil and black remnants of the fires.

When we got back to the Stuart Highway (the main north-south road from Adelaide to Darwin), we stopped at The Date Farm. They have a variety of date palms, transplanted from various places, and which they cultivate for the dates. They also have a large picnic area among the palms, with various birds, rabbits, etc. Clara found a very hungry rabbit (or perhaps just one which was quite pleased to have someone handfeed it relatively fresh grasses, instead of the dried pellets it usually ate!) Afterwards, we went back the the apartment, where the girls enjoyed a refreshing swim in the pool, while Tim went for groceries and pizza for supper. We decided it is hard to claim you're in the Outback if you can go to a branch of your regular grocery store (Coles) for groceries, and to a Pizza Hut (of all things) for your dinner! The only difference is that you can request "Bush Spices" on your pizza in Alice Springs (but - who knows? We've been away from the States long enough that perhaps you can get them there as well - or the same spice mix under a different name...) For dessert we had some of the fresh dates from The Date Farm. At first Clara protested, but then soon couldn't get enough.

One of the other things we noticed after a couple days in Alice was the general inability of drivers to deal with roundabouts. We presume this is due to the high percentage of overseas visitors, most of whom are probably having enough trouble just staying on the correct side of the road. We noticed a lot of Germans, Italians, French and Asians, as well as many American and UK accents - even some Canadians. This was to become even more evident at Uluru.

After dinner, it was off to Anzac Hill, a small hill at the north end of town, which commemorates Australian-New Zealand participation in various wars and actions from World War I to the present. It also provides a good view of the entire town, as well as a vantage point to watch the sun set over the MacDonnell Ranges. It turned out to be a popular place - some people brought their dinner with them to eat and watch. Lucy was not at all pleased to have to go out again, after swimming, a shower, dinner and already in pajamas - but afterwards, she mentioned that the sunset was beautiful and she was glad she came.

Thursday morning, we revised our plans. We had been intending to head out into the West MacDonnell Range, but decided that was too much for the girls. So, we went to the Desert Park just west of Alice instead. This is a large wildlife refuge/zoo, set in the Mulga woodlands, with a variety of habitats, as well as a nocturnal house. We arrived in time for the Birds of Prey demonstration involving free-flying raptors. First up were the Black Kites, which tend to fly in groups, and take food (e.g., insects) on the wing, swallowing it whole. This is to both minimize wasted energy (if they landed to eat every small bite, they would expend more energy than the food provided them) and to prevent other birds from trying to steal their meals (a number of the raptors will steal food from another stationary bird if given the opportunity). The keeper tossed small bits of food in the air, and the birds would fly by and catch them before the bits hit the ground.

After the Kites put on a show, it was the turn of the Hobby (or Little) Falcon, which hunts other birds. This means it has to be very fast and agile. Once again the keepers demonstrated this by twirling a lure on the end of a rope; the falcon used a variety of techniques to try and catch it, from dropping like a stone from altitude to coming in very low and fast over the bushes. Finally, it was time for the Wedgetail Eagles. We had been watching a pair of eagles soaring on the air currents along with 6-8 Kites. The keeper once again began trying to coax down an eagle - however, it took quite a while to interest one (the keeper thought this was probably due to two things - the thermals were quite good at the time, making for excellent and enjoyable soaring, and also the Kites were in close attendance, and they like nothing better than either harassing the eagles or stealing their food once they land to eat it.) Eventually, one of the Wedgies landed and ate it's reward.

The Wedgetail is the largest eagle in the world, and has proven to be quite adaptable in a changing environment. In the 19th century, a Brit introduced 24 wild rabbits to the Australian mainland to provide some "sport." The rabbits rapidly multiplied, destroying habitat and pushing out native species. As a result of the changing prey available, the Wedgetails adapted to a rabbit-rich diet. There was one attempt to eradicate them by use of a rabbit-specific virus, Myxomatosis, which reduced their numbers substantially; however, they sprang back rapidly. A new effort to control rabbits using Rabbit Calcivirus Disease (RCD) is underway, nearly eliminating rabbits in many areas. The Wedgies have adapted once again, this time focusing on another newly-introduced food source brought about by the modern automobile - road kill. Unfortunately, the side effect is that Wedgies also become road kill, since they are, as the keepers said, the 747-equivalents of the raptor world, and take a long time to get airborne, especially when their stomachs are full. We noticed two dead Wedgies by the road in our travels. However, we noticed a lot more in the air or eating carrion off to the side of the road - it looks like a lot of people actually do take the keeper's advice and pull roadkill off the road, so that the Wedgies don't become casualties.

After the raptor show, we toured the Nocturnal House, where time is offset 12 hours through the use of lighting, so all the nocturnal animals are active during the day. Lot's of interesting creatures, including horned dragons, wallabies, pythons, curl snakes, scorpions, spinifex hopping mouse, kowari, ghost bats, bettongs, Mala Wallabies (endangered and very important in the stories of the Anangu people around Uluru) and bilbies. Tim was particularly taken by the Tawny Frogmouth, which is a bird with a very distinctive face (no pictures, unfortunately). It looked substantially different than all the pictures we had seen before, much squatter and bigger, more like an oversized (and over-muscled) kookaburra than the usual pictures indicate. Outside, they also made a real effort to eradicate non-native species of plants as well, and cultivate native desert plants. One which we found quite pretty was the "state" flower of the Northern Territory, the Desert Rose.

After lunch, we headed back towards town, stopping at the Aboriginal "Araluen Cultural Precinct", a collection of museums, displays, workshops, and gardens related to Aboriginal life and crafts. At the time, as part of the Year of the Outback celebrations going on throughout Australia, an annual Aboriginal show of Central Australian Indigenous Art Show known as Desert Mob 2002 was underway. This was another of those places where we found ourselves wondering at the differences between western and Aboriginal appreciation of art - while there was a lot of art there that we found beautiful and well-executed, there were a substantial number of paintings and other art forms which, to our eyes, seemed less-attractive than the work of Clara and Lucy - yet it was priced extremely high. The Precinct is located next to sacred hill which is part of Dreamtime story of the Arrente and Luritja women. When it was built, special care was taken to conserve two old corkwood trees, which are of special significance to the local Aboriginal people. One was over 300 years old, and only blooms every 7-10 years; we were lucky enough to be there while it was blooming. Another feature of the Precint is the sculpture of the Grand Circle Yeperenye (Caterpillar) Sculpture.

The day was starting to get quite hot, and we had promised the girls a last dip in the pool, since the next day would be a moderately long road trip. So, we headed back to the pool for a swim and then into town to buy a didgeridoo and rain stick from Andrew Langford and have dinner. This time we chose the Overland Steakhouse, where the hostess inquired as to our home, and then put an appropriate flag on the table. We told them we were Americans living in South Australia, so they put an Australian flag on our table, quite incensing Clara, who maintained that we were Americans! We noted Germans, Italians, Canadians, Americans, Australians, and Northern Territorians (who got their Territory flag instead of the Australian flag). Everyone except Tim got steak, who got the Drover's Blowout, which included Emu, Kangaroo, Crocodile, Camel, Barramundi, and Steak). Then it was home to pack.

Uluru - Kata Tjuta

Friday morning, we loaded up and took off for Uluru. We headed south on the Stuart Highway, through the lines of alternating types of gums planted along the road out of Alice. Further down the line, we passed the turnoff to Pine Gap, the big US-Australian monitoring station, and noticed a number of protest signs posted there (but no protesters). We began seeing regular signs for Flood Plains, sometimes corresponding with dry creek beds, other times just low spots in the road. In addition to the signs, the flood plain areas tended to have height sticks, for measuring the depth of water over the road, as well as broader pavement in the flood areas (perhaps to help reduce road washouts.) Presumably during the infrequent wet periods, all these areas are under water. So hard for us to picture based on what we saw during our trip!

Further south we passed Maloney Creek - a very pretty area of twisting road, hills, more greenery than the norm, quite a few trees, and a dry red creek bed through the center. The green growth and trees suggest that either the area receives more rain, or perhaps subsurface water is more readily available there. We also began seeing lots of mistletoe in the gum trees - the mistletoe was easy to spot, as they formed (relatively) bright green clusters with red flowers in the midst of the duller grey-green foliage of the gum trees. The mistletoe flowers are an important source of nectar for the birds; the eventual fruits also form a part of the birds diet; in return, the birds pass the seeds when they defecate; if the results land on the limb of a tree, a new mistletoe plant is started. We passed through an area of red sand dunes (as we were to see quite frequently, wherever the scrub had recently been burnt off), and then came to a river which actually had a bit of water in it! The water was just a couple of pools, nothing flowing - but it was the first river we'd seen in the Territory that actually had water in it.

We had already abandoned our original plan to take the Mereenie Loop Road from Alice Springs through the West MacDonnell Range to King's Canyon, and then on around to Uluru. We decided that it would just make far too long a day for the girls, given that half the trip would be on unsealed (and therefore slow) roads. We had still been entertaining thoughts of taking another unsealed road partway towards King's Canyon to allow us to look at some meteorite craters, but that road turned out to be fairly heavily corrugated, at least in the first mile, so we vetoed that idea as well, and stuck to the sealed Stuart Highway for this trip. We stopped at the Erldunda Roadhouse for gas, toilets, and snacks, then headed west on the Lassiter Highway towards Uluru. We stopped at a typical Territory rest stop for a light lunch; this one was actually better equipped than some, since in addition to the usual table and trash can, it had a rainwater tank and a steer (at the table in the shade...) However, as with most rest stops we saw, there were no toilets (other than the bushes available.) Continuing on, we saw more and more patches of recently burnt scrub, and began noticing some smoke at various points on the distant horizon. The red dirt is quite dramatic in the burnt areas.

Near Mt. Connor, we saw an Izuzu with a pair of kayaks strapped to the top. Either they were really lost, very poorly informed, or were on a very long holiday drive, as the nearest kayakable water was probably in excess of 1000 kilometers away. Mt. Connor is the third and least known of the three great monoliths of the Red Centre. It is often mistaken for Uluru by first-time visitors. Looking down on the area from an airplane or satellite photograph , you notice that Mt. Connor, Uluru, and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) are all in a straight line. Mt. Connor is the hardest to get to, requiring a fairly long run on unsealed roads, so we didn't pursue a closer examination of it.

We stopped at the Curtin Springs Roadhouse for gas and toilets again. This roadhouse, more so than any others before or after, greatly reminded Tim of 1960s-era roadside attractions in the southeastern US. Gas pumps, toilets, store, plus a small petting zoo, camel farm, etc. There were 12-15 mature camels about, plus a couple of baby camels which were not tied up (and, as we observed, could easily slip through the fences to go where they wished). We watched the baby camels seek out their mothers for a snack, then got back on the road.

The smoke we had observed on the horizon began to loom closer and larger; when we got within 90 kilometers of Yulara (the village near Uluru which was created to reduce impact at Uluru, and where we were staying), traffic stopped. We pulled into the shade of a bush, and Tim wandered up the road to see what was going on. As we had guessed, fire had closed the road. We waited 20-30 minutes, then traffic began to slowly move. We passed between still burning fires, but soon were clear and once more on our way. Although we didn't realize it then, bush fires would be with us throughout our three days at Uluru. Tim was reminded of one of his Australian colleagues who is on assignment in Seattle, and who was doing what we are doing in reverse - trying to see as much of the US as they can before returning home. Unfortunately, they scheduled their trip through western Montana in early summer of 2000, when the wildfires were at their worst. They told of driving through smoke, and clouds of ash - we would remember them again and again on our trip! The girls were quite worried as we went through the fires and smoke, but soon cheered up and became quite excited as Uluru came into view.

We arrived at our hotel, and checked in with some trepidation - however, our rooms were in order, and we quickly settled in. Then it was off for lunch at the Gecko Cafe, and then to Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park for a sunset viewing of Uluru. As we left Yulara, we wondered where Uluru had gone! It had been clearly visible when we arrived, but now it was obscured by haze / smoke from the bush fires. As we got closer, Uluru appeared again faintly. We arrived at the sunset viewing area, along with a few hundred other people. It was clear some of them had been there a long time, with tables set up and wine poured! Unfortunately, the smoke from the bush fires we had driven through had made it to Uluru, and was obscuring it in a general haze; it was also obscuring the sun, resulting in a reasonable sunset, but no illumination of Uluru. Instead, Uluru simply faded away, without presenting any of the famous shades of red and orange one expects at sunset. As can be seen from this picture, Clara and Lucy picked up more of an Uluru-esque glow than did Uluru! As we told Clara and Lucy, we at least got a chance to see Uluru in a way not many people had (we had some locals parked next to us, who came out regularly, and they mentioned they'd never seen the rock obscured by smoke before.)

After sunset, we returned to the hotel, where Clara and Lucy became enraptured with the bathtubs - one in each room, so they could take long, luxurious baths (which they did all three days we were there since they have not had access to a bathtub for about six months!). At one point, Tim and Lucy were singing a "duet" of sorts. One of Lucy and Clara's favorite songs is "Home Among the Gum Trees." So, Lucy was singing that, while Tim was countering with "Home on the Range." The cacaphony and laughter were priceless. The chorus goes:

Give me a home among the gum trees
Where there's lots of plum trees
A sheep or two
A kangaroo
A clothesline out the back
Verandah out the front
And an old rocking chair...

Since we have a lot of pictures and drawings of Uluru, we made a special page for Uluru Pictures.

Saturday morning, we had a quick breakfast in the room then took off for Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). The Olgas are a group of about three dozen monoliths, each individually smaller than Uluru, but together they are substantially bigger (and taller) than Uluru. The skies were clear around Yulara and Uluru, but as we approached Kata Tjuta, (which is inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park about 30 kilometers west of Uluru) we noticed smoke from bush fires in the distance moving towards them. We continued on, stopping to watch some wild camels feeding a hundred meters from the road. We arrived at a viewing stand set up to look across the dunes at the southern side of the Olgas, still a few kilometers away, and the smoke was clearly starting to cover the Olgas. As we approached Kata Tjuta, the smoke thickened, and our hopes of taking one of the short walks into the heart of the Olgas diminished. We snapped a quick picture of Olga Gorge from the west. The gorge is the rightmost of the two gorges visible in the picture. Even though the picture perspective doesn't show it well, the rightmost dome is Mt. Olga which, at 546 meters above ground level, is both the tallest of the Olgas and is 200 meters taller than Uluru. At the Walks of the Winds parking area we stopped, but could see smoke from active fires not far away, and white ash was falling on the car like snow. So, we gave it up and headed back, hoping for clear skies and a lack of bush fires the following day. Once again we stopped to watch the camels, which by now had moved right up onto the road. Wild camels are supposed to be fairly skittish, and not a common sighting, but this group seemed to have little fear.

Back at the hotel, we had a quick lunch, then headed back out to Uluru, stopping to take a couple more pictures of Uluru in the clear (remembering our experience of the previous day, when Uluru disappeared into haze while we were inside.) As we drove through the entry, we noticed a sign saying the road to Kata Tjuta was closed due to fire now, so it turned out to be lucky we had made our trip to the Olgas that morning. We stopped at the Cultural Centre near the base of Uluru, where we were to meet our tour guides for the Kuniya Walk. The Kuniya creation story focuses on the travels of the ancestral Kuniya Python Woman, and the events which transpired in the area of the Mutitjulu waterhole at the base of Uluru.

The Cultural Centre at Uluru is constructed of locally-made mud bricks, and the design is generally intended to resemble two of the ancestral beings which created the landscape and people in this area, the two snakes Kuniya (python) and Liru (poison snake). The park managers have been using the Cultural Centre and the guided hikes (particularly those conducted by Anangu) to educate visitors in the Tjukurpa, the Anangu, and how they view the land - and how they would like visitors to treat the land during their stays. One area of particular concern to the Anangu is the climbing of Uluru - during our tour we heard that this is also due to concern and worry over potential injuries to climbers (whom the Anangu see effectively as guests in their home) as well as misuse of a sacred site. We were told that much progress has been made in educating people such that they choose not to climb Uluru - 15 years ago, 95% of visitors climbed; today, about 70% make the climb (this is still in excess of 200,000 people per year!)

We met up with our group for the Kuniya walk, which was being guided by an Anangu elder named Jacob (who was 86). Jacob speaks and understands English well, but led the tour in his native language with an interpreter. The displays at the Cultural Centre are trilingual - in English and the two primary dialects of the local people, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara. First Jacob told us the beginnings of the Kuniya story by explaining several murals / paintings in the Cultural Centre, then we returned to our vehicles and drove to the base of Uluru, where we met up again. Our first stop was at a small cave which was primarily used by children as a play area, although in bad weather, many people would stay there. There are cave paintings inside, which Clara and Lucy got to see (being kids, they were allowed to crawl in). Outside, there were many bush plum trees, both fairly substantial ones and smaller bushy ones about 4-5 feet tall. Jacob informed us that the larger trees didn't produce much fruit; instead, one gathered fruit from the smaller bushes. There were also fig and quandong trees / bushes nearby, so it was a good place for kids to stay while the older folks were off hunting - it provided shelter, water, and food.

We came to another cave with rock paintings which described the Kuniya legend further. Some of the paintings in this cave had been done as recently as 100 years ago by a man known to Jacob, and who died only recently. There was also a painting of two boomerangs, signifying this was a place for music (the Anangu people do not use didgeridoos; instead they traditionally used percussive instruments, such as two boomerangs they would hit together). There were fairy wren nests attached to the roof of the cave, which are still in use; the birds gather mud from one of the nearby waterholes and renew the nests each year. Here is a picture of Uluru in the vicinity.

One thing which struck us as we walked close to the base of Uluru was the scaly surface of the rock. We continued on to the Mutitjulu waterhole, from which one can see the features created by the Kuniya Python Woman. She came to Uluru from the east. While there, her nephew (also a Kuniya) upset some Liru Men (Liru are poisonous snakes). The Liru killed the nephew, which enraged his aunt. She then traveled to Mutitjulu, where you can see the marks of her knees above the waterhole. A lone Liru warrior was in the vicinity, and proceeded to taunt her. She moved about the top of rock above the waterhole, digging with her wana (a digging stick), and dumping dirt on the sides of the rock. The color from the dirt is visible on the sides of Uluru. She then hit the Liru with her stick, once to punish and then again to kill. Both marks are visible in the rock. She then traveled down the rock and around the waterhole, forming the shallow wave-shaped cave / overhang which runs along the rock near the waterhole.

We then walked back to a shelter, where Jacob showed and explained some traditional Anangu tools and bush foods. While some of the foods are relatively easy to find and prepare (in season), such as the bush plums, others are very labor intensive, involving collections of thousands of tiny seeds, which can then either be eaten raw, made into a paste, or sometimes cooked. The one that struck Tim was one of the leaves which was much like an herb, and which is soaked in water to make a cough and cold remedy. Even dry, it was very strong smelling (recall just how many types of eucalyptus trees there are in Australia, and the use of eucalyptus for cough drops). In the olden days, the leaves were just soaked in cold water; with the coming of European influences, most Aborigines started carrying billy cans to boil water, so now the "traditional" preparation is in boiled water as a tea. Clara and Lucy watched and listened with interest, and would have liked to try some of the foods, but the samples we were shown were all "quite dry", and not very tasty, as Jacob explained; here (and here) are the girls, showing evidence of the red dirt in the caves, and essentially everywhere around Uluru. The skills of collecting and preparing these traditional foods and medicines are still passed down to younger generations, and practiced regularly, in spite of, as Jacob said, the use of Landcruisers and .22 rifles in place of spears for much of the hunting these days!

After our walk, we went back to the Cultural Centre, and to the Maruku Arts shop. Both girls got a set of music sticks at the shop. To quote from the Maruku website:

Timpilypa - Music Sticks

Music sticks are traditional Aboriginal percussion instruments used by both men and women as musical accompaniment during ceremonies. They are crafted mainly by women and are made from either eucalyptus or mulga wood, the latter being most common as it is an extremely hard wood and therefore highly resonant. Music sticks are played by holding one stick loosely in one hand and striking it in a heart-beat type rhythm with the second stick. A variation of this is the use of larger, single music stick which can be pounded rhythmically on the desert earth.

Then it was off to the Uluru sunset viewing area once again for sandwiches and a few pictures. We ran into a few of the same people we'd met the night before. To show how quickly the light changes, here and here are two pictures taken seconds apart (just long enough for Clara to pull up her hairband and Tim to reset the timer.) Here's the actual sunset.

Sunday morning, we breakfasted in the hotel, then headed off to the park with the intent of visiting Kata Tjuta again, in hopes of getting to hike in amongst the domes. However, the road was still closed due to the bushfires, so we went on to Uluru and spent the day exploring there instead, especially along the Mala (ancestral Wallaby creature) walk. The Mala walk starts from the point where the climbers start up the rock; however, the climb was closed due to high winds, and those people who started up early were mostly on their way back down. One of the ground-level features of Uluru along the Mala walk is a large wave cave, which Clara and Lucy enjoyed climbing in (and sliding down). We also took a picture of Uluru from the south / southeast side (the sunrise side), as counterpoint to all the other pictures from the northwest (sunset) side.

Later, the girls went for a swim in the main pool at Sails in the Desert (here and here) while Tim and Sandy relaxed with a cold beer and a good book beside the pool. Then it was back to the room for the girls' last baths. The road to the Olgas (Kata Tjuta) was still closed, and there was a lot of wind and haze, so we decided to forego the evening sunset viewing at Uluru, and the girls took naps instead. Since we weren't rushing off to the sunset, we had a leisurely meal at one of the hotel restaurants, did a little packing and loading of the car, then an early night.

On to Coober Pedy

One of best things about being on vacation is not caring what day it is, even when that sometimes results in surprises. Just as we forgot what day it was in Tassie, and were caught by Anzac Day, we forgot that Monday was Labour Day here. But we were up relatively early to blue skies. We also saw large flocks (50 or more birds) of Galahs around the place on our way to breakfast. There was lots of birdlife around Yulara. Not surprising, since it was greener and had more water than the surrounding countryside. We even surprised a rabbit. Some of the common plants included the Bottle Brush, Honey Grevillea, and of course gums.

As we headed east on the Lassiter Highway, back towards the Stuart Highway which would take us south to Coober Pedy, we saw a lot of smoke from bushfires on the horizon once again. The bushfires we encountered on the way in (and during our stay) had never been far from our minds, so we wondered if we were going to have a long wait to get through this time. There really were no other options - the only other road leaving Uluru is a 4WD track which goes west to Western Australia, several hundred kilometers away. However, as we proceeded, the bush fires turned out to be well away from the road, so no worries. The differences between immediately adjacent plots of land which had been burned and those which had not were quite dramatic. Once the spinifex and other grasses burn off, there is little left besides the red sand and a few bushes and trees. Here is a "before burning" picture, and here is an "after burning" picture. We also stopped to look at ant mounds in the burned-off area. The coin is an Australian twenty cent piece (about the size of a US quarter) for scale.

A common tree out here is the Desert Oak, which grows quite straight and tall (looking like an oversized pine seedling) when young, then branching out into a multi-branched tree shape when mature. The trees look more like pine trees from a distance, and their seed cones look like pine cones. However, they are not, and they do have leaves, they are just very small, due to the environment. We also saw a lot of tennis-ball sized (and color) things by the roadside, which turned out to be a type of gourd.

After we made it back to the Stuart Highway (stopping once more at Erldunda to refuel), we headed south. The road was generally very straight and level, and more often than not, red. And there was a lot of it. It almost made Tim long for western Kansas.

As we traveled down the Stuart Highway, we continued to see a lot of Wedgetails feeding on carcasses by the roadside, as well as a couple in the road. They are very slow to get out of the way, and don't always turn in a predictable (or the least dangerous) direction - so, it wasn't surprising that we saw a couple dead ones along the road as well. We also continued to see groups of kites.

Eventually, we came to Coober Pedy. Out first indication were signs warning of open mine shafts and the dangers they posed. Then we began to see the piles of white and brown crushed rock which had been dumped on the ground like hundreds of giant ant hills. These unique hills are formed by the "blowers" used to suck out the ground-up rock from underground. Essentially giant vacuum cleaners mounted on trucks, they generate a mound which is a function of the size of the truck, then move slightly to generate a new mound. We reached the town proper, and found the Desert Cave hotel, and moved into our underground rooms (see here also). Then off for a Greek dinner (Coober Pedy is considered the most ethnically diverse town in Australia; as we drove around we saw a variety of clubs, such as the Australian-Italian club, the Yugoslavian-Australian club, etc.) and then back to bed. One virtue of underground living (and sleeping) is that it is cool year-round - even when it gets over 50 degrees C (122 Fahrenheit) in the summer, it stays between 20 and 25 C (68 and 77 F) underground. Another is that it is VERY dark. Even in an above-ground bedroom with thick shades, some light leaks in. None leaks in underground, so when you wake up in the morning, you have to look at a clock to see what time it is, and whether you've overslept or not! It is also very quiet. Both girls slept quite late (for them) under these conditions.

The Coober Pedy area also has a long Aboriginal presence. The two primary groups are the Muntunjarra and the Antakirinja. The Aborigines in the area built shelters from bushes which they bent over and tied together, and topped up with grass or brush. They also built a fire in front or inside the shelter, which drove away the bush flies which descend in the thousands at times. Until opal was discovered early in the 20th century, white men only passed through, sleeping in swags. Once opal was discovered, white folks moved in permanently and found that living in caves or mines provided many advantages. The Aboriginal people then gave the area the name Kupaku Piti, which translates as white man's hole. The name was taken by the settlers, and shortened to Kupa Piti, and then to Coober Pedy.

After breakfast, we toured the town, seeing the main sights such as the various underground dwellings (from the outside), the drive-in movie theatre, the Big Winch, the "first tree" in Coober Pedy (as featured in National Geographic, made from scrap metal, and representing the burned out remains of the first trucks to reach Coober Pedy in the 1950s), etc. Here's an overview of Coober Pedy from the high point of ground in town. Note the "Big Winch" in the top left area; this is one of the town's big tourist attractions, and is adjacent to Coober Pedy's first tree. In the middle, note the town's only movie theatre - one of only five drive-ins left in South Australia (the other is in the north end of Adelaide). They have movies once every fortnight, and it's a pretty big deal. They were having a free "Foreign Film Festival" the weekend after we left. The area around Coober Pedy (particularly to the north in the Breakaways - more later) is so desolate, it has been used to film a variety of movies, including Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, Red Planet and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. In the upper right of the picture, beyond the movie theatre, is the hill containing our hotel rooms (in the Desert Cave) and the Umoona Mine. During our tour of Coober Pedy, we came across one mystery we couldn't figure out. We later forgot to ask anyone about these things, and our guesses range from standalone fireplaces to petrified tree trunk replicas made of cement!

After lunch, we went to the Umoona Mine and Museum. This is a former mine, where mining actually stopped while there was still viable opal left, when the regulations changed to halt mining under the town area for safety reasons. There were so many people living in (and under) the main town area, plus so many mines, that there was fear of an accident if uncontrolled mining continued. Here is a view of part of the mine; you can see the basic off-white and reddish-brown color that is typical of the rock in Coober Pedy. The plate on the floor to the left covers a shaft that continues down several more levels. The tour was very good, starting with the Aboriginal history of the area, and then the history of the first western explorers, including those who first found opal. As part of the tour, we also visited an underground house built into part of the mine. Some parts of the house had been excavated by machine (noticeable by the square corners, and swirl marks on the walls, as in our hotel rooms), and some by hand. The bedroom was particularly interesting, as it had been hand-excavated, by a short (4 foot and a bit) miner - so the ceiling was barely over 6 feet tall, as that was as high as he could reach! We also heard that underground houses are very cheap compared to above-ground houses - approx $45,000 (Australian) for a three bedroom house. They tend to put the "wet rooms" (bathroom and kitchen) near the front or surface, to minimize the amount of routing out required for piping or cabling. After the pipes and cables are in place, they refill the cable / pipe runs with white cement mixed with the crushed rock that had been removed, so they blend in quite well. The rock tends to be off-white with reddish-brown streaks, and it is generally finished off only by putting a clear sealant over the rock to keep down the dust; the rock looks the same except it is slightly glossier.

Mining today continues to use old as well as new methods - pick-and-shovel, round boring machines (which dig round tunnels), square boring machines (which are generally used to excavate underground dwellings), and explosives. Any vehicle carrying any explosives-related components (whether gelignite, fuses, whatever) must carry large signs with the word EXPLOSIVES on them. We saw a lot of these vehicles in Coober Pedy. We were also told, not entirely tongue-in-cheek, that if we saw a local running, we should seriously consider running in the same direction!

Opal is primarily silica, and is found in what are called levels. Levels are gaps or seams between layers of rock, where the opals crystallized from solutions rich in silica. In many cases, levels contain the base material of opal, but without any color (other than milky white, in the case of Coober Pedy opals); this is known as potch, and is worthless (although it is sometimes used to practice opal cutting techniques). When the same stone contains color, then the opal has value. One of the big problems in mining is knowing when to shift from a mechanical process to a more gentle hand process - a boring machine can destroy tens of thousands of dollars worth of opal in seconds if it hits a good chunk of opal-bearing stone. The proprietors left a couple of exposed patches of opal in levels in the mine, so visitors could get an idea of how opal appears in nature. Here is a patch of potch; here is potch with opal in it (notice the reflected points of color - this chunk is a few inches across, and worth a few thousand dollars.) Here are some typical cut and polished Coober Pedy opals. Opals from other regions of Australia tend to have other colors.

After our Umoona tour, we headed north to the Breakaways. This is a region so desolate that it has been featured in various movies requiring an "end of the earth" or apocolyptic-appearing environment, such as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. There are a variety of interesting formations in the breakways, such as one which is variously known as "The Castle", "Salt and Pepper" (due to the dramatic color variation between the two pieces, even though they are formed of the same material), or "Two Dogs" (this is the translation of the Aboriginal name "pupa.") Another feature in the vicinity is the Dog Fence. This is the longest continuous fence in the world, at approximately 5500 km (it was shortened from 8600 kilometers in 1980). It is intended to keep the dingoes to the north away from the sheep in the south. It started out when some of the owners of large sheep stations started fencing in their northern borders, and then they got together and decided to connect the fences for their mutual benefit. We returned to town along a portion of one of the famous "tracks" in this area, the Oodnadatta.

Tracks are essentially four-wheel-drive-only "roads" throughout Central Australia. These were early exploration routes, cattle drive routes, or access paths for stations. Some of them (more to the west) were developed after World War II by Len Beadell and the rest of his famous "Gunbarrel Highway" crew, to provide access to the stations in the area, and to provide the basis for the Woomera Restricted Area which was used for British atomic bomb and missile tests. Beadell also wrote a highly amusing and informative series of books on his adventures, which make one appreciate just how hard it is to survive in the outback, even with lots of modern equipment at your disposal.

The tracks in the Coober Pedy vicinity such as the Oodnadatta and the Birdsville are world-famous, and are a very popular location for Australians to spend their holidays. Land Cruisers of all vintages, uniformly fitted with heavy duty "bull bars" (front bumpers to protect the vehicle when it runs into a kangaroo), large roof racks (containing at least two spare tires), and "eskies" (coolers, frequently the size of medium-sized refrigerators, and powered from the vehicle's electrical system) abound in the area. These are the basic equipment of the 4WD enthusiast tackling these outback roads.

After returning to town, we had dinner at a different Greek restaurant (we were in a rut, apparently!), run by a husband and wife. It was arranged in an interesting manner, with the charcoal grill near the front door, so you could watch your dinner being cooked. "Uncle Jimmy" (the husband) delighted the girls with balloons and lollies as they left. On the way back to the Umoona Mine, the girls stopped to pose in a doorway to an underground dwelling.Then it was up to the top of the Umoona Mine hill to watch the sunset (and afterwards to examine what looked like a relic left over from the making of "Mad Max", then back to the Desert Cave for bed. Since we hadn't booked as early as we should have, we ended up having to switch rooms for the second night. This one had only one large bedroom, so we were a little worried about how well we would all sleep, especially considering we had our longest day yet (850 km) back to Adelaide in the morning. But it all went well, and we went into the cafe at the hotel at their posted opening time of 7 am, expecting a fairly vacant place, as we had seen the previous morning - but it was completely full! Fortunately, everyone had apparently gotten there quite early (even though it wasn't supposed to open until 7 am), and were finishing up. We surmised from signs in many vehicles, that they either had all participated in some road rally, or were about to. After breakfast, it was back to the room, then off to the highway. We stopped on the way out of town to take a picture of the town sign - a traditional "Blower" truck mounted on a pedestal and painted in painted in what we at first thought were German national colors - but then realized the third color was dark blue, not black.

As we headed south, we continued to see a phenomenon we had noticed before, but had not fully assimilated. There were occasional hand-painted signs along the road - and we finally realized they were painted on old car hoods, and then propped up against a stake or rock! There weren't many vehicles on the road, and most of those we saw were road trains (tractor-trailer rigs in which a single tractor was towing up to 5 trailers.) We also discovered that the girls really liked Coober Pedy and were anxious to return - whereas for Tim and Sandy, once was probably enough! We found that the people we talked to in town really liked it, including one lady who absolutely hated Adelaide - but loved both Coober Pedy and Sydney! We would take Adelaide over Sydney as a place to live any day - and Alice Springs over Coober Pedy as well.

After leaving Coober Pedy, the countryside continued to be very desolate. While we understand that there is a rich and unique ecosystem here, with many very well-adapted plants, animals, insects, and birds, we've decided that we are not at all well-adapted to it, and need a little more stimulus other than endless flat plains of low scrub! We soon entered the Woomera Prohibited Area (these days, it is most noted as a detention center for illegal immigrants; however, some very important aerospace tests continue to be held, including a recent effort to achieve ignition in a scramjet engine run by the University of Queensland. Scramjets are air-breathing ramjet engines which only ignite when they are traveling at hypersonic speeds (several times the speed of sound). The hope is that they will provide a cheaper method of achieving orbit, as well as a faster way of traveling between points on earth (e.g., a maximum of two hours between any two points on earth) some day. The university tests, which cost a few hundred thousand dollars actually succeeded, unlike a multi-million dollar attempt by NASA of the X-43A prototype last year. The Japanese have also recently held (unsuccessful) trials of a model of a supersonic transport at Woomera. Woomera is the local Aboriginal name for a wooden "extension" used to provide additional velocity and distance to spears, so it seems a very appropriate name, considering the past and current uses of the range.

We continued to see a lot of Wedgetails - otherwise, it was just the road, with occcasional (every 40-60 km) repeater stations, powered by large solar panels. It was so lonely, at one point Lucy asked "What's that black spot on the road ahead?" It turned out to be one of the very infrequent cars we saw! We also found that the Northern Territory had nothing on South Australia when it came to well-equipped rest stops - a table, trashcan, shade (well, maybe some day), and all the sky you need for a view (plus a dry salt lake in the background).

A while later, we came to a slightly wider strip of road, demarcated by signs on either end proclaiming "RFDS Landing Strip" (RFDS is Royal Flying Doctor Service - the primary way people in the Outback get medical care.) There didn't appear to be any sign of occupation in the area, so we assumed there must be some stations in the vicinity which this emergency strip served. At Uluru, the medical service was provided by the RFDS as well, although the RFDS did have a permanent clinic at Yulara. The RFDS was founded by Reverend John Flynn. When he first arrived in northern South Australia, there were only 2 doctors to serve the 1.8 million square kilometer region. It took Flynn over 10 years to raise funds and interest, but in 1928, the RFDS began flying. They bring doctors to those in need in rural areas, both for emergencies and to provide regular medical service.

Today Flynn's grave near Alice Springs is a popular tourist spot; a few years ago, it was a center of controversy. Flynn loved the area north of Alice known as the Devils Marbles - a geological phenomena which is a collection of many boulders of varying size, some seemingly precariously suspended. One of these "Marbles" was moved to his grave, and used as a grave marker. However, the Aboriginal people for whom the Devils Marbles region is a sacred area were unhappy; in the end, the Aboriginal people near Alice donated a rock from one of their sacred areas for the grave, so that the Devils Marble could be returned home. Today, Flynn is also commemorated on the Australian 20 dollar bill.

Later in the morning, we passed our first salt lake - Lake Hart. We passed several more salt lakes on our way south, and stopped at one where the remaining water was red (apparently from algae) We also came across a ram's skull by one of the lakes. We stopped again for gas and toilets (and milk shakes) in Glendambo - as the sign on the outskirts says - the population consists of 30 humans, 22,500 sheep, and 2,000,000 flies!) As we got closer to "civilization" (approaching Port Augusta), we starting seeing what seemed like lots of traffic to us - a car every minute or so. Then, in Port Augusta - stoplights! Soon we were back in familiar territory - with new-found appreciation of just how green, lush, and water-rich Adelaide is in comparison to points north. We had felt Adelaide was quite brown and dry when we arrived in town almost exactly a year earlier from the lush, green Pacific Northwest - but our perspective certainly changed on this trip. We arrived home safe and sound, taking about 9 1/2 hours for the final 850 kilometers.

Overall, we had another very good trip (especially after our initial shakedown worries were out of the way.) We hope to be here long enough to return to the Red Centre someday - and to get a chance to do justice to the MacDonnell Ranges, King's Canyon, and Kata-Tjuta.

The End

Pictures from our September-October 2002 Red Centre Trip

Click here to return to the latest journal page

Return to the home page of Tim, Sandy, Clara and Lucy

Last web page update was July 30, 2006.

Copyright © 2000-2006 - Copyright and contact details.