One of the things I love about Australia is the 2,500 miles of Outback that lay between it
Palm Oases, Uluru, and the Olgas
With just a few clicks of pavement we located the track to Palm Valley in the Krichauff Range. We had been directed there by a bloke we met in the Simpson; it is truly one of the gems of Australia. A mix between Moab and Mulegé, red rock sandstone walls rise to either side of a palm-lined canyon. Dividing the valley is a crystal clear stream, the Finke River, which meanders along over a sculpted sandstone bottom. We must have, uh, missed the “No Camping Beyond This Point” sign, as we drove to the furthest vehicle-accessible point and set up our swags by the water’s edge; apparently we missed the improved tourist campground as well. Another nice thing about Palm Valley … no crocs.
Though early rains had swelled the Finke River, offering several over-the-hood fording opportunities (this was a strong argument for the Safari Snorkel), as we followed the riverbed south into the arid flatlands, it waned to a trickle before disappearing into the desert sands.
Towering 1,142 feet above the table-flat eastern reaches of the Great Victoria Desert, the
Uluru, also known as Ayres Rock, rises 1,142 feet above its table-flat surroundings and is one of the most recognized natural wonders of the world; it is hallowed ground to the Pitjantjatjara, the Aboriginal people of the region. Home to a number of natural springs, waterholes and caves, the area has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years. Ancient rock art can be found in a number of the caves, and there are dozens of Aboriginal legends of how the rock came to be. When Ned visited Uluru in the early ’80s, you could drive, walk, or camp just about anywhere. Things have changed and access is now ridiculously controlled; no camping, no stopping on the side of the road for a photo, no … no … no. It is nonetheless spectacular; we paid our park fee, did the tourist photos, and headed for the Olgas.
The redheaded orphan stepchild to Uluru, Kata Tjuta (known as The Olgas to us white fellas) is of similar form to Uluru. Sixty sandstone domes comprise an eclectic clump amidst the desert sands. Flora and fauna are drawn to sweet water springs that flow from deep fissures in its center. As with Uluru, it is sacred ground and the site of numerous Aboriginal ceremonies. After our 24 hours of paid-for tourism, we needed to turn the wheels south (ARB would probably want the rig back).
On the trail of the Old Ghan Railroad.
Opal mines, Goannas, and prehistoric lakes
Australia’s interior can present one of the harshest environments on the planet. It stretches across the entire continent from the South Pacific to the Indian Ocean, save a few miles near the coast. It is said that ninety percent of the Australian population lives within sixty miles of an ocean. This leaves a bit more than two-million souls, a quarter of New York City, in an area nearly the size of the lower 48 States. If there is one defining Australian feature, it is that distances between points are measured in days rather than hours.
The return trek to Melbourne would need to be on dirt tracks as much as possible. A side road into Mulga Park and then across the Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal Land would deposit us near the beginning of the Oodnadatta Track. As we traveled this vast and arid land, we could not help but to wonder how the Aborigines survived for the past 50 millennia.
Besides being the most arid inhabited continent on the planet, Australia has been graced with nine of the world’s most venomous snakes and a number of lethal spiders. There is a 6-foot-tall flightless bird, the cassowary, with razor-sharp talons and a less-than-amicable nature, the Red Kangaroo (also up to 6 feet tall and able to leap 30 feet on a single bound), and lest we forget the salties. Salties, or estuarial saltwater crocodiles, are a major issue along Australia’s beautiful inland waterways and coastlines. We were fortunate to see a few snakes (unfortunately most of them were dead) and a number of Goannas; the giant lizards of Australia.
The Oodnadatta Track, a 620-kilometer graded dirt road between Marree and Marla is an uneventful drive—unless it’s wet. Let the rain begin … continue. The first 200 kilometers is one of the flattest and most featureless areas I’ve witnessed (Of course, Australia is the flattest inhabited continent. Australians claim 500-foot-tall hills to be—mountains). The road was firm, but the rain had turned it into a greasy mess. Think driving on a well-greased ice rink. Neither Ned nor I could keep the Land Cruiser in a straight line. The slightest tilt of the road (even a gust of wind) would put us in a high-speed, four-wheel drift. If you are wondering; yes, we were having a blast.
In Coober Pedy, the opal capital of the world, temperatures soar past the century mark for
The opal capital of the world, or at least Australia, Coober Pedy is one bizarre place. It is the middle of the aforementioned Eden, and temperatures in the summer soar well past the century mark: there are no shade trees in Coober Pedy. Miners soon realized it was much nicer to stay in the naturally cool opal mines. Before long, they were building homes in them, now known as “dugouts.” Everyone is underground: hotels, the church, bars, restaurants, and shops; just about everything. When in Rome … we grabbed an underground room at an underground hostel and had a drink at an underground bar.
When we reached Lake Eyre, our final destination before heading back to the chaos of Melbourne, the odometer clicked 5,500 kilometers since ARB had handed us the keys. Lake Eyre, at 49 feet below sea level, is the largest in the country. Australians like to boast that it is the 18th largest lake in the world (Again, think Aussie humor) … when it is full … which happens every 100 years. The drought had passed and we were fortunate to see it with water. Lake Eyre would again be a desiccated salt flat by the middle of the dry season.
We’d been on the road for 14 days, cooked our meals on an open fire (keep in mind, our new gas stove had no gas line), tossed back tinnies and had good chinwags with local blokes, and slept in a traditional Aussie swag under the southern constellations. Ned saved our bacon (pun intended) with his alternator wizardry, and I could claim my crossing of the Simpson Desert. As I turned the wheels south towards Melbourne, Ned pulled out our HEMA atlas. I pointed towards the west coast and said, “I’ve always wanted to do the Canning Stock Route … I wonder if ARB would notice if we didn’t bring the Land Cruiser back.”