June 27, 2004

Yahoo! It's Uluru

A story of Statistics, Colours and Numbers

Let’s start with the statistics. Whenever you run a trip as big as this one, there are bound to be some interesting numbers which help tell the story. In our case it was a story involving 27 people - 21 adults and 6 kids - in a fairly epic 22 day journey across some 7768 km of the Australian continent. It also involved 10 vehicles and 4 camper trailers carrying God-only-knows how much cargo, with a total of 48 tyres on the road. We clocked up a total moving travel time of just under 100 hours, and had an average moving speed of 76 km/hour.

There are probably lots more numbers that would surprise anyone who might think deserts are flat, boring places with not much to see… but in fact, they are fascinating places, full of contradictions, like being able to be 12 metres below sea level at our lowest point, and yet 1200 metres above sea level at our highest. Like being able to swim in thermal ponds where the water was a nice warm 37°C and yet spending nights where the temperature dropped to -3°C.

But the real story of this trip can’t be told with numbers and facts. Numbers can tell you how far we travelled each day but they can never convey the experiences we had. They can’t begin to describe the unbelievable corrugations of the road between Apatula (Finke) and Bundooma Siding. Or the feeling of standing at the top of Uluru and staring across the vast spinifex plains to Kata-Tjuta over 40 km away. Or the feeling of utter surprise as you drive over a crest on the Oodnadatta Track to see the sparkling blue waters of Lake Eyre stretching off to the horizon, filled with water for the first time in many years. Or swimming in the pre-dawn waters of Dalhousie Springs and seeing the most incredible sunrise, with the red sands of the nearby Simpson Desert reflecting off the clouds and into the gentle ripples of the pond, mixing with the deep purples and blues of the early morning sky.

The intense colours are one of the most stunning facets of the remote arid regions. The sky is so deeply blue, the vegetation is made up of countless shades of green, and the sand is so deeply red… the red oxide of Central Australia makes the rocks and soil such a rich, deep colour. Sunsets and sunrises are unbelievably beautiful; they glow with intense colours that one might scarcely have even realised existed. Even the darkness of the night sky seems to take on a whole new shade of black…or perhaps it’s just the countless number of stars that can be seen in the sky, with the hazy river of light that is the Milky Way, stretching from horizon to horizon. Whatever it is, the Outback seem to exaggerate and amplify your senses. Your senses start to operate more fully. You start to become more acutely aware of your surroundings, and you actually start to feel and experience the landscape, rather than just see it. It’s easy to understand why the aboriginal people had such a bond with the land. It’s a bond that’s hard to escape.

If you’ve never been to the Outback you’d probably be quite surprised at the enormous diversity of the desert experience… one of the comments heard repeatedly almost every day was “I just can’t get over how much the landscape changes”. It is quite amazing the way you can travel through this landscape, seemingly able to see to the edges of the horizon, and yet experience such rapid changes. To be on a flat desert plain one minute, with nothing but gibber rocks and low, scrubby saltbush as far as you can see, and suddenly, without warning, find yourself looking out across waves of parallel red sandhills rolling off into the distance, and then before you realise it, find yourself approaching a collection of sandy, ghostgum-lined dry creek beds to be crossed. The land is constantly changing.

As we were driving home, there was talk over the UHF of which part of the trip we enjoyed the most. Some people spoke of special places we visited, like the magical Dalhousie Springs, the surprising beauty of Chambers Pillar, or the sheer spirituality of Uluru itself. There were so many wonderful places we went. There were special moments too; some were rare and unique, like standing at Lamberts Centre, the geographical centre of Australia, or watching the sun set over the Simpson from atop a sand dune at Bundooma Siding on the old Ghan line. I thought every place we went was special and had its own magic, so choosing one particular place is a difficult task.

The truth is, the part of the trip I enjoyed the most was the doing, the being, and the experiencing. I loved the fact that were doing things and going places that most people never experience. I like the fact that I can say I’ve been there and done that, and most people will never have the faintest clue about what it was really like. I realise it’s not exactly pioneering stuff these days and that the Outback now has more traffic than ever, but it’s still such a tiny minority of people that get out there and experience their own country, but I’m so glad to be a part of that minority.

The other aspect of the trip that really appealed to me was the chill-out factor. It was good to just not have to think about computer networks, or doing the lawns or answering the phone. It was good to just breathe in the vastness of the great Australian Outback and forget about all that other stuff for a while. The world could have come to an end while we were away and we wouldn’t have even known about it, and I really liked that feeling. It makes you realise how unimportant most of the stuff you hear on the news every day really is. Life is what actually happens to you, not what you read about in the papers or see on TV or hear on the radio. It’s too easy to forget that. Yes, life is what happens to you.

Highlights of the trip included…

Wilpena Pound and the Flinders Ranges. We went through here because it was kind of on the way and I thought it would make an interesting detour, but I was totally unprepared for the beauty and majesty of the Flinders. Stunning, with overwhelming scenery and fantastic campsites, it is a must-see place to revisit on a later trip.

The Oodnadatta Track “art gallery”. A curious collection of sculptures in the middle of nowhere; gates made of old combis, an entranceway made of two aircraft stuck together, a sophisticated display of gas torches that would have been amazing to see at night. And no one around… how bizarre.

Lake Eyre South. The sign said 12 metres below sea level, and the GPS confirmed it to the metre. As a catchment area for Australia’s massive river systems like the Cooper, the Diamantina and the Georgina, it was quite an awesome feeling to stand on the edge of this enormous inland lake and see it full of water, something that does not happen very often.

Algebuckina Bridge. The bridge was interesting, but the campsite was really pleasant. A night time cinema for the kids, and an early morning walk at sunrise made this a special camp spot.

Dalhousie Springs. A thermal pond fed by the million year old waters of the Artesian Basin - 37° warm, and so deep I couldn’t touch the bottom. A true desert oasis. We went for a sunrise swim and the colours of the sky and the water were simply mind blowing.

Lamberts Geographical Centre of Australia. If you could balance Australia on a pin, this is where you’d stick it. Lambert is about 30k out of Finke, and has a monument there similar to the roof of Parliament House in Canberra. It was a good feeling to go there.

Old Ghan Line, Finke to Bundooma. Notable as the worst road we travelled on, the corrugations were simply indescribable. The Finke Desert Races had been through a few weeks earlier and chopped the road out completely. It was good to do it for the experience, but once is enough.

Desert Camp, Bundooma Siding. This was one of my favourite campsites… just a sand dune along the track, but we made it our home for the night. Situated right on the edge of the Simpson Desert (according to the map), the sand was unimaginably red. A very beautiful spot.

Chambers Pillar. Not exactly on the tourist route, it takes some effort to get out to Chambers Pillar. The road is rough and rugged and crosses the Charlotte Range, but the drive is well worth it. I wish we had more time here.

Ruby Gap. Only a few of us went here for the day, but it was a wonderful spot. It was 4WD access only and we made the most of it by following the trail all the way through to Glen Annie Gorge. It was a long day and a late return to Alice, but worth it for the stunning scenery and a bit of real 4WDing.

Palm Valley. Great spot, we did the long walk and the short walk through the Valley, and thoroughly enjoyed our time here. The road in was not difficult, but certainly not suitable for 2WDs either.

Kings Canyon. The canyon was amazing, with a reasonably challenging 6 km walk. Stunning views, awesome colours and rock features. The evening entertainment was good too, with something for everyone, including Brian and I showing our ding-a-lings. You had to be there.

Uluru and Kata Tjuta. I hated Yulara, the support township for Uluru-KataTjuta. It was overcommercialised, unfriendly and did not impress me at all. However, The Rock itself is an amazing place, and a truly spiritual experience. There is no denying it has a real presence as you see it rising up 360 metres from the surrounding flat desert and to get up close to it is to be truly in awe. We did the “whitefella stuff” – climbed to the summit and took lots of photos – but it’s easy to see why the local people call it a sacred place. You can’t describe the rock, not even with a picture… you just have to see it for yourself.

Coober Pedy. Despite the desolate landscape, Coober Pedy has a certain charm about it. We did all the touristy stuff, and even slept underground in the town’s only underground camping park.

There were many other highlights, but those were the main ones for me. More than that though, the trip was made special because of the wonderful people we travelled with. There was a great mix of personalities and I thought we all got on really well. As to be expected on a trip this long with so many people, there may have been the occasional moments of frustration, but overall, I think everybody enjoyed themselves and had a great time. I know we did.

As the trip leaders, Donna and I want to express our sincere thanks to everyone who came on the trip… you were all very patient and understanding, even in those moments where I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing, and you made the trip very special for Donna, Alex, Kate and I.

Yahoo! Where to next?

Chris Betcher

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