Sunday, October 5, 2014

The long road home

Driving to the centre of Australia is exciting when you've never been there before and you don't really have any concept of just how far it is. Driving home is different because you've already traveled each bum numbing kilometre!

To sustain ourselves for the first leg, we staggered our last buffet breakfast at Yulara, managing to put away about 6 courses before we hit the road. Gassing up was painful ( $2.07 a litre), but understandable given the distances to get the fueling there.
We stopped at the Mt Ebenezer Roadhouse and Geoff finally bought the piece of art he'd been looking for from a lovely lady called Valda who had just finished painting it.

We pushed on to Marla where we made sandwiches out of the boot for lunch and then to Coober Pedy. The only place we could find to stay was the underground backpackers. Our rooms were down 2 flights of stairs and through a tunnel. They were pitch dark, tiny, windowless tombs ! And to make matters worse, the shared toilet (yes, just one) was at the top of the stairs. A giant parma and several glasses of wine helped to stave off a panic attack and lull me into some sort of sleep and since none of us were keen to spend too much time in opal town, we got up at 5.30 and were on our way south again. Even at that time of the morning the flies were in abundance. Why anyone lives there I do not know.

Breakfast was in the middle of the desert, somewhere out in Nowheresville.
The view from our breakfast stop.
Rather than retrace all our steps, we headed into the Clare Valley rather than back into Adelaide. What a lovely change of scenery to see all the vineyard green after the desert landscape. We stayed at the Big 4 in Clare which was nice because it gave Taine a chance to run off some steam. No visit to wine making country is complete without a tasting or two so luckily we just had time to pop next door to Kirrihily Wines to try their special shiraz ( and the moscato, sac blanc, riesling, merlot and cab sav ;-) We sought out another pub meal for dinner, cashing in on a $9.95 dinner special. This worked out well for everyone but Geoff ( who somehow confused 'salmon' with fish cakes).

Clare to Mildura is just a short 4 1/12 hours so we made a leisurely start to the day. Accommodation was hard to find in Mildura too because of the Country Music Festival but by this stage we were happy to put our heads down anywhere and the Chiffley motel was serviceable enough. We had a wander down the street ( fortunately just missing the country music ;-) and then drove the 25 kms across the border to Wentworth and the Perry sand dunes. These great mounds of red sand provided an hour of great entertainment - it's amazing how easily entertained you can be after sitting in a car for 3 days!

Sand angels 

I had a hankering to buy some desert plants for the garden so we went to to the Native Garden Nursery the next morning. As luck would have it they are just in the process of closing for retirement so we picked up a few bargains. Friends had suggested we visit Woodsies Gem Shop and even though  it looked and sounded a bit lame on the brochure we were glad we had taken their advice. Woodsie's is obviously a labour of love for the Woods family. Alongside the shop, that sells every setting of every gem stone you can imagine, they have one acre maze and an 'Aladdin's Cave' full of treasures from around the world. Both these attractions cost just $2 per adult and $1 per child and are well worth the small change. How lovely not to feel ripped off at a tourist stop. Aladdin's Cave even had a couple of olivine bombs from Mortlake (although olivine had been spelt incorrectly) and a fascinating display of petrified poo that Taine (and his father) found particularly entertaining!

"Olivene' at Woodsie's gem shop.

Fossilised poo!

As luck would have it, Chateau Mildura was just around the corner so it seemed to make sense to call in there on our way home. We were just able to squeeze a couple of cases of lovely Riverland wine in amongst the bags, plants, paintings, rocks and left over food (truth be told, we ditched the left overs to make way for the wine) and then we departed on the long road home. Driving through the drought ravaged Mallee was depressing. Hundreds of kilometers of failed crops, punctuated by tiny towns with giant silos and empty shop fronts. As we got closer to home we watched the temperature plummet and I swear the 200kms from Horsham were the longest of the entire trip!

By the time we reached Mortlake again we'd driven 5500 km in 10 days, through 3 states and the Northern Territory. We'd experienced temperatures ranging from 11C to 37C and listened to 27 Hamish & Andy podcasts. We'd seen dozens of lizards and emus and wedge tailed eagles, a few cows, sheep and camels and just one live kangaroo. There'd been 3 drops of rain on the windscreen and enough red dust to make our own sandpit. We'd driven through all of Dorothea Mackellar's 'opal hearted country', and loved every minute of it.

If you've never been to the Red Centre, start making plans now.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Rock

People have a tendency to think that Uluru is ‘just down the road’ from Alice Springs. The thing is, nothing is ‘just down’ the road in the Outback. It’s 199km from Alice to the Erldunda turn off and then another 250 odd kms to the Rock. Crazily though, the 5 hours sped by and we found ourselves saying stupid things like, ‘It’s only 550 km! Everything is relative. I brought lots of stuff to read, watch, correct and listen to on this journey but I’ve done very little of any of it because the ever changing, ever staying the same scenery is too fascinating. The one minute that I looked down at my book, Geoff spotted a huge goanna sitting on a rock and I missed taking its photo. You’ve got to keep your eyes peeled in the desert because it’s full of surprises.

Newbies that we are, we were tricked into thinking we’d spotted Uluru when Mt Connor came in to view but it was just a teaser for the real thing. About 50kms from Yulara we got our first real sighting of ‘The Rock’ and it was every bit as exciting as we’d imagined it ; a huge red monolith, rising up out of the desert. So red and so big that you could swear it was some sort of plastic coated marketing trick. The red soil gets redder as you approach Uluru and the desert is covered in what look like Truffula trees. It’s a world that I never knew existed.

We checked into the Ayer’s Rock Resort at Yulara. This is the only place you can stay that is close to Uluru. It’s a bit like a desert version of a Disney Resort with 5 different levels of accommodation ranging from camp sites to the ridiculously over priced ‘Sails’. We were in the Emu Walk apartments, mid range and the only 2 rooms left (or so we were told on the phone but I think this was a ‘book me now’ scam because there seemed to be plenty of rooms empty). The apartments were fine, roomy and with a kitchenette for self catering. There are several restaurants to choose from but there’s also a supermarket with remarkably fair prices so it’s easy enough to cook for yourself. The pathways around the resort are a treat in themselves because you share them with all kinds of wildlife, especially lizards and all sorts of interesting looking beetles.

The first thing we did was race back to our cars to get out to Uluru to watch the sunset (Uluru MUST DO no 1.) We joined the cavalcade of other tourists doing exactly the same thing, paid our $25 park entrance fee and lined up alongside the hundreds of others jostling for the ‘best’ position to take photos of the changing light on the rock from about 5kms away. The light show was just as promised with the rock changing from red to gold to brown. The park closes not long after sunset so then everyone jumps back in their cars, coaches, campervans and drives the 20km back to Yulara.

Next morning we were up at 5.30 am to tick off Uluru MUST DO no 2; the sunrise. Same cavalcade, same jostling, just a bit colder. Some people have bought their breakfast with them, some have clearly defied park rules and slept there overnight. We took in our fill of the morning beauty and then raced back for our (included in the room rate), buffet breakfast.

The kids were keen to try some camel riding so we filled the rest of the morning with a trip to the camel farm. Paid money, rode camels, probably don’t need to do that again!

It’s hot in Yulara at this time of the year so a mid day siesta is imperative. Luckily the Ayers Rock Resort has 4 swimming pools so there’s no lack of places to cool down. We did a bit of a circuit of the expensive pool, the caravan park pool and the backpacker’s pool before deciding to stick with the one closest to our room.

Uluru in the twilight is a magical place. With most of the tourists back at the sunset viewing circus, the walking track was virtually deserted and we had the whole beautiful rock to ourselves when we visited again that night. When you actually get close to the rock, it’s a ‘whoah’ moment. The sheer size of it is overwhelming. You have to lean your head all the way back to see the top and the colour is a crazy orange, red, brown, gold conglomeration. We drove the entire perimeter, stopping at different points of interest for a closer look. Alone in the gorges and the gullies it all felt a bit ‘Picnic at Hanging Rock’ and I kept waiting for a bunyip or a tiddalick to appear.

Next morning, while our own Forest Gump added to his belt of impressive running tracks by running around the base, we hired bikes and rode the 15kms from the Cultural Centre. This was a surreal experience, similar to the feeling I had riding around Washington DC. It felt like such a normal thing to be doing right then but at the same time it was so exhilarating and breath taking that it didn’t seem real. The only downside to the experience was at the Mala car park where several AAT tourists were being congratulated, by their tour guide, on completing a climb of the rock. Given that they were standing in front of the ‘Please do not climb’ sign, I found this quite confronting and disrespectful. Thankfully so did the majority of other people standing nearby and the upside was meeting some lovely people from Finland with whom we had a conversation about the need for global respect of culturally significant sites!


After another siesta we made the 50 km trip over to Kata Djuta (The Olgas). This is also an impressive rock formation although I didn’t find it as spiritually moving as Uluru. This may have been because it was 37C by the time we got there and so the Valley of the Winds was closed to walkers and we had to share the shorter gorge walk with several bus loads of others, including the AAT group that I’d found so offensive earlier in the day. Florence and Yuri managed the heat well considering neither of them have experienced this sort of extreme before.

Uluru is mesmerizing and it keeps drawing you back, so despite being a bit weary from the bike riding and hiking in the heat, we went back for another, crowd free, twilight visit. This time we walked down to one of the gorges that we’d missed earlier. There was a group of rich people down there competing with the flies over their 5 star, white table clothed, hors d’oevres. That all seemed a bit pretentious and silly to me but I guess tourism is the name of the game and I’m sure it seemed like a great idea when they booked the tour. For anyone who hasn’t been up here yet, don’t worry about the ‘extras’. The rock doesn’t need any frills.

Friday, September 26, 2014


I’m not sure what vision I had in my mind of Central Australia. I think I expected it to be barren and harsh and hot. I certainly didn’t expect it would be so beautiful!

Alice Springs is amazing. A little oasis of a city, built along the banks of the (usually dry) Todd Riverbed. The colour palette here is different to anything I’ve seen before. Photos and paintings don’t do it justice. It’s like a lemon Instagram filter has been applied to everything and you would think that would make it look wishy washy, but it doesn’t. It’s a calming palette of ochre and gum green; tans and golds and the odd bright red splash of Desert Pea, all overlaid with the deepest blue sky that turns to purple after dusk. We were just gob smacked by the beauty of the place.

The racial divide here is obvious and some issues are clear in the police presence, the razor wire around many of the properties and the alcohol restrictions, (the day we arrived we were warned to be off the street by dark if we were carrying alcohol), but this is not what defines Alice Springs and we did not feel at all unsafe during our visit.

We arrived in Alice late in the afternoon, with little time to do anything but check in and get some groceries. After the aforementioned warning, we scurried back to our accommodation (the Desert Palms where the green of the incongruous palm trees was strangely out of place), and then found food at the local RSL where, as luck would have it, it was 2 for one night and we ate like kings for half price!

We spent our first full day in Alice walking into town via the Todd riverbed. It’s hard to imagine what this looks like when it actually has water in it but at the moment it’s a broad, sandy basin covered in a variety of acacia and eucalypt. We wandered around the main shopping areas, particularly the art galleries as Lyle searched for the perfect piece to take home. The shops in town were strangely quiet. I’m not sure whether that was due to the time of day or whether there just aren’t that many people here. We spoke to some of the local aboriginal people who were selling their paintings in Todd Mall. It occurred to us that this was the first time we had heard aboriginal people speaking in their native tongue and we wondered how long it might be before the dialects of our indigenous people are lost forever.

In the afternoon we visited the Reptile Centre so Florence could do some snake handling. They have a nice collection of NT reptiles, including a resident goanna called Ruby who wanders around the building like a pet cat! We got to handle a couple of lizards and a great big python.

We watched the sun go down from the top of ANZAC Hill. What an amazing place to view the city and our second spectacular Outback sunset.

Obviously with 4 teachers on board a visit to the School of the Air was a must do and so that was our first stop the next morning. I expected this to be interesting and it was. We watched a couple of lessons through the observation windows and listened to an informative talk about the students, the program and its delivery. What a wonderful organization, delivering a full curriculum to kids spread all over the Top End. With the advent of the internet, they are front runners in ‘blended learning’. Like all government schools they are way underfunded, especially considering the extra services they provide. They’re dependent on fund raising to make up the shortfall so we did our bit by donating some books and buying a few things we totally didn’t need.

School of the Air
We drove a short way along the Larapinta Drive for a picnic lunch. This part of the West MacDonnell Ranges is very accessible to first world tourists like us; sealed roads, man made walking tracks, flushing toilets and plenty of signage. I don’t think the human interference makes any difference to the wonder of the scenery though. The majesty of Standley Chasm and the multiple layers of colour at Simpson’s Gap are spectacular and, unlike so many other natural wonderlands, there was no rubbish and no graffiti.

Standley's Chasm

Simpson's Gap

Too soon it was time to pack up again and head down the Lassiter Highway.
Two days in Alice is like speed dating with the Outback; it’s just enough to let you know you want more.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Road Trippin'

Road tripping really isn’t my thing. Melbourne and back in one day is a stretch for me. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to a 12 day round trip to Alice Springs during these holidays.

While we were at the Grand Canyon in 2012, we realised that we've neglected a couple of big ticket, bucket list items in our own country. So, last year we snorkeled on the Great Barrier Reef and this year it’s time to visit ‘the Rock’.

With our favourite travel buddies, Lyle, Mark & Maddy and a couple of our gorgeous exchange students, Yuri & Florence in tow, we set off on an adventure.

The trip from Mortlake to Adelaide is a fairly familiar one and pretty enough at this time of the year. The South West is a carpet of golden canola that gives way to pretty vineyards as you pass through the Coonawarra but beyond Adelaide was new territory for all of us. Here the farming turns into olive groves and hot house tomatoes and caged hens, serviced by giant rows of wind turbines marching like triffids over the horizon. It's still green and lush, with no hint of the desert that lies beyond.

Port Pirie is a stopover rather than a destination. We got there just in time to have a quick wander in town before we grabbed some cooked chickens from the supermarket for dinner and settled in to a handy 3 bedroom cottage at the Travelway Motel.

From Port Pirie to Port Augusta it's a short drive alongside the Spencer Gulf. As you leave Port Augusta, you start to get some feeling of the vastness of the outback but it’s only when you’ve been driving for five or six hours through the desert that you really start to appreciate just how empty this part of the country is. Passing the Flinders Ranges on our right hand side we saw our first 'Outback' sign.

The Stuart Highway is a red band of civilization that joins Adelaide to Darwin. The scenery is unchanging. Red dirt and bush scrub; the sides of the road littered here and there with ‘deflated’ animals; cattle, kangaroos and the odd camel. Signposts point to homesteads 40 and 50 km off the beaten track, leaving you shaking your head with wonder at the resilience of the people who live in this barren landscape.

We drove the 6 km off the highway to visit Woomera, a once thriving army base of the mid 20th century. This purpose built town is almost empty now but the remnants of its heyday remain. A space museum, civic theatre, area school, and street after street of (mostly) empty 60’s style bungalows. There’s even a bowling alley and a baseball field, legacy of the US army troops who lived there at one stage. An information centre reveals the history behind this quaint place and a look at the local newsletter reveals a lively community still exists out here in the middle of nowhere.

From Woomera we pushed on, arriving in Coober Pedy just as our onboard fuel computer indicated we were out of gas! Coober Pedy is a giant mullock heap and looks like the set of a Mad Max movie. The main street is a collection of opal shops, some shabbier than others. We stayed in an underground hotel, a test of resilience for my claustrophobic husband. It was a weird feeling to be in a room without windows (and not much air!) Apparently the temperature is a constant 24 C all year round underground. I’m sure that’s great in the Winter but it was a bit warm for comfortable sleeping. We watched the sunset from the top of our motel and for dinner we bought pizza from Jack’s and it absolutely lived up to its reputation as the best in town.

We were on the road again early the next morning and it soon became apparent just how vast this country really is. It’s 688 km from Coober Pedy to Alice Springs with just a couple of roadhouses in between. Coming out of Coober Pedy the landscape is interesting because of the opal mining. Thousands of pointy mounds of sandy dirt of varying sizes lay testament to unsuccessful attempts to find the beautiful, opalescent stone that the area is famous for but within a few kilometres we were once again in the scrub. Despite the sameness of the landscape, there are also differences. The closer you get to Alice, the bigger the trees get and the more ‘normal’ the scenery. This is what I was expecting, what I remember from childhood text books and Albert Namatjira paintings. Red dirt, rocky outcrops and gum trees; the MacDonnell Ranges providing the purply grey backdrop.

With only short pitstops at Marla and Kulgara and a 130 km speed limit in the Northern Territory we made great time and arrived in Alice Springs mid afternoon. How bizarre to have made it to the very centre of the country. How weird to be this far away from the ocean. What a relief to have survived the 3 day drive. How nice not to be driving anywhere tomorrow!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Island Time

I'm not sure how we ended up booking a trip to Vanuatu these holidays. I think we were looking at a ridiculously cheap deal to Fiji which actually turned out to be too good to be true and then to alleviate the disappointment of not going there I went on an internet hunt with our meagre mid year budget and ended up in Port Vila.

Anyway, with the weather we've had in Victoria lately the thought of a tropical holiday was very enticing and so, here we are at the Pacific Lagoon Apartments, on the edge of Erakor Lagoon. For those of you drooling green slimes of jealousy, I must add that it is actually raining and there's a fresh enough breeze that I wish I'd bought some long sleeves but it is a far cry from the misery of Mortlake.

We took a 7am flight from Melbourne via Brisbane with Virgin. I was surprisingly happy with the Virgin service. Extremely pleasant check in staff and flight attendants, delicious banana bread as a snack on the way to Brisbane and an even more delicious gourmet sandwich on our way across the Coral Sea. The only downside was the dickhead in front of us who insisted on reclining his seat the full way back - who needs to do that on a 2 HOUR flight? Thankfully he was sitting in front of Taine, not me or he would have had some nasty knees in the back!

From the moment you step off the plane and into the Port Vila airport you are on 'island time'. Here is the perfect place to wind down because no one will allow you to move at any speed! The lines to the immigration windows snake around a tiny room like a deceptive Disneyland queue and the silly sods who dressed for their Melbourne departure were sweating profusely by the time they get to the front.

The local currency is the vatu, some of which we tried in vain to access from the ATM at the airport. To pay for a taxi to our accommodation we exchanged the $100 AU in our wallets for $8500 vatu. There's just a fleeting moment where you feel really rich with those $1000 notes - till you realise that the taxi will cost $3000. They drive on the right hand side of the road here so there was a certain sense of American deja vu as we hurtled out of the airport on what seemed like the wrong side of the road. This feeling was exacerbated by the fact that we seemed to be driving head on into the oncoming traffic most of the time, as we overtook everything in our way! And then there's the issue of the unmaintained roads. The pot holes are so big I thought I was back on the Hopkin's Highway! There was lots of horn tooting and swerving but in a totally non aggressive manner with the drivers exchanging high fives and big waves. No road rage in island time.

The manager of our accommodation is an expat Aussie who came for a holiday 5 years ago and didn't go home. ( It's not hard to see why!). In another example of island time, he dropped whatever he was doing and took us in his car for a drive around town to find an ATM and a supermarket. This proved to be a lengthy exercise because most of the ANZ machines were having island time of their own! Eventually we did get some money and managed to buy some food for dinner. By Aussie standards, the supermarket made our local IGA look flash, but we were able to get some sausages and locally grown bananas.

Port Vila is an assault on the senses and an oxymoron of 3rd world meets 1st world. Ute loads of islanders crowd into the back of pick ups as they drive past the construction of monolithic new resort and conference facilities. The produce market, where the native women sell bananas and taro and coconuts and sleep under their stall tables at night because it's too far to get back to their villages, is next door to a Billabong outlet. A game of barefoot soccer takes place across the road from the harbour where a multi million dollar cruise ship sits at berth. The city/town sits amongst the most beautiful tropical jungle and the streets are covered in litter.

Our apartment manager told us that the going rate for wages here is $150 vatu an hour - almost $2AU. Kids here go to school only if their parents can afford it and the unemployment rate is around 50%. There is no welfare system on the island so extended families are very important. Given that food costs as much as it does at home, the people here must live on a lot of instant noodles and taro. I'm glad we aren't staying at a 5 star resort when we are surrounded by so much poverty.

We caught a bus back from the supermarket. What an amazing system of beat up people movers this is. They pick you up wherever you are and take you to wherever you want to go for 150 vatu. Our driver was a rasta looking fellow called Chris who spent a lot of time leaning over the back talking to us and high fiving Taine rather than looking at the road. No drama though, the drivers coming the other way were doing the same thing and somehow managed to avoid hitting us! Chris has a great deal on round the island trips (as does every bus driver in Port Vila) but he seemed like such a genuine guy ( to the extent that he magically appeared on our patio to show us his brochure as we were eating our sausages!) that I think we will have to spend the few extra thousand vatu to go with him and his sister on Saturday.

I haven't taken many photos today. I've been too busy looking out the window in amazement and hanging on to the seat for dear life to be able to pick up the camera. I'll do better tomorrow.

In the morning I'm looking forward to walking the 50 paces to the lagoon and checking out some fish through my prescription snorkel mask. But only when I wake up. After I've had some island made peanut butter on toast. If I feel like it. Cause I'm on island time :-)