Cairns to Uluru, 11th -15th October
The Australian Outback - endless and ruthless.
It is barely 9 am and the road is covered in haze. It is that hot! We are grateful! For Bertie’s air-conditioning; for 25l of water in the back; for the food in the cooler box.
The landscape is new - bare and dire! Red! - or brown … no, it’s red! The colour - faint in places and vivid in others. Now I am convinced we’re in Australia - if the Opera House, the kangaroos or the koalas haven’t done their job so far. We enter a trance of empty, beige panoramas. It is boring!
A land ruled over by termite mounds. Billions of termite mounds! So many. So close together. Resembling the shape of … gravestones. Something so symbolic resides in them. Graves of life. Some are even dressed up. Yes, dressed. Like a sign left from previous humans to say “I was here too”. You can imagine how someone stops, takes off their shirt and buttons it up on the closest mound. Like a desert snowman. You are not alone, smile.
The roadkill is endless. You recognise it from afar due to the birds of prey surrounding it - eagles, falcons … Black flock visible from a distance. We stick to the rule we heard in Lone Pine koala sanctuary - always use the horn to scare the animals. Many of the birds are heavy, with a huge wingspan and it takes them time and effort to lift off from the ground. And if you don’t give them that warning, they stay on the asphalt - the next roadkill.
It is dead here - in termes of nature and human activity. There are no trees, just some bushes between the termite mounds where ugly Australian cows wander. We pass some villages and I can’t help but think … “Why?”, “What?” Why would someone wish to live here? What would draw a person to such a dead zone? It seems sad. Discarded, forgotten, unused life.
Bushfires. Wherever a forest has managed to grow there are usually signs of wildfires. Often the element has raged over one side and the asphalt has stopped it crossing to the other leaving it green. It will take a while before we start recognising which sites are fairly recent and which have happened years ago. In time, we will learn that most of these scars are old - 5-6-7 years, and the marks are still visible. Nature is only now starting to reclaim what was stolen from it.
The road is single-lane in places. The country might be rich but why would they waste it on two lanes when cars only pass each other once an hour. And that has a deep symbol that we will live with for our remaining three months here. Every driver greets. Every one! In this wasteland we all try to hang onto the first vaguely familiar feeling. To see other people; to know you are not alone. Many of the roads in Australia are lonesome and this greeting is so vivid and strong, and most importantly, honest, that I wish I could use it on all roads around the world and not look strange. As this is just a gesture of familiarity, belonging and support.
The heat is overwhelming. The flies are merciless.
Oh, the flies! Worse than any misfortune here in the Nothing. Restless, despairing, almost bloodthirsty. Always targeting the face - the mouth, the nose and the eyes. Disgusting, unbearable and awful. We throw our hands in the air and cry out with insanity. I feel like one of those spoiled ladies from an aristocratic family that find themselves in the desert completely unprepared for life outside the walls of their manor house in England. Which film is this? I can picture it. (“Crocodile Dundee” or “Australia”, or even “The Gods Must Be Crazy”)
This is the Australian wasteland - one big, endless NOTHING. Over a third of the continent is classified as desert. And overall the dry regions are 70%. These are the lands that here they call the Outback - the opposite of the Bush.
Meet up close! The collision with this new environment is instant. It doesn’t happen over time. If you get to know it in pieces in between the scarce stories you cannot understand the real feeling, the true thirst for something to happen. Feel it all at once! Well, now I hope the next few short stories can have a deeper meaning for you.
Today is the first day we stop almost nowhere and keep going forward. We pass 633 km through the savanna. Is it so boring yet awing that we manage to finish an entire audiobook in one day. Not that it was that long but it is a good measurement for space and time which seems to have stopped here.
The Spaceships app finds us a small National Park on the way. Two things are important here. First - when I say ‘small’ I mean small. We set off on the path that supposedly leads somewhere and about five and a half minutes later we ended up back at the starting point. The path ended. That was it. But there is something more striking. The forest is black, thin, covered in ashes. The sign reads that these are consequences from September 2019 - just a month ago, maybe even two weeks. We hadn’t yet been so close to an Australian bushfire - both in the sense of geography and time.
The rest of the day is so uneventful that we are purposefully looking for something to happen. And, fortunately, we find it! The campsite is a 15 minutes walk from the coast which has a perfect view of the sunset. There is even a tavern there - guess what its name is! … We march towards the “Sunset Tavern” with dreams of cold beer and a good view of the setting sun. And we get everything we could hope for!
Everything! A perfect end to this boring and empty day. And I have tons of pictures to prove it. The sweating pints were the perfect object for photography with the background of the last sun rays. After all we aren’t here just to chase empty roads.
Today’s road starts off like yesterday’s ended (perhaps because it is virtually the same one). Surrounded by flocks of Brolga - Australian cranes - incredibly impressive, especially when the whole flock takes flight.
The road is the same. Though now it is in the Federal State of Northern Territory.
We stop at a rest area for lunch. The flies outside are so ruthless that we have to prepare lunch inside the car. Just a quick outing to drain the chickpea tins and we’re back in the front seats. The engine is off and the air-con with it. The chopping board is on my lap and I am cutting veggies. We are overheating. We mix and eat from the same bowl. Then put it somewhere in the back, still dirty. There is no other way. This is the only option to save yourself.
Now we are sweating under the sun, impatiently waiting for it to set. Not only to separate from the heat but also in great anticipation to say goodbye to the horrible, annoying, unstopping flies. Every normal person would go crazy. Can you imagine how high our levels are! The situation is bad!
Today we drive even further - about 7 hours. I can’t check exactly how long that is in kilometres because we’re in a free camp and there is no internet or phone service. But there are a few campervans around us so we’re not lonely.
The drive was like all the others. With only one difference - even wilder as we cross from the savanna to the desert and the fuel prices rocket up due to the lack of competition. The petrol stations are so far from one another that very careful planning is required so as not to be left in the middle of the road. Just in case, we have a 10 litre jerry can in reserve if the calculations turn out wrong.
Around 3 pm we arrive at the camp - it is a free one in the Devil’s Marbles National Park. Part of the sacred Aboriginal lands - in some places photographs are forbidden. “Avoidance” is a common element in the culture of Aboriginal tribes. For example in some societies men and women live separately; in others, the mention of the dead is taboo. In sacred lands some areas are forbidden for the women, others for the men of the respective tribe. Therefore, the distribution of images is strictly forbidden - it creates the risk they would see what their faith doesn't allow them to see. I will hide the pictures I took in complete ignorance.
The Aboriginal beliefs are to this day based on the nature surrounding a given tribe. As in other ancient mythologies, the stories are developed according to the local geographic sights - rock formations, rivers, lakes. And heroes in those are the flora and fauna that inhabits them - snakes, lizards, kangaroos, bushes, trees and more. We will mostly learn about this when we arrive in Uluru but it is not difficult to understand what is valuable to the tribes in such order and day-to-day.
As it can be expected the more unique and unforgettable a place is, the more sacred it is for the local tribe. This area is wonderful - a huge territory of round rocks, piles on top of one another like massive red riverbed stones. Erosion has had a creative outlet here.
We walk around in an attempt to enjoy it in the fly gaps. In reality, it is a desert here - no shade, no water, unbearable heat. You become a raisin within minutes. There is also no internet or phone service. It is not possible for us to stay here tonight. Or at least not until the sun sets. We will go insane from the flies.
Fortunately, Nic still has his last search results and sees there is a hotel nearby - with showers, a pool, a kitchen and a bar! Yes, we’re going! And it’s not bad at all. Turns out that it is a hybrid with a campsite. It costs us $12 for everything that we need in this Nothing. Perfect!
First point of business - a cold beer! Second - bathing suites and into the pool! And I have no wish to come out. My temperature is regulated, I don’t shrivel up like a dried fruit and the flies don’t bother me! I am staying forever! Nic gets fed up quickly but I don’t. The air is too hot to be outside. I just take my book and get comfy inside the pool - next level of calmness.
We manage to cool down our food, to make tasty dinner and prepare for tomorrow. The drive shouldn’t be too bad.
2,500 km, 25 hours, 4 days - we have arrived in Alice.
After the genuine boredom during the last three days, I am very excited to see Alice Springs. In my head, this place is unique, different. Maybe a portal in the Outback, a place, seen and felt by just a handful of people. Well, I wasn’t right to expect something special to follow our countless hours on the road. But I am not wondering whether the town is a passage to the wild because it obviously is. Actually, that is its exact purpose - a place for connection and shelter.
Alice (in short) is the third-largest town in Northern Territory. It is situated almost in the ideal centre of the continent in equal distance from Darwin to the North and Adelaide to the South on Stuart Highway (named after the founder). Stuart town was created as a shelter for the brave (like Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman in “Australia”) to travel between the South and the North, and later (in 1993) was renamed to Alice Springs after the wife of Charles Todd, who transformed the village into a telegraph centre. The word Springs comes from the spring that the village was built next to. It has long since dried up and is never seen full again.
Today Alice is popular mostly due to its proximity to the Red Centre - National Park Uluru and Kata Tjuta, we will talk about there in full detail soon. We are here because of that too. But few people realise that although it’s the only town in the area, Alice Springs is still another 500 km from the sacred Rock. People usually expect to arrive here and it will be easily accessible but it turns out to be another full day of driving. Well, we are prepared that we are not as close as we would like to be. But we will allow ourselves civilisation in its simplest form while we can.
Despite 200 years of history (either that or ancient history - there is nothing in the middle), Alice has nothing to offer. Just another place equipped simply to serve the immediate needs of its inhabitants and passers-by - shelter, food and fuel. A place where coffee shops close at 2 pm on a Monday. A place where your clothes for the heat outside are scarce for the icy air-conditioning inside. A place with a museum for ancient megafauna and a few Aboriginal art galleries.
No culture and little history. Or at least not obvious enough, not logical to find. It is so empty that you couldn’t guess there is anything else but the Nothing. It sends us into travel melancholy. It has been four days - we must be able to do something here. Something that doesn’t require driving or a beer by the pool. We want something that gets the blood pumping.
Uluru will be our cultural haven. For now let’s just relax with a beer by the pool!
Today we will be driving towards Uluru but our plans for the next few days have become very specific. Tomorrow morning we want to be at the Rock for sunrise at 6 am but the campsite in Ayers Rock resort is full and there has no space for us. So we will have to sleep in a free one (Curtin Springs) an hour and a half away from the Red Centre - how will we get up at 4 am? We also know we will not manage to spend the entire afternoon in an empty campsite - hot and full of flies (!!!).
Therefore, we wisely decide to spend the morning in Alice for as long as possible to avoid the tortures of the Outback. First, we will have a little drive to Simpsons Gap. I am fully prepared, following the instructions of my husband, to swim here. After all, that is the only reason not to wash my hair last night. Well, let’s just say neither of us remembers that Australia is in a drought. But Google hasn’t caught up either - the navigation shows a huge river to flow through Alice and in reality, it is just a big sandy pit.
We didn’t swim. Next to the dry bed, is a “No Swimming” sign - at least the absence of water means no one can break the rule currently. The walk was nice, excluding the flies, of course. The view to the split cliff is wonderful and between them there is great acoustics that had to be tested, this time with the Beatles - Let it Be.
After the dry walk, we had to stick to the initial plan and sneak back into the campsite to shower - we know the toilet code from last night. I can’t show up in Uluru with dirty hair (I was mistaken!). Afterwards, with our brand new electric screwdriver, we change some tent straps that have been annoying us and settle in a small cafe for some food, a drink and to do some work.
We were right to postpone leaving Alice Springs. After four and a half hours we arrive in Curtin Springs and there is nothing here other than dust, heat, flies and veeeeeeery expensive petrol. For comparison - in Cairns it was $1.53, in Perth - $1.45, here it is $2.20. Shock! But we acquired something very valuable - head nets against flies. We will soon learn that this was one of our most precious investments on this trip.
This is the Outback! So much travelling for a sacred Rock. We hope Uluru will be worth the torment because that is a feeling you don’t forget. We, people, are sociable creatures and such emptiness always leaves a mark. We will probably always carry it with us from now on.
Vassya (and Nic)