Uluru is a massive rock in Central Australia. Some say it is the biggest rock in the world; some say many things. I was sceptical about seeing Uluru at first as it reeked of instrumental tourism, a place defined by the outcome rather than the journey (in teaching, we call this constructive alignment).
So, I started the unaligned journey in Fitz-Roy (the illegitimate centre of Australia), rented a car in Coburg, strapped in my excellent co-pilot Paul Sebastian Garate Peralta from Cuenca in Ecuador, and set off for The Rock. I had done some superficial research before I left, so I knew it was a very long way and that it was hot, but both these things are comfortably intangible until you actually live them.
Day one: Port Fairy
The first day we drove along the coast to Port Fairy, a bucolic, old village a few hours from Melbourne. We did not want to overdo it on the first drive, to ease our way into the dawn-to-dusk driving essential in the never-ending Outback. The Victorian coast along the Great Ocean Road is gorgeous; long white beaches, sandstone cliffs, and roads languidly winding through the forest. The problem is that the Great Ocean Road attracts many urban modernists that find anything other than straight-lines confusing; 60 K.M.H. becomes 20 K.M.H., break lights gleam through corners, and turn-out bays for slow-drivers are ignored in favour of a mechanical industrial rigidity that holds everyone back.
Thus, a 300 KM journey took most of the day, and we did not arrive in Port Fairy until early in the evening. We pitched a tent in a well-serviced caravan park (caravan parks n Australia are usually pretty high standard with lush grass and free bar-b-ques) and took off to the local pub for beers and pool.
Day two: Adelaide.
We perhaps drank a little too much on the first night, and I had a restless sleep, so I was tired, grumpy, and thus worried about how well-equipped I was for a full day driving. Still, after a bucket of espresso and some breakfast, I felt a lot better, and the stretch of road from Port Fairy to Adelaide was again gob-smacking with a lot less timid urban modernists attempting to drive, so we covered a lot more kilometres.
The highlights of the day were the township of Robe, and Coorong National Park, a thin strip of coastline with untouched beaches and an abundance of sea life including Pelicans and giant fibreglass lobsters. We stayed in an Air B.B. this evening, in a rambling, dilapidated house in a nowhere suburb of Adelaide and had a good nights sleep. Still, I was a little nervous about the long drive ahead to Coober Pedy, the start of the Australian Outback.
Day Three: Coober Pedy
From Adelaide to Coober Pedy is a very long way, and fortuitously our eccentric Air B.B. host gave us a large flask of black coffee, which was effortlessly drunk by the first stop in Port Germein. The road out of Adelaide hugging St Vincent and the Spencer Gulf is pretty grim, a sort of battle between provisional Australian Modernity and arid desert flatland. Still, Port Germain had a dignified sense of decline and the longest pier I have ever seen. And it was beginning to get hot, very hot, a harbinger of the apocalyptic Christmas heat-wave we were driving into.
We arrived in Coober Pedy early in the evening to witness the sunset over the hotch-potch Opal mining town with the anthill landscape beyond. Like many hotels and houses in Coober Pedy, our accommodation for the evening was under the ground to escape the Martian heat. Our motel keeper was straight out of Wolf Creek (a reference lost on my Ecuadorian companion). We had to wander around a few dark mine shafts before finding our room, which was literally a hole in the ground. But still, we had a wonderful nights sleep, and I would recommend sleeping in holes to anyone.
Day four: Uluru (Xmas Day)
This was the most demanding day of driving as it was the longest distance across the somnambulant plains of the Australian Outback. The highlight of the day was nothing, thousands of kilometres of nothing, the happiest place on earth as there is no need to compare yourself to anyone else (except that Wolf Creek bloke in Coober Pedy, he was a bit scary).
We stopped at a rustic, deserted truck stop for Xmas dinner of ham and salad wrap and a bottle of red. It was apocalyptically hot, around 42 degrees Celsius, but this did not seem to matter as our first Outback Xmas was pretty special, a long way from Santa Claus.
We arrived at the Uluru resort early in the evening, pitched a tent, and drove the twenty kilometres to The Rock. Seeing Uluru for the first time is dreamlike; most world icons are pretty banal once packaged by consumers, but not Uluru; there is awe-room for the instrumental tourists and everyone else. We got as close as we could and had a picnic of supermarket roast chicken and red wine and met a cute young couple from France and Ireland and watched The Rock change colour at sunset (from bright orange to ochre to brown).
Day five: Uluru
This day was a rest day, at least in terms of driving. We had found ourselves in the middle of an extreme temperature heat wave in one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Thus we were up at 6 AM as the temperature was in the 40s Celsius by 11 AM (and the park rangers closed many of the walking tracks because of the heat). We did the four-hour walk around the rock, which was pretty special as there are many informative signs about the importance of certain aspects of The Rock to various aboriginal peoples. I particularly liked how climbing The Rock has not been entirely banned by the Aboriginal owners, even though it would be easily achieved. It is left to the individual to decide; thus, it becomes a reflective choice and virtue ethic, a much more powerful learning experience than merely banning Modernity.
Day six: The Olgas
The Olgas are another weird rock formation close to Uluru. Today was hotter than hell, so we were up early morning to do the Vally of the Winds walk (or the Valley of heat with no wind walk). I liked the Olgas even more than Uluru; there were fewer people, it was more scruffy, and the few tourists that were there mysteriously knew where to stop on the track; their leash only stretches so far, I suppose. We sauntered past them and did the complete Olga circuit with my broken hiking shoe flapping, aggressive blow-flies buzzing, and the big-heat sucking at my body. It was one of the best short walks I have ever done.
When the Venus temperature reached 462 Degrees Celcius in the afternoon, we went to an unimaginative bar called The Outback and drank beer, played pool and chess, and sat in front of a giant fan that did not help in the slightest.
Day seven: King’s Canyon
The drive to King’s Canyon from Uluru is long, about four hours of arid, shrubby land. The Outback is not a desert, it is dry and scorching, but there are many forests and shrubs and waterholes for animals to quench their thirst. The moving sand-dune type of desert in South America and Africa is quite rare in Australia, with most of the vast interior of Australia covered in sparsely wooded and grassed planes.
We pitched our tent at the King’s Canyon campground that was virtually deserted; the Outback is too hot for most people this time of year. We spent the afternoon in the only pub for about 500 KMS and escaped the heat with chess, pool and beer into the early evening. Some Dingos decided to have a howling match during the night, metres from our tent (and I wondered if Dingos only take babies).
Day eight: King’s Canyon
Today we woke at the crack of dawn and made our way to King’s Canyon. The circuit walk was challenging in the heat but spectacular; the track has an initial steep climb and then meanders its way around the canyon edge with rich ochre outcrops of rocks and desperate plants clinging for their life. When it rains, waterfalls cascade into the gorge, which seemed hard to believe in the height of Summer. Deep in the gorge is a long, dissident waterhole that attracts all sorts of in-the-know bird-life whose calls echo on the canyon’s steep walls.
Day nine: Alice Springs
The next day we went to Alice Springs. There was a shorter route to Alice Springs from King’s Canyon, but like many roads in the Northern Territory, it required a 4 Wheel Drive vehicle and our city car may have fallen into a pothole and disappeared. So six hours later, we arrived in Alice Springs, to a cute 1970s caravan in the desert about 14 K.M.S. outside of the Alice. The caravan was a welcome reprieve from camping for the past five nights (thanks Air B.B.). In the evening, we explored Alice Springs, an ugly Modern town wrestling with the environment (it is no Palm Springs). Still, it has some pretty good supermarkets and air-conditioned malls where most people congregate to escape the heat. We purchased some steak and beer, went back to the caravan, and settled in for the evening.
Day ten: Alice Springs (New Year’s Eve)
Today was one of the few days on the trip that didn’t involve driving (or so we thought). Our Air B.B. host had suggested a water hole for swimming, the fabulous Ellery Creek Big Hole, which ended up being 80 K.M.s away (a short distance in these parts). The drive to the hole and swimming in it took most of the day, which didn’t seem to matter as the hole was worth the drive and a welcome reprieve from the relentless heat.
In the evening (N.Y.E.), we went to the nasty Lasseters Casino (only because I had seen it in the movie, Priscilla Queen of the Desert), and then a cheesy Western Style bar was the only two options in town, it seemed. But as we stayed 14 K.M.S. outside of town, we didn’t drink much alcohol and instead got some takeaway beer and went back to the caravan, which seemed sensible to do given the hostile appearance of the local constabulary.
Day eleven: Coober Pedy (again)
The drive back home seemed daunting, and for the first two days, we covered the same territory. But 10 K.M.S. effortlessly turned into 100, and 100 turned into 1000, and before we knew it, we were in the same underground room in the same motel. The same Wolf Creek bloke greeted us, and in the evening, we explored the Mad Max town relishing in the post-apocalyptic future.
Day twelve: Laura
The road from Coober Pedy to somewhere else is tough; it is flat, dull, with few distractions except for moments of lucid self-reflection (and horror).
But if there was one thing that made the long-drive home worth it, it was the pleasant town of Laura in South Australia. It has a grand, broad, and laconic main street straddled by shops in various degrees of decline. We stayed in a stately old stone house with tastefully decorated rooms (and air-conditioning). We bought a bottle of wine from the local pub, some fish from the supermarket, and cooked up a feast. This was the first genuinely comfortable place we had stayed in the whole journey (again, thanks, Air B.B.).
Day thirteen: Dimboola
The drive from Laura to Dimboola was a leisurely one, the B-roads along the Clare Valley are winding and uneven, passing through many towns with slow speed limits (and places to buy coffee and cakes). It took most of the day to get to an A road and back into Victoria.
We arrived into Dimboola in the Wimmera region of Victoria early evening and pitched a tent under a tree and a noisy flock of cockatoos near the Wimmera River. We then sauntered to the legendary Victoria Hotel. This vast expanse of Victorian splendour has an overly friendly front bar and a dining room in the rear, along with a warren of rooms bursting with Victorian bling. It has a huge veranda overlooking the town claiming its place as the most essential institution for miles around.
We had a shepherds pie with chips and salad and a beer or two or three before we made it back to the cockatoos.
Day fourteen: Fitzroy
The last three or four hours back to Fitzroy were tough as I was tired, and the driving had lost its adventure. It was an A to B sort of a drive, instrumentalism again wasting my time. We arrived back home to Fitzroy (the centre of Australia) mid-afternoon.
Overall, it was a great introductory adventure to the Outback, and I would recommend it to anyone who likes litres of coffee. I am looking forward to driving the Oodnadatta Track or Birdsville tracks one day soon.