I wrote this article for India Today’s Travel Plus magazine. It appeared in the August 2006 issue (the issue is impossible to find online, all the links are wonky). I’m putting it here just to keep some semblance of blogging activity.
Looking back, the hardest part of the ~4000 km road trip across the continent of Australia was getting out of Sydney. Ajay and me were both Bangaloreans who had spent most of our lives in India, and the concept of ordered traffic came as a bit of a culture shock. We were sure that every time we took a turn or changed lanes, we were breaking all sorts of secret unwritten traffic conventions, which invariably resulted in a most unsettling polite honking. Sydney sprawls like a city that is determined to keep growing until there is no land left. After a series of wrong turns, and all manner of navigation errors, we finally reached the highway that would be our ever-present companion for the next few days.
I’ve always wanted to do a road trip. I grew up on a steady diet of semi-mythical road trips movies and fiction, and have always envied those who are able to enjoy the freedom of the open road and the travelling life. So when I got the opportunity to be part of an once-in-a-lifetime trip travelling across the entire Australian outback, I didn’t have to think twice about it. We rented a car, packed the trunk full of supplies, bought a book of maps and we were off. In this day and age, it is possible to do a trip of this scale with only a week’s preparation, while Australian history is littered with explorers and adventurers who grossly underestimated the outback.
If you look at a map of Australia, you’ll see a few towns and cities scattered in a huge matrix of nothingness. The phrase outback itself comes from Aussie slang: “out in the back settlements”. But as you travel along the roads, you will notice that there is always something. Sheep stations, wheat fields, and fences accompany you throughout the trip. But we were growing tired of tame landscapes, picturesque as they were. After two days of rolling meadows and vast seas of golden wheat fields catching the rays of sunlight, we were wondering when we would have a taste of Australia’s fabulous outback. Our adventure started properly in the well-named Broken Hill. Broken Hill is famous for its mines, its thriving art community and the quality of its sunset. We saw the mine on the way to the town but despite our best efforts to see the sunset from a suitable vantage point, it was not to be. We were distracted by the presence of a table-tennis table in the youth hostel and a few frenzied games later, it was already dark and time to pack it in. Early next morning, when remorse set in, we decided to compensate for the lost sunset by catching the sunrise at Broken Hill’s outdoor sculpture park. It was interesting, and quite surreal; to see all these stone sculptures perched up in the hills all by their own. Still, I reckon it would have been more magical during the sunset.
Leaving Broken Hill, we headed down to the Flinders National Park. Ajay and me are biologists, we’ve done our share of trekking in South Indian Forests, and we were really eager to see what the Australian forests had to offer. But first, a note on Camping in Australia. Much like the traffic in Australia is organized, so too is the camping. Here, camping means living in relative luxury. Facilities like electricity and shower stalls are normal and expected. After getting used to the shock of camping Aussie style, we set up our tent and spent the night watching out for kangaroos and emus that were circling our tent, – no doubt attracted to the aroma of Indian spices from our cooking.
The Flinders Ranges are a spectacular series of folds of mountains that constitute South Australia’s biggest natural attraction. But the jewel of the ranges surely has to be the strange geological formation called Wilpena Pound. Rising majestically into the air in the shape of huge plateau, the Wilpena offers fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. Of course, the best place to see these views is from the highest point, St. Mary’s peak. It was a long hard slog to the top, and if anyone is planning to do the same, it might be a good idea to believe the visitor’s centre when they advise you on how hard the trail is. And also, it is better to do these types of walks in the early morning, when the sun doesn’t try to peel the skin off your back.
Flinders ranges was also the last stop before we ventured into the outback proper. All the clichés are true. It is very hard to describe the outback without resorting to clichés. Endless horizons. Flat roads that shimmer into the far beyond. Bright red sand, dotted with shrubs. Bright clear skies only occasionally interrupted by puffy clouds. For the next couple of days this was the constant scenery as we sped ever northwards.
Of all the strange places we saw during the trip, none could top the oddness of Coober Pedy. Even before you get into the town proper, you realise that you are close, because the surrounding land is pockmarked with curiously conical piles of earth. This is because the place is a mining town, devoted to the unearthing of Opals. It’s Australia’s top opal producing area. But the heat is oppressive here, and the only way to survive the heat is by burrowing into the ground. Consequently all the buildings in Coober Pedy are underground. Even the church is underground. We checked in for the night in an underground motel, and I’m afraid I couldn’t stop myself asking the motel manager for a room with a view…a witticism that was surely heard too often, because the motel manager immediately turned to my companion and started talking about cricket.
By now we were right up to the fabulous Red Centre of the continent and the most iconic of monoliths awaited us. Just a few km before Alice Springs, we turned off the Stuart Highway to take a look at the World’s Largest Monolith, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock). After missing so many sunsets throughout the trip, I was determined not to miss it at Uluru, especially because rumour had I that Uluru sunsets were almost guaranteed to produce such a spectacle of light that virtually every photograph you took would be post card worthy. Unfortunately, in my zeal, we got there 4 hrs before the actual sunset. We spent the time idly watching the hordes of tourists getting up near the massive rock and getting photographed. And to add insult to injury, when the sun finally set, it did so through a bank of clouds.
We took a brief look at the other monoliths- the Olgas,- before it was time to hit the road again. The next stop was Alice Springs, or as the locals call it, The Alice. After a string of small towns, it felt nice to be in a medium sized town, with real coffee rather than the unmentionable brown liquid that passes for coffee in the roadhouses. It also felt good to get closer and closer to the Tropic of Capricorn. Ajay pulled out his GPS unit and calculated approximately when we would be crossing the Tropic of Capricorn. We passed it, and I was just commenting that it was strange not to see any marker or sign saying that we were then crossing a great Aussie landmark (the Australians are very proud of their landmarks), when we just passed a huge metal globe that tilted in the sky at an odd angle.
Our next stop, Katherine, is famous for crocodiles, and the 1998 Australia Day flood that submerged most of the town. It’s also on the edge of the awesome Nitmiluk Gorge, where the Katherine River flows through towering cliffs. From the air, it looks like a shattered land, and all the fractures run in straight lines. We went for a ‘mild’ hike, designed to not tire ourselves out too much because it was quite late in the afternoon and because it looked like rain. In the end, it was more rain than we bargained with. We almost ended up getting caught in rising stream water at the bottom of a waterfall, and then having to spend the night out in the open because the small creek that we’d crossed on the way in had now swollen to a sizeable stream. A frantic river-crossing later, we straggled into camp, soaking wet and very grateful for all the nice facilities that the campground had.
We headed further north, taking a deviation towards Kakadu. Kakadu is a World Heritage listed National Park, and an old familiar for all tourism brochures and ads advertising travel in Australia. We went there expecting to see huge tumbling waterfalls and marshlands, but it was the wrong season. In the Northern Territory, there are two seasons: the wet season and the dry season. We were there in the wet season, which while interesting in its own right, also meant that most of the roads were off access to our poor two-wheel drive car. Nevertheless, there were enough accessible places in Kakadu to keep us busy, including slow boat rides on the now rising marsh waters and spectacular viewpoints along the giant escarpment called Nourlangie Rock. Nourlangie Rock also is the site of several caves containing aboriginal art. Litchfield National Park, on the way to Darwin, proved to be equally interesting and much more accessible. It reminded us of the tropics in India, with a large forest canopy, beautiful waterfalls and streams everywhere. The leeches and ticks were another reminder, but they did nothing to detract from the beauty of the place.
Litchfield is close enough to Darwin to make it an attractive weekend destination for tourists, which made our last leg of the trip quite quick. Before we knew it we had left behind the outback and breezed into the downtown area of Darwin. Darwin is a strange city, that is not quite of the outback and not yet a cosmopolitan hub, though it does its best to give you that impression. The roads are crammed with European backpackers and amidst all the attractions and discounts, we even spotted a modern rickshaw service ferrying people up and down the main drag. Darwin was a satisfying end to the trip, preparing us for the last stop in the cycle: a plane flight back to Sydney.