The Great Aussie Road Trip Part 2: Flinders Ranges to Coober Pedy
Continued from previous entry…
We “sleep in” till about 9 in the van. It’ still raining so we decide to get outta here and head north towards the desert, assuming it won’t be raining up there. Our destination for today is Flinders Ranges National Park, about 2.5 hours north of where we are now. We hit the road and drive through a little bit of rain before arriving in the little town of Quorn. Sounds like “corn.” Nimarta has spent two nights here before on her previous trip to the Outback. In fact she celebrated her New Year’s 2012 here. It’s a bit more vibrant than the other little towns we passed through yesterday, but still not much going on. We use the public bathrooms to wash up, fill up on gas, and get moving.
We arrive at the park just after noon. We are amazed at how quiet it is here. There is barely anyone else here. We go into the visitor’s center to try to figure out which hike we want to do and decide on the Mount Olson-Bragg trail. This will take us 500 meters up a rocky slope and should take about three hours round trip. This fits in well with our schedule because we want to eat some lunch first.
After lunch in the picnic area we load up on water, change, and hit the trail. It’s become a beautiful day here. It’s only 25 degrees – which is amazing for this area – and there is not a cloud in the sky. We couldn’t have asked for a better day. The first kilometer of the hike is flat through eucalyptus forest, then we start to go up. The rocks are red and the desert vegetation reminds me of Red Rock Canyon in Las Vegas (yes, again, just like Grampians). We are alone on the trail and it is very peaceful. As we scramble on the rocks we start to get a view of the valley below. It’s nothing too special right now so we keep on going up. Lizards are everywhere. And tropical looking birds that I feel should be in Cairns and not the middle of the desert. They’re just so colorful.
Once again we are surprised at just how bad the Australian parks are at distance markers. We will see 0.8 km, then walk for 20 minutes before seeing 0.6 km. There’s no way it took us 20 minutes to walk 200 meters, I don’t care how steep it is. Horrible distance markers aside, we make it to the top in about two hours. We weren’t expecting much up here, but the view is actually quite nice. I have seen pictures that show the Flinders Ranges as sort of a big oval shaped bowl. The Wilepena Pound in Flinders is a natural amphitheater – a huge crater rim that rises from the plain. But from up where we were we can see the whole bowl. And it’s so flat and green in the middle it looks like a whole other world.
We chill on the rocks for a bit and even lie down to relax. We could almost take a nap up here if we had more time. After a few pictures and about 15 minutes on top we start to make our way back. It’s nearly 5:00 so we don’t want to be up here too long. Making our way down we spot some wild goats. I thought the little poop pebbles may have been kangaroo, but now I know they were goats. There are a ton of these guys wandering around. A baby goat stares at me for a while before hopping off into the bush.
This is the time of evening that the kangaroos like to come out and eat. But I only see two wallabies cross the path the whole way down. I always have trouble differentiating wallabies from kangaroos. They are a bit smaller and have different heads. These we definitely wallabies. Back at the visitors center we see some kangaroos. They are just staring at us, probably jealous of the fresh water we are filling our bottles with.
We have chosen to camp at a free site just outside the park boundary. It was very quiet with not many people on the campsite. One our way there we pass fields of kangaroo and emu. It’s dinner time for them. And it’s dinner time for us too. There will be no roo for dinner tonight though – it’s just rice and noodles over a glass of red wine. While having dinner we hear a noise in the background that catches our attention. It turns out to be a kangaroo chasing another kangaroo – they hop fast! We try to watch the stars at night but it’s a half moon and it’s so bright that we really can’t see too many stars. We wonder what the moon will be like when we get to Uluru and head to bed. Tomorrow we will head towards the Outback!
We awake around 8:30 and go for a quick hike to see some aboriginal rock paintings. The trail head starts from our campsite so we don’t even have to move the car. We wander through some bush for a bit and eventually find the rock paintings. They are different than what I am used to seeing in the US (buffalo, hunting depictions, etc). They were really just lines, although I see one picture of what appears to be the sun (I later learn this is supposed to signify people sitting around a table). I guess I can’t read aboriginal petroglyphs!
Back on the road we head towards Quorn again. We are not sure where we are spending the night but will look it up once we get 3G again. After filling up gas we get back on the road. We will stop for lunch in Port Augusta, the last major population center we will see until Alice Springs next week. We arrive into town around noon and find a little park in the city center to picnic at. It’s super windy today though so we have to hold down everything on the table. As we are having lunch I people watch for a bit. People just look sketchy here in this town. They just look like the kind of people that would mug you in a back ally. The city itself is nice and clean and has good parks and an attractive waterfront. But the residents… no so much.
We head to Woolworths to get a few more groceries. We won’t see a big grocery store for a while either. And of course, some more cheap red wine. Before we head into the Outback, though, we want to take a shower. We have been told the BP on the edge of town has public showers so we head over there to freshen up. By the time we leave the gas station it’s nearly 3:00. We’ve spent almost three hours in this city! That was not part of the plan. It’s a decent place, but I am glad to get back on the road and head north into the desert.
We wave goodbye to the ocean and hit the Stuart Highway. We won’t see a respectable body of water again – other than salt lakes – until we reach Cairns in two weeks. The Stuart Highway runs from here to Darwin, up by Indonesia. We will be very familiar with this highway by the time this trip is over. We have decided by now that we will stay in Pimba, about 175 km away. It’s not so much of a town as just a rest stop and gas station that they let you freedom camp at.
The highway is barren. There are stretches of US highways in Nevada and Idaho that have nothing, but this is something else. It’s just desert brush and red soil, accompanied by the odd dead kangaroo or sheep every so often on the side of the road. There are a few plateaus in the distance, and a few salt lakes, but for the most part it is just flat, arid desert. And we’ve only just entered the Outback! We have about 4000 km to go through this type of landscape.
We manage to avoid getting run off of the road by the road trains (tractor trailers that are connected together run up and down this highway with sometimes as many as four trailers) and read Pimba around 5:00. Pimba is better known as Spud’s Roadhouse. We take a quick drive around the town, population 29, and decide no one actually lives here. The people that work at Spud’s must live in the roadhouse. The town is depressing as hell. We drive six kilometers to Woomera to check out that town as well. It was used back during the Cold War by US, UK, and Australian military units to test weapons in the desert. At once this was a thriving community. But now it’s a ghost town. A few sporadic people still live here. But this school is deserted. Almost all the houses are deserted. It gives off a creepy vibe. I don’t want to be around here after dark. Back to Spud’s then.
We park the van near the picnic area and decide to watch a little bit more of the Chernobyl documentary we have been watching before dinner. But as we are relaxing in the back of the van the Beijing Institute of Technology Solar Car Team shows up. We saw a bunch of these solar powered cars on the drive up here. There is some big competition going on (we later learn it’s a race from Darwin to Adelaide). The Beijing team isn’t doing too well, as we have seen many cars ahead of them. This makes sense, though, since it’s not like they get a lot of practice in the smog of Beijing!
The team sort of takes over the picnic area so we have to move. They are all smoking and being loud, not exactly what we wanted in our overnight stay here. We manage to find a spot a good ways away from them, though, and eat our dinner over a $6 bottle of wine. Only the best for our road trip. All seems to be going well and we have set up the bed when we make a startling discovery. Nimarta can’t find her two diamond rings. Not her engagement ring, but the two rings she wears on her right hand. She knows where she left them though: the shower at the BP in Port Augusta.
After panicking for a bit we manage to find the number for BP and give them a call. The guy who answers says the manager received a call around 5:00 about a ring that was found, but she has gone home and they can’t get in touch with her. He takes our number and says they will call in the morning when the manager gets in. But we can’t wait that long. It’s 175 km in the wrong direction, but we have to go back to Port Augusta. These rings are worth a lot of money.
My alarm goes off at 6:00. I want to get back to Port Augusta as early as possible. We are on the road by 6:20 and I get to watch the red sun rise over the horizon as I’m driving. Nimarta barely slept all night, as she was been worrying about the rings, so we keep the bed made in back as I drive. I pass a few kangaroos and many herds of wild sheep and we roll into the Port Augusta BP at around 8:00. If everything goes well we can get the rings and still make it to Coober Pedy today, 550 km north.
The manager isn’t in yet so we use this time to change and have breakfast and wash up. We are pretty nervous, but we figure the ring in question has to be ours. What are the chances two people lost diamond rings in the same day at BP? But what about the second ring? Around 9:00 we talk to the manager and she takes us back to the office and calls the guy who found the ring. He is a local contractor named Matt and didn’t want to leave the rings with the BP station, as he probably didn’t trust them. He is nearby and says he will come to the station now. Nimarta takes the line to talk to him. She says there are two rings and he says he has two rings. These must be ours!
Five minutes later we are reunited with the rings. The contractor found them in the shower and held on to them overnight. I offer him $50 as a reward but he won’t take the money. Nimarta is crying and thanks him over and over again. The rings were given to her by her family, one from her grandmother, and one from her father, so they have sentimental value as well. Whoever found them could have pawned them off for good money, so we are incredibly thankful for this honest man who returned the rings to us. Good people do still exist! The irony that I found the town locals sketchy and likely to mug me is not lost on me. If not for this helpful local, we may have lost the rings forever. Maybe Port Augusta isn’t so bad after all!
We wave goodbye to the city – for real this time – and hit the road north. It’s about 9:30 so we can still get to Coober Pedy at a decent hour. Nimarta takes to the wheel to cover the 175 km back to Pimba and a few extra to Lake Hart. This is a dry salt lake that is white as office paper. We arrive just after noon to the Lake Hart rest stop. Nimarta has been here before and it is one of her favorite places in all of Australia. As we pull into the rest stop we see the beaming white of the salt lake reflecting in the sun. This is one of the smaller salt lakes in Australia but it still looks huge to us.
Unfortunately, the flies also love this lake. We barely step out of the van before we are swarmed by the outback flies. This is by far the worst it has been on this trip. They are all up in my face, landing on my ears, nose, and eyes. I really hate these things. But we can’t let these ass holes ruin our experience at the lake. Nimarta is so excited to be back here that she dresses up in a fancy clubbing outfit (Club Lake Hart) for photos on the white salt plains. As normal, I am the photographer.
The lake is far more impressive than the pink lake we saw a few days ago. It’s so flat and white. If I didn’t have my new sunglasses on I’d barely be able to open my eyes. The sun reflects off the salt right into your face. The white stretches for miles. As far as we know there is no water left in this lake; it is completely dry. After heavy rains is the only time it fills. We wander around the lake as I take photos of Nimarta in her fancy dress. I even pose for a few pictures myself. The white of the lake and the blue of the sky creates a beautiful contrast.
We end up spending over a half hour on the lake, which is quite a bit considering how many flies are out here. Our pictures show just how annoying the flies are. At any given time there are probably 50-60 flies resting somewhere on your body or clothes. I have no idea how the Aboriginal people thought living out there with all these damn flies was a good idea. Forget the heat, I can deal with that, it’s the damn flies!
We decide we have to eat lunch in the van. It will be too uncomfortable to try to eat outside with all the flies. This may have to become a common theme for the rest of this trip, as we know the flies are only going to worse. Indoor lunch works out pretty well, actually, as we are able to park in the shade and get all the flies out of the van. We have temporarily defeated the flies!
Back on the road we have about 300 km till Coober Pedy. We stop for fuel at Glendambo, a truck stop with a population of 30 people and about 2,000,000 flies, according to the sign at the edge of town, if you can call it a town. There is absolutely nothing between here and Coober Pedy. No town, no gas station, no farm, no abandoned silo. Nothing. Nothing to suggest humans have a presence here other than this 2 lane highway and the occasional rest stop with a canopy and a picnic table. It’s desolation that’s hard to even describe. There are isolated parts of the western US but nothing like this. This is the definition of the middle of nowhere.
We pull in to Coober Pedy just after 5:00. Now this is a real town, population 3,500. It’s famous for being the opal mining capital of the world and for most of the residents living underground. This is a really hot part of the world, and during the opal boom of the late 1940s and 1950s someone had the idea to build underground, where the temperature remains a constant 24 degrees (about 74 F). So now Coober Pedy features underground homes, as well as underground shops, restaurants, and hotels. We have a room booked at an underground hostel tomorrow night so we decide to head to the hostel and see what the cheapest lodging option we can get for tonight is. $30 each for a 20 bed dorm. But no one is currently in the dorm. It’s 5:30 and worst-case scenario a few more people show up tonight. We’ll take it.
We are staying in a room called “The Dungeon.” It is a deep bunker in the ground with 20 bunks. We go all the way to the back and set up our bed for the night. We are getting hungry but decide to check out an opal shop first, see what it’s all about. We end up at a store run by a family that has been mining opal since 1973. But crazily enough, they haven’t found any opal since 2004! I wonder why they are still even trying. I guess most of the opal ran out in this region years ago. We decide not to buy anything right now and head off to a pizza place for dinner. I get a pizza with kangaroo AND emu on it. How great is that?
As the sun sets we head up to a lookout point on a hill facing west. It’s a nice sunset and we get a view of the town of Coober Pedy. There is absolutely no grass here. The entire town was built around opal mining and mounds of earth are everywhere. One thing I find discouraging, though, is the amount of natives walking aimlessly and loitering around. It’s like they have nowhere to go. Maybe they don’t. They walk children in strollers down the street. They sit on the curbs, smoking and eating fast food. They are almost all obese, the curse of an influx of western food. It’s very sad. It’s also a bit unnerving. We don’t really feel safe on the streets here. Maybe I just need Randy Marsh to check my white privilege. But it’s not just the Aborigines who look sketchy. Many of the other locals do as well. Maybe this comes with a mining community. Time to head back to the hostel and get some underground sleep.
We manage to sleep in until 9:30, a rare treat on this trip. Breakfast is pizza from last night. This will also serve as lunch. We have moved into a private room underground. It’s much nicer and most importantly we will have some privacy. We have a few plans today, but nothing set in stone. By the time we finish putting on our laundry and getting ready it is nearly noon. We head over to the information center and inquire about The Breakaways scenic drive. We buy a $10 pass to the park, we will head there later this afternoon.
We want to catch the 12:00 kangaroo feeding so we head over to Josephine’s Gallery, which is also a kangaroo orphanage. They take in baby roos that have been found in the wild, as well as other incapacitated roos. Often times, they receive a baby roo from the natives after they have hunted its mother for dinner. The owner explains that once kangaroos come here they don’t get released back into the wild. At best, they go to a wildlife farms. These roos are definitely used to people and we get to feed them banana chips and wasabi beans. Who knew kangaroos liked wasabi? After we feed the adults, one who has been here for 7 years, the owner brings out a baby. The baby is hilarious. They keep it in a bag to simulate a pouch, and as soon as he takes it out to hop around it wants to go back. Even without a mother the baby loves its pouch!
We give a donation to the owner and head off to check out an opal mine. We pull in to park and open our doors just as a huge gust of wind blows through the van. It’s super windy today – reminding me of Wellington – and just out luck the $10 pass to the Breakaways Park flies out the door. Great. We head down to the mine but decide against going in as it’s $10 and the guy says the walk only takes 20 minutes; hardly seems worth it to us. Instead, we head back to the visitors center to see if they will give us another pass to the park. Luckily she remembers us. “Good timing,” she says. “I was just about to close.” What kind of visitor’s center closes at 1:00!
We decide best head back to our room and have a nap before heading to the Breakaways. We won’t have a nice cool room too often on this trip so let’s take advantage of it. At around 4:00 we hop in the van and head towards the park. A few kilometers outside of town the road turns to gravel. Our van is not too great on gravel roads so I have to go slow. We pass the Dog Fence. This is the longest man-made structure in the world, stretching over 5000 km. It was built piece by piece by farms who wanted to keep dingoes from eating their sheep. Dingoes love sheep. But now they are held north of the fence so that farms in southern Australia can operate dingo free.
The Breakaways come into view not long after we stop for the Dog Fence. The Breakaways are a series of colorful mounds in the desert. They are not mountains, but more of badlands. In fact, they really remind me of Badlands National Park in South Dakota, and of parts of Death Valley in California. They are purple, red, orange, and a rainbow of other colors. They seem so out of place in this barren landscape. As expected, they are sacred to the Aboriginals. At this point, we figure anything that is not just flat arid land is scared to them. It’s starting to lose meaning.
We drive around the Breakaways for about an hour, maybe a bit more. There is nobody else here. It’s just the two of us (and the 2 billion flies). Come to think of it, this whole area has been pretty quiet. You’d think this would be a busy time of year, before it gets too hot in summer. But there aren’t too many tourists in town right now. And this is evident at the Breakaways. The sound of silence penetrates the desert. We were planning on watching sunset here. But the weather is not cooperating with us. It’s not raining – it hardly ever does here – but it is very cloudy. There will be no sunset tonight.
Back in town we wind down with a glass of wine and some lentil curry cooked by chef Nimarta. We have a long day on the road tomorrow. We will be saying goodbye to South Australia, that has shown us 6 good days and saying hello to the Northern Territories. Soon we will be at the iconic Uluru, otherwise known as Ayers Rock, the largest rock monolith in the world. It’s the climax of many an Outback adventure. I’ve been wanting to visit this part of Australia for years now and soon it will be coming true! Stay tuned….