Port Augusta and heading north
Port Augusta is the crossroads for the north and the outback. A self proclaimed South Australian gem, I must have missed something. From what I saw, the only two things going on in the city was the road in and the road out. Added to the fact we chose to pay $150 for a luxury cabin at Discovery Parks Port Augusta and were completely ripped off, I couldn’t wait to leave the place.
Leaving Port Augusta I thought of how best to summarise the place and really, Port Augusta is little more than a skid mark in southern Australia, with the most exciting part of the city being the road out of there.
Cooper Pedy and the Outback
Synonymous with opals, mining, caves and the outback. Rough and ready Coober Pedy was where finally the weather got decent, and where we all stayed in a gorgeous underground cave.
Driving north from Port Augusta the road begins to enter a part of Australia that is the thing of dreams. The land becomes an arid desert like place dotted with bushes of a faded green clinging to life. Kangaroo hop around in the distance, emus mooch around like they own the place and birds on steroids make meals of the recent roadkill. The outback is every bit as baron, harsh and rugged as I imagined. Yet somehow it captivates and enthrals and the hundreds of miles pass quickly. The speed limit is 110km/h which is about 68mph. I wanted so badly to floor it and whizz through the outback on the single lane Stuart Highway at break-neck speed. But a few close encounters with the worlds largest kangaroos (genuinely, these things had biceps, triceps and pecs) and I realised it wasn’t a good idea.
One thing which amazed me about the outback, was the ever changing landscape. I expected it to be desert like, and at times it is, but it is constantly changing, the colours, fauna, bush, wildlife, changes as though you are driving through a peek into the best landscape Australia has to offer. One thing remains, and that is the scorched colour of the landscape. It looks tired, beaten and burned, as though it has battled for millennia to survive and is now clinging on desperately.
There is not much between places on the Stuart Highway, but every couple of hundred km a roadhouse pops up. We stopped for lunch at Glendambo, a funky little place where the woman taking our order was so angry with life she stood rolling her eyes and huffing and puffing at me. Food was reasonably priced and decent. I soon got over it.
Coober Pedy is a small town, and the first introduction is passing lots of pointed mounds of sand. This is mad max country, a place that has survived despite everything the desert and climate throws at it. Existing purely due to the opals found here and the constant and persistent search for more, Coober Pedy is every bit as ‘mining’ as you expect. Old, ruined vehicles sit rusting in fenced yards where the fence is drooping, windowless buildings built from breeze blocks double as stores working mines dot the landscape. The town itself is often described as post apocalyptic, and it would be difficult to disagree. Think mad max (which was filmed nearby) mixed with zombie apocalypse, peppered with some local Aborigines. A place where the men are real men, and the women are men too. A fascinating place with probably the best pizza in Australia; Johns Pizza bar and restaurant.
We stayed at ‘Down to Erth bnb’ not a typo. Rose, the owner has a single cave that is decorated beautifully. With two bedrooms, kitchen, and spacious living room it is the perfect place to grab a cold beer, sit back and watch mad max.
Within Coober Pedy itself there’s loads to do, though except for the spaceship left behind in the centre of town from the filming of ‘Pitch Black’ most activities revolve around mining. We visited The Old Timers mine, the kids donned helmets and we explored the spider like tunnels beneath the ground.
We loved Coober Pedy, probably because of its iconic status, possibly because we stayed underground, most certainly because it was nice to have a beer and watch a decent movie.
Whizzing north out of Coober Pedy, and deeper into the outback brought with it phenomenal changes of landscape, wildlife and climate. It seemed to us that every morning was 1 degree warmer and each afternoon a degree warmer still. Erldunda is a self proclaimed famous roadhouse at the cross roads of Ayers Rock, or Uluru. When planning the journey from Coober Pedy I was faced with two possibilities, head all the way to Alice Springs (Alice) and then back track on a day trip to Uluru. I 100% couldn’t be bothered with wasted miles so zoomed in on google maps and came upon Erldunda, some 5 hours north of Coober Pedy.
Between the two places is a great deal of nothing. We stopped for lunch in Marla, and then cruised into Erldunda at the new and improved 130kmh.
The roadhouse itself looked somewhat different, almost like a resort. I checked in and got thoroughly ripped off with the woman charging me for the kids individually which is unheard of anywhere else on earth. A mooch around the roadhouse grounds convinced me that the pool would likely give you some bacterial borne disease, and that the proximity of our wooden cabin was guaranteed to serve up a sleepless night of noise riddled frustration.
The kangaroo refuge is a few kangaroos lazing around in a caged off area and the emu zoo is some birds in a similar enclosure. As I was looking into the enclosure I spotted the biggest, buffest, hard core looking chicken I have ever seen. So big the kids quickly pointed in enthusiasm. Turns out we had stumbled upon Cluck Norris, the biggest chicken in this part of the world. We laughed, watching him strut around like he owned the place. Legend has it, Cluck Norris built the enclosure before he was born.
Feeling a little bummed, it was 6pm and I felt like I’d made a mistake, there was nothing to do. Suddenly, some dude with a comb over walks past holding a white rabbit, he handed my son a business card. ‘Dane the magician, 7pm; Free show’.
I sent the kids to grab a decent table, ordered food, a beer and sat back waiting for Dane. Picture the scene, we are literally in the middle of the outback (genuinely, there is a monument), we are in a roadhouse, wooden, with about 30 other Australians, all with two things on their mind; Get drunk and watch magic.
An hour later there was a card with my daughters name written on it stuck to the ceiling, it had snowed inside, a dove had appeared from no where and everyone was amazed. The kids and I agree, that though we expected nothing we happened upon a brilliant, and magical night of humour, entertainment and, well, magic.
Having travelled so extensively I didn’t really know what to expect, Ayers Rock is after-all a rock in the middle of no where. For me it epitomised Australia, just like kangaroos. But other than a quick look, touch and a laugh, I wasn’t sure what more there could be to it.
My misconceptions, and lack of enthusiasm instantly evaporated the second we saw in the distance, a huge, brown/red monolith. The car was silent as we all sat in awe.
I was instantly slapped out of my stupor when we rolled up to the entrance and I was shaken down for $68! (£42) As I was prising my wallet out of my shorts the ranger asked jokingly “you’ve not got anyone in the boot have you”, I couldn’t believe I’d not thought of that.
The entrance is justified because you get 3 days, I recon -5% of visitors actually visit more than one day, and it’s a real scam that you are peeled out of such a large amount to see something natural. To put things into perspective, the Grand Canyon charges less than half, and the Taj Mahal just £7, with kids being free.
Another thing that annoyed me, is that it is no stopping on the road up to the rock, which did my swede due to the fact the best photographs are taken with it in the distance.
Alas, we parked up and I was instantly over the entrance fee. Few words could give Ayers Rock the introduction it deserves. A monolith of epic proportions, a place so unusually stunning it looks alien to the surroundings. Turns out it was an ancient meeting place for the indigenous population. And what a place to meet. Towering some 348m high and stretching just over 2 miles long, it is an assault on every sense. Steeper than it looks, more imposing than you can imagine, and though plain, more gorgeous than words can describe.
Our time at Ayers Rock was spent walking around the base, we didn’t walk the entire way around because on the day we arrived, every fly in the Southern Hemisphere had decided to visit too.
Ayers Rock was for me, a dream come true. When I was a kid I had books that showed the world, and obviously Ayers Rock stood out from the pages in respect of Australia, yet here we were. Here I was with my kids. Though it really is a huge diversion, and a complete scam to get into, and the food is worse than Sanjay’s food stall in Jaisalmer, India; It is easily one of the most memorable days of the trip, and my life.
Standing at Ayers Rock, looking into the distance you can see a bunch of rocks, they look about 0 miles away, though are actually more like 20 miles. The Olgas or Kata Tjuta are a load of boulders that form funky shapes. At the time, the day was getting on and I made the decision to head straight to Alice, in hindsight I really think I missed a trick and regret that decision.
Especially since we were in Alice Springs for 5pm.
Centre of a continent, and the biggest city between Port Augusta and Darwin. In Alice you are half way in and out of the outback and yet still a world away from real civilisation. The most dangerous city in Australia, it is a place that I was dubious about visiting. Everyone I had spoken to warned me, “don’t go out at night”. We scuttled into Alice Springs and headed straight for a resort I’d booked us which has suspiciously changed names from booking to arriving.
A little research quelled my unease, Alice has quite a high Aboriginal population, and though most are general, law abiding citizens, a pocket love nothing more than getting smashed off their bonce and then fighting. Alcohol laws are strict, as are rules regarding loitering and, seemingly most things. It was the first time we had seen a strong police presence, with a police man stood outside every single place that sells alcohol checking the IDs of people wanting a drink, who are actually limited to just one bottle of wine.
I have to say, Alice Springs surprised me, not only did we find the legendary Loco Burrito, a place serving the tastiest burritos outside of Mexico, but we didn’t have a single issue, at all.
Not only is the city synonymous with its demographic and location, it is also the jumping off point for the MacDonnell Ranges. Split into East and West, the latter gains the most interest, partly due to the world renowned Larapinta Trail, mostly due to the countless opportunities for bush walking, swimming in waterholes and Aboriginal heritage.
Within Alice itself there is a few places of note, predominantly the camel rides for $7 each, the desert park, and aviation museum. We spent our time between east and west MacDonnell Ranges and our top picks are Ormiston gorge in the west, which is a stunning waterhole set amongst gorgeous rocky, green spattered scenery. It is also the coldest water any of us have ever experienced. Bone shaking, hypothermia inducing cold, thankfully nice and warm 38 degree temperature quickly ease the joint stiffness.
In the East we loved the simpleness of the Trephina gorge walk, an hour long stroll along the top of the gorge before descending down into the dried up river bed that meanders back to the car park.
The best thing about the MacDonnell ranges is the sheer scope of what to do. We would turn off at every signpost and go explore, the only time we did a wheel spin U-Turn was when we realised that you had to pay to see Standley Chasm. Rubber marks remain, we do not.
Headed North, everyone will pass through this skid mark. A dive of epic proportions, Tennant Creek is 5 decades past a facelift and a century behind the rest of civilisation. Due to there being just a handful of places to stay, price fixing is in full force and nothing shy of $150 will get you a rusty bed in a shady, condemnable room with dodgy air con that stopped working a fortnight before it was invented.
The whole town was sold out, not a shout out for quality, more a geographical necessity. Between Alice Springs and Katherine the choices are limited.
Tennant creek is a nod to the struggles and issues of the indigenous population. Alcohol laws are in full force, loitering prohibited and crime levels high. It came as no surprise therefore that Tennant Creek was also the place we were robbed.
Sat relaxing, I heard something outside, I went to the window and saw a shadow. I bolted out of the door ready to unleash some Jackie Chan and all I heard were footsteps. I checked the car, the passenger door was locked, the boot was unlocked. I looked inside and saw all our boots and thought I must have left it unlocked. I went back inside and chilled. A little later I went to phone the wife and on the way back, checked the drivers door and it was open. I couldn’t understand it. Our hire car didn’t have a key, just a fob with an open and close button. Inside, to start the vehicle you press a button. Turns out that when next to the car, a proximity sensor opens the drivers door and the boot. Because we were parked so close to the cabin, even when inside, the key was close enough for the car to decide to open. Ive gone outside, realised the sat nav was still in the glove box, glanced in the boot and then chilled. It wasn’t until the following day, when we arrived at some hot springs that I realised we had been robbed. I’d asked my girls to empty the boot whilst I was doing something else. All our swimming things had been in a green bag, they’d decided there was no point taking these inside and had left them in the boot. Just so happens that the idiot that robbed us must’ve grabbed the only bag in the boot and then tried the car door. I had spooked him and he’d been off.
The most annoying thing is that probably, the thief got to a safe place and realised he’d robbed a families swimming things and then dumped them. Meanwhile I’m left with a $100 bill trying to replace them all in the outback. Scumbag.
A woman in Alice Springs advised me to drive the whole way to Katherine, and I toyed with the idea. Not just because we got robbed, but also because we didn’t really sleep due to fights, shouting, arguments and at times a real fear that our car itself was to be vandalised.
Tennant Creek really is the arse end of Australia, a shit hole filled with thieves, noise and dust. I wish I’d have driven through the town, farted outside the general store, emptied my car and continued onwards.
Just before Tennant Creek is the Devils Marbles, a weird yet wonderful collection of huge sphere shaped rocks. Definitely worth a stop, and if you have the time a BBQ. It was at this place I really wished we’d hired a camper van. To wake up in the campsite next to the devils marbles would be amazing.
Katherine or Mataranka
Most folks heading north through the outback are desperate for a slice of civilisation and head straight for mini town Katherine. Those opting to stay in Mataranka are rewarded with fewer people, and some hot springs. Obviously, some scum bag robbed our swimming gear so imagine our surprise when we pulled into Mataranka and then headed to the hot springs keen for a chill. Having been done, we packed the things back in the car and continued north to Katherine.
Launch pad for Nitmiluk, or Katherine gorge, the city itself feels more like a town. Large by outback standards but dwarfed by Darwin up the road. Katherine for us was a great place to chill out, we stayed at the Knotts River Crossing resort, which is nothing like a resort and everything like a shady 1970’s holiday park, but with lovely pool and gorgeous palm fringed setting, was great respite. It felt like we’d finally reached the tropics.
Katherine gorge is a certainly worth the short drive, if just for the fruit bats that hang from just about every single branch. Boat rides down the Katherine river are a worthwhile splurge, if a bit indulgent. Our favourite spot was Edith falls, a short drive north, the large pool was unusually warm, and all at to the back drop of palm trees and a decent waterfall.
A continent away from Sydney, Darwin could be a world away from Australia. This tropical city, home to an abundance of nationalities and white sand lined, palm fringed city, is backpacker heaven. Looking back to our arrival in Sydney where we all froze, it seemed impossible to be in the same country when the car thermometer showed a sweltering 40 degrees.
Driving through the streets, music pumping, sun seekers dressed in vests, surfer shorts and flip flops. Music pumping out down Mitchell Street, global cuisines, long hair, coconuts and a pace of life so slow its virtually standing still. Darwin was nothing like we expected, but everything like we’d hoped.
Known as the ‘top end’, it is distinctly Asian urban, and, our favourite place in the country.
Within downtown Darwin there is loads to do, drink and listen to. Mindil Beach market is an absolute must, we cracked whips, jokes and tried to do a circus act. Avoid the sea in summer as getting stung by a jelly fish is not funny and highly likely. Darwin waterfront precinct is a great place to hop into a wave pool, go fishing, read a book or bounce around on an inflatable assault course. On the doorstep of Darwin is Kakadu national park, a stunning almost water world of perfection. Not far south is the (in my opinion) much better and less refined Litchfield National Park, home to cascading rock pools and picturesque waterfalls. Decent park management keeps the crocs at bay as you swim, and take selfies with termite mounds the size of medium height trees. Best of all, in June/July and August you can bet your grans house that it won’t rain. Piercing blue skies fettered only with a brutally hot sun will be the flavour of most days.
If you rock up in Darwin with a load to blow you can watch crocs jumping out of rivers, take helicopters over Jurassic like landscapes and sail away into paradise with a cold beer and an overpriced steak. But what amazed me about Darwin, is that you can arrive in this tropical city, dust the outback off, and indulge in a side of Australia that is like no where else in the country. Darwin is the sort of place that was built to be cosmopolitan, built to be the frontier of the Northern Territory, to face Asia head on, and then, had the pace of life turned down to a meagre level one.
It is worth point out that thanks to the likes of Jetstar flights onwards to Asia are super cheap.
And. So it was, after brushing off the outback, reminiscing on amazing journey through a continent, and agreeing that we had had one of the most times of our lives, we boarded a flight back to Asia leaving behind one of the most amazing places we have ever been, but taking with us memories that will last a lifetime.