It’s getting hot in here

Our first night in Karajiji was insanely humid, we just about finished cooking and eating before we were engulfed in complete darkness, but just before we lost the light, we saw a pair of dingos trot casually past. The tropics then served up an impressive lightning storm – I think there was even ball lightning that night. Sunset seemed to drive the humidity up and sleeping was pretty much a case of lying still trying not to let any body part touch any other body part, while the dingos howled outside. Sleeping bags were only useful as a barrier between the body and the rubbery airbed.

We had consulted the camp hosts when we arrived, and they had given us a lot of information – so we sprang (or slopped) out of bed the next morning and drove round to Mount Bruce (either some other people got up even earlier, or they free camped there. They seemed to be starting to wake up at that moment, so we started our walk to try and get ahead of them). We’d been expecting the temperature to hit 40 degrees by mid morning and force us to abandon our walk without reaching the top. I don’t know if it did, but we managed to reach the summit, which included a climb up a flue in the rock face, without expiring of heat exhaustion. We met some people as we headed down; they might have expired of heat exhaustion, but they seemed confident. At various points along the walk, we could see the mine complex at Marandoo, with enormous trains heading in and out all day long.

As we arrived back at the car, a minor whirlwind whipped up the dust and rubbish in the carpark – just another bit of northern WAs wild weather.

Marandoo Mine as seen from Mount Bruce
Marandoo Mine as seen from Mount Bruce

The land around Mount Bruce stretches away red and flat, and after a good mornings climbing above it, a dip was in order. Karajini has lots of pools, and they’re cool enough to refresh, and warm enough to be comfortable. They also don’t have crocodiles in, despite this being tropical northern Australia. There’s no access from the sea, and its quite a long way inland. We still seemed to have some energy left, so we headed down into Weano Gorge to Handrail Pool. This is one that you need to climb down to, with a helpful handrail. We had more fun at Hancock gorge though. I slipped and had to swim along holding our bag above my head to keep it dry, while I got soaked. There are a series of pools in this gorge, but signs and ropes discourage going too far. I also found the pools got progressively colder, hopefully not due to people weeing in it!

Taking the bull by the horns
Taking the bull by the horns

After another sweaty night, we oozed out of our tent and hauled ourselves to Fortescue Falls – essentially for a wash, although the falls were pretty cool too.

Having a bath WA top end style
Having a bath WA top end style

The walk back along the bottom of the gorge led us past some big lizards…

Big Lizards
Big Lizards

…and small lizards…

Small Lizards
Small Lizards

…to Fern Pool for another bath.

After lunch we high-tailed it through the Pilbarra to 80 Mile Beach, but more on that later!

On The Road Again

Arriving in Perth is a civilized experience, they run a bus to the CBD which costs a normal (ie $4.50) amount (unlike Melbourne) and isn’t a big secret (like Sydney). The hostels of central Perth appear to be mainly inhabited by long term residents, which makes sense, given their surprisingly reasonable prices and the high rents in Perth. The mining boom may be over in WA, but the mining industry still casts a long shadow over Perth – the airport departure board is full of internal flights to the Pilbarra, the airport itself is full of FIFO workers, and the BHP building looms large in the city skyline.

No escape from BHP!
No escape from BHP!

Nonetheless, Perth is a nice city to wander around (hot, even in October) and has a good domain (where I was hoping to see Red Kangaroos, but didn’t). It also has the Western Australian museum, covering all things WA, from the geology to the aboriginal culture. I also found a history of the Fortescue Metals Group in our hostel (who says backpackers don’t care about big business?) which gave an interesting insight into the recent history of WA’s enormous mining sector. All this was a good setup for what we had planned.

Even more so than the coastal route, the Great Northern is a proper long distance Australian outback road. If you’re looking to rent a car and drive off into the outback; this is your road. After passing through some small towns in the Perth area and into the Western Australian wheat belt, the road becomes increasingly remote and the landscape more sparse. We rented our car in Perth and headed out of town, stopping for the night in a free campsite near Wannamal, before starting the long drive north. Despite the simplicity of the road layout, we managed to get lost quite quickly leave the highway somewhere north of New Norcia, ending up at Buntine rocks. These are actually pretty cool and give a great panorama of the huge, flat, scrubby landscape that you’re driving into. And it wasn’t too difficult to find our way back to the highway.

Buntine Rocks - didn't mean to go there, but stayed for the view!
Buntine Rocks – didn’t mean to go there, but stayed for the view!

We had been planning our first proper stop in a place called Cue (reputed to have a nice caravan park with real grass), but instead kept going as far as Meekatharra. Meekatharra is a small town, apparently based around a very large hole in the ground, which used to be an open cut mine. Now it’s the administrative centre for the area, an area of very sparse population and minimal development. Aside of appreciating the remoteness of a real Australian outback town, there’s not much to do here. It’s redder than Buntine though, it’s real red dirt country. We climbed the spoil heap, and walked along beside where the stream would be if it had any water in it, and made our dinner as fast as possible in the fly infested kitchen (even in October the flies are starting to increase wildly).

Meekatharra, a speck of civlisation in the midst of the outback dust.
Meekatharra, a speck of civlisation in the midst of the outback dust.

Next morning, we got back on the Great Northern and headed for the Pilbarra. After picking up petrol at Kumarina Roadhouse, where we got a good look at some enormous road trains as they stopped for fuel, we crossed the tropic line (having spent 2 1/2 years south of it).

Kumarina, it's just a petrol station. A nice one though, if you like red dust and road trains (which I do!)
Kumarina, it’s just a petrol station. A nice one though, if you like red dust and road trains (which I do!)

The Great Northern passes through Newman, the biggest town in the Pilbarra and the first place of any size between Perth and Port Hedland. We didn’t stick around to inspect it in too much detail, we bought food, petrol and national park passes, so we could enter Karajini. We did all this as quickly as we could and reached Karajini in time for a swim at Circular Pool before sunset. Our first night camping in the tropics…

Back Where We Started

Our South Australia trip ended where it began – back in Adelaide. Exactly where it began in fact, back at the domestic terminal of the airport. Before we revisited that however, we had a couple of days in Adelaide. Adelaide isn’t that big and the transport isn’t too expensive, so we were able to get around see the Adelaide Oval…

Adelaide Oval

…and see Semaphore beach…

Sunset at Semaphore
Sunset at Semaphore

…at sunset. Adelaide Oval wasn’t supposed to be open but the gates weren’t closed and although we got a few strange looks inside, we managed to do a quick lap and see the scene of one of Englands great victories of the 2010/11 Ashes series (England making 620 declared after having had Australia 2 wickets down after only the first delivery of the match) and the most infamous test of the Bodyline series.

Before that, we spent a few hours exploring the Railway Museum at Port Adelaide, which has quite a lot about the ludicrous number of gauge changes required on a long distance railway trip across Australia until relatively recently. There’s also a good section on the railway across the Nullarbor, a condition of Western Australia’s membership of the new independent Australia in 1901.

Plants and birds and rocks and things

The Stuart Highway is nice if you're keen on miles of desolation witht he occasional salt pan. I liked it.
The Stuart Highway is nice if you’re keen on miles of desolation witht he occasional salt pan. I liked it.

The principal attraction in Port Augusta (at least to me) is the desert park. This is in a similar setting to what we’d been driving through as we came south down the Stuart Highway. The park is organised into plots of different flora, with the fauna free to roam, fly and crawl between them. It’s big enough to stretch your legs wandering around it, and you can see lizards basking in upper shrub branches, and colourful parrots sitting close enough to get a good look. Its a good laugh for a few hours, and after a few hours we headed back to Adelaide…

The  colourful residents of the Desert Park
The colourful residents of the Desert Park

…via Alligator gorge. Being Australia, it was worth checking that this didn’t actually contain any alligators – which it didn’t. We’d explored a gorge like this before in New Zealand- but this was South Australia, so we were able to get around much more without getting soaked! It’s only a few metres wide at times, and at others it widens out into good swimming sections. Like with most other places on this trip, we had it to ourselves and got a decent walk up it and back out.

Only a few metres wide
Only a few metres wide

Into the Frying Pan

I’m not sure of the exact argument I used, but it must have been a reasonable one, as our next stop after Coober Pedy was the town of Roxby Downs, service town to the miners and their families at BHP’s Olympic Dam – a multi mineral mine out in the red dirt of South Australia. After a fuel stop at Glendambo, where we saw a road train full of live camels, we headed further south and  left the Stuart Highway at Pimba.

Camels now travel inside the road trains
Camels now travel inside the road trains

On the way to Roxby Downs, we stopped at Woomera, a military town, closed until relatively recently to the public. Woomera has an interesting collection of old military hardware in its town centre, including aircraft and ordnance. The towns in these parts are built and maintained by organisations that can do without too many prying eyes and are very hot, quiet, calm places. A drive in this direction also heads out into redder sands, populated only by families of Emus, although the Kangaroo road signs are common. Hours of driving, and hundreds of kilometres had taken us from Coober Pedy to Roxy Downs. We passed through three towns on the way, only one was anything more than a roadhouse.

Decommissioned planes out in the desert - the only thing to see on the way to Roxby Downs
Decommissioned planes out in the desert – the only thing to see on the way to Roxby Downs

We spent out night at Roxby Downs in their large, quiet campground, where the sprinkler system came on twice and drenched our tent. We also had an interesting neighbour who liked to tell tales of tourists unable to handle the Australian heat. It was pretty hot at Roxby Downs.

Having worked for a little while in the energy industry, and for a couple of Australian companies with mining involvement, I was interested to go to a real uranium mine. Generally these aren’t tourist attractions and aren’t open or aren’t easily reached for looking around. In an ideal world I would have visited the Ranger mines in Arnhem Land, but this wasn’t really feasible. Olympic Dam is primarily a copper mine, but produces a reasonable amount of uranium as well, and conforms to the mining stereotype of being very remote and serviced by a company built town. It also runs a bus tour (which only cost about $10 per person) through the mine complex with explanations of what you are seeing, followed by a trip to BHP’s desert regeneration project. The desert regeneration project was interesting, particularly in that it sits above the larger ore body at the mine site (shaped like the pan of a frying pan – the current operation is only mining “the handle”), which is currently not being exploited. A change in world prices for copper and uranium might change this, but for now they are doing some very interesting studies of the effects of dingoes on other wildlife, foxes on other widlife, and dingoes and foxes on each other. If you go there, they’re keen to tell you all about it. The bus tour (you aren’t allowed to get out) lasted less than an hour, but covered most of the above ground operations, with a video filling in on the underground operations. Heavy machinery drives around in the main underground section of the mine, with the access tunnel large enough allow it to be driven in. It would have been cool to see this, but its still the closest I’m likely to get to the operations in a modern, working mine.

Visitors to the Olympic Dam mine complex aren't allowed to take pictures - though I think this one is OK
Visitors to the Olympic Dam mine complex aren’t allowed to take pictures – though I think this one is OK

Going Underground

Everything is underground in Coober Pedy, even us when we were there
Everything is underground in Coober Pedy, even us when we were there

We gave ourselves one full day in Coober Pedy and tried to run around and see all the tourist sights in town – two churches, the posh hotel, a museum, what amounted to a small shopping mall and a tour of the Umoona mine, which includes an inhabited dugout, and an older one, in its original condition – the Coober Pedy equivalent of living above the shop. In a way, the hostel was actually the most interesting place, as it has a sizable underground portion and was pretty empty when we visited. Coober Pedy was generally pretty empty, so we were alone in the churches too, which, being churches, tend not to give any impression of where they end, and seem to go on into the hillside indefinitely. It’s pretty interesting everything being undergound and its surprisingly easy to get used to the idea of living there – the temperature is always the same and its nice and quiet too. Opal mining is THE local industry and the theme runs through everything.

It doesn't look like much, but it does the job.
It doesn’t look like much, but it does the job.

We spent the afternoon driving around the desert to see the dog fence and the Breakaways. The dog fence runs all the way from the Darling Downs in southern Queensland, all the way across to Coober Pedy. Even people who thought a 5300km fence through the outback was a reasonable project weren’t mad enough to try and take it into Western Australia however. Somewhere in the west of outback SA, the fence turns south and runs down to the south coast near the Great Australian Bight. The objective was to keep dingos out of the pastoral lands south of the fence, to protect lambs. Since neither dingos nor lambs have really changed much since, the fence is still there, still maintained, and still protects lambs from Dingos. North of the fence, it’s a different situation.

Not far from the fence are the Breakaways –  a range of hills, rising, mildly from the arid desert. It’s an established tourist drive, despite being a 70km round trip on an unsealed road (rain isn’t a big problem here), with signs and lookouts, so you don’t miss interesting landforms like the two dogs. It’s feasible to walk between some of the lookouts, to get out into the desert among the rocks and shrubs. This is one of the reasons I consider Coober Pedy so accessible as an outback location – we had the breakaways almost to ourselves, and we drove there in a 2 wheel drive hatchback. We were back in town for dinner and to watch the sun go down at the big winch.

Another lovely desert sunset
Another lovely desert sunset

We found the major sights of Coober Pedy and the nearby attractions to be a feasible days sightseeing without rushing or skipping lunch. Without recent, major rain, the Breakaways road (which is around 70km as a simple loop) was comfortably passable with a 2wd car. If you’re OK with the drive there, Coober Pedy is a great place to visit, and a great stop on the way north. It’s actually the only real stop on the way from Port Augusta to Alice Springs, but its less than half way, so be prepared for another long drive!

Adelaide to Coober Pedy, the dog fence and the breakaways - all done easily in a budget rental car.
Adelaide to Coober Pedy, the dog fence and the breakaways – all done easily in a budget rental car.

On the road to Nowhere

There's not much to do along the Stuart Highway
There’s not much to do along the Stuart Highway

Ever since we had taken a trip down the Stuart Highway’s northern section from Darwin to Alice Springs, we had been hoping to find time to see some (or all) of the southern half – the more arid, desert region. We had also been plotting a return to the red centre, and after abandoning a plan to visit Broken Hill due to difficult logistics – not so many trains actually go through Broken Hill, we had selected Coober Pedy as our destination. By starting at Wilpena Pound, we had reduced the journey to a manageable one for a single day, joining the highway at Port Augusta, and then a straight road north with stops just for petrol at Pimba and Glendambo. Unlike roads in Britain, the Stuart Highway has long stretches of dead straight – so long and straight in fact, that it’s easy to drive faster than you think you are, as nothing really changes. We entertained ourselves through the 8 hour drive with the wonders of Bluetooth audio, and arguing about which rest stops to stop at – stopping at most of them to get out and look for red sand. We didn’t fint it, the red sand isn’t so much along the Stuart Highway, that was to come later, but we saw Emus with their chicks, and the gigantic, desolate landscape was enough for us at that time. Despite the 8 hours of relative tedium required to drive there Coober Pedy is actually one of the more accessible central Australian destinations, unless you fly to Alice Springs or Uluru. The red sands of Western Australia are a bit further from the CBD of anything, as we were to discover. All this driving was interesting (in a boring kind of way) in itself, but our main objective was Coober Pedy, a town of almost legendary reputation in Australian tourism. We arrived as the heat was beginning to dissipate for the day, and (after checking into our quiet, underground hostel) had a little time to explore the town. More than half the population genuinely lives underground, mostly burrowed into small rises, sufficiently so that there isn’t much room left to burrow any new homes. The town name comes from the local Aboriginal language, and means something like ‘white man in a hole’. Apart from the ones they live in, there aren’t as many white men in holes as there used to be in Coober Pedy, opal mining is only continuing at a very low level at the moment, and tourism seems to be the biggest industry for now.

The sun sets in the desert
The sun sets in the desert

The Good Life

After 9 months in Sydney, Adelaide was pretty different. It’s on a much smaller, quieter scale and feels a long way from the high rise cities of the south east. That could be something to do with the 2 hour flight required to get there of course. Knowing that there are huge tracts of sparsely inhabited land on 3 sides and the sea on the other contributes to this too. For some reason car hire is very cheap in South Australia and we picked ours up from near the airport, so we were able to transport ourselves around the way Australian cities expect you to. Adelaide airport does actually have a cheap bus service, but we didn’t use it, so can’t comment on it. After a stop for supplies and planning – and a visit to the Barossa reservoir dam – built to produce a whispering wall with perfect clarity – on the way, we headed into the Barossa valley itself. Australia has a well deserved reputation for the good life, and perhaps nowhere more so than South Australia. The Barossa is where it happens. Wines, cheese, dried fruit, pate, ice cream…these things are world class in the Barossa, it’s basically what they do here. A visit to the Barossa is a visit to a world where the objective is top quality in everything, exemplified by the food – which is great, because it allows you to buy some of it and take it home. And these are the wineries you’ve seen in your supermarket if you’re from Britain. If you like the wine, you’ve come to where it was grown and pressed, buy some – you already knew you liked it; now you’re a real connoisseur. Just as the wineries are inviting you in at their cellar door for a taste, so is every stall at the farmers market – that was good cheese, let’s buy one. Excellent dried fruit, but 200g or 500g? Hungry now, which sausages shall we get…let’s try them all before we decide. I wondered if so much free sampling would actually dent profits by allowing people to fill up on samples and lose their appetite. That was before I tasted the goods however. This was a farmers market on the next level up!

Wine is exported globally, but people come to the source from everywhere in the world too.
Wine is exported globally, but people come to the source from everywhere in the world too.

After the farmers market, and a great feed at the pub in Melrose, we were bush camping for the next few nights. This was, of course, Australian style camping, so no need for instant noodles or warm beer (or no beer!). As most of us were in fact, foreigners, the tents were camping style tents, but that was as far as it went. We earned our luxuries by a climb up Mount Remarkable, which made up for what it lacked in height and ruggedness by being under the blazing South Australian sun. We climbed it anyway and were down in time to have an awesome lunch. Mount Remarkable, at that time of year (October) at least, wasn’t seeing a lot of people climbing it, and for the most part, we were the only ones. It was a warm up for what we had planned for the next day.

We weren't quite the only ones on Mount Remarkable that day
We weren’t quite the only ones on Mount Remarkable that day

Not too much of a drive from Melrose, is the famous Wilpena Pound. This is a natural fortress, a patch of land surrounded on all sides by hills, with only low level gap. Here for the challenge, we climbed up for our first view of the pound, although there was some disagreement over what exactly we climbed. The plate at the top indicated that we had climbed Mount Ohlssen-Bagge, though that didn’t stop additional argument over what the other visible peaks could be. It wasn’t any cooler than it had been at Mount Remarkable, which may not have helped our ability to agree about things. Some of us spent a happy hour in swimming pool, some of us spent a happy hour in the bar, before a saunter through the pound gap to the historic homestead. The homestead has a few information boards up detailing the hard work of the early European settlers in cultivating and opening up the land at the pound. After initially breeding horses until the drought of the 1860s, the pound then found itself being used for farming, the furthest north attempt at farming at the time. Crops did grow here, probably due to the higher rainfall brought by the proximity to the Flinders, but efforts were eventually defeated by a huge flood at Christmas in 1914 which destroyed the road, built by hand through the Wilpena gap. This was the end of farming in the pound.

It was also the end of us at the pound. The next morning we were pressing further north into the inhospitable interior of South Australia.

A 2 Month Holiday?

I haven’t been on holiday for the last 2 months, at least not any more than at any point in the last four years – I’ve been hard at work preparing for the ski season – work, eat, sleep, repeat.

My limited “weekends” haven’t extended beyond eating cheese and crackers, and occasionally having a hangover. But with snow now abundant on our mountain – a new activity has appeared. I found that 6 months off from snow boarding didn’t have much effect, but 18 months did. I’ve forgotten almost everything except how to stand up! Good news is I’ve lost a lot of my bad habits and the muscle development that facilitated them, so now I’m just uniformly useless. Back to the beginner slopes for me, but at least there’s snow on those now.

Now I have time to work on my future plans (which allow for six weeks travel in November), I’m still going through pictures from out travels earlier this year, and now I should be able to start pumping out some more posts for this blog – so hopefully it’s back in business! In the meantime, here’s what’s keeping me occupied right now:

Having the run of Ruapehu's upper slopes
Having the run of Ruapehu’s upper slopes

These boots are made for walking

My walking boots; expected to survive 6-8 months of travel, finally thrown away over three years later!

It seems as a rule when travelling, the things you hope you’ll never have to replace will fall apart (shoes), get left on trains (shoes), or otherwise fail you (shoes)– while the temporary replacements, the disposables, the short term fixes – seem to last forever (looking at you, K-mart socks…). My already well used, five year old gore-tex hiking boots (£90 in 2007) were one such item. Not in the best of shape, I hoped they would survive the mud and dust of south east Asia and Australia, and perhaps still be of use for two months in New Zealand. They lasted fine, while a brand new pair of hiking trainers didn’t even make it out of Australia (OK, they were lost on a train – it’s not a quality control issue!). Two months in New Zealand and a trip round the south-west US destroyed another pair of trainers, but the hiking boots were fine, they may have even improved slightly. Fast forward another year of working on farms and ski slopes and exploring the backblocks of Wellington, and another pair of brand new hiking trainers had bitten the dust – but the hiking boots had survived. This has included four multi-day hikes, including the Milford Track (where it rained, as always). 8 months later, after several rain soaked hikes through the bush and volanic rubble of Mount Ruapehu, these boots finally came unstuck on the sodden clay of the the Hillary Trail on the west coast of Auckland. However, after repairs using superglue and a plastic bag (the plastic bag was accidental genius!), cured and dried in a stationary car – they were more than a match for Tasmania’s overland track, and have since completed several damp day hikes in the bush around Sydney as well. I finally wore through the soles while living in Sydney in middle of 2015, and the boots didn’t leave town when I did. Neither did the ones I bought in Taupo in May 2014! I did buy some $100 hiking trainers before I left, just for the six months of travel I had planned, they seem to be lasting well…

Showing their age, 8th November 2014 on the Hillary Trail, West Auckland
Showing their age, 8th November 2014 on the Hillary Trail, West Auckland