Where do you take someone on their first trip into Outback Australia? This was a question that faced me when I took Kylie on her first trip to Central Australia. There are just so many unbelievable destinations that it is difficult to cull them down to a manageable list that can realistically be achieved in a matter of a few weeks. As it turned out it wasn’t that difficult because if you really want to get a taste of what’s out there, the Red Centre offers the most iconic locations as well as a real sense of isolation that brings you back to the area time and time again.
Kylie and I had also take a keen interest in the mysterious disappearance of Peter Falconio. We had read a very good book about the case, Dead Centre, by Robyn Bowles. Seriously, if you have any interest in crime literature, this excellent book is a must read. It certainly throws into question the whole case and will have you asking questions about the judicial system in the Northern Territory. But what the book also offers is an interesting storyline to backdrop to any trip through Central Australia. Many iconic places feature in the story and when you visit them, you can almost put yourself in the shoes of each of the people involved.
So with that in mind we headed off in the old trusty Land Rover Discovery with my clapped out, falling to bits Ultimate Bush-Hopper camper trailer. This rig is a long way from the creature comforts that we enjoy today. But for its time, this old camper was luxury as far as I was concerned. I’d had it for about 15 years at the time and it had travelled everywhere with me to some exotic and remote places including the very tip Cape York via the old telegraph track, where it suffered a near catastrophic roll over.
Our first port of call was Mildura for a quick overnight stop and then we drove onto Broken Hill where we visited the Royal Flying Doctor Service. We thoroughly recommend visiting any of the RFDS bases as they offer a real insight into the challenges of health care in remote Australia. The service they offer is truly staggering and it is a testament of the pioneers of this service that it is able to offer such a sophisticated air ambulance service today.
From Broken Hill we headed down the Barrier Highway into South Australia until we reached the small town of Yunta. From there we turned right onto the Tea Tree road. It's here that Kylie got her first taste of a typical outback dirt track and all the challenges that accompany it. This road is quite remote and has some interesting ruins along the way that are worth visiting. Following this road for around 300km, we would eventually came out at Arkaroola Village, in the middle of the picturesque Flinders Ranges. We stayed overnight and had a look around at their interesting outback memorabilia.
From Arkaroola we headed down towards Balcanoona Bluff and picked up the Gammon Ranges Road which leads to Copley on the Outback Highway. Here we turned right and headed towards Maree at the beginning of the Oodnadatta Track. Along the way we stopped at the Leigh Creek Coal Mine and took the customary photos of the Disco against some of the massive earth moving machinery left on display.
We stopped overnight in Maree and fuelled up for the drive across the Oodnadatta Track. Maree itself is a rather interesting place to have a look around. All its derelict locomotives dotted around the town stand as reminders that the Ghan railway line once went through Maree until 1980. Apparently the old line was prone to flooding and washaways. This necessitated the trains having a single flatcar carrying additional sleepers and track repair equipment, such were the frequency of the floods. The story serves as a reminder that you are well and truly in remote outback country and you need to have a certain amount of self-sufficiency when travelling through this area.
The Oodnadatta track itself is one of Australia’s iconic outback trails and is a must do for any avid outback traveller. The conditions along this track can vary between smooth gravel road to washed out rutted clay pan tracks. The many creek washaways along the way can get quite rough especially after heavy seasonal rains. On this occasion, the track was in pristine condition with the only challenge being the occasional section of corrugations. It was just a short way along the track that the old Discovery clocked up her 200,000th kilometre. Shortly thereafter, the new stereo unit that Kylie had given me for Christmas stopped playing CDs, rendering our only form of musical entertainment the small selection of songs I had on a memory stick, mostly Green Day. Kylie has never forgiven me for this.
After a brief stop at the Lake Eyre South viewing area where we were mobbed by flies, we headed on for our first overnight stop at Coward Springs. This remarkable oasis in the middle of the desert is a welcome relief to the heat and dry. The small ‘spa’ constructed around the actual spring is a great place for a dip in the tepid water. Be warned…! What you don’t see is that the spring flows into a large stagnant pond at the back of the camp ground and is home to the most vicious mosquitos. If you don’t have a well-sealed tent, they will get in during the night and feast on those inside. My old camper had definitely seen better days and poor Kylie got eaten alive. For some reason they left me alone.
The next day, we drove on and after a brief stop at the Willian Creek Hotel for a magnificent lunch, we continued on to the isolated township of Oodnadatta and paid a quick visit to the Pink Roadhouse. This store is quite handy for the odd spare part of staple food that you may have run out of. Keep in mind that if you do buy anything here, it’s going to be quite expensive. A small jar of Vegemite cost nearly $10…! From Oodnadatta we continued along until we reached the end of the track at Marla, on the Stuart Highway and turned north towards the South Australia / Northern Territory. After the customary photo stop at the border we continued along until we reached the Erldunda Roadhouse and the Lasseter Highway turnoff towards Uluru and The Olgas.
As is customary for people new to this area, poor Kylie was fooled by the first spotting of Mount Connor, thinking it was the rock. I assured her, everyone makes this mistake. Further along as we approached the Yulara Resort, we started to catch the first tantalising glimpses of Uluru. This made Kylie very excited. The Yulara resort is the only place you can camp in the area and you certainly pay for it. It is one of the most expensive caravan parks I’ve ever stayed at. That said it is a spacious and well-appointed park with modern facilities and plenty of things to see and do in the area. But without doubt the main attraction is the rock and the drive to it is awe-inspiring. You simply don’t get a sense of just how big it is until you’re driving towards it. At about 5kms away, it’s the only thing you can see in front of you. The drive around its base is 9km long. Kylie’s reaction when she saw it up close for the first time was priceless.
Equally impressing is the neighbouring Kata Juta or the Olgas as they are better known. This rock formation resembles Uluru in its monolithic beauty but has the attraction of being able to be walked between the huge rock formations. It’s breathtaking. The only thing that distracts you from your solitude is the frequent attendance of tourists busses dropping off their travellers from overseas. I actually find these groups quite amusing. The ones that turned up as we were leaving the Olgas were from the USA. They must have been the well-to-do crowd as they were all dressed up in their Sunday best. Men in suits and the women in flowing dresses and umbrellas to shield themselves from the sun. As amusing as it was to see these fish out of water, we couldn’t help but wonder what they were told to expect when travelling the outback.
We headed back to the Stuart Highway and stopped overnight at Kings Canyon resort. This is great place to stop and enjoy a real outback experience that includes a sunset Camel ride. Very romantic. Rather than do the walk into the Canyon we chose to give the helicopter ride a go. This is a real hoot and well worth the money. The tiny helicopter has a full glass cabin so you get a fantastic few of the area from above. We highly recommend this anyone visiting the area. We headed back towards the Stuart Highway and headed north towards Alice Springs. Along the way we stopped at the Henbury Meteorite Conversation Reserve. This is another gem of the outback that many people miss. In fact, blink and you’ll pass the turnoff. It’s a fascinating place, one of the few multiple crater fields on earth with around 13 individual craters in the area. Local Aboriginals tell of their ancestors witnessing the fire-devil that came from the sun and made the craters in the ground.
We arrived at Alice Springs which for the first time visitor is a bit overwhelming after the emptiness of the trip so far. Alice Springs is a thriving city with plenty of shopping, accommodation and restaurants. There are numerous caravan parks in the town. We stayed at the G’day Mate tourist park and thoroughly enjoyed it. Places in the Alice that you must visit are the Reptile Centre and the Old Telegraph Station. A trip to Anzac hill at sunset won’t disappoint either. A day trip to Chamber's Pillar is also worth the effort but get there early as the drive home in the dark is not fun at all.
From Alice Springs, we headed towards the West McDonald Ranges along the famous Larapinta Drive. This road takes you to some of the country’s most spectacular and uniquely Australian sites including Standley Chasm, Ellery Creek Big Hole, Ormiston Gorge, and one of our favourite spots Glen Helen Gorge. One site that is often missed my many visitors to this area is to see Gosse Bluff, a huge meteorite crater and one of the largest in the world. I could write pages upon pages about this whole area but that’s for another time. If you come to this part of the country, take your time and plan to stay for a while at each of the unique locations.
The rest of our trip was spent driving up along the Stuart Highway and visiting all the places that featured in the story of the tragic death of Peter Falconio. When you read about the details of the case and visit places like the Ti Tree Roadhouse, you get a sense of the isolation of these places yet despite this, they were somehow thrown into the national spotlight while everyone speculated about the events that unfolded. To be at the place where Peter was supposedly killed while his companion hid in the scrub from their assailant, it’s hard to imagine the horror that they went through. It is a vast and empty country where literally no one can hear you scream.
We eventually made our way home through Coober Pedy where we had some mechanical problems with the Disco as well as a suspected case of bad fuel. We continued through the South Australia towns of Port Augusta, Peterborough, Burra and back home into Victoria. It was a fantastic trip for both of us. Naturally for Kylie, it was her first real taste of the Australia Outback and it’s fair to say she was hooked from that moment on. For me it was a wonderful opportunity to share some of my favourite parts of this country with someone very special.