Update July 2008
Birdwood is another place that we could easily settle into for a lengthy stay but time & budget meant we had to force ourselves onwards. North once again to the town of Burra where Cornish miners once settled. We’d been told you could get a real Cornish pasty there, hmm, real Cornish pasties do not have tinned veg in them... We spent an extra day there cos the heavens opened once again - the weather far too much like UK winter & getting very old, very fast. When it dried out we took a 300 mile detour to Broken Hill, our first proper Outback experience.
Broken Hill is in the same state as Sydney (New South Wales) but is 1000 km away, we’d decided to visit from the West as we were as close as we would ever be. One of it’s attractions is a Flying Doctor base, where some seriously dedicated medical staff fly over millions of square miles, land on farms, temporary landing strips or roads & save people’s lives; often while in the air. In a country where some of the farms are as big as England people died regularly from lack of medical care until radio & airplanes came along.
Another more frivolous but utterly petrolhead reason to visit was the nearby ghost town of Silverton. An ex gold mining town it now barely supports 1 pub, a museum & a couple of art galleries (that seem hell bent on destroying Volkswagen beetles for no apparent reason). People keep on visiting Silverton, in our case because it’s where Mad Max 2 was filmed. It’s arguably the best of the Mad Max trilogy, much better funded than the sometimes cringeingly low budget MM1 but still unsullied by the puerile Hollywood makeover of MM3. We spent a happy hour in the desert scenery trying to ride the bike on the same spot where Mel Gibson drove the Interceptor. The pub has an exact working copy of the Interceptor, sadly it was off on a film set - DOH! We also took a stroll round the Silverton museum, a rather sad legacy of the hundreds of people who once lived there.
We backtracked to Wilpena Pound, a remarkable rock formation in the Flinders Ranges. A beautiful spot with great walks & the tamest Wallabies in Australia, only ruined by the wet, horrible weather. I was so over the cold weather thing by this point. I’d had enough of being cold on the bikes, cold in the day & cold at night. As we rode into Port Augusta, last big town before the famous Aussie Outback, the weather gave us a reprieve & turned sunny while we sorted new rear tyres. We hit the dusty highway once more, passing a sign that pointed left to Perth (2400 km) or right to Darwin (2700 km) - next stop Woomera, a mere 177 km away.
We met another Aussie icon at this point - the Road train. An articulated lorry (semi) with at least 3 trailers on the back. Much fuss had been made of them but we were on the major highway & the wind was on our left (not from the trucks) so it didn’t make too much impact on us. The biggest hassle was trying to get away from the road - like the USA they run 24 hours & think it’s really cool to remove the baffles from their exhausts & engine brakes - sad, sad, sad.
177 dusty redl km’s later we reached Woomera. We needed food, petrol & a look at the place that was the Cape Canaveral of Australia in the 50’s & 60’s. Now it’s a town with 5000 houses & 50 inhabitants. Oh, & zero petrol stations. Weirdly the town is still in good working order so it looks like one of those doomsday movie sets where everyone has been zapped by aliens or eaten by Mutant Ninja Zombie Carrots. We did find a working tourist info & cafe but had to backtrack to the nearest roadhouse for petrol, luckily only 10 km away. This was our first meeting with the infamous Outback fuel prices & it wasn’t pretty. ULP (Un Leaded Petrol) had been $1.60 in Port Augusta it was now $1.90. Little did we know this was only an aperitif for this dismal feast, much worse was to come.
We rode back past Woomera & on to Roxby Downs, 50 miles up a dead end road. Roxby is one of the Outback mining towns, famed for paying $80k (£40k) per year for the most basic of jobs, up to $120k for anyone with a bit of brain & a skill. Of course nothing is ever that simple - you need a mine safety induction certificate to work there & for some reason, although they are desperate for people, they do not consider anyone without it unless they have mine experience. So - no certificate, no mine skills, no working visa - not going to happen! Just as well, Roxby is the most accessible of the mining towns but is still a hundred miles up the back passage of nowhere & it is a real hole - just 1 hour there & we knew we would not be trying to stay.
Moving swiftly on we rode back to “The Track” (the Stuart Highway North to Darwin) & Coober Pedy, famous for Opal Mining. It looked like an open cast mine in Beirut - dusty cars, dusty streets, dusty shops. We saw large groups of Aboriginals sitting around on the streets for the first time, shouting at us as we rode by. First impressions were not good, to say the least. We’d planned ahead for once & booked a night in the Underground Motel - one of several that offer tourists the chance to try life Coober Pedy style, in underground cave homes burrowed out of the sandstone cliffs which they call “dugouts”.
We found the motel at the back of the town, away from The Track, the road trains & the town centre. It looked great as we pulled up & Mike, the owner, welcomed us with a smile. We stood on the verandah & took in the view across the town & desert, breathtaking at sunset. We chatted away about ourselves & our trip as we unpacked & before long Mike had offered us a deal on our accommodation in return for some work on a dugout he was building, another of his ventures.He took us to check out the job the next day - a 26 metre trench in the main floor of a dugout to take the electrics, ventilation & water pipes. There was a good vibe going on & Mike could not have been more helpful so we went for it. That night the motel was fully booked so he offered us his ‘ute’ & the use of the dugout for a free night in a cave. Utter darkness, total quiet- the stuff we dream of when camping! Even better when we turned on the torch the roof lit up with tiny sparkles of Opal, lovely!
You would not believe how hard it is to dig 26 metres of Sandstone! It had to be flat & straight & the dugout floor sloped up to the entrance so by the 10m mark we were already 2 feet down & dropping. As it dropped it got harder & harder to jack pick the rock loose then shovel it out. After 5 hours we simply could not move our arms any more! Of course we hoped we’d strike that valuable vein of opal as we dug, but all we found is the white stuff called potch (it’s only valuable if it has colour in it). The next day Anita could not get out of bed, so our career as labourers in Coober Pedy was over.
Instead we took in the opal shops & a couple of mine tours in the town, plus a wander through the underground exhibits in the $250 a night hotel (the Underground Motel is $98 a night & much better located if you like desert sunsets!)
We stayed on the next day as it was my birthday. Mike, in his usual style, offered us the use of his ‘ute’ for the day so we could take a drive round ‘The Breakaways’ - a spur of hills on the edge of moon plain used for films like Mad Max 3 & Pitch Black. One of my more unusual birthday’s - a picnic on the back of a genuine outback ute in the genuine Aussie Outback, followed by a home cooked steak dinner in a 4 star cave - marvellous!
We bade a reluctant farewell to Mike & Coober Pedy & set off into the empty desert, a particularly surreal landscape just North of Coober as the ground is covered by thousands of little pinkish hills - spoil from the dangerous open pits that cover the area. The scenery was just as you’ve seen it on the TV, red rock & dust stretching as far as your eye can see. It is really hard to keep concentrating when the scenery remains constant for hour after hour, reminding us of our ride through the Atacama & the Pampas.
Eventually we reached Australian Tourist Central - Ayers Rock, or Uluru (again) since the Aboriginals have regained ownership of the land. We also had the non pleasure of meeting the highest petrol price so far - $2.129 at Curtin Springs Station. They always claim they must charge their high prices because they are so isolated (even though the next place further along the dead end road is cheaper). Sadly, with our puny 20 litre tanks we have no option but to buy it.
Uluru is a complete tourist rip-off, the prices are sky high for everything (except, oddly, the local supermarket which is reasonably priced & well stocked with fresh food). The petrol is around $2.05 a litre for opal (strange non intoxicating fuel designed to deal with the apparently huge problem of aboriginal petrol sniffing, the bikes ran fine on it). the camping $30 for a mediocre site with a great view of the enormous diesel generators that power the hotel complex 24 hours a day, the locals charge $25 each simply to go & see their rock. We did stand & watch the sun set on Ayers Rock - almost worth $50.
Alice Springs was disappointing, a lack lustre collection of nondescript houses with a small CBD (central business district). We tried a night out but gave up quite early having tried the 3 most notable bars - Annie’s place, Bo Jangles & the Firkin & Hound - without finding anything to keep us for more than 1 beer. Admittedly the Firkin did a proper pint of James Squire Amber for a mere $8 (4 quid!) but the faux English Pub stuff in a converted multi storey car park was just too depressing.
Anita took a fancy to head out into the West MacDonnell Ranges (we didn’t want to go East - it takes you along the Ross River & we didn’t know where that virus was hiding out) So we rode 80 miles to the Glen Helen Resort. We’re not sure where the resort bit is - we found a typical outback roadhouse with a bar, restaurant, motel rooms & petrol. All horribly expensive of course. HOWEVER. It does have a fantastic location & a strangely addictive vibe. We just hung about, soaking in desert scenery. Someone told us there was a good musician playing the next night so we decided to stay on another day
Day 2 We had to try out the pricey restaurant. The menu had both dreaded words in it - ‘jus’ & ‘drizzled’, a guarantee of getting a tiny blob of overpriced ($70) ‘nouvelle cuisine’ in the middle of a large plate of 5 yr old doodles. It was sadly as expected. We headed to the bar (to fill the gaps in our stomachs) & watched Chris Aronsten on stage strumming away on his acoustic guitar. The tunes were oddly reminiscent of traditional English folk, not what we expected to hear in the middle of the desert continent. Then he changed to Mandolin, then steel slide guitar & even spoons! A lot of it was his own music & very enjoyable whilst sipping a few beers. We decided we could definitely do it again the next day, so we did. We walked off the beers of the night before in the stunning desert scenery, then returned for another listen to Chris. He played a few repeat songs but in general it was a totally different set, we were hooked!
Day 3 We still can’t leave. I take a late birthday treat - my first helicopter ride, over the breathtaking MacDonnell Ranges. We are almost locals by now & know all the staff names! We’ve no food & don’t want to pay the restaurant prices so we go for a BBQ pack, it’s great & costs less for both of us than 1 meal in the restaurant. Of course we end up in the bar & listen to Chris again, by this time we’re hanging out with his wife Sarah at the bar while we watch. Yet again he delivers a mostly different set!
Day 4. It’s Friday night & allegedly the best night in the bar, so we stick around! By this time we’ve run out of cash but they let us run a tab for food (another BBQ pack), camping & beer so we can stay. This time the bar was full, the atmosphere good. We settled in at the front with the couple we’d been camping next to for a few days & Bob, the manic worker. Chris was as good as ever & we knew his ‘standards’ - the small number of tracks he played each night. One is called “3 little pigs” (written after his house slipped away down a hillside) & is his spoon playing track. In the middle of his ‘spoon solo’ we started yelling “Heavy Metal Spoons” at him. He actually did it! I can’t even describe the sight of an Aussie folk/blues singer playing spoons heavy rock style! He got his revenge though, he often has an audience participation moment where he gets one to sit up front, usually one of the children, to play spoons with him. This night he ‘volunteered’ me! Amazingly I had enough natural talent to at least keep tapping away in time, so he decided we’d play the spoon versions of “Duelling Banjos”. (you must bear in mind this is a man who, on the spur of the moment after an audience call, had played BOTH parts of Duelling Banjos on his Mandolin). It all got very messy!
Day 5. Our bar tab was growing out of hand & we’d eaten everything available that was within a reasonable price range, yet we could not leave! We give it 1 more day of walking & a last night in the bar. Although it’s still busy o-one s really listening to the music & Anita starts developing the flu that everyone else in the place had when we arrived. It’s time to move on.
We pack the next morning & the flu gets hold of poor Anita so hard that she can only struggle back to Alice Springs where we have to find the nearest cabin in a campsite so she can fall over. At least it meant we could change our diet that night!