Our Diary Australia - Part 2

Happy New Year from Melbourne

It is only about 4,000 km from Perth to Sydney as the crow flies, but this is not the route we chose to go. Western Australia has a lot more treasures to reveal and it would be six weeks before we crossed the border.

South West, Western Australia was to be our next area to explore; Christine wanted to visit an old friend living in Denmark on the south coast. This area of the world is little known - even its name doesn't give you any inkling of its geography, demeanour or pleasures. We left Perth and drove south; the urban sprawl turned into rolling pastures, long beaches and new housing developments linked by a new rail system (paid for, I suspect, by the mining wealth of the north of the State!). Around Margaret River the cattle was replaced by vineyards. We had planned to stop here but a surly campsite owner put us off so we continued on to the pretty town of Augusta, which has the unique aspect of being at the conjunction of the Blackwood River, the Indian Ocean and the Southern Ocean.

The uniqueness of this area is in its trees whose massive trunks tower 100m to the sky, straight and magnificent. Most of this region, thankfully, is now National Park - loggers were once in seventh heaven turning these grand forests into paper, furniture, fuel, etc. Karri, Jarrah and Tingle form huge forests and the drive though is spectacular - there is even a wonderfully constructed tree-top walk where you can walk through the canopy of

the Tingle trees. If you are feeling brave enough you can climb stakes driven into the trunk of the 200 m high Centennial Lookout tree, however, a downpour of rain gave me a good excuse to abort my attempt at scaling to the top of this giant.

For Christine the reunion with Viv (and her girls Meggie & Lily) was a highlight of the trip. We had a lovely time at this rural oasis in the desert state of Western Australia. From Denmark we swept around the stunning coastline with its bays and beaches to pay a quick visit to Albany, an historic whaling town. Prior to the British settlement at Perth this was the main gateway into WA. From here it was back north through the bread basket of Oz - millions of hectares of wheat interspersed with salt pans providing a gold and white vista as far as the eye could see. Dusty towns with their huge silos and wheat mountains were the only sign of habitation in this area.

Wave Rock was our stopping point on the road to Kalgoorlie. Wave Rock is an unusual geographic feature; wind and water erosion has sculptured this huge monolith into a stone breaking wave. What is more amazing is that a whole community had been created in the middle of nowhere (paid for by the tourist dollar). Bus loads of punters spend half an hour gawking at a rock which they've driven miles out of the way to reach!

Kalgoorlie is the quintessential mining town of Western Australia - an old brash working town in the desert. Gold is the attraction; the huge open cast mine dominates the town and can be seen at the end of every street. This town boomed at the end of the 19th century and is still booming today. The technology of extraction may have changed but the old buildings still reflect the struggle of times past. A highlight (for the males) is a pub crawl along the main street. I checked this out and can confirm that the scantily clad barmaids make lovely "eye candy" for the miners after their long hard shifts. We didn't know how extensive the skill shortage in WA was until we went to Kalgoorlie's Christmas Carols in the Park celebration. The whole town seemed to be there, most of them treating it as a social get together - the music and arrangement was so painful to the ears that it was preferable to just sit and chat! Kalgoorlie is desperate for a good musical conductor/director!

After our outback driving experience in the Pilbara we had decided to take the long route to Alice Springs, via the Nullabor Plain highway. However after talking to a family from Queensland (they were touring Oz for 6 months) the Great Central road came back on the itinerary. They had recently taken this route and confirmed that the road had recently been graded and was very drivable!

The Great Central Road is the third route that crosses Australia from west to east through the middle of the continent. The North-South routes are sealed roads, however the Great Central road is about 2,500 km of unsealed highway linking Laverton in WA to Rockhampton on the Queensland coast. There are no towns along our route, only roadhouses (usually run by the local aboriginal community) providing the odd fuel stop. Permits to use the route are required by the Departments of Aboriginal Affairs in each State (Western Australia, Northern Territory and Queensland).

While waiting for our transit permit I wandered around this small, mainly aboriginal, community. The town was named after a Dr Laverton, who had bicycled the 400km from Kalgoorlie. Whilst I gazed at his statue an old and hairy 'black fella' seemed to pop out of nowhere and, as if by magic, a very poor splodgy painting appeared. After a few unintelligible words he promptly disappeared! I walked on in amazement deciding that I must find our more about these strange invisible people…

After a couple of hours our permits were faxed through and we set off. The sealed road abruptly changed to a wide red swath cut through the immense, rich landscape of spinifex (tussocky grass with silica-rich sharp pointy bits), Mulga (small shrubby bushes) and stunted desert oak trees. The sky was cloudy so the temperature was a bearable 30°C. Our expectation was that this landscape was not going to change much in the next three days - however the reality was we encountered every shade of red and green, and stunning wide vistas. In order to give some scale to this we took a photo every 30 minutes (about every 40km). The road was in relatively good condition so we were able to maintain a steady 80km per hour along most of the route. Christine has made a separate slide show which you can access on http://www.pocoandante.com/Photos_Australia_WA_Gt_Central_Rd.htm so you can view the trip yourselves.

Our first nights stop was at Tjukayirla Roadhouse, where we drove through some impressive steel gates into the camp ground - however there wasn't any other sign of security as the rest of the site was only surrounded by open bush! Here we met up with a German couple who were following the same route - this was reassuring as we could provide support for each other if necessary. After refuelling we made an early start however 11 km along the road we came across a local family who had broken down the night before. They had set up camp and were sat around a small fire. Unconcerned, they gave us a note to take to the next roadhouse (300km further on). Slightly bemused we left them with some spare food and water.

To keep ourselves amused we were counting the abandoned cars on the side of the road - in total we saw 159, of all ages and sizes. They were mainly saloon cars, which could not cope with the rugged conditions; we were pleased to have chosen to travel by 4WD.

Having been advised not to stop at Warburton due to problems at the community, we stayed our second night at Warrakurna Roadhouse, probably the most isolated place in Australia. The closest sealed road (and town) was 700km in every direction! The Roadhouse was a bustle of activity - the rains had started sooner and heavier than expected. As well as a few fellow travellers, there was a roadcrew from Queensland, who had to abandon their work and head home until next year. We spent an interesting evening talking to an anthropologist who was living with the local aboriginal community; she gave us a great insight into life in these isolated communities.

Close to the Roadhouse is the Giles Weather Station where we spent an interesting hour or so talking to the meteorologists and watching the launch of a weather balloon. He advised that we should aim to reach the sealed road (just this side of Uluru) that day as further thunder storms were expected.

The road was no longer a sandy track but had changed overnight to slippery mush with standing water in the dips - and driving became more difficult. Amazingly the vista had also changed, the trees had lost their dusty grey look and the ground was a bright fresh green. The "greening of the desert" had started! Our little convoy had now turned into four vehicles (including a German motorcyclist) - for safety, we agreed to keep reasonably close and check that everyone passed safely through the deeper pools. Thankfully only one vehicle got stuck and had to be pulled out (we were leading so did not see this happen). This safety net turned an arduous trip into a fun experience -slip-sliding a 4WD or careering through muddy pools is a thrill a minute! With a huge sense of achievement and a smile on our faces we arrived safely at the sealed road close to the Olgas by mid-afternoon. It had been an unforgettable trip and made us realise just how isolated most of Australia is. (Of interest, about four weeks after our trip two people died along this stretch of road. A young couple travelling with their 71 year old grandfather had broken down. Foolishly the young couple decided to walk for help, leaving the grandfather in the car. The car was found and he survived; the couple died of dehydration and their bodies were discovered later. This is not an uncommon occurrence!)

At the Olgas we were now in "tourist land". It was a strange feeling - from total isolation to hundreds of snap-happy Japanese pouring out of their air conditioned coaches swarming everywhere - unaware of the majesty and dangers of the inhospitable outback surrounding them.

The Olgas are like giant boulders piled up in the middle of the desert (the highest is 546m) and are an impressive sight. We spent the night bush camping close to these and set out to visit Uluru (Ayers Rock) next morning. Despite all the tourist hype, Uluru is still impressive. We decided to walk around the base, away from the coach loads of tourists. Unusually, it rained for part of our walk so we were able to see water flowing over the rock. The whole rock is pitted and interspersed with valleys and weird eroded shapes all giving a mystical feel. The rain kept the hoards away so we could enjoy and marvel at this sight in quiet contemplation. The Visitors Information Centre had an interesting display about the aboriginal mythology and was well worth the time. We finished our day here and watched the sunset before setting off for Kings Canyon, a couple of hours north. The walk next day up to the rim of the canyon with its stunning views and hidden natural gardens yet again reinforced the natural beauty of this huge continent. There are so many such sights in outback Oz. The Mereenie Loop Road is a rough route to Alice Springs and along this road there are two difficult detours. One took us to Gosse Bluff, a 10km-diameter comet crater with its chaotic spoil heaps surrounding the impact zone. The second was to Palm Valley, just a short 21km off the highway. It took us two hours to drive through this rugged track - often I had to walk ahead of the 4WD to find a suitable route along the river bed and over the rocky terrain. The track ends in a hidden valley - an oasis that has not changed in tens of thousands of years. Many of the trees and plants in this area are unique and exist nowhere else. Very definitely off the tourist route!

The rain had followed us to Alice Springs - heavy downpours led to spontaneous dancing in the street. We chose to visit the School of the Air and the Royal Flying Doctor Service as our "tourist bit" before heading south to Coober Pedy, the "Opal Capital of the world".

Coober Pedy is a unique place - the town is surrounded by a lunar landscape as a result of the mining and not much grows in this inhospitable environment. It is so hot that most of the inhabitants have chosen to live underground in disused opal mines. We spent our couple of days here in an underground hostel - which was very cool! For $43 per year you can lease a 25m x 100m plot of desert and dig for opals. Many people have made their fortune this way, but most just scrape a living. Big business is not allowed in and family plots are the norm. Spoil heaps cover the town, hiding the sumptuous homes below. It is also a favourite with Sci-Fi film makers and a number of film sets litter the area.

The rain was now following us and had made the Ghan Way (another major unsealed road) unpassable so we took the main highway south through Woomera, the "NASA" of Australia and the UK. The museum there focussed on all the positives - little mention of the atomic bomb tests…

In the middle of Australia is huge Lake Eyre - usually just a dry dust bowl but now filling with water. The local cattle stations were pleased with the breaking of the drought. The largest station in the area had reduced its herd down to 2,000 head (just for breeding) and the 30 inhabitants were finding life difficult. Oh, by the way, this cattle station is the size of Belgium! As in most of Australia the rain is most welcome.

At Port Augusta we left the outback behind and were now in the "tame" region around Adelaide and Melbourne. Driving through the pleasant pastoral scenes you could imagine yourself in any country of Europe, the eastern states of the US or anywhere with rolling hills, cows grazing, sheep in pastures, or vineyards. The only difference being the shady gum tree in every vista.

Adelaide is a very compact leafy city, but did not appeal as a place to spend the Christmas weekend. Where then? Scanning the map we spotted a place called Port Fairy, this was a Christmassy sort of name we thought so set this as our xmas destination. The Adelaide to Port Fairy passed through a place called Keith, so had to stop there plus a quick look at the blue crater lake in Mt Gambier.

We rented a very nice spacious cabin for a few days and had a quiet Xmas, just joining in on the 'village' Xmas eve festivities

Our route from Port Fairy to Melbourne hugged the coast - lots of beautiful views. Along the Great Ocean Road there are many side tracks through small national parks. One such track brought us to Koala Cove, with the resident koalas in the trees and glow worms in the stream banks. A lovely place to stop.

Australian cities have maintained their lungs; parks intersperse the high rise office blocks and stores, and you're never too far from a beach. Melbourne is no different. After exploring the Botanical Gardens one morning we enjoyed a delightful lunch with Barb and Richard SY Seabird whom we'd met while transiting the Panama Canal. Another highlight of our stay in Melbourne was my birthday (21 again!). Slapping on the sunscreen we headed for Bells Beach, a mecca for surfies and home of "Rip Curl" and "Billabong" brands. Trying to throw off my years I regressed to my old persona as surfie and caught a few waves and relived my youth! Returning to the city we spent the evening on the banks of the Yarra River with thousands of others seeing in the New Year. The firework displays were tremendous and it was fun to let our hair down a bit!