Thursday 8 July 2010 We departed Leigh Creek at 07:25 and headed north to Lyndhurst. We passed the Talc Alf sign, and John talked a little about this strange character, who Maxine had mentioned on the previous day. John also talked about the Goyder line. When we reached Lyndhurst, we found an indicator that the road to Marree was closed. Luckily further enquiry revealed the sign had been set wrong, and was being corrected even as we encountered it. We passed the ruins of the ghost town of Farina around eight.
Marree was the next town we stopped at. This town of a hundred people was once a thriving rail head. Now it has rusting remnants of the old Ghan rail engines. The hotel has greatly expanded, with dongas all over, as more drivers pass through. We made a stop around 10:00 to photograph the strange sculptures along the road at one property along the Oodnadatta Track.
Lake Eyre South had a viewing spot, so we stopped at 11:00 for photographs of the great salt lake, which is as much as twelve metres below sea level. There are no toilet facilities along most of the road, but we stopped shortly afterward at Coward Springs for a rest break. They have rustic long drop toilets, which were in good repair nine years ago, and seem even better now.
William Creek was our lunch spot, a little after 13:00. We were struggling to keep up our schedule by then. We love the various bits of rockets in the park museum they have opposite the William Creek Hotel. After lunch, we left William Creek at 14:00 for the 160 km drive to Coober Pedy. The road goes through relatively bare desert with little life.
We were a little later than 16:00 getting to Coober Pedy. Did a quick comfort stop, and then took a local guide on board the bus for a town tour. The town tour was interesting to have items named and shown. The only stop was at the first church in Coober Pedy, which had some fine stained glass windows and was a mostly underground building, like much of the town. We also learnt that the sites for underground homes in the town were now exhausted. Only existing sites are now available.
Next we had a conducted tour of the museum. This included a demonstration of cutting and polishing opal. The highlight was the tour of the old mine that the museum occupies, while our guide explained how everything was done. The hand dug portions are much more cramped than the modern machine dug portions. The tour ended, as such tours must, in an opal shop at the museum.
We had surface rooms at the modern Desert Cave Hotel at Coober Pedy, across the car park from the main building. They were large and perfectly comfortable, but not as interesting as the underground rooms that we stayed in on an earlier trip. This means we have a lot of stairs to climb to get to their fancy restaurant at the top of the hill. Wine was not cheap there, at ten dollars a glass. They put on a fine buffet dinner for us, preceded by a prawn entree, and followed by a chocolate and cream dessert. Despite not having done the driving, we were tired, and soon retired.
Friday, 9 July. Accommodation, or lack of it, was our problem. The only town with sufficient hotel space is Alice Springs, so we were heading there a day early. This is close to a 700 km drive, so we were headed off at 08:00. We passed the usual gleaming rocks of the outback glimmer fields. To the sunward side of the bus, the rocks appear dark. On the other side, they appear the usual red of the outback. Our driver John and tour guide Maxine played a hilarious speech that Len Beadle had given about building so many of the outback roads when he was setting up access for the British atomic bomb tests at Emu and Marilinga. Later they played the first chapter of one of his books.
By 9:30 a.m. we had passed by Cadney Roadhouse. Our first break was at the greatly enlarged Marla Roadhouse junction with the Lassiter Highway. Inadequate toilets for the now thriving store.
We stopped again a few tens of kilometres up the road at Iwantja Junction, which leads to a indigenous community. The daughter of one of the passengers was working there, so she took the Nganampa ambulance and met us at the road junction for a brief and unexpected reunion.
The long absent clouds were back at midday. Not unexpected as Alice Springs had a forecast of rain for the next several days. We had lunch at the border, which now has some very impressive signage, and a heap of parking spaces. Maxine and John had organised pre-made sandwiches, so this was a quicker lunch than is often the case. We passed Kulgera police station and hamlet, where we had originally planned lunch, around 14:00.
Passed the Fink River at 15:30. A short while later we pulled into Stuart Wells for a rest break. Jim has a wonderful roadhouse there, with some popular accommodation. Jim very kindly had Dinky, the singing dingo, play the piano for us. He put on a splendid and spirited performance. Call of the Wild, I think.
Saturday, 10 July. We had a relatively easy day of visiting sites close to Alice Springs, covering less than 300 kilometres during the day, although there was a lot more walking involved.
The first stop was the Reverend John Flynn memorial and gravesite near Alice Springs. The original rock marker (from the Devil’s Marbles) has been replaced with a local stone, and the original returned, after consultation with indigenous people. The Royal Flying Doctor Service made a tremendous difference to life in rural Australia, and Flynn was the person who came up with the remote medical service idea and made it work.
It was overcast during the entire day, with fitful sunshine breaking through the threatening cloud only a few times. Photography was not easy, and several sites simply could not be seen through the clouds. We also found water crossing the road at creek areas several times during the drive. Luckily this trip was picked to be in bitumen all weather roads (as long as the creeks did not rise too much).
Simpsons Gap walk from the extensive car park was very short, less than 15 minutes return. Many of these chasms are very narrow indeed, and this is one of the most narrow.
Standley Chasm walk. We had morning tea at this private site. The walk takes you along a creek bed with a lot of rough stones. It is hard on shoes and on ankles. The signs are a little misleading, as you would need to be moving pretty fast to do the walk in the suggested time. Eric reached the chasm fairly early, and thus was one of the first to return. Jean didn’t attempt the walk.
Standley Chasm was named for Ida Standley, a school teacher who taught not only the white children she was employed to instruct, but in her own time, also taught indigenous children. Back then, education for Aborigines was not considered essential.
Rain and water in creeks as we drove further away from Alice Springs. We splashed through several in the bus as we drove the additional hundred kilometres out of town, still keeping to the good bitumen road. It look us until about one o’clock to reach Ormiston Gorge, where we had lunch.
We like the Ormiston Gorge waterhole, as it is a very easy short walk along a well made concrete path. Alas, with water in the river very high, there was no chance to scramble along the creek bed into the gorge itself, like Eric did on a previous visit. After lunch, he walked to the Ormiston Gorge lookout, despite the top of the gorge walls being shrouded in low cloud. This lookout gives a wonderful view of the canyon, and the walls. It also lets you look down at the path to the waterhole. The lookout track involves a pretty fair number of steps, but it is worth it for the views, and the photographic opportunities even without full sunlight.
We left for nearby Glen Helen Gorge sometime after 14:00. This is also a tourist resort area, on a former station. The property looks a little run down from the outside, but is magnificently situated in the shadow of the gorge walls. We have stayed there in the past, and would return any time. They have a few wonderful paintings of the area on the walls of the dining room. It always seemed a very friendly place.
Most of us walked to the nearby gorge, over the rounded pebbles of the creek bed path. On the trees around the creek bed you could see debris showing just how high the water can sometimes rise. Droughts and flooding rains indeed, and our trip was certainly divert by the rains.
We left around 15:00, and were back at the Chifley Alice Springs resort before 17:00. At the dinner this evening, there was a little presentation to John and Maxine, as an expression of thanks to them for their fine service during this Outback Spirit trip.
Sunday, 11 July. Overnight, we could hear the rain pelting down on the roof of the hotel, despite being on the ground floor. This did not bode well for the day’s planned activities. Our destination was the Alice Springs Desert Park, on Larapinta Drive, not far outside town. Jean sensibly declined to go out in the rain.
The weather was fairly miserable. A desert park is ill suited to tourists walking through the rain. The dense packed sand and gravel retains puddles of water, and there is little shelter from the showers. Even the brush shelters do not actually stop rain to any extent. In short, it is a far better fine weather experience, and fine weather is what you mostly experience in such arid regions.
The Nature House provided a shortened but informative show on birds of prey. Eric thought the cluster of prairie pigeons wandering around the ground were involuntary food. The staff member said they would likely be, if they had certain falcons on hand. The prairie pigeons look remarkably like a crested or topnotch pigeon. They keep low on the ground all the time, and can walk at a remarkable pace. They can fly, but mostly do not. They also do not really use trees as roosts or protection (not many trees in a desert anyhow).
Next was a brown falcon, which demonstrated swooping on objects (well, food) on the ground, and grabbing it with its talons. It carried the snack to a branch to eat it, or ate it in the ground.
The black kite (which is not actually black) was the star performer. It catches food in the air with its talons, and eats it while flying. I am not sure any other bird manages this talon to beak transfer in flight. It is an opportunistic robber of other birds in flight. It also made several attempts to grab contents from the food pouch the trainer wore.
I should mention that during the entire performance, a tawny frogmouth sheltered in the fork of the brush shelter, less than a metre from the audience. I suspect many people did not see it until the staff pointed it out. It is not unusual for these birds to be so close at this type of bird show.
We left on the bus just before midday for the Royal Flying Doctor base. The auxiliary provided a very nice lunch, including home baked cakes. These volunteers throughout Australia attempt to raise a million dollars a year. The Alice Springs folks apparently raised around $29,000. Eric had seen the museum and done the tour on previous visits, so he walked back to the Chifley Alice Springs Resort, to have a lazy afternoon.
We had our last dinner together as a group this evening. Some had already left to make better connecting return flights to their homes. The group made a presentation to John and Maxine, whose patience and hard work was much appreciated. John remarked that he liked having Australians on tour, because we were unlikely to complain about changed itineraries and other problems, unlike some overseas visitors who don’t seem to grasp the concept of flooded and closed roads.
Monday, 12 July. This morning we all enjoy breakfast together before being transferred to the airport. We had to fly Qantas to Melbourne to get a connection to Townsville. This is a nuisance, especially when the second flight was on Jetstar, requiring us to pick up our luggage from Qantas in Melbourne and take it to Jetstar to recheck it. Otherwise, the trip was uneventful and on time.