Friday, November 9, 2007

Australia - Port Augusta, SA, to Alice Springs, NT, November 4, 2007

By day three we flew through fertile southeast Australia and pushed into the barren deserts in the center of the continent. The contrast couldn’t have been greater. In both places, phrases like “up the road apiece” mean nothing. For the most part nothing lies up the road and the distance between places keeps getting longer. In the south there are vast grain fields sprinkled with vineyards producing the wines we all enjoy in the US. Traveling north farmed fields give way to desert used to graze cattle and sheep. Where a drive from Port Augusta to Alice Springs seemed a short leg of our journey, it was in reality equivalent to the trip from New Jersey to northern Florida (~740 miles). In all that distance spanned an immense dry land dabbled with shades of gold, green and red. Our greatest hazard was plowing into a stray ranch animal or a hopping kangaroo. We could tell the tourists from the locals by the iron-work that guards the front end of their vehicles from these otherwise lethal hazards.

Larry on a dry salt lake north of Port Augusta.

A “Road Train” or group of up to four trailers behind one diesel tractor.

After Port Augusta the desert stretched on for 1,000 miles. In between are a few small towns like Coober Pedy, a dusty, opal-mining town and the subject of at least a couple of Outback movies. But mostly the vast wilderness is broken by small settlements surrounding roadhouses – places to gas up, have a pee, or sleep.

An opal store in Coober Pedy

Camel/car on its way to Alice Springs

We had hoped to cover this section of our journey quickly to get on to Alice Springs and areas north but found ourselves engulfed in unprecedented drenching rain and violent thunderstorms. All of our Australian hosts warned us it would be dry and hot, but we found it cool with so much rain that the road at times was a sheet of water that dragged us down to a crawl. By late afternoon, it was clear that we were not going to make it to Alice Springs before dark, something we were warned against. Or we could camp, in what promised to be a torrential rain, rapid-fire lightening and thunder. We choose to press on.

The sky was electric with lightening in nearly every direction. The rains flooded the land, drained into the waterways that in turn flooded the roadway. Prominent “Floodway” signs marked low places where water crosses the roads, some with upright guages marking the depth up to 1.4 m above the road surface. While slowly ploughing through the flooded road we could here frogs or toads singing loudly, surprising in such a normally dry place. For much of the distance to Alice Springs, small toads sat on the pavement obviously expecting us to avoid hitting them. We inched our way over the last 200 km to Alice Springs driving slowly, with high-beams, on a constant vigil for kangaroos that never appeared. If it weren’t for all the road kills you would have thought they didn't exist.

A thunderstorm bearing down on us from the north, darkness falling and Alice Spring still 200 km away.

Flooded “floodway” on the road to Alice Springs after a downpour that last for nearly two hours

After a night’s stay in an Alice Springs motel, restocking supplies, gas and a “flat white” (coffee made with milk), we moved on toward Katherine. The land around Alice Springs and north is dramatically different from the more southern desert. A number of mountain ranges wind their way across the desert. The Davenport and McDonnell ranges practically glow in the sunny sky broken by dark clouds – the remnants of the previous day’s storm. In this area of scattered aboriginal lands we saw our first groups of native people. Not unlike the Inuit of Canada they seemed deprived, almost displaced in this land of white people. Only a few hours north of Alice Springs, we came to the Red Sands Art Gallery located in the small settlement of Ti Tree. The gallery features work by many local aboriginal artists from the Central Desert and Utopia Homelands.

We spent our first night camping at Devil’s Marbles Conservation Reserve. Clouds gathered then dispersed through the night and by the next morning the sky shone bright and warm. All-in-all we felt fortunate to experience this land after a cooling rain.

One of the the many rock formations at Devil's Marbels Conservation Reserve

On the road to Tennant Creek


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