Free-range trip to Oz
Australia Travel Blog› entry 2 of 2 › view all entries
Planning on the best season to go into the Outback was not so difficult... our summer, their winter. With the help of some Aussies who had visited me in Florida, I was able to purchase a van converted to a camper. My traveling and expense-sharing companion was a fellow rockhound from a central Florida rock and gem club, Carolyn. She pretty much agreed to the plans I had made and then we made up some others as we went along... very flexible with only a couple target dates to meet: one, a week-long mining excursion west of Kalkarindji in the Northern Territory and another, a rock and gem show in Campbelltown near Sydney.
The roads were an adventure, usually being only one-lane wide and most often, not paved. Driving on the left side of the road was not too difficult for someone like me who has no concept of right and left anyway, but with the one-lane roads, it did not matter... you drove down the middle. Road trains were a treat. These huge tractor-trailer rigs hauled 3 or 4 trailers and yielded to no one and 100 kph (60 mph) was the norm, even on the unpaved roads. When passing other cars, you felt like you were playing chicken as you headed at one another and then you each yielded half the road, keeping your two right-side tires on pavement, if you had any pavement, and the other two on the dirt... no one slowed down for these encounters and rocks frequently got thrown into windshields.
The north-south highway through Coober Pedy, Alice Springs and Katharine to Darwin is the Stewart Highway, paved with two lanes all the way! Yes! We started out in the Melbourne area and eventually made a loop up to Darwin and around through Queensland to Townsville and then down the semi-coastal route #1 and a parallel road (Gregory Hwy) we often used inland. In the wild we saw kangaroos fighting over a female, wallabees, birds of every variety, a platypus swimming in a stream, dingo and more.
Along the Stewart Highway, Devil's Marbles, Katarine Gorge, Cutta-Cutta Caves, Northern Territory Wildlife Park, Wangi Falls in the Litchfield N.P. and so much more kept our attention between roadhouses where we refueled, showered, and sometimes ate.
We visited a home hewn from an opal mine/mountain in Coober Pedy... that was something I had read about in grade school... underground homes to combat the heat of the unrelenting summer sun in outback opal country. Alice Springs was delightful, lovely walking/shopping area, internet cafes, stores for all needs... and rockhounds! Fossicking area #5 is located just north of Alice Springs and we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn 7 times near Alice Springs in our travels (the 8th and final time was on the east Coast on the home stretch). We met up with terrific people in the fossicking area who showed us how to look for Zircons and even shared some of their finds with us.
We turned east on the Barkley Hwy just north of Tennant Creek and encountered the UFO capital of Oz, a roadhouse with walls of newspaper clippings regarding unexplained phenomena of the area. The paintings on the outside of the buildings were colorful, well-done, and fascinating. There were Wedge-tailed Eagles, a Bustard, and other birds along the highway, most just disregarded us and walked in front of us as though we weren't there. Oh, termite mounds are the most unusual things, different varieties in different parts of the country, some as large as small houses and varied enough for someone to write a book about them (which Carolyn bought).
Mt. Isa is a small town that was having a fair and therefore all the stores were closed for the three days of diversion. The only thing we got to see, other than the fair, was the underground hospital which the mining companies had helped hew out of the rock to offer shelter for the hospital patients and personnel during the bombings of WWII. It is now a museum in process with much of the renovations completed and much left yet to do. The local hospital had drills every week to get patients to the hospital in case of bombing but never actually had to use it. The Japanese occupation money (in a frame on the wall) was very interesting and had been printed up in advance for all the countries they had planned to take over.
We spent a week unexpectedly in Cloncurry...transmission and clutch on camper gave out.... seems there was no fluid at all in the transmission... who knew? The vehicle was supposed to have been checked out thoroughly before we left Melbourne but I guess it was not on their list of things to check. We were fortunate it broke down on a highway, rather than on the mud-road we had just ventured 25 kms out to look for rocks, and to find a garage with the most wonderful and helpful people who managed to get us the parts we needed... a clutch flown from Brisbane to Townsville and then trucked to Cloncurry and gears milled in Mt. Isa .... when transmission parts could not be found shy of Japan. Surprisingly, we were not without things to do in Cloncurry. Our vehicle was towed to a campground where we enjoyed afternoon tea at 5 PM every day, meeting many other campers, had the luxury of showers and laundry facilities while utilizing our camper for sleep and meals as we had intended anyway. We visited a museum dedicated to the Flying Doctors, another museum with rock and mineral specimens and took a day-long tour to the Ernst-Henry copper mine where 25% of their income is from the gold processed out of the ore dust they extract the copper from... no free samples though! Drat! There was an internet cafe, post office, restaurants, all in a town that was two streets wide and not a great deal longer.
We headed north to Normanton, one week to the day after our vehicle got towed to the garage in Cloncurry! We came across a recent accident where a vehicle had to get off the road for a road-train and really had no where to go as there were deep ditches on either side of the road. People were trying to unhitch the trailer which was on its side from the SUV which was completely upside down. No one was hurt and they said they had enough help so we continued on our way with a more cautious attitude regarding options on yielding to the road-trains. Normanton has a small museum about the minerals and history of the area and we found a most delightful bakery there with really great meat-pies (and pastries). We also got to see some cranes and other water birds along the water toward Karumba.
From there we headed east again, toward Georgetown where we spent a couple nights in yet another campground. We took a side trip to an Agate Fossicking area and got several nice pieces (we eventually shipped three barrels of rocks, literature and Ezee-Mould back to Florida). We also learned about the gold-mining in that area but did not have the proper equipment, nor the time to spend on this venture.... next time! We made our way down to Townsville, a really lovely town with shops of all sorts (no Walmarts in all of Oz that we could determine). We waited around for nearly a week but could not get out to the Great Barrier Reef as the water was too turbulent and no boats were going out at all (another "next time"). We headed south toward Brisbane and met with some lovely people whom I had been in contact with prior to our visit. We stayed with them, swapped some rocks (that I had brought from the states) and we went up to Steve Erwin's zoo... it was wonderful! Got to pet kangaroos out in a huge walk-about enclosure.
Headed south to Sydney and Campbelltown and stayed with another lady with whom I had been in contact previously and participated in a rock and gem show and was amazed that Kathy was so calm about removing a live tarantula from her car where it had evidently fallen from a tree when she had the trunk open, loading things for the show. Oh yeah, there are lots of poisonous things in Oz but I did not encounter them in the wild and had gotten complacent about their existence. The tarantula was a little wake-up call but we were heading south into the colder climate and I was not as worried as I might have been had it been summer there. Kathy did take us on the CAT to Sydney where we visited the famous Sydney Opera which was closed in prep for some celebrity's wedding... we walked the beautiful gardens around the Governor's Mansion, now a guest house for visiting dignitaries. We also visited some landmark places in Sydney.
There is just so much to see and do. Stopped briefly in Canberra to see the capital building, but it was after 5 PM and we could not visit but we went to some national parks, saw waterfalls, completely different scenery than anything we had seen in the Outback... a rainforest, and to the west several mountinous National Parks in the Great Dviding Range where there was snow on the mountains (ski resorts). We had stopped in a second-hand shop in Brisbane and bought winter jackets but I was never warm again once I saw the snow. We had lots more to do and much more than can be written here, suffice it to say, we completed the loop back to Melbourne (actually, Melton) and had a week to get things ready to pack and ship back to the states and visit a little more with our friends there. We left the vehicle there for them to sell for us and we made our way home to wait a couple months for our things arriving by sea. Altogether it turned out a little more expensive than we had thought but... the memories are priceless!
A footnote: Even though we thought we spoke the same language, the differences were very funny at times. We were told there was rhubarb on the vehicle we were going to buy... this led to several questions that eventually changed the visualization... they were saying "roo bar" (to shield the vehicle from damage from kangaroos jumping in front of it). Another incident involved finding the town of Camel Wheel on a map... turns out it was Camooweal. Food was also an adventure at times... a hamburger with everything on it will get you a slice of beet, onion, an egg, and a multitude of other items in addition to the hamburg.