Life on the road would be boring without the unexpected happening all the time. This time it was floods! Big floods that hit NSW! After taking a river cruise on board one of the old paddle-steamer in Echuca, we retreated outside the town in a camp overlooking the Murray. That night, we got heavy rainfall causing our tent to leak. As we found out the next morning, that was nothing compared to what had happened further northeast.
The heavy rainfall that continued for more than three days in north NSW caused dams to collapse, cities to flood and people’s home to get seriously damaged. After checking the weather and finding out that the wet front was coming our way, we decided to avoid another drama in our itinerary by getting caught in a flood and pushed out of the dangerous zone further west in the city of Mildoura.
This area has the least rainfall out of all of Australia while it still sits along the Murray River and almost at the border of SA, NSW and Victoria. Good pick, hey! We based ourselves in a free camp by the Murray and waited for the weather to cool down before we moved further inland.
The desert frontier town of Broken Hill was our next stop. For all its remoteness, the fine facilities and high-quality attractions make this town feel like an oasis at the end of the earth. Some of the state’s most impressive national parks are here, as is the intriguing near-ghost town of Silverstone, with the oldest pub of Australia still operating. Broken Hill’s unique historic value was recognized in 2015, when it became the first Australian city to be included in the National Heritage List. Following the uniqueness on everything we experienced here, we picked to overnight in the cities race course that gets used only twice a year for racing purposes. For the rest of the year, in order to keep up with the expenses, it hosts overlanders. Unique, hey!
Our short time in New South Wales ended here, as we entered back in South Australia and headed to one of the state’s most treasured parks. Along the way and although we claim the title of experienced travelers, we missed out on the quarantine restriction and therefore we had to trash all our fresh products that we had picked in Broken Hill before entering SA. Bummer!
Our next stop was The Flinders Ranges National Park, a place that is described in the brochures as an area of craggy gorges, abandoned homesteads, Aboriginal sites and native wildlife. The park is famous for the 80-sq-km natural basin Ikara (Wilpena Pound), a sunken valley ringed by gnarled ridges that can be visited only as part of a tour. As we love the freedom of moving independently and hate tours, we aimed for something more adventurous and tackled the 20km Brachina Gorge Geological Trail.
This trail takes you on a trip back in time with the amazing layering of exposed sedimentary rock, as you drive in the dry river bed, covering 120 million years of the earth’s history. The highlight of the trail though came in the form of the yellow feet wallabies that live along the route. After a couple of overnights by the dry riverbed of the gorge, it was time for the real outback. So we took the route to Maree, the last small town before the legendary, lonesome Oodnadatta Track, an unsealed, 615km road between Marree in the northern Flinders Ranges and Marla on the Stuart Highway. The track traces the route of the old Overland Telegraph Line and the defunct Great Northern Railway.
We had not heard anything more for Marree (population 100) other that it was once a vital hub for Afghan camel teams, and is the end (or start) of both the Oodnadatta and Birdsville Tracks. As we pulled into the big, stone Marree Hotel (built in 1883), we were welcomed by the caretakers and directed to pick and camp in any of the free unpowered sites, on the back of the hotel. What a treat! Here we found out that the recent rains had closed the track and it was expected to open in a day or two.
No problem for us, we settled in and got to know the groups of travelers that had slowly formed as they gathered up while waiting for the track to open. Thankfully, after two days, we got the green light that the road was open but for 4WD only. So we geared up and got ready to tackle it. Leaving Maree, the first port of call was the Mutonia Sculpture Park, “a middle of nowhere open air gallery that features among other exhibits, several planes welded together with their tails buried in the ground to form “Planehenge”, as Lonely Planet points out. Further into the track, we stopped in the lookout over Lake Eyre South, which is 12m below sea level and is the world’s sixth largest lake, before we reached Coward Springs Campground. The reason to stop here comes under a natural hot-spring tub, made from old rail sleepers.
Next up was William Creek that, with population sixteen people, is best enjoyed in the weather-beaten William Creek Hotel and its iconic 1887 pub decorated with photos, business cards, old license plates and money stapled to the walls. What a place! The next morning we arranged a 45 min scenic flight over Lake Eyre, while the sun was rising. That and the friendly people we met the previous night made tiny William Creek stand out as a highlight of our crossing. Our final approach brought us to Oodnadatta (population 170) where the main road and the old railway line diverged. Here we found the Pink Roadhouse, a classic stopover accommodation wise and a solid source of track information and meals. Besides that though and after trying the ‘Oodnaburger’, we saw no other reason to hang around. So we decided to push to Cooper Pedy, the underground town of Australia.
Coming into “cosmopolitan” Coober Pedy (there are 44 nationalities including Greeks represented here!) the dry, barren desert suddenly becomes riddled with holes and adjunct piles of dirt. The reason for all this rabid digging is opals. Discovered here 100 years ago, these gemstones have made this small town a mining Mecca. With millions of flies, no trees, 50°C summer days, cave-dwelling locals and rusty car wrecks in front yards, you might think what is so special about this post apocalyptic wasteland. But if you hang around for a while, you might end up saying that it sure is an interesting place!
Beyond here lays the remote and largely untamed chunk of the Northern Territory (NT). Here is where dreams end and the adventure begins. Remote off-road driving, meeting real characters of the Australian outback, canyons, gorges and pockets of verdant bush, all have their place in Northern Territory.
After a 150km of dirt road, we reached the Geographical Centre of Australia, marked with a ripped by the wind flag and a couple of steel plates. It is definitely a hostile place to stay, so after the necessary photos (covered in flies) we decided to drive back and spent the night in our first NT roadhouse in Kulgera. That night in the pub, the Stuart Highway wy, that crosses through NT was still referred to us as “The Track”, as it has been since WWII, when it was literally a dirt track roughly following the Overland Telegraph Line, probably the main reason that is dead straight most of the way.
As you drive along this empty space, the first sight of Uluru in the distance captures your eye. Uluru (the Rock) is 3.6km long and rises a towering 348m from the surrounding sandy scrubland (867m above sea level). If that is not impressive enough, you should know that it is believed that two-thirds of the rock lies beneath the sand. After settling down in the only campground in the area, we set out for our first close up sight of Uluru that was already late afternoon. In the beginning, it appeared as an ochre-brown colour pitted by dark shadows. As the sun went down, it illuminated in burnished orange, then a series of deeper reds, before it faded into charcoal.
The next morning, before sunrise, we went back only to witness the same colour performance only in reverse. After a whole day walking around the rock, while finding out all the myths that the Anangu people connect their existence with, we retreated for a night under the stars in our campground, only to return the next day for some more. No journey to Uluru though would be complete without a visit to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), a striking group of domed rocks huddled together about 35km west of the Rock. There are 36 boulders shoulder to shoulder, forming deep valleys and steep-sided gorges. Away from the crowds, it is easy for someone to see why many people find them even more captivating than their neighbor.
The tallest rock, Mt Olga (546m, 1066m above sea level) is approximately 200m higher than Uluru. As the 7.4km Valley of the Winds loop sounded way too challenging for us to undertake in the middle of the day, we aimed for the shorter track beneath the towering rock walls into pretty Walpa Gorge, something that proved to be especially beautiful as the afternoon sunlight flooded the gorge. Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta is at its glorious, blood-red best at sunset but mesmerized by the stories and the energy of Uluru, we picked not to stay and drove back for one more magical sunset overlooking at this nature’s wonder.
Our next stop was Kings Canyon in Watarrka National Park, said to be one of the most spectacular sights in central Australia, and one of the main attractions of the Mereenie Loop. The Kings Creek Walk, that we did, was just a short stroll along the rocky creek bed to a raised platform with views of the canyons rim.
Although we didn’t do it, the alternative Kings Canyon Rim Walk is for many travelers the highlight of their trip to the Centre. That night and after following the route on the way to the unsealed Ernest Giles Rd, which heads to Stuart Highway, we came upon another infamous but magnificent lookout, that overlooks the whole of the valley that surrounds Kings Canyon. Here we decided that it would be the perfect place to free camp and spend the last night in Watarraka National park before we jumped on the Luritja Road, which detours off the Lasseter Highway to Alice Springs.
Upon entering Alice Springs, we had been warned that it could be overwhelming, as the town has not a lot to offer to travelers beside the raw encounter with Indigenous Australia, its enchanting art, mesmerizing culture and present-day challenges that Aboriginals face in their everyday life.
This ruggedly unique town is shaped by its mythical landscapes, vibrant Aboriginal culture (where else can you hear six uniquely Australian languages in the main street?) and tough pioneering past. We were lucky to be here on time for the Parrtjima Festival of Light, something that got us even more up close and personal with the Aboriginal culture. Finally, after a couple of days of festival overdose, we took the Larapinta Drive, with direction the mesmerizing West MacDonnell Ranges, our next stop that stretches west from the town centre.
Upon entering the West MacDonnell National Park, you don’t have to venture far to find yourself among ochre-red gorges, pastel-hued hills and ghostly white gum trees. With its stunning beauty and rich diversity of plants and animals, this National Park is not to be missed. Most sites in the West MacDonnell Ranges lie within the area of the National Park, except for Standley Chasm, which is privately owned.
As all good stories though, it is here that another diary needs to end. Stay in the loop as our course through Northern Territory continues and gets more and more exciting.