Monday dawned sunny, with a chilly breeze still blowing, but with the news that the road through Parachilna Gorge was open with caution at creek crossings. This made possible a loop of about 250 kilometres, past Wilpena Pound to Blinman, then to Parachilna with a return on tha Hawker Parachilna Road.
The Heyson Range from the Hawker Parachilna Road
This is a very nice drive, through the mountains to Blinman, through the Parachilna Gorge, crossing and recrossing Parachilna Creek and then south, travelling beside the western ramparts of the range. First, the Heysen Range, named for artist and Flinders Ranges lover Hans Heysen, is passed and then the Elder Range appears. It is named for Sir James Elder, grazier in this area and founder of the pastoral company Elder Smith,
Carpets of colour beside the road
now known as the real estate operator called simply Elders. There is also a walking trail named the Heysen Trail that starts at Cape Jervis, opposite Kangaroo Island and ends at the road that runs through Parachilna Gorge. I believe that there are people who have walked its entire length.
Mountains of the north wall of Wilpena Pound
At several points along the 107 kilometre drive to Blinman, observation points have been provided to view the wonders of nature. The road runs through the heart of the ranges and through the Flinders Ranges National Park. Not far along the way roadside parking areas provide good views of the Arkaba Hills and of the Elder Range. A bit further on, the road passes Rawnsley Bluff, one of the most prominent features of the area and part of the south eastern wall of Wilpena Pound.
The Wilpena diorama viewed against the background of some of the mountains that it depicts
We bypassed the turn to Wilpena as we had plans to visit it as part of another activity. Not too far further north the twin elevated lookouts of Hucks and Stokes Hill provide panoramic views back over Wilpena Pound with Stokes Hill also providing views of the Loves Mine Range and The Bunkers to the north. At the summit of Stokes Hill a bronze diorama of Wilpena Pound has been placed so that it can be compared with the real thing. As a combination of ancient and modern, visitors may connect their smart phones to WiFi to listen to Dream time stories.
Part of the Great Wall of China near Blinman
Nearer to Blinman, two hills are crowned with natural stone walls, known as the Great Wall of China, because their similarity to their namesake. A short drive along a gravel track leads to a couple of elevated positions from which good views are available. As a bonus, the mountains that are behind you as you view the Great Wall are also worth viewing.
The Blinman General store
Blinman is officially the highest town, in terms of meters above sea level, in South Australia. In its heyday in the 1880s, at the peak of copper production from its mine, it had a population of 1,500. Now it has a mere 18 permanent residents. Its focal points are the restored mine office and conducted tours of the underground copper mine and of course, the meat pies available from the general store. We tried a couple of pies for lunch. They are much larger than city pies and are full of chunks of real beef. With a cappuccino each, they went down a treat.
This old miners cottage in Blinman has been restored and is available for vacation rental
Blinman also has a pub, which is the most popular place for lunch. Four wheel drive vehicles, angle parked, lined the kerb on both sides of the road in its vicinity. Camping facilities are available in the national park, at private caravan parks and on numerous cattle stations, many of which offer four wheel drive tracks to their guests. So Blinman is a place to go for lunch and to top up supplies at the general store, which also offers a coffee shop. This is the source of supply for pies at Blinman.
A view of a mountain on the Parachilna Gorge Road
Facilities at the north end of the Heyson Trail
Parachilna Creek was flowing as a result of recent rain
The road on to Parachilna runs through Parachilna Gorge, following a creek if the same name. It is a pleasant drive on a winding dirt road that threads between spectacular hills and crosses the creek several times. On this drive the creek was running, but only a few centimetres deep. The road emerges from the gorge to run several kilometres across the northern Moralana Plain to reach Parachilna, located on the Hawker Parachilna Road.
The Prairie Hotel at Parachilna
The town is located on the old Ghan railway line. Remnants of the rail service are on display by the old station building. The Prairie Hotel now is the town. It has achieved notoriety for the signature dishes from its restaurant. The FMG (feral mixed grill) includes camel, emu and kangaroo meat. I am told that the cost of these delicacies is $38 per plate. The luncheon pies at Blinman now sound even better at $5 each.
But we did award Parachilna the title of Fly Capital of Australia!
Part of the original Ghan railway station at Parachilna
The drive back to Hawker is about 90 kilometres of good tar. A pleasant journey, with the ranges on the left, bathed in the afternoon sun. On the way, we passed the western entrance to Moralana Scenic Drive. It that had been closed but had been opened with restrictions. It couldn’t have been too bad as a girl riding a bike and carrying all her camping gear peddled out of the road onto the highway as we drove past.
On the opposite side of the road is the gate to Merna Mora Station, which has been offering accommodation to travellers for many years. It offers powered van sites and station tracks that allow access to Lake Torrens, among other drives. So we called in and booked for the next three nights, but with fingers crossed that forecast rain would not upset the plan.
The old Ghan railway station in Hawker is now a gallery and restaurant
But it did. Heavy rain next morning closed national park roads and station tracks again. So we cancelled Merna Mora and booked another night at Hawker to see what would happen with the weather.
The Iron Knob mine, viewed from the Iron Knob Kingoonya Road
The water in the showers was little more than warm on our first morning at Mt Ive Station. On the second morning it was hard to tell the hot tap from the cold tap if judged by the water temperature. A check at the hot water donkey revealed an extinct fire and not much ash. The stoker had obviously fallen down on the job. Ruth and I made the best of it with a quick cold wash. When we drove out of the camping area we could see the stoker hard at work getting the fire going again. A grim faced lady in a pink dressing gown was marching up and down keeping him under close surveillance as she waited for hot water for her shower.
The Edward John Eyre commemorative plaque
In returning to Port Augusta via Iron Knob we were retracing our steps, so did not expect to see anything new. But we were wrong. Not far into our journey we found a plaque advising that Edward John Ayer had camped for the sixth night in his exploration at a point near where the road now runs. He passed that way on 23rd September 1839. There was a picnic table nearby and a sign to advise that the table and plaque had been placed there by the Gawler Ranges Progress Association. Thank you GRPA.
The “donation” telephone box
About 60 kilometres further on, the homestead for Siam Station stands a few hundred metres off the road. Beside the road, within sight of the homestead, stands a telephone box, next to a small picnic shelter. The shelter has a single piece table top sawn from a large log, but no seats. The phone is still in the phone box but it is not connected. Instead the coin box has been converted into two donation boxes, one for the Gawler Ranges Progress Association and the other for the Royal Flying Doctor Service.
The phone box is covered with bumper stickers from organisations with an interest in the area. There are also large stickers warning that the box is under closed circuit TV surveillance. We stopped in the parking area provided, for a coffee break, placed donations in each of the boxes and moved on. They are very practical folks in the Australian bush and passionate about the RFDS. There are no shortages of opportunities to donate.
The cliff top view of the northern extremity of Spencer Gulf and the lower Flinders Ranges
Before entering Port Augusta on our return we deviated north a bit to a lookout from a cliff top by the very top of Spencer Gulf, on the shores of which the town is built. The arid lands botanical garden is in the same area but we did not have time to visit there. But the cliff top parking area suited the dual purpose of a place to stop for lunch and a different view of Port Augusta. It also provides excellent views of the lower Flinders Ranges that extend well south towards Adelaide.
Part of the main street of Port Pirie
When putting out our awning at Mt. Ive, a vital bit broke off one of the handles that are used to slide the extendable arms that hold it the awning in the extended position. The result was that we could not fully extend the awning, not a good situation in wet or hot weather. To replace the handle was a bit of a priority. We were not able to source one in Port Augusta but did
A stately home in Port Pirie
locate one at Port Pirie, about 90 kilometres to the south. So instead of heading for Quorn, a small town in the Flinders Ranges just north east of Port Augusta, we continued on, picked up our handle and proceeded to a local caravan park to spend the night and make the necessary repairs.
Quorn’s main claim to fame is that of its connection with the Pichi Richi railway. The steam and vintage diesel trains that comprise the railway operate on part of the old Ghan railway line, to the south of the town, to Port Augusta. It gets its name from its passage through the Pichi Richi Pass, the gap in the range by which both road and rail reaches Port Augusta. Some trips start at Port Augusta and return later in the day, having given passengers a couple of hours to look around Quorn and have lunch. Other services start from and return to Quorn. The train operates at weekends and more frequently during school holidays. If you are relatively wealthy, you can book a ticket and go for a train ride for a couple of hours, or the best part of a day, depending on the service that you choose. If very wealthy you can book a seat on the lunch train, known as The Coffee Pot.
There must be a few wealthy people around as when we tried to book into the caravan park for a Saturday night stop over we found it to be fully booked, because the train was operating that weekend. As the caravan park is the only such establishment in town we opted to drive a further 70 kilometres or so to Hawker. Hawker was our next destination after Quorn, so we were not inconvenienced. We had intended to spend one night in Hawker and then move on further into the ranges. Hawker is built on a plain within the ranges. Mountains are visible all around but the town is flat.
Canola in full bloom at the top of Port Germein Gorge
We made our way from Port Pirie through the Port Germein Gorge to Murray Town, then through Wilmington and Quorn to Hawker. The Port Germein Gorge is a very interesting drive. The road is narrow and winding and faithfully follows a stream that would be an interesting sight during heavy rain. Unfortunately there was nowhere to stop to take photos, so our passage through is unrecorded. But as we emerged on the eastern side of the range we were met by the yellow brilliance of flowering canola. This area is part of the Southern Flinders Ranges.
Floral decorations at our roadside lunch stop
Rain was forecast and we found the start of it at Melrose, a small town with a pub beloved by bikers, that stands at the foot of the rather remarkable Mount Remarkable. The rain was only showers but required application of the windscreen wipers from time to time. We reached Hawker at about the same time as the rain, although it did give us time to set up before it became heavy. But rain had been falling to the north of Hawker for much of the day, so all of the unsealed national park roads and most station tracks were closed.
The ruins of Kanyaka Homestead 25 Km south of Hawker. It was built in 1860 and abandoned in 1888
The rain cleared as Sunday morning dawned, but with so many roads closed we decided to stay at Hawker for two more nights to give them a chance to dry out. But sunshine and a brisk wind dried out some local roads quickly, allowing us to get out and see some things after lunch. Ruth had been busy with washing during the morning, battling with a clothes dryer that was reluctant to do its job.
Stately River Red Gums in the bed of the creek at Willow Waters camping area
We drove east of the town in search of Willow Waters Gorge that appeared to be not far from town. But when we reached its apparent location we were only at the turn from the main road, with a further 14 kilometres to travel to the gorge. The road was solid with only a few puddles but we had to negotiate a number of cattle grids and a small flock of rams being herded along by a two stock men in utilities. We met them on the bay back and they hadn’t made much progress.
The road up Pugilist Hill. It is steeper than it looks.
After returning to town we drove up the road that leads to Wilpena Pound, turning just before the national park boundary into Martins Well Road, to find a lookout on the quaintly named Pugilist Hill. Martins Well Road leads 48 kilometres to a cattle station of that name but then, like so many station access roads in remote Australia, leads on to other destinations.
Part of the Chase Range from Pugilist Hill Lookout
Pugilist Hill Lookout provides a vantage point for viewing the Chase Range, one of the major and most picturesque ranges in the Flinders Ranges. It is long, with many peaks, its red rock mass forming one side of a long valley. Vegetation struggles to maintain a foothold on its precipitous slopes. The Chase Range is at its best in afternoon sunshine but there were still clouds lingering, which spoiled the effect to some extent. But it was still awesome. As was the drive to the summit of Pugilist Hill, and the subsequent decent!
Part of the view from Jarvis Hill of the area to the south of Hawker
As a last activity for the day we drove about 8 kilometres west of the town to Jarvis Hill Lookout, another sharp climb from the plain. Unfortunately, attaining the lookout point requires a scramble over rocks and rough ground, so I didn’t walk the whole distance. But the view was good, although I could not see Hawker, but I did find more wild flowers that we had not previously seen.
We returned to the van as the sun disappeared behind the range that we had just ascended, to crank up the heater in preparation for another cold night. The temperatures have been around 13 to 15 during the day and often down to 2 or 3 during the night. The heater is frequently on all night.
Oh, and did I mention flies? We have been coping with them in increasing numbers since Rockhampton.
The fine weather did eventuate and with a forecast that suggested a few days of fine weather the decision was made to visit the Gawler Ranges. So we phoned Mt Ive Station to ensure that a powered site was available. Having received a satisfactory answer, we set off into a stiff head wind that stayed with us for the entire 200 kilometre journey.
A “retired” excavator against the background of mine overburden at Iron Knob
The turn to Mt Ive Station is at Iron Knob, a distance of a little over 70 kilometres. We last visited Iron Knob over 50 years ago. At that time it was a thriving mining town. Now it is little more than a ghost town. The mine still appears to be in operation so it must have changed to a fly in fly out basis of staffing. A pity, but that’s progress, I suppose. We stopped for morning coffee and to air down the tyres in preparation for 125 kilometres of dirt and gravel.
We passed several flocks of sheep. Stations in the Gawler Ranges area are mostly involved in wool production.
The road was in quite good condition. Much of it has been recently graded and a grader was working on a section of road as we came through. Although we were entering a range of mountains the road was mostly without hills, just a series of low ridges and shallow gullies. We were travelling through a long narrow gap in the range. Creek beds had all been stabilised so were not a hindrance to maintaining a reasonable speed. As always on these types of roads the cattle grids required careful negotiation.
Yellow daisies decorated the hillside
There were wild flowers along the way but in unique areas. In between and interspersed with the flowers was thousands of hectares of a small silvery green leafed plant with small white flowers. It proliferated in the valleys and lower slopes of the ranges put did not reach the hill tops, at least not in quantity.
Some of the historic stone buildings
We reached the homestead in the early afternoon. Mt. Ive homestead is itself set in a valley between two prominent mountains, one of which is Mt. Ive. The station has been in continuous operation since 1864. Many of the buildings are original and are built of local stone. Much of the local stone naturally breaks into blocks, suitable to use as building material. Later structures are of more modern materials.
View towards the shearers quarters and part of the caravan park area. Mount Ive is in the background.
We have arrived here at a quiet time of the year and some potential visitors have probably been deterred by forecast rain. There was only one van and a camper trailer when we arrived but a couple of car loads arrived later to stay in some of the stone cottages. The area is popular as a long weekend destination from Adelaide and is busy during school holidays in the cooler months.
The clouds have dispersed to reveal a clear starry sky but the wind had continued so it was quite chilly. Thumbs up for the power supply and the heater!
The hot water system was not very efficient
Mt. Ive Station is popular for its many four wheel drive tracks. As we were only there for two nights we were limited in what we could do so we chose the premier drive, that to Lake Gairdner, which is reached via Mt. Ive station tracks but is enclosed within Lake Gairdner National Park. Lake Gairdner is a huge salt lake with a dry lake bed in the warmer months. It has been the site of several land speed attempts and annually is the location for salt lake car races. A club house for this event stands by the lake.
A clump of Sturts Desert Pea growing in a roadside drainage channel
The track is really a road and although corrugated was in quite good condition for a road of its type and location. Not so vehicle friendly was two side roads that lead to other points of interest. They were real four wheel drive tracks and required driver attention to negotiate them safely.
The organ pipes are at the top of a ravine
The first side road leads to an area known as The Organ Pipes. The Gawler Ranges contains areas of a stone named rhyolite, the main characteristic of which is to separate into columns. There are several other areas in Australia with similar formations with similar names. One of the best known is in the Mt. Kaputar National Park in New South Wales between Narrabri and Bingara.
A flowering bush beside the path to the organ pipes
After negotiating about three kilometres of loose stones and a steep gulley we arrived at the parking area. The rock formation was at the top of a second ravine. Younger legs than mine would have made short work of the stony climb. I satisfied myself with walking until I had a clear view and snapping some pictures. But I did find and photograph two new flowering trees that I had not previously seen.
This water storage was built in the 1880s
The second side road leads to the site of a stone dam that was built of local stone in the 1860s. It still retains water and is an excellent illustration of rock wall construction. It spans the head of a charming ravine, the rocky sides of which are decorated with wild flowers that appear almost as a planted garden. Views down the valley to the hills opposite would have made this an excellent site for a dwelling, at least during a relatively wet winter. Summer would be quite different.
Nature’s rock garden
Chunks of salt at the edge of the lake.
A further ten kilometres from the second road brought us to the lake. Lake Gairdner is huge, with sweeping bays formed by hills that protrude into the lake in the form of promontories. About 200 mm of water currently covers the salt floor but lumps of salt rock are visible along the shoreline. The corrugated iron club house overlooks this magnificent view. Motor racing would be the last
The Wattle was in bloom by the lake
thing that you would expect to see here. Aquatic sports seem more likely but such are the contradictions of remote Australia.
The loo against a view
I am sure that the club house contains toilet facilities, but when not in use it is securely locked. So a single toilet has been provided for casual visitors. It sits on a point with its back to a magnificent view. It has a small glass panel in the door in lieu of a lock. Two stout ropes, secured on either side by steel pegs, go over the roof to ensure that it does not float away in a flood.
The Challenger parked next to the motor racing club
We enjoyed morning coffee at a picnic table at the front of the club house, drinking in, in addition to the coffee, all this natural wonder and beauty. The 400 kilometre return journey, 250 kilometre of which is unsealed, was very worthwhile. Mt, Ive Station and Lake Gairdner are now ticked off the bucket list.
The light of the setting sun colours a bank of clouds in the eastern sky
We had intended to spend a couple of nights in the Gawler Ranges National Park but it is far too cold at night at the moment to be 100 kilometres away from a power point.
This post is being written in Port Augusta, as we take another lay day to let more rain pass through. But the day is not wasted as we had planned to have the car serviced. That is happening as I work on this blog post.
We drove through a lot of country that looked like this
The distance between Ayers Rock and Port Augusta is almost 1,300 kilometres, with few towns or even roadhouses in between. We are forced to stay on the Stuart Highway. Our stalling strategy didn’t achieve a thing. The dirt roads in our plans were still rain affected. On those roads now partially open towing was still not permitted. So we had to bypass the Painted Desert.
We returned to Erldunda at the Stuart Highway intersection the first day and then stopped at Marla Roadhouse, Coober Pedy for two nights, Kingoonya, in a small detour onto gravel, and then Port Augusta for two nights.
Massed blooms by the highway
The continuing interest is wild flowers. The roadside is lined with what appear to be a small wattle, with bright yellow blooms, interspersed with a variety of plants of varying sizes, shapes and colours. Beyond the roadside vegetation there are intermittent expanses of yellow and white daises and blue and purple ground cover in huge masses, all against a background of green grass and
The individual flowers that make up the mass display
the foliage of the other trees. Then there are larger trees with red flowers and patches of plants with dark pink to red blooms that we now know are Wild Hops.
Underground hotels in the main street of Coober Pedy
The most popular tourist place on this stretch of highway, and the only real town, is Coober Pedy, South Australia’s, and possibly Australia’s, Opal capital. Locals claim that the town has more Opal shops per square kilometre that any other place on earth. I believe them!
A digging area near to town
The approach to the town from any direction is like entering a moonscape. The cone shaped piles of mulloch that result from mining methods is like endless rows of tents. Most are massed in the areas of richest pickings but others stand alone, like shunned neighbors, where test shafts have been drilled with no commercial result. These mining mounds start to appear 25 kilometres north of the town and the last worked area to the south is about 25 kilometres out of town.
The entrance to an underground building
Coober Pedy always looks a bit down at heel,with a higgledy piggledy main street and shopping area and many empty and derelict buildings. But the town is progressively going underground. People have lived in what they term dugouts for a long time. But more hotel and motel accommodation is now below the surface, including one of the leading hotels and Opal sales establishments. We overheard an assistant at the information centre advise that there are only three accommodation establishments that don’t offer a below ground option. There is even an underground caravan park.
The Old Timers Mine entrance
We conducted our own tour, instead of joining an organised tour, as we did last visit. We visited the Old Timer Opal Mine, one of the most awarded establishments in town. It was an operating mine but has now been set up to tell the story of Opal mining. Mannequins have been placed throughout to assist in demonstrating aspects of Opal mining. Another part has been set up as a mining museum with passages attaching it to a dugout residence, the rooms of which are furnished and contain more mannequins to demonstrate living conditions when the mine was in production.
A bedroom in the display dugout
We also visited the lookout above the town to get a broader perspective. The view includes many underground houses, mostly set into hillsides. We saw the underground Catholic Church from the outside and toured the Anglican Catacomb underground church, where we received an explanation of its construction and history.
Part of The Breakaways, so named as they appear to have broken away from the main body of the Stuart Range
Later in the day we drove out to the area known as The Breakaways. These are jump ups or mesas where chemical action has painted the sides in most attractive colours, similar to colours we would have seen, but on a much greater scale, in the Painted Desert.
Kingoonya’s wide main street
We moved on south next day, Sunday, with one more night to spend before reaching Port Augusta. The original plan had been to leave the Stuart Highway about 200 kilometres south of Coober Pedy and travel via Kingoonya, Mount Ive Station and the Gawler Ranges to Port Augusta. As we were running behind time, we had decided to follow the highway directly to Port Augusta.
Another floral display
But why not take the short diversion and spend a night at Kingoonya anyway? The road in was 35 kilometres of recently graded sandy dirt and the 55 kilometres back to the highway was in similar condition.
Kingoonya is the first town on the Transcontinental Railway after it turns west, to pursue its long and substantially straight passage over the Nullarbor Plain. It used to be a railway town but now the only operating businesses are the pub and the very run down caravan park. But the caravan park has new owners who have already started to improve the facilities. Their plans include reopening the general store. Currently the only shopping facility within reasonable distance is the Roadhouse at Glendambo, on the highway, 55 kilometres to the east.
The hotel is doing its bit as well. They host a camp oven cook out and a cricket tournament for country teams, each held annually. The cricket match is held on the very wide main street and no doubt is interrupted in the event of a vehicle passing through. But that would not disrupt the game very often.
We dined at the pub and arrived a bit early for a pre dinner drink. We joined the other patrons around a large steel box with a fire burning in it. That was a nice touch, as the weather had turned chilly. Much of the town’s social life happens here. It seems that the patrons only retire to the bar if air conditioning is needed. Otherwise they sit under shelter around the fire and watch very long trains rumble by.
The other guests around the fire were the other couple from the caravan park, a girl there on a government assignment, three stock men and the boss’s daughter from the neighboring cattle station and a couple of locals. We four from the caravan park dined royally on curried king prawns with rice.
Sturts Desert Pea
We had been on the lookout for Sturts Desert Peas that grow wild in South Australia and are the State’s official flower. A few kilometres along the road back to the highway we found some, growing in substantial numbers along both sides of the road. They were fresh and new. The brilliance of their colour could not be missed against the dull red of the sand.
Once back on the highway we travelled again through vast tracts of open grassland and then trough scrubby county, mostly flat but with the occasional hill in the distance. Near the turn to Woomera the road passes between salt lakes, large and small, that are surrounded by hills, which provide both relief from the previous flat terrain and vantage points to view the lakes. The two most significant are Lake Heart that is part of the Woomera restricted entry area and Island Lagoon, that does indeed have a prominent island in its waters.
Shortly after passing the lakes the first spots of rain appeared on our windscreen. We then had intermittent light showers until we reached Port Augusta. Fortunately a break in the rain allowed us to set the van up without getting wet. But the rain set in overnight and has continued into Tuesday. The forecast is for fine weather tomorrow. We hope that it is accurate.
Monday produced a reasonable morning, but cloud moved in during the afternoon and rain arrived by early evening. The rain was fairly constant until the early evening on Tuesday when it reduced to a slow drizzle that went on and on. You become very aware of it under a caravan roof. Wednesday was a good day with long periods of sunshine.
Hills by the road side south of Alice Springs
The rain promised for Thursday did not eventuate although it was cloudy for most of the day, with a few brief periods of sprinkles. We discovered later that the rain all fell to the south, around Coober Pedy. About two seasons worth of it!
So what does one do to fill in time in Alice Springs while waiting for the weather? Well, I decided to be sick. After a walk along the sandy floor of Trephina Gorge in the midday sun on Sunday I felt a bit more knocked up that I would have expected, but put it down to the warm day. Not as young as I used to be, you know! But by evening I had back aches and headaches and general lethargy. Seems I had picked up a local gastric bug that has been doing the rounds. Ruth had a touch of it as well.
So the diet changed to dry biscuits, toast and Vegemite drinks, with lots of rest. We spent the four days restfully, with only one outing, to buy supplies for the next leg of the journey.
We left town with the exhaust noises of rebuilt classic and hot rod cars ringing in our ears. A gathering of exponents was being hosted by Alice Springs. Some had already arrived in our caravan park and were disturbing the peace.
A Waxy Wattle at Erldunda
Erldunda is a bit less than 200 kilometres south of Alice, at the intersection of the Lassiter Highway with the Stuart. Lassiter Highway leads to Uluru. The only establishment at the intersection is The Desert Oaks Resort. The Resort is a roadhouse, hotel, motel, tour bus camping area and a caravan park. Quite a good caravan park and it is where we spent Friday night.
The drive to Erldunda was through more kilometres of green desert, mostly flat but with occasional jump up ranges to give some relief. We were pushing into a cold stiff south-westerly wind, but arrived mid afternoon to a grassy drive through sight. Our neighbors were almost all travelling to the same destination as we are. The caravan park has a platform for viewing sunsets but the cloud was packed solid with not a single glimpse of the sun.
Daisies to the horizon
We drove through similar terrain on Saturday but the hills are sand dunes rather than jump ups. Yulara is a further 250 kilometres west from Erldunda and more desert like, but still green. We had been passing wild flowers for a number of weeks and frequency had been increasing, but as we turned west the frequency increased further. Fields of yellow daisies stretched to the horizon, often interspersed with smaller areas of white ones and other wild flowers.
Unknown flower. Who knows what it is?
I am no expert in wild flowers so many sightings remain unidentified. Today I realised that bushes of small yellow blooms were Waxy Wattles. We thought that hectares of shrubs with small mauvish white flowers is Heath, but now find that it is Desert thryptomene. Perhaps readers can help by responding to photographs. I will include “Unknown” in the picture title. Watching for the flowers sure brightens the journey.
Mount Conner near Curtain Springs is often mistaken for Uluru
Saturday afternoon brought us to Yulara and the Ayers Rock Caravan Park. It is a large park with a high turnover of visitors, as people only seem to stay for a couple of days to see Uluru (Ayres Rock)and its sister range, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas).
A three day National Park pass costs $25 for each of us and the caravan park offers a “pay three and stay four night” special, so we increased our stay by two days. But there is a second reason. Things that we want to see as we go south are not accessible because of rain affected roads. A couple of additional days will give more time for roads to dry out.
Ayres Rock (Uluru) from the camp lookout
We wasted no time in starting the tourist ritual. The first priority is always to gain an uninterrupted view of “The Rock”. Sightings are rare as you approach Yulara, due to a succession of sand hills that obscure the view. Resort designers thoughtfully provided a lookout on a sand dune on the Uluru side of the camp ground, with expanded mesh pathways to the top. So we walked up to see the sun seting on The Rock.
Sunset cloud patterns from the camp lookout
From this distance and direction the result was unspectacular, but the sunset was nice and illuminated some intricate skeins of cloud, remnants of the day’s heavier cloud cover. The accompanying photo demonstrates how attractive they were.
A climbers view of Ayres Rock
On Sunday morning we set off for the national park, parting with $50 at the gate. We drove directly to the area where most visitors start their walk around the base of Uluru and where people climb the rock. There was no one climbing. The climb was closed due to high winds at the summit. It was quite breezy at the base so that made sense. The most prominent signage is that encouraging visitors not to climb.
The start of the walking track around the base of Uluru
We then commenced a clockwise drive around the encircling road. We had completed the walk around the base on our last visit in 2010. At a distance of 10.5 km, to do it would be a bit of a stretch. Photo opportunities from the road are limited due to yellow “no standing” lines on both edges of the tar where the road runs adjacent to areas of cultural sacred significance.
Another unknown flower
The circumnavigation complete, we visited the cultural centre where photography is totally forbidden. It is an extensive building taken up by cultural displays, a gift shop, an art shop and a working Aboriginal art studio. There is also a Holy of Holies. A coffee shop!
On Monday morning we put on our tourist boots again to do the Kuniya Walk into Mutiijulu Waterhole. We had seen this area on our walk last visit and wanted to see it again. On the southern face of Uluru there is a huge “scooped out” valley that acts as a funnel for water
Tourists standing by the pool
off the Rock, which it drains into the waterhole. From there a stream passes along the foot of the Rock and then drains away to marsh land. It is easy to understand the importance of such a water source to locals before water started running out of a tap.
The rock forms a natural funnel
The stream runs along the foot of the rock
The Olgas from the sunrise viewing area
Having completed Uluru, with the exception of a sunset visit still to come, we drove the 45 kilometres to The Olgas, now re-badged as Kata Tjuta, stopping on the way to view this group of domes from the sunrise viewing facility on a sand dune to the east of the range.
Valley of the Winds Walk
I completed two walks, but the terrain was a bit rough for Ruth, so she sat them out. Both walks had been done on our last visit but were worth repeating. I prefer The Olgas to Ayers Rock in many ways. Uluru is huge and awesome but The Olgas have variety, as each dome is different to its neighbor.
The Valley of the Winds walk is sometimes closed as wind velocity can be dangerous. It was open today and I did it first.
More flowers by the math
The track leads at first along the bed of a stream that carries water down a slope, before crossing extensive beds of conglomerate, the rock from which the domes are formed. The path then climbs in a series of steps, over more conglomerate and loose rock, to a saddle between two domes. The view is over more domes in another part of the range. A second walk starts from the saddle. It is a loop into a ravine and around other domes, but it is more demanding and adds another hour or so to the walk.
The domes that form Walpa Gorge
The second walk was into Walpa Gorge. This walk is between the southernmost dome and its counterpart, immediately to the north. Most of this walk is over exposed conglomerate and is a bit like a moon walk. The path follows the lower northern slopes of the southern dome. The rock is intersected periodically by small vegetated streams that drain the upper slope and run to a stream that divides the domes. Foot bridges have been built over the streams for safety and convenience. The Walpa Gorge path leads almost through between the two domes to a rock fall that blocks what would otherwise be a complete passage to the eastern side.
Walking over conglomerate rock in Walpa Gorge
The final part of the Walpa Gorge walk
The walks in Kata Tjuta allow you to get up close and personal with the domes. The Valley of the Winds walk provides elevation for a different perspective to that available from the surrounding plain. Walpa Gorge allows close inspection of the lower reaches of the domes. The stunning addition to what we saw on our last visit is the wild flowers. Wherever there is some soil to give vegetation a toe hold, there are blooms. The sides of the road between Uluru and Kata Tjuta are similarly decorated.
The Olgas from the start of The Great Central Road
Just before Kata Tjuta is reached from Uluru or Yulara, Tjukaruru Road turns to the west. It is part of the Great Central Road that leads across the western part of the Continent to the West Australia gold fields. It is also part of the Outback Way that stretches from Cairns in the east to Perth in the west. The Outback Way is also known as The Longest Short Cut.
I can never stand at the start of such a road without getting itchy feet. So as a minor indulgence we drove the first few hundred meters of the rutted dirt and took a photo of the road, disappearing into the West. And a final shot of The Olgas from the road.
The final Tuesday evening activity was to go out to watch the changing colours as the setting sun reflects off Uluru. We took soup in a thermos and fresh rolls from the local bakery. The sun doesn’t set until almost 6.30 pm (7.00 pm EST) so that looked after the first course of dinner.
The setting sun touches the top of Ayers Rock. Desert thryptomene and Honey grevillea in the foreground
The signs were not hopeful. There was a heavy bank of cloud obscuring the sun in the west as we drove out to the viewing area. Initially the rock was in the shadow of the cloud but then the sun began to break through and to illuminate different parts of the rock as the sun sank and the clouds moved. There were some great effects, quite different to what we saw last visit when we had a cloud free view.
The final sunset at Uluru
We almost missed the final act. We were so focused on Ayers Rock that we were not watching the setting sun behind us. As we started to drive home the road turned us to the west. We were faced with a breath taking sight. Clouds near the horizon and .higher in the sky almost appeared to be on fire. By the time we had parked and got the camera out the very best had gone, but what remained was well worth photographing.
So it was back to camp for the remainder of our evening meal.
Our intention has been to spend just one night at Alice Springs. Now it seems that we are to be here for a week. The main issue has been the uncertainty of weather predictions. We abandoned plans to take the van into the ranges to the east and west of the town in favour of setting up in a central location and doing day trips. Saturday was to have been very windy and it was to start raining on Sunday, continuing into Monday. The strong winds did not eventuate and the rain has been deferred until Tuesday and Thursday. Patience is called for!
And to demonstrate meteorological variability we had a minimum of 3 C on Saturday and a maximum of about 32 C yesterday.
The original telegraph station and post office in Alice Springs
Having passed two historic telegraph stations on the way south, we thought we should take a closer look at the restored station at Alice. The buildings were initially well built and have been carefully restored. A restoration of the original office environment, in the original office, has been well done, including sound effects of messages being transmitted by Morse code. Residential buildings have been fitted with furniture of the period and a school room is functional. School children are able to stay overnight, playing the roles of original characters.
Samples of original and replacement telegraph poles
The tour guide’s spiel covered the explorations of John McDowell Stuart, who made no less than six trips into the area. The telegraph line was built along the route of his final exploration, under the supervision of Charles Todd. The line was built with poles cut locally as they progressed, but termites proved the folly of that option, so the timber posts were soon replaced with telescopic tubular steel posts.
Where I got my warm inner glow
The spiel also included a section on the “Stolen Generation” and included several highly contestable claims. One of the buildings has been used to set up a display on the subject. I guess it gives some visitors a warm inner glow. I achieved my warm inner glow from a cup of coffee and an excellent vanilla slice at the Trail Station coffee shop that also acts as the gateway to the Telegraph Station.
The telegraph line was an important step in Australia’s development as it linked to the newly laid cable under the Timor Sea and ended our communication isolation from the world, particularly from England.
The grave of Rev John Flynn outside Alice Springs. The stone came from The Devils Marbles near Tennant Creek
In the afternoon we drove out to the near west McDonnell Ranges, pausing at the grave of Rev. John Flynn, and then took another look at Simpsons Gap. There was water in the gap, as usual, and a cool breeze was blowing through.
The performer in the Gap
We could hear an pleasant vocal sound, not words but a musical tone, from a pure clear female voice, accompanied by a slow drum beat, coming from the gap. As we walked in we could see a young woman, positioned to gain the advantage of the acoustics of the gap. It was a pleasant accompaniment to viewing such spectacular scenery
We then headed further out Larapinta Drive and drove the northern section of the Owen Springs Track that leads through historical relics and geographical features to the Stuart Highway. The first cattle station in the Northern Territory was established at Owen Springs. Ruins of station buildings remain. It was getting late in the day so we turned back sooner that we had hoped, so didn’t get to see them. The consolation was that we drove back beside the long stone capped mountain ranges, displayed to advantage in the light of the afternoon sun.
The Bluff at the foot of Trephina Gorge
We returned, yesterday, to one of our favourite places on the East MacDonnell ranges. Trephina Gorge is yet another gap in the range through which a stream passes, on its way to the desert. The Ross Highway runs between red stone capped mountains and passes at least three other gaps through which streams flow when there is rain. The best known of the gaps are Emily and Jessie Gaps. The other main feature of interest is Corroboree Rock, a striking rock formation where, you guessed it, corroborees were held.
The tallest Ghost gum
Trephina Gorge has been cut by the passage of water through red rock that now direct its flow. At least that is the case when it is flowing, which it was not doing yesterday. After exiting the gorge the stream passes at the foot of a huge mound of red stone named The Bluff. From there it makes its way out of the mountains to join those other streams that dissipate into the desert. The gorge also contains the largest Ghost gum in Australia.
There was a final touch of drama as we travelled home. While driving on the gravel road out of the gorge we noticed a continuous trail of fluid. So we were not surprised, just after rejoining the Ross Highway, to see a vehicle stopped part way off the road, with a couple of other vehicles nearby. The fluid trail on the road was transmission fluid. They had damaged something important.
The beauty of the East McDonnell Ranges
The vehicle was an aged Ford Maverick and its occupants were a couple of French back packers whose English was inadequate, to say the least. Neither we nor the other vehicles that stopped were able to agree any assistance with them as they preferred to wait for some folk who they had met in the Gorge who were travelling a distance behind them. We can only hope that it worked out for them.
We have been into town on two or three occasions. It is unchanged from last time. Out of town locals wander the streets and seem to be the taxi companies best customers. Security is everywhere, particularly where there are liquor stores. But the commercial centre seems busy and a parking space can be hard to find.
At the caravan park there is an endless procession of arrivals and departures. One night stopovers are common, as visitors restock and head for the scenic areas to the east and west. Much as we had intended. It is hard to detect the colour of some vehicles through the coating of mud that they carry. I suspect that they have come in off the Tanami Track that has had rain in recent days.
So now we wait on the weather. I will deal with that in the next post.