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Sunday, April 1, 2018

Queens of the Desert

“The outback,” the bookseller said. He had a dreamy look in his eyes as he took my money for a used Lonely Planet guide. “I’ve never been. But I’d like to, someday…”

I’ve heard other Australians say things like this about the outback, in the same way many Americans speak about England. They know it’s out there; they’d love to go, someday. But it’s far away, and passports are expensive, and the basement needs work. 

At least for Americans England really is another country. But you can drive to the Australian outback, straight outta Adelaide, and we were determined to do so.

Australia is like Canada in that the overwhelming majority of its people live on one strip of a huge land mass. In Canada’s case it’s along the U.S. border; for Australia it’s the coast. The vast inland of the world’s sixth largest country is very sparsely populated. But it’s not empty, and as we were to discover, it’s not desert either. Not in the sense that the Sahara is a desert. There was more variety, and indeed more life, in the outback we saw than I had imagined.

First, though, we had to get there. For this, T. had found another camper van relocation. From Adelaide on the south coast to Darwin in the Top End, in eight days. In tribute to the film, I called our van Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The quickest way was to get out of Adelaide onto Highway 1, which is the main highway running all the way around the Australian coast (it’s the Bruce Highway up in Queensland and the Victoria down south). But Andrew suggested, as we weren't going very far that first day, that we take the scenic route through the Clare Valley, another of South Australia’s wonderful wine regions. It was looking pretty parched, but we saw lots of vineyards and cellar doors. 

As long as we got to Port Augusta before dusk, we knew we’d be all right. Driving on outback roads at night is not advised. Ever. There are too many animals. 

We stopped in Auburn for lunch.


Later we arrived at Melrose, “the oldest town in the Flinders Ranges.” The local bike shop doubles as a coffee shop, and it was there that the extremely helpful proprietor suggested a way we could get a taste of the Ranges. Just loop on up to Quorn and take the Flinders Ranges Way through the pass and over to Port Augusta.

It probably added about forty-five minutes to our trip, and although I wasn’t the one driving, I think it was totally worth it. The first part was fairly flat and scrubby and reminded us of the Joshua Tree Parkway in the U.S. The second part was like a dry version of the Scottish Highlands. Every bend we came around presented a more spectacular landscape.

Port Augusta wasn’t really a destination, just our stopping place for the night. I can say that the Shoreline Caravan Park was a nice place to stay, as we had a view of Spencer Gulf and across the train tracks to the Flinders Ranges.

(To me, the word caravan always connotes camels, and there are those in the outback too apparently. But Australian and British people use this term for a vehicle that you camp in.)

Priscilla, we discovered to our delight, came with a camping table and chairs, as well as a grill that popped out of the side of the van. Australians aren’t happy unless everyone, everywhere, can cook out at any time.

The moon and stars were spectacular over the shoreline, more so than in Adelaide. 

After a good first day and night, the sunrise woke us early and ready for a big day 2. 

Port Augusta is where Highway 1 meets the Stuart Highway, which would take us all the way across the continent to Darwin in the north. We took a right turn and that was the last traffic light before Alice Springs, 1,770 kilometres away.

As we had learned on the scenic route on day 1, getting places was not just about the driving time. There is not much point doing a trip like this if you don’t stop and see things along the way. On this morning, we stopped first at a rest area/viewing point—these are everywhere along the Stuart Highway. 
A last glimpse of the Ranges
While there, we noticed a beat-up little van being driven away by a couple of young people. A short while later, we saw them again on the side of the road. There aren’t many vehicles in sight on these highways so we pulled over to check if they were all right.

There had been a dead wallaby in the road and they hadn’t killed it, but the guy thought their vehicle had been damaged going over the poor animal. To be honest, a paper clip would probably have damaged this van. Priscilla it was not. The girl’s English was good but she felt uncertain on the phone and asked if T. could help her make a call. Luckily we were still in an area with phone service.

We stayed with “the French kids” for a while until we were sure they knew where they were, had plenty of water, and so forth. We were reluctant to leave them at all but they assured us they didn’t need any more help. So we pulled away, hoping to see them again at their and our next destination, Coober Pedy.

Before that, though, we came to some dry salt lakes. I read somewhere that Australia is the second driest continent on earth. You wouldn't think so, but Antarctica is drier.

Then we had to go through the longest section of the entire Stuart Highway with no services whatsoever. That’s because it goes through what is called the Woomera Prohibited Area. The highway is unrestricted but you are not allowed to wander off. 

This huge area around Woomera was used in the 1950s and ’60s for things like firing rockets into the middle of nowhere.
That golf ball in the distance is the Nurrungar "spy" base.
As we passed this base, my iPod happened to be playing the recitative from Messiah
He that dwelleth in Heav'n shall laugh them to scorn; The Lord shall have them in derision.
(Psalm 2: 4)
Seemed appropriate. Because, of course, this area was not nowhere. People had lived here for tens of thousands of years, and some of them suffered terribly from nuclear fallout, as did people in other places where atomic weapons were tested. Others were forcibly removed from their lands.

I confess to having been almost totally ignorant of Australia’s Cold War role before I visited the country. My first thought was, Australia isn’t a nuclear power, so how were they testing here? But it was Australia’s British allies who put together this rocket program, just as later, American allies would involve Australia in the Vietnam war.

As for the indigenous people, their land was deemed terra nullius by the British colonizers—nobody’s land. This legal fiction endured until astonishingly recently: a High Court ruling in 1992. Prior to that, South Australia was the first state to acknowledge the traditional connection of Aboriginal people to the land, although even that only happened in 1966.

All this about the outback and its people’s issues meant I had to put on Midnight Oil’s classic album, Diesel and Dust
"Put Down That Weapon"
As we drove long stretches of highway with nobody else in sight, we adopted what I call the “Bernie wave.” T’s cousin Bernie does a wave from the steering wheel whenever she passes another driver. At first I thought she knew all these people; then I realized it was just a northern Irish thing. Anyway we started doing it too, on that long bleak stretch to Coober Pedy.

I have read that Coober Pedy is an indigenous name meaning “whitefella’s hole in the ground.” I haven’t been able to verify which language this comes from but it would make sense, as “whitefellas” from an impressive variety of backgrounds made Coober Pedy what it was and is: an opal mining town. It is hard to imagine being so crazed for treasure that you’d settle somewhere that gets to 50 degrees C in the summer, but the local people found a solution for that. Many of the homes and other establishments are underground dugouts.

We visited the Serbian Orthodox Church, St. Elijah’s. This is one of several underground churches (literally) in town, and they never lock their doors. When I say underground, St. Elijah’s is actually dug into the side of a hill. So there are windows and light. Most importantly, the temperature stays both constant and comfortable.

I liked St. Elijah’s for a couple of reasons. Elijah of the Old Testament is not a saint I’ve seen churches named after in other denominations, and the Hebrew prophets are some of my favorite voices in all of literature. Moreover, Serbian Orthodox was a new tradition to me. The Serbs are an important community in Coober Pedy, but not to be outdone, there's a Croatian Club a short way down the road. 

We thought we were starting to get used to the heat and flies when I stopped in the visitors’ centre to ask for a map. The guy there was enormously helpful. When I started looking around for my sunglasses, he pointed out that they were on my head! He also directed us, somewhat reluctantly, to the Big Winch, which is Coober Pedy’s lookout. “I don’t know why Australians have this affliction of wanting to put a big whatever-we’re-associated-with up in every town.” Well, he said it…
View from the Big Winch
He was prouder of the nearby Moon Plain being the most Martian landscape on earth. He actually had a picture of this area next to a picture of Mars, showing why it has been used in films about the red planet, or about the end of the world. We could go there if we wanted to—only 70 km on a dirt road!

But that was enough to do in one day, so we stopped at the Opal Inn, which combined a motel with a caravan park. This is common along the highways of Australia. We even treated ourselves to a rare “takeaway” meal of pizza from the roadhouse.

These pizza names on the menu were disconcerting, but we had been told by some Australians of Italian heritage that wog is a term Italian-Australians use to refer to themselves, and is not derogatory here. I hope that’s right.

We could have spent more time exploring Coober Pedy. In addition to the mining stuff, there are underground homes that you can visit, including one that three women dug themselves with picks and shovels some fifty years ago. “Has to be seen to be believed,” the guy at the visitors’ centre assured me. It is said to have a swimming pool in the living room, so must have been quite an undertaking. But, needs must as the devil drives, and the driver was T.

We were not doing the 70-km loop on dirt. We did, however, take a shorter diversion off the highway the next morning. It turned out to be our only trip off paved roads, and it was a real highlight. Kanku (the Breakaways) is a reserve a short distance north of Coober Pedy and although the road was good for a dirt track, we were the only people anywhere around that morning.


It was spectacular to see, but it was also empty and silent. You don’t realize until you hear it how seldom we truly experience silence. Kanku is Aboriginal land, and it really did feel special to me.

This landscape was also used in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. I don’t know if it was the flamboyance or the emptiness, but T. decided to create a work of art here. She tried to honor our adventure by climbing on top of the van for me to take a photograph, but we couldn’t figure out how to get her three meters off the ground. If you’re friends with her, you know what she decided to do next. Unless Facebook has deleted the evidence. 

The Breakaways were a success. Not so much the Dog Fence, which you can see further down the dirt road, and which crosses the Stuart Highway itself further north of Coober Pedy. The Dog Fence, which was over 8,000 km long until the 1980s, still stretches more than 5,000 km to the coast of Queensland. It is supposed to keep dingoes, the wild dogs of Australia, out of sheep country. Mostly cattle, which are less vulnerable to dingoes, are raised to the north and west of the fence. It’s the longest artificial barrier in the world (don’t tell Tweeter).

I wondered how such a fence could cross the Stuart Highway, and I still don’t know. We never saw the sign marking it, which we were looking for, nor are we convinced we ever saw any fence that would hold back a dog.

It was on day 3 that we crossed out of the state of South Australia and into the Northern Territory. 

As soon as we pulled into the first roadhouse, I felt that we were in a different place. A large group of people were sitting and standing around the pub tables, and they all appeared to be Aboriginal. One of them was wearing Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls jersey, but then everyone wears those; the woman running the karaoke van at the Adelaide Fringe had one too. 

My mind began inventing stories. Now we were in the real outback; this must be these folks’ local pub. Perhaps they were a family group getting together. No sooner had my imagination taken off than a big tour bus pulled up and everyone piled on! They may have been a family, but they were touring the outback just like we were.

We had originally planned to stop at the juncture of the Stuart and Lasseter Highways, before turning west along the latter for a side trip to Uluru (the Rock formerly known as Ayers). But the Northern Territory, not observing Daylight Saving Time, was an hour behind, and it seemed too early to camp at a bleak roadhouse for the night. So we pressed on down the Lasseter. This was my first chance to drive Priscilla, and she was a Mercedes, so it was a pretty smooth ride. 

There was one little problem we kept having with her, and it became particularly aggravating after I pulled over at the lookout to Mt. Conner, which many people mistakenly believe to be the Rock from a distance. 

Priscilla’s emergency brake did not like to be disengaged. Unless you really baby it coming out of Park, it thinks it is still stuck on emergency, and the horn sounds. This happened repeatedly before we figured out what was going on and the whole time, the other group of people at the lookout just stared at us rudely. I hardly expected them to come over and help, but they hadn’t answered when either of us said Hi. Out in the country, that is the least anybody can do.

Eventually, we got Priscilla quieted down and made it all the way to Yulara. Yulara is a resort community established in 1984 for the sole purpose of serving all the visitors to Uluru. At about this same time, Uluru and Kata Tjuta, also known as the Olgas, were recognized as Aboriginal land. The local indigenous peoples, who call themselves Anangu, leased Uluru and Kata Tjuta back to the National Park system, and that is why we can all enjoy these sacred areas today.

But that is another post.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Quite a journey, through scalding temperatures and stunning landscapes. The accounts of underground homes and churches were fascinating, and St Elijah's was most impressive. G & P

joanie said...

I totally understood and could visualize this part of your journey -- "The first part was fairly flat and scrubby and reminded us of the Joshua Tree Parkway in the U.S. The second part was like a dry version of the Scottish Highlands. Every bend we came around presented a more spectacular landscape."

Funny about Michael Jordan's number too. And I didn't realize or remember the role of Australia in nuke testing either. I suspect there were a number of places abused that way that we never learned about. I only know about the Nevada desert near where they filled Westerns, because John Wayne and so many others were hit with cancers. And of course Audrey Lourdes' writing reminded me in the 90s. I think they tested in New Mexico and out around some islands off the west coast (but I'm not sure). Scary to think all the fallout and damage these tests caused to the eco-system.

Anyway, what about that opal town?! Could you go digging for opals if you wanted to? That would be cool. Heehee. Like looking for gold in Wales or California I suspect! It's probably there somewhere, but damn if I'd be the one to find it. LOL

What scenery -- such an amazing adventure.

Old Rule of the road -- never run over a tumble-weed or a dead wallaby or jack-a-lope, for that matter. They're all hell on your undercarriage.

J. E. Knowles said...

Thanks--very well said. As for the opals, yes you can "fossick" (or "noodle," as they say in Coober Pedy) for your own! There is a designated public noodling area. The rest is someone's claims, and there are warning signs about falling down a deep hole there. But like you, I'd never find the opals!