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Terra Australis Incognita

Outback

AUSTRALIA | Monday, 20 October 2008 | Views [547]

I'm in Alice Springs, having spent the last week and a half in the outback. I got here by travelling with two germans, Kerstin and Judith. Kerstin has a car and was looking for travel buddies for a two week camping trip out here. I was really impressed, initially, how easy this was to be a part of, and I felt ahead of the curve, because I'd save tons of money doing the same things that other people spend thousands on tours for, and at first, it really seemed it would work out like that. 


We started by staying at Dave's house. Dave is a friend of Kerstin's who was also hosting four other Germans and an Australian, all of whom had gone to Cape York together. Dave is the most generous person on the planet. Australians as a whole are incredibly nice people, but this man was absurd. Kerstin's car apparently needed a small repair, which Dave fixed for free. Meanwhile, we explored some more of the Tablelands in HIS car, seeing these crater lakes, a giant fig tree, and a weird vertical volcanic crater. He gave us bedding to sleep on for the two nights we were there. And when we left for good, he drove AN HOUR to try and catch up with us to deliver a small amount of food I left, before he finally gave up and turned around. And full of stories, the ones about komodo dragons being the best. I wish I had travelled with him instead.


Everything went smoothly upon departure - there were tons of waterfalls on our road out, and we stopped at three, two in the wildest, most natural mountain rainforest I've seen yet (complete actual rain, for once). I even got stuck with leeches in a stream.


The next day, we started to go down from the plateau and into some serious heat and dryer land. The trees started to get shorter, and the land more brown and red. We passed the first "road trains" - semi trucks with several trailers attached, signalling the edge of the outback.

With the heat that afternoon, and every one afterwards, I would've killed to swim in a waterfall, and here we we had been skipping some the previous day. You see, there was no air conditioning - Kerstin didn't want to spend the money on it. No problem, I thought, her car, her rules.

But that night, something happened that should've sent me running right then. I was dying for a swim or a shower, and there was a caravan park in the town we stopped in that had both, where we could stay for only $10 a night. But there would be none of that, and we went straight for the free rest area with no amenities she wanted to camp at, only to find there was no camping permitted. So after contemplating camping on the side of the road,  or driving about 40kms in the dark (which she knew was dangerous, having hit a kangaroo before at night) to a free site, she finally sprung for the caravan park. And Judith said nothing the whole time. She is one of the most quiet people I've ever met, and most of the time, she had no opinion on anything, and was utterly Kerstin's lapdog, agreeing with her every time and following her everywhere. There wasn't a heated argument or anything, but that night I felt a permanent break with these people, and as the days progressed, they apparently felt it too.

But I figured we were all there to see the sights, not be best friends. So I let things go, and after enough time, I thought we started to come to compromises on issues and work things out. But apparently this was not so, and as I found out only two days ago, my travelmates were compiling lists of all their grievances towards me.

Meanwhile the outback stretched on, and on - and on. It's a weird landscape of short shrunken trees on flat land, so you don't see much of a desert vista, like in Arizona. The northern part isn't really even a desert, since there's somewhat of a wet season, which is why there are still trees. But to make things more interesting, termite mounds were everywhere, by the millions. Most looked like stalagmites reaching out of the earth, but others were as big as refrigerators. And we did see some wildlife too, including emus crossing the road, and enormous eagles feasting on roadkill, which was at least one thing plentiful out there. Outback roadkill is enormous - cows and kangaroos hit by road trains, and the smell is equally massive.

It's also worth mentioning that in terms of human activity, the American southwest is Manhattan compared to this place. Towns, of any size, (and none except a handful have more than 1,000 people) are hundreds of miles apart. There are no giant billboards telling you how many hundreds of miles you are from South of the Border. There are no friendly green signs displaying what fast food restaurants you can choose from at the next exit, because there is no exit, and no fast food. It is vast and utterly empty, and this only adds to the dangerous edge you can often feel out there.

And then in western Queensland, the flies began. Oh, the flies. You have no idea unless you've been there. They look just like houseflies, but half that size. And they don't bite or sting, but I'd take a mosquito over these guys any day. Some bugs occasionally fly in your ear or eye by accident, and fly out. These things WANT to do that. They go straight for the face, and even shaking your head won't get them off, you have to physically brush them away. Except that then they only fly to another part of your face, and there can be as many as ten to 15 doing this at one time. And they're fast as houseflies, and equally as hard to kill.

So the situation wasn't the best by the time we rolled in to Devil's Marbles, the first really interesting thing to see since we left the rainforest four days prior. This is a field of enormous boulders eroded from each other in a way that looks like a strangely balanced hodgepodge of gigantic red pebbles, like a bunch of little Ulurus. It's far south enough to be in a true desert setting, and standing on a high point of one of these piles gives fantastic views, especially at evening when the rocks glow orange and red.  We were able to camp there while we watched a full moon rise like a huge pumpkin, illuminating the rocks in a different but equally beautiful way.

After reaching Alice Springs, our next move was into the MacDonnell ranges, which stretch several hundred kilometers east and west of Alice. We went to the western ranges, which have more interesting sights. These mountains are cut by innumerable canyons, gullies, and gorges, all of which are walkable because the rivers are almost always dry. But there were plenty of hikes overlooking these features, giving fantastic views. However, the best feature of this landscape, seen nowhere else in the outback, are permanent waterholes set in the otherwise dry riverbeds between walls of that golden-red rock so iconic of Australia. And diving in one of these, which are freezing cold, after a day of heat in the low 100s (I'm not kidding) feels like the garden of eden. We camped that night a short hike away from one of these magic waterholes, which was hemmed in by a fantastic gorge that narrowed to a mere crack. The night sky was for once not bothered by the moon, and the whole tapestry of stars could be seen like a planetarium, from a place so quiet it was like being in a cave.


The next day was a real broiler, and we quite literally were lost in a wide desert basin for a while, having lost the trail markers (if they were ever there). We assumed a fold in the mountains led to the way back, but when the first one didn't, we had to guess whether the next one did or do the arduous and long hike back through the canyon we came out of, which was covered with either river rocks or sand, neither of which was easy to walk over. We sallied forth, and turned out lucky, though it was still a long, hot walk back.

But the waterhole we swam in later that day was the largest and most beautiful yet, and so deep you could jump off the surrounding ledges into the irridescent green water. My travelmates had nothing to do with this, however, as with many things I would do or want to do.

Everything seemed alright until we got to Alice Springs and they told me to stay behind. I don't want or need to get into why. We just had different ways of doing things, whether it be cultural or personal.


But I can turn this into a good thing, because I'm kind of done with the outback anyway. I'm leaving either tommorrow or the next day, to go either north back to Cairns or south to Adelaide, and either way making my way eventually to Brisbane. We'll see what happens.

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