Monday, August 31, 2015

They must have rocks in their heads (Part 2)

Read part 1

We ride out of Yulara, back towards the Stuart Highway, with a hot crosswind (35 degrees C, 30 km/h wind) and as the road curves slightly, a one-off tailwind allows me to momentarily match my speed to the temperature. The desert oaks whistle in the wind. We camp about 10 km from Curtain Springs roadhouse that night.

Something interesting about Curtain Srings is they make their own paper from the native grasses here: spinifex, oat grass, woollybutt, kangaroo and kerosene grass. We have breakfast here the next day, ordering from the main counter behind which there is a pot plant with a sign "A real kangaroo paw" and an actual kangaroo's paw poking out from the dirt instead of its flowering namesake. We leave the roadhouse just as the motorbikes are starting to stream out again. Getting passed by motorbikes, no matter their number, is a lot less tiresome than any number of caravanners, as the motorbikes pass us easily and safely, albeit noisily. Up the road a bit there is a section of roadworks with reduced speed to 40 km/h. Despite this, a long caravan tries, at speed, to overtake me as a car approaches. The oncoming car drives off onto the dirt to avoid collision, as the caravan swings back wildly into the lane I'm in and grazes past me within 10 cm of my panniers. Dangerous idiots. I don't understand why holiday makers are in such a rush that they cannot wait 10 seconds to pass us safely. I will get off the road as a courtesy for the occasional trucks (only a few a day) if road conditions dictate, because they have schedules and dangerous loads to manage, but if I had to try get off into the dirt for every caravan that passes this way, we'd never be on the road -- there are that many of them (Also, I'm likely to come into strife in loose sand and fall under wheels, or get burr punctures in my tyres all day) The idiots just need to learn patience, share the road like the rules say they must around slower vehicles, if the want to keep their licence. The wind is in our favour at the moment. The long fingers of Grevillea, with buds ready to burst for bloom, wave us on as we pass like cheery friends.

We ride about 60 km to the turn off to Kings Canyon, and lose our tailwind as we make the turn. Suddenly it is 33 degrees and we are riding into a crosswind. A butterfly loses control in a gust and slaps me audibly on the cheek. I'm not sure what consequences that had for chaos theory. The spinifex grass that here form huge rings you could sit inside sway dramatically in the wind. The mature desert oaks prove to be lifesaving shade dispensers. A dingo hangs around the rest stop where we fill up our water bottles. The scenery, along with spinifex and desert oaks, is bloodwood, mulga, grevillea, native grasses, river reds and other gums. The headwind and heat seems to increase as the day goes on. We camp beside the beautiful Levi range, about 50 km from Kings Creek Station, on our way to Watarrka National Park.

Next day we cycle into Kings Creek Station for morning tea and Simon drinks a $5.80 small long black. We then ride on to Katherine Springs where we walk to the waterhole through some orange and chocolate coloured ridges. There are grinding stones laying about here, as well as evidence of past cattle farming, but the waterhole is amazingly clear and cool looking, a little sanctuary so beautiful as to be sacred. On the walk back out I spot many bloodwood apples, galls with edible insides. There are many flowers by the creek, releasing sugary odours attracting bees and wasps.

After taking shelter in a hot part of the day, we ride on to camp amongst some spinifex and desert oaks with a section of the George Gill range looking over us. As the sun goes down, the range comes alive with vivid colours before our eyes.

Next morning we ride early a short distance into Kings Canyon to do the 6 km (3.5 hour) rim walk.  Already many tour buses are disgorging passengers. The walk begins with a steep descent ("Heart attack hill") of steps where our legs, more used to pedalling than climbing rocky stairs, are grateful for the resting plateau in the middle of the climb. We slow our pace as a European tour group is just in front of us, the guide loudly pointing out obvious things like gum trees. As the walk traces around the rim of the canyon, the vegetation changes from spinifex to hardy acacia to 400 year old cycads, to nothing but the toughest gums and cypress that have managed to send down roots amongst the rocks.

There is plenty of fun scrambling to be had in parts, as we move along the uneven rocky surface. As we walked towards a lookout, a curtain of rain came across turning the sandstone shiny in the overcast light, and a blast of wind made our vantage point feel very precarious, like we might slip off the boulders and down into the gorge below. We stand on top of about 80 metres of Mereenie sandstone (330 million years old) that lies above older Carmichael sandstone (440 million years old), with a layer of slate jammed between them. A huge chunk had falled from the North Wall of the canyon over 70 years ago and it is suggested it is due for another rock fall, so we quickly remind each other to stay clear of the edges, despite tempting views to below. Footbridges lead you down a level in order to safely cross Kings Creek, with the option here to turn off to the Garden of Eden permanent waterhole. Back up to the rim height, you can now see the Bungle Bungles-like stripped sandstone domes. Kestrel Falls wasn't flowing as we passed it, before heading down to ground level again. This walk is full of spectacle and well worth the side trip and the climbing.

Next we ride back out to Kings Creek Station. On the way we were stopped for snacks under a desert oak, when it looked like a small dust cloud was heading our way. A tractor was heading for us, cutting the small amount of native grass from the road edges, but mostly just blowing dust at us because of our headwind. We quickly pack up and ride on to avoid the tractor, when two other road workers stop their machinery and get out of them just ahead of us. One holds out a banana, an apple and a muesli bar to us, and the other yells out "Bloody legendary" in a cheery voice. We stop and have a chat and Simon accepts their food offerings, now including some fresh bread, because he can't say no. I ask them 'Howzitgoin' and one bloke shyly kicks the dirt at his feet and says "Yeah, slowly. 7 km/h. Good to see someone else travelling at our speed!" I say we have a headwind at the moment so they are probably going faster than us! We ride on to Kings Creek Station, where we eat a camel burger, and await a passing shower (timed perfectly), before riding on to camp on a short, rocky ledge that looks out over a mulga floodplain below, and is magically screened from the road by shrubs. We put our tents up amongst a line of native figs, overlooking a small rusty-red outcrop like our own mini escarpment. We keep yelling to each other "Bloody legendary!" and laughing, at the memory of those top Aussie blokes that allowed Simon to make a banana and honey sandwich in the middle of the outback.

We continue on our way back to the Lasseter Highway the next day. A side road (Ernest Giles Road) promises "98 km to Stuart Highway" and despite the large signs stating 4WD recommended, we try to ride it. After about 1 km of severely corrugated gravel, and unpredictable sand drifts that suddenly swallow your tires up to the rim and leave you motionless (or off your bike), we were defeated and turned back to the sealed. Another 25 km on, we reach a water tank, so wash some clothing, including our shirts which we put back on wet. They are dry again in 20 minutes in the warm headwind. At some point a dingo starts chasing me for about a kilometre as I ride along at 20 km/h. It must get bored with this game, as it peels off into the scrub eventually. I wasn't even aware of its presence; if I was I may have picked up the pace. Simon saw the whole thing as he travelled behind me, and  told me later he assumed I knew about the large dog running behind me. We ride to make camp about 5 km from the T junction to the Lasseter Highway, amongst some beautiful shining giant spinifex rings, curious spiders, but hopefully not howling at 2 am dingos.

Next day the land is covered in a thick fog. The sun rises but it looks more like the moon as it struggles to illuminate. Slowly the fog clears and kites start circling the sky. Not far up the Lasseter Highway, a car towing a caravan pulls over in front of us and two people get out. I ride up the middle of the road - up the dotted line - as my way of saying "Not interested in whatever you are selling". The lady yells out "Are you Maree? It's Luke's mum!" as I pass. Wait, what? This is someone who actually knows me? Luke is a great mate of mine who I've known forever. I pull over and say 'G'day' to Luke's dad and shake his hand. I'm surely unrecognisable because I'm covered in dirt. We get to chatting. It's Luke's birthday so we pose for photos to send him ("Look at these two hobos I found on the side of the road. Happy Birthday"). Anyway, Simon wasn't aware we all knew each other immediately, and as he came riding up with Luke's mum taking a photo of him, he flipped her the bird and was ranting about stop taking photos without permission. Simon flipped off Luke's mum! I was making fun of him the rest of the day for that. Still am, let's be honest.

I later tell Simon the story of my mate Harry who was riding a singlespeed across Australia from east to west, Noosa to Perth, via all the dirt tracks. At the time my folks were caravanning Uluru. Everytime my dad came across a person riding he'd ask "Are you Harry??" Eventually, my folks did come across Harry, at about the same spot on the Lasseter Highway!

The headwind continues to make us suffer. We eventually make it to Mt Ebenezer roadhouse and then ride on to camp 15 km from Erldunda and the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs.

After riding into Erldunda roadhouse for breakfast, we still manage to have a warm headwind as we head north. Wedgetail eagles take off from the side of the road at regular intervals, their giant frames taking off slowly into the same headwind with a display of beautiful feathers. We click over 4000 km so far on our trip. We come across a roadkill wedgie beside the road near Palmer river and our hearts fall. The scenery is amazing, the road weaving through rocky rises and escarpments and things that look like the breakaways outside Coober Pedy. Ernest Giles Road, the other end, comes up on our left. We turn down it to head to the Henbury Meteorite Craters for camp. The road is still deeply corrugated gravel that we travel on slowly at about 5 or 10 km/h, but thankfully the sand drifts are minimal for the 15 km we need to ride it. Idiots driving fast on the dirt, trying to mimic the tv adverts that convinced them to buy the expensive toys in the first place, ruin their suspension and flick up stones. This is why the road in so corrugated.

We make it into the craters and ride around the edge of the largest. It's old and heavily worn down sides make it more like a dam than a Wolf Creek-looking impact. The rocky ridges that surround the conservation reserve delight us in the afternoon and sunset light. We have the place to ourselves now, and enjoy being able to sit at a table to eat dinner. Luxury. The moon is a giant that washes out all but the brightest stars. We bivvy under the shelter because everything else is covered in sharp stones. Before sunrise, I wake to see the moonset over a ridge -- a golden orange disc because it sets so close to sunrise time. But the sunrise gradually illumates the range once more as we pack up and head back out, the scree and spinifex enjoying every ray of light, sending out vivid colours. We breakfast as we reach the highway again, then ride on to Stuarts Well roadhouse for beer and a camel burger. Then we ride with the rugged violet Waterhouse Range on our left, to camp down a track next to a property fence a few metres from the highway.

The sunset turns the grasses over the fence into magic golden tufts and then a giant full moon rises to bathe us in light and give us moon shadows when we stand up. Trucks pass by, but eventually the road quietens down and we sleep in the red dirt track next to our bikes.

Next morning we rise before the moonset and watch it slowly reach the horizon, growing larger and more orange as it does so. As soon as it has set, the sun rises on the other side of the horizon, and we get on the road to ride the last 25 km into Alice Springs.

The last 5 km into town is madness. We appear to have arrived one hour before the 5-yearly Alice Springs Truck Parade, where road transport nerds have either done up shiny prime movers across the eras to drive in the 2 hour long parade, or are lining the highway into town with their caravans and deck chairs to watch it. We ride into town with shiny, muscle-car sounding trucks driving beside us, revving their engines for the gathering crowd, and hundreds of oldies watching us from their folding chairs. But we make it into town finally, and seek refuge near the dry, wide Todd River, away from the masses.

They must have rocks in their heads (Part 1)

Leaving Coober Pedy, after sheltering in a dugout, hiding from headwinds for a couple of days, we powered along the Stuart Highway at sometimes 30 km/h. Having no wind to contend with, we felt as though the previous days of riding in a headwind had given us a performance-enhancing drug effect on still days. There are flushes of hot pink wildflowers sprouting out from some kind of succulent looking bright green plant, soaking up the sunshine with the red dust and the occasional interesting reptile or dancing songlarks; all taking our focus from the road ahead. There are clusters of bush tomatoes linking the road edges. The land appears to get more arid as we travel North along it, but every now and then huge stands of 3 or 4 metre tall Acacia defy the lack of moisture, carpeted with soft-looking pale grass that looks like fluffy white animal fur.

Inside a dugout, Coober Pedy Wildflowers

The night before we had a big meal at the "best" restaurant in town, "John's", and ordered a takeaway "Coat of Arms" (emu and kangaroo) pizza to put in the fridge for the next days breakfast. Mmm breakfast pizza. The non-traditional breakfast, and the lack of a 50 km/h headwind combined allowed us to ride 140 km that day to camp next to a property fence amongst some concealing mulga.

We ride to Marla roadhouse the next day, where we buy fizz and fill up a water bottle with salty bore water not great for drinking but fine for cooking. There isn't any fresh water out here that you don't have to pay a lot for, but you can use some of the bore water at a pinch. We filled up our water bags before we left Coobs (30 litres costs 20c, so its cheap) but we liked to top up a bottle with bore water for cooking pasta and making porridge. There are pretty ranges appearing on three sides of us almost immediately upon leaving Marla. We pass a crude road sign made of old scrap metal that simply says "Plenty Cows" to make motorists aware of the wandering stock. Just before nightfall we make a campsite out of a patch of burred land next to a dry creek.

Next morning, a dingo scampers across ahead of us on the road, turning back to look at us, but running off into the trees when we approach. We pass four brumbies standing in the shade of some trees; less cowardly than that dingo, they simply stare at us blankly together. An open mine operation smears dust and diesel smoke across an interesting spinifex-dotted hill in the distance. We stop at a rest area to fill up water from the tank that tells us it may be contaminated, but they all say that, and its mostly only rust and mosquito larvae. A central netted dragon takes on heat from the middle of a lane and somehow survives the Stuart traffic: now many, many caravans, motorhomes, four wheel drives with off-road trailers and of course the Central Australian roadtrains. We are no threat except with our cameras. We camp in some scrub 5 km from the SA/NT border.

Rising early next morning to hit the NT border's water tank before the grey nomads wake up at the rest stop there, we then ride on a tiny bit before stopping for breakfast. We are often riding five, ten, fifteen kilometres before breakfast because the mornings are cold and it takes a while to warm up our stomachs and the alcohol fuel for Simon's stove. I just soak my oats overnight and eat them cold with some dried fruit to add some kind of flavour; but Simon cooks.

As soon as you enter the Northern Territory, everything seems to get a deeper shade of red. Huge ochre-coloured boulders appear beside the road and on the horizon. Wildflowers still blanket the ground in parts. We reach Kulgera roadhouse around 9 am and eat sandwiches and iced coffee. We also get things for lunch later as a bit of a luxury away from the usual fare of peanut butter smeared on crackers.

The Stuart Highway is saturated with caravanners and many pass too close, some honk just as they pass to make you gradually deaf in your right ear. By mid-afternoon we arrive at Erlunda roadhouse for an icy pole and a coke. This roadhouse is well stocked but expensive; but we have our supplies still. As we turn down the Lasseter Highway towards Uluru, the scenery turns to red dunes and soft spinifex, glowing in the afternoon light. Sand dunes here have been sitting in their present position for 30,000 years. We ride along another 35 km before making camp next to a fence amongst some mulga. The smiling crescent moon over a sand dune turns orange as night falls. As we begin to fall asleep, cows tramp past us. I wake up and shine a light to see two glowing, widely-spaced white LED eyes staring back at me from metres away. "What the fuck is that?" escapes my lips before my sleepy brain registers the stampede noise and the eyes are the same beast. Cow. I say "Oh, Hi Cow!" and it stampedes away before mooing into the night. "Mooon" "Mooon" I pretend it is staying at the red crescent moon. The stars are consumed by some clouds.

Next day, we are on the road at sunrise but not far along some locals had broken down sometime during the night, their car running out of petrol. There were standing around a fire to keep warm and one bloke would step out onto the road to try to flag down a lift. But, no one was stopping for him. He stuck his hitchhikers thumb out at me with a slight grin. He motioned he wanted something to eat with sign language, so Simon gave them a muesli bar each. They must have eventually got a lift and fuel as they were at the next roadhouse about the same time we got there, driving past slowly with cheery waving hands. Sometime later we clicked over 3000 km so far on our trip.

The Lasseter Highway that takes you from the Stuart Highway to Yulara (the resort town that services Uluru and Kata Tjuta tourists) attracts the biggest recreational vehicles and the worst drivers in Australia. At least three times a day we are driven off the road that has no shoulder for the most part, and only soft sand to the side, by someone driving a truck-sized motorhome (sometimes with a car towed behind), or a caravan, and no clue how to safely pass a slower vehicle when there is oncoming traffic. The only thing getting more of a workout than my middle finger was my mirrors. Despite the horrible road conditions, the occasional glimpses of Mt Conner in the distance sooth my mood; it's striking violet colours breathtaking amongst the red dunes, the golden, wheat-coloured spinifex, and grey-green mulga setting.

Mt Conner

We are now "outback" enough to attract the "bike paparazzi" which are people who drive right beside you (30 cm from you), slowly, creepily, and then stick a camera out the window to take a snap of you at close range. This of course is extremely rude, dangerous and irritating. I am not a koala. I'm not something you need to collect for your photo album. If you feel you must take a photo of a complete stranger, at least ask their permission. If I went up to someone randomly now and stuck a camera in their face, they'd rightly tell me to piss off. I have no idea why a traveller on a bike doesn't deserve any amount of decency from fellow humans.

That night we camp behind a red dune amongst the spinifex. Again, cows wander past when it's dark. In the early morning a dingo howls next to my head, waking us up with its haunting noise. I just yelled slowly, tiredly, "Go. Away. Dingo!" and hissed at it, and it went away. Simon likes to re-tell this story as me yelling out in a most Australian accent "piss off dingo". Anyway, while he fiddled with the zipper on his bivy bag, I solved the problem laying down.

A five kilometre ride next morning brought us to breakfast at the Curtin Springs roadhouse which has views of Mt Conner, and about one thousand caravanners free-camping. We then continued on towards Yulara, joined by a strengthening headwind. Teasing glimpses of Uluru magic as the road curved between rust-coloured sand dunes and obscuring Desert Oaks, and even distant, smokey-purple views of Kata Tjuta, spur us onwards regardless. Some of the critters that live in the area include spinifex hopping mouse, red kangaroo, mulgara, rufus hare-wallaby, dingo, ants, thorny devil, woma python, great desert skink, perentie, mulga snake (king brown), western bowerbird, crimson chat, black-breasted buzzard (kite), grey-fronted honey eater, slaty-backed thornbill, splendid fairy-wren, spinifex pigeon. Desert oak juvenille trees are straight and tall, but when the roots meet the water table the mature tree spreads out massive limbs as if celebrating with wide open arms.

Before we get to Yulara we meet "John" who cycled the dirt track from Perth to here, and considered the sealed road good quality, but more dangerous because of all the traffic. He sounds like he is heading down the unsealed Plenty Hwy next. Wearing nothing but short shorts in the middle of the day, he reminds me there must be a legion of 30-somethings European men who ride Australia in their 20s and go on to develop skin cancer, as many disregard the slip slop slap message we've now grown up with. We are travelling in UV rated long sleeves and long pants despite the hot days.

We finally make it into Yulara and check into a $265 cabin away from the caravan set. The cabin is labelled "budget" and while the interior is small and has bunk beds instead of a double, I'm not sure just who's budget they refer to; but its just for one night of sanctuary of walls, to wash ourselves and our clothes, and most importantly, to drink beer.

Yulara is a desert oasis, not least for us because it has a fully stocked IGA at city prices, the like of which we haven't seen since Coober Pedy. We escape inside and buy up icypoles, softdrink and - gasp - Cheesymite scrolls - before walking to a lookout for an Uluru sunset. There is a fire off in the distance towards Uluru, but it is out before last light.


But there is little rest for us overnight as we check out before first light to ride to Uluru with the rising sun. We circle Uluru via the base walk on our  bikes, and at this time of the early morning it is quiet for the most part.

Bush plum

For many Australians, Uluru (pronounced pronounced Ool-or-roo), or 'Ayers Rock' as it was know for a short period of time, is like a cartoon character you've known since childhood - abstractly in the "middle of Australia" in the "middle of the outback" in the "middle of nowhere"; its image a staple on nearly every touristy souvenir. It's a mascot for our home like a koala or kangaroo is. You think this would diminish the power it can have over you. Nope. The overwhelming feeling is a sense of awe at its sheer size and presence on the landscape. It is this large, friendly giant that is paradoxically both enormous and "cuddly" at the same time. Uluru, from the time it was first seen, drew people to it, as a spot both sacred and offering a place to stay. Its pock marks, textures and stains tell stories and describe a way of life and a way of living (the law) [Tjukurpa (pronounced chook-orr-pa) meaning creation time, law, way of life]; all the while reminding us of the timeless beauty of nature.

The sky threatened rain, but the water refused to come and transform the rock purple. The colours change throughout the day regardless, reflecting the mood and hour of the day's sky. The colour changes of Uluru are due to the sun's rays being filtered through the earth's atmosphere. Mostly, being so close to the monolith it feels like you are seeing the unreal in the real. Uluru is 348 m tall--that is higher than the Eiffel tower. Uluru is just the tip of a huge slab of rock that is thought to continue 6 km below ground. By the time we had ridden around the rock, being sure to read every sign and explore every nook, swarms of people were arriving for the free guided tour that happens daily called the "Ranger guided Mala walk", and many buses had arrived for their own tours. The climb was closed that day based on the weather forecast, so there was no opportunity to show disrespect to those who show no respect by going against Anangu (pronounced Arn-ung-oo) -- Western Desert people -- wishes to not climb the rock. The climb is dangerous; Anangu feel great sadness if visitors are hurt on their land. The path of the climb is believed to be the traditional route taken by Mala men when they arrived at Uluru, and is associated with important Mala ceremonies. Aboriginal people arrived at Uluru-Kata Tjuta from the north about 30,000 years ago.

Some of the edible plants in the area include: Bush plum (Arnguli, pronounced Ah-noo-lee), Bush tomato (Tjantu, pronounced Jarn-too), and Native fig (Ili, pronounced Ear-lee).

Leaving with a headwind in our faces, we rode towards Kata Tjuta. It switched to a tailwind briefly as we rode the curved road, but mostly it was a fan-forced-oven crosswind. We camped about 4 km from Kata Tjuta, just outside the national park in some mulga scrub, sharing it with a thousand flies. Setting sun changing colours views of Kata Tjuta from camp kept us entertained as night fell.

Next day we rode into Kata Tjuta just after sunrise, and walked the Valley of the Winds circuit through the domes. The different scenes offered from the lookouts along the walk seem like views to magical mystical lands. Kata Tjuta has 36 domes, the highest is 546 m (198 m taller than Uluru). Kata Tjuta (pronounced catta-jew-tah) means "many heads".

After a quick morning tea we head to nearby Walpa Gorge where there is a shorter walk into a sanctuary from the hot day. Walpa (pronounced wharl-pa) means "wind". Now if we combine the two names we have Kata Tjuta Walpa, meaning many headwinds? We run into someone we've met in Melbourne, and then meet her friend who has ridden a similar way to us, also giving up the Mawson trail in parts with his loaded touring bike. He asks how we are riding back to Melbourne, but we are heading north still. We laze about in some shade like two kangaroos for a couple of hours before heading back to the same campsite as last night, to again watch the sunset on Kata Tjuta domes. During the night I see a large shooting star/ meteorite, carving a bright path across the night sky wider than any shooting star I've seen so far. I half expect to hear a loud crash as if it could make it to earth.

We ride back into Yulara the next day and stock up on supplies (read: cheesymite scrolls). We are there the same time as the Black Dog Ride motorcycle riders come in; Uluru being their final stopping point of the official ride. I believe the ride is to raise awareness for depression and suicide. Before we leave Yulara, I overhear a conversation between three grey nomads. The lady is saying "What's so good about the Olgas -- once you've seen one rock you've seen them all!" I just started laughing. This is someone who can't even be bothered driving 50 kms to see something amazing, delightful, and completely different from Uluru, if they could be bothered to find out.

Last glimpse of Uluru

Continue reading part 2