Monday, August 31, 2015

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


Malcolm Gorman said...

Great writing and photography.

Best quotable quote: I am not a koala.

Maree said...

Thanks Mal. I'm more of a drop bear.

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain with the bicycle paparazzi and the 'encouraging' horn tooting - my only less than fond memories of the big paddock.

Tim Connors said...

Woulda been funny if I actually booked my black dog ticket on time and was there. One day we'll bump into each other again and we'll be both riding... I dunno, Iceland maybe.