Tuesday, May 6, 2008

The Outback, part 1


Someone should remind me to recommend to the travel agent not to have people arrive in Alice Springs on a Saturday or Sunday. I admit I feeling very lazy after the flight and wanted to rest a little before going out to explore. Getting from the airport to the hotel took no time at all. Within an hour of arrival we had recovered our baggage, picked up the car, found the hotel and were already sitting down for lunch. Then a rest, which was not a nap as I spent the time downloading photos from our cameras to the computer.

The flight from Adelaide was interesting. They say that the Aboriginal dreamings are maps in a manner of thinking – as if you were looking down at the terrain. Well, when you look down from the plane, you can see what they mean. The hills are dark, sort of a chocolate color. The dried up water holes and lakes are tannish. The earth is reddish, but in variations of red that look like stripes, but not straight stripes. Each tree appears as a single dot. Sometimes the dots are close together, sometimes far apart, but you can follow water (where there was water once upon a time) by following the density of the dots. The "river" systems actually look like trees. There is water occasionally, but I could not figure out where it was coming from.

Back to Alice Springs. When we left for a walk to the Aboriginal Cultural Center, it wasn't very late, but it turns out the center closes at 12 on Saturdays, so we would have never made it, even if we had rushed there from the airport. So, a quick stop at Woolworth's for some sun lotion and water and back to the hotel and time to write this.

(Daniel, on our little walk through town, I managed to take pictures of a variety of birds – the pink and gray ones I've been trying to catch since Inverness Park, a green and yellow one, and a strange kind of crested pigeon. I say pigeon, for lack of a better description. I think most of these birds are cuckatoos and although they look like pigeons, they sound more like parrots. When I get a chance to put some more pictures up on Picasa, I'll say so on the blog and you can take a look and perhaps tell me what they are.)


The dinner at the hotel last night was excellent. In fact, we have noticed, all of the restaurant meals we have had have been excellent. The wine last night, however, was pretty awful and that's the first time. Anyway, we don't quite understand why barramundi, the most Australian fish, should be so dominant on the menu in Alice Springs, which, as far as I know, is not famous for its fishing industry. Whatever the reason is, the barramundi was very good. It's a tasty fish, not insipid. Paul and I both had barramundi, but not prepared the same way. Mine was oven-baked with an almond crust. And for dessert, an apple and walnut crisp (crumble, sort of) with butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream.

In spite of the copious dinner last night, we decided on having a full breakfast this morning because we had no idea when or where we'd have lunch. And off we went into the great Australian emptiness. Except that it's not nearly as desert-like as we expected. In fact, after having been through the fire-afflicted Grampians and Flinders Chase and the drought-stricken over-grazed sheep and cattle farms, this is absolutely luxuriant. There are indications of fire, but not over so vast a territory, and not so recent. The mallee trees are almost grown back to their full height. The red gums (eucalyptus) are everywhere and look in excellent shape. There are grasses and bushes all over. It's very green – from a "new growth" green to gray, dusty green, to the brownish green of the end of the season. And this was basically uninterrupted from Alice Springs to our arrival here at Glen Helen.

We stopped along the way, of course. The first stop was just 17 km. from Alice Springs, at Simpsons Gap. This was a walk along a dry river bed – really dry, like the Todd river bed in Alice Springs that people use as a motorbike course. The rocks were beautiful: the dominant color here is red – all sorts of red. In the river bed, animals (probably a rock wallabies) had dug just a few inches and had found water – really amazing to see how close to the surface it was. There was a photographer setting up pictures of a girl on the rocks and he said to her that there was a wallaby on the rocks behind her. For his own good, he should not have said anything, because, of course, we wanted to see the wallaby and he wanted his model to take off her shirt. Good tourists that we are, we took our pictures of the wallaby and let him get on with his model. A few meters away was the end of the walk, where the cliffs close in on the gap and there is a permanent waterhole (more like a pond) in the river. The vegetation is lusciously green. On the way back, we saw that there were at least three wallabies up in the rocks and I was very lucky getting pictures of them.

A bit up the road, en route for Standley Chasm, we actually saw a kangaroo hop across the road. It was a big one, too. We (and he) are so lucky we didn't hit him. Standley Chasm is a privately owned affair, so you have to pay an entry fee, but the sight was well worth it. You go down a path along another dry river bed. (These river beds are light colored sand and stones, not at all the same as the surrounding rocks.) This one was not so dry and bare as the one at Simpsons Gap. There were lots of trees and grasses growing in it. Along the way, we could here running water and came across the creek, which must be the water supply for the concession stand. There are cactus-like plants that look like palmettos, butterflies, and other "new" flora. You have to climb up a few rocks before you get to the chasm, which reminded us very much as a miniature passage to Petra, except there weren't any magnificent mausoleums on the other side, just more towering rocks. It was beautiful.

After lunch at the concession stand (the big breakfast turned out to be not such a bright idea), we continued on towards Glen Helen. Neither of us was up to more walking, especially as the walks at the next few stops turned out to be from 1 to 3 km. and it was high noon and very hot. We did stop at the Ochre Pits. This is where Aborigines mined the ocher they use for their body decorations and dreamings. It is a sacred sight, so you are reminded not to touch, pick up, or take any ocher. (Terry, a painter would be very frustrated, but if you brought your own selection of ocher pastels and fly deterrent, you could sit there a while and paint it. You'd need a selection from white through yellow and different reds.)

At Glen Helen, there is a permanent watering hole at the Glen Helen Gorge. The river bed – again dry – is not sandy. It's all big pebbles – again nothing like the rocks around here. The river bed is mostly hidden by a very tall green grass. When you get to the watering hole, not 10 minutes from the motel, you see a big pond. It's big enough for swimming, for fish to survive droughts, and for ducks. Heaven knows how the ducks got here; there are only a few. The "resort" is stripped to bare essentials – well, bare by today's standard. The rooms do have showers and toilets and there is a laundry area. It's the only restaurant for kilometers, so we are a captive audience. It's also got the only gas station before our stop tomorrow, so they are guaranteed that we'll fill up. I'm going to stop now to admire the sunset.


Sunset admired – not as great as it looked like it was going to be. And we missed the sunrise this morning (good intentions only go so far), but the early sun on the cliff was beautiful.

Almost as soon as we headed out, we saw our kangaroo of the day hopping around in the brush. We also saw a dingo off the road, in the brush later on. What is most remarkable during the day is the vegetation. There is plenty of it. I was told they hadn't had any significant rain since November, yet there is a lot of "new" green. There are flowers, all kinds of grasses, varieties of trees that change from one side of a hill to another.

For our 367km. journey to Kings Canyon, the brand new paved road (sealed, for UK readers) ended after almost 50 and we were on a gravel/sand road for most of the way. It's a very wide road. I think that's because no one wants to drive in the worn down middle and so they have made the shoulders into passage ways. The corrugation is something else. To say it's bumpy is too kind. So the sandy shoulders seemed a better option, except for the swerving. It was hard to find the right speed – slowing down didn't help over the corrugation and speeding up was not great when you hit a hole in the sand.

We stopped at Gosse Bluff (Tnorala), the crater of a comet striking 145 million years ago. The very rough track took us right to the center of the worn down crater. We had a 360° view of mountains around us.

That was it for stopping, except to take pictures occasionally of the mountains, the green scenery, the termite mounds, the paddy melons that grow along the roadside. (It seems these paddy melons are either poisonous or just plain disgusting, depending on who's talking. Even the animals won't eat them, but we saw that they do break them up for the water content; they left plenty of droppings.

Speaking of droppings, they are evidence of the presence of lots and lots of animals that must be more nocturnal and in hiding during the day. Even very large animals, one suspects, from the size and quantity!

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