Kings Canyon, Alice Springs and Back The Way We Came

We were coming to the end of our outback roadtrip and soon it would be time to turn our tails and head back the way we had come for an opportunity back in Adelaide. In the meantime though, there were still a few places we were keen to see.

Before we left Uluru we took one last morning to soak up the culture by visiting one of the art galleries on site there and happened to catch one of the free talks. This turned out to be such a good experience as, since first seeing Aboriginal artwork, we had wondered what the meaning behind the dots, lines, patterns and symbols were and this talk explained exactly that. Our speaker was a lovely young Aboriginal woman who explained that each painting depicts a story but only those within the tribe can know the full story, even she does not know the full meaning behind paintings done by someone outside her tribe and her own tribe’s stories were passed on to her only when she came of age. However, there are certain aspects of the paintings that everyone can understand and she taught us how to look for these symbols. For example, a “U” shape means a person and if they are arranged in a circle it means people sitting together. A circle with a dot or smaller circles within it means a meeting place and the marks that look like bird feet are actually kangaroo feet! Dot painting is probably the most well known form of Aboriginal painting but is by no means the only one. Sometimes the Dreamtime story is depicted beneath the painting as another layer so that it is woven into the artwork without revealing itself to anyone outside the tribe. The speaker told us a story about an obnoxious customer who had bought one of the artworks and then demanded to know the story behind it, believing that because he owned the painting he also had the right to own the story. Definitely not!

There were yet more talks and activities I would have loved to do in Uluru but our time there was up and we set off for Kings Canyon. There are a couple of camping options here but similarly to Uluru most of the land is protected and therefore other than roadside stops there are only two options. One is Kings Creek Station which is further away from Kings Canyon so to save some fuel and driving time we opted for Kings Canyon Resort, though it has stunning views of the canyon it is still a short drive to the start point of the hikes. On the first afternoon we did little more than get settled in and watch the sunset over the canyon.

After a relaxing afternoon I was hoping I would be all fired up for a day of hiking Kings Canyon but alas, our hiking mojo was gone. It had been a busy past couple of days, even weeks, and we were starting to feel it. We hadn’t come all this way to sit in our van though, so dragging our heels just slightly we set off regardless. We chose to do the iconic Rim Walk, a 6km hike to the top, around the rim, a visit to the Garden of Eden, an oasis tucked away within the canyon, past the domes and back to the bottom again. It was supposed to take 3-4 hours but we did it in around two. There were some incredible views and I’m very glad we did it, at the same time maybe our reluctance to hike was simply that it is a slight anti-climax after Uluru and Kata Tjuta. We were happy to finish up earlier than expected and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the shade of our camper van as we relaxed.

We had only planned on spending a couple of nights in our next stop, Alice Springs, yet when we arrived Thursday we were told about the Henley on Todd regatta happening on Saturday and decided it was a sign that we should stay longer. Living near the Henley on Thames regatta back home, though we had never actually been, it seemed too weird and wonderful an opportunity to pass up going to the Henley on Todd and seeing how on earth a regatta works in the middle of the desert! It would also give us a longer break from driving for a while, something we were in need of after the long distances we had traveled.

There were a few other things to explore in Alice Springs as well. First up we decided to mooch around Todd Mall, which turned out to be a single street of a few random tourist, charity and other shops. In the afternoon we checked out the Royal Flying Doctors of Australia Museum. The name is a bit of a mouthful and so is the information provided! There is lots to read but also a lot of displays of old medial equipment, radios used, an aircraft you can get in to explore, virtual reality headsets that let you “sit in”on a real medical flight and a holographic presentation to start the experience off. Even if there was a lot to take in it was very interesting. The Royal Flying Doctors of Australia is a service used to this day for people in rural communities to receive the medical care they require. It was officially started by John Flynn but the idea arguably came from himself and two other men. One of which was a man who was hit and trapped under a cart, he was suffering internal injuries and had to be taken on a harrowing and bumpy journey over miles to the nearest doctor to then also have to wait for a surgeon to arrive separately to perform an operation and in the end he died the day before the surgeon arrived. He was an inspiration for the desperate need for medical care to be able to reach these remote places. And so the idea of flying doctors was born. It was also brought together by the use of radio. This allowed people in remote communities to talk to a GP and have a consultation without having to travel.

Although I would have loved to visit the Kangaroo Sanctuary in Alice Springs at $80 per person and having been to Josephine’s Kangaroo Sanctuary and art gallery in Coober Pedy, we decided to give it a miss. The next best thing was a visit to Desert Park. This is kind of a botanical garden / wildlife centre mix. As you make your way through the park you’ll visit different types of desert environments and get to explore and learn about the flora and fauna that grows there, as well as the eco-systems they support. If you’re an avid bird watcher this is the perfect place for you with many mini averies along the way. The highlight for us was the Nocturnal Centre and joining onto the guided tour made it even better. Lots of the creatures were really active in their darkened enclosures. I had no idea how many similar but at the same time very different types of marsupial rodent type creatures the Australian outback had! The Bettong looks like a rat, only bigger, with furry tails and a more rounded face, then there are Bilbies that look like a mix between a mouse and an anteater, with grey fur, long pinkish ears and a long nose and the Northern Quoll has a rodent-like face but with big rounded ears, brownish fur with white dots and long claws – just to name a few! My favourite was the Hopping Mice who raced about so quick they looked like a blur. When they do pause long enough to look at them properly they have big ears and kangaroo like legs that make them so quick! We finished our visit at the bird show which is one of the more impressive bird shows I’ve ever been to as the focus was more on demonstrating each birds unique skills as they would use them in the wild as opposed to simply doing tricks for the audience. The black-breasted buzzard uses tools to break open eggs. In the deomnstration the bird picked up rocks and repeatedly threw it at the egg to crack it, revealing a treat inside.

On the day of Henley on Todd I still didn’t know what to expect. We were about to watch a regatta on the dried up riverbed of the Todd river. I shouldn’t have doubted the Australians though as a little drought was never going to hinder them. The day started with a parade of the boats. These turned out to be self-made, carried, shells of boats in all shapes and sizes which, when the events started, would be held up by teams running races across the sand to see who could come first. There was much silliness, cheating, laughing and good fun. The races had different categories and were broken up by other challenges and events reminiscent of a British sports day obstacle course. There was also a prize for the best boat and this rightly went to the man dressed as a barrel with a baby on his front and a toddler on his back, the three of them making up the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. They won the hearts of the crowd and joined in every event, they were brilliant!

The sun was out, we were finally feeling some real heat on this trip, there were plenty of food trucks to scurry off to and we were loving the festival vibes. Throughout the day the three main teams of the bigger boats (vehicles dressed up) egged on the crowd for support and frequently broke out into water fights and scuffles between the teams. This was all in the lead up to the grand finale which was a massive battle between the three teams: the Navy, the Vikings and the Pirates. If I thought the day had been worth it so far things were about to be taken to the next level as the teams climbed aboard their vessels and the battle began. Suddenly all hell broke loose with canons firing what looked like dust and confetti, water balloons being hurled and water canons being fired. The boats chased each other round and round the arena and often ended up with one poor team in the middle, desperately spinning and hurling water bombs in every direction as two other teams circled them, equally ferociously fighting back. When the bedraggled teams did one last lap and lined up to have the winner chosen you wouldn’t be able to tell who came out best from looking at them. However the reason for the teams throwing sweets into the crowds all day became clear as we discovered the winner was to be chosen by the loudest cheer. My favourites were the vikings who seemed to have endless energy and really threw themselves into the days events all day long but it was the Navy the crowd seemed to love more, even if it was a close call. The whole day was a bit strange and a bit fantastic and definitely worth extending our time for.

Originally we had planned on travelling all the way into the Northern Territory and to Darwin before continuing on to the East Coast however, all the way back in Hahndorf we had found an opportunity to do our farm work in the Adelaide Hills. This meant a massive change of plan but to be able to tick off our farm work so soon was a massive plus to us and we felt it was worth the effort of turning tails and coming back. At the time of writing this we’ve actually come to an end of our time here so I’ll tell you all about it in the next post. The journey back was a lot shorter, though with the lengthy drives it didn’t feel like it! We drove from Alice Springs to Coober pedy to Port Augusta and arrived back in Adelaide on a wet chilly day, already missing the outback temperatures. We had loved our time in the van and now we could set up and pack up in a few minutes. Although the van was beginning to feel like home at last we couldn’t help but crave some stability of being in the same place for an extended period of time – not to mention having a proper bed to sleep in! That first night on the farm I was nervous as to what the experience would be like, feeling out of sorts in a new place that would be our home for potentially the next few months and a little excited to be in the beautiful and peaceful Adelaide Hills. Our Outback Adventure was over but (and please excuse the cheese) a new chapter to our trip was just beginning.

The Outback Roadtrip – German Food, Kangaroos and Underground Homes

The road trip had only just begun but already our van was running into problems. It was jerky and struggling to get up hills or change gears and though it had started along the Great Ocean Road, by The Grampians we had to admit we couldn’t go any further until it was sorted. We called the mechanic who had done our roadworthy in Melbourne and though he tried to diagnose the issue over the phone there wasn’t much he could do. He knew a guy in Adelaide who could take a look at it for us if we could get it there but we didn’t want to risk the long drive. We asked around for a local mechanic and rocked up first thing to find out what was going on. Within minutes he knew it was an ignition misfire and luckily said he believed we could nurse it to Adelaide and get it fixed there as he was booked solid that day and we wanted to avoid staying somewhere so out of the way.

With the road trip at least temporarily back on we set off straight away but before Adelaide we had one more stop to make. Back in Melbourne we had spoken to two different people who recommended a German town outside of Adelaide called Hahndorf. They said there was good food and cute shops and it sounded like our kind of place.

We arrived late in the afternoon and once we were all set up at the campsite we ventured out into the rain to find food. There are a few German pubs in Hahndorf all of which do these huge sharing platters of German food, which as soon as I read about I knew we had to try. The Hahndorf Inn had the best reviews and straight away we had great service, being offered to sit by the fire and getting wine recommendations. The German Platter was piled high with pork shoulder, the meat falling off the bone, pork chops, sauerkraut and a variety of German sausage plus two pretzels. It was all a bit too much even for us! Tasty, but very stodgy too. No room for dessert!

The next day we got to explore the town a bit more, ducking into shops selling handmade soaps, candles and honey. We admired the expensive imported wooden trinkets made in Germany and realised it would be cheaper for us to fly to Germany to buy something there than to buy here. We also tried out one of the other German restaurants called Haus, this one had more of a mix of cuisine on the menu so was a great place for breakfast, serving some of the most delicious pancakes and poached eggs we had so far on the trip.

When we reached Adelaide it was too late to get the van looked at that day and we happened to have arrived on a weekend so we extended our stay and waited until Monday to get the van seen to. In the meantime it was a good opportunity to catch up with Ashlie, a friend of a friend who had started her working holiday visa a few months before us and happened to fly across from the East Coast to Adelaide in search of farm work. It was so nice to commiserate on finding work and share the ups and downs of travel. We got to chat to a few of the friends she had made in the hostel too and gain some travel tips from them and her. More than anything, I think for both of us, it was nice to have that little piece of familiarity from back home and I hoped our paths would cross again while in Australia.

Finally we managed to get the van looked at and the ignition misfire confirmed. As much as we love the van it has been a struggle and a cause for some low moments when our plans seem halted to get things fixed or paperwork needing to be ticked off. It had been a huge worry for us that if the repairs set us back financially it would change the course of our trip, or even lead us to have to give up the van entirely, or if not now then it could become a constant stop start on our journey and possibly even leave us stranded in a tricky situation if we broke down on the road. It is something we had accepted when we knew we wanted to buy a vehicle and road trip Australia but when the reality hits it can be a different story. Thankfully the costs were less than first quoted and it was all sorted in a day putting us back on track for the next leg of our journey.

Along the Great Ocean Road the drive times had been relatively short at 2 – 4 hours per day. Now we were heading into the outback those drive times would mostly be 6 – 8 hours long. Port Augusta was our first stop and this was mainly to break things up a little bit. It is definitely a hub for different road trips, whether you are heading north, south or west, it is a good jumping off point and quite a pretty place in its own way with a huge river cutting through it.

After resting up and enjoying the first evening of the trip so far that we were able to sit outside our van for a little while, it was an early start to Coober Pedy. Coober Pedy is an opal mining town whose residence have a unique way of living. Most of Coober Pedy’s homes are actually underground! This means that the houses stay cool in the hot sun and it makes expanding easy as you simply dig out another room whenever you need one. Even our campground was underground…well… sort of. We opted to stay at Riba’s Underground Campsite, which is just outside the town and offers people the chance to pitch up their tents underground for a campsite with a difference. Unfortunately we couldn’t park the van up underground so we had to live with the dust and the wind up top but we did join in with the mining tour the owner runs on site.

We gathered at the entrance with quite a big group of other guests at 7pm and were taken down into the cavern where various pieces of equipment were set up to demonstrate the method of opal mining in Coober Pedy. Our guide was a little odd, trying too hard to be funny at times and getting quite short with people (verging on rude) if anyone asked any questions as he clearly had his speeches and ways of explaining things that he didn’t want to be interrupted or thrown off course. It was $26 per person but meant we got 50% off one night stay but to be honest we saw better and cheaper mining tours around town so I wouldn’t necessarily be suckered in by this deal.

Still, it was interesting to learn how miners would follow certain veins in the rock to where the opal was most likely to be. Most of the mines were dug out by hand but slowly machinery began to be brought in and huge blowers would be used to suction out the debris creating the iconic mounds of dust and limestone that you’ll see scattered across the otherwise flat landscape as you arrive in Coober Pedy. If you are lucky you may even find some opal shrapnel by noodling (sieving through) these piles, something we saw several people doing while we were there.

The next day we visited Josephine’s Gallery and Kangeroo Sanctuary and met Judy, an incredibly knowledgeable woman both on aboriginal art and kangaroos. To begin with we had time to look around the gallery. There were some gorgeous art pieces but all too expensive for us frugal backpackers! Though we did treat ourselves to some smaller, cheaper prints of the original art. Once enough of a crowd had gathered we were taken out back to where the kangaroos were. They currently have three adults and many more joeys. We were handed some wasabi peas (apparently kangaroos like spicy food! They even eat the plants in the wild that have a spicier taste that other animals don’t eat) and all stuck our hands over the fence expectantly. But they were too lazy and remained where they were, collapsed in some interesting positions…

The little joey she brought out next was much more friendly. After having some milk Clyde clambered out of his pouch strapped to Judy and hopped around, exploring the little courtyard area, licking the wasabi peas (he was still to young to eat them but liked the flavour anyway) and sniffing at everything. He liked reaching up to give Judy a cuddle and let us stroke him too – he had the softest fur! Judy told us so many facts about kangaroos but one that stuck with me was that kangaroos actually use their hormones to choose the sex of their offspring right before birth. With most animals the sex is random or if it is affected by hormones it happens much earlier in the pregnancy but kangaroos can wait until the last moment to judge whether the ratio of male to females is right before the joey is born to keep things in balance. Pretty cool!

Although I could have had cuddles with little Clyde all day long, eventually we had to let him hop back into his pouch for a nap and head out exploring. We stopped off at the Big Winch View point, which is no more exciting than the name describes but did gives us a Birdseye view of this strange town. Everywhere you look there are junk piles or sculptures made from abandoned cars and rusted metal. It seems almost like an abandoned post-apocalyptic landscape, which may be why it was chosen as a location to film the Mad Max films. To get a real sense of what is going on beneath ground it is worth checking out Faye’s Underground home.

It was only $10 per person to look around the house and $15 to see the mine as well. We were taken through each room and told more about underground living and about Faye and the two other women she lived with who helped build the house. Faye came to Coober Pedy in the 60’s and decided to start opal mining, she hand dug her house, which became known for parties, as was evidenced by the liquor cupboard there. As their mining company became more successful they even built an above ground pool, which was a major luxury seeing as they had to have the water driven up from Adelaide to fill it! But they were always welcoming guests and neighbours to make use of it. They sounded like pretty badass women.

Coober Pedy is probably one of the strangest places I’ve ever been and for that reason alone it is worth visiting, even if it isn’t somewhere you would want to linger. Our next stop was to be a big one though – Uluru. It has been a place I’ve always wanted to visit and I couldn’t wait to get there.