This Time Last Year: Adventures Down Under

Blue dual-cab Hilux in the Outback Trusty steed

Enjoying a damp, grey English Christmas wrapped up in a woolly jumper, it’s hard to believe that this time last year I was in one of the hottest places on Earth. I never did finish writing up our Australian adventure (and this, folks, is why I shouldn’t do trip reports), but I thought I’d squeeze in a last look back through the mist.

Northward bound

The mists of Kangaroo Island burnt away under a relentless sun as we headed north for Christmas. In spite of the 40C heat, it took us 3 days to embrace that yes, sometimes you just have to say fuck it to fuel efficiency and put the air conditioning on.

But we were worried about fuel. We were about to drive 800km down a dirt track in an unfamiliar vehicle in searing heat. We didn’t know what our tank range would be – so we didn’t know what our margin of error was. Once we got north of Port Augusta, it would consistently be 200-300km between fuel stops – a long way by European standards, sure, but hardly a problem for a modern car. In theory. With the outdoors set to hit body temperature before breakfast, all it would take was to skip refuelling at one stop and find the next one closed to end up in trouble.

We used our two days on the paved Stuart Highway to get to know what our sturdy Hilux was really capable of, and switched the air conditioning off to find out what we could bear. And then we filled up a couple of spare fuel cans and slung them in the tray, just to be sure.

Holes and Hills

The Stuart Highway runs over 2500km north to Darwin through a stark but varied landscape of rolling hills, scrub and salt flats. We pulled off briefly to admire the decaying fragments of space exploration and weapons of mass destruction in the Missile Park outside Woomera primary school, but spent most of the hours marvelling at how green the landscape looked from a distance – and watching out for wildlife. Emus and kangaroos put in regular appearances, along with the occasional cow.

I had absolutely no idea what to expect of Coober Pedy, but it wasn’t Coober Pedy. This remote town is the centre of the opal mining industry and defined by its copious holes. You know you’re getting close when you start seeing the manmade molehills as the surrounding land is full of piles of rubble and graphic warning signs (broadly: eyes on the floor, it’s full of fuckin’ holes). The town itself is dug into the shallow hillsides, a rough and ready community defined by improvisation and a stubborn dedication to pulling rocks out of the ground.

We enjoyed a cold drink to wash away the stickiness of the longest day and discovered the culinary delights of outback pizza (yes, it involves kangaroo – and emu, if you’re lucky – along with other combinations that would make a Neapolitan’s toes curl), then headed for the Conservation Park. We drove the Dog Fence through a startling gibber moonscape then settled in to watch sunset and moonrise over the colourful mesas of the Kanku-Breakaways.

Moonrise at the Kanku-Breakaways, South Australia
Summer solstice moonrise at the Kanku-Breakaways

The Heart of Australia

We spent Christmas at Yulara, the tourist town that keeps visitors a safe distance from the sacred landscapes of Uluru. We arrived with big plans: we would hike around Uluru (no, not climb it. When the local peoples ask you not to, it is only polite to keep your feet on the ground), explore the domes of Kata Tjuta and take a road trip to King’s Canyon. We had underestimated just how tiring the mileage and the heat would be. Now we had an inkling of how much the drive west to the coast would demand of us, we listened to the plaintive howls of our stressed bodies and adjusted accordingly.

Sunrise at Uluru, looking west to Kata Tjuta
Christmas dawns at Uluru

Still, there was no way we were foregoing our hike. On Christmas morning, we set our alarms obnoxiously early, packed as much water as we could carry and were rewarded with an unforgettable sunrise. There’s a reason Uluru is the most famous rock on the planet. It is even more beautiful close-up than it is from a distance: a rippling wave of sandstone rich in features that offer different glories with changes in the light. As temperatures soared, we threaded our way around its foot, enjoying the occasional shade of caves and waterholes as well as the sacred stories the local tribes share of them.

Thankfully, the great domed rocks of Kata Tjuta are gorgeous at sunset (although the flies are like the locust scene from The Mummy; take a fly screen) so we compromised and slept later on other mornings until it was time to hit the road again.

Desert days

One day, the Outback Way will be fully sealed and there will be a road through the centre of Australia. The Northern Territory has already paved to the border, and with new mining leases opening up the Western Australian side also involved more tarmac than we were expecting (not hard; we didn’t think there’d be any). But for now, the Great Central Highway (as the WA side is called) is largely still dirt track, a bone-rattling, sand-slipping ride of intermittent terror, occasional camels and frequent beauty.

Camels crossing a red dirt road, outback Australia
Pause for camels

Our permits allowed us to use the road and access the four roadhouses along it; the settlements and the more remote sites of historical or natural interest require additional permissions we didn’t seek as we had promised to be in Perth for new year. There would be no opportunity for going fully off-road or wild camping. It was enough of an adventure without: we lost a tyre on the first morning, a 40km walk from the nearest settlement. Thankfully, we just about had the right equipment to change it – if we hadn’t, the irony of two white people needing to walk out of Lasseter’s Cave wasn’t lost on us.

Back on the road, we started counting how many other travellers we saw. We never needed more than the fingers of one hand each day, as we mostly only saw other people when we pulled into a roadhouse. The roadhouses are little oases of basic accommodation, expensive fuel and emergency supplies. Out here, fuel is to special formulation and alcohol is banned, but everything tastes amazing by the time you stop and the owners are happy to chat while you guzzle a fizzy drink. That year, the talk of the roadhouses were the two ‘German’ cyclists who were pedalling to Perth ahead of us. Hats off to them: when we found them at the edge of Laverton (and discovered they were actually Slovenian), they were still in high spirits in spite of being locked out of the remotest roadhouse (they arrived at Christmas; it was shut) and having their next water drop stolen. Now that’s intrepid.

But we were loving the silence. The breeze blows across undulating ground that shifts from white to red as the underlying rock changes, covered in greenery that masks just how dry this desert world is. From time to time, it would change briefly to scorched black, signs of recent fires that had burnt out as there’s very little fuel out here to feed them.

Outside the settlements, the only regular sign of human influence (apart from the road itself) were the wrecks scattered along the roadside. There’s no roadside recovery here – if you can’t get your vehicle moving again, nobody else will come to take it away. There’s a treasure trove (or environmental nightmare) of these in the dump behind Tjukayirla Roadhouse, left behind from a recent Shitbox Rally. The junkyard is slightly mournful, slightly spooky and impressive in spite of itself: I couldn’t imagine driving some of these across Australia’s most challenging roads even when they had all their gubbins.

Wrecks behind Tjukayirla Roadhouse
“My other car’s a shitbox”

Human impact

After two days of pretending we were the only people in the world, we made it to Laverton and decided to push on to Kalgoorlie. This is mining country, dominated by enormous trucks, terrifying bars and the occasional unexpected art installation.

Bronze statues on Lake Ballard
Antony Gormley at Lake Ballard

Invite Antony Gormley to do something for your art festival, and brace for impact. His contribution to Western Australia was 51 bronze statues installed across 10 square kilometres on the salt bed of Lake Ballard. They were due to be removed at the end of the festival: 15 years later, most of them are still in situ. It’s a fascinating, haunting, flyblown experience that requires you to get well off the beaten track and to be unafraid of making your way across the fragrant mud to get up close and personal – but it’s well worth it.

Our final adventure was to see another hole in the ground: the Super Pit at Kalgoorlie. The gold rush in Kalgoorlie started in the late 19th century – thanks to this enormous open cast mine, it’s still going. I’ve learnt to be impressed by large-scale engineering as an illustration of commitment and ingenuity. The Super Pit impresses on scale alone (which I’m afraid this photo fails to convey).

Kalgoorlie Super Pit - open-cast gold mine
A very big hole indeed

I’m not sure what’s more awe-inspiring: that the pit is over 2 miles long, a mile wide and over a third of a mile deep – or that they remove 1 million tonnes of rock to extract 250-300kg of gold. Bear in mind that gold is heavy – so that’s 1 golf ball of gold for every 7 dumpster trucks (and the trucks are enormous). Flabbergasted and slightly horrified, we got back on the road.

5,500km after we left Sydney (excluding side trips), we finally rolled into Perth for New Year. Soon, we were watching sunset over the Indian Ocean as we sipped wine with family – and planning our next adventure down under.

This year in Australia

This year, Australia is seeing the highest temperatures and worst bushfires on record. While the central areas we visited are largely unaffected as they are too arid, the east and south are under daily threat. They are defended by volunteer firefighters, who risk their lives to preserve what they can. If you’ve enjoyed my trip reports, please consider donating to support their efforts.