The roads less travelled

Trip Start Mar 07, 2006
Trip End Jun 30, 2006

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Monday, May 15, 2006

I've finally arrived here in Alice Springs, and what a road trip it's been!

Over the past three days, we've covered over 2600 kilometers through the "real Australia", most of the time not seeing any other people or vehicles. Just to put that in perspective, that's a longer drive than Montreal to South Florida... and a good part of this drive was on unsealed dirt roads with cows wandering around at random. I went with a tour company called Desert Venturer, which advertises itself as offering "Australia's most remote road trips". They weren't kidding.

On Saturday, we departed early from Cairns and travelled through the Tablelands again, back down as far as Innisfail. At that point, we began our journey inland, travelling on such a small dirt-road highway for most of the trip that we were literally able to get off the coach and lie down in the middle of the road... that's how unlikely it was to see another vehicle. When we did encounter another driver, it was inevitably a road train (see upcoming photos). The first stop on Saturday was at Millstream Falls, which were very pretty though I'd seen quite a few waterfalls recently. From there we headed to our lunch stop, which was at a pub in the middle of nowhere that's famous for having Australia's smallest bar. (It's in the Guinness Book of Records, apparently). Later in the afternoon, we visited Porcupine Gorge, otherwise known as the "little grand canyon". I've never been to the real one but I don't think it's got anything to worry about. Finally, we reached our night's accommodation, which was at a pub hotel in Hughenden, a tiny town in the - surprise, surprise - middle of nowhere.

Yesterday, we visited Winton, a small town that's quite famous as the site where the song "Waltzing Matilda" was written and first performed. Aussies love this song beyond all reason, and even tried to get it to become their national anthem about twenty years ago. I learned that a waltzing matilda actually means a swag, or rolled-up bed that carries all one's possessions inside it, that is carried by a tramp or simple traveller. When someone would carry a swag, it would sway behind them, almost as though it were waltzing. Anyway, that's where the name came from, though the song is about a man who drowned himself after being caught stealing a sheep. You can clearly see why it would make a great national anthem... um... yeah... Winton's also where Qantas was founded. Oh, and also the Royal Flying Doctors. Big claims to fame for such a tiny place.

After exiting Winton, we were meant to head into the desert. Unfortunately, there was flooding up north, which made one of the two rivers that cross the desert too wide to cross by bus. So we had to detour, which is no joke in the Outback; it can add several hundred kilometers to a route. Therefore, we turned right instead of left, and headed up to some paved highway. Along the way we went by Mount Isa, and then stopped at the Walkabout Creek Hotel, famous from Crocodile Dundee. That night we stayed over in a motel in another middle-of-nowhere town called Camooweal. Well, it's not really a town; it's pretty much just the pub and the motel.

Up before dawn today, to cross the border into the Northern Territory. At that point, we set our watches back a half-hour. Yep, I feel like I'm on Newfie time now. The NT also has no speed limits (except for coaches and trailers) and it's not officially a state, but a territory kind of like the Canadian Territories. It's roughly a sixth the size of Australia but there are only 205,000 people living in it, most of whom live in Darwin or Alice Springs. In other words, very empty. We had lunch at Mary Ann Dam, and then visited a bunch of very cool rocks called the Devil's Marbles on the way down into Alice Springs.

All that driving meant that the few stops we made didn't do all that much to break it up. Luckily, we had a great group on the coach, and we were entertained by the driver, a guy who fancied himself a stand-up comedian (only without the funny jokes... he actually attempted the "hole-in-one" golf sock joke early on). We kept busy by watching a bunch of movies, doing bus quizzes, and even having a game of ten-pin bowling in the aisle. All in all, I have to admit I'm glad I opted to drive instead of fly from Cairns to Alice Springs, because the vastness and remoteness of the drive really gave me a feel for the "real Australia". It was certainly an interesting trip, and I can't wait to post photos when I get to a better connection sometime next week.

I'm off to tour Uluru and King's Canyon again tomorrow. Later!
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