Blog 21: Northern Territory & Western Australia - Yulara to Geraldton
Thanks for your patience readers, we have been recuperating after taking one very long shortcut. At least, that is how they are marketing it. This week we drove the Great Central Road back into Western Australia. It was corrugated, long, corrugated, and occasionally interesting.
We awoke early to watch the sunrise touch Uluru. After the awesome sunset (last blog), the sunrise was, to be honest, underwhelming. The direction of the sun at this time of year meant that most of the face visible from the sunrise viewing area was in its own shadow. Oh well, not every experience can be a magical revelation of the beauty of mother nature.
Breakfast and coffee in the car park, then we high tailed it towards Kata Tjuta for a morning hike. Uluru bobbed around in our rear view mirrors for a while before eventually disappearing. A view of the mounds from a platform to the south, then it was hiking time.
We made it the first lookout and as we navigated past a large group of returning tourists, ended up going behind the wrong shrub and walking on the wrong track (there was still evidence of a walking track in the direction we went though). About 10 minutes of wandering, some rock hopping and then we went - where did the trail markers go? We backtracked, and when we were most of the way back to the path got yelled at by a very helpful stranger who chose the words "Get back on the track you fools!!!" instead of "Do you know you are going the wrong way?" or "Are you lost/okay/dehydrated/in trouble?" or anything constructive. A fine gentleman.
We picked up the correct trail and a new appreciating for just how easy it is to get lost in this landscape. No wonder people get turned around, dehydrated and need rescuing (or die). We continued down the windy valley and noticed that these rocks, despite their proximity are very different in texture and composition to Uluru. Here we found pebbly aggregates of harder rock had been cemented into the structure of the mounds, as opposed to the mottled pure sandstone of Uluru.
We descended the first valley, crossed a bridge, undertook then overtook a pair of Japanese girls, climbed over a big rock, wound up a badly eroded staircase and eventually got to the second lookout and the view... wow. Nestled between a pair of hulking mountains, a natural wind tunnel perfectly frames the valley below. We stopped for an apple and some oreos and just sat enjoying the magical view. What a special place.
We continued on, hiking down the next valley, then looping around along a creek bed and back to the bridge to complete the Valley of the Winds circuit. When we got back to the first lookout, we saw two adults and a child who had hiked along the same wrong track as us. Adam called out helpful phrases "Helloooo you in the blue shirt!" and on getting their attention, "The track doesn't go that way" "The path is over here (pointing)" they promptly ignored him (or didn't speak English, or were locals and had permission from the Anangu to go into another place, but doubtful) and went over the wrong hill. Hope they are okay...
Bellies full of lunch, we turned westwards and set about the task of crossing back into Western Australia. There was a bit of sealed road, then there was a lot of unsealed road. We stopped at Lasseters Cave to try and find his golden reef, and the geocache that Grant and Ayseha couldn't find. After much rock scrambling and checking behind every ghost gum on the cliff face, we too, did not find. Across the border and a little further and we made our camp near Gill Pinnacle. A little spot off the road in the middle of nowhere, but with some nice mountains.
As we were getting set up for the evening, Ruth noticed a high pitched hissing noise. Yep, welcome back to Western Australia, have a jagged shard of metal in your rear left tyre. Our gift to you. Wheel off, metal out, self vulcanising tyre plug in, pumped back up. All good in the morning. Mum Davies - you will be pleased to know we finally christened the thunderbox.
We enjoyed our own private slice of mountains and nature in the morning, before heading off to Warakurna (Giles) to see Australia's most remote weather station, some Len Beadell artwork and the original Gunbarrel Construction Party Grader - as used by Len and his crew to establish many of the roads through the Gibson and Great Victoria deserts. And a geocache.
We drove on. One thing we have really noticed is the difference in the red colours of the desert as we have crossed the centre of Australia. Outback New South Wales was a browner kind of red, darker. The Northern Territory has the sparkly pinkish red. Western Australia is a more orange red.
As we wound our way across the Gibson Desert, the mountains disappeared, the terrain got flatter and distinctly more 'West Australian.' We passed a couple travelling eastwards with their team of five camels. We saw smoke on the horizon for a long time and eventually drove past some land that was being burned off.
The Desert Oaks eventually ran out. We stopped for fuel in Warburton, then got a pleasant surprise - 30 km of new sealed road, in the middle of nowhere. Literally hundreds of kilometres from the nearest other seal. Totally incongruous. Nonsensical, from a phased construction perspective. But nice to drive on. We wearily wound our way to Tjukayirla for the night.
Tuesday was the day we would eventually return to sealed roads (hopefully). We crossed the highway from Tjukayirla and explored a car graveyard and "The Zoo," a rocky outcropping with interesting animal shapes in the formations - we could only really see elephants, but they were cool. And we found a geocache.
We drove the corrugations. We came to a section of road that had been completely washed away by a flood event. the road had basically become a riverbed, with two metres of material scoured away and just a sandy base remaining. New access had been pushed out around the damaged section by a grader. A fun bit of dune driving. We passed a few people towing caravans. If you take a caravan on this road, expect all of the things inside to get broken.
Eventually, after more corrugations, a few roadworks and a few road train passings, we made it to the blessed black top. We rolled into Laverton and enjoyed the sense of accomplishment at completing this road. Adam was really excited to drive the Great Central Road before we left on our adventure, but that excitement somewhat diminished after driving the Strzelecki and Oodnadatta Tracks. There is some beautiful country out there, but the road is pretty shit and the attractions are few and far between. It is a long slog.
The WA State Government has committed to sealing the road all the way to the NT border by 2025. So if you want to enjoy the corrugations too, make sure you drive to Uluru from Perth the short way before then.
Side Note: A very awesome geocacher has placed a series of 30 caches all the way along the Outback Way from Laverton WA to Winton QLD.
We spent a rest day in Laverton doing not much of anything. Focusing on the placement of every wheel, looking for vehicles on every crest and blind corner, and managing the corrugations is harrowing.
Moderately rejuvenated, we set off to complete a wedding gift experience - camping and visiting the Antony Gormley sculptural installation 'Inside Australia' at Lake Ballard, near Menzies.
Wow. We were a bit doubtful when we got sent to Menzies. And a bit weary from our travels. But it turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences we have had to date!
We arrived in the mid afternoon, a little bit of unsealed road, a winding dip over a creek bed and then turned out at a sandy camping area. Great little (free!) camp site, right next to the sculpture installation. One of the nicest free camps we have ever visited.
A flat expanse of white stretches out. A semi-conical lump of an island in the foreground. Scattered humanoid sculptural forms, smaller than an average adult are scattered about. We step onto the lake proper. The first trio of sculptures - one man, two women - are surrounded by a heavily trampled brown hardpack - an artefact of the 'quick selfie and back to the tour bus' crowd, or, perhaps, the intersection of all desire trails, here at the entry/exit of the exhibition space.
We trudge across the hard brown claypack. Crystals of salt are about. Adam eats one and feels a bit ill for the next hour or so. It doesn't detract from what is to come. We climb the hummock hill before us, ascending the loose scree reveals those small arrangements of rocks about its circumference to be in the shape of names, initials, gang-monkiers and the occasional love heart. The occasional rain event has eroded this temporary graffiti, a semi-permanent collocated bonus exhibit. Cool.
From the top we see the scattered statues stretching out. A man wanders between them looking for the perfect photograph. We see the tracks of others stretching out. Reminiscent of our experience at Field of Light near Uluru, there are just enough that it seems like it might stretch out forever. We pick a statue in the distance to the west, adjacent to a small islet. 'Lets go to that one' Adam says. Ruth agrees. We scamble down.
Out of the brown landing zone the lake changes. The crust turns white, then turns magical. Not just a flat and repeating pattern, the texture of the salt changes as we move to our first sculpture-statue-waypoint. The footprints of others slowly disappear. Here the salt crystals are hard little nuggets of popcorn (or pulled teeth). Here the salt is a slurry, like the surface of an ice rink that needs a visit from a Zamboni. Here there are delicate combs of salt that look like little worms. Here is a crunchy bit. Here is a squelchy bit. Here the salt clings to shoes like great clods of glue. Here the salt flicked from our shoes chimes across the lake surface like the tinkling of sleigh bells. Here is a crystalline structure formed about a dead branch. Here is the sinuous line of a past evaporation level.
If you have never walked on a salt lake - you should!
A strange thing happens to your perception of distance on this flat white expanse. A sensation of travelling without moving. The sculptures are almost secondary to the experience of being on the lake. At each sculpture-waypoint a curious (and clever) design reveals itself - no three sculptures form a straight line. This allows the horizon to feel more saturated with figures. There is no need to adjust your walking direction to see an obscured figure. We wander into the (further than we thought!) distance to our islet proximal sculpture friend. We visit a smaller sculpture on our return leg. Another clever use of size, spacing and distance to create a cognitively dissonant (but not disturbing or unsettling) sense of space and distance on the lake.
As the sun set, we wandered back to camp, having spent a couple of hours wandering the lake. A rich, rewarding and somewhat unexpected art experience. Antony Gormley, you clever, winning-over gentleman you. Thanks for the wonderful experience Joel and Olivia!
The next morning we awoke to find some cows had moved into our area, chewing on the shrubs as they do. It was cold and crisp and the coffee only just stayed hot long enough. We hit the road and went the back way to Sandstone. We climbed the old brewery hill and enjoyed lunch next to the London Bridge sandstone arch.
More driving and Mount Magnet became our stop for the night. We have travelled a long way this week, and were starting to get weary. We noticed our bread had been gnawed during the night... we had picked up a furry little friend somewhere in our crossing of the desert. This lead to a lot of thinking about mouse traps and veganism. Vermin versus pests versus ferals versus introduced predators versus food animals. You don't see PETA campaigning against rat traps, swatting mosquitos or killing feral cats or wild dogs. Cane toads! Lots of fuel for discussion.
We ended up trapping and disposing of our furry passenger. Make your own ethical judgements as you please.
We drove ever westward, hill and dale.
Then it happened.
We saw an overtaking lane. The first one since we crossed the Great Dividing Range in Queensland (That little bit of dual carriageway in Alice Springs doesn't count).
Then we saw a cleared field. A place where the natural flora had been stripped back to grow grain. The first one since the cotton fields near St George and Thallon.
Then we crested a hill, thirty kilometres from Geraldton and saw the ocean for the first time since we left Byron Bay.