I’m in the middle of a road trip that’s taken me from Katherine to Kings Canyon so far. The unique circumstances in which I find myself make this a strange and wonderful adventure: I’m getting paid my usual wage while I travel to some of most iconic places in this vast country, often getting lookouts and trails to myself due to the restrictions on travel and travel-related services out here, and meanwhile I’m paying no rent back in Katherine! In gratitude for this privilege, I decided to pay my dues by patronising places that aren’t getting much of a tourist season this year. I’ll rent their rooms, eat their meals, drink their drinks and buy their wares. And hopefully it’ll make a little bit of a difference.
Day 1: Katherine to Daly Waters
About two hours south of Katherine is a tiny place called Daly Waters whose main attraction is an historic pub that opened in the 1930s. The entrance is marked by a very healthy-looking bougainvillea, and across the road there’s an ‘outback servo’ that, on first glance, just looks like a mash of old cars, old car parts, and rusty old fuel pumps. Inside the pub, the walls are plastered with paraphernalia from yesteryear: exotic number plates, footy jerseys and team flags, maps, faded news clippings and signed photographs. I stayed the night in one of their demountable rooms because I vowed not to drive after dusk: my RAV4 is a noble steed, but it’s no match for a camel or a kangaroo!
Day 2: Daly Waters to Tennant Creek
It’s legal to drive at 130km per hour on some roads in the Northern Territory. I enjoyed that for a while, before I realised it was no good for my fuel economy. I think I filled up three times on this day of driving… And the price per litre is nothing short of daylight robbery! Anyway, I was glad to have free accommodation in Tennant Creek to compensate for my expensive drive. I scoffed some lunch I’d brought from home in a rest area beside the a petrol station while I watched a road train driver offload three trailers then drive away looking amputated – like one of those worms that continues squirming, and eventually regrows a body, after it’s been cut into pieces.
I stopped at a women’s dreaming site called Kunjarra/The Pebbles and took a walk amongst the piles of curvy rocks. I also stopped at Lake Mary Ann just north of Tennant, but it turns out it’s just an ugly dam with some desolate walking trails in its vicinity. I found a few thick boughs for my firewood stash, though.
A colleague at Katherine High School who used to teach in Tennant Creek owns a beautiful house there, with pressed metal ceilings, bull-nose wrap-around verandahs and lead-light windows. It’s full of historic stuff that came with the house when she bought it, making for a sort of live-in museum of local history! The two guys who are living there at the moment (the Tennant tenants) were very hospitable. We ate chicken parmis at the ‘Memo’ (Memorial Club), then I bashed out a last-minute entry for another short story competition before falling asleep with a little sausage dog called Boss in my arms. He was still there in the morning.
Day 3: Tennant Creek to Alice Springs
On entering Alice Springs, it occurred to me that I had drastically underestimated winter in the middle of Australia! I looked like the village idiot walking down the mall in shorts, thongs and a flanny. At a cafe called Page 27, I warmed up with a falafel burger and an excellent flat white. My accommodation was a backpackers’ hostel a five-minute walk from town, where I spent the evening building a lovely fire and eating dal, parathas and fried fish cooked by some Bangladeshi fellows who were keen to stay warm.
Day 4: Alice Springs to Glen Helen
My hostel roommate was watching videos on her phone from about 6am, so I was up early, bundled my life back into the car and went for breakfast to another great Alice Springs cafe, The Goods. I had a jaffle stuffed with home-made spicy baked beans, and a couple more excellent coffees.
The drive out of Alice Springs towards West MacDonnell National Park is dangerously beautiful! I wish I’d been a passenger, not the driver! I spent the whole day detouring via the wealth of stunning spots along Larapinta Drive en route to my next overnight stop.
Simpson’s Gap reminded me just how loud slowly-dripping water can sound when there’s no other noise to compete with. Standley Chasm introduced me to the demanding terrain of the Larapinta Trail: I ventured about 6km into Section 3 before turning back on account of the wind. Ellery Creek Big Hole (yes, that’s its name) was so lush that it’s no surprise it had the most campers out of all the places I visited. I snaked my way up to the lookout over Serpentine Gorge, where a token railing sort of encloses some of the steepest, longest drops I’ve ever seen. I sat up the top on my own for a long time and wondered whether the silence sounded the same thousands of years ago.
Ormiston Gorge blew me away: there was a blue pool of water filled with algae resembling green plumes of smoke, partially sheltered by a curve in a cliff face whose colour in direct sunlight was almost as vibrant as orange highlighter. I followed the gorge one corner at a time; it felt like walking into a set of gigantic jaws. Everything echoed; even when I tried not to move a muscle, I could hear sound. I joined a path that winds up one side of the gorge to a look-out platform. Whether I viewed it from the bottom or the top, the size of the gorge walls knocked the breath clean out of me.
In Part 2, I’ll write about my bumpy adventure along Red Centre Way, exploring Kings Canyon and the drive to Yulara, where Uluru and Kata Tjuta can be found.