Our excursion to the “Red Centre” complete, the Stuart Highway was our chosen route south. We’d pass back through Marla, Coober Pedy ( and stop in for 2 days ), Pimba and on to Port Augusta before turning west towards Western Australia where the plan was to spend the next couple of months.
Coober Pedy was a first visit for me but a revisit for Lois. The town, famous for opal mining and the fact that ( due to extreme summer heat ) many residents live ( and some businesses operate ) at least partially underground. We thought this may have been a thing of the past but were reliably informed that approximately 60% of residents still live in this way – a visit to a nearby museum showed exactly how that was ( is ) done – fascinating stuff ! Beyond opal stores, mines and museums the town is the base for visits to the nearby “Breakaways Conservation Park”, an area of unique landscapes and unusual rock formations.
From Coober Pedy south, only Pimba ( and nearby Woomera – famous for rocket testing ) stood between us and Port Augusta, a national crossroads of sorts. Whether by rail or by road, further south lies Adelaide, to the east, Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, while to the west there’s really only one major city, Perth- the next place we were headed. There are, of course, many miles in between so rather than simply sit on the Eyre Highway we did a little exploring on the Eyre Peninsula. There was much more to see than we managed to but with a cold spell around there seemed little point exploring its famed southern beaches when we could not swim in them. Whyalla, Cowell, Lock, and Wudinna gave us a glimpse of the area before we meandered on to beautiful Streaky Bay and Ceduna.
Once in Ceduna thoughts moved to the long drive west. It’s the last major town before Norseman, over 1200kms across Australia’s famous Nullarbor Plain ( so named for the lack of trees ) and a good place to “stock up” – food, water, and ( reasonably priced ) fuel are scarce after Ceduna. The Nullarbor can be long and tiring but we broke the journey up by sharing the driving – a solid tail wind helped us push the van a little harder to soak up the miles. A few sights along the way but the most memorable would certainly be Fowlers Bay and wild camping on the Bunda Cliffs, the latter offering stunning views along the sheer cliffs of the Great Australian Bight. The cliff side camping spots are popular and practically everyone ( with a camping vehicle ) makes an overnight stop there.
Beyond the Bunda Cliffs, one crosses the West Australian border, sets the clocks back an hour and a half and gives up most fresh fruit and vegetables at the quarantine station – fortunately we came prepared being well coached in advance (thanks Ian and Anne !). Relieved only of some remaining lettuce we were free to enter WA. It’s here that one travels on Australia’s longest straight road; no corners for 144.6kms !
Norseman is the first town of any size in WA and it too, like Port Augusta, is a bit of a crossroads. Everyone, and I mean, EVERYONE heading west passes through it but then one decides whether to swing north ( via Coolgardie ) or south ( via Esperance ) on the way to Perth.
Esperance was our call, and a good one as it turned out, but more on that and our circuitous route to Perth next blog..!
Crossing just over the Northern Terrirory border bought us to the Kulgera roadhouse. If Oodnadatta billed itself ( probably somewhat generously ) as the hottest and driest place in Australia, Kulgera steals the crown as the most “central” community in Australia and proudly promotes itself as such – at least the Kulgera pub states it is the “closest pub to the geographic centre of the country” !
Initial destination, Alice Springs ( hereinafter, simply “Alice” ), 4 hours further up the Stuart Highway where we’d stock up on supplies and fuel for what would be a week or so travelling what’s become known as the Red Centre Way – a loop, west of Alice catching the sights of the West McDonnell Range, a dip south west on the ( very corrugated ) gravel Mereenie Loop to Kings Canyon, and then on to the rock star attraction of the area, Ayers Rock ( Uluru ) and the Olga’s ( Kata Tjuṯa) before returning to the Stuart Highway.
Given we’d both visited the “Rock” back in the early 80’s (when it was actually possible to climb it – seems almost sacrilegious to admit that these days ) we very nearly decided to skip it. How could it be better to just “see” it now than it was to actually climb it, we reasoned ? Wiser heads prevailed and considering the myriad attractions nearby the decision was made to add in a revisit – and are we ever glad we did !
But first, to Alice. Anyone in Australia would be aware of the recent social issues plaguing Alice and some went so far as to suggest skipping it altogether. We didn’t, and actually couldn’t, as we badly needed supplies, and Alice is THE ONLY spot to stock up out here. We found the town clean, quiet and never felt unsafe ( the issues had occured almost exclusively at night so we wisely did not stay in the city itself, spending our first night at nearby Standley Chasm ).
The West McDonnell Ranges lived up to their billing and we stopped at most of the key sights – the area’s always natural beauty enhanced right now by a carpet of green vegetation, the result of late season (and unusually heavy) rains, a vibrant green not seen in the area for over 20 years according to reliable locals with whom we spoke. Suited us just fine ! One particular highlight was a stunning view of the desert night sky while wild camping near the end of the McDonnells.
Between the western edge of the McDonnell Range and Kings Canyon was the Mereenie Loop, for some an attraction in its own right. Rough, remote, and very dusty this track ( it’s not a road ! ) passes through indigenous lands and requires a permit but saves one reversing direction and going to Kings Canyon the long way round. A worthwhile trip by all accounts we figured we‘d endure some more dust, more bumps and explore what would be to us, virgin territory. It lived up to its reputation for roughness and dust and it did save a lot of kms, but I wouldn’t say the scenery offered much we’d not seen before. The opportunity to assist some some very young German travellers stranded in the middle with a failed starter motor added to the excitement and assuaged our desire to do a good deed where we could.
Kings Canyon had been much hyped but not without justification – it truly is a very impressive attraction. Multiple great hike options- we did the short one and the rim walk ( worth the near vertical climb at the beginning ! ).
From Kings Canyon it was back on sealed roads and on to Ayer’s Rock. Visible from 50kms away ( and seems to grow as you get closer ) it’s still one of the greatest natural wonders we’ve seen. The highlight this visit was the great sunset – the change in its colors is amazing. The Olga’s- to my mind anyway, better up close, the Rock more impressive when viewed from afar ( and at sunrise and sunset ). On the second day there we went to view sunrise at the Olga’s which also gave a great perspective of the Rock silhouetted against a rising sun. Spectacular stuff ! Honestly we both agreed that that the sunrise/sunset viewings, a drive around the Rock and a walk to the more impressive areas of the Rock were more memorable than the climb itself over 40 years ago…..and I didn’t think I’d be saying that !
While some folks following our journey asked if we were continuing north after the week’s soirée around Alice, the McDonnells, Kings Canyon, and Uluru, we are in fact heading back south – down the Stuart highway towards Port Augusta and then on to Western Australia. We’ll come back to the Northern Territory from the north – it provides better weather timing ( or should ) and gave us the opportunity to travel on both the Oodnadata Track and the Stuart highway, difficult if one just goes straight north up to Darwin.
There are many Australian “tracks” that attract those wanting a taste of the outback and one of the more well-known is the legendary “Oodnadatta Track”.
Drive north from Port Pirie/Port Augusta and the bitumen ends at Marree. It’s there that outback drivers face one of two options : north-east just over 500kms to Birdsville in Queensland, or just over 600kms north-west to Marla via Oodnadatta, on the Stuart Highway connecting to the Northern Territory. Severe flooding further north and east in Queensland had cut the roads to Birdsville from that side so a trip to the iconic outback town for us would have been up, AND back with the real risk of being stuck once we got there. Common sense prevailed, and while the Oodnadatta Track was longer we did not have to do it in duplicate – and it tied in better with our other plans. Birdsville would be worked in later in the trip.
The track’s original function was to support the building of a telegraph line and later served to help build a railway ( the famous “Ghan” line ). Neither are used now ( the telegraph line and its stations redundant, and the Ghan line replaced with a new line further west less prone to flooding ) but remnants can be found at places along the route. It’s rugged, rough in places, and extremely remote but offers one great solitude and mile after mile of flat desert sands for as far as the eye can see.
While the route starts in Maree, the sealed road to Marree also offered some great scenery, passes through several very historic South Australian towns and more kangaroo and emu sightings than we would see on the Oodnadatta Track itself. A short detour via the Flinders Ranges provided yet more variation on the scenery than on the direct route to Marree so we tacked that on to our journey, albeit briefly.
Two outback travel rules ( which we both know well ) were broken on the run to Marree – never pass a fuel bowser without filling up, and don’t drive after 4pm. The fuel bowser we relied on was faulty ( we made it, but with less margin than we like ), and we found there were WAY more animals on the road after 4pm ( nearly wiped out our first kangaroo ! ). Lesson learned.
That minor drama aside the next two days in Maree and on the Oodnadatta Track itself were amazing. Our stop in Maree gave us a chance to sample some memorable Aussie outback pub fare ( the chicken parmy was a special treat ). We camped in the parking area of the pub voted “Best Pub in Maree” ( yes, also the ONLY pub in Maree ) – and currently the only camping option in Maree. A few stories were shared with fellow travellers especially tips on the road ahead.The Maree Hotel also has a famous museum inside – the Tom Kruz museum- that pays homage to a famous local postman bearing almost the same name as his better known Hollywood namesake. Tom’s is an interesting story – spelled out in tales and pictures on the walls of a room dedicated in his honor.
If you like great expanses of almost nothing and long, endless roads then this track is your bag ! We would have liked to have done it with a few less corrugations but hey, that comes with the outback. Traffic was sparse ( as expected ) and the towns/settlements along the way ( really only William Creek and Oodnadatta itself ) offered interesting respite and some historical perspective on this legendary outback route.
I’ll preface this week’s blog with some news that we are absolutely delighted to share ( with those that don’t already know ) – we are going to be grandparents in mid- August ! Our daughter and her husband are expecting and we will take some time out of our travels this northern summer to be home for the much anticipated arrival of the baby. Very exciting stuff for us all. Our daughter is doing well and busy preparing for big day. It does, of course, move things around for us a bit – essentially we’ll now be very focused on the desert part of our trip and the weather dependent regions of Australia in the north between now and August. We’ll then return and focus on the southern part of the country ( as the Aussie summer approaches ). Hence, especially after our long delay in Melbourne, a bit of a “push” now to get to the Outback ! Fortunately it’s already the direction we were heading.
There is of course a more direct route from the Great Ocean Road ( where we left off last blog ) to Adelaide ( our next major destination ) but based on the advice of several folks who’d gone before it was decided that the coastal route offered some better vistas. There were indeed some memorable highlights – the stunning Blue Lake in Mount Gambier, as well as the sunken garden, along with the popular coastal towns of Robe and Victor Harbor ( two on our route that really stood out for us). The coastal route ends up crossing Australia’s mighty Murray River ( in our case via the punt at Wellington ). Much of the first part of the coast ( the “Coorong”as it’s called) is fairly monotonous- low scrub, some really tidal swampy areas and for us, some less than ideal weather to see it in. That said, we did enjoy great wild camping by the ocean in Port McDonnell and again just outside Robe and Kingston SE; nothing like going to sleep with a cool sea breeze, the distinct smell of salt air, and then waking up to the sound of crashing waves..!
At one point the diversion to Kangaroo Island was considered ( being so close on the Fleurieu Peninsula ) but on arrival at Cape Jervis the weather was very gloomy – on sober second consideration it seemed to make more sense to delay Kangaroo Island until we come this way again ( and we likely will ) when the weather is better – it’s also a very expensive short ferry ride so we’d like to see the place at its best. Onwards then, to Adelaide ( and the Barossa Valley ) just an hour away, some great sights and a long overdue rendezvous with a cousin I’d not seen in over 40 years.
From the Barossa region it was an easy drive to the Yorke Peninsula where we had a couple of days exploring before driving on up to Port Pirie, for us basically the stepping stone to adventures further north – there’d be some van work to do ( minor repairs ), a little WW2 nostalgia to investigate, some serious stocking up on supplies and the purchase of a two-way radio ( an essential item, we’re told) for life on the long desert roads ahead.
From Port Pirie we’ll head to Maree, the end of paved roads in South Australia, then the desert tracks beyond. We haven’t even gotten to the part of South Australia yet that we are most anticipating ( the “Outback” ) but have already been amazed by the beauty, scenic variety and fascinating history of the state- it’s delivered us some very pleasant surprises.
Queenscliff pitches itself as a jumping off point for that most well known of major tourist attractions in Victoria, the Great Ocean Road ( G.O.R. ), however that honor more accurately belongs to nearby Torquay. This world famous coastal road, stretching for 243kms from Torquay almost to Warnambool, was was constructed mostly in the 1920’s predominantly by returned WW1 soldiers and is now considered a permanent memorial to those who died in the war. A huge engineering feat in its time, the route shows off the state’s stunning coastline, connects formerly remote seaside communities and draws tourists from all over.
The Twelve Apostles ( coastal rock structures ) are the primary attraction but there is also plenty of wildlife in the area – kangaroos, wallabies, koalas and all manner of bird life are easily spotted and we were fortunate enough to see them all. The route is usually covered in a few days since there are countless opportunities for day hikes, taking in panoramic viewpoints, and various rainforest walks. We’d been before but still spent three days exploring it end to end….and could have spent longer !
A short drive across the bottom of the Bellarine peninsula from Queenscliff soon had us in Torquay, the road’s Eastern starting point. Considered Australia’s surfing mecca ( RipCurl was founded there and still maintains its global headquarters in Torquay ), its a thriving “hip” town also known for nearby Bells Beach ( considered one of Australia’s finest surf beaches ). Bells Beach was in fact preparing for a major surfing competition just as we passed by so we happened to catch quite a few surfers in the water showing their stuff. Just a handful of sightseers while we were there, but in another 10 days, the place would be absolutely packed.
Over the next few days, the Great Ocean Road took us from Torquay all the way to its terminus just before Warnambool, delivering a plethora of outstanding coastal photo ops, more animal sightings than we’d expected, some super camping locations, incredibly coincidental meetings with other travellers and superb weather on the critical two days we needed it – it certainly did not look like we’d pull that off as we left Torquay. Since most our time on the G.O.R. was more or less a collage of photo ops I’ll keep the commentary brief this week and let the pictures tell the story – suffice it to say we absolutely loved the experience and could not recommend it highly enough to anyone that comes this way…..you’ll not be disappointed !
It was the animal sightings that we saw before we really got to see the more stunning coastal formations for which the G.O.R. is deservedly famous. Kangaroos and brightly colored Rosellas, were feeding right in front of us at the remote Hammonds campground in the mountains about 15kms inland from Lorne, well away from the traffic and nearby towns. In fact, we had the campground all to ourselves.
It was not until our third day travelling the G.O.R. that the sheer coastal formations and famous “Apostles” came into view – its is some of the prettiest coastline you’ll see anywhere. In a couple of places you can actually descend some pretty steep stairs cut into the cliffs and go right down to the beach ( being careful not to get stuck down there with no exit as the tide comes in ! ). Here, some of our better shots in no particular order:
Following the GOR, our travels took us further west, on through busy Warnambool ( a huge cheese producing region ) and on to Port Fairy, a town that surely ranks as one of Victoria’s coolest little coastal communities. It’s an attraction in itself and probably deserves more time than we gave it but we overdosed a smidge on its more famous neighbour. Port Fairy is also the last major community on the coastal route to South Australia – our next destination.
We are Lois and Jeff, of Kelowna, BC, Canada. Recently retired with a serious overlanding travel bug, we hit the road in our truck camper in May 2019, initially tackling the Pan American highway. The PanAm completed in April 2022, and truck camper sold, we plan to continue exploring again later in 2022 in our Sprinter 4×4!