Page 6

The Riverland, Pichi Richi Railway, Then . . . The Red Centre.

Blanchetown on the Murray River

Blanchetown P.O.

After leaving Adelaide, our next destination was Berri in the Riverland. On the way we visited Blanchetown on the Murray River, the home of a rather strange Post Office. It was built as a railway station for a railway that never came. Good planning, eh? Intrigued, we visited this Post Office but . . . it was closed for lunch!

Blanchetown (Railway Station) Post Office

In fact, the whole of Blanchetown seemed closed for lunch; there wasn't a soul to be seen and all attempts to find anything resembling a town centre failed. The hotel, however, was open and we were served a yummy chicken salad as we sat on their patio, looking out over a weir across the Murray. This was Weir and Lock Number One, the first of thirteen.

The poor old Murray River is in a sad state - that's one thing our stay in the Riverland taught us. Growers from Victoria and New South Wales, as well as South Australia, are pumping so much water out of the river system to irrigate their crops that the flow in the lower Murray has been almost eliminated. That the river is sick has been known for a long time but it's salvation is controlled by three different state governments, each with a vested interest in taking as much water as possible for their growers. It has now been established that 80% of the trees along the river's flood plain are dying, we witnessed that first hand, so time is fast running out.

We heard a federal member of parliament being interviewed on the radio. He wouldn't entertain the idea of reducing the water allocation to growers. His solution was to seed the clouds over the Snowy Mountains to increase rainfall! Can you believe that? What a prat. He should take off his clothes in the centre of Adelaide and do a rain dance. That would:-

(a) Be equally as effective as seeding clouds,
(b) Be infinitely cheaper, and
(c) Provide a great deal of amusement for everyone else.

No, if the solution is dependant on politicians taking the lead, goodbye Murray!

Back in the 1920s the flow of the river was altered to accommodate the very busy river traffic which had brought prosperity to inland Australia by linking it to the sea. The problem then was that water levels would fall during the summer months, stranding the river steamers and bringing commerce to a stop. The solution was to build thirteen weirs along the course of the river, effectively turning it into a series of elongated artificial lakes. Each weir was accompanied by a lock to facilitate the passage of boats from one water level to the next. Today the water level remains constant due to the weirs, but the flow has been drastically reduced by the irrigators. The lock system still operates, but now for the benefit of houseboats and other pleasure craft. Freight travels by road or rail.

Rothbury at Lock

Paddle Vessel Rothbury, built in 1881, enters Lock 11 at Mildura. The upstream lock gates are closed behind her and huge valves are opened to drain the trapped water to the lower level. Then the downstream gates are opened and off she goes.

The course of the Murray is 2,500 kilometres long, the final quarter being in South Australia. Blanchetown is the location of Weir & Lock Number One which, conversely, is the last weir before the sea. The water level above the weir is three metres above sea level - the water below the weir is at sea level. The river continues for another 274 kilometres without any fall and precious little flow.

One disadvantage of the weirs is that they prevent the migration of fish up the river, and fish are essential to the health of any river. A 'fishway', or fish ladder, is planned for all the weirs to enable fish to bypass them. However, at the time we visited Blanchetown there was a delay of several years announced on the construction of that fishway. The reason, of course, was money. Or lack of political will (fish don't vote), take your pick.

We found the caravan park at Berri set in a beautiful environment on the banks of the Murray with plenty of green grass and trees. We were there to explore the Riverland and Berri provided a perfect base. On our first full day we walked into the town ...


... and found it (here's that word again) picturesque. Well, just look at the picture; the Murray River on the left, grass and trees and a PUB! What more could anyone want? And, no, that's not our caravan, it was just parked in the way. The commercial centre of the town was neatly arranged with nearly all the shops within a stone's throw. The origin of the name, Berri, like so many others we enquired about, is uncertain. One theory is that it's derived from an Aboriginal word meaning 'bend' as there's a bend in the river near Berri. But they told us that about Tailem, too, didn't they?


A houseboat moored on the Murray. Pretty. A trolley dumped in the Murray. Ugly.

The picture (above right) shows how murky the water is. However, not to give an unfair impression of Berri, that trolley was the only junk we saw in the water and even that could not be seen until you approached the bank under a bridge. Unfortunately there'll always be morons.

Adjacent to the town centre was a pumping station with many large-diameter pipes disappearing into the river. A sign on the wall of the pumping station proclaimed that up to thirty seven gigalitres of water is pumped out every year to irrigate wineries and fruit trees. Thirty seven gigalitres. Only thirty seven? Doesn't sound a lot, written in that form, does it? Now try it with all its noughts. That one pumping station is taking 37,000,000,000 litres of water out of an already sick river - roughly equal to the total capacity of the Blue Lake at Mount Gambier (pictured on Page 5). And every place we visited along the river had its own pumping station. The growers that rely on the river for their very survival continue to bleed it to death. We saw vast acres of vineyard with hundreds of impact sprinklers blasting water high into the air over the vines. How much was lost in evaporation? How much actually reached the plant roots? If their allocation was cut by 20%, how long would it take them to install a drip system? When will a political leader have the guts to bite the bullet? Sorry, stupid question.

One day we visited Mildura just over the state border in Victoria. The road between Renmark and Mildura seems to go on for ever across flat, featureless countryside. Apparently this lack of visual stimulation contributes to a lot of accidents. Posters have been placed along the verges in both directions. Their messages fall into two categories: Sponsored by an entrepreneurial undertaker, perhaps?

Wine Bottle

If Mrs B. suspects I might be getting a little drowsy she has a foolproof method of restoring me to instant wakefulness. No, she doesn't yell, nor does she elbow me in the ribs. She simply asks sweetly, Darling, would you like me to drive for a while?

The reason we drove the 320 kilometre round trip was because a pair of UHF radios that we'd bought in Adelaide were faulty and the closest agent to Berri was in Mildura . . . in another state and another time zone. The joys of being an itinerant! It was a nice day out however, and we visited Weir and Lock Number Eleven where the pictures of the Paddle Vessel Rothbury (above) were taken.

One lovely, sunny Saturday we visited the famous Waikerie Gliding Club where this year's National Gliding Championships had been held and which had previously been the venue for the World Gliding Championships. There was only a couple of people there - two ladies, cleaning. One, Ann Wolf, kindly gave us an extensive tour of the world class facilities. Thank you, Ann, I share your sadness for departed friends and a struggling sport.

However, a good lunch at the Banrock Station winery just up Highway 20 restored my good spirits in no time. And I didn't hear Mrs B. complain too much either.

The following day was spent with two lovely, generous people. We had first met Gavin and Joanne at Tumby Bay (just before the devastating fires there), and later at Port Augusta. Gavin and Jo gave us a very interesting tour of Renmark and surrounds which included a riverside barbecue, Gavin style. Far from the maddening crowds and without any council-built facilities or gas, Gavin showed us how a delicious meal could be cooked using a few twigs and a cast iron pot. Thank you Gavin and Jo, a wonderful day we'll never forget.

I've previously mentioned some strange coincidences that have occurred. Here's another. While shopping in Berri a couple of days earlier I'd gone into a hardware store in search of a particular type of ladder. The salesman tried very hard to fill my requirements but unfortunately there was nothing suitable in stock. I'd even remarked to Mrs B. that I had been very well looked after. While we were at Gavin and Jo's house in Renmark we were introduced to their younger son, Brendan. He thought I looked familiar. (I've been accused of looking a lot of things, 'familiar' is probably one of the kindest.) As you'll have guessed, dear Reader, it was Brendan who had helped me in the hardware shop. Small world. Again.

Gavin and Jo

Left: Gavin, Jo, Pam and Pam's driver.                                                Right: Another view of the Murray

The Pichi Richi Railway

And so, not without some sadness, we packed up and left Berri soon after dawn one Friday morning for the four hundred kilometre haul back to Port Augusta. The 'up' side of this nomadic lifestyle is that you are constantly meeting new people - some really lovely people - and making new friends. The 'down' side is that you then have to say goodbye.

We had two reasons for re-visiting Port Augusta, the first being that the Stuart Highway north to Darwin starts at Port Augusta, so it was on our way. The second reason was to ride the Pichi Richi Steam Railway on part of the old Ghan track. For non-Aussies, the Ghan was a little steam train that used to run 1,280 kilometres (780 miles) from Port Augusta to Alice Springs. It was named after the Afghan cameleers who had previously carried supplies to Alice by camel train. The Ghan was famous - or infamous - for the time it took to reach Alice, frequently breaking down on the way. In 2004 a modern diesel train was introduced which runs from Adelaide, via Alice, all the way north to Darwin. It was named The Ghan in honour of its little predecessor.

Steam Engine

The Sharp Bends In The Track Provided Frequent Views Of The Engine
With The Flinders Ranges Rising In The Background.

Our day trip on the Pichi Richi Railway started at Port Augusta station. The big green locomotive had been fired up for hours and was hissing impatiently when we arrived on the platform. The old carriages quickly filled with passengers and the railway staff scurried around with clip boards and frustrated expressions muttering, They've overbooked again!.

Then, at ten thirty, with a long whistle, a roar of steam and a few jerks, the train began to roll forward, quickly picking up speed. There's no welded rail on this line so we soon got used to the "clickety clack" of the wheels as we sped across the coastal plain towards the the Flinders Ranges which loomed ahead. Our journey was to take us to Quorn, a small wheat town up in the mountains where we were to spend two hours. The railway was also running two other trains that day, a diesel railcar and their little Coffee Pot steam engine (pictured below) on the same single track. This required accurate timing to ensure that trains travelling in opposite directions arrived at a passing loop at the same time. But . . . somehow it didn't seem to happen that way.

Coffee Pot

The Coffee Pot Waited On A Siding While Our
Train Steamed On Past, Everyone Waving.

A crowd of steam enthusiasts and children in a convoy of cars kept pace with our train. At each level crossing and bridge they'd be there, waiting and waving, cameras pointing. As soon as we'd passed they'd run back to their cars and race to overtake the train again, which, it has to be said, was not difficult!

The engine driver obeyed the 'whistle' signs along the track with rather more enthusiasm than was strictly necessary, but it was a joy to hear. It was a warm day and all the carriage windows were lowered resulting in quite a few passengers with soot in their eyes.

At Quorn we had time for a pub lunch with our neighbours from the caravan park, Doug and Barbara, with whom we quickly became friends. A little market near the railway station kept us occupied for a while and then it was time to board for the two hour return trip. On the way we were held up for some time because the Coffee Pot had apparently developed trouble with a rod. We were kept on our train while a group of the railway people attended to the problem by standing in a group and staring at it. Eventually our engine gave blast on its whistle and we started to roll forward again.

The next stop was at a little station with the quaint name of Woolshed Flats. There we found the diesel railcar waiting and about thirty passengers disembarked from our train and boarded the diesel which was to take them back up to Quorn. Then off we went again.

We noticed that both our train and the Coffee Pot were being followed by small, diesel-powered railcars which were painted bright yellow. I imagined (being a little cynical) these trucks were full of mechanics, tools and spare parts, but I was wrong. (Is that a first?) The countryside was tinder dry and the steam engines posed some danger of starting a fire with their hot coals. These yellow wagons were fire fighting vehicles with water tanks, pumps and hoses. Should the locomotive start a blaze, the fire crews would be on the spot to promptly extinguish it.

It was a wonderful day and well worth the cost and travelling involved. Even the long-suffering Mrs B said so.

After a day of rest (it's a pretty hectic life we lead), we hitched up our caravan and headed north towards Australia's Red Centre (a bit of gratuitous drama there for you.) It being the Anzac Day public holiday, the Stuart Highway was very quiet


and we made good progress to Woomera with the help of a following wind. Woomera became famous for its rocket testing activities in the 1960s.

Having arrived and set up camp, we set off on foot to explore . . . and, of course, found everywhere closed for the public holiday. The temperature was in the low thirties so after a wander round and a look at an open-air display of aircraft and rockets (pictured), we returned, dripping, to the caravan and its air conditioner.

The scenery was very, very different to that which we had become accustomed further south. The country stretched flat and featureless, totally devoid of trees and shrubs, to the distant horizon in every direction. The sky appeared huge and treated us to a magnificent sunset later that evening. And, as Pam pointed out, it was so quiet. There was virtually no traffic, just an occasional vehicle, and with no trees, even the breeze made no sound.

Woomera Sign

A sign near the caravan park.

The Eldo Hotel was built at Woomera in the 1960s by the European Launcher Development Organisation (hence ELDO) to house rocket scientists and technicians. But what a shame they can't spell accommodation - it's hardly rocket science.

Woomera, with its population of three hundred, didn't offer too much excitement. Occasionally a rocket is still launched but the locals only know something is imminent when Japanese people suddenly start to frequent the supermarket, or every other car on the main street has a military number plate. Officially they are told nothing - after all, they only live there.

We decided to visit nearby Roxby Downs, the home of the Olympic Dam Uranium Mine. Our timing was unfortunate - we missed out on a tour of the mine and even the video of the mine's operation was cancelled that afternoon so some American drivel could be screened. The town of Roxby Downs was neat, clean and modern, unlike it's neighbour, Andamooka, which was the exact opposite - but a whole lot more fun! Andamooka is an opal mining town. The best way to describe it would be as a vast, untidy scrap yard which a thousand giant moles had invaded, leaving random piles of earth everywhere as they burrowed. Throw in some shacks of varying 'sophistication' and run a road through, and you've pretty well got it.


One picture can't even begin to give a true impression of Andamooka.
Stay eight hours and you'll never leave, they told us. Hmmm.

A sign invited us to try noodling. We discovered that noodling means searching rubble previously excavated by the miners for opals they might have missed. However, active mining claims are pegged - that is, a wooden peg is driven into the ground at each corner of the claim - and anyone intruding within the pegged area is likely to get shot. Or so we were told by a noodler.

If you glance at the picture above you'll understand how difficult it would be to determine what was a peg and what was a bit of fence or a cricket wicket or a post to tie up a dog. We did our noodling through the car window with the engine running. Not that we took the warning literally, of course. Although there was evidence of mining activity everywhere, we didn't see a single miner at work. Nor a truck. Nor, for that matter, any machinery operating at all. Thinking back, it all seems rather strange. Surely they weren't all underground? But, perhaps they were.

To see more pictures of the most remarkable and unforgettable town we've ever seen, click here: Andamooka Pictures.

We quite liked the peace of Woomera, but it was soon time to push on north to Coober Pedy, another opal town.
Coober Pedy

The 388 kilometre drive north west from Woomera to Coober Pedy was easy if boring. We pulled out onto the Stuart Highway, set cruise control to 80 k.p.h. and sat there for hour after hour across flat and mostly featureless country. The highlight came when we passed over a railway bridge. The railway carries both the Indian Pacific and the Ghan trains at that point, the Ghan line branching north later. So why was the bridge the highlight? No reason. It was just a bridge over a railway. Does that signify how dull the rest of the journey was?

What mental image does Coober Pedy conjure up for you? All I'd heard was that the population lived, and even worshipped, underground. I had always imagined a place with little evidence of habitation on the surface. If that's your idea of Coober Pedy too, forget it. Although 70% of the population does live underground, the physical appearance of the town isn't appreciably altered by the fact. The only evidence of a residence - frequently beneath a slope - is the presence of an assortment of vertical pipes sticking out of the dirt. These are air vents. Usually there will also be a corrugated iron structure, somewhat resembling a car port, which conceals the entrance.

Ventilation Pipes

The many pipes protruding from the earth are air vents for the houses below.

Nobody, however charitable, could describe Coober Pedy as an attractive town. It's more of a cross between a dry, dusty quarry and a rubbish tip. Never-the-less, a very interesting town and quite unique.

The name, Coober Pedy, is derived from an Aboriginal expression meaning White Man's Caves. The town exists solely because the ground is rich in high quality opal. In the early days, there being no trees for timber, miners dug themselves caves for shelter. Or perhaps they utilised old mine workings. Underground houses are extremely practical. The summer temperature in Coober Pedy has been known to reach 59º Centigrade, we were told, and in winter it can fall below freezing. However, without the need for any heating or cooling, underground houses remain between 20º and 24º all year round. Additionally, flies will not go underground and strangely, given conditions above ground, the houses are almost entirely dust-free. The town has many other underground buildings, including shops, a hotel and some churches.

Cave Church

The Catacomb Church under Coober Pedy. The 'preacher' is our tour guide. The church is in the shape of a cross.
The hole in the wall on the right of the picture is a ventilation shaft. A second can just be seen on the left.
The main one is above the very unique altar.

The population of Coober Pedy fluctuates between around 3,000 in the heat of the summer to about 8,000 in the winter. As the town grew, the Council decided to ban mining beneath the built up area. The reason was obvious and sensible but it would have been very upsetting for miners who had just discovered a rich opal vein within the newly prohibited zone. Ever resourceful, they converted their mines into underground houses. Of course, they were still banned from mining for opal ... but there was no restriction on adding extra rooms to their houses, was there?


There are thousands of disused shafts around the Coober Pedy area, our guide told us. Very convenient for disposing of bodies. Yes, he said that too! In fact, there is a rumour that the body of Peter Falconio, the British backpacker who disappeared a few years ago under strange circumstances, lies at the bottom of one of these shafts with a ton or two of rubble on top. It would be an impossible task to search every shaft.

The whole Coober Pedy area is riddled with shafts and tunnels.

The police station is made out of bomb-proof reinforced concrete. In the early days the miners were a wild bunch who made their own rules. The arrival of a police presence was not welcomed, and as most miners manufacture their own explosives, what more natural than that the first two or three police stations should be blown up?

The 'wild west' nature of the town remains. At night the caravan park gates were locked - we were all corralled up within its walls until dawn. And listening to some of the noises that came from beyond those walls during the hours of darkness, I for one was very glad. The only disreputable behaviour we witnessed during daylight was one of our 'non-reflective cousins' staggering across the main street, hurling some rather basic four-letter invective at other cousins who were hanging around outside a pub. Mrs B, true to form, gave absolutely no indication that she'd heard a thing.

Water is a very precious commodity in Coober Pedy. There is no convenient pipeline from the Murray River so a plant has been built to purify and desalinate bore water. In the caravan parks (there are three), each 'van site has power and drainage provided, but not water. Fortunately we'd been tipped off so we arrived with both our water tanks full.

The showers in the ablution blocks were coin operated - we would drop a twenty cent coin in the slot then wash like crazy for two minutes, after which there was a click and off went the water. By then you'd be sopping wet so you would soap yourself all over before dropping in another coin to rinse off. It's unfortunate if the second coin jams, as happened to Mrs B. Ever resourceful, she gave the coin box one almighty slap and the water re-started immediately! Never mess with Mrs B.

Iron Tree

On a hill above the town, and visible for miles around, are two monuments, the 'Iron Tree' and the the 'Big Winch'. The Iron Tree is said to have been welded together from scrap by a miner who was sick of seeing no trees. (There are a few now, as the picture shows.) The first Big Winch was destroyed by a cyclone on 30th November 1986. A doctor built this replacement as a monument to the pioneer miners.

Mrs. B walks, head down, scanning the gravel for that
million dollar opal that everybody else has missed.

Opal is just pretty rock. Unlike, say diamonds or gold which have many practical uses, opal's only function is as a decorative stone. It splits visible light into all the component colours of the spectrum which flash and glitter as the stone is turned, thus making it perfect for jewellery.

We left Coober Pedy early one Sunday morning, travelling north on the Stuart Highway. The road passed between thousands of bore holes stretching away as far as the eye could see on both sides of the highway. They continued thus for twenty five kilometres, each shaft marked by a cone-shaped heap of excavated earth. These piles of rubble varied in both colour and size. Presumably the bores were unsuccessful test holes and all abandoned. The truth of the tour guide's remark about the ease of 'losing' a dead body was very apparent. Signs like the one pictured (below right) were found all along the highway and convey the message very concisely. But talk about putting ideas into people's heads! Much cheaper than divorce, much quicker and much more satisfying.


Once again the road north was straight, level and without anything, except wedgetailed eagles, to create a diversion. The eagles were a bit of a nuisance, sharing each fresh kangaroo carcase - of which there were many - with half a dozen crows. The crows, being street-wise and apparently smarter than the eagles, grabbed a last chunk of 'roo as we approached and were safely away, leaving the stupid eagle standing on its lunch and wondering what all the fuss was about. Eventually even the eagle would get the message, turn into wind - as taught by its flying instructor - and started to flap ponderously.

Frequently 'into wind' meant into the path of the fast-approaching car and caravan which, incidentally, had been tooting its horn and flashing its lights in a vain attempt to save the life of said stupid eagle. So brakes were applied, rude words were uttered, and the eagle survived to die another day. All too frequently a dried up kangaroo corpse on the road verge was closely followed by a squashed pile of feathers. The significance was obvious to all. Except, it seems, the eagles.
Ayers Rock

Pete and Pam

We crossed the state border, leaving South Australia but taking with us a multitude of happy memories, and entered the Northern Territory. A new territory and a whole new book of blank pages just waiting to be written.

The run from Coober Pedy to our next destination, Ayers Rock, was 760 kilometres, a bit too far to cover comfortably in one day, so we 'overnighted' at the Kulgera Roadhouse. Hmmm, 'nuff said about that place. To reach Ayers Rock we had to turn west off the Stuart Highway and travel along the Lasseter Highway. This road was named after Harry Lasseter who claimed to have found a gold deposit worth, at today's prices, two billion dollars at a place he named Lasseter's Reef.

The story is of Lasseter's Reef is worth telling. Click Harry Lasseter to read it.

It was on Lasseter Highway that we caught our first sight of "Ayers Rock" - note the quotation marks. Now this is embarrassing; you have to promise not to laugh. We were thrilled by our first sight of 'The Rock' and, in common with all the other excited tourists who'd pulled over to Oooh! and Aaah!, we wanted our picture taken with 'The Rock' in the background. It was four days later that we discovered that 'The Rock' in the picture is NOT Ayers Rock at all; it's Mount Conner!

We arrived at the Ulara Resort near the real Ayers Rock in the early afternoon and after setting up camp we went for a good look at it. To get there we had to purchase a three-day pass to enter the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park for a cool $25 each! The underlining of certain letters in the names is the Aboriginal spelling. Uluru (no literal English translation) is their name for Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta (many heads) is their name for the Olgas.

'Awesome' is much overused and misused these days, but there's no better word to describe Ayers Rock. It is simply awesome! It rises over a thousand feet almost vertically from the flat plain. Even through the day, subtle changes to the colour of the Rock were apparent. At dawn and dusk, however, the effects can be sensational. I say can be because it's a matter of luck. It all depends on the cloud formations on the horizon. That first evening we were lucky and saw a most beautiful transition at sunset. Surprisingly, this did not occur as the sun went down, but a minute or two later! During our stay we were fortunate to see two spectacular sunsets and one sunrise. We took many photographs - too many - but the following six will give you some idea.

Ayers Rock:

Rock 1-3

About an hour before sunset.          As the sun set the Rock began to darken.          A few minutes later, it lit up!

Rock 3-6

Gradually the glow faded.                  The rock darkened, as did the sky.                        Finally darkness fell.

Some years ago the government returned Ayers Rock to the Aborigines; it is one of their most sacred sites. They believe it was created by spirits in the Dreamtime and they have many fanciful stories to account for its existence and its features - though no more fanciful, it has to be said, than stories in the Christian Bible which account for the creation of the earth in six days.

On having their treasure returned to them, they promptly leased it back to the government for 99 years!

The Aborigines don't like tourists to climb Uluru (Ayers Rock). Requests on the sign at the foot of the Rock, in the Aboriginal Cultural Centre, and even printed on the park passes, implore visitors not to climb the Rock. So why, then, do they provide a large Climbers' Carpark, a chain up the Rock to assist climbers, and a sign at the park entrance advising whether the climb is open or closed? Tour buses disgorge Japanese tourists by the hundred - at $25 a head - who promptly stream up the Rock.

Don't Climb Sign

Perhaps the mighty $ speaks louder than cultural beliefs. Perhaps a little hypocrisy is creeping in?

This picture has not been tampered with in any way - it was exactly as you see it. It shows the wording on the sign at the foot of Ayers Rock and beyond the sign, swarms of (mostly Japanese) tourists ascending its face. Anyone left in Tokyo?

Whatever the truth, and whoever sets the price, $25-a-head is excessive. The Rock came free, the sunrise and sunset come free. Tourists pay this imposition because they've travelled huge distances to see this most famous of Australian icons. When they arrive they are charged ridiculous prices for food, drink, accommodation, fuel . . . everything. They have no choice, there's no alternative. Ayers Rock . . . or Ayers Rort?

The Resort itself was nice and we very much enjoyed our stay there. It was unlike anywhere we'd ever been before. It had an atmosphere that was hard to define. There was the Rock itself, of course, which dominated everything. There was the absolute remoteness (people think Ayers Rock is near Alice Springs. It's not, it's 466 kilometres away). There was the eerie sound of the dingoes howling at night. There was the daily activity which commenced at 5:30 a.m. as hundreds of people awoke and set off, like pilgrims, to witness sunrise on the Rock - then the same at sunset. It is unique. It is special. It is different. I'm glad we went.

The picture (right) doesn't even begin to show how steep the rock face is - the camera is angled along the face. The climbers higher up are ascending along a thick chain strung between steel posts cemented into the rock. The chain doesn't assist the climbers much, it hangs too low and is very heavy. However, it's something to grab if they slip. In the past many have slipped - and died. Without that safety feature, once a person begins to slide on that gradient it's all over. Except, of course, for the paperwork.

This boy would not even contemplate the climb, and certainly not the descent, without that chain. No way! It was quite hard enough, and terrifying enough, with that aid.

When you reach the top of the chain you're still a long way from the summit. There are white dashes painted on the rock to guide you the rest of the way. Over the crest of the Rock there are a series of parallel dry gullies in the rock. To reach the summit you have to walk across a whole series of gullies. Some are ten or twelve feet deep with very steep, smooth sides. Hard going.

The summit is marked by a cairn which holds a horizontal plaque engraved with arrows pointing to the various capital cities and giving the distances. There is nothing else there but the wind. And the dread of the descent!

It was while recovering at the summit that I saw what appeared to be another Ayers Rock in the distance. A nasty suspicion began to form in my mind. It looked very much like the Ayers Rock we'd first seen from the lookout on the Lasseter Highway - longer and less rounded than the one on which I sat. A later look at our photograhs and then at a map confirmed it. Yep, it was Mount Conner! If anybody ever finds out, won't we have egg on our faces?

My climb up Ayers Rock was made much more pleasant by the very good company (and encouragement) of Mike and Victoria from Chester in the U.K. As I didn't take a camera with me I'm hoping they'll email a picture of themselves and one of me at the summit, both of which I can include here. (They didn't.)

Also, quite close to Ayers Rock, are the Olgas; great domed rocks that rise sharply out of the plain, some of which tower even higher than Ayers Rock. We hoped to see a sensational sunset at the Olgas but - you can't win 'em all. On these sunset trips we took fold-away chairs, red wine and glasses, cheese, crackers and potato crisps. Once the camera is set up on the tripod there is time to relax and sample a red or two. Then, if the sunset effects don't transpire, well, what the heck.


Kata Tjuta or the Olgas, take your pick.

There is a rather strenuous seven and a half kilometre walk through the Olgas and Pam very much wanted to try it. It turned out to be a lot stiffer than we'd anticipated but the game Mrs B was not going to be beaten despite having to claw her way up one rock face on all fours. Pictures of that were, unfortunately, prohibited - something about a sacred site. The walk took us four hours in 30º temperatures but we enjoyed it. Well . . . once we were back in the car with the air conditioner going flat out we decided we'd enjoyed it. There were certainly some spectacular views to be seen, (including Mrs B on all fours).


A very steep descent through a gorge between two
Olgas gave Mrs B's short legs a good work-out.

Heartened by her success at the Olgas, Pam set off alone to walk the full ten kilometres around the base of Ayers Rock while I attempted the summit. She was back at the car in two hours and ten minutes!

When I staggered to the top of the chain for the descent I could see her, far below, relaxing in a canvas chair in the shade of the car. My legs were like jelly, my thigh muscles were on fire, my lungs ached, the heat was oppressive and - oh, how I envied her! I was too high up to see, but she had removed the dainty silk scarf that she always wore around her straw hat. And that was the one and only concession she was prepared to make to the Central Australian outback.

Our next destination, on leaving Ayers Rock, was Kings Canyon. As the crow flies it was only 120 kilometres to the north but - not being crows - we had to take the 314 kilometre road trip. Backtracking along the Lasseter Highway we came across a wrecked car and a dead cow lying in the road. A live cow stood looking mournfully at the carnage. We'd seen about a dozen dead cows on our outward journey along the Lasseter Highway, yet surprisingly, not a single dead kangaroo. Don't ask me why - I don't know. Perhaps cattle and kangaroos are incompatible. You can avoid hitting 'roos by not travelling after dark. Unfortunately, on that highway cattle are likely to wander onto the unfenced road at any time.

We stopped at the Curtin Springs Roadhouse for a bacon and egg sandwich and coffee for breakfast. The owners of that place have a great sense of humour. There is a large "Native Bird Aviary" which contains a single bird. It resembles a plucked, supermarket turkey stuck, head down, in the fork of a tree.

Kings Canyon was quite spectacular but - and this is only my opinion - not really worth the distance involved to see it. But, hey, we went so that's all water under the bridge now. Except there was no water under any of the bridges. There were three walks at Kings Canyon, the longest being a six kilometre climb around the rim of the canyon. We undertook them all as the Tour Director (a.k.a. Mrs B) was very keen that we should. Like all these things, in retrospect it was a wonderful experience. But at the time . . . Anyway, since I forgot the camera you have been spared numerous pictures of Mrs B and rocks.
Some Strange and Amusing Episodes.

One morning at Kings Canyon Caravan Park I walked into the men's ablution block to find several of the WCs occupied, showers running, a bloke shaving at a mirror, another having a pee in the urinal. All quite normal . . . except that there was a woman mopping the floor. She gave me a broad grin and said, Come on in, we're having a party!

We left Kings Canyon after three days and headed for Alice Springs, stopping at the Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse for one night where we purchased a cask of red wine. The barman wrapped it in plain brown paper and hustled us through the kitchen and out of the back door. He said if the Aborigines that were hanging around the front of the roadhouse saw it, they'd offer us $100 for it. No sooner had we reached the caravan than an Aboriginal fellow came across and begged us to buy him some beer - They sell grog to white fella. He had a few dollars but the roadhouse had an agreement with the tribal elders and wouldn't serve him. As fellow alcoholics we sympathised but couldn't help.

Next morning we got away early, stopping later at the Erldunda Roadhouse for a bacon and egg sandwich and a coffee. As we parked and walked in we thought we were seeing things. There were three very smartly dressed people - a man and two women - standing outside. The bloke was wearing a smart business suit and a tie! In the desert half way between Ayers Rock and Alice - a suit and tie! I mentioned this to the guy serving the food and he looked at me like I had two heads . . . then rushed to the window to see for himself. It turned out that the man was a circuit judge with his entourage. A nice clean, chauffeur driven car pulled up and whisked the three of them off to the local airstrip where they had a private aircraft waiting.


While driving around South Australia and the Northern Territory we have seen countless cars from the state of Victoria carrying the slogan Victoria - the Place To Be on their number plates, as pictured left.

If Victoria is the place to be asked Pam, Why are they all here?

Good question, Mrs B.

We'll continue at Alice Springs on Page 7.

Footnote: This re-working of Page 6 was completed on 25 February 2013. It conforms to HTML5 and CSS level3.