Day 4: Back Out into the Outback
Cass (my Britz hire campervan from my previous Australian excursion) was admittedly a spring chicken. She had about 10,000km logged when I picked her up before ravaging her through, what was it, 4800km of Canadian-in-Australia madness? Admittedly I think this number grows each time I recall it. In any case, if hauling Cass through the Australian Outback was cradle-robbing then by comparison I am now playing caretaker to the tribal elder. The rig I am now driving through Australia is only a 2010 but has been shaken through over 138,000km of god-knows-where, AUS. I sure hope she's up to the task.
Britz seems to think so, because they didn't bat an eye when I told them I wanted to drive the Gunbarrel Highway. In fact it took firm convincing to get them to initial on the contract that yes they explicitly gave me permission to take this route (the only provision being that if it starts to rain to get the hell out of there). All in all, I don't think they cared if I told them I was going to take the campervan to Reno via a home-made raft made up of recycled Tim-Tam wrappers...as long as I returned it on time, clean and with full fuel tanks.
This is partially reassuring, and partially disconcerting all at the same time. At least I hired a satellite phone. Provided I don't lose my fingers or eyesight I should be ok no matter what.
And just like that, I hit the road on my journey.
Well, not just like that because I had to indulge in my favourite pass time - grocery shopping. I decided not to be original and basically stocked up on all the same crap as I did last time - peanut butter and bread, instant noodles, those awesome cans of flavoured canned chicken flakes, and sausages and pre-breaded chicken schnitzels. History repeats itself before my very eyes.
In several different ways.
For starters the Australian Outback, being as large and diverse as it is, never ceases to leave me absolutely breathless...which makes things difficult when I am trying to concentrate on adjusting to the vehicle weight being on the wrong side of my body. I take the road towards the West MacDonnell National Park which leads through mountain ranges of sharp red rock, massive green vales, and endless groves of desert oak. This, I believe, is actually heaven, and perhaps I truly did enter Nirvana back in Seattle. Unfortunately for me there was little time before the sunset to reach my first destination so very few quality photos were obtained.
I had planned to stop at a campsite called Red Gorge but instead pulled off at Orminston Gorge since this is the only campground with a solar powered shower. Yes, I wimped out but since I'll be travelling for a few days between any established campgrounds once I hit the Gunbarrel I decided to make it easy on myself for the time being.
I learn early to make sure my rubbish is tucked away. The dingo roaming around my site was very interested to find out what was in the garbage bag I hung on a tree. Unfortunately for me they are much like coyotes - pests and cowards, and so I don't get a chance to take a photo of the mooch. I'm sure I'll see more before the trip is through.
Speaking of pests I forgot the iPad screen attracts a lot of unwanted insecticoid attention. I don't even have a clue what that completely clear bug was I just shooed away. Maybe an elusive deadly-poisonous Australian Glass Weevil?
And what I am going to name my elderly chariot, anyway?
Day 5: Orminston Gorge
As if some force is easing me into my current predicament, tonight is not as cold as it should be. My 4:30am recess from sleep to the toilet is met with a fairly warm (if you call something like 8 degrees warm, and in central Australia in winter it sure as hell is) early morning air, though the trade-off here is that the wind is strong enough to wobble the pop-top camper I currently inhabit, on more than one occasion. Whee!!!
I am spending the morning exploring the gorge, not a second of which is wasted. I climb up a trail called the "Ghost Gum Lookout" which could have easily been called "God's Skybox to the Superbowl" (or World Cup Final for non North Americans) and it is at this point I think I finally realize ok, NOW I'm in Australia.
And I get to meet the dingo. Or at least, a dingo.
The combination of a messed up internal biological clock and my ever-harassing urge to scurry to my next destination gets me moving towards King's Canyon. I am entertained along way with two new games: the first, a little thing I like to call "Dung Dodging" because the cattle around the area seem to love shitting right in the middle of the road, despite the fact that they have like a kagillion kilometres of Outback to relieve themselves upon. The other awesome game I discover is called "figure out the error margin on the GPS", because once I hit the unpaved road of the Mereenie Loop my GPS is consistently messed up and has no idea where the road is supposed to be. This is of no real concern to me since I'm just using it to keep a sense of how far it is to my destination. In fact, at one point, the GPS gets so confused that it starts into a loop of "Recalculating...recalculating..." and it somehow manages to do this exactly to the beat of the song playing on my iPod. I kid you not. I was laughing out loud for several kilometres. My GPS was jamming with my darkwave music.
Speaking of unpaved roads, the Mereenie loop is a nice warm-up of things to come. It is rough at times, long lengths of sharp rocks and moderate corrugations, some twisted turns and pitted surfaces. I am convinced I might be getting a preview of the Gunbarrel as I have to take a detour track along the side of the road where they are doing roadwork, apparently in preparation of sealing the Mereenie Loop (boo!) The detour track is a sandy, twisted, washed-out mess of Jesus-Christ-Are-You-Kidding-Me...at least in comparison to the otherwise "Beginners Guide To Dirt Roads in Australia" that the main road has been to this point.
Fast-forward a bit, and my elation cannot be accurately put into words. Only a few hundred kilometres but I have already seen the magnificent landscape around me transform several times, from rustic mountain passes to flat desert scrub to endless groves of desert oak and gum trees and whatever other awesome shrubs and trees Australia has to offer. All with a long endless red dirt track cutting through it leading on towards the horizon.
This is Australia. I'm finally here.
Speaking of unspeakable, I am now settling down after witnessing the glorious spectacle that is the sunset against the mountains of King's Canyon. I fought through a difficult afternoon that combined with the exhaustion of a body that was positive it should be in bed and the urge to do something remarkable but not having the time to do so (i.e. leaving the King's Canyon walk for tomorrow) had me wallowing in a bit of a "what-the-hell-am-I even-doing-here" funk. I'm sure there will be a few of those yet to come. But nothing extinguishes these useless feelings like the view of a magnificent sunset...from a viewing platform...that has an outdoor bar.
One last personal note, because it's my blog (and not yours). I want to publicly call out my absolutely amazing wife, my best friend, the one that recognized in me the urge to explore, to venture out into unknown parts in the world, to realize dreams I didn't even know I had. So many times when she has explained to others how I was going to Australia - alone - the response be "you're *letting* him go?" (I paraphrase, but not really). She would get annoyed at the idea that she would have to *let* me do anything, and respond politely that no, she wasn't *letting* me do anything. She was encouraging me to go. Truth be told, I am here on my second trip into the Outback at her urging - yes, we joke about the "enough about Australia, if you love it so much just go and marry it!" but really what it comes down to is that I have a desire to explore things and places, one that she just doesn't have, and rather than hold that against me she embraces it and loves me for it and sends me off on my way knowing that when I get back I'll be a fuller person. I'll be even more me than I was when I left, and since she loves me, this will give her more of me to love. Mel, if you're reading this, thank you for understanding and you are in my thoughts always. I would love it if someday I can show you all this, but if not, that's OK because if that just isn't you then I don't want any part of it. All I can say is that all beauty of this land around me will never compare to the beauty of the wife that I will soon come home to.
Day 6: King's Canyon
I spoke too soon with the whole "God's Sky Box" analogy.
I have now completed the fairly difficult task that is the King's Canyon Rim Walk and I don't think I've seen anything in Australia - this time or the previous - that couple possibly compare to what I have now seen. King's Canyon is basically a mountain that has split open up the middle - I'm sure there are more scientific ways to explain it, and several signs along the path attempted to do so but I'm on the clock so I simply took pictures of the info boards and will read them when I get home. The walk begins with a stone staircase that leads way, way, way up the west side of the cliff, and then walk takes you along the edge of a massive chasm, deep down in which there lies a little ecosystem of permanent gorges and sub-tropical groves. I'm really glad I brought a good camera, but this of course slows my walk greatly since, not really knowing how to use the camera properly, I employ instead the approach of "take twenty, one will turn out". I will need to purchase a new hard drive when I get home just for the mess of pictures I've taken.
I do the 3.5 hour walk in about 2 hours, yes rushing along a bit for reasons I'll explain in a bit, but I think the 3.5 hour quoted time is pretty conservative. All I know is I wouldn't want to attempt this walk in the Australian summer.
The reason I'm kind of hurrying (and really, when am I not) is because I'm concerned about making my next destination - the Ayers Rock Campground - and getting a site, since I now have realized that it is Friday and if the campground is full my plans will take a serious left turn for the worse. As I barrel along in my yet-unnamed elderly campervan I convince myself that the fact that it's Friday probably doesn't mean much - Ayers Rock Campground is a six hour drive from the nearest major town so really the only force I have to contend with is the normal tourist contingent, which probably has no bearing of the fact that it's Friday. They're tourists, they don't care what day of the week it is.
I am now writing this from the large red dirt overflow lot of the Ayers Rock Campground, because they were completely full by the time I got here - at 3:40pm. At least they had an overflow. Stupid fucking tourists.
My plan was to leave early and visit Kata Tjuta, which is sort of a sister monolith to Uluru (Ayers Rock) and then proceed along the Great Central Road into Western Australia, but I've modified my plans slightly - I've decided to stay here an extra night (not in the shitty overflow lot, I've booked a site for tomorrow). I'd rather take the extra time to explore Kata Tjutu and Uluru properly, and since I've allowed myself several days leeway for the entire trip I figure it would be good to slow down a bit, take some time to physically and mentally prepare for the Gunbarrel Highway, and I guess spend more money because this resort is freaking expensive. Nonetheless I think it will be well spent to get some rest and prepare.
Good to know that even in Australia there are assholes, specifically the ones blasting music out of their rented motorhome at 9:30pm when most folks are trying to retire for the evening. I can't believe someone would blare that horrific "Turn Down The What" travesty, admitting that they not only like the song (the term song used very loosely) but own a copy of it. And some German guy just drunk-barfed out the side of his campervan just up the lot from me.
Stupid fucking tourists.
Day 7: Kata Tjuta and the Great Central Road
And...I alter my plans again at the last minute and instead decide not to spend the $50 on a campsite here. I have a Gunbarrel Highway to get to.
The consequence is that I do not get a chance to truly enjoy Uluru and Kata Tjuta as much as I would have liked, though since I have already explored Uluru once I'm ok with this plan. I stop to snap some quick pictures of Uluru and then spend a bit of time taking in Kata Tjuta as much as my schedule will allow...a whole whopping hour. Oh well, something for trip three.
Kata Tjuta is like if Uluru had a litter of babies...instead of one monolith it is several, all huge, all red, and all reaching up into the heavens from where I walk through a gorge in between two of them. There is a more substantive walk that provides better viewing but it is a 3 to 4 hour hike and I have to motor on into Western Australia.
I hit the Great Central Road and flashbacks of the Tanami come rapid-fire, though this road is far prettier, leading through plains of desert trees, mountain ranges, and several large dry riverbeds that are a reminder of how completely impassible this road would be after any substantial amount of rain.
It is a long bone-shocking drive but I have settled into a campsite at the Warakurna Roadhouse. Tomorrow I will head to Warburton and consult with the roadhouse caretaker and check the weather online. If there is even a hint of rain in the following three or four days then my plans for the Gunbarrel are ruined, at which point I'll just have to carry on and explore some other places in Australia - a pretty wicked consolation prize if you ask me. So if all goes well I will not be posting for quite some time, at least four or five days...not like I've been particularly reliable to this point anyway.
No quips or witty endings to this one. It's too damn cold. I want to post this and crawl into my warm bed. This may be Australia, but it's winter.
Catch you all on the other side of the Gunbarrel!