This blog was actually posted on Friday 17th April. It’s an update of one we drafted on15th and we can’t figure out how to get wordpress to change the date. Sorry.
We’re writing as we drive north from Coober Pedy. (One typist plus one driver = two bloggers). It’s day 8 but it feels like we’ve been travelling for weeks. The timelessness of the land that goes on and on and on makes calendars seem irrelevant. We need to get to Alice in time to housesit for Helen (she’s off to Europe for 6 weeks), so a little calendar watching is called for now and then.
TUESDAY 14th April Day 6 Burra to Woomera
200 km from Burra we got to the gateways to the desert – a sign just north of Port Augusta and then the Arid Lands National Park.
The Stuart Highway is in excellent condition. It’s easy to get hypnotised by the steady cruising. Fortunately, we don’t have to drive more than 4 hours a day. Love the road signs near rest stops: Drowsy Drivers Die. Fatigue is Fatal. Take a Break. Survive this Drive. (And one near a small roadhouse: “Stop and Eat or We’ll Both Starve”). There are lots of rest stops – sometimes with a shaded area – but not always.
It’s mostly flat and mostly straight and mostly sparse vegetation (although greener than usual because of the big wet last summer). Frequent mirages at the end of the road make it hard to see what’s ahead. But there isn’t much traffic and all drivers are courteous, so no stress. Although some of the passing trucks are HUGE, some long and some wide.
It’s a harsh arid country, yet the overwhelming feeling as we travel through it is one of softness. The colours of the land. The colours of the sky. The vastness. The sense of foreverness. It feels warm and strong.
But then again, we’re in a cocoon in the car. When we stop there’s the heat (36 degrees today, after we needed jackets in Burra) and the flies (and flies, flies, flies) and the red dust. Today there’s even wind. When we get out, it does remind us that it’s desert. We love it.
Finding music to match the mood of the land is interesting. We loaded hundreds of cds onto an ipod. Driving through NSW it was fun to sing along with the oldies. They don’t work so well out here. An album by Anouar Brahem “Le Voyage de Sahar” is becoming a favourite, plus lots of Rachel Hore’s “Wilurara”. Jacqueline de Pre fits well too. And, of course, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yurupingi, Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach.
Woomera seems to be a sterile and serious town. The streets were mainly empty except for tourists looking at the rocket exhibit. The only locals we saw were at the club at dinner. There were pockets of trees and parks and a wonderful mural that juxtaposes Aboriginal life with metal rockets. We borrowed a small section of it for our logo. Thanks to the artist, Doug Harrip, for capturing the spirit of our journey.
WEDNESDAY Day 7 Woomera to Coober Pedy
Do you think this menu at Glendambo (about 100 km north of Woomera) was a joke?
We’ve seen many kangaroo warning signs and lots of recent road kill, although they were more common in NSW (about 1 every 10 km) but not common out in the desert (about 1 every 200km). The only live kangaroo we’ve seen was resting under a tree in Woomera. He gently moved off when he saw us coming – but only as far as the next big tree.
There was a salt lake about 60 km north of Port Augusta. We thought it was huge.
Then, just 30 km north of Woomera, we stopped at Lake Hart, which makes the previous salt lake seem small. This one goes on as far as the eye can see. Can’t capture it in photographs. The Ghan railway line goes close by.
We went on the new Ghan about 4 years ago with Jeanette and Julia. The Ghan sped past this stunning lake in the middle of the night. Good to visit it at a more relaxed pace.
Daf remembers the old Ghan. In about 1973 Carolina, Frank, Kevin and Daf drove from Sydney to Port Pirie and caught the old Ghan on the narrow guage track up to Alice and back. It was so slow and the conditions were so uncertain (sand on track, etc.) that they couldn’t predict how long it would take – somewhere around 3 or 4 days was the guesstimate. It went in the low country on red sand. It puttered along and often stopped. They’d whistle to tell us we could get off and go for a wander in the desert. Then some time later they’d whistle to say it was time to return. Long slow evenings in the wooden lounge car with someone playing the piano. We loved every moment of it. Daf was disappointed with the speedy, sealed, new Ghan that goes on the high country in less than 24 hours and gives barely a glimpse of red sand. But Jeanette loved it. Daf was too busy being disappointed that it wasn’t the same as the “good old days” to appreciate it. Our journey now is more like the old Ghan. Slow and steady with time to stop and be with the country.
There’s a stretch of 265 km of road without any buildings (although there are two emergency phones) between Glendambo and Coober Pedy. Then, at last, we arrived in CP.
Jude is fully aware that CP is the opal mining capital of the nation (the world?). So when she saw the piles of rubble that dot the countryside around CP (they look like huge ant hills) and said “I wonder what they’re mining?”. Daf assumed it was a Jude joke and didn’t respond. As we left CP the next day, Jude suddenly realised her gaff!
We stayed in an underground motel, visited an underground church, an underground art gallery, an underground home, and an old mine. The town is very dry and dusty. The dugouts are surprisingly dust free. We were told that 80% of the population live in dugouts.
After WW1 many returned servicemen went out to the opal fields to strike it rich. They’d spent the war digging out trenches and living in dugouts. There were no building materials in the opal fields (just rock and dust), so they dugout their homes underground. With temperatures in summer exceeding 45 and below freezing on winter nights, it makes sense to live underground where the temperature is a stable 24 degrees, day and night, summer and winter. Good sleeping conditions – pitch black and no noise. But if you’re claustrophobic (as Jude can sometimes be), then being underground with no natural light, no windows, rock walls and low ceilings can become a bit freaky. It was surprising how quickly we got over the novelty of being underground. But we were also happy to emerge into the sun.
We spent a couple of hours visiting a mine museum and tour. We like that the museum started its history story with the Indigenous people – even providing a map of the local groups.
Did you know that Coober Pedy was named by local Aboriginal people? It means White Man’s Burrows – a great name for the miner’s dugouts.
There’s a weird beauty to the starkness. Good for a visit, but wouldn’t want to live there. Great food at the Greek taverna, served by a Filipino woman. At Cadney Homestead (150 km north of CP), the food is served by an Italian woman. Our tour guide in the mine is German. It’s a multicultural outback.
THURSDAY Day 8 Coober Pedy to Cadney Homestead
There are two “painted deserts” in the area. One, actually called the Painted Desert, is about 150 km north of CP. Rough roads and access only to the edges, so we didn’t drive there. We had hoped to fly over it and Lake Eyre, but it’s a windy, cloudy day and there were no other takers for the flight, so the cost would have been $1360 for just the two of us. We decided to settle for the other painted desert, known as the Breakaways; the turnoff is just 20 km up the highway from Coober Pedy. It’s another world. Eerily beautiful. So powerful. We were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves so we could really feel the isolation and energy. And were very pleased to see acknowledgement of the Antakirinja Mutuntjarra people.
Then back on the road to Cadney Park Homestead, only another 130 km up the highway. Arrived with time to do some washing, have a rest, download all the photos and finish this blog. Everyone else in the dining room/bar was an Aboriginal stockman. Friendly guys. No Internet access. We want to get this blog off because we loved getting so many warm responses to our first blog. It’s great to have so much connection with family and friends when we’re in such a remote place. (Note- that’s an encouragement to send more warm responses!)
FRIDAY Day 9 Cadney Homestead to Northern Territory
Short drive this morning up past Marla and then off onto a dirt road to Iwantja Art Centre at Indulkana. On the edge of the APY lands. APY stands for Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara. We admit we had to look that up. APY is much easier to remember! There are seven art centres in the communities spread across the northern border of South Australia. You need a permit to enter, except for Indulkana. We hope to get a permit and hire a 4 wheel drive to come back down here during our trip. We geared our travels to get us to Iwantja on a day they are open. Still unpredictable – we were told if they were closed there’d be a closed sign at the turnoff on the highway. Drat – it said closed. Well, we’d come this far, so decided to give it a try. Crossed the Ghan track and some interesting car signs to get there.
Iwantji was open!! It’s a lovely friendly art centre. We met two artists we admire, Alec Baker and Maringka Burton. And lots of other wonderful artists. Jude bought 3 of Alec’s paintings and he honoured her by agreeing to a quick photo. Maringka was painting a gorgeous huge painting. She said she’ll paint a smaller one for us. Hope she meant it.
It feels good to be back in an Aboriginal community. Looking forward to much more in the next few months. Here’s some paintings on the wall of the community general story.
Then back to the highway and only 100 km to the border. Tonight at Erldunda. Alice tomorrow! Daf’s birthday dinner with friends in Alice on Sunday night. We’re happy.