On April 7, 2000, my husband and I left on MY dream vacation; two weeks in Australia, or as the Aussies call it, Oz! We flew from Nashville, TN to Los Angeles, CA and on to Sydney; a total of 19 hours air time. Two hours later, we departed for Adelaide, in South Australia, where we spent a day and night before joining our bus tour at 11:00AM on April 10. (Somewhere along the way, we lost an entire day!) From there, we headed north towards Darwin, right through Australia's red centre. The following is my journal:
DAY 1 4/10/00 203 miles
Arrived at the Park Royal in Adelaide to find a rather large group of "tour goers", all carrying red bags with Australia Pacific Tours written on them. As we were carrying bright yellow bags saying Brendan Tours, we experienced our first bout of anxiety. Upon checking with the driver of the coach parked in front, we were told we were in the right place and would be joining APT. So far; so good.............
We all boarded the coach, 42 of us at that point, and were driven around Adelaide. It is a city just over one square mile, surrounded by parklands and the usual suburbs. Many of the houses and all of the fences are built of corrugated metal as there is almost no usable wood in the area. Larger homes and buildings are stucco or stone or brick. During this part of the trip, we were introduced to our driver, Lindsay, and our tour guide, Sandy. We were also given a short dissertation concerning our "coach". It was brand new, named the Opal Princess, and cost $500,000. We were NEVER to refer to it as a bus!
Half an hour later, we headed north, where very shortly it could only be described as "miles and miles of miles and miles". It is primarily desert; dry and flat. There are fields of harvested wheat, small market gardens, various size herds of sheep, an occasional horse or two, some beef cattle, and LOTS of space! On the left side it was flat as far as the eye could see, with an abandoned shepherds cottage every 20 miles or so, and a "homestead" perhaps every 40 miles. From time to time a "willy-willy", or dust devil as we call them, would pick up some dust and dance across the field. On the right side, it was also flat, usually with a large water pipe running parallel with road. About 5,000 feet back, the desert rose to an irregular ridge of barren hills. Some time around 1:00, we made a lunch stop in a very small town called Port Wakefield. It was no more than a gas station, a bakery, and a convenience store. I had my first encounter with that English delicacy, a meat pie. YUCK!
Back to the desert for several more hours. During this time, we were given a rundown of our fellow passengers. There were only 5 Americans on board; a couple from CA, and a man from Philadelphia, PA, and us. The others were from Holland, Germany, New Zealand, Wales, UK, Denmark, Tasmania, and of course, Australia. Around 3:00 in the afternoon, we had our first "camel sighting". He was standing in a field, dusting himself. It was very different from seeing one in a zoo at home in the states. We also passed a commercial salt farm, where rainwater is collected in a large, shallow, natural indentation in the earth, called a pan, and as it evaporates, the salt is pulled from the sand and collected. No water; just a salty residue at this time.....
Late in the afternoon, we arrived in Port Augusta and had our first look at the Spencer Gulf, off in the distance. Nearby was a huge power plant which supplies most of the power for Southern Australia. Our hotel sat off in the desert and had a golf course that can only be described as "struggling". Futile attempts at growing grass were evident, but far from successful. Where other courses have GREENS, they had BROWNS. Our walk around the course, however, was rewarded when a very large flock of pink and gray parrot-like birds called galas seem to appear from both nowhere and everywhere, and landed not far from where we stood. We also saw large black and white birds and heard their loud jungle calls. The trees and shrubs in the area were quite beautiful, but none that I recognized as ever having seen before. Dinner was served in the hotel diningroom by a turbanned East Indian. The menu, too, was Indian and very delicious.
DAY 2 4/11/00 344 miles
In the morning as I packed to leave, Dick returned from wandering outside and brought me a small, shrivelled lemon from a tree outside our door. By 7:45, we had eaten a hearty breakfast and were on our way heading north once again. For the next several hours, we continued seeing flocks of sheep feeding on the salt bush, a low, gray-green scrub bush. This was also the morning that we started to see emus; first just two off to the left, and later an entire flock of eight or ten.
The day was overcast with low, heavy clouds, and quite warm. At mid-morning, we passed the "town" of Pimba (a roadhouse and 3 or 4 other houses and buildings), and shortly after, we stopped at Woomera for tea. This was somewhat larger, and contained a grocery store, variety store, post office, and snack bar. I had a Chocolate Boolabong; more commonly known as a Fudgesicle. The houses and the fences around them were all made from corrugated tin. Then on once more, past areas with Acacia trees scattered amongst the bush and areas where almost nothing grew. Still there were the sheep; seemingly grazing on NOTHING. We often saw wedge-tailed eagles resting in the shade of a lonely tree.
Just before reaching Glendambo, our lunch stop, the trees once again disappeared and we saw only sparse brown grass growing in light orange sand. We also passed one of the larger salt pans, several miles long, known as Lake Hart; no water, of course! Suddenly Glendambo sprang up out of nowhere; out in the middle of nothing. The roadhouse, with a restaurant and a few motel rooms, was the only building of any size in the town which was about the size of a city block. They served only ready-made sandwiches, chips(fries), and cold drinks. There were several emus and kangaroos in a fenced in area, which gave us a chance for a close-up look, a small general store just up the road, and that was about it.
Heading north once more towards Coober Pedy, we realized the vastness of this great untamed land. What we had seen on TV and read about in preparation for our trip was NOTHING compared to this reality!! Late in the afternoon, with soft rain falling, we passed the first of the opal fields and pulled into Coober Pedy. Every hill in and around the town had vent pipes and water tanks; the only evidence of the many homes existing entirely underground. Much to my surprise, and because they simply ran out of hills, there were also many buildings built either partially or totally above ground. One large modern looking home was said to have living quarters with 3 bedrooms above ground and another complete set of living quarters with 3 bedrooms underground. The family living there moved up or down according to the weather. With a young local girl as our guide, we visited an underground church, an opal mine, and an underground home.
Our hotel, the Desert Cave, also had rooms both above and below ground. The diningroom was quite elegant and the menu offered what we had all been waiting for; KANGAROO! Strip-like pieces were grilled and served over garlic mashed potatoes with a rich, brown au jus gravy. It was very tender and unlike any meat I had eaten before; very tasty. We dined with the two couples from Denmark and had a pleasant meal.
DAY 3 4/12/00 471 miles
Day 3 began at 6:30 with an excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel, and off we went once again. As we left Coober Pedy, the opal fields went as far as you could see on both sides of the road for a distance of 8-10 miles. There were pile after pile of mined sand; an assortment of sizes and colors. Among these piles were the miners machines, called "blowers". Some were fired up and operating, and some just sitting there looking somewhat abandoned. We were totally amazed at how the barren vastness just goes on and on! It was 3 hours later when we passed Cadney Park Station, the first sign of civilization since leaving Coober Pedy.
Early in the day, we had our first kangaroos-in-the-wild sighting as several large, dark ones hopped away in the distance. We also got our first look at the beautiful white parrots known as carellas. A while later we crossed the famous dingo fence that runs east to west across Australia, but it was several hours later before we saw a dingo. Morning tea was at Marla and lunch at Erlunda (pop:30).
As we headed out that afternoon, we were told by our guide to start looking for Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it is better known. We saw our first desert flowers, Parakelia, a small purplish groundcover, and some small yellow and white daisies. We also were able to get glimpses of an Aboriginal settlement at the foot of a mountain ridge called The Amamba. This section of desert also introduced us to the desert oak, a tree resembling our weeping willow, but of a conifer type.
Just before reaching a cattle station known as Curtin Springs, several of us thought we saw Uluru, looming in the distance. It turned out, instead, to be Mt. Connor, a flat-topped rock of huge proportions. It was not until almost 5:00PM that we FINALLY saw what we had all been looking for. AWESOME!!!! After a long look, we went and found our accomodations for the next two nights, the Desert Garden Resort or Ulara. This must be where "a room with a view" got its start, as we had a balcony facing Uluru; a view like none other! That evening we drove to a point where we could watch the sunset reflecting on Uluru, and were served drinks and snacks while enjoying the beauty of the moment.
DAY 4 4/13/00 119 miles
Took the early morning "off" as we were not up to climbing Uluru. Ate a WONDERFUL breakfast and did some shopping at the resort. At 9:15 we boarded our coach and drove to Uluru to meet the hardier members of our group. The temperature was close to 90° with a slight breeze, and the sun was VERY hot. The flies were almost unbearable in spite of Sandy telling us that they were just "mild". We ate lunch at the Aboriginal Culture Center, and then headed out to visit the Olgas. They are even higher than Uluru, but less impressive as they are a series of irregularly shaped rocks, rather than just ONE. Returned to the resort for a two hour rest before our evening at the "Sounds of Silence".
The "Sounds of Silence" is a special champagne dinner, served in the most spectacular diningroom on Earth - a desert clearing in sight of both the Olgas and Uluru. There were 10 or 12 elegantly set tables, and we were greeted by waiters serving champagne in crystal stemware. Before dinner, we walked a short distance to a rise where we were able to experience the setting sun while enjoying delicious appetizers and more champagne. The night was moonlit and a gentle breeze was blowing. In this unique setting surrounded by endless desert, we were treated to a sumptuous three-course feast under a canopy of infinite stars. Our table was shared by several of our new friends; Eleanor and Gwilym from Wales, Orhan and Cankat (pronounced Jankat) from Turkey, and three women from England. The menu included calamari, barramundi, octopus, kangaroo, crocodile, camel, and for the less adventurous, chicken and lamb. There were several desserts including macadamia pie and summer fruit pudding. Red and white wine was served throughout the meal. It is difficult to say what was the most enjoyable; the food, the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the stimulating conversation, or the fact that all of this was taking place under a star-filled sky in the midst of a vast desert with the world's largest monolith looming in the distance. As the end of a never-to-be-forgotten night neared its end, approaching clouds and lightening provided us with the ultimate in light shows and we all realized that this was an evening that would live in our hearts and minds forever.....................
DAY 5 4/14/00 205 miles
Today we had a "late", 9:00AM, departure. Did some backtracking to take a closer look at Mt. Connor and then turned off the Stuart Highway and headed for Kings Canyon. The rain from the night before had caused portions of the road to wash out, making the trip more interesting. We also saw the scenery and vegetation begin to change. The land became increasingly hilly and new colors were introduced to the desert palette. There were trees with yellow blooms, flowering bushes and groundcovers, and purple flowers called Mala Mala flowers. Lindsay, our driver, was extremely knowlegable in this area and pointed out bush tomatoes and potatoes, desert azaleas, and various kinds of acacia trees. As the rock ridges to the sides got gradually higher, our view, which until now had been endless, became smaller and easier to examine.
Around noon, we pulled into King's Creek Station or Watarrka, our lunch stop. What began as a man named Ian's dream of a huge cattle station has instead become a tourist stop and camel exporting business. There are thousands of feral camels in the area, and Ian and his hands capture them and sell them to the U.S.A. and other countries for zoos and circuses. There were several young ones in a pen and a few older ones for tourists to ride. There were also a couple dozen kangaroos which we were able to feed and pet. Lunch for most of us was a camel burger; very good!
Back on the road and heading for King's Canyon once again. When we arrived, the heartier (crazier?) of our group made a three hour climb to the top and the rest of US took a one hour walk along the stream at its base. Several places where we should have been able to cross the stream bed, we had to wade in ankle deep, fast moving water. Lindsay kept remarking on the late rains and the changes they had made in the area. What had just three weeks earlier been a dry, brown and red landscape was now transformed into greens and colors and flowing water. When we finished our walk (we had seen a fleeting glimpse of a rock wallaby), we went on to the King's Creek Resort to await the others.
Dinner tonight at the resort restaurant was the most sumptuous so far. There were all kinds of soups, salads, breads, cheeses, and relishes, as well as crabs, prawns, and oysters. And these were just the appetizers!! The main course was roast turkey, roast pork (both sliced to your order), herbed potatoes, stir fried veggies, and every possible accompaniment. There were also about 20 desserts; each one an artistic masterpiece, along with being delicious.