The Outback: Week 171 Part 2

View of Mt Connor from Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

107.2FM was the only radio station on the Lasseter Highway. There were no DJs or advertisements, just a collection of obscure American albums that someone cared enough about to share with whoever might be passing through the dusty red landscape.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Curtin Springs. It was a motel with a gas station and a shop that had as many functions as a Swiss army knife. Jars of pickled snakes and small wooden plaques lined the shelves behind the counter. A TV in the corner of the room was blaring part two of an annual rugby game called State of Origin. The first time I heard the tournament’s name I thought it was an important political address by the Prime Minister.

Although we were in the middle of nowhere, the young staff were all foreigners extending their Working Holiday visas. Citizens of certain countries can stay another year in Australia if they spend three months working in regional Australia. If it wasn’t for this program, places like Curtin Springs would have a very difficult time finding employees to wear their trademark blue and yellow shirt: Ugly staff but top service.

The facility itself was surrounded by a million acre cattle station, all of it owned since 1956 by the Severin family. It was easy to forget the arid land could support a working farm. In fact, the only time I heard a cow was before dawn. A pack of dingoes had surrounded the frightened creature with barred teeth and howls like electric chimes.The parking lot emu at Curtin Springs: Northern Territory, Australia

Barret, our friends, and I pitched a tent in the Curtin Springs campground and built a small fire to cook our dinner. A tame emu strolled by, pecking around the fringes of our site.

“Hey you guys, guess what band was playing on the only radio station in the outback!”

“You’ll never believe it,” Barret added, “it’s so random.”

It was impossible to guess, so Barret finally shouted out, “Coheed and Cambria- the entire album!”

Turns out there is no ‘underground’ cattle station, only our American friends driving behind us with their iPod radio adapter. I was a little disappointed to hear that.

Uluru at sunrise: Northern Territry, Australia

Just south of Curtin Springs and the Mobil gas station, a large plateau the color of dusty rose punched out of the flat terrain. To the unsuspecting traveler it looked like Uluru, but it was actually a beautiful red herring named Mt Connor.

The real Uluru was smooth, worn, and patterned like a tiger with dot-dot-dash stripes. When the sun began to rise, the bush landscape became two-toned. The tips of the vegetation were rosy-lime-green while the lower portions were blue-jungle-green. A ray of sun struck the monolithic rock and warmed it up like a glowing stove top.Receipt from Ayers Rock Resort: Northern Territory, Australia

This beautiful landscape first became a national park in 1950. Eight years later the land was taken from the traditional owners, the Anangu, and ownership was only returned in 1985. Since then, ‘Ayer’s Rock’ and ‘The Olgas’ are officially recognized as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Longstanding cultural traditions, which had been suspended during that period, have also since resumed and contentious issues such as the ‘right to climb Uluru’ are being addressed. While it is legally possible to climb Uluru, it is culturally insensitive and heavily discouraged. The route up the rock is a sacred path taken by a few select Aboriginal men.

Uluru at sunset: Northern Territory, Australia

Photography is another thorny issue since ‘avoidance tactics’ are traditionally practiced after the death of a person. In the past this meant the deceased’s name was not said, but today it also encompasses photography and film. Obviously this is practiced to varying degrees within the community, but there are a few sacred points around Uluru where photography is prohibited.Polaroid of Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

Instead of climbing Uluru, our friends and I spent the rest of the day on a circular hike around Kata Tjuta, which means ‘many heads’ in Pitjantjatjara. Unlike the sandstone-composed Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a mosaic of pebbles and rocks cemented together by sand and mud. One of the boulders next to the footpath looked like a geodesic meatball.Polaroid of Valley of the Winds walk at Kata Tjuta: Northern Territory, Australia

The name of the walk was The Valley of the Winds and it cannot be overstated how beautiful the view was when we reached the top of the valley. The hidden oasis was a refreshing pause from the unrelenting sun, and that was the middle of winter!

Polaroid of the King's Canyon rim: Northern Territory, Australia

The following day we drove to Kings Canyon. From ground level, the canyon appears to abruptly end at a sheer cliff face. However, the view from the rim reveals a massive expanse of stupa-like domes. Along the route we saw lizards, honey pot ants, and collected swarms of hitchhiking flies on our backs. The latter is one of those things you just come to accept because it’s just not worth fighting.Rock formations at Kings Canyon: Northern Territory, Australia

The trick to dealing with the flies was to keep moving. Then, when the sun set with a pink halo completely encircling the horizon, the flies just disappeared out of thin air. The red landscape turned to bruised plum and the temperature dropped. The desert might be sparse, but there is life quietly tucked away in every fold and crevice.Red earth landscape of the outback: Northern Territory, Australia

About: Curtin Springs

About: Uluru and Kata Tjuta

About: Kings Canyon

Polaroid of Uluru in the afternoon: Northern Territory, Australia

 

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South Australia: Week 170

Heli pad outside the Chateau Yaldara: Barossa Valley, South Australia

Barret and I made a very important decision while watching National Lampoon’s European Vacation. We decided that we couldn’t miss the Barossa Valley during our first trip to Adelaide. The valley has a lot going for it (like producing 21% of Australia’s wine), but it wasn’t until Chevy Chase slipped into some lederhosen that we pined for the region’s Germanic heritage. We’re tasteful like that.

Just outside the town of Tanunda, is Chateau Yaldara. It’s one of the most famous vineyards in the Barossa Valley because of its beautiful sandstone buildings. It was founded in 1947 by Hermann Thumm, a Georgian immigrant. Because of his German ancestry, Thumm spent several years interned in a POW camp after he first arrived in Australia. Never one to idle, he used the camp’s library to study viticulture and upon release he headed straight for the Barossa Valley.

The misty rain had cleared by the time we reached the cellar door. Along with four other American friends we sampled almost everything on offer before heading into Tanunda for lunch. The air was crisp and carried the scent of a wood-burning fire. It made me wish we had an extra night to stay in one of the old stone cottages.

Vineyards in the Barossa Valley: South Australia

We left the valley in the late afternoon and headed for the A1. The rural route passed Bumbunga Lake, a pink-streaked body of water inhabited by a Loch Ness monster made out of car tires. The only station we received was Radio National, the Australian equivalent to NPR. A retro-disco-Bollywood band from Melbourne was performing live in the studio and each member had an identity like The Skipper or The Bandit Priest.

The saltbush landscape slowly crept up as the Bombay Royale led us on a psychedelic journey. “We’re in a very small space for those listeners who can’t see us right now, and this is the Mysterious Lady talking. But you can imagine in this scene, this set: the humidity and the passion and we go to the Island of Doctor Electrico.”

The sun set before we entered Port Augusta, an industrial town at the ‘Crossroads of Australia.’ The Leigh Creek coal field is 250km north of town and supplies Port Augusta’s two power stations. Usually only one is operational during winter, but the air still had a metallic tang.

We drove straight through town and onto the Stuart Highway- the legendary road which runs north through the center of Australia. It was named after the Scottish explorer who traversed a similar route in 1861. The most dangerous time to travel the highway is between sunset and sunrise. This is when kangaroos are either most active or (obviously) harder to see. At 30mph mid-leap, hitting a ‘roo could be devastating.

An Outback roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

We were tired and eager to pull over for the night at Pimba. Although, it would have been more accurate to just label the speck on the map ‘Spud’s Roadhouse’. The gas station/café/motel/grocery store pretty much was the entire town.

Inside the shop construction workers in neon vests crowded around a rugby game on TV and the smell of greasy food wafted out of the kitchen. Barret and I didn’t feel like setting up the tent in the parking lot, so we asked the guy behind the counter for a room.

“It’ll be nointy dollas. Cheers mate.”

We drove our car round the side of the building and parked outside a long row of connected portables. The only other occupants next to us were already drunk and leaning against a large industrial truck. The front door behind them was wide open and the lights and TV were blaring. They eyed us as we unlocked our bent aluminum door and a salty lady called out with a grin, “we’re only here for the night!”

Inside a room at Spud's Roadhouse: Pimba, South Australia

The portable was a wood-paneled shoebox with three beds, a projectile vomit stain on the carpet outside the bathroom, and very thin walls.

“Hey, ya got any drugs?”

I spun around to see if I’d left the door open, but I hadn’t.

“Naw,” a guy replied. It didn’t stop him from searching his stuff though. He sounded like a hamster scratching through the walls. Barret and I pulled out some canned food for dinner and glumly listened in our on neighbor’s conversation. A loud voice sounded from behind our unit and then another woman cackled out in the parking lot.

I felt like we were being circled by a pack of hungry dingoes. Was it only last night that we were enjoying a fireside drink at the Grace Emily in Adelaide? The mantle had been covered in candle wax drippings about a foot thick and a giant papier-mâché dragon head hung in the cornice by the stage. I suddenly wished we were back there.

The hiss of a static-y TV channel reverberated through our walls. “Wow,” I mouthed to Barret, “this place is a shit hole.”

About: The Barossa Valley

How to get to Chateau Yaldara: 159 Hermann Thumm Drive, Lyndoch SA 5351 Barossa Valley

About: The Bombay Royale

About: The Bombay Royale performance on Radio National

How to avoid Spud’s Roadhouse: Don’t stop in Pimba

How to get to the Grace Emily: 232 Waymouth Street, Adelaide SA 5000

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