By Bruce Murray
One of the most interesting places in the world to visit is the Australian outback. It is generally considered to be the great red desert area of central Australia.
Alice Springs, a town of about 30,000 people, is the gathering place for many of the aborigines who live in the Outback.
When our oldest son took a job in Alice Springs, as a college teacher, we took the opportunity to go and see for ourselves.
We flew from Brisbane on the East Coast direct to Alice Springs in the centre of the country — a flight of about three hours. The view from the plane window reminded me of pictures of Mars. Red desert with dry rivers, little vegetation or signs of human habitation other than an occasional dirt road.
We landed in Alice Springs on time and walked down the stairs onto the tarmac. It was hot but not unpleasant because July is the middle of their winter. One of the first things that caught my eye was a hanger with a sign, “Royal Flying Doctor Service” — a reminder this was indeed the Outback.
Alice Springs is the administrative centre for this region of the Northern Territories and about 20 per cent of the population are in some fashion employed by a government agency.
Tourism is important to the area, so there are several good hotels and eating places. We stayed at the Holiday Inn to take pressure off our son, his wife and new baby daughter.
Learning to drive our rental car was an adventure in itself. The first thing to learn was driving from the right side of the car and driving on the left side of the road. Traffic circles took real concentration to go clockwise around, as opposed to counter clockwise like in North America.
Roads in the Outback are interesting, as there is usually one lane paved and gravel shoulders. If you meet an oncoming car or small truck (locally called a Ute) you each keep one set of wheels on the paved road and the others on the shoulder, as you pass. Slow down because there is lots of dust. When you meet a large truck, often a road train consisting of three or four trailers, you pull right off the road and stop. They don’t slow down or move over and the dust will blind you for quite some time.
One of the activities we enjoyed the most was going fossicking. Over here we might call it prospecting or mining. We travelled to Gemtree, located about 140 kilmometres north east of Alice Springs and crossed the Tropic of Capricorn on the way. There we stayed in a cabin, had a genuine Australian barbecue and spent a morning digging for garnets. We found lots of them and had one made into a solitaire ring for mother. A lot of fun and mother even got up close and personal with a scorpion. We were not sure who was most anxious to get away.
A must do when visiting the Outback is a trip to Uluru also called Ayers Rock. You can fly from Alice Springs to Uluru but we chose to drive. There are hotels and lodges with eating facilities at Uluru but they are very expensive — given it is a world renowned tourist destination.
We left very early in the morning in two vehicles and drove the six hours to the park. The entrance fee is $25 per adult for a three-day pass, so our one-day trip was quite expensive for the six of us.
Uluru is a massive sandstone monolith about 10 kilometres around and rising about 350 metres above the ground. It changes colour throughout the day, as the sun rises and sets. It is most spectacular at sunset when the rock becomes very red. There are shops selling aboriginal art and souvenirs. We followed the walking trail around the rock and took many pictures but climbing on the rock was prohibited.
We left Uluru for our drive home at sunset and our son warned us about the problem of kangaroos on the road at night. “Be very careful,” he said.
“They are like the deer at home only more numerous. They will hop out of the bush in front of a car without warning, especially at night.”
With that advice on our mind we headed out. He was correct. We saw a least one kangaroo on or beside the road every 15 minutes. However, he was the one to clip a kangaroo in the dark, not us. Fortunately, very little damage. We did have our own adventure.
We were watching the bush beside the highway very carefully when we saw something large stick its head out and mother said, “that looks like a dinosaur head.”
We immediately slowed and a large camel walked out of the bush and across the road in front of us. What a surprise. We subsequently learned there are thousands of feral camels in Australia that have flourished since being brought over as pack animals around 1850.
We very much enjoyed our time in the Australian outback and even though our son and his family have moved to the coast, we would certainly go back.
Perhaps this time we will go fossicking for zircons, mother needs a new ring.