10 December 2015
I awake early, well before my bus is scheduled to arrive. In the vast parking lot adjacent to the caravan park is a three-trailered roadtrain full of camels.
The driver explains that they are wild camels destined to “have their heads chopped off”. He’s trying to get one of the camels which has lain down in a trailer to stand up. “The others sit on ‘im” explains the driver as he pokes at it with an electric cattle prod. Now I know where my camel steaks come from.
0950 Dreamer and Ziflex are in the hold of the Greyhound bus Adelaide – Alice Springs – Darwin. A sparse but diverse group of travellers: Aussies going to or returning from some place, Aborigines with assorted bed and sleeping apparel and kids, me and Dreamer. The driver seems perfect to safely transport this group, congenial but firm.
Various dusty roadside stops including where the (in-)famous Mulga Park Road joins the Stuart Highway. I wanted to take the Mulga Park Road. It would mean a 165 km ride west before turning north for another 66 km to join the Lasseter Highway just east of Curtin Springs. In doing so I would pass close to Mount Connor or originally Atila in the native Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara languages, another massive rock formation which towers above the plains. One I’ve always wanted to visit but never quite managed to do. Rising 300 m, Atila is not quite at high as Uluru but it is almost three times the circumference at some 30 km around the base.
There is no recognised water supply along this route which means I’d need to carry water for 230-odd kilometres and overnight stops. Quite a haul.
As with my Oodnadatta – Finke – Kulgera intentions, rains put paid to this idea. In Marla’s pub some contractors working out in the APY Lands told hairy tales of getting out “just in time” before the rains turned the area to a vast muddy quagmire. The Aṉangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara Lands is a large area of Aboriginal land in the north west corner of South Australia. It is from the APY that Stuart drove to meet me at Hamilton and the spectacular but distant lightning show we witnessed in our wild camp just south of Hamilton happened over the APY.
It’s a dusty parking area where the bus pulls into. A motley collection of vehicles await the bus. Aborigines in eclectic dress contrast with the sterile minimalism of the white folk with their standard issue white S.A. Government civil service vehicles.
One group of Aborigines with bedding and kids in tow get off and another group get on. A couple of white folk too.
A bitch recently having delivered pups judging by her engorged teats stoically chews on something in the middle of the vehicles. All the vehicles leave. The bitch remains. There’s not a building in sight. As the bus begins to leave others, mostly Aborigines also comment on the bitch which made no attempt to align itself with any group of people or vehicle. She remains sole occupier of the parking place as we leave and doesn’t seem distressed by the idea.
The buss races by the landscape. I miss so much travelling at such speeds.
I must start to think what I’m going to do when I’m not doing this. For at some point my journey will end and then what?
I muse over how to answer the inevitable almost invariably first question people ask me when I meet them: “Where are you from?” In Europe I’m Australian. It’s easier to explain any difference. In Australia I’ve found I “Live in Scandinavia but was born in England”. It’s easier to explain any difference. My accent does not easily position me in any one cultural language group or area. A consequence of growing up in native English countries but living most of my live in non-native English countries.
After three hours the bus from drops me at Erldunda Roadhouse at the junction where the Lasseter Highway heads west towards one of Australia’s most recognisable icons, Uluru.
It is hot, predicted to hit 40 C in shade, plus some. 40 is easy. I do it regularly. It’s the ‘plus’ that worries me. 45 or more is like 50+ C in the sun, peddling away. That is hot. I’ve not breeched the 50 mark yet and are not sure I want to. I’ve gotten close, 48 C. But not 50.
It is possible to camp at Erldunda. Another imminently forgettable campsite/caravan park. Erldunda’s claim to fame does not lie in the quality of its camping area. It would though allow me an early morning cool(-ish) start.
Mount Ebeneza Station/Roadhouse is but 56 kilometres along the Lasseter Highway. Not a big ride and even less so when there’s a nice juicy tailwind.
It is immediately evident to me that I’ve returned to Touristville: there are signs in four languages. I’ve not seen multilingual signs in 5800 trans-Australian kilometres and now here they are. The best has to be the ‘Drive On Left, in Australia’. To read that sign the driver would either have had to drive 200 km from Alice Springs or 1330 km from Adelaide. Surely they’d have worked out which side of the road they need to be on. Surely.
My value to one person is so low that they are content to scare me to death. Or worse, injure or kill me. Rather than shift the 2000+ kilogrammes of machine they are snug and safe in to the other side of the road and give me a wide safe berth.
A ‘Why riding on asphalt sucks’ thought as I ride the Long Black Snake west towards Mount Ebeneza Station or Roadhouse or both.
Some drivers just don’t move and the shock of the proximity of a large 4WD whooshing past but a meter from me always, always scares me. After the cursing and hurling of abuse at the fast receding indifferent rear end of said vehicle, which, I have found, has as much to do with getting the shock out of me as much as cursing the driver for scaring me, I inevitably return to the ‘Why do they do that?’ question. I don’t know why they do that. Why would they do that?
It’s not many drivers. Perhaps one in twenty, perhaps a bit more or a bit less. But it is more than enough.
The thermometer on my dash reads a healthy 46 C. Doable. The wind pushing me along delightfully and I’m making great speed. I contemplate wild camping rather than staying at Ebenezer. Since I left Erldunda around 1300 though it is already getting late. There’s no particular reason to race and a shower would be very welcome after three hours in 46 C. I decide on Ebenezer.
Up ahead there’s rain. Cool! It’ll be nice to get a dosing towards the end of the ride.
There is something odd about the cloud though. To one side it looks grey and there’s tendrils reaching down from the cloud which with a gentle curve reach the ground. Rain. On the other side it for all looks like thin red smoke reaching up from the ground, dissipating into the late afternoon sky.
“That’s a dust storm” I conclude. Which one shall I get? I think to myself. Knowing my luck it won’t be the wet one. The very worst would be to get wet then hit the dust storm.
Five kilometres from Ebenezer my delightful tailwind transforms into a brutal wall of a headwind followed by the dust storm. It cuts my speed by 50 % and drops the temperature by 10 C. My teeth grind on dust particles, my nose gets clogged and my eyes water trying to expel the fine red dust. A joyful experience it is not.
Just before Ebenezer the dust storm abates. Ebenezer is a basic general store, pub and caravan park where for 5$ I can put my tent, have a shower and cook on a gas BBQ.
I am on or very near Aboriginal lands. There’s a perpetual conflict as to how to manage the Aborigines’ propensity to abuse alcohol. I go to the bar. It’s empty. No one’s outside in what for all the world looks like a beer garden. The Kiwi bartender explains the house rules. Alcohol can only be served with food. The kitchen is, however, closed. “Perhaps a sandwich?” he suggests. I’ve more comprehensive dinner plans.
“Are chips food?” I ask.
“Hmmm, dunno” he answers. “I’ll go ask the boss”.
The boss eyes me up, looks around the empty bar and decides he can “bend the rules a bit”.
“Can I sit outside?” I ask and am met with a worried silence.
“Is there anyone outside” the boss asks the barman.
“No”, after checking.
More thinking before “Normally … “ his voice trails off. He explains they can’t differentiate between customer demographics but this time consents to allow me to enjoy my beer and salt and vinegar chips outside whilst they close the bar.
11 December 2015
Another early pre-dawn start. Headwinds. I crawl along at 11 kilometres per hour, aiming for Curtin Springs 103 km west.
After two hours the headwind dies and the riding gets easier.
Thirty kilometres from Curtin Springs I pull into a rest area. It has shelters and water!
Everyday now it’s 30 to mid-40 C temperatures. It’s energy sapping, like being out in cold weather it costs energy just to be. I feel it through my eyes. They get tired. With sunnies on it’s bearable but my eyes just want to close.
Lasseter Highway is a main tourist route. It explains the multilingual signs and rest areas with shade and water. Attempts to keep the tourists from fatigue and dehydration related accidents and problems. For me the water is a major bonus. I can freely re-hydrate rather than manage water supplies and intake. Although it also means the weight I am pushing does not go down since I replace the water I consume. Small price to pay to remain well hydrated, especially on asphalt.
Fatigued I rest my head on my arms on the concrete table and enjoy a power-nap.
It’s not only me who’s feeling the heat. My multi-vitamin tablets have begun to explode in the heat. The packet if full of weird mustard coloured goo. They end up in the bin.
The water tank has an ominous sign attached to it: “The water may not be suitable for drinking”. Which does beg the question What is the water for? Why put water in a rest area unless its purpose is for drinking? I drink it non the less and suffer no ill effects.
A hot willy-wagtail sits under the tap to collect the odd drip. Although I place a cup with some water in it the bird doesn’t work it out and so I drink it just before departing.
Curtin Springs lies some 35 km from Atila and there’s a lookout, with water, from which the mesa can be viewed. I pull in, parking Dreamer and Ziflex in front of rows of 4WDs, lesser vehicles and tourist buses. I get off and take photos, just like everyone else.
I have a good dose of Fifeteen Minutes of Fame at the Atila lookout. Large numbers of tourists who’ve randomly arrived for the view are intrigued by Dreamer and Ziflex and me. I get a million questions and countless photographs. One young guy tells me “You’re my hero”! Perhaps he gets inspired and takes to two wheels. It is quite fun. They all give me wide, wide berth and waves and beeps of horns as they drive past. A heart-warming and utterly unexpected experience.
Curtin Springs has free camping in a large dusty area bereft of shady sites. Showers on the other hand cost 3$. A small car full of attractive young people turn out to be a mix of Swedes, Danes and Finns. They were well impressed by my venture, especially when I tell them I live in Finnish Lapland.
I try to find out some information on the Mereenie Loop which I intend to take from Watarrka to Alice Springs. Curtin Springs should be where at least some Mereenie Loop drivers pull into on their way to Yulara. However the barman-gofer is from Nepal and has not a single clue what I’m talking about. He keeps disappearing behind the scenes to ask someone who remains anonymous. I tire of this charade wondering how hard can it be for whoever has the information to come to the bar and talk direct to me. I give up.
The wind remains strong and there’s no camp kitchen. I cook in the shelter of the covered al-fresco dining area before crashing early, sleeping out in the open since the wind has conveniently died when the sun disappeared.
12 December 2015
I wake to a strong tailwind and race the 85 km to Yulara in spectacular fashion arriving before 1000 doing a kool 22.3 kph moving average and a 21 kph overall average (which includes stops’ time). Normally I’m content if I make 60 km before 1200. It’s a sort of nominal target. Today I would have made 100 km easily. Riding asphalt significantly contributes to such accomplishment.
As I rode I was eternally fearful of the (seemingly) inevitable Wind Change. Yesterday the headwind Changed to a tailwind about mid-morning. So I expected the same but in reverse today. The Wind God was content however to allow me to power the whole 85 km with a tailwind. Thank You Oh Gracious God of Wind.
It must be said though that the Lasseter Highway is one helluva boring road, with much of the scrub burn presumably be controlled burning. Since easterlies seem to be the norm, riding the 300 km to Watarrka, or at least the 140 km to the Lasseter Highway-Watarrka turnoff on such a boring road does not inspire me. At Yulara I book onto an AATKings bus and decide to swap four to five days of riding with three hours in a bus.
Yulara Resort (noun): an infallible method to print your own money.
It’s crazy expensive here. I am here coz it has to be done. It is The Rock afterall.
The cost however is mindboggling. 36$ for an unpowered site in the caravan park. Errr …
I decide on 46$ which gets me a bed in a featureless 4-bed air-conditioned dormitory.
95$ for a seat on a shuttle service to Kata Tjuta, the large and impressive rock formations 50 km west of Yulara. Basically a drop-off and pick-up at very specific times giving me but a few hours to complete a hike through the formations. Ninety five dollars? I can’t do it in one day by bike since that would entail a 100 km round trip + however long it takes to hike around. I’ve been to Kata Tjuta twice before and love it but am going to skip it this time.
135$ to be picked up, driven 12 km, dropped off to watch the famous Uluru sunset before being picked up again and returned to the lodge. Errr …
Mindboggling prices driven by that most tourists fly into the airconditioned airport, get picked up in an airconditioned shuttle-bus before being dropped off at one of the hotels in Yulara. Yulara lies 20 km from Uluru. There’s no way these throngs of tourists can get there unless they pay for transport. And since they are here for like 1 to 3 days they are content to pay such prices. Yulara/Uluru is afterall a tourist mecca, driven by a large rock.
It is clear I will not be hanging around here indulgently updating this blog, chilling out, enjoying the various sights, sites and options. Instead it’s a matter of do what I can, plan the next bit, restock as I’m not expecting any other decent shop equal to the (expensive) Foodland here, and leave.
I’ve not seen such diversity nor numbers of people since leaving Adelaide. Crazy if you think about it. Tourism Australia has done an amazing job with its marketing and credit to them.
Tomorrow I decide to ride to Uluru and walk around it. Again. Am not going to climb it this time. Done that a couple of times before. Impressive though the view may be I’d like to investigate in detail elements of the rock itself.
A digression back to Marla. In Marla I met Brad, mid-thirties guy who tells me he’s the manager of a Station lying 350 km north east of Alice Springs along the Sandover Highway. He’s travelling with two new hires to help him with fencing, a guy from South Africa and a woman from France. They are seriously broke. Brad has lost his bankcard and the young couple have simply run out of money. They are trying to flog highly inflated blackmarket booze to Aborigines coming to the Marla bar, in a very illegal endeavour. They are not successful. By now we’ve spent hours gossiping, sharing rollies and generally having fun. I’ve a phone number and an invitation to join them on Brad’s family station once I make it to Alice Springs. Brad wants to borrow 50$ to buy some beers and I lend it to him. He promises to pay me back.
They are well asleep when I depart Marla and I don’t say goodbye. Strangely, here in Yulara Brad’s phone seems to be always turned off or out of range. I can’t find any trace of his station. I’ll try again in Alice Springs but perhaps I have to accept that enjoying their company came at a 50$ price tag.
Yulara, 12 December 2015