Glen Helen Gorge, Resort, Homestead and Lodge, depending on what media you’re using.
Seems like a lifetime now. Been here since 23 December. It’s now 2 January 2016. I plan to leave on the 4th. I need to be in Alice Springs to relocate a camper from Alice to Adelaide on the 11th. Low cost transport, in terms of per day cost although I need to pay from my own fuel and food. And there’s a time limit to which I must comply. Imminently doable but am not going to spend days staring out across the vast Australian plains whilst languishing next to my own vehicle.
Back to Glen Helen.
Day One after arriving was just getting back into civilisation. For although Glen Helen is remote it is exceedingly civilised in comparison to what I’m used to. Then there’s the spectacular views of the massive cliffs and gorge. The managers, Shelagh and Colin and the staff are extremely welcoming and friendly. The tent area is luxurious grass. There’s not only a swimming pool, there’s also a large permanent body of water in the gorge itself. It’s warm. Perhaps hot.
I plan for two nights before rambling on whilst the rest of the world takes on Christmas.
After six nights since my last shop I’m low on supplies. The Hema Great Desert Tracks Central Sheet maps tells me there’s a ‘general store’ here. Sure enough there is. It all of 60 cm wide, 200 cm tall and comprises six shelves with almost nothing of use for me.
Time to negotiate.
There’s a saying of immeasurable value … “Always talk to the barman”. In this case Roger, an English émigré working out the conditions of his permanent residency application.
He’s going to do a supply run to Alice Springs on the 24th. Hopes rising, eyes widening I join the dots and go “ … sooo, I can join you to Alice and do some shopping?”
The short answer is of course ‘no’. A full cab – seats three – to Alice and one passenger on the return journey.
Hopes dashed, eyes narrow with visions of spending a fortune in the café/restaurant, mulling the ‘Why did he tell me?’ question.
Roger, being a barman, has The Solution. Online order at the local Coles with a pick-up on the 24th.
It is nice here, I begin to realise. Relaxing, easy going and at 12$ per night unpowered per person it’s also excellent value. With a serious amount of blog updating that needs some serious attention I figure the chances that Alice Springs will offer the same relaxing vibe at a similarly low cost combined with very friendly staff all set against the backdrop of the Glen Helen Gorge seems remote.
A Christmas ‘dinner’ is available on the 25th. ‘Dinner’ because it’s actually a lunch, starting at 1230. But for some reason Christmas ‘dinner’ is an event which can start anytime between 1200 and 2000. Confusing Europeans no end for whom ‘dinner’ is only ever an evening event.
I book in for the dinner. It’ll be my first restaurant meal since Adelaide and I only ever did one there, plus a couple of business lunches.
As a lone traveller I’m sat with a couple of other lone attendees. Both women, both from Alice Springs. The sprightly Jane and the more reserved Robin. Nice easy-going conversation and afternoon.
A routine emerges. 0700 I sit at one of the outside tables and bash away at my Surface Pro 3, updating my blog. By 1200 I’m inside coz the batteries died and heat’s risen. By 1600 a blog post is done and uploaded.
1600 and later, to perhaps 2030, I relax, beer in hand and do something that’s not been a common element of my life on the road … I socialise. Yesiree … I talk to strangers!
Day Two of my stay at Glen Helen, and the day I intended to leave, The Winds start … Am familiar with easterlies. They’ve been a consistent feature since Erldunda. But there are headwinds and there are headwinds. These easterlies, with a dash of north and dose of south but always east, are not user-friendly cycling-doable easterlies. They are 20 knots plus. That’s damned close to and exceeds 40 kilometres per hour.
Each day the red-river gums bend and sing to these easterlies. The easterlies seem to be getting stronger. It’s pretty clear I won’t be taking on those headwinds and so each day another blog post gets uploaded.
The Glen Helen staff start making jokes about New Year. Ha Ha, I laugh, funny, stay for New Year? He he ha ha … But each new day seems to bring stronger and stronger headwinds. I constantly brush off fine red dust from my keyboard and screen during my morning ritual.
New Year is sniffing around. By now, since I planned only two days stay, I’m rapidly running out of supplies again. Already I’m reduced to microwaved meat pies for lunch, and buying expensive UHT milk from the café to make my own iced coffees and for my muesli, which is also rapidly disappearing. As are a lot of other supplies.
By the 29th I’ve fully updated cycloaustralis, spent most evenings with other travellers, particularly Scott and Evelyn from Territory Photographic Adventures who’s website http://scotthmurray.com/ is worth checking out. Perhaps I’ll catch up with them in Darwin later in the year.
By now I am really facing down the Big New Year Question … what will I do for New Year?
Ormiston Gorge seems the answer. Eleven kilometres from Glen Helen and described as a ‘must do’ particularly with all the rain lately, it’s easy to get to, has a water supply and campsite.
Them Easterlies though are really getting into their stride now.
Finally someone explains, I think Scott actually … it is the tail end of a cyclone which is a bit north and east of Alice Springs. It seems there’s a sort of instantaneous group awareness that the ever increasing winds are the tail end of a cyclone that no one knew anything about. Sure enough we all burrow deep into the outrageously expensive ‘roaming’ internet connection and there, on www.windyty.com, just north and east of Alice Springs is a perfect swirling mass spinning clockwise. We, 130 km west of Alice just get the easterly portion of it. Since it’s migrating a bit south it also means it’s gonna get a lot stronger too.
I am not going to succeed in riding against 20, 30 or even 40 knot winds. I book in for the New Year BBQ and party too.
Shelagh and Colin and staff have to implement Plan B because the peak wind speed is coming fast. There’s a brutal howling gale on New Years Eve. Dust flying everywhere. The traditional outdoor open-air BBQ is brought under the balcony. In Alice, 130 km east, it’s pouring rain and all outdoor New Year festivities have had to be reconvened inside. We just get the wind.
Though lots of lightly constructed buildings, like aviaries and sun-shelters need tying down, and there is a constant red haze, the party goes well. The band plays, people eat drink and dance and fireworks are set off.
The First of January arrives and with it The Wind, the Easterly to End All Easterlies … peak gusts exceeding 70 kilometres per hour, the blue sky replaced by a fine red haze, tree branches snapped off and thrown around, bits of corrugated roof start peeling off sending Colin roof-side with a drill to stop a domino effect since once one flies off the rest will soon quickly follow resulting in no roof, white caps appear on the Finke River, and there is no way and nowhere to escape The Dust.
Tents bend and flatten alarmingly. I check on my Hillebergs Soulo. With six pegs for the base of the tent and another six for twelve guy ropes mine’s looking remarkably stable.
The idea of a peaceful night’s sleep seems ludicrous no matter the Soulo’s stability. Shelagh gives me the keys to bunk-room 26 in case it proves impossible.
As it turns out I sleep really well in my Soulo. Well aligned for the easterly and quite aerodynamic the wind pretty much only whistles over and with all the guys pulled tight basically nothing flaps. I sleep well and return the key the next morning happy that I didn’t need it.
Now it’s down to planning.
My journey, for now, ends in Alice Springs. The wet season has arrived in the north and with it swollen rivers and floodways. Humidity is high and so is the temperature. Combined they conspire to kill enthusiastic cycle Epics like mine. Time for something else to do.
There’s no end of things to do …
- Travel to Indonesia and ride around a few islands.
- Hang around Perth with my Dad and spend some time with him as his Alzheimer’s digs it’s way deeper and deeper into him.
- Get a job and work for ‘a bit’, without really defining what ‘a bit’ is.
- A mix of all three.
I’m going for all three.
Waaay back when I left Perth I thought … wouldn’t it be fun to get a job for a while at Glen Helen? I’ve been to Glen Helen before you see and know it’s a nice place and thought it’d be fun to work there a while.
A couple of days ago I said to Colin … “You know my trip has to come to an end temporarily when I get to Alice. I need something to do for a couple of months. Work is one option, so do you need any help around here?”
His reply was telling … “Doing anything?”
Answer ‘yes’ and this can get a person into serious trouble. Answer ‘no’ and a person won’t get a job.
How bad can it be? I think. Cleaning toilets? Kitchen hand? Wouldn’t be the first time … so I answer “Sure.”
Seems Shelagh and Colin are heading to Europe for some Northern Territory tourism promotion trip. There is a need to replace them for the four weeks they are away from mid-February to mid-March. Four weeks as a ‘yardy’, doing things on the grounds, keeping an eye on the generators and pumps, airconditioners and various odd-jobs? Sure, I can do that.
Eventually however it kinda steamrolls a bit. Ultimately I end up with Acting Administrator. An interim manager keeping an overall eye on things, ‘supervising’ well suited and well experienced staff who know far more about what they are doing than I do. It’s a responsible job making sure the Lodge continues to run smoothly and any, and inevitable, ‘things’ that occur are suitably dealt with.
Since Ram and I consider tourism-services as a business for ourselves it is work that I need to get involved with. I look forward to it.
Robyn, a fellow camper, and I do a day trip to Ormiston Gorge. Fast is travel in a car. Unlike Redbank Gorge, the eight kilometres from the Namatjira Drive is asphalt. The size and facilities at the Gorge suggest a popular place.
Robin has lived in Alice Springs for twelve years and is well familiar with the gorge. She remarks that she’s never seen water levels as high as they are. We explore perhaps two kilometres up the gorge, further than she’s been before. Two small kids she explains when I ask her why.
Massive cliffs in various shades of red and orange and ochre with an accent of green courtesy of the recent rains overlook the waterholes and creek under a vivid blue sky without a cloud. Beautiful.
Tomorrow when I leave I don’t have to check out Ormiston and can instead ride through to the Ochre Pits, Serpentine Gorge aiming to camp at Ellery Big Gorge. At 45 km it’s not a long day but there’s the ever pervasive threat of strong headwinds.
After Ellery I’ll see whether I try for the remaining 88 km to Alice in one day or two.
Now … make dinner, pack as much as I can and psyche myself up to the Grande Departure after nearly two whole weeks of chilling.
Thirteen nights and twelve days after I arrived I finally leave Glen Helen. No wind, sunny, asphalt, aiming for Ellery Creek Big Hole some 45 km east along the Namatjira Drive. I leave around 0700, late enough to say Bye to the breakfast crew.
There’s one downer as I ride. It’s all uphill. Not outrageously steep but a good 170 m needs climbing.
I pass the Ormiston Gorge turn-off and keep riding. The Ochre Pits’ turn-off arrives and I turn into it. Also asphalt, and short.
I can’t help but look at the Ochre Pits as a sort of neo-lithic cosmetic shop. For it is here, and other prime ochre locations scattered around Australia that the Aborigines used to get their makeup necessary for their various ceremonies.
It was and still is a man’s job to dig the ochre. Women were not allowed. It was important therefore for the men to ensure the women had enough ochre for their ceremonial purposes. Back in the day men needed and used lipstick and makeup just as much if not more than women.
As I wander around and check-out the ochre and I muse that this is a sight of cultural significance in which men are the custodians and women are not allowed. The ochre is the result of limonite and haematite oxidising in a silt- and clay-stones, which can also give it a lovely sheen if there’s some muscovite mica in the mix. The silt- and clay-stones are a sequence in the Macdonnell ranges and should be as pervasive along strike as the hard Heavitree Quarzite which forms the backbone of the ranges.
This means it should be possible to stumble across ochre at numerous locations. The info-board supports this by telling me that the occurrence of ochre in the centre of Australia is common enough that it was not well traded here. It was traded to other places lacking in ochre, but not throughout the centre.
Sooo … I muse … this ochre site is a ‘man’s’ place. But what if a bunch of women found another outcrop a few kilometres or so up or down strike? Would that mean that that ochre site can be ‘mined’ by women? The info-board does not say that ochre is men’s responsibility. Only this particular ochre site it.
I continue along Namatjira Drive as the day slowly gets hotter. I can feel that I’ve basically ridden 26 km since completing the Mereenie Loop on the 20th of December. A proverbial lifetime ago. Fortunately I’m riding asphalt, the hill isn’t that steep, the wind positively benign, so I’m enjoying myself.
Serpentine Gorge turn-off turns up. Three kilometres, says the sign pointing down a gravel road. Shortly after starting to ride along the gravel another sign, older and faded, tells me it’s five kilometres. It has been a quirk of central Australia that road distances vary considerably based on which governmental organisation is responsible for which sign and which organisation creates and prints which map. Quite a difference, two kilometres, if you think it’s over either a total of three or five kilometres. Surely they could have reconciled which organisation was or is right and removed one of the signs. Surely.
Arriving in the carpark I understand the difference. It is not three kilometres to the gorge from the turn-off. It is three kilometres to the carpark. The gorge lies another 1.2 km along a foot track. Which, when I do the math, is pretty darned close to five kilometres.
Serpentine Gorge, so named coz of the way the river carved its path through the MacDonnell ranges, is small. It’s also very spectacular coz the walls rise vertically above me. For some reason the Aborigines were quietly terrified of this place. They only ever approached it to drink if they were desperate. And they never swam in it. The info-board suggests I should respect ancient and contemporary Aboriginal culture and not swim.
Unfortunately ancient and contemporary Aboriginal culture did not account for the sweaty thirsty perpetually dehydrated cyclist. I found myself wading ever deeper in the tiny pool until suddenly I am wading no longer. The pool is all of thirty meters and the far side is a mess of heterogeneously sorted rocks and stones which pretty much curtailed a wander further up the gorge. Easing back into the cool dark water I returned to ‘safe’ side and ate some snacks.
An Australian family from Melbourne turn up. They too waded in but they did not swim. The little boy was keen but daddy knew Ellery Big Creek 16 km towards Alice Springs is a far superior swimming location and so talked him out of it. I didn’t hear any reference to the request by Aboriginal custodians to not swim in it. But they didn’t. And I did.
Dad is pretty curious in Dreamer and my Epic and we have a pleasant chat. Even though I left to return to the carpark first, they make it before me since I detoured to take some water from the rainwater tank at the Larapinta Trail camping area. Before they drive off Dad tosses me 600 ml of cold water from his car-fridge, to which I add a dose of electrolytes and enjooooy.
I realise that the Serpentine Gorge turn-off pretty much coincides with the crest of the hill I’d been climbing since leaving Glen Helen. Now I am definitely coasting downhill. Great. And the wind … ???
I have a tailwind! First time in what seems a lifetime! Fuck me, a tailwind. And a decline.
Cannot get better than that.
It’s asphalt for the two kilometres from the turn-off to the carpark and camping site at Ellery Creek Big Hole. Now, as the name suggests, the Ellery Creek Big Hole comprises of a humungous pool of water, with the obligatory spectacular cliffs towering on either side. The water is, as with the other gorges, larger at the moment due to the recent rains. The water is also quite cool, with decidedly chilly bits. By now my dashboard thermometer is telling me that the temperature is above 40 C. ‘Decidedly cool’ is therefore exactly what I want and need and I swim blissfully and content with the odd chilly bit which swirls around me and cools off 40 C from a short pleasant 50 km ride from Glen Helen. For here I shall stay, and camp.
I meet the family from Melbourne who I met in Serpentine Gorge as if we are old friends. I like how a brief enjoyable encounter in one location dovetails into a short pleasant connection at the next location. We enjoy a chat before they are on their way and I take to the water.
A number of eclectic groups turn up at Ellery. Mixed Aboriginal and non-aboriginal, very white European tourists adding foreign accents to the echoes coming back off the gorge’s walls, extended white-Australian families with impressive picnicking paraphernalia, and the odd single tourist, like and another who heads to the far side of the pool away from the ‘crowd’.
Kids are in abundance, some armed with floatation devices and others without. The water is dark, from tannins, layered with distinct thermoclines, and rapidly goes deep. Regardless the kids fearlessly head out into the water and splash and play and end up waaay out of their depth. Small brown and white heads upturned, noses just out of the water and mouths more often than not, not out of the water. A dad or mom or guardian on occasion tries to corral them back to the safety of shallower water but I cannot say they are particularly successful.
One small girl has evidently been trained to float on her back when tired. With considerable skill she’ll rapidly go from tiny head barely above water to floating child with face fully clear of the surface. Then she adds a means of propulsion which shoots her backwards through the water at quite astonishing speed.
Australians and water, a perfect match.
Back in the campsite I confront the ubiquitous gas-BBQ. There are two. Earlier one was pretty clean whilst the other had a thick black crust of well-burnt something. Now both are dirty. A woman from the extended family who have just finished cooking on the BBQs notices me staring at them and tells me “We had to use foil” (to cook). Yeah, maybe, but you haven’t cleaned them, thinks I.
“It always amazes me how people will use a BBQ but not clean it” I reply.
“Yeah, we had to use foil” she agrees and then carries on packing and does not clean the BBQs.
I return to my platform and eat a cold dinner.
There are two camping-outfitted Toyota Hiace vans in the campsite. Three men, two middle-aged and another late 20s-early 30s. They are having fun, fuelled by copious amounts of beer. They have a portable hi-fi playing fairly standard rock music with lots of classic stuff along with some more contemporary tunes. Bit by bit as the evening shifts towards night and the beers get drunk the volume has got the point where it is pervasive throughout the campsite. It’s going to be hard to sleep through it.
I wander over, past the hi-fi and between the two vans where I ask the older guy sitting on a deck chair with what must be some 10 of 15 empty large beer cans under it, with his testicles hanging out of his shorts. He looks congenial enough though.
“Hi, nice music” I begin “but am curious when you think to turn it down”. I basically have to shout to be hear over the music.
“When you leave!”
“Excuse me?” I hear his response but it just not what I’m expecting.
“I don’t give a fuck about you!” he tells me, “You can fuck off! Now, git … “
I can’t quite believe this. He continues to yell and scream and tell me to fuck off and I just stand my ground and work the anti-agro approach of keeping my voice even and not using inflammatory words.
I am thinking though “It is really hard to feel threatened by you, you pathetic little drunk old man with your testicles hanging out.”
Eventually the younger man comes to check out what all the shouting’s all about. With the old man’s obscenities providing a soundtrack I tell him “Am just trying to work out when the music will be turned down”
The younger man’s eyes flick ever so briefly at the raging older man then back to mine. With a slight rolling of his eyes and slight nod of his head he says, without using words, “I’ll deal with it”
And I leave, followed by obscenities.
Two perhaps three songs later, the music is tuned down.
It’s taken a while, over 6000 km and nearly six months. But I finally met a type of Australian many have told me about, if not frankly warned me. An interesting experience.
05 January 2015
0430 I wake up. It’s pitch black. I’ve 88 km until Alice Springs plus whatever attractions I decide to check out on the way. Two that I know of are Standley’s Chasm and Simpson’s Gap.
I don’t want to deal with 0430, so snuggle back under my sleeping bag until 0600 when I get up.
By 0700 I’m bouncing my way along the two kilometres of gravel until the asphalt looking at the dingo tracks left in the soft dust.
There’s a headwind. Of course.
There’s an incline. Of course.
I realise I failed to follow one of my important morning rituals which involves drinking a large volume of water before riding. Helps to delay the inevitable dry-mouth dehydration sensation. Instead I get it pretty fast as I ride up an endless though gentle hill into a mild though pervasive headwind.
A roadside stop appears. Northern Territory roadside stops in high-tourist trafficked areas tend to have water so I ride up the steep little access road and sure enough there is a water tank. It has the usual “This Water May Not Be Suitable For Drinking” plastered on it, which I ignore and drink deeply and plentifully. I take a bunch of photos of the green desert.
As I leave the rest area I come across a tiny snake. I think it dead but take a photo anyway. It’s so thin I find it hard to pick its tail from among the asphalt’s lumpy surface when suddenly it moves. And it not only moves fast it literally leaps and bounces across the road to disappear in the thick green grass. Impossible to catch, hilarious to watch.
Seems the roadside stop is the apex of the incline I’ve been riding up.
I get to enjoy a long if sometimes interrupted downhill which makes the headwind tolerable.
The Standley Chasm turn-off turns up. Near 10 km one way. I do the math: that’d push it over a 100 km day, not including should I check out Simpsons’ Gap. Am not really in for another wild camp. Honestly I just want to get to Alice and start organising the Next Bits. I can hire a car if I really want to check out the Chasm. Besides I’m going to be back in this area in February. I’ll have other opportunities. I ride past the turn-off.
As I ride the wind drops some more. It doesn’t go, it just drops a bit more. The temperature goes over 40 C on my dashboard thermometer. A normal riding temperature.
Taking a break I stop under a shady tree and using my helmet as a pillow lie on the ground and instantly fall asleep. Fifteen minutes later I wake, refreshed and ready for the remaining kilometres to Alice.
An hour later I pull into the Stuart Caravan Park where for 25$ per night I can put my tent in a semi-shady spot and sleep on the ground. I call Haven Backpackers who tell me for 26$ per night I can sleep in a bed in a dorm with an ensuite. Since I’ll need to move to the backpackers in a couple of days as Colin of Glen Helen will collect Dreamer and Ziflex to store them for me, I decide to spend one dollar more per day and rode on to the backpackers.
With a population of 28 000 Alice Springs is the largest metropolis I’ve been in since leaving Adelaide in late October. It has E V E R Y T H I N G. Even a 3D cinema where I intend to watch the latest Stars Wars saga. Finally.
Combining the habit of the backpacker to rarely clean up after them with the tenacity of tiny ‘fire’ ants results in a match made in heaven. Haven Backpackers is infested with the little buggers. Thin living red paths cross floors, climb table legs and lay siege to any and everything left by what can only be described as pretty slovenly primates who don’t mind living in the garbage they leave around. They got into my panniers on Dreamer to check out my polyurethane cutting board, no matter how much petrochemicals, cleaning agents and boiling water I poured on it to clean it of anything of interest. Still they came. The got into Ziflex and like the dingoes before them raided my dried milk powder somehow making their way through not less than two ostensibly air-tight zip-locked bags.
Haven’s advertising tells of an attractive sounding ‘8 person dorm with en-suite’. It reduces to eight the demand on facilities. Plus I won’t have to leave the room to track down the amenities in the middle of the night should nature come calling. Although I’ve seen with my own two eyes the cleaning dude dutifully clean the rooms, or at least change bedding, I have not seen any noticeable improvement in the shower where all manner of detritus has collected over an unknown period of time. Grout from between the tiles, plastic tops from tampons, bits of tile, small black pieces of plastic, and a bewildering assortment of hair testament to the bewildering assortment of cultures and racial backgrounds which ebb and flow through the place. It is very busy.
The buttons that need to be pressed to flush the toilet have had so many fingers press down upon them and so little effective cleaning that layers of fat, the oils which lie naturally on the outer parts of our skin have created striations and ridges of human fat.
I will be checking out the other backpackers for when I return to Alice for one night on the 11th of February.
On 11 January I’ll ‘relocate’ a camper from Alice Springs to its home in Adelaide for the princely sum of 1$ per day. I’ve four full days to accomplish the 1500 km drive. After that I fly to Perth to catch up my dad and Roz. 11 February I fly back to Alice Springs to start acting as an administrator at Glen Helen. On the 23rd March I’ll no longer need to act and can …
Therein lies the catch … what am I going to do after the 23rd of March. I’ll keep you posted.
Alice Spring, 9 January 2015