Roaring down a single lane dirt road on a big red bus, I look out the window to see the heads of kangaroos popping up from small patches of shade provided by the few gum trees scattered throughout this barren environment. Families of emus are walking in every direction looking for their next source of water in a sea of red sand that extends to the horizon. With a cloud or red dust flying behind, I am heading into the red center of Australia for a week. On a previous trip to Australia, I found the outback to be my favorite part of the country and wanting to visit Uluru again in hopes of taking that perfect sunrise photo, I bought a ticket on a bus that makes the trip from Cairns to Alice Springs stopping at enough spots along the way to get a good feel of what life in the outback is all about. While the flight would have cost the same as the bus ticket, I am a firm believer in the old saying of the journey is more important than the destination.
Shortly after departing Cairns we passed through a highland area known as the tablelands that was once covered in lush tropical rainforest. Here in Australia, the rainforest has long since been destroyed, replaced now with rolling green pastures dotted with black and white dairy cows. The moist environment didn’t last long because just over an hour outside of Cairns we began the slow decent down the Western side of the great dividing range creating an immediate change in the rolling green hillsides. The soil changed from a rich black to a dusty red and the pockets of lush tropical vegetation yielded to scrubby patches of dry grass scattered amngst countless white gum trees.
Our first stop along the three day journey into the desert was at a beautiful waterall known as Millstream Falls. The last source of running fresh water on the journey into the desert, the falls have played an important part in the history of Australians making their way into the outback. After a short hike, a few photographs and an unsuccessful hunt for snakes, I borded the bus and we headed on down the road. Not long after getting underway, the smooth pavement we had been travelling on so far ended leaving us on a single lane dusty red road. While throughout the thousand mile journey we would pass a few patches of rough asphalt, most of the travelling from this point on would be on unsealed roads.
As my stomach began to rumble, the bus started to slow down. Strangely enough, out in the middle of nowhere, we came upon a small building that looked like nothing more than a house. A sign outside revealed this house to be The Oasis Roadhouse and it is known througout the country as the smallest pub in Australia. With little seating room for more than a couple of people, it is more like someones living room than a real pub. I washed down a few sandwiches with a pint of four x bitter and was now feeling like I was really getting to see what life in the outback was like.
With one more stop in the afternoon at a miniature version of the Grand Canyon known as Porcupine Gorge, we made our way on to our final destination for the first day, the town of Hughenden. I don’t understand how a town like this can survive out here in the outback. There is really no reason for anyone to come and visit and the only industry in the area is the cattle stations which employ just a few people but are the size of many small countries! After taking a few minutes to explore around town and discovering nothing more than a few sculptures of dinosaurs that had been found in the area, I made my way to the pub at the small hotel we would be spending the night at. I am starting to remember how much Australian life revolves around drinking as every small town has at least one pub and I find myself stopping to investigate every one of those. After ordering my first beer and finding it strange to hear country music being played not to mention everyone in the bar singing along, I noticed an old man arguing with the bar tender. I am not exactly sure what the circumstances were behind the conversation but it was pretty appareant that the old man was drunk and the young bartender wasn’t going to serve him any more drinks. Now, keep in mind that the sun still hasn’t set yet so this guy must have gotten started pretty early. After being asked several times to leave, another man decided to step in between the two and try to persuade the old fellow to head on home and sleep off his alcohol for the evening. Now even more enraged the old man decided to take both hands and slap the other gray haired man on the sides of the head. With a slow swing of the fist, the gray haired man sent the old man crashing to the ground. Now I feel like I am getting to see the real Australia!
At the beginning of the second days journey, the landscape beacme a flat plain of dry grass. There were no longer any trees or hills, just dry grass in a bed of red sand in every direction. We made our way through the unchanging landscape until we were on the Carisbrooke cattle station. Here we had the pleasure of enjoying a short hike into Python Gorge where the walls are covered with ancient aborigonal rock art. Being told that the gorge had been so named for it’s large numbers of pythons, I set out flipping over every rock I could find and inspecting all of the shady spots to find one of these snakes. While I managed to disturb several kangaroos, I was once again unsuccessful in finding any snakes!
In the afternoon, we again stopped at another small pub. This one was known as the Middleton pub. Middleton has a poplulation of six and I think that includes the dog! While everyone made their way into the pub for a beer, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to take a few photos of this place. Bits and pieces of every kind of rusty old debris were scattered around the pub along with an aging old abandoned house. Against a deep blue sky covered in patches of puffy white coulds, the old house and bits of debris made amazing subjects for some Aussie style outback photography. After snapping away in the heat of the desrt sun, I made my way to the pub to join the rest of the passngers in the traditional Australian way of cooling off, an ice cold pint of beer!
Now close to the border of the Northern Territory, our day ended watching a beautiful sunset on the red sand stretching across the endless horizon at the Wirrelyerna cattle station. Enjoying the company of a pet kangaroo who drinks coffee at breakfast and washes down her dinner with a bowl of ice cream, it was a wonderful night spent enjoying the star filled sky after a dinner prepared on the camp fire. After most of the other passengers of our expedition into the outback had gone to sleep, myself and a couple of friends wandered out into the desert in search of what are known as Min Mins. Known in this part of Australia for thousands of years before white men arrived, Min Mins are these balls of light that the aborigonees believed would steal there children from them. The lights would appear and the children would follow them into the bush never to be seen again. Kind of like an Aussie version of Roswell, the area is known for it’s sighting of the Min Mins and even has an entire information center dedicated to them. After a half hour of standing out in the desert with no lights other than the thousands of stars that lit up the sky we gave up our search and slowly made our way back to the station.
Without any luck in the search for a Min Min, I retired to my sleeping bag that was laid out under the stars. With Mary the kangaroo nosing around throughout the night, I lay in my bag staying awake as long as possible to enjoy the shooting stars that zipped across the horizon every few minutes. When dawn came I was abruptly awoken by the generator on the station starting up. It was perfect timing to see an incredible outback sunrise over an old barn and windmill. The colors of the morning sky with the shilouette of a windmill on the horizon made for one of the most incredible sunrises that I have ever seen.
Our final day of driving to Alice Springs was probably the most remote portion of the trip yet. After not seeing another vehicle for nearly three hours we finally entered the Northern Territory. Our first stop of the day was to check out a termite mound that stood about twenty feet high. Everyone had there turn at taking a photo of the large pile of mud and I inspected all of the nearby bushes for signs of snakes. Three days now in the outback and still not a single snake spotting! From the termite mound we moved on to another cattle station to have lunch followed by a long drive to Alice Springs. About fifty miles outside of town we finally got our wheels back on consistent pavement. Bumping along the dirt roads for the last three days was really starting to take its toll on everyone. The frustrating sounds of a vibrating bus and the continuous shaking of your book when you trying to read was definitely getting annoying. The smooth hum of the bus over the black pavement was a welcome sound. It is sad to be ending this portion of my journey as the remote portions of the outback that we have just seen are visited by so few tourists. The town of Alice Springs while culturally important takes on the feel of a touristed town anywhere in the world. Souvineer shops and tour booking signs everywhere. While yes, I am hear to take a tour of the amazing nearby sights, the places I have just come from were just as incredible and here in Alice Springs I will fortunatlely not see a sign for a tour bus to take you there! While it was a long and slow journey, the rewards of seeing the outback in it’s unspoiled form I will have with me forever.