Chasing the Bushman’s Ruby

If I have one regret on this trip so far its that we did not spend nearly enough time in the East MacDonnell Ranges. The guidebooks and information pamphlets I read said things like “enough to fill a day trip” and “where the locals go to ger away from the tourists”, they did nothing to explain the rugged and remote landscape that we barely scratched the surface of.

After the heat of the Fink we were both surprised to find ourselves driving into the ranges in our jumpers. A cool little breeze popped up after the storm with occasional patches of drizzle thrown in for good measure. It was blissful. We ticked off Emily & Jessie Gaps quickly and enjoyed the beautiful rock art depicting the caterpillar ancestral beings of Mparntwe (no photography allowed). 40km down the road was the poorly named Corroboree Rock where it is likely there were never any Corroborees there, instead the signs informed us that the dolomite outcrop was part of the Perentie dreaming story. We pulled up for lunch at Trephina Gorge Nature Park, I could have spent a week there. It’s a bit hard to describe the purple and red mountains, the sandy white river beds, green cool rock holes and towering ghost gums in a way that would give you a fair indicator of what it is like so I normally take a heap of photos, in this place with the light and the weather I couldn’t do it justice, it is the most beautiful place in the West Macs. We tragically spent all of 2 hours there, we had lunch, hiked to John Hayes Rockhole, hiked into the gorge, marveled at the biggest ghost gum in Australia, and on the way out came face to face with a perentie. It was getting late when we pulled up at our campground in Glen Helen but we had just enough time to do some bird watching before dinner and bed.

The next day was as packed as the first so we left early and drove into the NTs version of Sovereign Hill, Arltunga Historical Reserve. After the disastrous failure of Ruby Gap (more on that later) explorers discovered several gold reefs and went about another attempted resource boom. While there was a reasonable amount of gold it wasn’t even remotely the size or value of the Victorian Fields so the number of people was small but a town still sprung up complete with processing plant and police station. Matt and I spent the morning wandering in the ruins and then climbing into the mines (with encouragement from the visitor centre). This is a fantastic example of the looseness of the NT, they point at a mine, say “take your torch” and away you go, no lights, no signs, no handrails, just climbing over the piles of tailings into a hole. It was great. That afternoon we drove into the aforementioned Ruby Gap.



In the late 1880s a bloke going by the name of David Lindsay was exploring the East MacDonnell Ranges when he stumbled upon beautiful red stones glittering in the bed of the Hale River. Being a calm and logical man, he thought he had stumbled on the motherload of all rubies and promptly started the first gem rush of central Australia. For 18 months 200 miners worked to extract the stones which resulted in flood of “rubies” flowing into the market. The jewelers in London became both annoyed and suspicious and had the gems examined closely finding that they were in fact the more common, much less valuable garnet. I felt sorry for him, I really did until we reached the gorge and I picked up a handful of garnet in a few minutes. I’m not a geologist but if I was to find a stream full of beautiful clear stones my first thought would be oh look quartz not oh my god a stream full of diamonds. The value of precious stones tends to be based on the rarity of them therefore huge amounts of nice rocks = probably not that valuable.

The drive into the gorge started with another warning sign about the dangers of the road and what you’d need to survive it. After the ease of Fink I wasn’t too worried and the track turned out to be even easier as the sand was more gritty and there were more sections of solid stone. We also ended up in an accidental convoy with a family group including a couple of Tasmanians we had a chat with. They took up most of the space in the official campsite so we drove down the river and found our own isolated patch of sand for the night.

The next morning we woke up reasonably early and started the walk to Glen Annie Gorge. The hike was easy, mostly flat and the end was determined by when we wanted to stop and turn around. After around 2km we reached the most spectacular gorge in the MacDonnell Ranges, the red cliffs rose from the base of white sand in the riverbed that sparkled with thousands of garnets. As we moved through, we came across waterhole after waterhole surrounded by lush green reeds with birds darting in and out for a drink. Unfortunately, even my best efforts of capturing the beauty of it were thwarted by the horrible lighting so you’ll just have to go and see it in person for the full spectacle. That afternoon we drove north through another notorious 4WD route The Binns Track. The first 40km through cattle stations was fine but after that and where the NT government took on responsibility for road management it went to crap. The corrugations were so big at one point they looked like someone had lined up speed humps next to each other, we crept along at 20km/h with a concerning mechanical banging sound developing under the drivers side floor.

It was a huge relief when we pulled into the caravan park at Gemtree and things got even better when they had a spot for us to camp in and a place on the garnet fossicking tour the next day. We celebrated by getting fish and chips delivered to our van for dinner! What a great place.

Garnet fossicking was my first bucket list item for the trip so I was more than a little bit excited when we went and picked up our shovels, buckets, sieves, and water the next day. We followed a bloke out to the private mining lease and he showed us the ropes. I picked a hole and we got digging and found…nothing. After 20 minutes and not even a spec of red we decided to move to another hole and began chipping away underneath a tree. Almost instantly it started paying off and after 4 hours of work our tin was completely full of stones ready to be evaluated by the in-house gemologist. We managed to get the most stones out of any of the groups and had a couple of people come up to us afterwards and ask if they could use our spot for the tour tomorrow, we wouldn’t be around so had no issue with that. All our work and 1kg of raw garnet returned 6 cutters (stones with enough clarity and no imperfections that can be used to make into gems for jewelry) 3 x 4mm and 3 x 3mm. I picked the best one and had it sent away to be faceted as a beautiful memento of our trip. For afternoon tea we celebrated with scones and coffee and Matt conceded that maybe fossicking wasn’t too bad.

I’d have liked to spend a week at Gemtree and in the Harts Ranges but we needed to get back to Alice Springs for Matts first special activity of the trip. We went on the nature hike around the caravan park in the morning and spotted a few birds and some dingo pups rewarding ourselves when we got back with yet another round of scones and coffee before getting back in the van, turning on our tail and driving back south.

Campsite Reviews

Ross River – Beautiful campsite with our first grass in weeks and the bird watching was phenomenal. The entire resort was a bit of a strange set up, it had a feeling like it had been really touristy in the past but had partially closed. $30pn – 8/10.

Ruby Gap – Stunning, quite, secluded and beyond peaceful. If you want to visit you will need a high clearance 4WD. $Free – 8/10.

Gemtree – Man I loved it here. Devonshire tea, fossicking tours, fish and chips delivered to your van. I wish we could have stayed longer. $27pn – 9/10.

West Macs

West Macs

Thanks to Mr Budgie we weren’t even remotely near where we’d planned to be on the date that we departed Alice Springs so we sat down and worked out an alternative route for the next 10 days. Instead of backtracking to the Fink Gorge we decided that it would be better to drive out to the West MacDonnell Ranges (Tjoritja) and go the long way around back to the gorge.  

The Macs, as they are known locally, are a 644km long series of mountains that cut Alice Springs almost perfectly in half (divided into East and West). They were named after Sir Richard MacDonnell (a previous governor of South Australia) by the explorer John Stuart who “discovered” the range in 1860. The ranges lay claim to the 5 highest mountains in the NT and are approximately 300-350 million years old. Realised pretty quickly they are also an incredibly popular tourist location and the busiest place that we’ve been so far this trip.

Because there is so much to see in the area we decided to keep it simple and just work our way across from right to left stopping at the destinations that interested us. We skipped Simpsons Gap with the intention to visit it later making our first stop Angkerle (Standley Chasm). We were more than happy to fork out the entry fee of $12pp to the traditional owners as Angkerle is the most dramatic of the numerous chasms in the range. The red quartzite walls towered 80m above us with the gap itself only 8m wide. Continuing along the road we came upon our campsite for the night at Ellery Creek Big Hole intending to go for a swim in the beautiful waterhole amongst the cliffs and trees. Despite the warm and sunny weather it wasn’t to be, enthusiastically splashing into the water we were greeted by the most freezing liquid I’ve ever put my feet into. I used to surf in Tasmania in winter and have had numerous ice baths in my time and it had absolutely nothing on this water. It was that cold it made my bones ache. I managed to get up to my butt and Matt hit the middle of his shin. We decided to spend our time more wisely by sitting on the sand and reading our books in the sun until it was time to go back and make dinner then head to bed.

The next day we woke up reasonably early and made our way back to the waterhole to watch the birds come into drink. We saw grebes, painted finches, budgies, a kingfisher, various honeyeaters, and some very nice Black-fronted Dotterels. After breakfast we went on the Dolomite Hike an enjoyable short but varied walk. Our first stop for the day was Serpentine Gorge, as the name would suggest this narrow and shady gorge snakes its way through the range and towards the horizon. We were feeling a bit lazy so we did the lookout walk and wandered into the waterhole. On the way back Matt spotted a Little Button Quail and I spent 20 minutes trying and failing to photograph the tiny, speckled bird. We popped into the slightly uninspiring Ochre Pits for lunch (the Lyndhust ones are so much better). By this point I was feeling pretty rubbish, tired with body aches thanks to my second Pfizer vaccine I’d had the day before so instead of going into Ormiston Gorge for another hike we pulled up at a stunning little campground called Big Gum. I’d just got comfortable in my hammock for a bit of R&R and Panadol when Matt pointed out a group of women that were struggling in the soft sand a couple of campsites over. Matt wandered across and suggested that they reverse into a bit of harder track. Well they floored it in reverse and wedged themselves straight in a dune. Thinking that we might have to tow them out we drove Egg over and set about digging in and placing our recovery boards. Matt jumped in the drivers seat and got the car out and back on the track, with a push from me and the girls. So much for a restful afternoon!

Following a peaceful night on the river we ended up back tracking to Ormiston Gorge. At one of the other campgrounds we’d been told that the Ormiston Pound Circuit hike was one of the best in the ranges and couldn’t be missed. It was stunning. I feel like I’m saying it every single post but this walk was and remains my favourite of the trip so far. We started quite early as the temperatures are pushing into the mid thirties most days now. The first part of the walk followed a creek and then climbed over a short rise where about 20 Spinifex Pigeons called home, we continued climbing steeply to a lookout then around a ridge, down the other side, and a bit further along into the gorge. The final part of the hike is a wade through the waterhole and then an easy stroll back up to the visitors centre. We ended up having lunch in the little attached café which was great, the food was nice but a Western Bowerbird popped in for a visit and I managed to get a photo of the bird that I’ve been looking for during the past 2 weeks! A short drive down the road we made camp at Redback Gorge, a clean site with an outlook directly onto Mount Sonder. The campgrounds were quite small and close together but almost all the people staying there were getting up at 4am to climb to the summit making it a very quiet evening.

Not being as enthusiastic about mountain climbing in 35 degrees as our fellow campmates Matt and I decided to complete the cheats option and rather than going the whole way up walk the first (and hardest) 2.5km to the saddle of the mountain. Due to the shorter length rather than starting at 4am we commenced the climb at 8am and what a climb it was. 2.5km of stairs made from stones without more than 100m of flatish track to shake out the legs was much harder than I thought it would be. Sweaty and pooped we reached the top and were rewarded with outstanding views of the range and the summit of Mount Sonder, it was worth the effort. Back in the carpark we barely had time to catch our breath before we were back on the road and driving towards Tnorala (Gosses Bluff). The 4WD track into the reserve was just corrugated enough to make things difficult and we bounced along until we drove through an opening in the cliffs and into the comet crater. We were both completely taken by how big the hole in the ground was, how obvious it was that a comet had smashed into the earth and that we were allowed to drive directly into the middle of it! We did a hike around the middle and a small, short climb to a lookout.

I’d really like to write that we didn’t visit Hermannsburg for a third time, especially since we had more of enough of it the first time but we did…and we went back to the biased mission for lunch. It’s almost become a routine for us now, Hermannsburg, fill up with fuel while trying to work out if the other cars are parked or abandoned, fill up the water next to the footy oval without a single blade of grass while dodging the rubbish, then go and spend money at the mission that did so much to “help” the local indigenous population. If I never visit there again it will be too soon and the government should be disgusted that there are towns in Australia that look in worse condition than those in third world countries, it’s honestly disgraceful. Anyway, enough of my political ranting we left town, turned left and finally returned to the Fink Gorge. I turned to Matt and said “should I just try and avoid looking at animals so we don’t have to rescue any this time?” he responded with a resounding yes.

At the entry to the Fink Gorge is a sign, it says something along the lines of do not attempt this 4WD track if you are inexperienced, don’t have a PLB or EPIRB, don’t have enough food or water for several days, don’t have recovery equipment and so on. It is a very scary sign that made me want to turn around and go in the opposite direction even though we have all of the required things listed. You’d think the track would be an absolute nightmare based on it but no, as far as 4WD tracks go it was pleasant and easy, I drove on worse things doing my course in Tassie. The hardest part was that the soft sand combined with the very slow speeds and heat meant Egg was getting very hot and bothered by the time we pulled up. With the smell of hot engine in our noses we took our chairs down to the river and sat in the cool water while the gorge walls turned red and the birds came into drink. Lovely.

Campsite Reviews

Ellery Creek Big Hole – The waterhole was lovely but the campsite was squashy and there were some idiots the night we stayed. One guy was blasting music from his car and then went and slept on the ground next to the waterhole, another wouldn’t stop flying his drone around. $4pp/pn – 6/10.

Big Gum – 4WD only and I can not emphasis that enough, we were watching people in 4WDs get bogged not only on the tracks but in the actual campsites. Powder soft sand but worth it for the river, trees, and whistling kites. $Free – 8/10.

Redbank Gorge – If you enjoy campsites with a view this place is for you. Mountains and more mountains with a gecko in the toilet and very considerate fellow campers. $4pp/pn – 8/10.

Morwell Fink River – Beautiful, peaceful next to our own private bit of river/waterhole. There were a lot of bugs at night but we got rid of them with a decoy light and the rest were eaten by a resident bat that flew over us multiple times. $Free – 8/10.

Flats and Budgie Rescue

After the awe of Uluru-Kata Tjuta you’d have thought we’d have had enough of massive geological wonders? Well think again the next spot on our hit list was Kings Canyon. While it looks small on the map the drive between Curtin Springs and the canyon was almost 300km so we decided to tackle the main rim walk the next day and just take our time heading up to camp. We did end up going on a small walk after lunch at a spot called Kathleen Springs where at the end of a short 1.3km trail we found a beautiful little waterhole. We parked up early at the Morris Pass Lookout free camp and while I told myself I’d use the time to catch up on my blog and write some post cards, in reality I ended up spending hours alternating between reading my book and looking out over the spectacular view of the ranges, by far the most scenic site we’ve stayed at.

The next morning after a healthy porridge breakfast we drove into the canyon and commenced on what turned out to be the most offensive beginning of a hike I’ve ever experienced. The “stairs” to the top if you can even call them that were so steep it felt more like rock climbing than hiking. We reached the summit eventually, but I can’t imagine how horrible that would be in summer, the defibrillator located at the top gives a decent indication of how challenging it is. The rest of the hike was wonderful which is very high praise from me due to my fear of heights and most of the walk circulating around a massive cliff with a short dip into an area called the Garden of Eden. The rock features looked like miniature versions of the Bungle Bungles and the cycads added to the otherworldly feeling on the place. If there is one thing I can say about the NT in the few days we’ve been here is that the colours are so vivid it’s like someone has turned the saturation up in the world. Because the rim walk was only 6km we decided to do the canyon floor walk after lunch as well. It was nice but not particularly interesting so if you’re there and limited on time I’d give it a miss.

On our way back to camp we stopped in at the information centre tided up to the caravan park and bought our $6.50 pass to drive on the Mereenie Loop road. Matt only realised we’d need one going over the maps the previous night. We’d heard a lot of bad things about the section of road but driving on it the next day it was honestly fine, the last 15km were very corrugated but it wasn’t any worse than Arkaroola so we made pretty good time. We filled up for petrol in a town called Hermannsburg which Lonely Planet describes as “an appealingly run-down and sleepy place” which I think may be their attempt of a politically correct description of a mainly indigenous town that Matt and I would describe to you as a shit hole. We were running very low on water and petrol so there wasn’t much of an option than to suck it up, dodge the feral dogs and rubbish and head on in. To be fair we did also end up visiting the Historical Mission which was interesting and served a reasonable lunch of scones with jam and cream but the information given throughout the complex seemed to be weighted heavily in the favour of the church rather than giving a more balanced view of what was happening there at the time.

After refueling and another short drive we pulled up at Palm Valley and mad ourselves at home. We ended up chatting to a nice bloke from Sydney who turned out was on first name terms with Moose, the publican from Copley. He also massively rated the town, small world. That afternoon we hung around the campground, enjoyed the river and the abundance of amazing birdlife including Major Mitchell Cockatoos!

Palm Valley, as its name indicates is famous for one thing…palms, specifically red cabbage palm trees (9,000-15,000 of them) that are found nowhere else in the world. On the 5km loop walk the following morning we read about the palms and learnt that no one knows how they got there. The hike was lovely up and down hills, through valleys full of…well palms, and around an area that a few months before probably would have been quite wet. We had another lazy afternoon back at camp hiding from the ever-increasing heat. I think we will soon be restricted to morning outdoor activities as hiking in 35 degrees isn’t much fun. On our last day camped up in the valley Matt picked two more walks in a different area of the park. One was a short and steep lookout hike (1.6km return) and the second was the Mapaara loop. Along the way of the second walk we learnt a dreamtime story about a tawny frogmouth man and his son. I won’t actually repeat the story here because it was really disturbing and involved eating family members, we were both a bit flummoxed by it. At the end of the walk we ran into another couple in a Delica so we had a massive chat and compared vans, they had a long wheel base diesel and exactly the same roof racks that we managed to break. We gave them the heads up and told them where to check for issues to try and prevent theirs from filing which they were very appreciative of.

This is where our trip got derailed for the second time, we were on our way to our next campsite down in the Finke Gorge when I spotted a little budgie flailing around on the side of the track. We got out and Matt managed to catch it. On closer inspection it was a very cute baby budgie with one wing that looked like it had been plucked rendering it unable to fly. It would die if we left it so we packed it into an ice-cream tub and drove out the way we came to find some phone service and the nearest vet. Of course, being the middle of nowhere the nearest vet/animal rescue was Alice Springs so off we drove on a 120km detour. Things continued to go wrong for us when a roofing nail buried into the back tyre and gave us a flat 70km later along the highway. We both jumped out ready to put our tyre changing skills to work and in retrospect probably feeling a little bit too confident. Matt jacked up the van and I got the spare down, we pulled off the flat and discovered that the jack wouldn’t go high enough to get a fully inflated tyre back on. We tried to put the flat one back on so we could adjust the jack but even that wouldn’t go on. What should have been a 5 minute job turned into a 45 minute ordeal of hailing people on the side of the road to see if anyone had a second jack so we’d be able to move ours to the correct spot (we jacked up the body of the van accidentally), after several groups of grey nomads, one bloke that was running late for an appointment, two motorcyclists, and another couple a bloke that had a jack stopped, helped us out and got the tyre changed. We learnt a lot from that one.

In Alice Springs we dropped the very sweet budgie to a wildlife carer, grabbed some dinner and parked up the van at the Central Australian Transport Hall of Fame campsite.

We ended up spending two days in Alice but they were two very boring days of laundry, groceries, tyre repair, post office, and booking the van in to get a few things looked at so I don’t have any interesting photos or stories. We will be coming back to Alice Springs in about 10 days to do something on Matt’s bucket list so I’ll write more about it then. The one thing we did was visit the Reptile House where we saw, held, and learnt about scaly friends. Things like, what’s the main difference between a lizard and a snake? Lizards have ears.  

Campsite Reviews

Morris Pass Lookout – Another free camp we found because of the disgusting prices being changed at caravan parks. The Kings Canyon “Resort” wanted $50 per night for an unpowered site, you can shove that right up your proverbial mate. Stunning scenery and would have been perfect if on the second night we hadn’t been parked up next to the Von Trapp family who felt like the campsite needed to listen to them sing…poorly for 90 minutes. They only shut up when Matt started blasting a finance podcast at their van. $Free – 8/10.

Palm Valley – Yet another one of those sites where we pull up for one night and end up staying 2. Beautiful red cliffs, river, birds, and showers. $4pp/pn – 9/10.

Central Australian Transport Hall of Fame – Not sure where to start with this one. Imagine a gravel car park but instead of normal cars it is full of rusty tractors and trucks, now visualize two toilet blocks, one is in an elevated shipping container and looks like something that would be used at a music festival, the second is in a run down shed and instead of walls between the toilets/showers you have those old, carpeted, office cubical dividers. Yeah. Why did we choose to stay there? Because once more the caravan parks are stupidly expensive. Nothing under $38pn unpowered, ludicrous. $15pn – 4/10 (pretty grim but we’ll go back).

Big Red Rock

Big Red Rock

After a few days of enjoyable ignorance we decided to check the news on our last morning in SA . We were both surprised when we got there that we were able to travel straight though unchecked and it was only another 20km up the road where we ran into the police. Much more relaxed than the SA lot we showed our passes, IDs, and were immediately let in. Another 100 clicks up the highway and we reached our spot for the night Erldunda Roadhouse. We picked this meeting point of highways to enable us to reach Uluru the next day and still have time to see a bit of it. From the outside and our dusty campsite it didn’t look too encouraging Erldunda turned into a bit of a desert gem, with a free washing machine, pool, and pizza for dinner.

The next morning full of anticipation and excitement (well I was anyway) we entered Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Even though I’d visited before it was no less incredible watching the enormous red monolith appear on the horizon and grow as we drove towards it. I wish I’d taken a picture of Matt while he was driving around the base and the way he was tottering on the edge of his seat and peering through the screen to try and see the top. We looked around the cultural center, went on three short walks (Minymaku, Watiku, and Dune Viewing), and set up our van in the sunset viewing carpark to watch what turned out to be a bit of a dud sunset and cook up some snags. Following dinner, we went into the town/resort of Yulara to catch our bus to the Field of Light art installation. I’d booked our pick up spot as the fanciest hotel I could find with the intention of having a drink before hand in a nice bar but it wasn’t to be, because Matt an I opted not to pay $45 per night for an unpowered site and stay up the road we couldn’t get served, not even one beer. After the disappointment of the booze denial the Field of Light more than made up for it. We had a 40 minute allocation to explore the 50,000 handmade, light emitting, bulbs and it wasn’t nearly enough. Photos do it no justice, it was just stunning.

Day two started with our second running over belongings event when Matt decided to shift the car and promptly ran over the washing up bucket containing 2 plates, a knife, the tongs, and my cup. I was stoked that it wasn’t my fault this time but was less happy to lose my insulated cup. Matt gave me his as compensation, so I was in a good mood again by the time we got to the Camel Farm. After hearing some great things about the Uluru camel tour we booked in for the 90 minute short version ($80pp rather than $135). We got introduced to our camel Kahn, had a quick safety chat, were shown how to mount a camel, and away we went. Riding on camels was very relaxing and the guiding was fantastic. We both learnt a lot about the camel farm, capturing feral camels, training them, and a heap of camel facts.

The afternoon was spent completing the 11km circuit of Uluru and learning more about the Anangu and the Tjukuritja (creation period when ancestral beings created the world/traditional law). It was interesting to see the complexity of the rock face up close and the lines and shapes within. There were a couple of places where artwork had been drawn on the roof of overhangs and small caves and areas where campfires had blackened the stone. Our favorite spot was the waterhole where we saw birds drinking and I saw a hopping mouse.

Our third and last day (entry is $ per person and only allows admission to the park for 3 days) was spent at the less popular and more impressive (in my opinion) Kata Tjuta. This area is of particular importance to Anangu men and is a 45km drive from the park entry. We decided to complete the Valley of the Winds walk which is by far the best walk in the park. The track was challenging but highly enjoyable and there were amazing lookouts and purple wildflowers everywhere. We made one last stop in the park to fill up our water tank, said a fond farewell to the incredible place and drove on to Curtain Springs to camp for the night.

Uluru Tips
Don’t pay an extortionately high amount for accommodation in the town area, there is a free camp on the side of the road 20km from the entry gate.
The IGA is surprisingly well priced.
Fuel is unsurprisingly not well priced, we paid $2.12/L.
Getting to the sunset viewing area an hour or two before the sun goes down will ensure you get the best spot to watch the rock change colour.
Use all 3 days, the first time I visited I didn’t even get to stay for a whole day as it was on a guided tour and was way too short. We felt like we covered everything well using all three.

Campsite Review
Erldunda Roadhouse – Great spot and very quiet if you are in the unpowered area, the powered sites looked like a casserole of madness. Said hello to their emus, very friendly camels, and rooster Cluck Norris. $30pn – 7/10.

Sandy View Rest Area – It’s a rest area on the side of the road but was quite a nice one. Next to no traffic after 9pm and a view of Uluru from the top of the dune. $Free – 5/10.

Curtain Springs Wayside Inn – Another spot that was effectively a car park but a big upgrade from the rest area. We had drinks in the beer garden and watched their cockatiels then splurged $4 each for a shower which turned out to be the best camp shower I’ve had on the trip so far. $Free – 7/10.

Cya Later South Australia

Cya Later South Australia

We only had a couple more places to visit before entering our 3rd state, 2nd really because we saw almost none of Victoria, and the first was Coober Pedy. As a huge fan of rocks, I also have the guilty pleasure of watching Outback Opal Hunters almost obsessively and therefore felt that I knew most of the town and what it would be like, I couldn’t have been more wrong. As we made our way through the piles of dirt that make up the opal fields the collection of buildings that materialized in front of the van made us feel like we were traveling back to the late 80s to a bizarre mining theme park. We set up the van at the free campsite behind the old mining museum and were lucky enough to get the only site shaded by a tree. Because the owners of the museum were so kind to host a free camp we paid the $15 entry fee and spent the next couple of hours walking through the mine and then learning about underground homes. Matt went back to the camp to relax while I walked down the road with my fossicking kit and dug around in the dust for another few hours. The correct term for looking for accidentally discarded opal in mine heaps is noodling and as it turns out I’m not much good at it, I didn’t even find a bit of potch (colourless and valueless opal). What I did find was an absolutely massive gypsum crystal which must have weighed 4kg and another smaller stack, probably about 500g worth. Matt was less than impressed when I rocked up in camp with them.

The next day we explored the town starting off with the underground catholic church then the underground bar, an underground display/museum which was filled with, of all things, South Australia Roads and Transport propeganda. After a morning of exploring we were getting a bit hungry and ended up having waffles for lunch at a tiny cafe run by a dutch couple. During the afternoon we visited the local IGA which was absolutely fantastic, I swear the supermarket was better stocked than half the shops in Tasmania and we bought 4 wheels of cheese that had been discounted to 99 cents each . Our final activity that day was to visit the small Kangaroo Sanctuary where we cuddled a beautiful little joey and learned about how the animals were rehabilitated and cared for.

There was one more spot we had to visit before we departed, Crocodile Harry’s Nest. Unfortunately, Harry passed away in 2006 but he left the legacy of his amazing home and legendary exploits in the town. We walked around his “nest” marveling at the sculptures he’d made and the artworks pained directly onto his walls as well as his impressive collection of signed women’s undergarments.

Our final destination for South Australia was a bit off the beaten track located just outside a station called Arckaringa. We parked up at the homestead for the afternoon and enjoyed a shower in the saltiest water I’ve ever experienced outside the ocean. I washed my hair for the first time in 6 days and it honestly felt cleaner before I got under the water. Oh well. Just before the sun went down we took out the picnic rug and some of our discount cheeses and went and watched the sun go down over the Painted Desert, a beautiful sandstone formation created 80 million years ago.

South Australia had one more surprise for us, between the desert and the border we saw what must have been 100,000 budgies. Matt was kept very busy avoiding the huge flocks that seemed determined to fly directly in front of the car.

Campsite Reviews

Old Timers Mine Campsite – Another spot that is basically a campsite in a car park. We’re starting to really appreciate places we can stay for free after all the less money we spend the longer we can travel. $Free – 6/10.

Arckaringa Station – The sunrises and sunsets were absolutely spectacular here, a perfect base to visit the desert. $20pn – 7/10.

Oooooonadatta

Oooooonadatta

It was a bit sad saying goodbye to Copley for the second time and knowing if we ever got back there again it wouldn’t be for a very long while. I also contemplated how strange it was that such an out of the way town felt so friendly to both of us, more than any of the other places we have visited so far. If we’d been stuck there for two months instead of two days I don’t think I would have minded. But the road was calling and our new, heavy duty roof racks were screaming for a test run so we returned to the bitumen and continued our drive north. It wasn’t too long before we came to Lyndhurst and decided to stop for a spot of lunch. Lyndhurst was a lot like Copley in that the only things there were a caravan park, a pub and a couple of houses but unlike Copley it had a local celebrity, Talc Alf. As we pulled up to the rest stop I saw a bloke with a beard cleaning out the bins and I turned to Matt and said “do you think that’s him?”, sure enough it was and no sooner had we pulled the van up we were driving off again with Talc Alf heading for his house (constructed out of half water tanks) about 2km out of town. Alf’s place was brilliant and he spent a good 45 minutes showing us his studio, talc carvings, art and teaching us about his interpretation of the meaning of letters. We ended up buying a carving off him for $10 which is our first souvenir of the trip, we shook hands and promised to come back if we had to drive south through SA rather than NSW.

We’d made good time driving on the sealed highway and reached the “Historical Inland Town” of Farina (the local restoration group clearly don’t like it being called a ruin as they’d attached their own sign underneath the old one) just after lunch. Farina had been recommended us to Lee and Neil which was yet another great tip from them (cheers guys!). It was a fascinating and slightly eerie place with ruined buildings, streets, and cars as well as a cricket oval and the all important railway station. If you visit between June and July there is an operating underground bakery which sounds amazing. Unfortunately for us it wasn’t open but we still had a great time learning all about the town and its eventual demise.

Before we knew it we pulled in at Marree which is where the real part of the Oonadatta Track begins complete with dust, corrugations, and endless railway relics. Matt and I sat in the pub and drank a beer before settling down in the free camp behind the pub and watching the Inbetweeners 2 movie (the end was filmed in the area and the pub featured for about 30 seconds). The next day we wandered around and looked at the local sites which were, the Ghan engines, the “mostly accurate” camel sundial, and the museum inside the pub dedicated to a postman called Tom Kruise who used to drive the mail from Coober Pedy to Marree in a truck that looked like it would struggle on a normal road. We also filled up with petrol at an eye watering $1.95/l both well aware that it was going to get more expensive soon.

After deflating the tyres to the recommended corrugation PSI of 25 we tentatively began our next leg of the trip. I think both of us were feeling a bit worried about the roof racks as I spent most of the first hour looking up at them through the side mirror and Matt walked around shaking them every time we stopped (which was a lot because every 20km there was something else to look at). We saw a sculpture park that made no sense in any way, I figured the creator was a friend of Talc Alf and there was a greater meaning. There was more old railway infrastructure than you could poke a stick at, abandoned bridges, half falling down buildings filled with graffiti, stockyards, water tanks, a surprisingly large number of lizards, and an amazing lookout that allowed us the joy of walking down to and then across a small piece of Lake Eyre. Towards the end of the afternoon and quite close to camp we visited a conservation area where a number of mound springs were located. These strange hills are the result of pressure from the Great Artesian Basin forcing water and the minerals that it contains to the surface of the earth. We walked around enjoying the unusual landscape but the beautiful pools of crystal clear water had us both craving a swim so we left pretty early to get to our campsite at Coward Springs.

At $30 per night the date farm/camp ground is so far the most expensive place we’d been on our trip but the cost was 100% worth it because they have their own little spring that they’ve turned into a spa for the people staying. Within minutes of pulling up we’d changed into our bathers and jumped into the slightly warm water (29 degrees), it was such a nice way to get the dust off after a long day on the road. Following our swim we decided to pop over to the café near the gate and grab a date treat for afternoon tea. The owners were both serving so we had a chat about the date farm and what made them choose to move from their original home in the Adelaide Hills out to the middle of nowhere. We ended up having a date ice-cream each, Matt had coffee and I had chocolate. They were both amazing but I had to admit Matts was slightly better.

It was a short drive the next day through another abandoned town/telegraph station and then into the quirky pub at William Creek. We stopped for a cheeky beer, it would be rude not to, and played a couple of holes on the golf course. Matt hit a 6 and and a 5, I managed a 10 and a 9 but also shattered Matts only golf tee taking a wild swing at the ball and missing entirely. I’m so bad at golf! We camped up at a peaceful placed called Lake Cadibarrawirracanna (it’s easier to say than it looks) where I found the motherload of desert rose gypsum. Once again with my hat full of rocks I went back to the van to show Matt, they must be nice because even he admitted they were “kind of cool”. We watched the sun set and the stars come out one by one until the sky was alight with billions of tiny dots. It was one of the best night skies I’ve seen so we took some photos of the van, Matt light painted the van with his torch and I focused on the sky. What an amazing feeling, knowing that you’re the only people for at least 70km.

Campground Reviews

Marree Hotel – Cool hotel with museum and apparently good food (we didn’t eat but the restaurant was chockers). I’ll never not appreciate these kinds of places that let you stay out the back for free and use the toilets. It makes a big difference to the budget. $Free – 6/10.

Coward Springs – My favourite place we’ve stayed so far with amazing owners, a beautiful spa, cute welcome messages and amazing date products. Completely worth the price per night and we were a bit sad we couldn’t stay longer. $30pn ($15pp) – 10/10.

Lake Cadibarrawirracanna – The most peaceful place of the trip with only the scurrying of native mice at night or the chattering of budgies in the morning. We were the only people there which added to the magic. No facilities but you didn’t need them. $Free – 9/10.

Port Augusta – Roof Racks can Rack Off

Port Augusta – Roof Racks can Rack Off

Three weeks into our trip and it has all gone a bit wrong with our broken roof rack fiasco and unplanned extended stay in Port Augusta but hey that’s all part of the journey and it wouldn’t be an adventure if bad things didn’t happen every now and again. Our introduction to ‘Gusta was not especially welcoming, we showed up on Friday afternoon after driving down from Copley and started to do the rounds of the local crash repair shops and a welder. The first place we visited was pretty positive about the gutters being fixable but couldn’t give us a quote on the repair because the guy that does it is away until Tuesday. The second place we went to straight up said no, the third said he wouldn’t even look at it. Getting a bit desperate we went to see a welder who actually had a decent look at it and then gave us a more helpful explanation about why he wouldn’t be able to fix it.

The next day we started to have a look for replacement racks and ended up ordering from a shop in town that said they’d be able to get them in by Tuesday. I wasn’t feeling very positive about it because the guy kept messing up the amounts of each part we’d need but we didn’t have any other options. We decided to use the unexpected time that we had living in a motel (thanks RACQ ultimate) to clean out the van, change the linen, wash all the clothes, and take the van to a car wash for a good clean. On Sunday we’d already had enough of the town so we drove out into the country to visit Mount Remarkable and do the Alligator Gorge hike. The scenery was so different to what we have been experiencing for the past week with the beachy suburbs opening up to green farmland. The walk was serene, it was 9km long and twisted through a series of canyons with red stone cliffs towering above us and the creek running along the bottom. We had fun doing the last section of the hike through The Narrows as it was made up of a series of stepping stones we ended up hopping across so we didn’t get our feet wet. At lunch we saw a large lace monitor trying to find a snack and being scared away by a red wattle bird and a magpie.

Monday was a very exciting day for me because I finally managed to get into a vaccination clinic to get my pfizer! Woo hoo!! My one regret from quitting my job was doing it before I got vaccinated, being a healthy 30 year old it has been completely impossible to get it. Fortunately South Australia was giving anyone 16-30yo the jab so I registered for mine using the motel address. No worries at all. I’m going to try and get my second one in the NT, probably Alice Springs in the next 3-6 weeks. In the evening the weather went absolutely feral with lighting, winds of 50km/h and pouring rain. We decided that we didn’t want to cook dinner outside our motel room on our gas stove and headed for the local pub where we ate two very tasty meals, Matt had kangaroo and I had butterfish.

RACQ read us the riot act on Monday and told us without a quote they’d no longer be able to put us up in our lovely motel home so we had to move out as unsurprisingly the first mechanic still hadn’t given us any information about the van. With not so heavy hearts we packed up and left heading towards a free camp via the Arid Botanical Gardens. If you ever have the misfortune of being stuck in Port Augusta this is probably one of the only places I’d suggest visiting. There was a beautiful variety of plants, a wonderful array of birds, and the cafe had scones and cream with quandong jam.

The free camp Matt picked was a short drive out of town in a place called Winninowie Conservation Park, unfortunately when we reached the entry we found that the gate was shut due to the “wet road conditions”, we looked down the track and it could not have been further from wet so I decided to call Parks SA and see if there was anyone that could check it for us. After a couple of phone calls I spoke to a ranger from Mount Remarkable who told me it was shut from the 10mm of rain the previous night, I explained how dry it looked and he said the earliest he’d be able to get down would probably be the next day, bugger! Unsure of where we would be staying the night we spent a while looking at the other options and decided on a seaside town but as we were driving out to go there we saw an SA Parks car and sure enough the ranger I spoke to on the phone. He came down, checked the road for us and sure enough it was dry. We spent the evening sitting on the sandy site and enjoying the mangroves while the eccentric care taker Doug talked my ear off about how he worked for the CSIRO collecting data on the campers and taught me about the animals and environment where we were staying.

We both slept so much better staying out in the wilderness again so we were feeling fresh for the drive to Copley the next day after we popped back into Port August for the last time to pick up the roof racks. We ended up stopping thrice along the way, once at Quorn to look at the old buildings and railway, the second time at the historic homestead of Kanyaka and the third stop was Hawker to fill up with fuel. It was an amusing 3rd visit to Hawker which was 3 more than we’d planned to do. Back in Copley we were greeted like old friends by the publican wearing his standard uniform of footy shorts and his hat (a cross between the Harry Potter sorting hat and a cowboy hat) and by the caravan park manager with his greeting of “you two again!” and then by the town mechanic who seemed pretty happy to be gifted the basket that was on top of our roof racks and two gas cylinder holders. He even brought our spare tyre over to the caravan park on his gold buggy. Matt spent the better part of the afternoon assembling the racks and we celebrated with a meal at the pub.

Campsite Reviews

Comfort Inn Port Augusta – A pretty bog standard motel room in a pretty bog standard town. It was weird having a toilet in the same building as where we slept and we enjoyed having a couch. Glad that the RACQ paid for it – 6/10.

Chinaman’s Creek – Beautiful spot and we will probably come back in summer when it’s warm enough to swim. Caretaker was extremely eccentric. Toilets could do with some TLC and loo paper. $Free – 7/10.

Copley Caravan Park – $20 per night and automatically 8/10 because of how nice everyone in the town was and for how good the quondong tarts are.

Flinders Ranges I – Wilpena and Willow

We both have a couple of places on this trip that we are particularly looking forward to and the Flinders Ranges is one of mine, I was therefore especially excited when the rocky outcrops started to come in to view on the horizon and my spirits could not be dampened by the light drizzle that had set in. Matt was equally enthusiastic and had us stopping off so often at lookouts and landmarks that we didn’t reach our base for the next 3 nights until 2pm, despite it only being 40km up the road from the Cradock Hotel. I’d picked Willow Springs Station as our first site in the ranges because of its proximity to Wilpena Pound, the amenities, but most importantly the Skytrek 4WD adventure located on the property. We set up, made ourselves at home, and cooked dinner over the fire.

The next morning we woke up bright and early to find our camp chairs and my towel that I’d left out to dry were covered in a decent layer of frost, the locals have since told me that it’s not uncommon this time of year. We ate breakfast in the camp kitchen, removed the fuel from the roof of the van, took some of the more noisy things out if the kitchen and with key in hand headed off on our drive.

The way that the Skytrek works is that you book it at the station office, pay your $60 entry and get given a a key and an information booklet with all the interest points along the way. It was only a few hundred meters through the gate that we reached the first of 50 points in the booklet, a stream and spring next to a small cliff face. I drove the first 40km stopping off at each of the points and learning more about the environment and what it would have been like to work as a pastoralist during the 1880s in such an isolated place. The driving was not particularly technical and both the van and I managed it without issue. We stopped for lunch in a dry creek bed and spotted a family of emus. Matt took over the second part of the drive because we were warned before we departed that the last 15-20km of the drive was a lot more challenging (to the point where they had put in a route to avoid it entirely if you weren’t feeling up to it). Sure enough after another 20km we reached 2 steep hills which we tackled slowly and carefully with an occasional hit to the bash plate. It was completely worth a couple of scratches on the van because when we reached the top the views were simply breath-taking. 6 hours later, tired and happy we got back into camp.

On Friday it was my turn to pick an activity and I decided that we should try and get a bit more exercise in and do a walk into Wilpena Pound. I made the suggestion to Matt that we climb to Mary’s Peak (the highest point in the Pound) but was met with so much resistance we opted for 2 shorter walks. Matt has since informed me that he is happy to do more bush walking but needs to be trained up a bit before we do 16km hikes with 700m of climbing…fair enough. Our first walk was to the Wangara Lookout where we enjoyed views into the pound and received the happy news that our agent had found someone to rent our house in Glenorchy. Yay! On the way back we did a small 1.2km side loop called Drought Busters that had a number of information boards describing the animals and plants in the area, how they manage in the harsh weather, and the changes of the seasons. We made fantastic time so after lunch we got back on the road and visited Ridgeback Lookout (the best view in Flinders Ranges so far) and drove into Brachina Gorge where we saw yet another emu family but to our great excitement Yellow-footed Rock-wallabies!

All too soon Saturday morning arrived and we once again cleared out our campsite and said goodbye to the family of apostlebirds we made friends with to continue our journey into the far northern end of Flinders.

Campsite Review

Willow Springs Station – I think it says a lot when you rock up at a place and instantly sign on for another day which is exactly what we did. The staff were helpful, Wifi worked well, hot showers, clean camp kitchen, and spectacular night sky. $25pn – 9/10.