Central Australia road trip (2005)

Youngs Siding to Darwin and beyond

April 2005. We had been caring for Geoff's mother for a couple of years without a break and desperately needed some time out. We always said that we would "save" travel around Australia for when we were too old to go to more challenging places - we might be getting close to that state, but now we had other reasons for choosing to go on a 15000 kilometre road trip. We could only organise five weeks, so had an ambitious average of 3000 kilometres a week if we were to visit all the places we wanted to go.

Kaye had never been to central Australia, neither of us had been to Darwin or northern Western Australia and we had friends in South Australia who we had not seen for over 30 years, so that gave us a basic route. We decided to go across the Nullarbor to Adelaide first, then up through Alice Springs to Darwin, then Kununurra and Broome and back down the coastal highway (more or less) to home. For most of the journey we would camp, with occasional stays in motels or cabins when that seemed like the best option.

Day one of the journey was just over to Esperance, to camp at Cape Le Grand, east of the town. Kaye had been there many years before and loved it. The beaches must be some of the best in the world - deserted stretches of squeaky white sand, that feels like snow under foot. We had a quick tour around the park in the morning, then set off to Norseman, to join the Eyre Highway, over the Nullarbor.

This first part of the drive offered a huge mixture of images. Fitzgerald National Park, with its beautiful wildflowers; Esperance town, grown since we last saw it; the grandeur of Cape Le Grand; emus running across the paddocks north of Esperance; salmon gums glowing coppery in the sun. Then, as we turned east and set off to Caiguna, the desert becoming more sparsely vegetated, and the traffic thinned out.

Driving the Nullarbor was interesting. We seemed to drive in our own little bubble, with no cars heading east visible in front of us or sighted in the rear vision mirror, and few cars coming the other way. In the two days it took us to cross the desert I only remember us catching up to and passing one car, and only one car overtook us. There were other people driving, but we seemed to space ourselves out along the road, and only came together at lookouts or to stop for the night. The desert is endlessly interesting and changeable, and the Bight is constantly enticing travelers to stop and wander along the cliff-tops, making what sounds like a tedious trip into something much more enjoyable than you might think. We had arranged to stay with friends south of Adelaide, so were pressed for time, otherwise we may have taken an extra day to enjoy the desert. As it was, we stopped at Streaky Bay, then Port Augusta, and a scenic drive through the Clare Valley and on minor roads skirting around the east of Adelaide took us down to Bron and Jim in Yankalilla on the Fleurieu Peninsula.

After a couple of wonderful days catching up with Bronny and enjoying meeting Jim and some of the kids, we headed north again, back up to Port Augusta, then on to Coober Pedy. Not an exciting drive (didn't even see any camels), and we seriously disliked Coober Pedy - reminded us of Johannesburg, with its metal-gridded shops and groups of young men just hanging around. It is touted as frontier land, exciting and a bit on the edge, but it just looked tired and dirty and desperate. Even the camping area was depressing, and we left as soon as it got light, crossing over into the Northern Territory, then turning off the Stuart Highway to visit Uluru.

The drive into Yulara is through areas of desert oaks, with young trees looking like shaggy sticks and older trees spreading their branches out and sighing in the breezes. We camped at Yulara and spent a morning out at Uluru, walking around the base of the rock, along with hundreds of other people. None of this detracted from the rock, which really does justify most of the hype that it generates. Lots of people were attempting the climb, including one girl who froze completely when she strayed off onto a steeply-sloped edge, and we all watched while she was slowly coaxed back down to a less vulnerable position.

In the afternoon we drove over to Kata Tjuga (formerly The Olgas), and did a hot circuit walk down gorges and up through the rocks and cliffs. This is also a deeply satisfying place to visit, and an even better place to walk than Uluru. We don't have a 4-wheel drive vehicle, so sadly decided not to visit King's canyon (a very long drive in and back), but it would have been a great way to get to Alice Springs. We had to back-track to the highway, then drive up into the Alice.

Geoff had spent some time working in Alice Springs some years before, so we visited his old favourite places as well as looking at things that had changed since he was last there. The town is nothing special, but the country out there is wonderful, and we made time to go out to the MacDonnell Ranges. After a couple of days in Alice Springs we set off for Darwin.

A couple of days later we camped at Mataranka, one of the highlights of the drive up through the Territory. The homestead is on the Roper River, with lush thermal pools to bathe in and thieving wallabies on the grassed campsite. You couldn't go off and leave fruit or vegetables out on your table - the wallabies would eat the lot. Languidly swimming in the warm pools at the edge of the river was fine, but the weather was hot, and I would have loved to swim in the cool river. Unfortunately the rangers hadn't declared the Roper to be free of salt water crocodiles yet (an annual necessity), so it was swim at your own considerable risk.

And on to Darwin. We stayed out of town, at Howard Springs. This is a place where you can swim with barramundi, but unfortunately not when we were there - an algal bloom had struck.

Darwin was truly disappointing, just another city. Sure, it had some interesting things to see, but there was nothing of the legendary "Territory spirit" to be felt - perhaps cyclone Tracy wiped it all away. We stayed a few days, and even got in contact with a friend of a friend and followed his advice on places to visit, but the heat and humidity took their toll, and it we were really glad to pack up and move on. Before heading off for Western Australia we had one more thing to do near Darwin - we wanted to visit a block of land owned by friends from home.

Our friends' block is at Dundee Beach, so we headed out west, only pausing to have a swim with the barramundi at Berry Springs along the way. Dundee Beach is the end of the road, a place to relax, stroll along the beach, or cast a line into the very placid sea. Sitting up on the grassy slope, my back against a coconut palm, cold beer in one hand, a book in the other, I looked down on Geoff fishing on the beach and finally, after three weeks of travel, felt like this was a real holiday. Up to that point this trip was just one more thing to get fixed - get out of the way. Our lives at home had become narrowed down to a sort of fire-fighting mode, where endless problems had to be sorted, and that had spilled over into our holiday. Despite the attack of the green ants (on our friends' block) I was so grateful we'd decided to drive out to this unlikely place to camp for a couple of nights; it was a turning point in learning how to relax again.

Darwin to Youngs Siding

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