Photojournalist David Savage travels Australia on the OZ Experience…
OZ Experience has a new route on offer in Australia. Cairns to Alice Springs (or vice versa), overland in three days and two nights. This route is known as the ‘Priscilla’ route and strikes deep into the outback where nowhere means nowhere and a pub is days drive away… but what a drive it is.
The bus picks up from most hostels in Cairns. The pick up time is early in the morning, the kind of hour that is rarely seen by most Backpackers. I fell asleep on the bus, waking up later to find I was well out of Cairns. Where I had been used to seeing plantations of sugarcane or bananas, I was now seeing thick bush and Termite Hills rising up from the red dirt. What a great opportunity to get to know your Termite Hills; tall ones, short ones, flat ones, magnetic ones and even tree hugging ones.
By lunchtime we found ourselves in George Town, a town built off the back of the mining industry. In the Lonely Planet Guide, George Town gets a whole three lines…OK, moving on…So George Town isn’t too exciting but for the traveller, George Town is a good example of an Australian working town, no frills to speak of but it does have a community swimming pool.
We were on route for Karumba, a small town on the coast of the Gulf of Carpentaria, a town with a slogan, ‘Outback by the Sea’. However, we had a fair few kilometres to drive before we got there. Soon after lunch we hit Croydon, population 220, where we found our first true Australian Outback Pub. Heads turned as we walked in, we were obviously not locals, our skin was too soft and none of us were wearing those ‘Drover’ hats with holes in. In Croydon’s heyday there were 5000 mines operating in the area. Then the gold ran out and so did the people.
Dotted along the sides of the road we were becoming accustomed to seeing road kill. Mainly kangaroo’s that had been hit by trucks. This is ‘Road-Train’ country and those vehicles take a long time to stop. Most vehicles in the Outback are fitted with ‘Roo-Bars’ to prevent damage to the vehicle. But nothing goes to waste in the Outback, each road kill becomes a meal for Dingo’s or as we saw quite often, Wedge Tail Eagles. These magnificent dark birds can have a wingspan of up to two metres.
The last town we stopped out before reaching Karumba was Normanton. Near the river is a fibreglass replica of a Crocodile that was caught in 1957. At 8.6 metres long, it is reputed to be the world’s largest Crocodile ever caught.
We arrived at Karumba just as the sun was setting. On our final approach to the campsite, the driver pointed out The Sunset Tavern, the place where we would eat later on. The campsite is fairly large with all the usual amenities. Thousands of Australian tourists come here each year for the fishing. It is one of Australia’s most popular past times…in fact many Australian’s are just plain fishing mad.
Our accommodation for the night was to be two-man tents, tall enough to stand in. Along with the tents we were given swags. These comprise of a mattress in a canvas envelope. You unzip the canvas swag, slide your sleeping bag in and well that’s it. The canvas protects you from any damp and the whole thing retains quite a lot of heat. If you do find yourself getting a little cold, there is plenty of room in a swag for two. I have even heard there is enough room for a shag-in-a-swag.
By the time we reached ‘The Sunset Tavern’ it was getting dark, yet there was still a strong orange colour over the ocean. The tavern has been well named, the sunsets are fantastic. The menu is pretty good, with a range to choose from and the servings are on the large side.
As the sun was rising over Karumba, we were heading off, away from the coast, deeper into the Outback. Travelling overland sure does install a sense of distance. We all know Australia is a big place, this trip certainly helps one to comprehend just how big it is. Miles and miles of red dirt and bush, all seemingly indistinguishable. It may sound boring, in fact the sense of space is quite overwhelming, relaxing even. Every now and again we’d see a small dirt track turn off, with a makeshift letterbox, hammered into the ground. We’d look to the horizon to see the house to which it belonged… we’d see just more of the same on the horizon, the house too far to see.
Then out of the red would come a place like Quimby. This was our lunch stop. A big American from Texas stepped off the bus and, in a voice not dissimilar to ‘Dr. Evil’, summed up our location perfectly,
“We’re in the middle of Frikkin’ nowhere!”
Indeed we were. Quimby is a lone building. It is the pub, it is the fuel station and it even has a small paddock with a couple of horses in. Strangest of all, on top of the hill behind the building is a giant Fosters Beer can rising out of the ground. I am unable to explain why.
After Quimby we soon hit Mt. Isa, one of Australia’s biggest mining communities. The presence of the mine over the town is boldly over bearing. Life only exists here because of the mine and just about everyone you’ll meet in Mt Isa has a relative who works there.
For the last couple of hours of our bus ride, we left the bitumen road and hit the dirt road. We were close to our day’s final destination, Urandangi. Again, it would be hard to call this place a town, when in fact it is another pub in the middle of frikkin’ nowhere. There are a few other houses scattered about and an Aboriginal community bringing the total population to about 20 people. The pub, where we ate dinner, was quite interesting. The bar surface is made of bottle tops, the owner and his wife are Danish and they even have a merchandising operation going. For a modest price you can get T-shirts, shopping bags, hats, key rings and beer coolers all decorated with a colourful print of the Urandangi Pub. Hey, don’t knock it, these items are a rarity!
This was the final day of our Outback drive before hitting the Red Centre. We stuck with the dirt road for another 500 kilometres of ‘hold on, it’s very bumpy‘, with the Red Hot Chilli Peppers blaring from the stereo. We were seeing more and more Kangaroo’s (live ones) and the Termite Hills were also getting bigger. We took time to stop at one huge, multi-storey towering, way high Termite Hill aptly named The Cathedral. All of the mass we were seeing, some twenty feet high and twenty feet in diameter, is earth that the littlest of bugs have excavated from beneath the surface. Relatively speaking, this is far more of an achievement than the Eygptian Pyramids.
Today we stopped for lunch in a place that I don’t even think has a nameÃ¯Â¿Â½ the place was deserted, a few out building and petrol pumps. There was however a shopÃ¯Â¿Â½ well the shop was just shack, with an open hatch and a counter. There was a sign saying ‘Ring the bell for service’. That was next to another sign that said, ‘Charge for stupid Questions $3, Charge for stupid questions and a stupid answer $5’. Not knowing the criteria of a stupid question, none of us dared to ring the bell.
We left our lunch spot and carried on till we hit the Stuart Highway that runs North to South, down the middle of the country. As we approached the McDonnell Ranges, we could see the divide between the East and West of the Ranges. We passed though this gap to find ourselves in Alice Springs by dusk. It had been quite a journey. I had given me a good impression of what ‘Outback’ actually means.
That evening, as part of the tour, we all had a free meal together at Malanka’s Hostel. There was also a happy hour so as you can imagine, we drank beer and reflected on our Outback Adventure.
Alice Springs was first established as a Telegraph Station and is still one of the most isolated towns in the world. The Todd River runs the length of the town and is named after the designer of the telegraph system, Charlie Todd. Alice Springs is named after his wifeÃ¯Â¿Â½ Alice. There is a pool of water near the Old Telegraph Station that was mistaken as a natural spring, hence the Spring in Alice Spring’s. In fact it is the outflow of trapped water underneath the rocky outcrop to one side of the pool. The Old Telegraph Station is now a museum. It is worth checking it out although those less interested in Pioneer History may find it a little boring. However, you’ve come all this way so you might as well get some history in to you.
The town it’s self has everything you’d expect of any well-established town. There is a large community of Aboriginal people that are very visible on the streets. You may wonder why they are just hanging around. If you have been in Australia some time you may have even heard many negative comments about the Aboriginal people. Petrol sniffing and alcoholism is present, but the bottom line is that these issues are present in all societies and the Aboriginal community on a whole is undeserved of derogatory labels. The culture shock between white and black in Australia is still going on – since Europeans came here two hundred years ago, a whole culture was displaced, yet understanding is still not forth coming.
As a traveller you have nothing to fear from Aboriginals, you probably won’t even come into contact with them. However, should you get a chance to meet them and learn about their culture, I would strongly urge you to take it. I did in South Australia with the ‘Iga Warta’ people and it was the most enlightening experience of my whole Australian adventure.