So Long, Cruel World
leaving the Flinders Ranges on Tuesday afternoon (and saying goodbye to the
killer Red Gum Trees that lurk there), I drove down to Port
Augusta, an interesting old town at the end of Spencer Gulf and my last
stop before heading north into the Outback. It was over 100 degrees when I
got to Port Augusta and I got an air-conditioned motel
room there that afternoon which I savored for a while, then got ready for my trip north into
the Great Beyond. Port Augusta really does feel like the end of the world,
whether you're heading north to Darwin or west to Perth. Either way, it's
a long, long way across endless miles of empty desert.
spending an hour at the Safeway that evening, I got back to my motel room and
checked off my supplies: 30 liters of water, 10 liters of
emergency gas, 24 cans of Diet Pepsi and 8 cans of Stagg chili. Yep, I was
The next morning, I could feel the heat coming through the
motel door even before I opened it, and when I stepped outside at 8 a.m., it was
blistering hot. After packing
up my stuff, I pulled onto the Stuart Highway and headed north, beginning my great adventure
into the Australian Outback.
Over the past few weeks, several Aussies gave me funny looks when I told them I was going to drive across the Outback
from Port Augusta to the Great Barrier Reef. A typical reaction was,
"Why would you want to do that? There's nothing out there but a bunch of
Aborigines." Interestingly enough, few Australians that I've met
have ever driven across the Outback and, in general, I've been surprised at
how little Australians have traveled around their own country. Not many
Aussies I've talked to have driven to Alice Springs or Darwin, and hardly anyone
has ever been to Perth, except Perthians (Perthites?)
Kasey Chambers is one of
my favorite Aussie singers (she's not too bad looking, either).
Having grown up on the bleak Nullarbor Plain, not far from here,
Kasey is as Aussie as they come. The name Nullarbor
says it all, and here it is.
RealPlayer. If problems, see
shouldn't surprise me, I guess, since I'm always amazed at how little most
Americans have traveled around their own country. It always baffles me
that people like to stay in their own area, whether it be the East Coast, the
Southeast, the Midwest, the West Coast or the Northwest. People in the
East think you're crazy to go out West, while people in the West think you're
nuts to travel back East. I think every part of America is
interesting, though, and I've never understood the tendency to cocoon, no matter what
part of the country you're in.
my route for these next several days would be the
Stuart Highway, which runs from Port Augusta all the way up to Darwin in the
"Top End." This is the only paved highway through
central Australia, and in fact, it's the only paved highway for about a
thousand miles on either side of it. It's named after John McDouall Stuart
who, in 1862, led the first white party through central Australia to the
northern coast and back. I'd read lots of warnings about driving the
Stuart Highway. The big danger out here isn't running out of gas or
getting a flat tire, since a car or truck will pass by on the highway every 15
or 20 minutes and, by law, a vehicle must stop to assist any disabled driver in
big worries out here are fatigue and running over stray animals, including
cattle, sheep, and kangaroos. It sounds funny but running over a kangaroo
was my single biggest fear. Roos are big and can do a
real number on a car. No wonder, then, that most vehicles out here,
including trucks, have large "Roo Bars" installed on the front.
The main trick to avoiding kangaroos is to not drive at night or around sunset and
when they're most active. That's fine, because that's when I'm least
all these issues, I was really looking forward to driving across the Outback
because I've always enjoyed driving across the deserts of the American
West. I had a good car with air-conditioning, a portable MP3 player plugged into the car's stereo, 300 hours of my favorite MP3 music, and a cooler full of ice and Diet Pepsi. What
more did I need? Well, O.K., maybe a cute Sheila.
Right: Road sign at the
beginning of the Stuart Highway in Port Augusta. You really feel like
Right: Driving north on the empty Stuart Highway.
A Modern Day Ghost-Town
driving for a few hours on the nearly-empty Stuart Highway, I pulled off shortly
before noon and
drove into the town of Woomera. I didn't realize it at the time, but
Woomera would be the first of many bizarre things that I'd see in the Outback.
in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. government decided that they needed a large
area of empty land to test-fire rockets and to closely track their progress.
with the help of the Australian government, they set up a base here and built a town
which they called Woomera (an Aborigine word meaning "Stuck in the middle
of nowhere") to house the employees. At one time back in the
1950s, over 3,000 people lived in
Woomera and up until 1982, the city was closed to all visitors. It was
something like a "Los Alamos in the Outback," I suppose. Workers in
Woomera had all the creature comforts of modern life, though, including a nice
public swimming pool, an air-conditioned bowling alley, and leafy streets lined
with modern, suburban houses -- all surrounded by hundreds of miles of nothing.
base has been gradually phased out, however, and today it's all but closed.
Only 300 people are left in Woomera and by the time you read this, that may be
down to 200. I strolled around this rather bizarre town in the middle of
the desert for a while and got a pretty eerie feeling. It's a bit
unsettling to walk down a nice suburban street while knowing that just about
every house is
vacant. I'll give it credit, though, because Woomera isn't quitting and
the folks in this nice, modern community are struggling to hold on.
walked into the empty Visitor Center and talked for about 20 minutes with a
pleasant woman about the town. She was 25 years old and had lived in
Woomera her entire life, but wasn't sure what the future held for her and her
young daughter. "I remember what it used to be like a few years ago
when all the American families lived here," she said. "Everything's closed down now
and it's kind of sad." It was indeed.
Rockets on display at Woomera.
Above center: The
empty streets of Woomera.
Woomera's shopping center has seen better (and livelier) days.
left: Back on the Stuart Highway heading north.
center: An immense dry lake at a rest stop. The flies here
really ate me up.
right: Glendambo, with a
population of 2 million flies. I believe it.
The Cave Men of Coober
four more hours of driving, I pulled into Coober Pedy late that afternoon. While Woomera is a bit
strange, Coober Pedy is downright bizarre. If you've seen the Mad Max movies, then you've seen Coober Pedy,
because that's where they were filmed. Coober Pedy (pronounced "peedy,"
not "peddy") is the driest town in the driest state on the driest
continent in the world. The average rainfall here is a scant five inches,
but that's just an average because during some years absolutely no rain falls.
only one reason why 3,000 people would willingly choose to live in this God-forsaken
In fact, about 90 percent of the world's opals are mined in and around Coober Pedy.
Opal mining draws people in from all over the world and at last count, over 40
nationalities were represented here. Those few folks lucky
enough to strike it big retire early, while the vast majority barely scrape
by. The town is filled with interesting and colorful characters who speak
strange languages, some of
whom wander about trying to sell opals to any gullible-looking tourist (like me,
apparently). The streets are hot and dusty with mongrel dogs running about and
Aborigines sit all day in what little shade is available, sometimes smiling,
sometimes cursing, and sometimes throwing empty beer bottles against the walls.
coming to Australia, I'd read in my guidebook that a lot of folks in Coober
Pedy lived underground because of the oppressive heat, and that you can even stay in
an underground motel room here. I had images of holes in the ground with
ladders leading down to comfortable, dark caverns. However,
it's not like that at all. Most people here live in caves burrowed out of
the sides of the hills, so the term "underground" is a bit
deceiving. Still, it's a fascinating way to live -- and very practical,
since the house-caves stay at an even 70-75 degrees year round, during the
summer heat and the winter cold.
poshest motel in town is the Desert Cave, but even there, many of the rooms are
above ground. The Desert Cave and the other cave-type motel, the Coober
Pedy Experience, were both beyond my limited budget, so I stayed at a little place
called "The Mud Hut," which is a lot nicer than its name would
indicate. It's a wonderful above-ground motel made out of 12"-thick
adobe walls, very well insulated and very comfortable -- and very unique.
And the staff is great.
its dusty streets, walled motel compounds, barbed-wire fences, and an occasional
Aborigine stumbling about, Coober Pedy has a real Wild West flair to it and,
like Key West, it's
a place I think everyone should visit once in their
life. Coober Pedy is unlike any place I've ever been. It's captivating, stimulating, unique
-- and I'd never,
ever want to live there.
left: Beautiful downtown Coober Pedy,
center: Hutchison Street, the main street in Coober Pedy.
right: Digging for opals near town.
left: Typical scene on the
outskirts of town. There are miles and miles of these piles.
center: Here's a typical 2-bedroom house in Coober Pedy. Talk
about a low-maintenance yard!
right: The Coober Pedy golf course. Remember to replace
left: The Catacomb church.
center: The church is a nice, cool place to spend a Sunday morning,
even if you're an atheist.
right: The "Dog Fence" runs completely across
Australia. Over 3,000 miles long, it's the longest man-made barrier in the
world. The fence keeps dingoes (on the left side) away from sheep (on the
right side). The entire fence is patrolled every two weeks by scores of
left: Underground Books, a
great bookstore in Coober Pedy.
center: I spent three nights here at the Mud Hut Motel, a nice adobe
motel with walls that are 12 inches thick. Despite its name, I'd
recommend this place to anyone visiting Coober Pedy.
right: Several years ago, a Coober Pedy
resident wanted his children to be able to play in a tree -- so he built one out
of iron. I hope they got tetanus shots first.
Many telephone poles in the Outback are made out of iron
and concrete, not wood.
Amazing Outback Mail Run
For being such a bleak town, Coober Pedy actually
has a lot of interesting things to see and do. The most interesting thing I did during my three-day stay there --
and perhaps the most interesting thing I've done so far while in Australia --
was spend a day riding with the Coober Pedy mail truck. Twice a week, the mail truck
makes a 400-mile triangular run, all on rough, dirt Outback roads, to deliver
mail to remote towns and ranches. Up to
13 visitors are welcome to come along at a cost of US$45 each.
all met at the Underground Bookstore at 9 a.m. and clambered into the 4-wheel
drive mail truck. Our jovial driver, John Stillwell, has been doing the mail run
twice a week for the past eight years and had a lot of interesting stories to
tell, many of which he shared with us during the next 11 hours.
leaving Coober Pedy, we drove on a dirt road for about three hours across the most featureless
place I've ever seen in my life. They call this area the "Moon
Plains" and the closest thing I've ever seen to it are the photos from the
surface of Mars: no trees, no bushes, and no grass. Just rock, dirt,
and sand -- absolutely barren. I got excited when, an hour into the ride,
I saw what appeared to be a tree looming on the horizon. Nope, it was just
noon, we stopped in Oodnadatta, a mostly-aboriginal community of 150 people a
long way from anywhere. Now believe it or not, I've wanted to visit Oodnadatta ever since
I started planning this trip a few years ago. In fact, if you happen to
have one of my "DelsJourney" travel cards handy, you'll see that it's
one of the place-names that I printed on the background of the card.
Oodnadatta fascinated me not only because of its weird name (which, as John told
us, means "stinky bush," much to my disappointment) but also because up until about 1930 it was
the northern terminus of the Ghan railway. From here, supplies were
transferred from railroads to camel trains, which continued northward to places
like Alice Springs.
spent about an hour in Oodnadatta, mostly at the Pink Roadhouse, Oodnadatta's
most visible landmark. While on the mail truck ride to Oodnadatta, I'd
met a friendly, retired guy from England also named John, and we got a table
inside the roadhouse and started munching down our burgers. John was a
nice guy who loved the cinema and, interestingly enough, he'd seen every one of Johnny Depp's
A few minutes
into our conversation about Edward Scissorshands, I heard a loud "CRASH" and the
entire roadhouse shook. I didn't know what it was, but I looked
around and saw that someone had driven their car into the side of the
building (yes, I'm serious). I guess the driver, an elderly white
woman who was visibly shaken, was planning to park outside the roadhouse
but her brakes had failed. This was something I'd never seen before
-- and neither had our driver John in the eight years he'd
been doing this. Ah, life in the Outback!
left: Heading out for an
all-day, 400-mile trip on the mail truck. We’re parked here next to
a billabong and some coolibah trees, just like in the song, “Waltzing
center: Inside the hot, bouncy truck.
right: Crossing one of the many streams during our trip.
left: After driving for
three hours, we reached Oodnadatta at noon and had lunch here at the Pink
Roadhouse. Just about everything here is pink, apparently the owner's
center: John dropping off the bi-weekly mail.
right: Inside the very exclusive Pink Roadhouse (reservations
recommended). I had an
Oodnadatta Burger for lunch.
our eventful lunch, we all hopped back into the truck and continued on our merry
way while the thermometer topped 95 degrees. John (the driver, not the one who liked Johnny Depp movies) stopped at a few
vista points along the road during the next hour and we all got out and took
pictures, then we stopped at our first ranch-house to deliver the mail. A
young couple with a baby lived here, 60 miles from the nearest ranch-house, and
the mail delivery, I'm sure, is the high point of the week for these
An hour later, we stopped at William Creek, which appears on my map
as a large dot but is, in fact, just a dusty pub on the dusty Oodnadatta Track with a
total population of two dusty souls. We spent about a half-hour here and I walked into
the pub, which was something right out of Crocodile Dundee, and had a beer with
some of the locals. It was really hot outside and after riding around all
day in a semi-air-conditioned mail truck, that beer tasted really good. I
mean REALLY good.
last stop was at the Anna Creek Ranch, the largest cattle ranch in the
world. The Anna Creek ranch is bigger than Holland but has a total
population of only 20 people -- lots of elbow room out here! Once again,
the ranch owner's wife came out to greet us with a smile.
returning to Coober Pedy around sunset, I thought about the Mail Truck run
as I walked back to the motel. I enjoy quiet, remote places like eastern
Oregon, central Nevada, and southern Utah but, and without exaggerating, this
part of Australia makes those places seem like Coney Island. It's
difficult to put into words how desolate this area is other than to say that
the remoteness is overwhelming, even stifling. The Mail Truck run was a fascinating
experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone traveling through Coober Pedy
who wants a better understanding of the Outback -- you certainly won't be
disappointed. But if you have a burger at the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse,
don't sit near the wall.
left: Here's the inside of the Pink
Roadhouse after the car crashed into it. Note the cracked beam and broken wall.
Yep, just another day in Oodnadatta...
center: A hunky dude (?) somewhere on the Oodnadatta Track..
right: And another stop. These folks live 60 miles from
their nearest neighbor. As much as I like quiet, remote places, I don't think I could handle living out here.
left: Downtown William
Creek, population 2. That's the hotel on the left -- the only building in
center: The very exclusive William Creek Hotel.
right: A fun-to-read "mudmap."
left: It costs only $5
(US$2.50) to play 9 holes at the posh William Creek Golf Club. Proper
center: Road sign on the Oodnadatta Track.
right: Having a beer in the pub before our 120-mile ride back to Coober
11, 2002 (Ayers Rock, Australia)
5, 2002 (Port Augusta, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Robe, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Robe, Australia)
18, 2002 (Bega, Australia)
7, 2002 (Auckland, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 2 (Taupo, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 1 (Taupo, New Zealand)
25, 2002 (Hokitika, New Zealand)
20, 2002 (Geraldine, New Zealand)
16, 2002 (Te Anau, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 2 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 1 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
24, 2001 (Wellington, New Zealand)
20, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
16, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
14, 2001 (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)
10, 2001 (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
3, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bellingham, Washington)
3, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bellingham, Washington)
18, 2001 -- Part 3 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
6, 2001 (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 (Webster, South Dakota)
18, 2001 (Watertown South Dakota)
17, 2001 (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)
14, 2001 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)
6, 2001 (Manlius, New York)
23, 2001 (Middleton, Massachusetts)
22, 2001 (Boston, Massachusetts)
20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
18, 2001 (Denton, Maryland)
16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
* * * * * * *
Travels (2001-02) >
Australia Trip >
March 8, 2002