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So Long, Cruel World

After 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. 

 

Above:  The road sign at the beginning of the Stuart Highway in Port Augusta, heading into the Outback.  I love green road signs, as you can probably tell by my website's motif.

It was over 100 degrees (38 degrees C) when I reached Port Augusta at 3 p.m.  I checked into a basic, air-conditioned motel room, which I savored for a while, then got ready for my trip north into the Great Beyond.  Perched on the very edge of the desolate Outback, 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. 

 

I spent an hour at the Port Augusta Safeway store that evening getting stocked up for my long drive across the Outback, then drove 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 all set.

 

I got up early the next morning to make my final preparations and by 8 a.m. I could feel the heat coming through the motel door before I even opened it.  When I stepped outside, it was blistering hot.  I packed up my car, pulled onto the Stuart Highway and headed north, thus beginning my great adventure into the Australian Outback.  Over the past few weeks, Aussies gave me funny looks when I told them I was going to drive across the Outback.  A guy in Sydney had asked me, "Why would you want to do that?  There's nothing out there but a bunch of Aborigines." 

 

 

Kasey Chambers is one of my favorite Aussie singers.  She grew up on the bleak Nullarbor (i.e., no trees) Plain, not far from here, so she's as Aussie as they get.  The name Nullarbor says it all.  Here it is.

   

Interestingly, 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?)  That shouldn't have surprised me, I guess, since I'm always amazed at how little most Americans have traveled around their own country.

 

It always baffles me how much Americans like to stay in their own area, whether it be the east coast, the southeast, the Midwest, or the Pacific 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.  And almost every American I've ever talked to looks at me funny if I tell them I'm going to the south -- except for southerners, of course.  I think every part of America is interesting and have never understood the tendency to cocoon.  There's just too much to see.

 

Above:  Driving north across the Outback on the empty Stuart Highway doing 100 (kilometers per hour, that is).

My route for these next several days would be the Stuart Highway, a two-lane highway that runs 1,700 miles from Port Augusta in the south all the way up to Darwin in the "Top End."  In the U.S., that's the same distance as driving from the southern tip of Texas to the Canadian border.  The north-south Stuart is the only paved highway in central Australia.  In fact, it's the only paved highway for about a thousand miles on either side of it. 

 

The highway was named for John McDouall Stuart who, in 1862, led the first white party of explorers through central Australia to the northern coast and back.  I had read lots of warnings about driving on 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 the Outback.

 

No, the 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, so it's no wonder that most vehicles out here, including trucks, have large "Roo Bars" installed on the front.  The main trick to avoiding kangaroos, as I've read, is to not drive at night or around sunset and sunrise, when they're most active.  That's fine because that's when I'm least active.

 

Despite all these issues, I was really looking forward to driving across the Outback because I enjoy driving across the deserts of the American West and figured the Outback would be similar.  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 Pepsi.  What more did I need?  Well, O.K., maybe a cute Sheila.

Woomera:  A Modern Day Ghost-Town

After 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.

 

Above:  The empty streets of Woomera.

Back in the days of the Cold War, the U.S. government decided they needed a large area of empty land to test-fire rockets and closely track their progress.  So with the help of the Australian government, they set up a base here and built a town, which they called Woomera (an Aborigine word that likely means "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."  Workers in Woomera ("Woomerans?") had all the creature comforts of modern life, including a nice swimming pool, an air conditioned bowling alley and leafy streets lined with modern, suburban houses -- all surrounded by hundreds of miles of absolutely nothing.

 

The base has been gradually phased out, however, and today it's all but closed.  Only 300 people remain in Woomera and by the time you read this, that may be down to 200.  I strolled around this bizarre town in the middle of the desert for a while and got a pretty eerie feeling.  It's unsettling to walk down a nice suburban street while knowing that just about every house is completely vacant.  I'll give it credit, though, because Woomera isn't quitting and the folks in this nice, modern community ("Woomerites"?) are struggling to hold on.

 

I walked into the empty Visitor Center and, for the next 20 minutes, talked with a pleasant woman there who was at the front desk.  She was 25 years old, she said, and had lived in Woomera her entire life, but she 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.

 

   

Above left:  Woomera's shopping center has seen better (and livelier) days.

Above right:  Rockets on display at Woomera.

 

       

Above left:  Back on the empty Stuart Highway heading north.  Hey, there's actually a car behind me.

Above center:  An immense dry lake at a rest stop.  The flies here really ate me up.  Unfortunately, I ate a few of them up, too.

Above right:  Glendambo has a population of two million bush flies.  I believe it.

The Cave Men of Coober Pedy

I got back on the Stuart Highway heading north and after 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," rhymes with "seedy") 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.

 

Above:  Beautiful downtown Coober Pedy, South Australia.  Population 3,000.

There's only one reason why 3,000 people would willingly choose to live in this God-forsaken place:  opals.  About 90 percent of the world's opals are mined in and around Coober Pedy.  Opal mining draws in people 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, and some of those folks wander about trying to sell opals to gullible-looking tourists (like me, apparently).  The streets are hot and dusty with mongrel dogs running about.  Aborigines sit all day in what little shade is available, sometimes smiling, sometimes cursing, and sometimes throwing empty beer bottles against the walls.

 

Before coming to Australia, I'd read in my guidebook that many folks in Coober Pedy lived underground due to the oppressive heat here.  In fact, I'd read that you can even stay in an underground motel room in Coober Pedy.  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 into 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.

 

The poshest motel in Coober Pedy 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 with 12"-thick adobe walls.  It was very well insulated and very comfortable -- and very unique.  And the staff is great.

 

With 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.  Like Key West, Florida, it's a place that 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.

 

       

Above left:  Hutchison Street, the main street in Coober Pedy.

Above center:  Underground Books, a great bookstore.  And yes, it really is underground.

Above right:  Here's a typical two-bedroom house in Coober Pedy.  Talk about a low-maintenance yard.  And best of all, the roof never need to be replaced.  Hopefully, at least.

 

       

Above left:  Digging for opals near town.

Above center:  A typical scene on the outskirts of town.  There are miles and miles of these piles.

Above right:  The Coober Pedy golf course.  Remember to replace your divots.

 

       

Above left:  The Catacomb Church.  No bats in the belfry, here, I'm sure.

Above center:  The church is a nice, cool place to spend a Sunday morning, even if you're an atheist.

Above right:  The "Dog Fence" runs completely across Australia, from north to south.  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 local volunteers throughout the country.

 

       

Above left:  I spent three nights here at the Mud Hut Motel, a nice adobe motel with walls that are 12 inches thick to keep out the heat.  Despite its name, I'd recommend this place to anyone visiting Coober Pedy.

Above center:  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.

Above right:  Many telephone poles in the Outback are made out of iron and concrete, not wood.  It's an interesting adaptation to this desert environment.

John's Incredible Outback Mail Run

For being such a bleak, little 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.

 

We all met at the Underground Bookstore at 9 a.m. and clambered into the four-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.  

 

Above:  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 Matilda.”

After leaving Coober Pedy, we drove on a dirt road for about three hours across the most featureless place I've ever seen, quite possibly the driest place in Australia.  They call this area the "Moon Plains" and the closest thing I've seen to it are the photos from the surface of Mars:  no trees, no bushes, and no grass.  Just rock, dirt, and sand.  It's 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 a windmill.

 

Around noon, we stopped in Oodnadatta, a mostly-aboriginal community of about 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," which was a big disappointment) but also because, up until about 1930, it was the northern terminus of the Ghan railway.  From here, supplies were transferred off of railroads and onto camel trains, which continued northward to places like Alice Springs.

 

We spent about an hour in Oodnadatta, mostly at the Pink Roadhouse, certainly Oodnadatta's most visible landmark.  While I was on the mail truck ride to Oodnadatta, I had met a friendly, retired fellow from England 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, had seen every one of Johnny Depp's movies.

 

A few minutes into our conversation about Edward Scissorshands, I heard a loud "CRASH" and the entire roadhouse shook.  Startled, 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.  Life in the Outback is never dull.

 

       

Above left:  Crossing one of the many streams during our trip.

Above center:  Inside the hot, bouncy truck.

Above right:  After driving for three hours, we reached Oodnadatta at noon and had lunch here at the Pink Roadhouse.  Just about everything here is pink, the owner's favorite color.

 

       

Above left:  John dropping off the bi-weekly mail.  And that's the owner of the Pink Roadhouse -- dressed in pink, of course.

Above center:  Inside the very exclusive Pink Roadhouse (reservations recommended).  I had an Oodnadatta Burger for lunch.  It was truly unforgettable.

Above right:  Here's the inside of the Pink Roadhouse after the car crashed into it.  Note the cracked beam and broken wall.  Yep, just a typical day in Oodnadatta...

 

After 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.  The mail delivery, I'm sure, is the high point of the week for these folks.

 

Above:  A hunky dude (?) somewhere on the Oodnadatta Track.

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.  I walked into the pub, which was like something out of Crocodile Dundee, and had a beer with the locals.  It was really hot outside and after riding around all day in a somewhat air-conditioned mail truck, that beer tasted really good.  And I mean REALLY good.

 

We all piled back into the mail truck and headed west.  Our last stop for the day, late in the afternoon, was at the Anna Creek Ranch, the largest cattle ranch not just in Australia but in the entire 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.

 

We all got back into the truck and continued on, returning to Coober Pedy around sunset.  I thought about the Mail Truck run as I walked back to my 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. 

 

John's Mail Truck run was a fascinating experience and I heartily recommend it to anyone traveling through Coober Pedy who wants to better understand the desolation of the Outback.  I guarantee that you won't be disappointed.  But if you eat a burger at the Oodnadatta Pink Roadhouse, don't sit near the wall.

 

       

Above left:  Another stop.  These folks live 60 miles from their nearest neighbor.  As much as I love quiet, remote places, I don't think I could handle living out here.

Above center:  Downtown William Creek, population 2.  That's the hotel on the left, the only building in town.

Above right:  The very exclusive William Creek Hotel.  The doorman was a border collie.

 

   

Above left:  A fun-to-read "mudmap."

Above right:  I got a beer in the pub before our long drive back to Coober Pedy.  A nice, cold beer.

 

       

Above left:  That's my English friend, John (in white), scarfing down a meat pie in the pub.

Above center:   It costs only US $2.50 to play 9 holes at the posh William Creek Golf Club.  Proper attire required, of course.

Above right:  Road sign on the Oodnadatta Track.  Only 120 miles back to Coober Pedy!

 


 

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