Sunday, 9 May 2010

Stuck in a desert...because of rain

After getting back from UK/Laos/Thailand/Singapore it was unfortunately time to do some work. Apparently that’s what EY brought me here to do…they should have said. But after 4 months or so of work it was time to hit the road again and spend a couple of weeks catching up with some relatives before checking out what the outback had to offer.

So after getting up at 6am to watch England unfortunately but not surprisingly get stuffed by the Aussies at Rugby League I caught a flight to Adelaide. Back in the day - sometime in the sixties - one of my Mum’s sisters emigrated to Australia as a £10 pom. Outrageous really, the Aussies should be paying for the privilege of having us. But anyway…

They met me at the airport and despite not having seen me for 15 years or more, they spotted me straight away. That being said I have been this tall since I was about 12 so I don’t think I’m too difficult to spot. So spent the rest of the day chatting to them which was nice.

Next day I wandered around some of the coast near where they lived, namely Glenelg and Henley. Glenelg was supposed to have a shark museum but unfortunately they’d moved it somewhere else so I couldn’t go. Next day I wandered around central Adelaide and also failed to do the things I’d planned on doing there.

Due to a big concert at the cricket ground I couldn’t visit the Don Bradman exhibition as it was all shut off, and plan B of going to the Coopers brewery also fell through as the bus that I waited half an hour for wasn’t due for another hour and a half so I missed the tour. Doh. Must plan better next time. Visited a couple of museums and had a sleep in the Botanic Gardens instead.

Adelaide was nice enough but a day in the centre is enough. It’s a fairly small place compared to Sydney, and if the ads on TV are anything to go by, a few years behind. They are all looked like at best they’d been done in powerpoint, or at worst with coloured paper, scissors and glue. Sydney is hardly the leader of the western world either and in fairness to Adelaide it doesn’t seem to have the same mullet problem that parts of Sydney do. But the various stages of development or lack of in Australia is a conversation for another time.

So on the Wednesday morning I joined a backpacker bus tour which went from Adelaide to Alice Springs over 8 days via some of the outback. There were only 4 of us on the tour but they were a nice bunch - me, an English chap called Geoff and a Swiss couple, Olivia and Claudio plus Chris the driver and guide.

We immediately headed out of Adelaide through the Clare Valley wine region and stopped for lunch in Hawker , a small town on the edge of the Flinders Ranges. The great thing about Aussie towns is that it doesn’t matter how big they are, they will have at least one pub. Hawker didn’t seem especially big and it had two, one of which we duly tested out.

Adelaide was over 40 degrees that day but it was getting hotter where we were going. There was also a dust storm going on in Hawker. When one happened in Sydney a few weeks before, you could be forgiven for thinking the world was ending, with the news telling people to stay indoors etc. Its pretty normal in the outback apparently and people just get on with things. Man up Sydney!

We stopped off in a few places that afternoon to see what wildlife was around but other than some emus and kangaroos hiding from the sun under trees the only thing we found was flies…thousands of them…trying to get in your eyes, ears, mouth, nose. And apparently they were supposed to get worse as you go north. As the tour guide said “the flies make everything that much more enjoyable.”

That night we stayed in Wilpena Pound, a picturesque place in the Flinders Ranges. We slept under the stars in swags, which are like sleeping bags but are made of canvas so are waterproof and contain a foam mattress type thing. Very comfortable. Morning came when the flies reappeared.

We went for a walk although we couldn’t get the best views because that walk was closed due to fire risk. It wasn’t actually on fire, but everywhere was so dry and it was so hot that a if a fire went through you’d have a bit of a problem if you were stuck on the high ground.

After sharing lunch with a kangaroo we moved out. Again we stopped to try to find some wildlife, and we saw some rock wallabies. We then stopped in Blinman which is an old copper mining town. In this sort of heat its obviously important to stay hydrated so we went to the pub, the Blinman Hotel. A point that this blog entry will come back to is that outback pubs are the best in the world because they are so friendly. The ‘locals’ probably live somewhere within a 100km radius (i.e. just over the back fence) so the landlords seem pretty happy to see anyone. So we relieved our thirst and chatted about nothing in particular with the landlord.

That night we stayed in Angorichina. We had a barbeque and the kangaroo was some of the best meat I’ve ever eaten, very tender and tasty. We were in bunkhouse accommodation at the place that was the local shop, petrol station, and hotel. Dave the chap who run the place was also the mayor, postman, fire warden and provided a transport service to local towns. In these small towns, a certain amount of multi-tasking is required!

One of the many things that Dave sells is fly nets and he was trying to sell me one. Of course he was doing me a favour as they get more expensive the further you go north where you need them more, and you can catch just about every disease from flies too…apparently. His sales pitch was quite impressive but I decided that I would just deal with the flies. It was clear that flies neither understand being asked nicely to go away nor do they understand swearing, so the best bet is to just not them get to you. If you let them get to you, you would go insane, as evidenced by some scouser (yep, they’re everywhere) in Wilpena Pound who was shouting and waving his arms around. The flies didn’t care, although perhaps they just couldn’t understand his accent.

Next morning we hired some bikes from Dave (yep, he does that too) and cycled a picturesque and almost exclusively downhill route through Parachilna gorge. From there we abandoned the bikes - Dave would drive to collect them later - and headed on to Leigh Creek via the Prairie Hotel which has been used for lots of films. More crucially though it sold "Bloody Hot Ring Burner" flavoured jerky, so it would have been rude not to invest in a packet. In Leigh Creek we visited Talc Alf, a chap who does sculptures using talc. He wasn’t in but you can still look at all his art.

After this we went off road on the Oodnadatta track. Back in the day the Ghan railway which connected Adelaide and Darwin ran here and this track serviced the towns that serviced the railway line. The railway was later moved 200km or so west and the last train was in 1980 (so still more on time than British Rail) but the towns are still there albeit with fewer people. So we had lunch in Maree where there are various relics of the railway.

In the afternoon we headed on dirt roads on to William Creek, where the flies were supposed to be pretty bad. On route there was a big sculpture park stuck in the middle of nowhere with various things made of mostly scrap metal. Very outback apparently to just have stuff like this randomly.

We stayed at William Creek that night which is 200km from…err…anywhere. It has 3 people living there and is South Australia‘s smallest town. Of course it has a pub - where after all is the one person who doesn’t work in the pub going to drink? - so we didn’t go thirsty that night. We slept in outdoors in swags again that night, albeit under a roof in the camp site. Lucky too because it hammered down with rain all night. It was great fun going to the toilet (i.e. the nearest hedge) in the middle of night and getting soaked.

Next morning it was still raining and because we were travelling on dirt tracks which obviously turn to mud when it rains, we were going nowhere even though we should have been leaving - getting a bus and trailer through wasn’t going to happen.
When it rains South Oz transport close the roads as if anybody drives on dirt roads when they’re wet, it costs a small fortune to grade them. Anyone caught driving on them is fined $2,000...per tyre…including spares so there is a big incentive not to. Road closures are controlled by electronic boards although they take a while to update. Roads go from open to open to 4WD drives only to closed, and soon after lunch they were all closed, so we were properly stuck. There was us, some bogans (chavs) who were on their way back from the Pearl Jam concert, and to quote Bruce the pub landlord “some weirdo from Kalgoorlie.”

There wasn’t much to do but go for walks in no particular direction and back, and of course drink. Luckily the pub was well stocked!

The rain stopped occasionally but rarely for long. It was easy to forget that we were actually in a desert, and it wouldn’t be unusual for there to be no rain in a year round here. There are figures ranging from 10mm to 100mm on the internet for annual rainfall in William Creek but in less than 24 hours 40mm came down, and this was big news. The guy who doesn’t run the pub runs a scenic flights company and Channel 7, a national TV station, had radioed asking for pictures and videos of the rain. So we would have been on TV (kind of) had the storm not caused the generator to short out (there is no mains power). Mercifully the pub generator was ok so the beers stayed cold.

Early evening after a big storm, the sky suddenly cleared and we were left with a pretty spectacular sunset. That night Bruce the pub landlord took pity on us and gave us rooms to sleep in which was better than sleeping in a big puddle. He was making a small fortune from the amount we were spending at the bar though so we were all doing ok.

Next day the roads were still closed and it wasn’t looking too good for getting back on the road. Somewhat rudely rainwater has no respect for roads, so creeks, while dry for almost all the year do run across roads, and Breakfast Time creek a few hundred yards down the road was pretty full, and we weren’t getting through anything like that. The signs remained closed and most of the day was spent wandering in different directions to the previous day, and hanging out in the pub.

We did however make it onto national radio after the aborted attempt to get on TV the previous day. The pilot was interviewed on ABC Radio, the Aussie equivalent of the BBC. Scroll to bottom of link!

The runway the scenic flights take off from had dried out enough to get a plane up and with ground transport not possible, various people were asking the pilot to see how things looked. So in the afternoon we did a scenic flight which we were supposed to do the previous day. We flew over Lake Eyre which is the largest salt plain in the world and it was pretty impressive. It was also pretty rare to see it with so much water in it.

The flight was extended to go look for some drillers. BHP Billiton had a load of people out drilling somewhere and they wanted to know what the chances were of getting them out, otherwise they’d send a chopper. So we had to go find them, then assess the roads. We found them and like us, they weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.

That night we thought we‘d go to the pub for a change and after a while some new people turned up. William Creek is pretty much surrounded by Anna Creek cattle station, which is the biggest Cattle station in the world - it’s the size of Belgium! Anyway, the chap who runs it, Bobby, and one of the guys who works with him came. The house they lived in was only 8km up the road.

Bobby quite liked my evolution of man t-shirt and we ended up swapping so I now have an Anna Creek shirt. How he managed to drive home given the state he was in is anyone’s guess but there was zero chance of meeting any other traffic or police!

Still no change the next day - roads still closed - but after some sun and wind the previous day and no more rain we were optimistic. Did some more wandering around that morning but around lunchtime all the roads had suddenly re-opened, so we loaded the stuff and in minutes we were on our way.

It was a really fun few days and actually quite exciting. Its not every day you are stuck in a desert because of rain! And to be stuck in a town with a population of 3 that has a pub made it all the more bizarre. We were lucky though as when we arrived we had almost headed an hour up the road to camp by a lake. If we had got stuck there we wouldn’t have died or anything but it would have been pretty uncomfortable and we would almost certainly have ran out of the beers we had in the bus.

The experience also achieved a personal ambition for me to be on first name terms with a pub landlord and be able to run a tab! Bruce - by the way shouldn’t it be the law that all Australian barmen are called Bruce? - and his helper Edwina were a really good laugh, great hosts and very generous giving us rooms for free. So if you’re ever in the area, make sure you drop in!

But two and a half days after we were supposed to leave we did. There was the odd puddle and the road was a bit soggy but it was ok…for 120km. Then we hit a bit of road that wasn’t there any more. The creek still running through it had washed it away. We stopped to inspect the problem but with a few minutes with some shovels patching up the road, we thought it was passable, and with a run up and everyone out the van it was. And off we went again.

But soon we came across another wash out. We were able to walk through it and we got the bus through but there was a trail of broken plastic and some fluid leaking out from the engine - we’d broke the radiator and had no way of cooling the engine. We had plenty of water and we rigged up a funnel to pour water into the engine from the cab, but we still had to stop every few minutes for the engine to cool down. We made it another 10km before we gave up.

So we were now properly stuck in the desert…and there was no pub this time. We were 70km from the nearest town, Cooper Pedy, there was no mobile phone reception, and we’d used most of the water cooling the engine. But all this doesn’t matter when you have a satellite phone! So Chris called base and they arranged for someone to pick us up and a breakdown truck to fetch the bus. The bus would be mended overnight and we’d be on our way next morning.

So there was nothing for us to do but get some beers from the eski (Australian for coolbox) and relax and wait for the rescue party to arrive. A few beers and a couple of hours later, Nick the Greek (I kid you not) who runs the pizza shop in Cooper Pedy arrived in his 4WD and we were on our way again.

It became pretty clear that the roads must have reopened in error - a technical fault with the signs, who knows - because the roads were not passable for normal vehicles and barely for 4WD’s in places. We hit numerous wash outs and we would never have got the bus through. All the road signs read “Closed” when we got to Coober Pedy too. So while we had lost the bus, we were lucky to make it out of William Creek as we obviously should have been stuck there longer.

The police wouldn’t let the breakdown truck through to get the bus, so we’d lost that. Nick would have driven on the roads when they were closed, but as he’s a local he would have assumed the signs didn’t apply to him. So we were without transport as luck had it the tour company had another tour going through Coober Pedy that was doing the same route as us from this point, and they had room for us so we’d join them.

Amid all this excitement Coober Pedy was back on the tour itinerary. It is a major opal mining town and does very little else. So we did the mine tour although we didn’t have time to ‘noodle’ for opals ourselves. We also went to someone’s house who looks after baby kangaroos who’s mum’s have been hit by cars and killed - the joeys often survive and people rescue them from the pouches. And of course we had a pizza at Nick the Greek’s place.

There are lots of disused opal mines there but they are put to good use as people live convert them into houses and live in them. We stayed underground and the pub we went to was underground too. Why not! Especially when its cool down there and often 40 plus degrees outside.

So we were a couple of days behind and we’d lost the bus, but we were still going and from now on it was tarmac roads so there was a limit to what could go wrong. Boo, boring! And it actually was a bit. We had a full day on the bus on tarmac roads and after the excitement of being stuck and not knowing when we’d get out it was something of an anticlimax.

We were heading to Ayres Rock and in the morning we stopped in Marla which is where the northernmost bit of the Oodnadatta track starts. I had a quick wander to check the road signs and sure enough all main tracks were closed. The only one that was open didn’t really go anywhere. We should still have been drinking in the William Creek hotel!

On the way we saw the dog fence, a fence stretching across the country to stop dingo’s coming south and upsetting the farmers. When we arrived we watched the sunset at Ayres Rock.

There were lots of tours at Ayres Rock and word had got around about our little adventure and Chris was a minor celebrity. Pretty much every tour guide wanted something like that to happen to them. They do the same routes constantly so something a bit different happening must be quite exciting. But it also makes you realise that you have witnessed something that not many people do and that many would like to witness. Seeing a desert under water is rare although its difficult to appreciate when you’ve never seen it without water

After having a go on a didgeridoo around the camp fire (I was rubbish) we slept in swags and almost froze as it dropped down pretty chilly. Next day we watched the sunrise and walked around Ayres Rock, and went to the Olgas, some other rock formations near Ayres Rock. Ayres Rock was ok, and looks pretty impressive when you approach as it is a huge rock just sticking out of otherwise flat ground, but ultimately it was just a big rock and once you’ve seen it the novelty soon wears off.

Had we not fallen behind schedule we would have spent two days here which would have been overkill so things were working out nicely, although we did lose Claudio and Olivia as they had to get to Alice Springs for their flight.

That night we were in swags again, this time near Kings Canyon. Saw a dingo too as it wandered through our camp site. Next day we went for a walk through Kings Canyon, which was pretty spectacular. After that we hit the road and headed for Alice Springs, our final destination, where we arrived early evening. We had lost the bus, half the tour group and were a day late, but we had made it to the end and hadn’t really missed out on doing anything.

It was a good trip anyway but what happened unexpectedly made it even better. There are lots of similar trips that go from Adelaide to Alice via the Stuart Highway (tarmac), but its definitely more interesting going via the dirt roads. More interesting towns and lots of interesting people too.

One of the things you notice is the sense of community. Even though people’s neighbours are several kilometres away, there is more of a sense of community than in cities where your neighbours front door is just a few feet away. By way of example when the roads became unpassable, Bruce was on the phone to the pubs in the nearest towns that night to see who was heading for William Creek, because if anyone was, they didn’t make it! The Police were duly informed.

I had a couple of days in Alice Springs before I had to head home, so visited some of the sites. Went to the School of the Air, where school lessons are broadcast to kids who live in the middle of nowhere and can’t get to schools. Then walked to the old telegraph station which vital for communications from outside Australia back in the day. Then walked back to town along the river; Alice Springs has an annual boat race, but if there is water in the river it is cancelled! The river is dry most of the time and the boats have no bottoms as people run with them! Also went to the Royal Flying Doctors Service and a reptile centre.

Next day I was up at 3.30 to go for a hot air balloon ride. It has to be that early as otherwise it gets too windy. They see which way the wind is blowing and work out where take off and landing spots are on that line. Was really good. We were up there for the sunrise, and you could see kangaroos hopping around below.
Coming in to land, it felt like we were close to power lines but it was all under control. All the pilot can do is control the height - there is no steering - so you just hope the wind doesn’t take you too far off the planned course. But it didn’t and we landed as planned. We bounced along a bit because of momentum and then we had to jump out in case it took off again! Was fun.
And that was it. It could have been a couple of weeks longer too, as the roads didn’t re-open to all vehicles until a week and a half after we got out! So whatever the reason for the roads re-opening allowing us to leave, we got lucky. While it was fun being stuck there for a couple of days, I think cabin fever would have set in if we were stuck for the thick end of two weeks, although in reality we probably would have flown out to Coober Pedy long before then. A good couple of weeks holiday and an unexpected adventure.