10.01.2011 - 14.01.2011 43 °C
So we hit the road again the very morning after I came home from Tasmania. In fact, we only got home to sleep for a few hours before we left very early the next morning to catch the bus to Adelaide. When we got to the station at the other side of the city however, the man at the front desk informed us that the bus was full. We could not believe it! I know what the Swedes think: that we should have checked availability before, or that we could just wait an hour for the next bus or use another company, no big deal. Well, this is Australia and between two of the country's largest cities there are only two buses a day. One at 8 am and the other at 8 pm. And did I mention that the ride is 10(!) hours long? Just like in the US, the buses are never full as everyone has a car, but Dana had actually called the company before we left the house. So, we would be 12 hours delayed, have another destroyed night (as this bus would fill up as well) and we had only slept for a few hours. We were not happy!
When we arrived with the night bus in Adelaide the next morning, we were at first confused, until we realized that there's a half an hour time difference between Victoria and South Australia; seriously, half an hour, what kind of time difference is that? Why not have 46 minutes difference in that case? A few days later, when we entered Northern Territory, we subsequently had the same problem. I knew that there was a time difference. Dana knew in which direction, but would it be a reasonable further half an hour, to make it an even hour behind Melbourne? Or would it be an hour, which would make it a ridiculous 1,5 hours behind Melbourne. You guess! It was of course the silly alternative. The only good ting about that was that we got an hour extra, which made us able to take a quick swim in the camp's swimming pool AND get a cold drink before both facilities pub closed for the evening.
To help you to make some sense of the coming story, let me give you the wider itinerary and circumstances of our trip. Dana and I had found ourselves two other people to travel with. One was a friend of a friend, and the other one a couch surfer whom we had only met a few times before. We all met up in Adelaide and rented a car for 8 days to be dropped of in Alice Springs. Between Adelaide and Alice it's 1'500 km if you drive directly, but including all the sights we drove 3'000 km. Besides the first few hours drive up to Port Augusta, which is whine country, it's all dessert and far in between the stops. A fair bit is Aboriginal land where you can't divert from the highway or stop without a permit. For my American friends: an Australian highway is not like the American highways where it can be crowded despite their eight lanes (or is that only along the coasts?). An Australian highway has got two lanes, one in each direction, unless it's in a major city, and no divider in between them. There's basically no shoulder (vägren), and no traffic either. On this particular highway you should avoid driving at night as basically all desert animals are nocturnal and you don't want to hit an eagle or a kangaroo!
The desert didn't really look like any of us would have expected it to. I only have the deserts of South Western US to compare with, but to me this was way too green. There were basically no trees or any shade as far as you could see and just the same scrubby landscape in every direction until the horizon. However, the ground was not bare; the red or dark yellow sand was intrerpunctuated by low bushes or patches of high dry and spiky grass, I don’t know how to best describe it. Close up it really did look like a desert, but from a distance all the shrub melted together and formed a yellow bush landscape that hid the sand from view.
We got delayed from Adelaide and didn't reach Coober Pedy the first night as we had planned. Instead we camped at a parking lot in a “town” of thirty inhabitants. We got there really late and couldn't find any legal camping spot so I walked up to a lonely police car, the first car we had seen in an hour or so, batted my eyelids and asked where we could camp. The kind police told me that it didn't matter too much, anywhere would be fine “oh”, he said “we are pretty relaxed up here”. That's how we came to camp virtually under a sign saying “No camping - fines apply”.
Some people who have heard about our trip have had the impression that we were doing this whole trip just to see Uluru (Ayers Rock), but if that would have been the only reason I would have flown there. No, for me the actual trip was important and also: I really wanted to see Coober Pedy. We reached it the next day around lunch time. This place might be the oddest human habitation center on earth. The town is built in the middle of nowhere, not close to any natural water source as far as I know, and with a most horrific climate. Temperatures can rise to almost 50 degrees in the summer while the winter nights can get freezing. Still there is a town there and it's all due to opals. Coober Pedy is the worlds largest producer of opals. People came here in the early 19th century (1800-talet) to dig for opals and the whole landscape around the town has been turned into a moon landscape with random holes and piles of rubble. Everyone in Coober Pedy has several jobs; the postman is also the guide at the local opal museum and digs for opals on his spare time etc.. The local photo and souvenir shop had a corner where the owner and his friends cleaned the opals that they had found on their lot. The reason why I wanted to see Coober Pedy however, was not the opals. I wanted to see it because of its buildings; it is so insanely hot in summer and cold in winter that the first settlers had to figure out a way to deal with it. They started to build their houses underground, first using old opal mines and extending them to make a room, later they started digging whole apartments. The underground houses are naturally at a pleasant 27 degrees all year round and people still live in them today. Even the churches are underground!
We didn't stay for too long in Coober Pedy, it was really hot and as it was out of season for tourists some of the attractions I had been looking forward to, such as being able to see a real house that someone lives in, were closed. Still we saw enough to wonder if opals were really worth it. We drove on towards Erldunda, a roadhouse in the intersection between the Stuart highway, the one we drove on, and the road leading to Uluru. Even with air conditioning in the car the drive was very long and very hot so when we realized that Erldunda had a swimming pool, we were in seventh heaven. The following day we drove to Uluru and at the worst heat of the day (45 °C/113 °F) we decided to hike around the whole of Uluru, some 10,5 km or so. We brought loads of water but still realized that it was a bad idea. The sun was blazing and despite all the bushes there's no shade anywhere. On the bright side it gave us a good idea of how hot and unforgiving the desert can be. Uluru got a lot better when we drove up to a lookout point to see the sunset and while waiting for it under a roof we got out our camping stove and made dinner. I have never had such a view while eating indecently hot camping food. Neither has couscous and canned chili ever tasted as well in 45 degrees heat.
Talking about food, we survived the trip on different ready made dishes as we couldn't bring anything fresh. All food had to be able to stand 40+ degrees for an extended amount of time so it was noodles with canned veggies, canned stag stew etc. One afternoon when on the way when we stopped for dinner at the South Australian-Northern Territory border to boil some water for our instant rice dish, we started talking to a group of Frenchies in a van (one of the girls was beautiful), the only other people there . They were out on the same kind of trip as we and were also making dinner. They had lit a fire in and were now barbecuing meat and boiling something. From the van they got out what I believe was crackers and cheese to have as an aperitif. Before they even turned their meat we had not only finished cooking our food, but eaten and were doing the dishes. We were in and out “like real Americans”, as our American travel mate said. As we jumped into the car we looked longingly at the french group's camper van and sighed “ah if only we had cooling possibilities...”
As I'm writing about this lack of fresh food I am back in Melbourne and the first thing we did, after taking a desperately needed shower, was to buy a full load of fresh food. So as I’m recalling the appalling food situation in the desert I am gluttonizing (frossar) on fruits of all kinds.
The Observation ow the week:
According to Dana Uluru is like an iceberg. What we see above ground is only a little bit of the harder stone that comprise Uluru, under a cover of packed sand. As wind and weather tears on the sound Uluru gets "dug up" of the ground and in a few thousand years the monolith will be higher.
For Coober Pedy, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coober_Pedy