August 28, 2015

Outback 3 Uluru: butterflies at sunset

Unquestionably, Uluru should be on your must-see list, or among the hundred things you do before you die. Don't put it off: it's a long way; it'll be too hot or crowded or fly-blown; it's just a big rock. Get on it. I promise you will not be disappointed.

I struggle to describe Uluru. Returning, nearly 20 years after my initial, near-spiritual experience, I was just as impressed, awe-struck, and moved. The first time, as the plane prepared to land, I got butterflies in my tummy at first glance. In 2015, on day 7 of our Outback trip, I was impatient to see it again. We'd agreed we would stop and photograph the first sighting. There was an added bonus: you could get Kata Tjuta in the same frame. The colours, even at a distance, are striking.
We'd been up and away from Erldunda by 7, before sun-up. Our bathroom at the Desert Oaks Motel smelt of cabbage and was cold as a Pole. There was frost on the car. The speed limit was 110 on the Lasseter Highway but there was virtually no roadkill, as evidenced by seven Wedge-tailed Eagles sharing breakfast. 
We stopped for breakfast at Mt Connor lookout. Also known as Attila or Artilla, the 984-foot-high inselberg is part of the same large substrate as Kata Tjuta and Uluru, with which it is sometimes confused, despite having scree slopes. Mt Connor's summit is a remnant of a Cretaceous geomorphic surface that has been eroded, like the tops of its monolithic neighbours to the west. (For the geology of the area, see Outback 3 Uluru: the Base Walk.) We climbed a sand dune across the road from the lookout: if we hadn't, we would never have noticed the large salt pan on the other side.
No sign of a Rock yet on the western horizon
We didn't spot Uluru as soon as we'd expected because Mulga- and Spinifex-covered dune ridges rise 10-15 metres, and in places immature Desert Oaks are almost forest-like in abundance. There had been so much more vegetation than I'd expected all the way from the Alice.
Once we reached Yulara, I couldn't wait to get into the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Once you're up close to the Rock, there's a compulsion to photograph it from every angle and in every colourway.
Yulara is where you fly into (Connellan Airport) to visit Uluru and where you stay, 18 kilometres by road from the World Heritage listed Rock. There used to be motels and unmonitored development near the base of Uluru, but in 1973 the Commonwealth government decided to build a new resort outside the National Park. When this became operational in 1984, the area near the base of Uluru was rehabilitated. The resort complex has changed hands several times, but in 2011 was sold to the Indigenous Land Corporation. Since 1992 it has been run by Voyages Hotels & Resorts. I was pleased to see that the little town hadn't changed much since my last visit. Despite more accommodation options, it's still peaceful, spaced out and green. You can hardly see it until you get there.
We stayed in Emu Walk Apartments, part of the Desert Gardens Hotel, and fairly close to the 'town square'. The apartment blocks have been designed in sympathy with their desert setting, and our apartment was spacious and well furnished with a large comfortable bed and a fully equipped kitchen. The washing machine was useful a week into the trip.
We'd checked in before 11 but our room wasn't ready until 2. So we visited the information centre, which is more about booking organised tours than basic info. You can't buy a National Park entry pass, which is essential, but you can book a car rental, camel train, scenic helicopter flight, motorcycle tour, dinner beneath an outback sky or a sunrise tour. 

We browsed the Indigenous art markets in the town square lawn area, and we visited the new Wint Jiri Arts & Museum, opened in June. It features an 'artist in residence', other Anangu art and Indigenous design products. In addition, there's information on history, geology, fauna and flora of the region. I learned that in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park there are 416 species of native plants; 26 species of native mammal (another 20 have disappeared); 179 species of bird; 73 species of reptile; 4 species of frog; and hundreds of species of invertebrate, including 76 types of ant, 82 types of spider, 57 types of beetle, 27 types of bug, 20 types of cricket and grasshopper, 15 types of cockroaches, and 30 types of wasp, moth, butterfly and termite!

Once we'd got settled in our apartment, we headed for the National Park entrance, where we bought a three-day pass. We visited the Cultural Centre, which has also been constructed with minimum intrusion on the landscape. This was even better than I remember: there is a learning/information centre where for a few dollars I obtained a folder full of information sheets on subjects ranging from bush foods to habitat types, fire management, introduced species, and Handback (of land rights to the Anangu traditional owners in 1985). Having not found this level of detail in the resort information centre or the Wint Jiri Museum, I was delighted. Walking through the Tjukurpa Tunnel, with its desert voices, you can absorb the ancient laws and stories of the Anangu. There's an art shop, with some good stuff in it, and a cafe with another shop, both of which are worth missing.

The Pitjantjatjara are the Traditional Owners of this part of the Central Australian desert, but refer to themselves as Anangu. They are closely related to the Yankunytjatjara, another name you will come across. The land is inseparable from their identity. Anangu have their own seasons and more of them. They are distinguished by the nature of the wind or clouds; the plants that flower, seed and fruit; when reptiles come out of hibernation or disappear from the cold; when important food plants flourish. Habitats are recognised differently: puli are rocky areas, gorges and scree-like slopes; pila are Spinifex plains; tali are sand dunes; and puti open woodlands. At the Cultural Centre, Anangu welcome you to their place: to listen to the insects and birds; to look at and feel the land.

The Walkatjara Art shop is well worth some time, especially if you are looking to buy Aboriginal art and are concerned about its provenance. Desart (desart.com.au) was formed in 1991 to support Central Australian Aboriginal artists and their art centres, offering support services, marketing opportunities and advocacy. There are more than 40 art centres across the Northern Territory, Western Australian and South Australia, and Walkatjara is one of them. The profits from sales are returned directly to the artists. We bought a beautiful Mulga boomerang from the Cultural centre and a women's club, also made from Mulga, from Maruku Arts in the town square market.

We stayed at the Cultural Centre until it was time to get into position for sunset viewing, in an extended lay-by with a great vantage point. It was more than an hour before sundown, but my friend made a brew and we sorted ourselves out in readiness. There is something of a party atmosphere as the car park fills up with people from around the world. I chatted for a long time with a German couple who were 'doing' Australia in three weeks of honeymoon. This was their second consecutive sunset, and they pointed out colour changes to the sky at each side of the Rock, too. Many cameras were clicking furiously. 
In the end we were rushing back – in as far as that was possible as part of a queue from the sunset viewing to the Resort – for dinner at 7.15 in the Arnguli Grill at the Desert Gardens. We had what was a candidate for best meal of the trip, and were waited on by a charming and unobtrusively attentive young Frenchman who had just given in his notice. Arnguli's loss, indeed. The chef knew what he was doing, too. My salmon was accompanied by the best b├ęchamel sauce ever. Ever.

How wonderful it was to be here. And tomorrow we had the Base Walk to look forward to.



August 25, 2015

Outback 3 The Ghan

The Ghan claims to be one of Australia's Great Train Journeys, and there is little doubt about that. It's train travel old-style, with grand carriages, personal service, no rush and the no-guilt opportunity to sit and do nothing for far longer than usual. To leave the city for Alice Springs and the Red Centre was exciting enough, so to have Australia's tropical far north and Darwin as your destination must be even more so.

In 2006 we 'did' the Indian Pacific, in theory from Perth to Adelaide. I say 'in theory' because we missed the train in Perth and had to endure a nine-hour bus journey to catch it up at Kalgoorlie. Probably the less said about that mistake the better, but the experience meant that we were not surprised about The Ghan's leisurely pace, class system or cost.

I found watching the loading of the Landie on to a motorail carriage a tad disconcerting. It had been separated from its roof box, which lay forlornly in the loading car park for some time before it disappeared, hopefully into the luggage compartment. The box might have come a-cropper when the train passed under a bridge, you see: we'd had to empty it of heavy stuff such as the MaxTrax so it could travel as our checked-in luggage. This had taken some time to set up at the time of booking, but on the day was problem-free.

We weren't allowed to walk further along to see the locos.

The Ghan on this particular day consisted of 36 carriages and two locos: it was 850 metres long. Our section of the train – the rear end – sat on platform 1. We waited while the front half on platform 2 was collected by the locos and motorail carriages before hooking up with us. A problem with the motorail section caused a 35-minute delay before departure, which should have been at 12:15. It didn't take long before we were leaving the city behind. And having lunch.
My friend and I got very excited about these, a sight you don't see in our home state unfortunately. This is the Snowtown wind farm in the Barunga and Hummocks ranges, some 150 km north of Adelaide. It's Australia's second-largest wind farm and has 137 turbines standing on a north-south trending ridge right in the path of the prevailing westerlies.What a great site for a wind farm. We were envious.
We followed the train's progress on the iPad, which made identifying locations and landscape features much easier.

In 2006 and this time, we travelled Gold Service – otherwise you have to sleep in a reclinable seat and share bathroom facilities. Gold is expensive (see http://www.greatsouthernrail.com.au/fares_
and_timetables/ for current prices), but it provides a small private ensuite cabin (with bunks), all-inclusive wining and dining, and off-train excursions. The fare made the cost of transporting the car – $479 – seem cheap. The food in the Queen Adelaide restaurant is good. If there are only two of you, you have to share a table. You win some, you lose some. At lunchtime the conversation was stilted and I preferred to look out of the window; but at dinner I was happy to chat with Jean and Ted on topics ranging from habitat destruction to overpopulation.

There was a huge number of Grey-Nomad-age passengers; far more than I remember in 2006. It appears to be a popular thing to do to take an elderly parent on such a trip. A bit like a cruise, I guess. I mention this in case you have teenage children and are thinking of taking them on a Great Train Journey. There was only one such family on the train with us, and I felt sorry for their boys. They must have felt as if they were in a mobile home for the elderly. With happy hours potentially from pre-lunch until bedtime on the move, there was a high risk of those with impaired balance flying from one end of the lounge bar to the other.

On a big bend to the right, some time after 4, we finally got a glimpse of the locos. Soon after that, we came close to the Spencer Gulf, but not near enough for any decent shots. Although watching the landscape evolve was a particularly satisfying pastime, photography was a challenge. Some train windows were dirty and all are highly reflective; a rickety track combined with the speed of travel meant subjects weren't easy to centre; and I had to zoom in to reduce foreground movement blur. There was certainly no shortage of subject matter, however.
Port Pirie
Spencer Gulf
Mount Remarkable National Park (I think)
Port Augusta rail yards
North of Port Augusta, the train stopped. We sat, without any announcement, for 15-20 minutes. I asked a member of staff, who clearly didn't have a clue. She speculated that we might be waiting to pass a freight train, but I think we might have noticed that. Several minutes after we'd started moving, there came an explanation from our steward: the drivers were being changed, apparently, and that involves a 'protocol'. I bet it does, but for that long?

It was frustrating because the sun was setting fast, and dramatic landscapes ahead were going to be lost to view in the rapidly fading light. What may have been the Horseshoe Range was my last pic of the day. We got ready for pre-dinner drinks.
By the time we were ready for our bunks it was 10.30 pm. By now the train had turned west along the southern edge of the Woomera Prohibited Area and was about to turn sharp right at Tarcoola to head north straight through it. My friend was eager to follow the turn on the iPad, but the train had reduced speed in preparation for the manoeuvre and tiredness got the better of us. I didn't find the train's motion as sleep-inducing as I had anticipated. I don't remember it being so noisy and bumpy on the Indian Pacific. I awoke many times during the night, and suddenly at 4:30 am, when the train stopped abruptly. The next thing I knew our alarm was going off at 6, ready for sunrise over the desert.

Sleepy people stepped down into the cold mulga scrub. Southern Rail's organisation was impressive: their staff had been up since 5. There were hot drinks and bacon-and-egg sliders. Our path was lit and there were wood-burning braziers to gather round until sun-up. Except we are antisocial and preferred to explore. We tried once again to reach the locos, but were stopped by a man for health and safety reasons. We got close enough to make sure the car was still there.
Gold Service
And then the sun rose over Marla. (We were still in South Australia.)
Breakfast/brunch was served until midday for the benefit of those disembarking at the Alice and those continuing to Darwin but touring Alice's Desert Park. We enjoyed breakfast at about 9 and then settled down to watch an ever-changing desert landscape. We crossed the border into Northern Territory at 10.30. Oddly, there was only a sign for South Australia. The  Northern Territory sign must have been on the other side of the train.
We saw little wildlife – only one or two birds. At one point there was pink soil on one side of the train and orange on the other. And then, with help from the steward, we spotted the Iron Man sculpture, built by railway workers to commemorate the millionth concrete sleeper laid on a new stretch of track between Tarcoola and the Alice. The old wooden sleepers had been ravaged by white ants and damaged by floods. Work was completed in 1980.
Desert Oaks appeared just before the Finke River, which looked as devoid of moisture as you would expect west of the Simpson Desert.
We had already been warned of a slight delay to our arrival in the Alice: 2 pm rather than 1:45. But at around one o'clock the train ground to a halt. A series of announcements brought worsening news: our ETA slipped to 2:30; 4:30; and then 5. There was a problem with one of the locomotives that meant it could travel no faster than 20 km/h. We were told this was only the second time in its history that The Ghan had broken down.

Decisions were needed. We could not drive most of the way from Alice to Mr Ebenezer, as planned, in the dark. We couldn't stay overnight in Alice, because we would lose a day at Uluru. So, as soon as we got a phone signal, half an hour or so before our arrival, we rearranged our accommodation so that we only had to get as far as Erldunda, at the junction of the Stuart and Lasseter highways.

The timing improved slightly as the train managed 30+ km/h a few times going downhill. A broken Ghan finally limped into the Alice at 3:45. We retrieved our box and car slightly faster than had been anticipated, and we were on the road by 4:50 pm. And good news: the speed limit in NT is 130km/h, which is far too fast but was useful on this occasion. The attractive up-and-downy landscape to either side of the Stuart Highway certainly flew by at that speed. We didn't have time to view the Henbury Meteorites impact craters 70 km before the Lasseter turn-off, as we would have liked, and it was almost dark for the last 30 km or so to Erldunda. Fortunately, there were few roos.

The origin of The Ghan's name is explained on a memorial on the platform where the train pulls in.
It says:
In 1878, work started on a planned 1800-mile railway between our southern and northern shores. Slowly the line pushed up from Port Augusta to Oodnadatta where it stopped for nearly 40 years. In that time camel trains run by hardy Afghans worked the country to Alice Springs, ferrying passengers and freight up from Oodnadatta. When the railway reached the Alice in 1929, the train became known affectionately as 'The Ghan'. The story of how it received this famous nickname will probably always remain in doubt. Throughout its long and valuable service, it has been variously known as the Afghan Express, the Afghan Special, the Royal Ghan and the Flash Ghan. However, each of the rival stories has one thing in common – the name derives from those hardy Afghans who ran the old-time camel communications network in the Australian Outback.