So many international travellers say, “Oh yeah, I’ve been to Australia — flew into Sydney, hired a car and drove up the east coast — I’ve seen it.”
I live here in Australia, in that nice warm state called Queensland where the sun shines a lot, the coastline is undoubtedly beautiful, the ocean is clean and some days, an exquisite shade of aqua. I have also been privileged enough to have travelled all the way “around” the edges of this great land mass. I’d thought I’d seen most of what my own country has to offer, but I was wrong. All these years I’d travelled to so many places, but I had never ventured into the middle of Australia.
This year I was offered a three-week contract as “camp cook” for an Outback Camping Expedition with Wilderness Agencies. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, so I packed my bag, jumped into the huge green International ex-military truck and we lumbered off towards the Red Centre. What I found when we got there was pretty special!
The journey begins
We left the North Queensland coastline heading westwards to Longreach. Onwards to Bedourie, we picked our way through hundreds of kangaroo carcasses in various stages of decay, strewn along the road. The stench of rotting flesh wafted into the truck as a winter sun beat down with a fierceness that is undeniably ‘Queensland’. It’s nearly another 2000 kilometres to Alice Springs so we stopped each night to camp under a black velvet quilt scattered with sparkling stars. The temperature drops dramatically at night, to almost freezing.
Once we were away from poor, dry old drought-stricken Western Queensland, the landscape started to get redder and redder and the sunsets more and more sensational. Driving into Alice Springs was like coming home for me. If I’d have gone out there 20 years ago, I would never have left — I loved it. We were to stay in the campgrounds for a few days prior to heading ‘bush’. It was pure joy!
Alice Springs epitomises Australia. It was like seeing Australia’s multiculturalism in action. These were my first impressions: Alice Springs has a very unique character and the charm of a big old country town. It has a sort of untamed feel about it. It’s cultural; Australian culture that is, unlike Sydney which is all concrete structure, steel and influenced by the “old pommie convict” days.
The locals here are both black and white and all the colours in between. It’s a richly diverse ethnic population. I was lucky enough to catch a Saturday Todd Mall Market, which I can now guarantee will charm your every sense. It certainly enchanted mine… all those delicious food smells, tasting fresh dates, eating a real Vietnamese paw paw salad with very hot, eye-watering chilli, seeing all the incredible, colourful, hand-made goods, watching the indigenous folks creating their artwork. It’s got a real grassroots feel.
Next day, I had a free day and wandered off to find the National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame to donate my recently published book, “Russian Documents… Mongolian Dust.” I was impressed by the displays and information that was there about all those fabulous women, who paved the way for us latecomers. It somehow seemed appropriate to be situated in the ‘Old Gaol’ complex!
Once we left Alice, we began to see some of the awesome wild places within the centre of Australia. Even after seeing a lifetime of photos in magazines and coffee-table photographic pictorials, nothing prepared me for the spectacular scenery, her extreme beauty. This country is bloody incredible.
We camped by Chambers Pillar, huge multicoloured rock pillars in every tone of red and orange you can imagine. The colours on the rocks intensified and continually changed, ever so subtly, as the reddish, golden sun slid down to the horizon like a bulging, soft egg yolk. I spent almost all of my time in the afternoons racing between my camera and the camp ovens. Trying to feed eighteen people and wanting to fully enjoy the Central Australia experience kept me pretty busy during all my waking hours.
Driving for a few hours each day then camping, we made our way towards the East and West MacDonnell Ranges. The entire area surrounding the ranges was an enchanting sight to behold. Primordial, massive ancient mountains contrasting against the brilliant sapphire winter sky. So much colour everywhere! It’s an artist’s paradise.
We were able to drive a long way into Ruby Gap as we were in ex-army international trucks and those things go anywhere! Ruby Gap was so named because of all the red stones lying in the riverbeds… some folks a long time ago came hurrying in, thinking that their greedy eyes were seeing gleaming red rubies. Alas they were garnets and though nowhere near as valuable, they still look absolutely gorgeous as large patches of them glisten in the sun. I found myself on my hands and knees on more than one occasion, sifting through the tiny stones.
Once the camp was set up I walked the five or so kilometres into the gorge in the hope of finding some water to have a dip. Huge rugged cliffs rise thirty metres up on either side of the gorge, all the way along the dry sandy riverbed. The deepest reds and oranges of the cliffs contrast crisply against a deep blue sky. In the silence, my bare feet crunched noisily against the white riverbed sand. Every so often there was a splash of thousands of brilliant glittery garnets, weaving waves of shimmering red lights across my path. I dropped to my knees like a child, to search for that ever-elusive, special stone.
I saw water up ahead, in the form of picturesque rock pools tucked up against the sheer drop of cliff face. The sun had long finished laying her warm fingers into the water and it’s like melted ice. Working up the courage, I leaped in, amidst loud squeals. Totally refreshed, I walked back in time to stoke up the cooking fires and get dinner going: lamb roast tonight.
Dingoes howled that night sending their echoes through this ancient place. In the early hours of the morning a shy dingo bitch ventured within metres of my tent, sniffing my human scent.
I wanted the truck and its passengers to leave me behind. I wanted to stay here for the rest of the winter so I could immerse myself in this sacred place. But I had a job to do and many hungry mouths to feed.
I reluctantly climbed up into the truck after our ritual morning pack up and we rambled slowly back out of the space which had opened to let us in — for a blink of an eye. Two nights at Ruby Gap was not enough for me! It’s now in my mental travel book to go back and take time to sit in her silence.
I don’t believe that I had ever really seen Australia until I travelled to the middle of it. The coastline of Australia almost pales before the extreme magnificence of the ancient Red Centre.
Go see it!