Wednesday, 20 July 2011

16,000 km Photo

Somewhere about a day’s ride before Coober Pedy we watched our 16,000th kilometre tick by on our bike computers. Coober Pedy is known to be Australia’s hottest place where temperatures reach over 50°C in summer and locals live in underground houses to beat the heat. When we arrived, the temperature was 8°C and the storm clouds were just waiting to burst.

16000km||

The Wet and Wintery “Arid Region”

Uluru – Coober Pedy

Leaving Yulara behind we set off one rainy morning to cycle towards Coober Pedy, some 740km away. To our delight, the winds had switched direction since we arrived and we had a tailwind again, this time pushing us eastwards and away from the still visible landmark of Uluru.

For weeks we had been hearing from other campers that the epicentre of the current mouse plague was around Erldunda, the area we were heading towards. Mice had already gnawed several holes into our panniers and we were tired of the additional hassle to make our camp mouse proof, so we devised a new strategy to get us through this area without any more damage: we would wild camp every night. We have found the mice in campsites much more aggressive as they are accustomed to eating camper’s foods, whereas the mice out in the bush are still curious but not as desperate to eat into our supplies.

The nights were very cold and we often found a layer of frost on our kit in the morning, making it quite uncomfortable to peel away the damp sleeping bag and take off three layers of merino wool and fleece to put our cycling clothes on. During breakfast, we waited for the sun to appear above the horizon, warming us up a little and thawing the ice on our gear. It is usually 9am by the time we wheel the bikes out from our hidden bush camp and back onto the road, much to the astonishment of passing traffic.

Sunset

After a couple of days cycling, the terrain flattened out, allowing an unimpeded view of the vast horizons. By our third day on the road the winds had turned again and, as usual, we were battling a relentless headwind. In the afternoon we reached Erldunda Roadhouse and the Stuart Highway. This was the end of our 1,000km detour taking in Kings Canyon and Uluru, and we were happy to finally make some progress south.

At Erldunda we paid for a shower at the campsite after chatting to some guys from New York doing a documentary on camels in the outback. We pushed on to find a bush camp a little further on. Patience was required until the fence retreated a little and we were able to duck behind a rise, only 10m from the road but well hidden from view. We woke up to find a beautiful peach coloured sunrise topped off with a double rainbow arching across the western sky.

Unfortunately the skies soon darkened and driving rain ensured lasting all day. At only 8°C this was a real slog and it seemed our tyres were glued to the tarmac, requiring a huge effort to keep them moving along.

Dark clouds

Passing the turnoff to a cattle station, we were amazed by the fact that the homestead was a full 60km beyond the entrance gate. The mailbox of course was located on the Stuart Highway, making life easier for the postman but requiring a 120km return trip for the residents to pick up their mail!

We camped just before the South Australian border and reached the rest area at the border the following morning. After spending nearly two months exploring the Northern Territory and its natural wonders we were excited to reach the next state. 

South Australian border

While cycling we saw many mice in the fields near the road as well as hundreds of dead mice flattened on the highway. As expected, the mice still came to visit us every night, climbing up on the tent, rustling around and pulling at our panniers, stealing our valuable sleep but not doing any real damage. The term “quiet as a mouse” really takes on a different meaning when you are kept up by them every night!

On our sixth day of cycling the wind finally died down and the sun came out, lifting our spirits. As we pedalled through the wide open spaces, the sun on our backs, tunes pumping from our Ipods and legs spinning effortlessly we could not think of a better place to be.

Marla Roadhouse had the benefit of a decent shop and a good campsite, giving us the opportunity for a rest day. Our day off was spent, as usual, with doing the laundry, some bike maintenance, restocking on food, eating a lot and blogging a little.

Leaving Marla, we were amazed by the unusual sight of flooded plains, offering a haven for birds following the recent rains.

Flooded desert

Another day of battling the winds saw us trudging along at 10km per hour, one eye on the road, the other on the bike computer impatiently watching the kilometres accumulate. Cycling at this snail’s pace made us acutely aware of the vast landscape we were trying to traverse. We were such tiny dots crawling along in this vast continent, making our endeavour to reach the southern coast seem almost impossible.

Filling up with water at a rest area, we met a lovely elderly couple, John and Gwen, who invited us into their caravan to eat hot minestrone soup and pancakes. They had just picked a beautiful bunch of wild flowers from near the rest area and were marvelling at the lush vegetation as they remembered this area from previous visits as being completely devoid of life.

Leaving the cosy caravan behind, we only travelled for a few more kilometres before we found a bush camp spot where the ground was covered in a carpet of tiny yellow, pink and blue wild flowers. Just as we enjoyed the blooming desert, so did the birds. Tiny finches nested in a nearby bush, a white owl and later a majestic eagle swept by, a flock of screeching cockatoos circled around our tent and several crows loudly commented on our activities from nearby mulga trees.

We had really hoped for some more warm weather before we reached the dreary southern winter, but in the morning, threatening grey clouds covered the skies again and another cold day ensued. Bundled up in fleeces, merino wool, windproof jackets and overshoes, gloves and hoods we pushed on. Being cold and tired never makes for happy moods and our tempers flared up over lunch, resulting in us cycling apart for the next 20km before we reunited our forces to beat our common enemy, the wind.

The landscape around Coober Pedy is famous for being harsh and barren, but the current cover of green makes it appear a little more gentle, with flat green and brown pastures stretching as far as the eye can see.

Beneath this unassuming landscape lie 90% of the world’s opal reserves. As we came closer to the opal town of Coober Pedy, we began noticing hundreds of large white and pink ant hills where mining was taking place. Road signs warned visitors of unmarked mine shafts around the area.

Danger sign    Opal mines

Arriving in town where every second home seems to have some rusting mining relic in its front yard was a little surreal as there are even active mines within the town itself, and many houses, businesses and even churches are built underground, often by repurposing disused mines. In fact, the name “Coober Pedy” comes from the Aboriginal word for “White Man in a Hole”. This promised to be a fascinating place worth a little exploration. ||

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Round The Rock by Bicycle

Kings Canyon - Uluru

After 5 days of cycling with no food resupply we were running on empty so we were hoping for a general store at the Kings Canyon Resort. Unfortunately what greeted us was just a depleted fuel station shop. It was still another 5 days until our next proper supermarket so we made do with an odd assortment of tinned food.

Setting up camp in the late afternoon admiring the escarpment of the George Gill range our peace was soon disturbed as we were swopped on by some of the local birdlife intent on taking the bread from our plates. Signs around the camp warned of dingo activity and we watched closely as they strolled freely amongst the campers looking for any scraps they could find. To top it off we were alerted to the presence of mice as they scurried over our canvas whilst we cooked the evening meal. With all this activity we decided all food should be removed from the tent so we hoisted our supplies into the nearest tree, much to the amusement of our fellow campers.||

Curious mouse   Food pannier in a tree

After a day off recovering from our adventures on the Mereenie Loop we packed up and cycled out to Kings Canyon for the 6km rim walk. The first section was the toughest and aptly named Heart Attack Hill. Once over the steep incline the track meanders around the rim of the canyon at times coming right to the verge of the 100m high sheer cliff face.

The walk weaves amongst obscure rock formations, dominated by beehive shaped domes that give the place the feeling of an ancient city.

Kings Canyon beehive domes 

The canyon hosts the largest variety of plant life in Central Australia, some going back to prehistoric times and at the head of the gorge is an area known as the Garden of Eden where a spring supports a small oasis and feeds a tranquil water pool.

Kings Canyon   Wild camp

Back at the car park where we left the bikes we still had 40km to cycle to camp and wondered if the walk may have tired us out, but back on the bikes the legs effortlessly fell into the familiar rhythmic motion of cycling.

Arriving at Kings Creek Station we refilled our water bottles for $1 per litre as the bore water has to be pumped from 5km away. An inspirational couple (The Conways) had purchased 800,000 hectares of arid land here, completely off grid and developed a successful cattle and tourism enterprise as well as a charity supporting education for local Aboriginal kids.

The following morning after a bush camp just as we stopped to take a jumper off we noticed we were being watched by a magnificent wild horse. Word must have spread as one after another materialised from the bush. As we quietly cycled on they continued to watch us, then as we came within 50m they took off. We tried to stay with them, matching pace as the majestic horses galloped beside us. We thought maybe we had startled them but they continued on a parallel path, almost as if they were willing us on.

Wild horses

Feeling a little exhausted after our race with the wild horses we had just wheeled around the corner when we were flagged down by Trish and Tony, a lovely couple we had met at the Kings Canyon Resort camp site. They offered us coffee and muffins, which we promptly accepted over a chin wag in their ultra comfortable caravan.

Trish and Tony   Freddie cycling

That afternoon the wildlife fest continued with a dingo, pink and white galahs and 3 red kangaroos all in the space of a few hours. We struck it lucky with one of the prettiest bush camps we have had on the trip, it really felt like we had walked into a manicured garden.

The next morning we turned westbound onto the main road that took us all the way to Uluru. It felt a little wrong to be heading due west when home is south east Australia but this was a detour that had to be done.

As we summited a crest later in the day a massive red rock rose from the plains. Mt Connor, often mistaken for Uluru steals the show somewhat as it accustoms you to these beautiful rock formations. We set up camp at the dusty Curtin Springs Roadhouse, about 80km from Uluru. 

When we took off from camp in the morning a very strange thing happened to us, TAIL WIND! We clamoured on our bikes and were soon hitting speeds of 35km/hr, we couldn’t believe our luck as we raced along the desert plains. Coming up over a small rise we got our first glimpse of Uluru. We were so excited we pulled over for an early lunch and climbed the nearest sand dune for a private one on one with the world’s most famous rock. 

 Guy enjoying the view of Uluru

They don’t all live up to the hype, these “big sites” - but for us, sitting there on the dune with Uluru in sight having cycled such a long way to get there was a really unforgettable moment.

The day only got better as we got word that our Kiwi 4WD buddies Andrew and Therese were still in Yulara sorting out a few administrative matters and they would hang around for another night if we could make it there in time.

Rolling into Yulara, the small purpose built “town” that so cleverly camouflages itself within the bush that you hardly notice it was a delight for us as we knew there was a SUPERMARKET to raid with semi reasonable prices. 

After clearing out the supermarket we met Andrew and Therese at the campground and caught up on their 4WD travels. On the following day we cycled the 20km out to Uluru in the hope to bike around The Rock. A park ranger was pretty excited to see us on our bikes and being a cyclist himself he was keen to explain the best route to us.

Freddie at Uluru

Uluru is amazing close up, it takes on a different form the closer you get to it, far from just a big clump of rock. We were amazed by the smooth swirling drifts of sandstone that give the rock a soothing texture. As it is a very spiritual place for the Aborigines there are numerous rock paintings and in some sections photography is prohibited.

Uluru flowers   Cycling around Uluru 

Again we were amazed by all the plant life in the area and during the wet season rains spill over the sides cascading down the smooth sandstone to fill tranquil little water holes around the base.

Dwarfed by Uluru   Uluru waterpool

The Sorry Book at the cultural centre caught our attention. It contains hundreds of admissions from people who have taken something from the area and all of a sudden have had a string of bad luck. The bad luck seems to coincide from the moment the item was taken, as a result stolen goods (such as lumps of rock) are often posted back with a sorry letter in hope they will be forgiven for their sins.

The following day we made contact with Mark and Nadia, friends of Greg, the French cyclist we met in Alice Springs. They are tour guides working for a company taking school groups out to the bush to do workshops and cultural activities within the Aboriginal villages for 9 days at a time. They’d just returned from one trip and were due on the next one the following day. They kindly gave up their one day off to meet up for lunch. Afterwards they took us out for sunset on a dune with a fantastic view of Uluru followed by dinner at their house. They have done a fantastic cycle tour in Europe and Australia the previous year and will spend the summers not far from our new home in Victoria, so we hope to return the favour one day.

Freddie with Mark and Nadia

Our final must do in the area was a visit to the Olgas (Kata Tjuta), a magnificent group of orange dome shaped rocks clustered together like a handful of marshmallows. Getting out to the Olgas  is difficult if you don’t have access to a vehicle, as it’s a 110km round trip and a 3 hour walk. Enter Rachel and John, a couple from Victoria we met at camp. They offered for us to come with them, so we all piled into their car for the drive out and to do the stunning Valley Of the Winds walk that weaves its way through this surreal and beautiful landscape.

Kata Tjuta

Back at camp we paid one final visit to the supermarket to stock up for our 6 day haul to Marla. Soon we would be reunited with our mate, the Stuart Highway and foe, the south east headwinds.

Monday, 4 July 2011

15,000 km Photo

Having just emerged from the Mereenie Loop and 140km of bone jolting corrugated dirt roads, we
were feeling good to be back on the smooth tarmac and averaging speeds in the double figures. We came to a conclusion that fully loaded touring and rough dirt roads are a bad combination.

15000km photo||

Cycling the Mereenie Loop

Alice Springs – Kings Canyon

There are two options to travel from Alice Springs to Uluru, or “The Rock”: the most popular option is to stay on a tarmac road, then backtrack to the highway with an optional detour to Kings Canyon. The other option is to take the Mereenie Loop road. This is a more scenic 700km route to Uluru taking in Kings Canyon and minimising the amount of backtracking.

The catch is that the Mereenie Loop encompasses a 140km unsealed section known for its rough corrugations and sandy creek crossings, really just suitable for 4WD vehicles. This section lies in the midst of a 230km gap between water points, which would take us about 3 days of cycling to cover. As the Mereenie Loop is located on Aboriginal land, a permit is required to travel on the road, and camping is not allowed. 

“The dirt road is often soft and slow with the occasional 200m stretch of sand and […] kilometres of bone jolting, filling loosening, cobblestones. Ugg.”  - Cycle Trails Australia

“You’ll need tyres ten times as thick as that. It’s sandy and you’ll probably have to walk a lot of it. You’d be lucky to do 20km per day.” - Grey Nomad, having just completed the Mereenie Loop in his 4WD

Taking into consideration all the pros and cons of the two roads, we made the sensible decision to stick to the tarmac. So we stocked up on food for the 5 days cycling we thought it might take us to get to Uluru, swapped our worn rear tires for new, slicker and thinner tyres suitable for the tarmac roads, and packed our bags. We were perfectly happy until we started chatting to a young German traveller who told us he had just driven the Mereenie Loop in a borrowed 2WD car and thought it would be doable by bicycle.

With the full intention of staying on the tarmac, we went to sleep.

8 hours later, Guy was woken up by Freddie whispering: “Guy, are you awake? I think we’re making a terrible mistake. What will we think later, say next year, when we look back and realise we took the easier option and missed out on Kings Canyon? Sure, the Mereenie Loop will be much harder, and maybe we won’t make it, but it’s so much more interesting. Shouldn’t we at least try?”

“Ok”, Guy mumbled and went back to sleep. With that, the decision was sealed. We were doing the Mereenie Loop.

We calculated that it would take us about 5 days to get to Kings Canyon via the Mereenie Loop, so we had enough food and set off from Alice Springs a few hours later to explore the West MacDonnell Ranges on our way. The terrain was quite hilly but very scenic, and we found a lovely camp spot in a dried out creek bed.

Camp in creek bed   Ormiston Gorge

We hadn’t allowed time for many detours, but the one gorge in the West MacDonnells we really wanted to visit was Ormiston Gorge, which everybody we spoke to had recommended to us. It was indeed very pretty, though the campground wasn’t very exciting.

As Andrew and Therese had left on the same day as us and were taking the same route, we had seen them a couple of times on the way and met again at Ormiston Gorge. To give ourselves a better chance of completing the Mereenie Loop, we had asked them to do a water drop for us along the way. The only landmark on the whole 230km stretch without facilities was a turnoff to an Aboriginal village after 90km, so we agreed that they would drop the water off there for us, marking the spot by tying bits of toilet paper to a bush.

Bird in Ormiston Gorge

Our permits were easily obtained at Glen Helen for the princely sum of $3, although it would have been quite obvious to everyone that we were planning to break the “no camping” rules as there was no way we could cycle the whole Mereenie Loop in one day. This was the last water point where we filled up our bladders, though we would be able to top up our supplies from Andrew and Therese who were already setting up camp 20km on in Redbank Gorge.

Ormiston Gorge water hole   Glen Helen Gorge

When we arrived at Redbank Gorge, Andrew and Therese had already lit a warming fire and were preparing a bucket shower with water heated by their car engine. To our delight, Therese even cooked us dinner (seafood pasta!) and made one last chocolate pudding. It was great to spend another night with our Kiwi friends.

In the morning, our tents were frozen. As we washed our dishes, the water on our cups and plates froze instantly, before we even had a chance to dry them. The Mereenie Loop road is located at over 800m altitude, making for warm days and freezing nights.

Knowing that we would hit the dirt road soon, Guy had swapped our rear tyres back over to our old tyres which were more worn but had much more grip than the new slick tyres. However, after barely an hour of cycling, Freddie’s rear tyre developed a large bulge. A while ago we had camped on recently burned ground and must have left the tyre on a hot patch so that it had developed a small but hardly noticeable bulge. Luckily we had reinforced it with duct tape as otherwise the tube would have blown right out of the tyre. As a result we had to change back a slick tyre, not ideal for the sandy dirt roads ahead of us.

Cycling the West MacDonnells   Split tyre

We were carrying 12l of water each, adding significantly to the load of our bikes. When the tarmac road ended, we deflated our tyres to 40PSI (we normally run them on 70PSI). Cycling on the dirt road was a shock to the system as handling the heavy bikes on corrugations, sand and rocks proved to be tricky at times. Most of the time we could find somewhere on the road to cycle, even if it meant cycling on the opposite lane, but it was slow going and we were glad when we reached our water drop as the daylight faded.

End of the tarmac   Guy cycling the Mereenie Loop

We saw the telltale strips of toilet paper fluttering on a bush and were quietly relieved when we found the 10l water box. It even contained two complimentary chocolate bars – thanks Andrew and Therese! A few hundred metres on we found a quiet place to set up camp. Unfortunately it turned out that we had taken over the resting place of a bull who was not impressed but we were too tired to move on so stood our ground and soon he left after some stomping and snorting.

Thanks to our water drop, we now had plenty of water for the remaining two days of cycling. We were using about 6l of drinking water per day (combined), plus 4l for each night of camping. Negotiating the sandy, rocky and corrugated road surface required a lot of concentration, and we became tired of staring intently at the road all day instead of enjoying the scenery. Our shoulders and knees were hurting from the weight of the bikes, and the rough road sometimes made us feel as if we were in a washing machine.  

Although we were in a remote area now, we still saw about 20 cars per day. Most of the time the cars were announced by large dust clouds so that we could spot them from far away. Not all cars had dust clouds, this one wasn’t going anywhere fast and with the cost of car recovery so high, sometimes abandonment is the only option.

Abandoned car on Mereenie Loop

Trudging along over a crescent in the road a 4WD slowed down and the driver yelled:

“I don’t suppose you guys would like some Swiss chocolate.”

The driver turned out to be Patrick, a friend of Andrew and Therese who had been instructed by them to look after us when he saw us en route!

A little further on we came across another example of why we have really loved cycling in the Territory, things are a little different out there. An example of how they signal to motorists to slow down for the sharp corner ahead:

Lift um foot   Puttum back down

Due to the recent rains, the road had been damaged and roadworks were taking place. We were very lucky that a 40km section of the road had just been graded, making the surface much smoother to ride on. Without these “bonus kilometres” we would have struggled to make it through the whole Mereenie Loop in our scheduled 3 days.

All along the road we had been spotting camel foot prints on the sandy edges. Some were huge, almost the size of a dinner plate, while others alongside were much smaller. Finally we spotted a family of three camels walking on a ridge parallel to the road – a huge male camel followed by a female and a smaller young one. We managed to take a few pictures before they fled down the hill and out of view.

Camels

Camels had originally come to Australia with the Afghan workers building the Ghan railway through the desert. They had been used by many expeditions to transport supplies to remote communities. Being suited to the arid conditions, there are many wild camels in Australia now and we recently heard that Australia even exports camels to Saudi Arabia!

Just as it was time to camp, Freddie’s bike started making worrying noises. A quick examination showed that one of the screws that attached the rear rack to the bike had been sheared off. The rough road and heavy load on the rack had taken its toll. Luckily the bike engineers had pre-empted this situation and allowed for a secondary screw thread so all we had to do was readjust the rack to fit in the new position, hats off to you SJS Cycles!

Freddie on Mereenie Loop

At night, there was total isolation. From the moment it got dark at 6pm until about 8am, no vehicles, no people, absolutely no one passed us at all. There were no settlements nearby, no phone reception, we were totally alone. We relished this rare chance to experience perfect isolation and really enjoyed sitting around our little camp fire under the stars in this huge expanse of emptiness.

The road went from rough to diabolical for the last 30km or so, and there was nowhere to escape the rough surface. The choice was mostly between rattling along on the deep corrugations that covered the whole width of the road at 3km/hr, or risking the sandy edges with over an inch of soft sand.

Suddenly we hit the tarmac, a real surprise as we had calculated it to come a little later. We were feeling pretty smug that we had made it, pumped up the tyres again and screamed down a hill, enjoying the fast ride on the beautiful tarmac road.

We couldn’t believe our eyes when 1km later, the tarmac ended and we were back on the dirt for another 15km of corrugations, so we deflated the tyres again and grimly pushed on not feeling so smug!

Wild melons   The Green Centre

This part of Australia is usually known as the “Red Centre”, but due to the strong rains this year it looks more like the “Green Centre”. All along the road are juicy wild melons. We weren’t sure if they were edible, but the area was just littered with them, very tempting.

Soon after we hit the tarmac for real and blazed along for the last 10km towards Kings Canyon.

George Gill Range

As we rolled into Kings Canyon Resort, we were happy and proud that we had conquered the Mereenie Loop with minimal damage to the bikes and ourselves. We also accepted the realisation that corrugated dirt roads on a fully loaded touring bike is not our idea of fun. It’s ok to get to somewhere special, but we love the sensation of cycling and taking in the scenery, something that is very difficult to do when you are so focussed on keeping your balance from one corrugation to the next.||

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Exploring Alice’s Gorges in a 4WD

Alice Springs and the East MacDonnell Ranges

Immediately on our arrival in Alice Springs, or “The Alice”, we met some lovely people: first there were Greg and Cyrielle, a French couple working at our campsite, then Steve, a cycle tourer from Canberra, and Andrew and Therese, a New Zealand couple on a 4WD trip occupying the tent spot next to us. We had also really hoped to see Roger and Catherine, the French Canadian couple we met in Turkey, as they were cycling through Australia and planning to be in Alice Springs at the same time as us, but unfortunately we ended up missing them by a day.

The weather was truly miserable for our first few days in Alice Springs: it was freezing cold and raining. We wore all our layers, all day – a T-shirt, two long-sleeved merino wool tops, a fleece and a Goretex jacket, long johns, trousers and two pairs of socks. Freddie even succumbed and purchased a hot water bottle to survive the cold nights. Luckily the weather cleared after a few days, and whilst still cold, it was now clear and sunny, perfect for an afternoon stroll around the campsite where we watched birds and fed the cute little rock wallabies coming down the hill just before sunset.

Rock wallaby   Bird at campsite

Therese and Andrew were planning to do a 4WD trip to the East MacDonnell Ranges not far from Alice Springs and kindly invited us for some “off road adventures”. We jumped at the opportunity as it gave us a chance to deviate off the Stuart Highway. We were planning to go for 3 days, then return to Alice Springs before we headed off towards Uluru. Our bikes were securely parked in Scotty the Campsite Caretaker’s shed, and our bike bags strapped to the roof of Andrew and Therese’s Landcruiser.

The prolog of the Finke Desert Race was taking place on the day of our departure. The Kiwis were keen to go, and so were a friendly German couple we also met at the campsite, Christian and Nicole. Together we drove out of town to the racecourse and spent a few hours watching dirt bikes and quads racing along the track. The Finke Desert Race – an annual off-road 229km race through tough desert terrain - was due to take place over the following two days.

Landrover and landcruiser   Andrew and Therese

Leaving the prolog, we said goodbye to Nicole and Christian who were heading out to the racecourse to camp and watch the actual race.

The MacDonnell Ranges are interspersed with numerous gorges, some containing waterholes. We found a small bush campsite near John Hayes Rock Hole which was was unmanned and only accessible on a rough 4WD track travelling up a narrow, rocky creek bed. The facilities were limited to some picnic tables and a long drop toilet, and we shared a campfire with a couple of cheerful men who entertained us with their hour long cooking antics. In the morning we spent a few hours on a beautiful ridge walk around the area with views of the distant ranges then returned back through a creek bed flanked by steep red quarzite cliffs.

Wet feet   Andrew and Therese near John Hayes Rock Hole

Having dismantled our tents, we drove a little further into Trephina Gorge to do another scenic loop walk which involved wading through a creek filled with icy water.

Trephina Gorge

The campsite here at The Bluff was a little busier as it was located in a very picturesque setting, right near the creek. Again we made friends with our neighbours who had had the foresight to collect firewood before entering the national park where firewood collection was prohibited, and had a fun night sharing stories and making damper on their fire.

Camp spot in Trephina Gorge   Ghost Gum

Our plan was to drive to the historic Arltunga gold fields, but on the way we passed the turnoff to N’Dhala Gorge, which was officially closed to traffic.

“Let’s see how closed it really is”, said Therese. We all quickly agreed and with that our fate was sealed.

The 4WD track involved several creek crossings, some of which had recently had water and were still quite wet. Having let down the tires and crossed our first creek successfully, we became more confident that we would be able to get through to the gorge.

Andrew gunned the Landcruiser into the next creek, all was going well, we looked unstoppable and were dismissing the over zealous rangers for closing the track until we entered the soft sand in the middle of the creek. Our speed slowed suddenly as the Landcruiser began to strain, the wheels spun desperately for grip in the soft muddy sand. Soon enough we came to a complete stop, we were royally bogged!

Creek crossing   Stuck

We jumped out to assess the damage, immediately falling into mud up to our shines. As there were no other vehicles around and we had sunk too deep into the soft mud to dig ourselves out, it was time to test out the winch. Pulling out the cable required all of our combined strength. Guy and Therese strapped the cable around a nearby River Red Gum trunk in the middle of the river while Andrew got the car ready and Freddie captured the event with our camera. As Andrew engaged the winch, we listened to the creaking sounds of the trunk straining under pressure. It was clear the 4 ton Cruiser was too much load.

A sturdier tree was found and luckily the cable was just long enough to reach it. By now, the wheels were sunk 3/4 into the mud. The tree held strong but this time the winch was faltering, straining under the pressure. After a few slips it slowly gained traction and pulled out the Cruiser to the safety of the creek bank.

Andrew preparing the winch   Therese directing the rescue

We were happy to make it to N’Dhala Gorge and had a little walk there, followed by lunch to strengthen our nerves for the return trip, back across the same creek beds. To our relief, we got through the creeks without getting stuck and soon were on our way to the Arltunga gold fields. Due to our little misadventure it was now late afternoon, too late to do much sightseeing, and rather than driving back to Alice Springs that day, we decided to stay out for another night.

The Arltunga campsite marked on our map had recently closed down but we found a little track nearby and set up our camp in the bush. For our last night, Therese made a delicious chocolate pudding, cooked in a camp oven on the fire.

In the morning, we went back to Arltunga to explore the historic gold mines. Arltunga had experienced a gold rush in the 1880s and 1890s when gold dust was discovered in the local quarz. As the location was so remote, life was very hard for the miners. All supplies came from Adelaide via the rail head at Oodnadatta. The last 700km of the long journey had to be completed with the help of camels or horses, or on foot. Many miners pushed all their belongings, food and water on heavy wooden wheelbarrows over sand dunes and dusty tracks all the way from Oodnadatta.

There was not much water in the area, and a harsh climate meant summers often saw temperatures rising above 50°C, whereas winters were freezing cold. Extracting the gold dust from the quarz was hard and hazardous work, and after 20 years the mines were abandoned in favour of more promising gold fields.

Having crawled into some of the old mines and found a couple of gold specks in the local quarz (Therese discovered a hidden talent), it was time for us to return to Alice Springs. We had really enjoyed our 4WD outing, it was fantastic to get off the beaten track especially with such great company in Andrew and Therese, thanks guys!

After a week off the bikes we were really looking forward to getting going again and experiencing the immediacy and intensity of exploring the Outback from the seat of a bicycle. A few more days in Alice Springs saw us completing some last minute odds and ends in town, hanging out at the Botanic Gardens and sampling the local cafes. We also visited the Royal Flying Doctors Service to find out more about the amazing medical service provided to remote communities and cattle stations, where pilots often have to land on makeshift airstrips, most without tarmac, and many without any lighting.

The Desert Park was also worth a visit as we learned a lot about the flora and fauna of the inland rivers, sand country and woodlands of central Australia. The nocturnal house exhibited many endangered or extinct (in the wild) mammals, and the birds of prey show impressed with free flying kites and falcons.

Birds of prey show   Kangaroos

From Alice Springs, we had originally thought we might rent a car for the detour to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and Kings Canyon, but in the end it didn’t feel right to arrive at this deeply symbolic place at the centre of our new home country by car. We wanted to explore the area by bicycle, even if it would add an extra two weeks and over 900km to our trip. If only we knew fate still had another roll of the dice to play. ||