Central Australian Outback: And miles to go before I sleep

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Central Australian Outback: And miles to go before I sleep

Somewhere about 300km southwest of Alice Springs on a largely featureless strip of the Lasseter Highway I slow down for the laughably named Mount Ebenezer.

It is little more than another flat bit, but with a shop, a petrol station and five Aboriginal woman sitting under a tree.

Within a minute the car is back on cruise control set at an easy 120kph and I am once more lazily gazing across endless expanses of low scrub and red dirt. Sometimes an eagle circles above suggesting another dead kangaroo up ahead on the side of the road, but mostly there is little out here moving.

Twice in the past couple of hours I’ve stopped to stretch my legs and take photographs of the great expanse shimmering in the 30 degree heat.

IMGP3730Or of the burned-out carcass of an abandoned car.

In the past 20 minutes I’ve only seen one other living vehicle, and soon I’m turning off onto Luritja Road which will take me even further away from whatever people might be out here.

I’m loving this.

Here in the Outback there is silence, the easy camber of the excellent roads, the ever-changing geography and plant life, and odd signs which read “Floodway” and indicate that in the wet season this parched landscape might be awash.

IMGP3994There is the sense of infinite space which reaches to horizons invisible behind Spinifex, or to the distance ridge of a mountain range that stretches out to somewhere far, far beyond.

I have always been drawn to deserts and this part of Outback Australia offers them in abundance. My map has thin single lines of lonely roads and all the rest is absent of detail, just big letters which read “Simpson Desert” or “Tanami Desert“.

It is one of the great misconceptions that deserts are boring, spaces to get through before you arrive somewhere.

But in the past six hours since leaving Glen Helen and driving east to Alice Springs, then down the Stuart Highway and now west on the Lasseter I have been through areas of razorback ridges, rolling plains of wattle, vast tablelands where rocky outcrops create strange sculpture parks, over dry rivers picked out only by the red gum trees which line their dusty beds, and across low ridges which reveal yet another different landscape up ahead.

IMGP3725The hours have gone by effortlessly, but now I note so has the petrol.

I am already 50kms past the pumps at Mount Ebenezer, the fuel gauge flickering just below halfway and my map indicating the next petrol will be at Kings Canyon where I am headed, some 170kms away. Hmmm.

I reassure myself I have never once missed a flight or run out of petrol, but as the road stretches out and the gauge starts to drop rapidly -- or is that my imagination -- I wonder just how few others might come along this road.

No one has been up ahead or in my rear view mirror, and out here you can see a very long way in both directions.

IMGP4004Carrying water is always advisable even in this area which is hardly remote by desert standards, but “fill ‘er up” at every pump is wise too. I push on, the landscape now thickening with trees, the road -- also known as the Red Centre Way for obvious reasons -- taking me towards a range of black and jagged mountains. I try to picture what this landscape must look like from above.

This morning just after dawn I took a helicopter flight over the enormous Ormiston Gorge in the West MacDonnell Ranges, the landscape spreading as far as the eye could see and disappeared into blue haze, the range reaching from one horizon to the other.

Up there the dot paintings of the Aboriginal people from the Western Desert hit you with clarity. In fact Papunya, where the dot art renaissance began in the early 70s, was somewhere off to our left as we flew over crinkled river valleys and looked at patterns of animal tracks weaving between invisible water holes.

IMGP4007As I drive on now, the gauge perilously close to the quarter full mark, I imagine what this region must look like from above: a single road snaking between low scrub and hakea trees, the gum trails making their crooked way across the landscape, the spine of 600 million year old mountains . . .

A car comes the other way and we both raise our fingers from the steering wheel in a friendly salute.

He disappears in my rear view mirror in seconds, we are both on cruise control and the speed limit -- if there is one -- is 130kph.

I am bored with the only radio station I can pick up and put on the CD I’ve been given by a guy who runs an art gallery in Alice Springs.

It is his techno-didgeridoo album and oddly enough this nightclub music with its pounding beat and trance-like didgeridoo goes well with the mysterious scenery, the rush of the tyres on the road and the wheeling wedge-tailed eagles in the cloudless sky.

IMGP4009Drives such as this allow the imagination to drift and as the road edges alongside the canyons of Watarrka National Park I take my mind off the fuel gauge by thinking of other deserts I have been through: those wide open spaces of West Texas punctuated by oil derricks; coming over a rise to see a moonscape of pink rocks in the Painted Desert of north Arizona; the cracked red dirt around Andamooka’s opal mines and the empty sands at the Mungarannie Hotel halfway up the Birdsville Track in South Australia . . .

Arid but beautiful, all of them. As is this place.

The road rolls on towards Kings Canyon, another Floodway sign, an area of burnt trees with rich regrowth beneath their blackened trunks, a fuel gauge hovering close to “E”.

I’m hoping E means “enough” when a large sign for Kings Creek Station appears ahead of me. Food, lodgings and people. And a petrol pump.

I have driven about 600kms today, tomorrow I have another 250kms before lunch to get to my destination -- and the next petrol pump -- somewhere in the centre of these magnificent, ever-changing and seductively immense deserts.

In the morning I’ll buy water and fill ’er up.

Right up.


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