Coober Pedy to Alice Springs
(Note: This is about the 2nd leg of our drive from Australia’s southern coast in Adelaide, to the northern coast in Darwin, Australia. To read about the first leg, go here.)
The morning of August 16th, Bob got up before 7 AM, and although still really tired, I soon joined him. We would be driving about 688 km that day, which would take 7.5 hours of driving time if going the speed limit (which we likely would not, pulling a trailer) – much easier than the day before. I had done most of the preparation for getting ready the night before, and the main job was hooking up the trailer and loading all the luggage into it. It was not safe to leave it in the trailer overnight. We left the hotel at 9:30 AM.
I have to mention before leaving Coober Pedy that it even has a golf course! Golf is played during the night with glowing balls to avoid the heat of the day. And as you can see from the picture, Australians have a great sense of humor – what grass?! This golf course is the only one in the world that is a sister course to St. Andrew’s in Scotland. With the kind of dedication it takes to golf here, club members deserve to golf for free at one of the oldest & most famous courses in the world!
I thought I would buy some souvenir opal jewelry, but it was $500 or more for a pair of really small opal earrings of even the lowest quality, although I did see them for less (and probably lower quality) at another store where they started at $125. Necklaces were in the $500-$2000 range. Nothing tempted me at these prices.
We knew before we reached Coober Pedy that opals were mined there, but learned as we drove away from it that it is situated in a huge opal field with many claims staked for miles all around it. The groupings of dirt piles all over the place at first reminded me of huge African termite mounds I’d seen, before I knew what they were. These mulloch heaps continued away from Coober Pedy for perhaps 5 miles, lessening in concentration as we neared the edge.
We saw mainly Aboriginals in Coober Pedy and a few people from India. The Outback is said to have 50% indigenous people, on average.
The 550 mile drive to Alice Springs seemed to go by fairly fast. The distance was similar to driving from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas, but at 62 mph instead of 80. Since the road only had one lane each way and we were pulling a trailer with a Toyota Corolla, we weren’t comfortable going faster than that.
The scenery changed a number of times as it did the day before, except we had at least 50 miles of steady, low-grade climbing north of Coober Pedy. Where vegetation was more prevalent – it varied a lot, probably because of soil differences (sandy versus rocky) and how long the soil could retain some moisture – we saw occasional bushes blooming in a bright golden color. The soil and rocks through most of the Outback are red, which creates a beautiful contrast with anything green. We also enjoyed spotting a large lizard run across the road just out of Marla.
It’s not easy to get lost here because the only paved (they call it sealed here) road for hundreds and hundreds of miles was the one we were on, which is also the only road connecting Adelaide and Darwin. It also divides the continent in half through the middle. We had to stop for a bit at the huge monument denoting where the Northern Territory (NT) starts long enough to take a picture.
One stop I really enjoyed was at 2 PM for gas at the Kulgera Roadhoue. It was starting to get hot, but there was a nice, cool breeze. (The further north we drove, the warmer it
became.) Bob went back into the store twice after getting gas while I stood by our parked car eating an ice cream bar I had purchased for $5. There were birds cheeping loudly on both sides of the road, and I thought they were perhaps begging. It turned out that was true – there were two older babies, one high in the tree on my left, and the other where I could easily see it in a small tree on my right. Both were demanding to be fed by their parents, which were flying around like mad bringing food to them. I got several pictures of one of the parents with the baby bird that was near me. I believe these are aptly called “noisy miner” birds.
After that we experienced a fair amount of rolling terrain somewhat like in the Crocodile Dundee movies, with small trees dotting the landscape. It was pretty. At a couple of places that didn’t particularly seem to be low spots, we encountered periodic 2-meter measuring rods sticking out of the ground, which we believed
were for measuring the depth of the water when the road is flooded. There are quite a few people in the NT with trucks outfitted with high snorkels for engine air intake that brave these flooded areas, and I would imagine the markers help them determine whether or not their vehicles can make it through. When we got out of that section, we had a gentle uphill climb again.
Elder Buckner was pretty excited when we reached the Tropic of Capricorn, putting us in the tropical lattitude, before we reached Alice Springs. It warranted three pictures. There were palm trees even in Adelaide, which has weather a lot like Los Angeles and never freezes, and I suspect most everywhere on the continent with enough water to grow them. I don’t think it ever freezes anywhere in Australia, other than perhaps Tasmania off the southern coast.
We had wanted to see Uluru on our way to Alice, but there was no lodging available nearby, and it would have added an entire day to our trip. Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is a famous geological site and this huge rock is also sacred to the Aborigines. There is a 10 kilometer trail around it. It is possible to do it as a day trip from Alice Springs if you have time, but be sure to book your room ahead of time in nearby Yulara.
We arrived in Alice Springs before dark at about 5:30 pm and found the Tennis’s home fairly easily with the satellite GPS program on my phone. They had dinner ready for us, and we had already been invited to stay in the extra bedroom in their flat. Right after dinner it was dark, and they drove us to Anzac Hill in the middle of town to see the city lights below. It wasn’t a high hill, but did give us a good vantage point to see the lights of the city, including a nearby McDonald’s. Anzac Hill has a memorial on top for those who had died from Australia & New Zealand in WWI. After dinner they shared a wealth of information about working with the Aboriginals and people in this area, as well as some potential challenges we might face, that will help us tremendously in Darwin. They were wonderful hosts and we appreciated getting to know them! Plus, they both love the outdoors, and shared a couple of their favorite spots with us.
While we were with them, they related an interesting story about an Aboriginal congregation in Elliott. They had grown large enough as a branch to have their own chapel, so the church bought a building for them to meet in. I don’t know how long they were there, but one day (surprise!) no one showed up for church. The elders later found out that the entire “mob” (that’s what they call their families or groups) had left on what they call walkabout. No one knew where they went, and they apparently never came back. The church ended up selling the building to the town, which turned it into a library.
The Aboriginals have strong spiritual experiences and do join the church, but they have been nomadic for centuries, and you never know when a group or an individual will decide to go walkabout and disappear. You can imagine how hard it is to keep the church records straight. It is also common for them to change their names, or sometimes use family or ceremonial names instead of their given names.
Their former plight in Australia reminds me of how things went for Native Americans. I have heard it said that the Australian government now completely supports them, and many have lost their incentive to work. Between 1910 and 1970 over 100,000 of what they call “half-caste” or mixed raced children were forcibly taken from Aboriginal mothers and raised in compounds hundreds of miles away. They have come to be called the “stolen generations.” We watched the movie Australia recently, and understood and appreciated it so much more after learning about this, and hearing stories from Aboriginals in the Darwin Branch that had a been part of this sad history.
When the Tennis’s got to Alice, there there wasn’t a membership clerk in the branch, which held records for between 800 and 1500 families. They have been working hard to clean that up. They found over 100 people who had died, some as long ago as 1985. Many had moved away, and some had unknown locations after going “walk-about.” It’s still a work in progress – there’s an entire multi-step process that has to be completed before names can be released from the branch records. This sometimes involves visiting different indigenous villages. To do that requires a special permit that is only good on a specified day and can take weeks to obtain. You can imagine what the visiting and home teaching percentages are like here. It’s hard to visit someone you can’t find. A funny example of this is that after finally finding one Aboriginal man in a location 250 miles from Alice Springs as the crow flies (Alice is the closest branch), they found out it takes 52 hours of actual driving to get there because of the route that has to be taken. How’d you like that for a home teaching assignment?
A fun story they related to us was about something Sister Tennis would do when raising their five children. When she’d get stressed or need a break, she’d tell the kids before she went into her room for a few minutes that she was going “to have a time out in Fiji.” She did this for years. When they got their mission call for a previous 18-month mission, they did not specify a location preference in their paperwork. When they opened their call, where was it to? – Fiji! Their oldest daughter said, “Mom, you get to take an 18-month time out in Fiji!”
We got up a bit early on Wednesday – about 6:15 – and got ready to go with the Tennis’s to explore a couple places in Alice Springs. We went first to Telegraph Hill and did a 2 ½ mile easy hike around the area. We saw dozens of kangaroos of different sizes. They don’t have the “big reds” here, but we did see some that might approach 5’ tall. I even saw a couple that were fighting for a bit. Can you identify the wallabies?Click on the section and mouse over the pictures to see what each of them is.
We also saw wallabies, which look like little kangaroos and live in the rocks. They run between 12-24″ tall, have different colored markings on their sides, black or gold feet, and long skinny tails. In addition, we saw a wild dingo stalking a large grey kangaroo. It bounded a great distance away and left him in the dust, and then sat for a long while recovering from the chase. These were the first wild (live) kangaroos we spotted. It surprised me how adept they were at jumping around on the rocks – even the bigger ones.
After Telegraph Hill we went to Simpson’s Gap, which was quite pretty and reminded all of us of the St. George area. The plants were a little different, but there were large, red hills that were smaller but similar to those in Zion’s. There wasn’t much water here, though – just a few pools that were perhaps from a recent rain or a spring. We spotted more wallabies on the rocks here, too. They blend in so well, you can only detect them if you watch carefully for occasional movement.
On the way back, the Tennis’s got a call from an elder who was heading to the hospital for possible appendicitis. They were tied up most of the afternoon, so we headed into town and spent a few minutes at the “Flying Doc” museum, and then went across the street to a reptile place we liked even more. They had lots of poisonous snakes, lizards, geckos, and even a couple of crocodiles, one of which was 11 feet long. We were grateful we went, because we learned that you have to handle snake encounters here differently than we do in the States. Australia has 20 of the 25 most deadly snakes in the world, with most in the north around Darwin. Some of their fangs are tiny, and you don’t even know you’ve been bitten because it looks more like a scratch than a bite. Their sight is bad and they don’t sense heat, but they can sense your vibrations. The animal handler there said that you immediately stand very still and don’t move if you are within striking distance, and you only run if you are 12 feet or more away. She also said about only 2 people a year die from snake bites in Australia. One last year was a lady that was just out in her yard gardening. It can take only minutes -the snakes here are particularly deadly.
We planned to leave Alice the next morning, Thursday, and meet with the elders in Tennant Creek. We wanted to spend the night further on in Eliot, but the motels were all booked, which only left Tennant Creek. That meant a much longer drive from there to Darwin, and less time to see anything on the way – except Devil’s Marbles, which is coming up next in Driving Through the Middle of the Australian Outback, Part 3!