It’s the Outback

Day 5 [21st September]

I did not wake up early the next morning, 21st September, the sun was already high in the sky. It was International Day of Peace. As I came out of my swag, Batman was dressed in the most colourful jacket that I had ever seen. It was reminiscent of Joseph’s Coat of many colours. Give it to Greg, he was fully prepared for this trip, he looked great. Kristina followed suit with her faultless dressing to mimic Elvis Presley. She was stunning with her red glasses, long trouser and colourful dress. We had planned on driving 650kms to the Woomera campground. A chance meeting with a couple of folks, recently come all the way down from Coober Pedy made us to jilt that plan. There is a short cut that we could take between Smoky Bay and Coober Pedy and avoid the long route to Port Augusta. We reviewed the road using the Hema maps. Heading north from Smoky Bay, we would take a diversion eastwards to Wirrulla and then head through the remote Australian outback cutting close to the Lake Everard Homestead, a cattle station of some sort. We would continue on gravel through Kokatha and come out at Kingoonya from where we planned to join the Stuart Highway heading North Westwards to Coober Pedy.

 

We followed the plan and arrived at Wirrulla where we stopped to refuel. Fuel was becoming expensive as we move inwards. At Wirrulla, it was $1.41per litre of gasoline. Knowing that there is no fuel stop again until we reach Coober Pedy, I ensured that the Explorer had enough to drink, giving it 120ltrs. The town, Wirrulla, is the starting point of any adventure into the rugged Gawler ranges which is home to rare animals and amazing landforms. The town is dominated by the Tricia & Stokey’s General Store which stands massively on the left of the Hay Terrace, the main road in the sleepy town. The Gawler Range is posted as being 126 kms, Kingooya 249kms away and Coober Pedy 535kms. We would later find out that the 249kms to Kingooya will be gruelling, dusty and corrugated going through some of the remotest areas of South Australia. I looked through some adverts posted on the community board at the General Store and noticed the adverts for houses. Nothing special with Wirulla, it is a backwater town that happens to be a gateway.

 

A little further to the right of Hay Street, not far from Trici & Stokey’s general store are a couple of silos. Nothing else seems to be happening in the town. The town has positioned itself as a low cost settlement area for nomads – the group of Australians that are constantly on the road but need a low cost permanent structure to call their home. A 1 room, 1 bath wooden house with a 3 car park space was advertised for $69,000 with a rider that you can lock it up ad safely travel wherever you want to. No wonder the town seems devoid of human presence. Just ahead of the general store was the Wirrulla Hotel which provides hot meals and has accommodation available for travellers. One notable weird attraction of this town is the presence of an Inland Jetty, yea, you read that right. It is probably the only Jetty of its kind in the world, a Jetty where the tide is always out and has never been in water. Why the Jetty was built or what purpose it serves may well be the secret the town has been keeping since it style itself as the “town with a secret”. Having used the restroom and filled up our various beasts of burden, we headed towards the Gawler Ranges, northwards from Wirrulla.

 

On this trip, distances became mere numbers. It is given that we are covering vast space of land and we still have more to cover. We didn’t blink twice before we roared the vehicle engines and took off. The road was dusty and corrugated. We let down the pressures in our tyres so as to reduce the bounciness of the vehicles. The thick vegetation around Wirrulla son gave way to little shrubs and in most places the soil was bare of any vegetation. A couple of salt lakes lined the road as we move north, heading towards the Gawler Ranges. To the observant traveller, it becomes easily noticeable that South Australia is blessed with huge salt deposit. We soon came close to the Lake Everard Homestead and saw some wombat holes. We took a break from driving and went to take a look at the holes. We saw no wombat but met the skeleton of a few birds around the hole.  As we walked back to our vehicles, a discussion ensued regarding the importance of the homestead to Australia’s Agriculture. It was from this discussion that I learnt that the homestead are actually cattle stations. What they do is to buy calves and release them into the wild, to fend for themselves. Of course there are no carnivorous animals in the wild that poses significant threats to cattle, apart from the Dingos possibly. Having secured the territory through which the cattle may freely roam, the homestead waits until the time that the cattle are sufficiently grown enough and round them up for the market. I was also made to know that despite the arid nature of the environment, there are pockets of water available and that the cattle could smell water from afar with their noses. Hence, it becomes easy for cattle station owners to know where to find their cattle, hey simply target the body of waters near their stations.

 

The heat was terrible and everywhere we looked, we were accosted with amazing view of the Gawler range. As we approach the range, we came across a large flock of Emu, those flightless ugly birds. They are the second largest living birds on earth. As it is with their other fellow country animal, the Kangaroos, the Emus can survive for days without water.

 

The South Australian Government warning that we were heading to one of the most remote and isolated places in Australia was not a joke We were soon on the worst road that I have ever driven on in Australia. Each vehicle was kicking up clouds of dust and we needed to provide good space amongst ourselves in order to have some level of visibility. The Explorer was rattling, from the corrugation on the road. It was the voice of Greg on the road that drew my attention that we would soon be coming across a pack of camel, on the left.  A little north of the Hiltaba Homestead (HS) we stopped to examine the holes that were created by Wombats, that Australian native full of muscles. On our left was Death Valley, the name stirred up a discussion as to why a queer name for the valley. The wombats, were unsurprisingly not at the holes but we could sew the carcass of what looked like a goat and knowing that Wombats were no carnivores this was looked at as a mere coincidence. We took a few pictures at the area as it has a beautiful lookout of the surrounding hills and gently undulating landscape with virtually no tree cover. The homestead itself is neatly tucked into a cleft of the hill.

 

The surface was hard and of course with no water only the most stubborn of plants survive here. The few trees that are, are perched as if a fire has just swept through them. They are devoid of leaves or fruits with blackened soothe colour appearing all over them. It all look sombre, like a scene from a horror movie.  Yet, despite this eerie looks, the vegetation, sombre, has a sort of beauty to it. It presents a clear contrast to the beautiful, well-nourished green vegetation that most Australians are familiar with in the city. Thinking deeply, one will really appreciate the creator as one who marvels in diversity. Unseen to the naked eyes, would be the snakes whose skins blend perfectly with the environment.  We saw a clearing on our left, on a small hilltop and drove into it in a file, this was our lunch break. We all reached into our stock of food and were soon feeding our tommies. It was also an opportunity to urinate. I was scared of snakes and felt certain that this environment provides a very great opportunity for those slimy crawly things that are masters of disguise to cause harm. I picked a dry stick and used it to clear the path ahead of me until I go to a little distance from the team to do “my thing”.

 

With lunch done, we continued our journey through this remote wilderness. Every now and then, the road is broken here and there by Cattle Grids. These are well spaced rows of iron rods built into the road to prevent cattle from crossing from one station to another. The idea is that cattle likes feeling the grounds under their hoofs and with the iron grill, they will either get their hoofs stuck within the grid or feel unstable and would not cross. They work effectively as containment barriers for the free roaming cattle. A little before Kingooya, we got a distress call on the radio from Greg, the other Greg. He had lost his rear windscreen. Shattered, a piece of rock from the road had hit it and broken it up.  At this time, Greg and a few vehicles were looking at the damage out of my visibility. I pulled the Explorer to the side of the dusty road, allowed he dust on the roads to settle and alighted from the vehicle.   Everywhere I looked, there was no sign of life at all. I actually felt like I had been transported away from Earth to mars. All that surrounded me were just red plains and rolling hills for as far as the eyes could see. I am no geologist but looking at how ancient these lands were, I was convinced that it holds abundant mineral resources. I took a few pictures of the landscape and also took he time to walk around the Explorer, just to check if there were any visible problems. It was the voice of Greg on the radio that brought me back to Earth. They have settled on a fix-up plan for the damage on his vehicle. His would be done as soon as we get to Kingooya. I relayed the message to the team ahead of me and we all continued the trip.

 

It was a little to 6pm local time when we made it to Kingooya. Kingooya town is not a remarkable place, it is a small almost totally abandoned farming settlement in the central outback of South Australia. One can count the number of houses in the town, not up to ten. From their looks, one can assume that they are not fully occupied all year round. We were told that they are sometimes occupied by people involved in mining exploration and kangaroo shooting. One could easily miss the town if not for the hotel, well visited I suppose by many other travellers who chose to take this outback short cut to reach Smoky Bay or Tarcoola. By the time we arrived, there were about six 4WDs packed in front of the hotel. Of course, the ancient looking red truck with Kingooya Hotel inscribed on what would have been a windscreen could not be missed. A couple of tourists were having their beers in the front porch of the hotel and a few more taking pictures as we eventually did too. The Indian Pacific Train passes through the town on its 4,352km trip from Perth (on the Indian Ocean) to Sydney (on the Pacific Ocean) and so also does the Ghan on is way from Adelaide to Darwin.

 

We got to take a look at the damage that had been sustained by Greg’s Nissan Navara. The windscreen of the canopy on its back was completely shattered. There was red dust everywhere and on everything.  We thought of any known bush engineering practise that can be used but our knowledge failed us. We finally settled on having a bathroom towel taped to cover the gapping space that was previously covered by the windscreen. It worked. The plan was to get to the ARB store in Coober Pedy for a replacement windscreen, when we arrive there. At this point, I also discovered that the rear license plate on the Explorer was about to fall. I got a plastic cable tie, two of them and get the plate hooked on again.

 

We thought of camping here, at the open space in front of the Kingooya Hotel, for the night but there was a revolt, from not a few members. They were concerned that the noise of the passing trains will not make for a restful night after such a long exerting trip.  We drove another 30kms, northwards before we found a camp at an altitude of 146m. We were now 331kms away from Smoky Bay, at least that’s the reading from the electronic gauge of the Explorer. The camp was left of the Gosses Road, the intersection with the Stuart Highway was still a little bit ahead of us. We set down to camp for the night around 6:30pm. The sun was still in the horizon causing Diane to spend some time to decide where to set her tent. If there is any talk of the lonely solitary road, this was it.

To answer nature’s call, I crossed the dusty road in front of the camp and headed some few metres into the open land. Having a little bush covering, I dug into the grounds and deposited my waste therein, ensuring that same was well covered away from foraging animals to dig out. Other team members did the same.

 

There is no service or utility anywhere near where we were. Kingooya is so remote to any infrastructure or utility provision. There is no water, no phone coverage and no filling station of any sort. Each traveller has to be reasonably sure that he is self-sufficient otherwise danger looms. Tales have been told of missing travellers whose vehicles were found but they had wandered away in search of help…and died. It goes without saying that before you head into the outback, please be reasonably sure of your equipment, your provision and emergency plan. Any failure could cause the traveller his life. We were at the camp site for more than 19hrs and only 2 vehicles, solitary souls, passed our way. This lends credence to the advice by the South Australian government that we were headed into a remote area.

 

If this were another country one would, and should, reasonably be afraid of attacks and robberies. This is Australia and is not the case. There have been few occasions where campers have been attacked and murdered but it is generally rare. The film, Wolf Creek, attempted to document such an incident whose true event happened between Alice Springs and Darwin on the Stuart Highway on 14th July 2001. Being lone travellers on the highway, British tourists Peter Falconio (then 28) and Joanne Lees were roughly half way between Alice Springs and Tennant Creek, when a mechanic called Bradley John Murdoch managed to make them pull over, telling them that sparks were coming out of the exhaust of their van.

Peter went to the back of the van with Murdoch to have a look and that was when Murdoch shot him an attempted to take Joanne, who managed to escape, as hostage. The tale is reminiscent of similar events that had happened in other countries and I am pretty sure that were Peter a Nigerian, he wouldn’t have fallen for this trick which is an old one in the books of Armed Robberies.

 

I took a look at the Explorer and was again convinced that I made the right decision. I had bought it as a go anywhere car with all the necessary gears and equipment for solitary life in the outback installed. You don’t buy such a car and keep in your garage. They are meant to explore places like this, the outback.

 

Mark brought out his fire pit and a fire was kindled. The entire team chose Mark’s troopy spot as the place to gather and share the warmth radiated by the fire from Mark’s fire pit. Discussion moved from one topic to another and then to religion. The concept of modern ay Aussies approach to religion came clearly to me. A few team members professed hat they were Christians but do not go to church.  The issue of adoption was openly discussed, especially as it relates to the family that had to adopt a Chinese baby. They remain convinced that their decision worked in the child’s favour and theirs. They are a happy bunch and once can notice he happiness in the child as well.

 

The night itself was devoid of any notable incident. I had taken my leave from the group earlier than others and settled into the comfort of my swag. I slept off, deeply and soundly.

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