The Ghan 

and Uluru

 October 21, Darwin

Not much to tell about today. We packed our suitcases and........

(OK - this is where we have to fess up. We told everyone that we were only taking carry-on luggage and that was our plan ! However, as soon as we arrived in Cairns, we decided that there was NO WAY we could carry everything as carry-on, especially as we discovered that the Australian airlines have weight (rather than size) limits on their carry-on. So we have bought another suitcase ! The weird thing is - even though we haven't bought ANYTHING since arriving in Australia - all our luggage is full ! Perhaps not as well packed as before but still full. Strange !

Anyway, we said our good byes to our hosts and headed for Cairns airport. A bit of confusion because there are two terminals - domestic and international - and although our flight was domestic, it left from the International terminal. Turns out the flight continues on to Singapore so it's classed as International. Even more peculiar, we had to clear customs and immigration in Darwin just like an international flight. We returned our car and met a very interesting / strange / chatty man who checked our car in. Turns out he used to work at Harrods in London, in the toy department and had met Princess Diane on four occasions and knew Mohammed Al Fayed (Dodi's father) as well. You never know who you are going to meet when you are travelling.

So we arrived at Darwin late in the afternoon and checked in to the Crowne Plaza for three nights. Nice hotel but to be honest, all modern hotels are pretty much the same. We took a walk down to the Wharf and had a glass of wine while watching the sun set. It was very windy so we decided not to eat at the Wharf and walked back to the hotel where we grabbed a steak at a nearby restaurant  and went back to our room and crashed.

October 22 - Darwin

The Crowne Plaza is located in downtown Darwin making it easy for us to explore the area on foot. Darwin was very badly damaged in February 1942 by the same Japanese squadron that bombed Pearl Harbor a few weeks earlier.

We visited the World War II Oil Storage Tunnels, which were never actually used for oil storage - the war ended before they were finished (see picture to the right). 

An elderly volunteer told us that the city was bombed many times in the years that followed and Japanese troops actually landed in the area on reconnaissance missions. The Japanese did have plans to invade Australia, but they were shelved because the country is so large. The city was rebuilt after the war but pretty much destroyed again by Cyclone Tracy in 1974. There are a couple of older early colonial buildings that have been restored but most of the buildings are post 1974 and lack any real charm.

We were told that the Mindil Beach Sunset Market (see picture) was one of Darwin's highlights so we jumped into a taxi and headed out.  The market had a large section of food stalls with some really tasty treats from a wide variety of countries. Kris tried camel on a stick and Paul tried the Kangeroo (tastes like beef !)  Yummy!  We spent the next hour grazing on different foods from various stalls. The arts and craft stalls were interesting but there wasn't anything that we just had to buy. 

Just before six we joined the hundreds of other people sitting on the beach and admired the  sunset which was actually a bit of a bust ! It was too early to return to the hotel so we took a taxi to nearby Cullen Bay, an upmarket area developed around a marina. We sat outside on the deck of Yot's Greek Restaurant (Yots - it's a pun on Yachts) and downed a beer each while the restaurant filled up with a VERY noisy and VERY large group. Time for us to leave ! 

October 23 - Kakadu National Park

The day started at 6:00 am with a long coach ride to Kakadu National Park. Our driver/guide Kerry "call me Kessa" pointed out various sights as we sat staring out of the coach. One of the more fascinating aspects of the landscape were the many termite mounds we could see at the side of the road, some of which were more than six feet tall. Apparently each mound has one queen who can live for up to fifty years. When the queen dies, the mound dies, so the larger the mound, the older the queen. Until we actually reached the park at about 10:00 am the highlight was a stop at a roadhouse for the best  egg and bacon sandwichs we have ever tasted.

Once in the park we stopped to see rock art said to have been painted over 2,000 years ago by aborigine people. Obviously a (large) kangaroo and a (small) hunter, carrying a spear and spear thrower in one hand and (not so obviously) a feather fan, indicating a good hunting charm often carried by hunters. Probably used to keep the flies off as well.

Lunch at the Gagudju Lodge was followed by a boat trip on the Yellow Water river where we saw salt water crocodiles (very aggressive and dangerous), numerous birds and a family of water buffalo. The water buffalo, like most of the large mammals in Australia, was introduced by man for one reason or another. When the water buffalo started to breed in large numbers, they became a real problem and eventually the government culled most of them, so they are now rather uncommon.

It was a fascinating day and we saw some spectacular scenery. The contrast with the city was striking and really gave us a sense of the geography of the area. But we were glad to get back to the hotel at the end of a long day.

Aboriginal rock art

October 24 - The Ghan to Alice Springs

 Both Ayers Rock (now called Uluru - the original aboriginal name) and the Ghan Train journey were high on our list of "must do's" for this trip. Alice Springs, which is the only town in the "red center" of Australia, is the gateway to this area.  It's probably most famous outside Australia because of the book "A town like Alice". The Ghan is one of the great railway journeys of the world, so we took The Ghan to Alice Springs and used Alice as a base for our trip to visit Uluru and also Kings Canyon - a place we had never heard of before.

The Ghan is named after the Afghan cameleers who carried everything from telegraph poles to furniture and pianos from Adelaide to Alice Springs. Without them, the overland telegraph and the railway line which followed could never have been built. The orginal Ghan ran from Adelaide to Alice Springs and was only extended to Darwin in 2004.

A side note for my telecom friends. Alice Springs got its start in the 1870's as a repeater station for the overland telegraph which ran from Adelaide to Darwin and then on to Java and eventually England. The original telegraph consisted of a single copper wire strung along wooden poles with "repeaters" ever fifty miles or so. The "repeater station" was a small community - more like a farm than anything else, because they had to be largely self sufficient. Every message (in morse code, of course) was written down as it came in and then manually re-sent. Ironically, when you think about it, morse code is essentially a digital signal - long and short pulses. The more things change, the more things stay the same.

We arrived at the train station at 8:00 am and found our cabin - a 7' x 3' space that would be our home for the next twenty seven hours. The room was set up for daytime use with the bunk beds stowed. The adjoining bathroom was very well designed with a washbasin and toilet bowl that you pull down when you want to use them and a shower curtain that you close to protects the walls and also a floor drain - it's amazing that you can fit that much bathroom equipment into a 3' x 3' space.  (see pictures below)



The train pulled out on time and once again we found ourselves staring at the Australian countryside. Termite mounds look pretty much the same from the train as they do from a coach!

Lunch was served in the dining car and we were seated with a very nice couple from Scotland who are now living and working in Sydney. One of the nice things about meals on The Ghan is that the tables are for four so (sometimes) you get to dine with some very interesting people.

 In the afternoon the train stopped at the small outback town of Katherine. We opted for an optional tour - the Katherine Gorge Boat Cruise. The boat ride was beautiful and the high red sandstone gorge reminded us of the Grand Canyon. At this time of year, there is so little water that several gorges get separated from each other by rock walls and we had to climb from one gorge (and one boat) to the next.  On the bus ride back the bus driver proudly told us that a McDonald's restaurant was being built and due to open shortly. He told us that this indicated that Katherine was now a "real" town, but we think he was being a little sarcastic !

 We went to the lounge bar for pre-dinner drinks and met an interesting couple, Jean and Chris Lawn from Parbold, Lancashire. We had a lot in common with them and enjoyed hearing about their travels overseas and life in Lancashire. We joined them for dinner and for breakfast the next morning. They were continuing on The Ghan to Adelaide so we didn't see them again.

October 25 - Alice Springs

We arrived in Alice Springs at 1:15pm and went to our hotel, the Alice Springs Resort. As we were leaving Alice Springs early the next morning we decided to take a city tour of the town in order to see as much as possible in a short time. We joined five other people for an afternoon tour that included: The Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia, the Alice Springs School of the Air and The Old Telegraph Station. This also included an exhibition about the aboriginal children who were taken from their mothers in the 1950's and sent to missions to become "more white" - a very controversial issue in Australia. 

And last but not least the Reptile Zoo (see picture). Is the lizard holding the reptile or vice versa ? Still under debate.


October 26 - Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park

Today we headed out on a two-night coach trip to include Uluru,  Kata Tjuta (previously known as The Olgas) and Kings Canyon. Our driver/guide Leigh was excellent and kept us awake with information about the landscape, animals and aboriginal people.

We stopped for a break at a Camel farm and as we have never ridden a camel we decided to take advantage of the 5 minute, $5 camel ride - pretty cool but very bumpy! Lawrence of Arabia made it look so easy.

We arrived at the Desert Gardens Resort in Uluru around midday. This was one of several hotels clustered together in a small resort area a few miles from the rock. By now, we had seen both Uluru and Kata Tjuta from a distance but  late in the afternoon Leigh (our bus driver) picked us up to go out to for a sunset tour and a closer view.

We started with a walk between one of the thirty six domes of Kata Tjuta along a natural creek, a lovely walk that took about an hour. You can see two of the domes to our left and right. As was usually the case, the small stream which would run between the domes was dry, but the vegetation was still very green

Then we moved on to "The Rock". Sunset at Uluru is a big deal with hundreds of people lined up at the viewing point with cameras ready to shoot the perfect photo as the rock picks up the deep orange color at sunset. The tour operators all provide a cheap glass of wine and some snacks to keep the customers happy while they wait (for an hour) for the sun to set. 

 (These are the requisite photos of the rock at Sunset and us in front of the rock at Sunset to prove we were really here. All tourists are required by law to take these exact same pictures and they all do.) 

October 27 - Uluru and Kings Canyon

A very early start ! We had to get up at 3:45am in order to be packed and ready for a 4:45am pick up to view Uluru at sunrise. We were taken to a different spot from the night before so the sun hit the rock as it rose. No snacks or wine on this tour, but we did have a box breakfast from the hotel so we munched on a muffin and a granola bar as we waited for the sun. This is a desert so it was COLD in the morning. Good thing we dressed in jeans and long sleeves. 

Once the sun was up we went for a guided walk around the base of the rock. Interestingly, Uluru itself isn't sacred to the aborigines, but there are several sacred sites around the rock, which are closed to tourists and we were asked not to take photos of them. What we did see was the rock itself, water holes and rock paintings. The guide told us some of the stories and legends associated with the rock, but she admitted that the aborigines won't share the most important stories with white people, so what she told us was what a six year old aborigine might know. 

It is possible to climb to the top of Uluru but the climb was closed when we visited. The aborigines ask that tourists should not climb the rock - they have a nasty habit of peeing on it when they get to the top and leave litter which isn't exactly respectful. What's worse, it pollutes the water holes at the base of the rock and THAT is offensive. We couldn't help but chuckle at the sad story the guide told us of the tourist who climbed the rock wearing plastic Croc shoes which he had no choice other than to  discard when they melted on the hot rock!

In the afternoon we left for Kings Canyon, a small river valley among beautiful desert scenery about one hundred miles away. We reached our hotel in the late afternoon and took a short nap. We are getting old and it had been a long day ! 

The Kings Canyon Resort area is much smaller than Uluru with one hotel/motel where we stayed, a campground, a Mobil Station, Cafe and a Bar-B-Que restaurant and pub where we decided to eat dinner. The steaks were so large that Leigh told us to share one steak and ask for an extra potato and salad, which we did. Plenty of food for two people. The live entertainment were a couple in their '70s, the guy played guitar and sang and his wife played the Tea chest bass - the last time I saw one of these was at Disney at the Country Bear Jamboree played by an animatronic bear

October 28 - Kings Canyon

Next day we had three options. A 5:00 am start followed by a four hour walk that involved climbing six hundred steps. Leigh called it Heartbreak Hill but later in the day another driver called it Heart Attack Hill which seemed more appropriate. Then you had to negotiate a narrow ledge that was not suitable for anyone who was afraid of heights and each walker had to carry three liters of water.

The second alternative was to do an easy one hour walk along the canyon creek starting at 8:15 am and the third option was to stay in bed ! Guess which one we did?  Yep - the easy walk. It was the 5:00 am start that did it.

 This is a view of the canyon floor. Very green but rock strewn because when it rains, the canyon floods.

As he had chickened out of the long walk that day, Paul decided to do a 15 minute helicopter ride over the canyon.  Kris decided to wait for another occasion to jump in a helicopter and saved us $140 in the process. Obviously, looking down from a helicopter isn't as satisfying as doing the climb but it was a lot less exhausting.

Finally, back on the coach for the six hour drive back to Alice Springs. Phew !

October 29 - Alice Springs - Back on The Ghan

The bus for the Ghan did not pick us up until late in the morning so we decided to talk a walk into Alice Springs and look around the small downtown area (see picture). We found some interesting  Aboriginal art work and digeridoos. Some of the aboriginal art work is very nice but the prices for the good stuff is crazy - $13,000 for a painting! We are still working on buying a didgeridoo. 

We rejoined the Ghan for the second leg of our journey, from Alice Springs to Adelaide. After some confusion with our room number and our meal arrangements, we finally got settled. Our meal companions were less entertaining than previously, although we had an interesting breakfast the next day with a guy travelling alone who is a musical director in Finland and plays with a band called JeanS (after Sibelius).