Making a new friend at a roadhouse off the Stuart Highway in the middle of nowhere!
The drive from Alice Springs to Darwin is long – about 20 hours – and there’s not too much to see in between except for Devils Marbles and Katherine Gorge. So the guide on our trip had to be a bit creative in stops to make the 3 day tour more exciting, and she did a good job of it. A friend of hers at a roadhouse south of Daly Waters has a few pet pythons which she lets visitors hold and take a picture with. Considering most zoos will charge $20 for this, I took the opportunity to do it for free.
There is also the famous Daly Waters pub – a place which claims to have the oldest liquor license in Australia. Like lots of other outback roadhouses they have collected postcards, photos, letters, and other memorabilia from all over the world.
Finally there’s the Mataranka thermal pools and Waterhouse River – a nice swimming spot just south of Katherine that’s not worth going out of your way for but a pleasant spot if you’re passing through anyway.
The impressive balancing act of one of the granite boulders that is part of the Devils Marbles conservation park in central Australia
Heading north from Alice Springs on the grand Top End tour, the first big site is Devils Marbles (known to aboriginals as Karlu Karlu). The marbles are so ominously named because there is a toxic plant that grows nearby, and when the European farmers came through their sheep all dropped dead. The site, like most in the area, are sacred to the local people and conservation is paramount. However, unlike Uluru and Kata Tjuta, visitor access is largely unrestricted and no tickets are required.
The boulders are quite strange, as a lot of them are completely hollow and can be split very easily. Still others are precariously balanced on larger rocks. One guy in my tour group remarked that they looked like they’d been dropped down by a particularly heinous tornado or hurricane, but actually they were carved out through wind and water erosion from a layer of granite under the earth’s surface over hundreds of millions of years.
A view of Kings Canyon from the rim walk
One of the most popular attractions in the Red Centre of Australia is Kings Canyon (aka Watarrka National Park) and its a fixture on all the tour routes. There is a 6km walk around the rim of the canyon that gives amazing views of both sides of the canyon. There are loads of fascinating plants which are used by aboriginals for a variety of medicinal purposes and also an abundance of bird life to ogle.
Perhaps most impressive is the sheer age of Kings Canyon – it’s believed the sandstone in this area was laid about 440 million years ago, around the same time ago life on Earth began. There used to be a lake covering the area and evidence of this is shown in fossils of ripples, worms, and jellyfish. There are plant species that pre-date the dinosaurs and still grow today. I’m not a geologist and pre-history makes my head hurt, but it’s hard not to be impressed by those facts.
The mountain known alternately as Attila and Mt. Conner as viewed from highway 4
Near to Uluru on the private Curtin Springs cattle station is yet another massive geological formation known to aboriginals as Attila, to European Australians as Mt. Conner, and to my tour guide as “Fuluru” because many a wanderer has mistaken this mountain for the famous red rock.
As it’s on private property it’s not easy to approach the mountain, but there is a hill near the road where you can get a nice panoramic view of Attila and the surrounding area. It’s also a great place to get up close to the red sand, and even take some home if you’re keen.
After driving past Attila our tour group stopped to see the sunset over Kings Canyon, our next destination.
The Yank without a Chain posing at the Karingana lookout point at Kata Tjuta
Uluru’s less famous sister, Kata Tjuta, was the second stop on my grand tour of the Top End. Although it’s not as well known, Kata Tjuta is equally as impressive as Uluru – possibly more so. A maze of 36 rock domes, the site is home to a wonderful 7km hiking loop. I managed to break away from my group (who were incredibly slow and chatty hikers) and do the loop more or less on my own, which gave me the opportunity to take some awesome shots. The clean air was extremely energizing and I felt absolutely amazing after finishing this hike. It’s probably the best thing I’ve done in Australia so far (though it has some very stiff competition).