Sunday, October 13th, 2019 – Yulara, NT to Marla, SA (again)

Distance travelled 516 km

In the morning we began to retrace our steps back to Port Augusta.

A “northern” route from the Ghan turnoff to Perth does exist and it passes by Yulara. It would be a much shorter distance but, sadly, it is largely unsealed. A 4×4 or a road-train might be able to make it and they do, but it is, by all accounts, a very tough trip. Perhaps a fairly hard-core enduro motorcycle could too, but fuel would definitely be a problem for it. The way is, essentially, a fairly wide, but very rough track through the wilderness. It is not a place for a 300 plus kilogram Harley-Davidson.

The twin constraints of geography and health won out. This meant that we really had little choice but to stop at all the same places as we had on the previous Friday, but in the reverse order. Not long after leaving Yulara, there was a sign beside the road reminding people that, in Australia, driving is done on the left. If there is a more “redundant” sign on this planet, I would like to see it !

We stopped first at Curtin Springs, where I ostentatiously refilled the tank. Lucie said nothing, but then again she did not need to ! Strangely, the Harley group was still in residence. What they were doing I could not guess and I never found out as they were, if anything, even less communicative than on our outward journey.

We next stopped again at the abandoned Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse. It had an air of desolation and melancholy. To me it seemed almost like one of the “Ghost Towns” I had once seen along Route 66. There were even the rusty remains of what had once been a V8 engine amongst the weeds by the front door. The building itself looked solid enough and it had obviously once been quite a thriving place. Faded signage indicated it had once boasted a campsite, a motel, a shop and even an aboriginal art shop. The posts of the covered entrance walkway in which we sat for shade was adorned with a number of beautifully rendered images in what I suppose I really need to call the “First Nations” style. The sad recent history of the roadhouse, which Lucie found on the internet, appears below.

The Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse.

The Mt. Ebenezer Roadhouse used to be a very popular place for tourists to stop on the lonely route to Uluru.

In 2012, a man rented it out for 12 years from a company which owned the entire business and belonged, in part, to the local Aboriginal tribe. The company was significantly in debt and the premises had been closed. Part of the lease agreement was that all the profits from the first three years of operation needed to be applied to settlement of the debt. The lessee agreed, moved in and began renovations. A week before he even could open for trade, a couple of aborigines broke in, attacked him with a spear and threatened to kill him. It was night, he was alone, there was no ‘phone signal. The lessee was so terrified that he climbed out of the toilet window and ran down the road until he came across a tourist bus that took him to Alice Springs. An ABC (something like the Australian BBC) interview later revealed that the lessee had then been removed from the lease for “incompetence”. This obviously upset him, but it probably upset the creditors still more, because the aboriginal business then went completely bankrupt. The roadhouse had remained empty ever since. Jumping to conclusions is not wise, but this seems like a characteristic aboriginal business story.

It is a shame, because there are not enough places to stop or stay on that lonely road and its relative proximity to Mount Conner might have made it a worthwhile place to rest or camp.

At the Ghan Services, at the turnoff to Alice Springs and Port Augusta, we had quick brunch. It was really hot and that, once again, engendered a degree of listlessness in us that meant we dithered there longer than we really meant to. Again I refilled the Harley, but my policeman friend was nowhere to be seen. In the heat, riding it out from the shade when we left was like riding into something tangible.

Continuing our new “habit” we made our fourth stop at another previously visited location, the Kulgera Roadhouse.

Thirsty, rather than hungry, we went into the bar for non-alcoholic liquid refreshment. What a strange place that was. It is called the “bra bar” and they are not kidding ! The entire ceiling is festooned with bras, there are literally hundreds of all shades and styles. We drank water and iced-coffee and ignored the Wine List, which merely offered “Red” and “White” and where some comedian had added “Green“. Similarly, we passed up the opportunity to buy T-shirts boldly emblazoned with the inscription CUNT (C U in Northern Territory or C U Next Time, depending upon your direction of travel).

With Lucie declining to offer the bra collection her personal support, we ate our two remaining bananas before setting off. This was because we were about to leave the Northern Territory and, for quarantine reasons, no fruit and vegetables may be transported across the State borders. A strict quarantine IS enforced and cars and caravans can be and often are checked. We, of course, were basically ignored there. The New South Wales and South Australia border was the only place they had even asked, but that was also a bit like a real border. Here, there were signs and quarantine bins in which to discard any plant products and you had to drive slowly past a checkpoint, but nothing else. You would not want to be caught out, though, the posted fiscal penalties, even for banana smuggling, are a bit frightening.

We were again “on the road” and, as the heat of noon passed, the temperature dropped from “sweltering” down to just “hot” and we began to enjoy the ride. The searing heat aside, we really did enjoy traveling around that region. At first it did seem that the desert road would be terminally boring. It is mainly straight, predominantly flattish and quite superbly surfaced. These qualities, ironically, meant that, to me as the driver there were little in the way of external stimuli to help me maintain my concentration. It was also fairly plain that the kangaroos were generally more interested in resting while it was daylight than in hopping across the road. It remained a possibility, of course, but a background one, particularly in the bright heat of the middle of the day.

We quickly realised that the desert was not, as one might pre-suppose, as unchanging as it was endless. The longer we were there, the more its beauty and diversity became apparent. The Australian deserts are not all identical extensions of the same thing at all, in fact, every bit is different.

The colour of the sand is mostly a deep orange, but in places where a “bush fire” has passed there are areas of black, ashy grey, brown or simply classic, yellowish sand. A seemingly inexhaustible amount of shrubs and grasses also grow there. These are in an endless range of green shades that are probably dictated, to a degree, by the availability or otherwise, of water. There are around 700 sub-species of eucalyptus trees. Their trunks range in colour from almost white (the “ghost” gums) and right across the brown spectrum to charred black after the fires. Here and there a rock formation or small, solitary hill peeks out from the surrounding surface as if casually discarded there by a giant. It is an endless cycle of renewal. Parts of the desert are totally bare, some areas are in the first stages of a post-fire regrowth and some are tangled masses of old and overgrown bush that is patiently awaiting the stray spark or lightening strike that will reduce it back to bare sand.

On a long journey, you take your mental diversions where you can. At that point we had crossed quite a number of slightly lower stretches of road that, from their general shape, may well have been across long dead rivers and water courses. We were to cross many, many more before we were done. As you might imagine, we would drop gently down into these, ride for a distance, sometimes up to 5 kilometres and then rise up again at the far “bank”. What was very surprising to us was that the entry to these lower stretches was usually marked by a large warning sign, bearing the inscription “Floodway“. These were in the arid and searing hot desert, remember. Even more surprisingly, along the length of these lower stretches were placed depth markers, which usually allowed for a water height of at least two metres. We could only suppose that, occasionally, torrential rain must cause flash flooding.

Naturally, my over active brain immediately kicked into overdrive. Unbidden, it produced the fact that, to cover a 10 metre wide road, for a distance of 5 kilometres, with 2 metres of liquid, even if that water was in a static, metre wide, block, would take 100 million litres. The dry water courses stretched into the far distance on either side of the road – probably up to 50 kilometres. Even if such a flood was to suddenly arrive at the road from one direction, the liquid needed would be 50,000 times that figure – on an ongoing basis. There are so many zeros in that total figure that typing them would exhaust me and I do not really even really know the correct word ending in “illion” to describe it. A calculator would show that a volume of 5 x 10 to the power of 12 of litres of liquid would be required. The mind boggles but, if the signs are there, it must be a possibility, no matter how faint.

We kept droning south. A seemingly endless road with a succession of distantly spaced motels and roadhouses now lay in front of us. At Port Augusta, which we hoped to reach the next day around noon, we would turn west and set out for a real outback. I have mentioned that the outback actually has designations of severity and, across the Nullarbor wasteland, that is a three. I have since found out that these gradations were something Lucie had thought up herself and have no official standing ! However, given the loneliness of the road we were then on and the harshness of the surrounding terrain, I could not imagine that this “line”, real or imaginary, was going to make a significant difference.

We arrived in Marla and were greeted at the reception by the same guy from Brighton. We were even put in the same room. Our other old acquaintance, who was either Trish or Tracy, had either been promoted or demoted to the kitchen. She was smiling as she sold us our evening meal so hopefully it was the former.

It was a beautiful. moonlit night. The skies are so clear in the outback that the moon looks huge and, when it first rises, you can practically see detail on the surface. We took a short walk before returning to our familiar room for a well earned sleep.

On the subject of water.

Our visit was in October, which in the Southern Hemisphere is the end of Spring. This was probably the drier part of the year. In the temperate zones around the east and southeast coast it does rain quite a lot from time to time. We had seen it briefly in Sydney. In the desert, it would appear that rain is a rarity, but when it does happen, as evidenced by the calculation above, it is more of torrential and must be on a startling scale. Unsurprisingly, most establishments in the desert have a considerable ability to collect and conserve rainwater when it does fall. The Australian continent does have vast, subterranean aquifers and most places in the drier zones also have access to this underground, “artesian” water. Most of the water in the public water mains in central zones is not drinkable, because it is primarily artesian and salty from dissolved minerals.

Despite its scarcity, water is offered free of charge in all bars and restaurants. We were, by then, accustomed to finding a carafe of water or a tap next to the bar, with cups or glasses for public use. It is not necessary to ask, merely to look around.

Back home in Prague, despite legislation to the contrary, it is not such a matter of course. Although drinkable water flows freely from the taps, most places usually begrudge giving it away and usually levy a “fee” for putting it in front of you. In Australia, precisely because it is not a matter of course that drinking water flows from the tap, they give it away.

In this respect, Prague has a long way to go.