Ok, so I cheated a little and didn’t exactly go overland between Cairns & Darwin, instead I flew. Darwin was super hot but also really laid-back. Not too much was going on during the day but the town came alive at night when the temperatures were more bearable.
I took the bus out to the Museum of the Northern Territory to visit the cyclone booth. I had heard a lot about it and was curious to experience it for myself. Cyclone Tracy hit Darwin on Christmas Eve 1974 and devastated the city and large parts around it. The cyclone booth at the museum is a dark room where a recording of the actual sound of cyclone Tracy is played. It's really eerie but definitely something you should experience if you're in Darwin! Besides the booth there is also a lot of local art on display and rather randomly a stuffed crocodile called Sweetheart which was infamous for attacking the on-board motors of fishing boats.
I only spent a couple of nights in Darwin and was quickly itching to hit the road again. I got myself booked on the next backpacker tour that left for Alice Springs and thought I’d be on my way down south 24 hours later. Well, not so fast! Not too many weird, unplanned things happen to me while I’m traveling but when they do occur they’re usually really inconvenient (like the time the immigration officer ripped my passport in El Salvador), stupid (like when I get lost because the map was wrong – it’s always the map, right?) and sometimes painful (like the many times I’ve stumbled and fallen face first on the road – e.g. right in front of Buckingham Palace *cringe*) experiences.
But this one was new and most of all annoying. I got up at 4:30am, packed my things and left my hostel in Darwin. Or at least I tried to. Since it was that early there was nobody at the reception and I was instructed to leave the key in a box at the exit. So far, so good. What they omitted was that until the gate was officially opened at around 8am there is a 4-digit code that is used to open it from the inside. I was never given said code and the gate was firmly shut and seriously high. I had to be at the pick-up point for the tour 15 minutes later and started to panic a bit. In the end I spotted a neighbor's trash can outside on the street, I threw my (badly-packed and way too heavy) backpack over the gate and onto the bin, jumped over the fence and was free at last (didn’t even rip my pants! wohoo). I took my bag and was super relieved that I’d still make to the pick-up location on time. At this point I was ready for some serious outback action!
Our first stop was Nitmiluk National Park about 250 km/155 mi southeast of Darwin. We went for a refreshing swim in one of the many pools that form Edith Falls and then hiked up to a look-out spot to enjoy the view over Katherine Gorge. That was also where we spotted our first kangaroo of the trip!
Later that afternoon we stopped at the homestead of a family who made it their mission to teach visitors about dreamtime and Aboriginal culture. We learnt how to paint with traditional colors and listened to didgeridoo music played for us by an Aboriginal Australian.
The last stop of the day was our permanent campsite in the middle of the outback. The tents were big and had actual beds with mattresses in them – I was extremely happy to discover that this was more glamping than camping! Although some of us decided to sleep in swags (a fancy Aussie version of a sleeping bag) under the stars, I was personally more comfortable inside the tent. There was a fully equipped kitchen tent where we cooked dinner, a proper restroom unit with showers and a big fire pit where we roasted marshmallows and danced to salsa music. For somebody like me who is not extremely fond of camping, I was delighted with this basic yet comfortable experience! I had heard a lot about how beautiful the night sky in the outback was but I didn’t expect what I saw: literally a gazillion stars! It was unbelievable and nowhere else in the world had I ever seen such an incredible sky! I have since seen pictures of night skies from other parts of the world that are equally beautiful. Apparently the trick is to get as far as possible away from the big cities to avoid light pollution. National parks, deserts & mountain ranges all make for fantastic star gazing!
Early the next morning we were off to another swimming session but this time in a hot pool in the middle of the outback! I didn’t expect hot springs in Australia but there they were and I was swimming in one - a very surreal experience! Our next stop was Larrimah with its Pink Panther Cafe and the highest Pub in the Northern Territory. By now we were firmly on our way south on Stuart Highway.
After another hour on the bus we arrived at the famous Daly Waters Pub – the whole place seems like a random collection of things: from flags, Gaelic Football jerseys and trinkets from all over the world inside the bar to random artifacts like a traffic light (the most remote traffic light in Australia none the less!) and a helicopter on the roof of a shed. Every traveller leaves something behind here – their ID, a postcard or a message on the wall. It’s a crazy one-of-a-kind place!
In the evening of day two we arrived at another permanent camp, similar to the first one, just that this time the ground was surrounded by huge termite mounds! Those impressive structures are usually found in the west of Australia, but apparently also in the red center where we were now!
On day three a real highlight awaited us: Devils Marbles! Giant boulders strewn across a huge deserted plain and I wasn't quite sure how they got here...
There is of course a totally (geo)logical explanation for them but the idea that according to legend these are the marbles of the devil is a little more mystical :)
The boulders consist of granite and with the big temperature differences between day and night in the desert, they actually expand and contract slightly! Sometimes the stress on a boulder is so much that it cracks or in extreme cases - as above - it splits. Nature at its finest!
After thoroughly exploring the area and wandering around the devil's playground we were off to Wycliffe Well or the UFO capital of Australia – famous for its apparently super frequent UFO sightings.
The last stop before arriving into Alice Springs was the old telegraph station in Barrow Creek.
And then we finally made it into the city of Alice Springs! This is where the backpacking tour ended and we were all off on our own again – but not before meeting up at the Bojangles Saloon for an epic farewell dinner!
I had two things to tick off my bucket list in this town: I wanted to visit the School of the Air and see the headquarters of the Royal Flying Doctors. (Okay, three things: I obviously also planned to visit Ayers Rock - but that's for my next post ;))
A long time ago I had seen a documentary about the School of the Air. The idea was to bring education to the children who live in the outback and have no way of getting to the nearest school every day. It all started as a radio program. Students in the outback would tune in every day at the same time and study different subjects. Today it’s obviously much easier to reach the children. Thanks to advanced technologies there are now virtual classrooms and the students can see each other and their teacher via webcams. This allows them to work in groups and the teacher who sits in his recording studio - which looks much like a proper radio station – leads the lessons. Exercises, homework and tests are submitted online and the students are prepared for the final national exams – all while being hundreds of miles apart from each other.
If you’re ever in this part of the world consider going to their visitor center to learn more! If you’re really lucky like I was you even get to see a live lesson and say hi to the students via the teacher’s web cam!
There are many ways to support this fantastic institution and one of them is to sponsor their library. They have different books on display which are on loan from a local bookstore and once a visitor buys one of the books for the school they can include it in their library. The coolest thing: each book you buy will have a little sticker in the back with your name and country on it so the children in the outback can actually see that someone from let’s say Ireland has donated this book. The kids can select what they would like to read from the library online and the school then flies out to the homesteads to deliver and pick up the books. Pretty cool, right?
Even though they may be so far away from other children, big cities, let alone other countries, the world comes together for them through the internet! It’s fair to say that I was completely fascinated by the School of the Air and that I felt really grateful to have had the chance to see with my own eyes what I had previously only seen on TV.
A similar institution are the Royal Flying Doctors which are also headquartered in Alice Springs. These brave doctors, nurses and dispatchers make sure that the people living in the outback have access to medical care and if needed hospitals. If an emergency call comes in from a ranch too far away from the nearest town, a fully equipped medical plane is sent on its way to the patient. They can deal with everything from heart attacks to giving birth on board. Ideally though they make it to the next hospital and provide adequate care to their patients.
I hope you enjoyed part 2 of the Awesome Australian Road Trips series! Next week I’ll take to the most iconic Australian sight Ayers Rock & I'll show you what it's like to live underground! Stay tuned!