11th June to 17th June
Uluru to Tennant Creek
After the mammoth of a drive last week, we planned to stay one more night at Uluru so we could see the giant red rock from up close as well as the National Park’s other highlight, Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). Once we were done here, the journey would continue back the way we came straight through the middle of Australia and on up to Darwin. 1,945 kilometres!
Monday – Uluru
Our Monday morning started early with us joining the 6am convoy into the National Park. It costs $25 per adult to enter the park for three days which is worth it. If you think it’s too much, you don’t really have a choice as there’s only one road in and it has barriers.
The plan today was to watch both sunrise and sunset from the sunrise viewing area. For sunset, I thought it would look good if Uluru was silhouetted against the setting sun.
The drive from the campsite took about half an hour until we (and probably a hundred others) were in place to watch the sunrise. Everyone praying that Uluru goes through its full range of colours, including bright red. It wasn’t to be. There were clouds in the distance blocking the suns golden rays from hitting the sandstone.
Despite this, it was still one of the best things I’ve experienced in Australia. The pictures really don’t do the size of Uluru any justice. It is massive. It’s 1,142 feet high and it’s circumference is 9.4 kilometres. Apparently, two-thirds of the rock remains under the ground.
As the crowds quickly dispersed, we remained in the carpark pretty much alone. We made breakfast and chilled out whilst we waited for the ranger-led Mala walk at 10am.
After another twenty minute drive around to the other side of Uluru, we were in place to join a free guided walk. We learnt about the Mala (small wallabies) people, Anangu culture and rock art. Uluru is a very important place for ceremonies and has been used as such for at least 10,000 years.
We were also told that the sandstone contains a lot of iron and the texture of the rock is essentially due to rusting. The walk took about two hours (which was probably a little too long) but we ended up at a peaceful waterhole. This was used as a drinking supply for both humans and animals. The Anangu people would wait until kangaroos had drank and kill the last one for food. By killing the last one, the other kangaroos would just think poor little John had got lost and would keep coming back to the waterhole. Smart.
Monday – Kata Tjulta
From a distance, the Olgas are already impressive enough. These huge red domes (one even taller than Uluru) lie 35km west of Uluru and are a must-see when entering the National Park.
We drove all the way to one of the gorges but weren’t able to complete the walk thanks to an insane amount of flies. It was unbearable so we ran back to the comfort of the van. Only about ten flies managed to get inside so we were safe.
In any event, I think that the Olgas look better from a distance when they appear all bunched together. It does however have a great view of Uluru which is worth the long drive out there.
Today we hit the road again and set off towards Alice Springs; to the same rest area we stayed at three nights earlier. Literally all we did was drive and sleep.
The following morning, we thought we’d give Alice Springs another shot but again we were out very quickly. This section was the drive that I’d hated last week and yet again we filled up three times just to do a shorter distance.
Tonight we stayed at the Devil’s Marbles, known as Karlu Karlu in the local aboriginal language. The English name came from John Ross who was conducting a survey for an overland telegraph line. Of the area, he stated ‘This is the Devil’s country; he’s even emptied his bag of marbles around the place!’
There are huge boulders everywhere made of the same sandstone as Uluru, some even balancing as though they were held up with string. The campsite was already packed but we squeezed in between two caravans. It only cost $6.60 for both of us. The area also features in aboriginal dreamtime stories and I’m pretty sure I read that they don’t even like going there.
However, when the sun began to set, the boulders shone like they were on fire. We climbed up a path to the top and watched the sun disappear on the horizon. All beautiful apart from the flies!
Thursday – The Worst Day
After exploring more of the Devil’s Marbles early doors, we set off happy and refreshed. We made good progress too and were well on our way to Darwin.
All of a sudden, out of nowhere, we heard a loud POP. It didn’t sound bad or anything and you always hear random noises when driving for 5-7 hours a day. However, the battery light then came on and, within seconds, the temperature gauge started to increase.
It increased from half to about three quarters and so we immediately pulled over and switched the engine off. We were in the middle of nowhere. Nothing around as far as the eye could see. Obviously, just like in the horror movies, we had no phone signal either to ring RAC.
Within minutes, a flatbed truck had turned around and was driving towards us on the wrong side of the road. It had a whole load of junk on the back. There were two guys in the front. The driver, who was old, large, missing teeth and as Aussie as they come, immediately offered to help. Nice enough we thought.
The issue was that the fanbelt had come off but not quite snapped. The younger guy fitted it back on and we were apparently okay to drive slowly to the next roadhouse which the driver happened to own. Everything was apparently checked and there was little risk of overheating.
Obviously a money-making scheme, they said that we owed them $30 for the one minute ‘fix’.
The engine switched back on nicely and we were no longer overheating. The temperature gauge was back to normal. It stayed normal as we cruised at 70 km/h. Phew. The truck eventually overtook us and we would meet them back at the roadhouse where they could sell us a new fanbelt. Unfortunately, things got even worse. After twenty kilometres, there was another loud BANG with a smell of burning and both the oil and battery light came on. Within seconds, I’d switched the engine off and cruised to a stop. Immediately a road train thundered past and looked as though he was trying to slow down towards the top of the road. He obviously couldn’t turn around so on he went. The fanbelt was still intact but looked as though it was on the wrong way round. I know nothing about mechanics so there was no point me staring at the engine. Again, we had no signal so there was no option but to try a flag a car down.
We saw two 4x4s coming towards us. The first one passed but the second stopped. The first car came back and it turned out they were father and son and daughter-in-law. They were travelling up from Alice Springs where the son had just competed in the Finke Desert Race. They were mechanics (albeit on trucks) but they still knew what they doing. After a minute or two, a group of aboriginals in a beat-up car pulled off the road and circled our broken down van asking if we needed any help. There were already five of us and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t have helped in any way possible. We were told that if a car or van breaks down out here, it’ll be ransacked and burnt. The passengers are also highly likely to be attacked. Despite this, I hadn’t felt as scared as I thought I would.
Unfortunately, after forty minutes scrambling round in the dirt and trying everything humanely possible, the van just would not start. There was nothing else to be done. Our only option was to get to the next roadhouse and ring for the RAC. Having spent a bit of time with the three rescuers we trusted them. We couldn’t leave the van by itself out there and I wouldn’t leave Emma by herself with the van. The only option was for Emma to travel with them up to the next roadhouse (which turned out to be ten minutes away) and leave me with the van. I got the chair out and sat under the beating sun in the outback waiting for help. Oh, I also had a knife in easy reach. You know, just in case.
Ten minutes later, it wasn’t the RAC or Emma that turned up. The roadhouse owner from earlier was back in a different car altogether. He laughed at the fact we’d broken down again. I explained what the mechanics had checked and he said he’d tow the van to his roadhouse. That’ll be another $30 he said.
Now we were both reunited at the roadhouse, on the phone to the RAC, with a chicken running around on the bar. Honestly, this is real life…in Australia.
After some initial issues, RAC agreed to cover the cost of a tow through our extended benefits at a cost of $980. The only issue was that no-one could pick us up until the next day and we’d have to be taken all the way back to Tennant Creek. We’d driven through twice and it looked far worse than Alice Springs. The only issue was where to stay. The roadhouse had a camping ‘area’ which was literally just a bit of land he’d fenced off. He said we could stay there for the cost of $25. He must have had $$$ signs in his eyes when he saw us. It came out in conversation that we were both lawyers and, apparently, the man that stood before me had been a lawyer too in Brisbane. I just don’t know what to believe anymore.
After being towed to as far away as possible, the roadhouse owner’s wife came over to him and us and was asking, basically, what the hell was going on. She was telling us how fortunate we were we had been saved by them. They then proceeded to sit about five metres from our van and kept shouting at each other about wages, staff members and debts. It did not sound good. With our heads banging and not knowing whether our van would ever start again, we couldn’t really sleep.
After waking up super early, we were approached by the roadhouse owner again asking where I had been. I was meant to start work at 6am. We’d mentioned that we had been planning on looking for jobs up in Darwin but we didn’t expect this. Apparently I’d been roped in to help spruce up the toilets and do some tiling (seriously?) for the promise of great money. Luckily, just at that moment, our tow truck pulled in. The mechanic didn’t really say anything but was getting the van ready to be loaded on to the back. He made me try and start the van and simply said the engine was done.
Don’t worry, I didn’t pay the roadhouse owner a single cent!
That didn’t put us in the best of moods for the two hour drive south; all three of us in the front of his truck making small talk. What a sight we must have been!
We were taken to the back streets of Tennant Creek where after a quick pressure test, we were told the engine was definitely knackered. We’d need another engine. There were no guarantees when and if we’d even get one and it would probably cost $4,000. FFS.
The garage shut for lunch so we went to the petrol station for free Wi-Fi and some fast food. We were frantically coming up with different options and trying to research what on earth we could do. Alice Springs was the only city nearby and was a six hour drive away; $150 each on an overnight bus. But, what would we do with the van? For those that don’t know, we bought the van for $12,000 and must have spent at least another $1,000 on extras.
Next door to the petrol station was a campsite and it was now mid-afternoon. Whatever happened, we needed somewhere to stay. We spoke to the campsite owner and he helped us tow the van across town. We didn’t know how long we were going to stay for. We were also told that someone else who had stayed at Devil’s Marbles had a heart attack the following day and left their caravan behind in Tennant Creek. I also decided to do a bit of research about Tennant Creek which, looking back, I probably shouldn’t have. Apparently, the crime rate of this small settlement is higher than the USA. It is not a place that you want to be out and about after dark. Thankfully the campsite was protected by security fences.
The End of the Road
The best plan we had was to get to Alice Springs and fly across to Perth to stay with Emma’s cousin who had kindly offered to help. We therefore set about trying to get rid of the van and as much of our belongings as possible. We would only be leaving with what we could carry. I’d love to see the locals of Tennant Creek in a few week’s time wearing some of my Vans and Next t-shirts.
After not much luck, everything changed on Sunday. We’d set up a stall in the camp kitchen where we were giving stuff away for free! Word eventually got around and everything got taken from food to my cricket set. We did get a few donations, totalling $40. One woman gave me $5 for my deep-cycle battery charger I’d recently bought for $110. I still hurt inside.
I randomly started chatting to two women walking their dogs and the next thing we knew their husband had offered us a lift to Alice Springs the next morning at 7am. It was now 5pm and we still hadn’t packed or got rid of the van. I then got a message on Facebook after putting the van up for sale on the local ‘For Sale’ page. The guy offered $500 for the van. We weren’t really in any position to negotiate as if we couldn’t sell it we’d be leaving it behind. The campsite owner secretly hoped for this as he wanted it but wouldn’t pay for it. The deal for $500 was accepted if the guy could come at 6:30am and had the cash over. He went for it!
So there you have it, 6:30am came and we signed over the van for $500 cash. We piled all of our belongings into a motorhome, sat in the back and began our drive down to Alice Springs. During the journey, we decided to book into a hotel for the night and then see if we could fly to Perth the following day.
We were dropped off at the Ibis Hotel in Alice Springs which luckily had rooms available albeit for $150. We had no suitcases so a trip to the one suitable shop saw us dropping $200 for two brand new ones. Given how remote we were, we also ended up paying over $1,000 for the flights. Flights from all other major cities would have set us back around $300.
After all that, I’m sad to say that our dream of driving around Australia is over. We still managed to see a hell of a lot of Australia. We lived in that van for six months something that I’ll cherish forever.
Over and out.
ps. don’t worry, I’ll be back soon!