The Australian Outback
Beware of Kangaroos. Be careful of Road Trains. Make sure you don’t fall asleep.Make sure you carry a lot of water.
Make sure you carry extra fuel in the car. Always have emergency food rations. You must carry camping gear with you. You must have a satellite phone with you. Make sure you carry an icebox in the car. Never drive in the night.
Warnings, suggestions, advice. Above is what you hear from every single person in Australia when you tell them that you are going to drive through the Northern Territory. The Australian Outback! We had heard these words of wisdom from the day we landed in Darwin till the day we actually started driving south from Darwin. We were already very anxious but not really worried. Yeah, we were very very curious about the drive through one of the remotest lands on earth. The drive from Darwin to Brisbane was going to take us over a week during which we would be driving through barren landscapes, remote terrains and areas where you would encounter more kangaroos, crocodiles and snakes than humans. After sitting in Darwin for a week, we were more than ready for action and all these tips and warnings only got us more excited.
Only 30 minutes after leaving Darwin, we realised what we were getting ourselves into.
We started driving south on Stuart Highway also knows as ‘The Track’. A completely desolate, brown, barren, rugged, remote, desert landscape opened in front of us. Life had changed in a matter of minutes. All around us was land. Plain barren land. No trees, no plants, no animals, no water, no people, no cars, no birds. Only land all around us. We were driving on a straight highway which didn’t seem to be making any curves or turns. It was a straight road as far as the eye could see. We continued driving for a couple of hours with the sun working hard over our heads. My first thought was what if the car breaks down? How would we call for help? In the last hour, we had not seen any cars or trucks pass us or approach from the opposite direction. We were not sure if we should even stop for a 10 minutes break and it felt like we should continue driving and approach some civilization.
“The next town is Katharine which is over 300 km away” I said to Sanjay
After we had a bit of a taste of driving through the outback for a couple of hours, we finally decided to take a break. It had only started to sink in what the next week had in store for us. One thing was clear. It was going to be a long lonely journey through a very hostile terrain.
“Driving in Ladakh was easy. At least we kept passing small villages and you could see cars. But there is nothing here. Absolutely nothing” I said to Sanjay
“Yup, it would be suicidal to drive here during night. We have to always ensure that we reach our destination before sunset” Sanjay replied.
We got out of the car and were stretching our muscles when we heard some sound coming from a far distance. It sounded like a train approaching from somewhere but there were no rail tracks anywhere. We kept looking far ahead in the distance and the sound kept on getting louder. Then we saw it. A Road Train. A huge mean looking truck pulling 4 carriages carrying over 100 tons of weight approached aggressively from the opposite direction. ROAD TRAIN in yellow was boldly printed on the front bumper. It zoomed past us and we nearly felt the earth move under our feet.
“What the hell was that?” I said in shock
“Wow! What a sight. Did you see that? A Road Train!” Sanjay exclaimed
We had been warned never to slow down if a Road Train is approaching from behind. Road Trains are basically big trucks pulling two to four carriages at a time. Because they are pulling such heavy loads, it is impossible for them to make turns or change lanes or slow down without warning. If you end up coming in their way, they will have no choice but to crash into you because just like regular trains, they cannot stop instantly. Australia being such a massive country, goods are supplied mostly using such road trains rather than using actual trains because it is simply more practical and cheaper to run trucks than build rail tracks all around the continent.
In a couple of hours we reached our first destination Katherine where we decided to spend the night. We checked into our motel and while chatting with the man behind the reception, he told us,
“There are many lakes around town. A few years back, there was a massive flood during
which crocodiles actually came into the rooms of our motel. Here, you are staying in room number 13. Good Luck.” he said while handing over the keys to us
Sanjay, Prasad and I exchanged looks but without saying a word we simply looked for our lucky room which had also hosted crocodiles only a few years back. Number 13 didn’t make us feel any more comfortable. Fortunately, the night passed without any surprises and we were on our way for a long 800 km drive the next morning. The terrain remained same, only hotter and more remote. Every few hours, we would see a Road Train, every 200-300 km, a small petrol pump would appear and we made it a rule to top up our fuel tank, even if we had ample fuel to reach our destination for the day.
We stopped at a small town called Daly Waters for breakfast where we went to a pub called Daly Waters pub. The town looked like a set from a 70s action movie. Dusty, deserted, one pub, one petrol pump, a few small huts, maybe 5 ancient cars, a few men wearing hats, a few tough looking women, lots of empty space all around. We entered the pub and looked puzzled when we saw the walls and the ceiling covered with worn out t-shirts, shorts, bras and underwears! On some walls, we saw currency notes, drivers’ licenses and hand written notes.
“Are those really bras and underwears on the ceiling?” I whispered to Sanjay.
“Yup, this place is weird but surely very interesting” he replied
We ordered sandwiches and coffees and I mustered up some courage to ask the young lady with a fractured hand working behind the counter.
“Umm, I’m sorry, just curious to know why you got bras hanging on your walls?”
Fortunately, she smiled as if she was expecting this question
“Oh, its’ an old tradition. This pub was started in early 1900’s and during a game of pool, some girls bet that the one who loses will have to remove something that she is wearing
and leave it behind in the pub. The girl who lost removed her bra and left it here. Since then, it has become a tradition that whoever loses a game of pool will leave something behind. Gradually, everyone who visited us, started leaving something behind whether they played pool or not” she explained
“So, do we need to leave something also?” I asked
“Yes, it would be nice, that’s the tradition!” she smiled and replied
“Lady, we are surely not going to remove our underwears but would love to give an official T-shirt of our journey” I laughed and said
We brought one Tshirt from the car and stapled it on a empty space on the wall.
We left Daly Waters pub feeling very excited. Such places are not found on tourist brochures. You can only find yourself in such places if you are driving through the country and keep your eyes and ears open. We got a good taste of the country and an incredible story to tell. We had a long driving day ahead of us but we were full of energy and looking forward to many more exciting places in the Northern Territory. By now, we had started getting used to the remoteness and loneliness of the road. Conversations, music and the beautiful landscape all around us was enough to keep us busy. Not using a GPS made us more alert because we were always looking for sign boards and turns to make sure that we don’t lose our way and get lost somewhere in the desert. After many hours of driving on dead straight roads, we approached another very interesting town called Wycliffe Well.
“Wycliffe Well 5 km ahead” The sign board said
“Why was a picture of a UFO displayed on that sign board?” I commented curiously
“Who knows, but I am sure we are about to find that out” Sanjay replied
We reach Wycliffe Well in a few minutes and saw a caravan park on our right where tall statues of aliens, space ships and UFOs were displayed at the entrance.
“Welcome to the UFO Capital of the World” A big sign board announced
It was enough to get the better of our curiosity and we decided to go check it out. We went inside the cafe in the park and saw the walls covered with newspaper clippings of UFO sightings in Wycliffe Well over a number of years. After scanning through a few stories, we realised that Wycliff Well is a place from where apparently you can actually see UFOs flash in the sky. Flying saucers, red lights, flashing objects, it sounded like a normal occurrence here. We spoke to the proprietor of the park and he told us that,
“Of course, I have seen a lot of UFOs here in the night. Now it doesn’t excite me anymore. People come to camp here for days to spot UFOs. Some people believe it, some don’t. I am not trying to convince anyone. You just need to stay here for a few days to see one for yourself!” he said smiling. We didn’t know if it was true or not, but definitely the place got our attention. Newspaper clippings were not enough to convince me so I made a mental note to google Wycliff Well sometime and find out more about what is going on here.
Just before sunset, we reached Alice Springs, one of the bigger towns in the outback and after another long but interesting day, we were once again back on the now familiar desert
tracks of Northern Territory. Ayer’s Rock or Uluru was our next destination. Uluru is one of Australia’s most recognisable natural landmarks. The giant sandstone rock stands 348 m (1,142 ft) high, rising 863 m (2,831 ft) above sea level, with most of its bulk lying underground, and has a total circumference of 9.4 km (5.8 mi). The rock looks incredible from a distance and changes colour as the sun changes its position. Golden, Brown, Red and Charcoal depending upon which time of the day you are looking at it.
After seeing the rock, on our way back, we finally got company. Police. Red and Blue flashing lights stopped us. Secretly, I felt excited. I knew we had not broken any law but I was curious to know why we had been stopped.
“Gday sir, I need to do an alcohol test.” The sharply dressed police officer approached Sanjay.
“Umm, officer, I just had cold coffee” Sanjay said slowly with his signature smile
“No problem, I just need the machine to confirm it sir. Please blow into this plastic tube for 4 seconds” he replied
Sanjay did as instructed and after a few seconds he was clear. We chit chatted with the officer for a few minutes about our trip and were on our way.
If you think places like Daly Waters Pub or Wycliffe Well were interesting, wait till you hear about our next destination. Driving through Northern Territory might be monotonous or boring, but the places you see on the way, more than make up for the monotony. It’s like you are being rewarded for driving through the isolated regions by reaching incredible, weird, unusual towns that appear in the middle of the desert out of nowhere. No civilization for hours and hours and then suddenly you find yourself in a small town or village having a population of a few hundred of a couple of thousand.
Coober Peddy. By far, one of the most fascinating places I have ever seen in life. A small opal mining town with a population of less than 3000, it surely is the strangest towns I have seen. As we approached the town, the first thing that hit us was that there were no people. Literally. The town was deserted just like a ghost town. We kept on driving through the streets hoping to find some sign of life but there was no one. Coober Peddy is an underground town where homes, offices, hotels and churches are all built underground to avoid the high summer temperatures which can go as high as 55 degrees centigrade. By using a road map and calling our underground hotel, we finally managed to reach our hotel.
“Why is the town so deserted?” My first question at the reception of the hotel which too looked empty. The Chinese lady at the reception seemed to be managing the property all on her own.
“Umm, everyone is out at work so you don’t see any people during day time.” Was her response. Not convincing for us
We chatted with her for a few minutes about any interesting places to see in town and she recommended that we go see a place called The Big Winch and also see an underground church. We left soon and reached the top of a hill at a point known as Big Winch from where you get a bird’s eye view of the town. But once again, we were more shocked than surprised.
What would you feel if you see the following?
Burnt faces and broken arms of a little girl’s doll, keyboards hanging on a tree, 70s
computer monitors displayed on the ground? And a note saying, “If you like what you see, please put some money in the donation box”. Imagine these and more such abstract stuff placed in an isolated area on top of a hill in a completely deserted town where everyone lives underground. That’s Coober Peddy!
“How about coming here at night?” Sanjay whispered to me
“Yeah, right, maybe in another life! It’s about to get dark, lets please get out of here and go hide in our underground room” I said to him
“Not before we go to the underground church!” he replied
The church was not any more comforting. A huge stone building with glass doors that went down to a basement. We opened the doors as they made a sqeeky noise and started walking downstairs. We reached the main church hall but again, nobody there. No one praying, not even a priest. Sanjay, Prasad and I were the only souls in that church. Phew! Love it, hate it, feel uncomfortable, feel excited or creeped out, Coober Peddy has been the most interesting place that we have seen so far in Australia.
We left the town next morning without any incident and continued driving through the Outback for the next few days. A couple of times, we got delayed and had to drive after sunset. We had been warned by almost everyone never to drive in the night because that is the time that Kangaroos come out on the highways. They were right. Though we didn’t spot too many Kangaroos, but this one big fat Kangaroo did block our way and was sitting right in the middle of the highway looking straight at us. Sanjay slowed down and brought the car to a complete halt. For a few seconds, we looked directly into the Kangaroos eyes and then it took it’s time to hop off the highway.
The experience of driving in the Australian wilderness is not something anyone can be prepared for. It is exciting, it is different, it is weird, it is almost unreal, it can be boring and monotonous as well, but it is one of the most memorable driving experiences I have had in my life so far. Gradually, the terrain changed, the state changed, the colors changed, the emptiness was taken over by people and cars, the barren, rugged landscape was replaced by gorgeous green and dairy farms. We entered Queensland.