Yulara, Indigenous culture and the Field of Lights

It was an easy drive from Alice Springs to Yulara, but long, with 2×2.5 hour stretches each.

The section between Erldunda and Yulara have long scenic views, with red sand dunes and different coloured spinifex. The desert oak, resembling sheoak, are in two forms , either bushy or thin and I learned in later days that this was either mature or juvenile. They sway gently in the breeze, no matter their age, and add that touch of green to the soft colours already there.

We passed Mt Ebenezer and saw that the rest area was dilapidated and both felt sad that it had come to disrepair. We also passed a couple of viable rest stops, but couldn’t think of a situation where we’d need to stop overnight at that distance.

The campsite was busy, but only every second site was occupied. Yulara is an area but made up of the huge complex that is Ayres Rock Resort, and you can get luxurious accommodation as well as camping sites. We bought tickets for the Field of Lights at $44/ea and had to catch the shuttle at 7.15 outside the campground. Although we both felt a little tired, we were glad we did this in the end, as the luxurious coach trip and very beautiful light show was soothing.

trying to catch the sweep

Apparently the artist set these up with about 20 helpers over a few months and, in 2016, intended them to be there for a few months. They are now intended to remain until 2027. The area is the same as 7 football ovals and you just get a sea of lights, in various colours that change, sweeping before you.

close-ups

We walked along paths that were obviously lit, but not very bright, and was possible to see little coloured lights as far as the eye could make out. It was hard to photograph, which was a shame as I wanted to share the experience with my family and friends.

The next day I caught the shuttle and attended a talk on native plants and their uses, given by an Aboriginal woman, which was fabulous. I learned about the dessert oak and that the young keep their foliage close to the trunk to make sure the rain drips close to the trunk. She said that some of the older ones in the national park would be thousands of years old.

desert oak

Native lemon grass is one of the only plants that the Anangu (anarnoo) ingest, as most plants are used for creams to cure rashes and bites. It looks pretty ordinary but if you bruise the green stems it smells of lemon and this is boiled to make a soothing tea for the throat.

native lemon grass

Cassia plant and seeds. The little yellow flowers are pretty common and the seeds are collected when dry and ground to make a flour. This is used to make a crisp biscuit, full of protein. The cassia is often host to other plants and the one we looked at had 4 different types of mistletoe growing from it.

cassia flower and seed pods

The seeds of the mulga berry are sticky and when birds eat it, they can’t easily poo it out, so have to wipe their bottoms on trees. The seed then sticks to the tree and grows from it. The berry, itself, is eaten by hunters when they get hungry, to suppress hunger, enabling them to go for longer.

mulga berry

The mulga, or witchety tree is a very hard wood and can be identified by the gourds that are laid on it by insects and disease. If you dig around the roots, you should find witchety grubs, which are full of protein and can be eaten raw or cooked. Apparently, they taste like scrambled eggs. The women look for a tree with cracks near the base, indicating that the grub has taken goodness from the roots, causing the roots to swell and the earth to crack.

The spinifex has complex roots that keep the sand dunes in pace, some for 35000 years. If the outer ‘leaves’ are torn off, and mixed with animal poo and water, it makes a very effective glue that sets quickly. Hunters would take some of this with them and if they damaged a weapon, could heat up the glue and repair the tool quickly. It has been shown to work on cars!

spinifex

The grevillea flower is loaded with honey and the local women would take their bowls of water and dip the flower heads in, give it a shake, and a sweet drink for energy was instantly made. As they didn’t break off the flower, it was there for the next day, until it had finished. You should try it with other grevilleas – I can’t stop myself running my finger along the flowers and tasting.

grevillea

The native fig has leaves that look like oleander, but the balls of figs set it apart. They start off green and then turn to red and can be eaten. The wasp shares a role in the pollinating, though, and sometimes lays its eggs in it. These figs will be bitter.

native figs

There was another talk on cooking with native foods (included tasting) and a film on astronomy, given by another group. So, if you visit when it’s very hot and are not up to one of the walks or sites, there is plenty to do, right at your door.

We visited Uluru once more, walking the 10km around the base, but I’ve shared photos on that before, so I’ll finish with the classic sunrise and sunset shots from the highest point in Yulara and an easy walk. Don’t think you’ll be alone, though.

sunrise
sunset

Visit here, sometime. It will move your spirit.

Wear a hat and sunscreen and ALWAYS take water.

Safe travels.

Alice Springs and the East MacDonnell Ranges

It was the first time we had entered Alice from the north and it was pretty, with the MacDonnell Ranges in the background.

We chose our usual caravan park – Big4 MacDonnell Range and were able to use the afternoon to plan an exploration of the East MacDonnells and then relax.

Our first day took us to N’Dhala Gorge which involved magnificent scenery on the way there and some 4WD work from the main road. It was quite a short hike and although pretty, not worth the tough drive out, with lots of corrugations and sand, unless you planned to camp there. The gorge is the site of a large collection of Aboriginal petroglyphs, but as the track has lots of rocky sections I wouldn’t think a wheelchair would get very far.

Heading back towards Alice, the next stop was Trephina Gorge and this was really beautiful.

We also stopped at the ghost gum, a 300+ yr old tree. The walk was moderate/easy with the climbing at the start and sand at the end. It is quite majestic.

It seemed like a short stop to visit Corroboree Rock, so we took the turnoff. It is a startling structure in the middle of other rock formations, so easy to see why it was used as a meeting place.

We headed back to Alice and registered online for the Parrtjima light show, that another traveller had told us about. A shuttle from near the park took us there in the early evening and, surprisingly, we saw a couple we knew from SA on the shuttle.

Parrtjima is the only Aboriginal lightshow of its kind in the world and started in 2016. It is free to enter and the displays are beautiful, but nothing can describe the stunning projection on the West MacDonnell Ranges, accompanied by a narration that explains the relationship between the people and the land. I don’t think my photos will do it justice and we watched it twice, it was so moving.

I’d definitely recommend the event as it is free, spectacular but quite small, so it’s an early night. There are plenty of activities for children to take part in.

The following day, Ellery Creek Big Hole was gorgeous and had a large body of water suitable for swimming if it had been hot enough. We saw a girl going in and her partner was filming her with a drone. The water was icy cold so sooner her than me.

An easy, short walk.

Next we stopped at Serpentine Gorge which had an easy walk in, with a still pool of water at the end and a demanding, steep lookout walk.

The pool of water in the gorge is so cold that it has kept people and animals from going beyond it, for thousands of years. This has meant the ecology is preserved and both life forms can get a cool drink in summer when they need it.

Close to Alice Springs, we stopped at the original Telegraph Station, which is a well-preserved station with indoor and outdoor displays, showing life from as early as 1871. It is one of the first European settlements in Stuart, later named Alice Springs. There are short walks, bike trails and a walk to/from Alice township. We walked to the top of a nearby hill to take photos of the settlement.

We were back in time to watch the sun set over the West MacDonnell Ranges.

Travel safe. Take water, hats and sunscreen.

Killer trees – the strangler

The strangler fig is a type of Ficus that grows in tropical rainforests and gets its name from the habit of growing on other trees, often resulting in the demise of the host. They are impressive and beautiful, despite their unfortunate behaviour, and are sometimes very old and massive.

And I’m a big fan of them!

For more square trees (trees for squares?) see here.

Gregory Downs, Barkley Homestead, Tennant Creek and Karlu Karlu.

It’s a sign of the times we live in, that our next stretch was mapped according to where we could get a border pass. Covid-19 had meant that travel in Australia had introduced people to where the State borders actually are, and who could cross them.

From Gregory Downs there are three possible roads, or tracks, but only one is bitumen. We stopped at Burke and Wills Roadhouse for fuel (both the car and us) after encountering those tall grey birds again. I’ll include a zoomed shot, just to give you an idea, but it’s pixelated. Diesel was predictably expensive so we didn’t fill.

It might be worth mentioning that Burke and Wills were explorers who, with John King and Charles Gray, became the first Europeans to cross Australia from south to north. It was on their return journey that Burke, Wills and Gray died of malnutrition.

We took the Cloncurry Road, hoping to get NT border passes before Camooweal, and had to drive about 300km to Mt Isa for printing facilities. The Overlanders Way from Cloncurry to Mt Isa is through the Selwyn Ranges and is very pretty, if winding.

Corella Dam camp was recommended along the way, but reviews on WIKICAMPS suggested that we might have trouble with our van, so we ended up making our way to a free campsite just out of Isa, WW2 Memorial. Its a very spacious site, with many toilets, a BBQ and a shelter. Several other campers were there, mostly within a 20m radius, but some were off in the bush somewhere and I could catch a glimpse of van or hear a distant peel of laughter. The guy in the next car was strumming a guitar before dinner which was very civilized. No phone service and intermittent wifi.

The next morning we crossed the border without incident and made it to Barkley Homestead around midday. We’d stopped here briefly in the past, and this time we thought it was a good way to break up the long, straight drives, and decide what direction we’d take, next. We felt due for a bit of luxury, by way of a pool and a laundry – oh the simple pleasures. More tips were gleaned about where to go next – Banga Banga, Daly Waters, Alice Springs.

Barkley Homestead, like an oasis on the highway.

The Homestead includes some old mining and farming machinery on display out the front, and provides a distraction while you stop.

The facilities are a bit old and tired but there is a restaurant, café, cabins and the break was good. As a last minute decision when we woke we headed along the termite-lined highway the next day to Tennant Creek.

Tennant Creek is a town that you will hear a lot about and generally with warnings and trepidation. We had been through quite a few times and thought it was time we had a tourist view of this large outback town.

The town’s importance probably started in 1874 when the Overland Telegraph Station was built and was an integral part of communication between Barrow Creek and Powell Creek. Mining of gold began in the 1930s and some of the mines later became successful copper mines. The Battery Hill Mining Centre is a good source of information and tours and there is a walk you can do to Battery Hill.

Peko mine from Battery Hill
Telegraph wires

A visit to the Nyinkka Nyunyu Art and Culture Centre was remarkable. Some indigenous women were working on their current pieces and we chatted a little with them before walking through the gallery where, we were told, orders are sent through from all over the world. We weren’t surprised.

some of the artwork on display

For lunch, it was a short drive to Lake Mary Ann where there are many facilities, opportunities for water sport, play equipment, but no camping.

Lake Mary Ann

I think the concerns about Tennant Creek are with staying there overnight, but we have stayed in the Outback Caravan Park in the past and been very happy. There are a couple of free camps not far out of town on the Barkley Highway. I wouldn’t walk around at night as there is a bit of drinking in the town and it can get rowdy. We weren’t stopping yet, so made our way to a very exciting spot.

Karlu Karlu, named Devil’s Marbles by Europeans, is definitely a bucket list place to camp.

This was the fourth time we had been there and yet we hadn’t realised it was so expansive or understood how the rocks were formed.

About 1700 million years ago, magma squeezed up from under the Earth’s surface and as it cooled, cracks formed. Over time, water and wind did its work and columns, then boulders formed.

The Day Centre in the distance

We had arrived uncertain whether to stay but quickly made up our mind as there were only 3 others there. We could access free wifi if we were close to the day centre and did 3 of the walks as they were easy.

There were toilets and we paid $3.30 each to camp, using honesty envelopes. We didn’t have the right money so gave a bit extra.

Three hours after we had arrived, at 5.30pm, the place was just about full. Three or four tents went up and the rest were caravans and campers. We were very surprised, but I can’t deny that we were also pretty chuffed that we were part of another great Australian sunset event. As shadows lengthened, it was time to appreciate the colours and textures of this place.

And in the morning, the parade of colour began, again.

first hints
the land washed in light
the horizon darkens
or is it my camera darkening
We all watch in silent wonder

It really is worth the stop if you have your own accommodation. As a sacred site of the Kaytetye, Warumungu and Warlpiri peoples of the area, you are asked to keep to the walking tracks and not photograph in certain areas. It is made pretty clear, with signage.

I hope that I have respected the signs and wishes of the traditional owners and have not included any sensitive sites in my photos. Please let me know if I have and I will remove them.

Travel safe. Take hats, water and sunscreen.

Boodjamulla/Lawn Hill

The first time we came across Lawn Hill was a sign on the Barkley Highway near Camooweal, with pictures of a lush paradise. After that, plenty of travellers were either coming from, or going towards it. So, as our trip unfolded, from the Gulf of Carpentaria we headed west towards Boodjamulla (aka Lawn Hill). The Aboriginal name means Rainbow Serpent Country and it certainly has colours and textures to delight the senses.

The journey can be undertaken a few ways and none are for the faint-hearted. We decided to go on bitumen roads from Karumba, through Normanton, south to the Burke and Wills roadhouse and then west from there to Gregory Downs. As mentioned in another post, there are several stretches where it is a single lane, so you have to move over for oncoming traffic.

We had trouble finding the free campground, so unhitched in the park behind the hotel, where you can get a good meal, fuel and information about the roads nearby. We could choose our unpowered site, had a peaceful sunset and a good night’s sleep.

The road out to Boodjamulla is just around the corner from the hotel. As is the free campsite, with flowing river and plenty of room!! The road is pretty badly corrugated, with a few bone-rattling stretches so we were glad we had unhitched the van. We’d been advised to drop our tyre pressure, so found it quite ok, but didn’t get over 80km/hr very often after maybe 10km of bitumen at the start.

The first place you come to is Adels Grove campground and you can get a variety of accommodation here or continue on to Lawn Hill. I suggest you read the reviews, as new owners have taken over and I think it will take some time for them to get their heads around it.

The last stretch, from Adels Grove to Lawn Hill, is almost worse than the earlier travel, as you have potholes and dips as well as corrugation, but it is short-lived. People do the trip in regular cars, but I think you’d be damaging them and better off in a 4WD if that’s an option.

Information abounds
well-signed trails

Once in the National Park, there is plenty of information and, having arrived early as advised, we decided to do the Duwadarri Lookout walk and continued to the Indarri Falls walk (which was easier, as it was flatter). It took less than 2 hours, including stops to chat to other walkers and a quick dip in the falls before heading back. You won’t be able to resist it, so go prepared.

We began alongside the river
The lookout takes in the red limestone cliffs
And back along the river
Where lower gorge meets upper gorge

Securing a canoe is a fair-priced must, and we had time for lunch before ours was due. There are a few tables and chairs, but if it was very busy, you may want to bring your own or find a spot by the river. Our only company was a buff-sided robin, keen to be photographed (or get scraps).

buff-sided robin

The tandem canoe trip takes you through emerald waters, caused by calcium carbonate, from lower gorge to the upper gorge, between high red limestone cliffs or thick green foliage.

At the junction of the two gorges, there are 2 small waterfalls and you can tie up your canoe and take to the water.

If you stay by the side, you can be entertained by the archerfish, especially if you have some tidbits to feed them.

On our way up we saw whole families, including young children, who were merely floating the extent on their swim rings. At the junction, many people leave the water, carrying their canoe about 20 metres to the upper junction and putting in there to complete the gorge. We were concerned that we’d run out of time and not have much fun under the waterfalls, so we just stayed there until we headed back and then headed home.

We treated ourselves to a drink in the hotel yard after dinner and my husband tried his luck at getting the bar staff to change the sport from Rugby to AFL, with success.

It was a great place to have seen but a very long way from anything to recommend it wholeheartedly. There were a lot of young families doing the National Road Trip. One day was very special, but enough for us, and our trip out of Gregory Downs, the next day, was by bitumen. You’d really need to check the condition of the many dirt tracks leading out, as some are horrendous.

Happy travels. Carry water, hat and sunscreen.