Explorer’s and Barkly Highways

There are very long stretches of road in Australia, that in parts of the world would get you to another country or the other side of a country. But here, you can still be in the same State, in the middle of nowhere and have seen few towns.

Some of these stretches have variation and others do not. Notorious for the latter is the Hay plains, the Explorer’s Highway between Alice Springs and Tennant Creek and the Barkly Highway between Tennant Creek and Cloncurry. Luckily, it was not long after rain, so there was a variety of vegetation and we amused ourselves with spotting unusual cloud patterns to pass the 7 hours it took to get from Alice to Tennant Creek.

The explorer highway goes from Darwin to Adelaide and was mapped out by John Stuart. In fact, it’s correct name is Stuart Highway but, as it’s an iconic Australian drive, it got a nickname (of course). Although Tennant Creek is still on this, it’s also the start of the other highway.

Once we hit Tennant Creek we found somewhere safe for the evening, as it can be a bit wild there. We discovered later that there are 2 free camps about 20 minutes further on, that have good wiki camp reviews.

The Outback caravan park had some interesting artwork in the trees.

Torres straight islander, Aboriginal and Northern Territory flags
Main street, Tennant Creek

Leaving Tennant Creek the following morning, we had an 8 hour drive to Mt Isa. Again, the scenery only offers minor changes, but a pleasant distraction at one point was a cloud of small birds (finches?) swarming toward us, followed by another and more. I think they ‘attacked’ us for a stretch of 200km and hopefully the video will let you share the experience. You’ll get a few looks at my husband’s legs – sorry, we’re amateur.

If not, in the picture, what looks like leaves is actually the little birds, stopping to rest and chatter.

Barkley homestead is an oasis on the journey and you can stay there. They have an interesting display of old steam engines out the front, with which to amuse yourself as you have lunch.

As we neared Mt Isa we passed some places worth returning to, such as Gregory Creek and Lawn Hill, but those dirt roads would be major diversions.

There are plenty of frequent toilet spots that are usually kept very clean and can provide an emergency stop if you can handle the highway traffic.

Soon the chimney stack appeared and we made last minute arrangements for a caravan park.

I’ll do a separate post on Mt Isa as it is a large mining town, warranting some discussion.

Safe travels. Always, always carry lots of water and a roll of toilet paper!

A few days in Alice

It isn’t far from the border to Alice Springs, so we arrived before midday and had time to set up and explore the caravan park, with it’s many facilities, then plan our first day of venturing further.

We began in the town, which has plenty of shops and facilities, and although it was, uncharacteristically, almost empty of people, we read about the first hospital in central Australia and peeked through the windows to where small gatherings sometimes occur.

A bigger day followed and we started at Redbank Gorge, some 150km from Alice Springs along the Larapinta and Namatjira Drives. It is a beautiful gorge, with easy access, although it is mostly on sand, so definitely not for wheelchairs or those with dodgy ankles. It was tranquil and displayed such a huge range of colours, both pastel and bold.

A short drive from here, heading back, to the Mt Sonder lookout gave us fabulous views of the mountain and surrounding ranges.

Ormiston Gorge was about 15km away and you have a choice of walks. We took the loop, from the carpark, up the hill to the lookout over the gorge, then along the hill and returning by the river bed. This is definitely the direction to take if you do the loop, as the uphill is steep but short and aided by stone steps which never go beyond 20 without a break. Again, this part isn’t suitable for wheelchairs, but the short carpark to pond walkway is and should be done. The colours and textures of this gorge are, again, stunning. If you go around a lagoon one way, look back to see the aspect on the other side, because sometimes it is so very different, it’s like being in another location. Parts of the gorge were a seabed, 800 million years ago and geologists believe something extraordinary happened in the area 300-400 million years ago to cause the seabed to rise and turn on its side. You can easily see the layers.

We decided that, as most of Australia was in a cold snap, we’d capitalise on the 27C and heated pools and headed back for some poolside traveler tips (with slide show).

Our final day we kept light, with a trip to Anzac Hill and then out to Emily and Jessie Gaps. The first provides 360 degree views of Alice Springs township and memorial information.

Emily and Jessie Gaps were disappointing, as they are very small and it was pretty blustery, so an ideal enclosure for sand blasting. The walk takes less than a minute each time and there are very unusual rock paintings of caterpillars, which the original owners ate here, and completed by women. You are asked not to photograph them as they are sacred to the people. The towering red rock faces are beautiful, and it’s a short drive out of town to the east, but I’d see Stanley Chasm or Simpson’s Gap in preference.

On our return we came across a huge flock of red tailed black cockatoos, which are considered rare, so I was very happy to get some photos of them.

Even when it’s cool, take plenty of water and a hat with you.

Quirky Kulgera

Having arrived at the South Australia/Northern Territory border, we handed over our paperwork (COVID-19 arrangements) and were free to go through, but not stay at this beautiful, free campsite. The officer suggested Kulgera, down the road about 20km.

We had been here before for fuel, but had not experienced its hospitality. There is a reasonable store on site, an art gallery that showcased local work and a pub.

Famous (?) for the big 4X can, it also had its own travellers ‘artwork’/ collection – of sandshoes in this case.

Good, clean amenities and plenty of room, with drive-through sites.

Take Hart

With a parcel of long service leave, a yearning for warmer weather and two State borders open to us, we hitched up the van and headed off. Our ultimate goal is the top of the tip – the northernmost point of Australia and the top of Cape York, but the Corona virus is seeing borders closing and opening with little notice, so we have to be flexible.

For those of you who are locked at home, or who might be missing us, you can travel with us as we go. Make sure you let me know if you want more or less information as we go and there may be a delay from time to time, as WiFi is hard to come by in the middle of nowhere.

Day 1 brought us to Lake Hart, a free campsite not far from a large salt lake. We had passed a lookout over another one, just out of Pimba and apparently there are many larger, but it was salt and the illusion of water, as far as the eye could see.

Evidence of an enclosure or jetty or some kind of structure using wooden posts, unlikely due to the original owners of the land, the Kokatha, as it is very European in design.

The rifts and lumps of salt made for good photos, as did the sunset, still oozing orange over the lagoon about an hour later.

The Ghan railway passes between the lagoon and the campsite and can be crossed by a pipe/tunnel or over the top. At 7pm the train went past, almost silently, and all campers came out to watch the dark shadow seeming to run on water.

Take plenty of water and choose free campsites near others, for safety.

Canberra #3

We started the day with a hike to Mount Ainslie Lookout. It begins gradually and is quite steep for the last 30m or so. Many good views are afforded along the way, but the best are at the top. It took about 90 minutes return and where I wouldn’t advise a wheelchair, I did see three people using canes and walking quite slowly. Many people are in training gear and run past slower people like me.

Remember it was bushfire season so excuse the misty photos.

Black Mountain Tower affords some fabulous views, we were told, but unfortunately with the fires the smoke haze made visibility poor. It is still an interesting building and an easy drive from the main sights.

There is a viewing gallery, a theater and a cafe, as well as a telecommunications museum. It is also called Telstra Tower and the actual tower rises almost 200m above the summit. Your visit wouldn’t be longer than an hour, I think.

Questacon is on the other side of Lake Burley Griffin and is an extraordinary collection of interactive Science and Technology activities (over 200 I believe) that are designed to entertain, educate and inspire schoolchildren to pursue careers in that area.

I have been there with my children, with school classes and this time it was just for me and I could have spent another hour or more there. We stayed 2 hours as it was, watching, trying, pressing, drawing, thinking, puzzling and marvelling. The free fall was fascinating, but I wouldn’t try it.

The National Gallery is very near here, so we walked there, along the Lake, enjoying the sculptures and what was on offer in the grounds, and not entering. There were a few reasons for this, among which was the advertising of the outdoor sculptures and the Skyspace. So that is what we spent an hour and a half viewing.

Staying in the region, we headed for New Parliament House. It’s an impressive building, right from its approach, and has a wealth of architecture and marble.

The House of Representatives has a green room, just as it did on the old P.H. and the Senate is red, as before. When parliament is sitting, between 4000 and 5000 people are employed there.

There are galleries of historical figures, current politicians and political cartoonists. Documents and decisions are displayed, as well as plans, models and protests. The view from the grassy rooftop is impressive and informative, with many structures to catch the eye.

One of these is the 81m flagpole, visible from many vantages in Canberra. Three locations form what is known as the Parliamentary Triangle and New P.H is considered to be at the apex. Dead centre of Parliament House is the flagpole and it is represents the intersection “of Australian democracy—the people, the parliament and the government—are all brought together under one flag.” (https://www.aph.gov.au/Visit_Parliament/About_the_Building/About_the_Flag)

under the flagpole, on the roof of Parliamentary House

It’s quite easy to spend 1-2 hours, here. Tours are available if you prefer.

Even in Canberra, where it can get very cold, always take a hat and water in Australia.

Safe Travels.

Canberra #2

There is actually a lot to do in the capital of Australia, despite how small it is. That just makes it packed and practical. Some highlights from one day:

Canberra Glassworks

Located in what was once the Kingston Powerhouse, the FREE entry glassworks allows you to watch as glass blowers work, do a tour, watch artists hone their items, have a try at glass blowing, read about the history of the Power House or shop at the outlet.

Fascinating and colourful, it is easy to get to, with ample parking although on Sundays apparently there is a market, so keep that in mind.

There are stairs, so wheelchairs will be restricted, but there are also some ramps and I didn’t check for lifts. I think you’d plan for a minimum of an hour, here.

The Kingston Power House
Glassworks shop
Viewing balcony or seats, although they ask that you sit down to watch. You can see the old iron workings of the Power House
Artists at work

Museum of Australian Democracy (MOD)

This building is also known as Old Parliament House. It is a young history of our Governments and the displays reek of the 1940s and ’70s, so is perhaps more interesting for Australians than those from other countries.

Classic British design abounds and there is a room where the House of Representatives meet and another for the Senate (Upper House). This is the same in the New Parliament House, with matching colours, I think.

Unless, of course, you enjoy the political art (craftivism), summaries (we saw Truth, Power and a Free Press), interactive displays and period furniture that a $5 family entry can afford.

From the front steps you see the current stand by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, first established in 1972, which is to maintain their sovereignty over Australian soil and waters. The Embassy is not recognised by the Government but nor is it removed (these days).

Oddly enough, the backdrop is Mt Ainslie and the Australian War Memorial.

Give yourself 60 – 120 minutes here, depending on whether you self tour or take a guided one and your interest in history.

Australian War Memorial

This dramatic and impressive centre has life-size displays of aircraft, cock-pits, weaponry, soldiers and more, as well as model battles and audio that captures reflections from veterans of the Great Wars, Vietnam, Korea and Iraq. It is considered as a military museum.

It is haunting, effective and free. I have heard they are thinking of spending a huge sum on upgrading it, but I cannot see why, as it is quite memorable.

I am not an advocate of war, but this is certainly worth a visit and you might spend a couple of hours or more, here. There is plenty for children, too, and accessible in a wheelchair.

This is definitely a 2 hour or more place.

side view
Memorial courtyard
dome in the hall of memory

Kingston Foreshore

Finish the day with a walk around the foreshore. There are bars and eateries a-plenty, with pleasant views to be had.

River cruises and water craft for hire are also available if you want to hit the water in style.

Adelaide to Canberra – Australia’s capital

The Australian Capital Territory (A.C.T.) is very small, in our big island, with a total area of less than 3000 sqkm, and quite a distance from South Australia, but it was our destination at the end of 2019.

We drove there in three stages, stopping at roadside camps and arriving before lunch on the third day. This post will mostly cover the travel and stops there, so if you want to know more about Canberra and what to do there, try Canberra#2.

As we live in the north, the quickest way was through Mildura and we had a lunchtime rest at Lake Cullulleraine. Thankfully there was shade, as the temp was 43C and the water provided an illusion of relief, in the absence of any breeze.

We passed Mildura and made our way through dust clouds to our evening stop at Lake Benanee in New South Wales. This was very early in the bushfire season that hit Australia last year, and it was hot and dry. We were the only ones at the campsite, which was such a change from when we have stayed here before, and as we sweltered in the heat, looking longingly to the natural lake, some locals pulled up, took their water gear to the edge and walked right in. We were only moments behind.

This is a lovely free campsite with a toilet block and, although it is not far from the highway, we have never found it to be too noisy at night. We were off early and made a stop at Hay. Notorious for the long stretches of unbroken uniformity leading to and from Hay, it now has controversial cotton paddocks and tufts of the stuff stuck to roadside plants and fences, alike. The entry and exit are still quite straight for long periods.

Hay is a very interesting town if you turn into the main street. There is a very good park where children can play and adults stretch their legs, some fascinating craft shops, cafes and the River Murray.

says it all.

There followed a lot of highway and some missed stops, using wiki camps and the RAA book of campsites and rest areas, before we settled on Bookham. It was a neat area, with very good toilets, across from St Columba’s church and near a funky bakery/cafe, but very close to the main highway. At night, there was a constant roar of truck engines and flash of lights, and we had the van open due to the heat but by now we were close enough to the fires that smoke drifted in and we couldn’t sleep with all the windows open. Choose a quieter spot if you can.

We reached Cotter Campground in the A.C.T. by mid-morning and there were plenty of spots from which to choose. We pulled up alongside the Cotter River and a BBQ pit and this is a fabulous site. Fees are $15 per adult per night, $12 for seniors and $10 for concession/children. It is the most serviced park in the A.C.T. and the amenities were great, but beware the 3 minute timer on the showers. They don’t turn off earlier, either. Wood is available to buy from the rangers, who visited every day, if you don’t bring your own. It is a National Park, so you can’t cut down trees or break off branches.

I’ll talk more about some of the highlights of the campsite in another post, but at this point we drove into Canberra central to get some supplies. It was a 15 minute drive, one way.

Our son and his wife drove out from Canberra to share a BBQ tea and we made our plans for the upcoming days.

Grampians #3

On our last day in the Grampians, we decided to walk into Halls Gap from the caravan park, which was an easy 4 kms along wide, picturesque, bitumised paths, with flowers, emus, kangaroos and birdlife to divert us.

We reached Halls Gap and stopped by Stony Creek to have a coffee and plan our next stage – the walk to Venus Baths. This was just across the road and there is plenty of signage and available maps so that we found the trail easily.

This is an easy walk, and certainly suitable for a wheelchair much of the way, if not all. The way we came back was narrower, leading to the Botanic Garden, but it could also be managed.

a good track leads in

The views of the creek and the healthy foliage provide shade, wildlife and pleasant scenery on the way to Venus Baths.

We reached the baths quickly and as it was a warm day, many people were cooling their feet and some children had stripped off and were paddling in the water. It was quite brown, which can be due to recent rain or minerals leaching from the ground and rocks.

In Winter, or after heavy rain, this area would be full of rushing water, but it has been known as a ‘bath’ for at least 170 years, to non-indigenous people. The area has fascinated Europeans and later settlers, due to the unusual rock formations caused by the erosion of the sandstone.

After the short return, we could choose to head for the town or the Botanical Gardens. We chose the latter and had a very manageable walk around native plants, sculptures and picnic areas.

well-labelled plants
Plenty of shaded seating

For the afternoon, we decided to try one of the 4WD tracks – not that we have much experience with these. It was easy to accept the recommendation from the tourist desk we had visited the other day, and chooseone that passed Boroka Lookout, as it was the only main one we had not done. The drive was varied and easy (watch those flood gutters) and the lookout was spectacular.

Views to Halls Gap and Lake Bellfield
farmland.

We heard a ranger telling someone that there is a pipeline going from the East Grampians, under Lake Bellfield and out the other side, build in the 1800s, to provide water for the farmland around. I could hardly believe it.

So ended our brief but busy visit to the Grampians, and low-hanging clouds promised much-needed rain as we departed.