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An Australian Adventure: Backtracking the Nullarbor and reaching the Top End

The Travels of a Journalist—12

By Shelton A. Gunaratne

(March 23, Washington, Sri Lanka Guardian) I participated in the AATEJ (subsequently renamed Journalism Education Association) general meeting in Perth 14-15 December 1978. Doug White transported us from Cottesloe to the meeting venue on the WAIT (subsequently renamed Curtin University of Technology) campus. The first day’s highlight was a discussion with high-school journalism teachers.

My paper elicited heated comments on the second day. Doug Golding and Charles Stokes, both of Queensland, opposed my advocacy of precision journalism (application of the scientific method to journalism) while Murray Masterton (South Australia) and Maurice Dunlevy (Canberra) gave it qualified support.

Friday evening, we joined a barbecue organized by Tony Hoffman of WAIT’s School of Arts and Design at his hacienda-style home in Kalamunda in the eastern suburbs. Good food and lively company at this social gathering gave added value to our Perth visit. Although we left the party at 11 p.m., we couldn’t get back to Cottesloe until 12.30 a.m. because Don Woolford, who agreed to give us a ride, lost his way.

Exploring Perth

My wife Yoke-Sim and I explored Perth’s Hay Street Pedestrian Mall Saturday (16 Dec.) morning. At Beaufort Street, we rented a Letz car to tour the city because it would ease our transportation problems until our departure Sunday.

Armed with guides and maps, first we visited the Mount Lawley CIA (now Edith Cowan University) campus; then the 110-hectare Lake Monger Reserve to see the flocks of black swans, cormorants, pelicans and spoonbills. Other inhabitants of this wetland reserve include skunks, tortoises and frogs.

Proceeding north to Wanneroo, we stopped to see the elegant suburbs of Quinn’s Rocks, Yanchep and Two Rocks. We ate lunch at Loch McNess (perhaps so named to remind one of Loch Ness in Scotland) in the Yanchep National Park, where we also joined the conducted tour of the Crystal Cave. We couldn’t resist drinking a beer at a tavern in the magnificent shopping center in Two Rocks [see photo].

Back in Perth late afternoon, we stopped to see the Old Mill (Shenton’s Mill), a restored tower mill constructed in 1835, at Mill Point. The highlight of the evening was a visit to King’s Park, where we enjoyed the landscaped botanic garden, which exhibited some 2,000 of the12, 000 plant species of Western Australia. We climbed the observation tower to view the city from all directions.

Sunday morning, Yoke-Sim and I checked out of the Ocean Beach Hotel (a complete hotel suite at $14 per night was an unexpected bonanza) to explore metropolitan Perth further in our rented car before we boarded the coach at 3.10 p.m. for backtracking the Nullarbor to reach Darwin via Adelaide.

We started with a visit to the port of Fremantle [see photo]. From the lighthouse on Port Beach Road, we drove along the inner harbor to the lighthouse at Arthur Head, and climbed on to the Round House from the ocean side. We also had a good look at the fish market, the slipway, the boat pen and the pottery gallery. Then we went around the Fishing Boat Harbor on Mews Road to the city.

Next, we drove further south to Robb Jetty and the Coogee Beach Reserve. In the vicinity of Woodman Point, off Cockburn Road, our car got stuck in the sand. A passing motorist helped us tow the car to the sealed road. Our next “brilliant” idea was to visit Bibra Lake and the Murdoch University campus just north of it. Having thus become familiar with the vicinity, we returned to the city center and stopped briefly at the WACA oval to watch the England v Australia cricket test.

[Picture 1: The author at the Two Rocks Town Center in Yanchep Sun City (16 Jan. 1978). The background shows the Waugal Monoliths, an Aboriginal legend recreated in limestone dominated by a winged serpent, 19 m high, carved from two Garrah trees]

As our departure time came closer, we returned the rented car and boarded the bus at the coach terminal. To reach Darwin, we had to backtrack all of the 2,700 km distance from Perth to Adelaide. In the late ‘70s, coaches didn’t travel the bad outback roads from Broome to Darwin although today coaches are available to proceed directly from Perth to Darwin (Route 680/860 via Kalbarri) on the sealed highway.

Kalgoorlie Stopover

At Kalgoorlie, where we arrived before midnight, we disembarked the bus and decided to check in at Glendevon Hotel on Egan Street. This hotel, currently run by a couple named Stew and Chrissy, was originally built circa 1930.

Monday morning, after a sumptuous breakfast at Glendevon, Yoke Sim and I took a taxi to Hainault Gold Mine on the Golden Mile to join the $3 tour conducted by an old miner. He took us 61 meters underground in a cage to explain how the mine operated. (Hainault was closed as a tourist attraction in 1993. But Hannan’s North Tourist Mine, seven km north of Kalgoorlie, provides a tour for $22/adult.).

Rick and Yoonne Atkinson, a couple from Woomera, SA, gave us a ride from the mine to the scenic Hammond Park, which had a lake, rustic bridges and a miniature castle made of local stones. We bought our lunch at Woolworth’s and returned to the hotel to rest.

In the afternoon, we visited the other attractions in the city: the British Arms Hotel/ the Golden Mile Museum, the Mineral Museum, the art gallery in the Town Hall. I also had a leisurely walk on the infamous Hay Street.

Backtracking the Nullarbor

Tuesday (18 Dec.) morning, just after midnight, we boarded the Adelaide-bound coach to continue with backtracking the Nullarbor. We fell asleep until we arrived at the Cocklebiddy (population 80) roadhouse for breakfast. Sleeping was a better option than watching the “identical landscape” for hundreds of kilometers. The lunch stop was Eucla (population 50), the last WA roadhouse before crossing the border to SA. In my view, Eucla had the best facilities (for example, a swimming pool with shady picnic tables) for passers-by than any other roadhouse on the Nullarbor Plain.

On the way to Ceduna, the scheduled dinner stop, our coach encountered a mechanical glitch. We prepared our own dinner with groceries purchased at a local shop since the coach captain confessed that he could not continue driving without “safety repairs.” After a delay of four hours, we left Ceduna at 3 a.m. (Wednesday). We ate breakfast at Port Augusta, and arrived back in Adelaide at 1 p.m. Again, we checked in at the Plaza Hotel for two nights.

We spent the afternoon at the Rundle Mall purchasing clothes and shoes needed for outback travel and planning a trip to the Barossa Valley at the tourist bureau. In the evening, we ate an enjoyable Sri Lankan-style dinner at the Ceylon Hut (27 Bank St.), including sparkling wine, for $12. (Three decades after our visit, this restaurant is still in operation.)

Barossa Valley

Although I am not a regular wine connoisseur, I have not been averse to tasting wine during vineyard excursions (such as Napa Valley in California and the Wienstrasse in Rhineland-Palatinate). Therefore, a tour of the Barossa Valley during our layover in Adelaide had an inherent appeal to me. The tour cost at $14 per person seemed quite reasonable to imbibe all the wine one needed.

We joined the Premier Roadlines’ fine wine tour of the Barossa Valley, 56 km northeast of Adelaide, Thursday. Our first stop was the Seppeltfield winery, founded in 1851 by Joseph Ernst Seppelt. The winery is well known for its signature wine, the 100-year-old Para Tawny Port. After taking us on a conducted tour, the winery offered us a variety of wines to taste. (Barossa is known for its red wines, like the Shiraz. An estimated 50 wineries are located in Barossa.)

Then we visited the Mengler’s Hill lookout in the Barossa Ranges for a view of the valley. Lunch was awaiting us at Weintal Hotel-Motel in Tanunda. The tour then took us to the Gramp’s Orlando winery at Rowland Flat. We returned to Adelaide about 4 p.m. via Williamstown and the spectacular Torrens Gorge.

Onward to Alice

We left Adelaide Friday (22 Dec. 1978) morning on the Alice Springs-bound coach heading northward to Port Augusta, the terminus of The Track (also identified as Stuart Highway). Three decades ago, Australia’s West actually appeared to begin about a stone’s throw to the area west of this partly bumpy, ill-kept main artery of traffic. I suspected that coach drivers who had to steer their vehicles on The Track, stretching 2,834 km from Darwin in the north to Port Augusta in the south, went through much dukkha (suffering). Our adventure was to conquer this track (designated N1, N87 or A87 at various points) over the ensuing few days. (Note: The road was completely sealed in the ‘80s as a bicentennial project. What we experienced in late 1978 was a partly unsealed Stuart Highway.)

Life along The Track gave us a general sense of life in the Aussie outback (as lived by bushrangers, swagmen and squatters “beyond the Black Stump”). Their language was distinct and raunchy. They loved liquor and “Waltzing Matilda.” Thus the quirks we noticed on the tour got etched in our memory. Just after midnight, we reached Coober Pedy (population 2,000), “the world’s largest opal center” 540 km northwest of Port Augusta.

The unsealed parts of the Track between Pimba/Woomera and Coober Pedy (through Glendambo/Kingoonya, Mount Soward, Mount Sandy and Mount Penrhyn) induced in us revulsion for bus travel. Ansett had assigned two coach captains to share the agony of driving on rough terrain in two-hour shifts. We had some relief from “back pain” when the coach stopped at Kingoonya, “the township with the widest main street in Australia,” for dinner.

At the Kingoonya Hotel, a friendly old white man, who was drinking with a friendly old aborigine, approached us with mild interest to talk about our countries and exchange other information. It turned out that the townsfolk, living in relative isolation, converged on the hotel for the evening chitchat and enjoyed greeting travelers who stopped at their railway-support settlement, about 160 km northwest of Pimba.

We stopped at a “dugout” in Coober Pedy (boys’ waterhole) for coffee and refueling. Part of this dugout was a church. We learned that the underground churches, the mines and the graveyard distinguished the town. Many townspeople lived in dugouts (refurbished old mines) to avoid the scorching sun during the day. About 1,000 km from Port Augusta, we crossed the SA-NT border and stopped at the Kulgera (population 50) roadhouse in Northern Territory for Saturday (Dec. 23) breakfast.

Climbing Ayers Rock

A few kilometers further to the north, we got off the Ansett coach at Erldunda Station, where we boarded another bus heading 270 km west to Ayers Rock. We established the acquaintance of two people—an English lady, Jean Clough, who was traveling on a shoestring budget; and a French girl named Christine—during lunch at Curtin Springs.

After reaching Ayers Rock, we checked in at the Uluru Motel for our stay.

In the late afternoon, we joined a tour of the Olgas, the second major feature and attraction of what is currently named Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The Olgas (Kata Tjuta), consisting of 36 steep sided monoliths, are located 32 km west of Ayers Rock (Uluru). As we trudged the track to see the gorge between Mount Walpa and Mount Olga, a 7-year-old precocious English kid, John Coulson, surprised me as a conversationalist.

Sunday (24 Dec.) morning, both Yoke-Sim and I managed to climb the Uluru, the three-km-long and 348-meter high world’s largest sandstone rock. Yoke-Sim was the last in our group to reach the top. The climb up and the descent took us nearly two hours. A few chickened out even before reaching the “Chicken Rock.” A Canadian in our group couldn’t climb to the top because the rock had “no trees.”

Tony, the manger of Uluru Motel, took us on an afternoon tour to show the Maggie Springs and the caves on one side of the rock. Then we took a dip in the swimming pool of the Inland Motel, where the Christmas spirit appeared to have taken over. Jack, a sort of “Crocodile Dundee” sporting a beard, let Yoke-Sim use his bicycle. I borrowed Jack’s bicycle to go around the rock fighting against the wind. On the way, I saw three plaques in memory of people who died attempting to climb the rock.

We left Ayers Rock about 9 p.m. with hearty greetings from everyone. Our coach headed toward Alice Springs, some 470 km northeast. Early Christmas morning, about 2 o’clock, our coach captain stopped the bus at Palmer Valley on the Stuart Highway to “boil the billy” for tea to kick off Christmas. We enjoyed this stopover very much. He told us the story of the lady who ran the Erldunda Station, which we just passed.

We reached Alice Springs (current population 27,500) about 4 a.m. But the coach captain allowed us to sleep on the bus until dawn, when we walked across the dry Todd River to check in at Bindalong Guest House (10 Start Terrace). Ruth Backney, our hostess, made us breakfast. We ate Christmas 1978 breakfast right in the geographical center of Australia half way between Adelaide and Darwin.

The Alice is the home of the Arremie Aborigines. The aborigines constituted 29 percent of the NT population (including 17 percent in Alice). The “Yankee Doodles” servicing the US-Australia satellite tracking station in Pine Gap (since the station opened in 1968) have also become part of the area scene in addition to a small population of Asians.

Soon afterwards, we joined a Trailway tour of the Finke River and West MacDonnell Ranges to visit the Heavitree Gap Lookout, Ellery Gorge, Ochre Pits, Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge. This tour westward started along the unsealed Namitjira Drive. A few people with whom we rubbed shoulders at the Uluru were on this tour as well. We topped the day with a grand Christmas meal at the Glen Helen Tourist Camp. Our table companions were a couple from Melbourne. We returned to Alice at 6.30 p.m.

The next morning, Yoke-Sim and I went on an exploratory tour of downtown Alice. We walked all the way north to the old Telegraph Station on Stuart Highway and returned to our guesthouse on the track from Charitja Hill to Spencer Hill along the River Todd. Then, we said goodbye to Ruth Backney, who gave us a cold lunch to take with us.

[Picture 2: The author at Fremantle’s Old Gaol and Courthouse built with convict labor in 1855-56. It is one of the best examples of colonial architecture. The architect was R.R. Jewell. ]

We resumed our journey north to Darwin, another 1,500 km north, at 3 p.m. Our dinner stop was the Wauchope Roadhouse, about 90 km north of Barrow Creek, where we already had an unofficial stop. We noted that the hotels at both stops had rather bawdy anecdotes pasted on to the walls. We whiled away more than one hour listening to a garrulous woman yarning her world travels.

Wednesday (27 Dec.) morning, the coach stopped at the Dunmara Waterhole, where a new coach captain took over. He stopped at Katherine to allow us eat our breakfast. After another stop for refreshments at Adelaide River, we reached Darwin at 12.30 p.m.

Next: From the Top End back to Central Queensland

(The writer is a professor of mass communication emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.)

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