Melrose

After a short drive we stopped in at Wilmington to look for a Puppet museum (apparently the only one in Australia) whose pamphlet I picked up in Quorn. We found it only after stumbling on a toy museum first. The boys loved both of them, though I think they found the fellow running the puppet museum a little creepy.

Wilmington toy museum – 40 years of collecting by dad (still going strong), now begrudgingly co-run by his son.

Wilmington puppet museum – ‘the only museum of its kind in Australia’ – weird!

We found our way to Melrose showground, a budget campground at the foot of Mount Remarkable. We set up ahead of forecast rain, which we were quite excited about as we hadn’t seen rain since the Pilbara way back in May. It was a novelty after so much dust (at least for the first hour or so). What we got was 24 hours of storms. Lightning, thunder, winds, forecasted large hail stones (luckily these didn’t arrive), horizontal rain and power outages. Then constant drizzle for the next two days till it finally cleared.

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With walks in the NP postponed I set the boys up in one of the showground sheds with their Lego to see out the rain whilst Julian set himself up in the van to catch up on blog posts.  We managed to wander into to Melrose and found a quaint little town complete with giant trees and hand-painted Stobie poles.

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A drive into the north end of Mt Remarkable NP got us to Alligator Gorge where we attempted the loop walk.  It was a gorge very reminiscent of Karijini in WA but with taller gums lining the waterway. Unfortunately the recent rain meant rising river levels, which forced us to turn back. James added some excitement by falling in, twice.

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We had planned to climb the summit of Mt Remarkable on our last day, but low cloud made the attempt a bit pointless, so we pottered around the camp site, with the boys playing in the local creek.

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The boys added their ‘dead’ pairs of shoes to a shoe tree. James was upset because his crocs had ‘taken him to so many places’.

Uluru & Kata Tjuta

After a hot and fly hassled lunch at the junction of Lasseter’s Hwy and Luritja Road we pulled into Yulara which is basically the Ayers Rock Resort township. After our super early morning start and the climbing temps we retreated for an early dinner at mum and dad’s apartment in the blissfully cool air conditioning. With temperatures forecast to reach 40 C on each of our 3 days and most walks being closed early if temps are forecasted above 36 C a strategy of early starts seemed to be in order.

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So on our first morning we checked out Uluru in the car. None of us had been here before and as a rock it certainly doesn’t disappoint. What surprised me was the landscape around the rock. The land was undulating and dotted with desert she-oaks. Around the base there are small patches of dense trees with lots of folds and gullies. Overall much more variety than I was expecting.  We did a few short walks and checked out the cultural centre/visitor info centre before retiring back to the air-con.

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DSC_3659Oh – did I mention the flies were out in force.

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Julian and I headed out later in the day (childless), chilled champagne and “Ayers Wok” takeaway in hand to watch the sunset over Uluru and belatedly celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary. On the way out we spotted some shafts of sun breaking through to highlight Kata-Tjuta.  Given the cloud cover we only got a few minutes of “colour” on Uluru before the sun went down but we both thoroughly enjoyed the peace and quiet!

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Next morning it was up-and-at-em – the Olgas or Kata-Tjuta. At our first stop, a “viewing platform”, we met Grandma and Grandpa and enjoyed looking at these amazing rock formations in the early morning light.

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Next stop was Valley of the Winds walk. The grandparents wilted after the first 1.5km, the kids and I bailed at the second lookout after walking 4.5km leaving Julian to complete the rest of the 7.5km loop walk. The second lookout was spectacular and the rocks seemed even more impressive than Uluru mainly due to them towering above you on all sides. (J – Kata Tjuta is almost 200 m higher than Uluru).

Kata Tjuta DSC_4526Made it to the second lookout!

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With all the boys keen to climb Uluru we were up early again the next morning. If temps above 36 degrees are forecast the climb is closed at 8am, given they don’t open it until 7am this leaves only an hours window in which to commence your ascent. There was disappointment all round when the sign read ‘closed due to wind’. Plan B sprang into action and we unloaded our bikes and rode around the base instead.

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DSC_5023_thorny devil compositeA master of disguise.

We were thrilled to spot a thorny devil on the path about half way round and glad to have completed the ride by 10am. (J – the changes in the shape of the rock are really noticeable on the 9 km base ride. The typical steep-sided postcard views are those taken from the designated viewing platforms).

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As a treat on our last night Grandma and Grandpa took us all out to dinner. The boys were in seventh heaven and were very excited, it was like no buffet they’d seen before. Lots and lots of delicious food and a chocolate fountain to top it all off! We tried to instil all of the important strategies of buffet dining – do not fill up on rice, bread or pasta – leave room for desert. Sam did well managing to leave room to try all seven deserts plus have two attacks at the chocolate fountain. Luckily he’s a growing boy. James made a fatal error with a big bowl of rice early on. Not to worry as they both loved it.

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Alice Springs – revisited

After a not so quiet night in remote Hermannsburg (I wouldn’t have guessed I’d be woken by wild brumbies with the early morning munchies snacking near our van) and with no reason to linger we were back in Alice Springs by mid morning. We decided to try out a different van park which was closer to the attractions we were hoping to see over the next 5 nights. (J: another unadvertised benefit was free WiFi).

DSC_2673Unfortunately the ‘Welcome to Alice’ sign had been defaced so we had to make our own ‘A’ & ‘L’. It’s unfortunate that it spells a horrible truth about the drug issues here.

Firstly though and to the boys great delight we had an important job to do – pick up Grandpa Geoff and Grandma Sue from the airport! Yes, it was time for another visit. This time mum and dad were joining us for 12 nights and taking in Alice Springs, Kings Canyon and Uluru before flying home again. After they picked up their hire car and we checked out their flash studio apartment it was back to the caravan for us, much to the boys disappointment. The disappointment was short lived as mum and dad joined us for some late afternoon nibbles at the van as well as for some itinerary planning before heading out for a great (but spicy) meal, tapas style at Epilogue Bar in the middle of Alice. Before calling it a night we decided to head up to Anzac Hill to look out at the lights of Alice. It was a pretty popular pace for a stroll on Friday night and lovely in the warm night air.

DSC_2573BBQ at the caravan.

It has been gradually heating up since we arrived in the red centre with the tops of 33 and 34 of the MacDonnells now becoming 35 and 36 with 40 predicted for our stay at Uluru. Practicality wise, this equates to early mornings to sight see before it gets too hot and late dinners because lets face it – who wants to cook in a caravan at 5:30pm when it’s still 34 degrees. Luckily our CP had a pool to cool off in each afternoon. The other unanticipated thing about our stay was the noise at night. I don’t think the cars or trucks ever stop here, seriously. Where they were all coming and going from will no doubt remain a mystery to me and maybe the surrounding hills reflected the noise somewhat but for such a small town it is far from quiet.

The next four days were filled with visits to the various attractions around town. We checked out the cultural precinct (conveniently over the road) which housed an Art Gallery and Aviation Museum. Grandpa Geoff then took the boys to the Kenworth trucking museum which they described as “awesome” as you were allowed to climb up and get inside most of the trucks.  We also enjoyed a rest day to do boring things like shop, cut the boy’s hair and swim in the pool.

DSC_2584Waiting for the bird show at the Desert Park.

We spent a day (with a break to escape the midday heat) wandering around the Desert Park Complex. This was a real highlight despite the heat. After watching the bird show with owls, kites, falcons and eagles swooping overhead we checked out the bilbies and other small marsupials in the Nocturnal house before learning about Bush Tucker at another “info session”.  The boys also enjoyed an up close session with a wedge tail eagle.

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It was much more pleasant later in the afternoon and we had a more relaxing stroll around the park checking out all the aviaries and animal exhibits.

DSC_2655Our coat of arms.

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On our last full day we visited Alice Springs school of the air which we all really enjoyed – even the boys!  This really is an amazing service for the 145 kids enrolled but clearly requires huge commitment from their parents to employ a full-time tutor or commit one parent to schooling from 8am to 3pm each day.  Later we headed out to the Royal Flying Doctors Centre which we all decided didn’t live up to expectations.

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Iconic of the red centre.

On our final morning we enjoyed a slow start and a late checkout before heading out to stock up again before travelling south (our aim was to arrive at our next bush camp late in the afternoon to avoid the heat).  First stop was Millner’s Butcher, a great tip from our Swiss friends Oliver and Jeannine.  We had already tried their Moroccan lamb sausages (delicious) earlier in the week and were keen for more.  So after loading up with such treats as Camel and Date snags, thick cut beef steaks and Cattatori salami we were off to do more mundane shopping at woollies before heading out of town.

Middleton

After lunch and some whip cracking practice we headed out along the Donohue Hwy towards Boulia.  The drive was interesting with vast empty plains interspersed with low rocky hills.  A few hours down the road Jules spotted a particularly photogenic shack just 8 kms out of Middleton – so we just had to stop whilst camera and tripod were set up.

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A few minutes later we pulled into the “Hotel Hilton” which advertised on a hand painted sign – ‘No room service, No Pool, No WiFi, No Air Conditioning, No Grass, Vacancy’.  Basically a patch of dust over the road from the Middleton pub, population three, which had its origins as Cobb & Co stop No. 4 on the regular service to Boulia. After an obligatory XXXX and a Somersby pear cider (who’dve guessed?) for only $11 (cheaper than at the Junction Hotel at home!) and a $5 donation to the RFDS the toilets and shower were ours to use for the duration. Perfect.

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J – the pub’s proprietor, Lester, said the Cobb & Co coach out the front is the genuine article, dated at 1898 from the axle stamp.

DSC_0200Practice makes perfect. Although the result was bad blisters.

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J – I asked Lester about the shack, he asked me how old I thought it was ‘Oh, about 80 years’ I said, knowing straight away I was wrong. ‘Nuh, 3 months’ corrected Lester – it was built as a set for the film Goldstone. 

The boys took off to photograph the shack at sunset while I got dinner going.  I found the view from the kitchen otherworldly.

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It was a very, very quiet night with no passing traffic, no insect sounds, no generators and no animals or birds.  Just the moon and stars and a strange ringing in my ears from the silence.

DSC_0178New meets old.

Winton

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On the road to Winton. Even the trucks are bigger – four trailers on this one.

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We had decided to free camp just east of our first Winton tourist attraction “the Age of Dinosaurs” so it was only a short drive next morning to make the 9am tour.  Our camp, a well-appointed rest stop was pretty peaceful until a truck with a refrigerated trailer pulled up.  Think loud generator all night and noisy engines first thing in the morning.  Oh well, win some and lose some.

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No trains on the tracks, just a few road trains thundering past.

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The Australian Age of Dinosaurs Museum was perched up on a mesa (table top plateau) with great views of the surrounding countryside – beautiful despite being very brown.  The first part of the tour was at the laboratory and focused on how they found and dug up the fossils and bones and then how the landscape looked 95 million years ago.  Think 100m tall conifers with a fern-like understory (remembering grass hadn’t evolved then) and the banks of rivers leading to the huge inland sea. Then it was over to the collection room to see the finished bones and models of the three dinosaurs they’ve found in this region. The most complete is Australovenator, Winton’s equivalent of the velociraptor from ‘Jurassic Park’ and nicknamed “Banjo”.

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Then it was into Winton proper to try and grab somewhere to stay. Ordinarily this would not have posed any problem at all but given this was the start of  their biannual “Outback festival” week things were bound to be tight.  Our back up were unpowered sites a few kilometers out of town out at the showground. We spotted this on the way into town and even at a distance this dust bowl did not look appealing.  Luckily for us there had been a cancellation at a caravan park right in the town centre mere metres away from the festival action.  Our thinking was the convenience would outweigh the noisiness – it did but only just!

DSC_0101Winton – home of Banjo’s famous Waltzing Matilda.

Our first day was spent 110 km out of town at the Dinosaur Stampede – a collection of over 3300 95 million year old footprints preserved in the siltstone under an iron oxide layer. Only an improbably lucky sequence of perfect events occurred to preserve this brief moment of mere minutes in the mid cretaceous.

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In the evening we watched Tania Kernaghan sing songs with local school kids as well as forget the lyrics to Waltzing Matilda – penned here by Banjo Patterson in 1895, then it was an indigenous group moving seamlessly from corroboree dancing to Singing in the Rain, Bollywood boogie, Michael Jackson and everything in between. Odd but entertaining.

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James smashes it up at Winton’s Musical Fence – complete with tongue (for balance).

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On our last day, Jules went out to Bladensburg National Park for a tag along photography tour whilst the boys and I enjoyed the festival. The best entertainment was on the morning we were due to leave. The army was giving rides in their armored personnel transport, The Roulettes flew into town to put on an aerial show, and Nathan Griggs, our whip cracking champion first seen in Mataranka, managed to sell Jules a stock whip! Both boys are now proficient.

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Perfect subjects from the tag-along photographic tour around Bladensburg NP.

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