Saturday, September 30, 2006

Outback Trip: Day Four


In the morning we got a tour of an opal mine by the owner of the campground in Coober Pedy. Like almost everyone else in the town, he spends part of his time mining for opal. He took us through an old opal mine, showed us how opal forms, how one goes about prospecting for it, staking a claim, and mining for it. He showed us the explosives they use for blasting and let us try divining rods, which apparently work for likely opal deposits as well as water. And they actually work! I never thought there was any science behind those things, but it turns out they really work. No pictures from this part, sorry.

We spent most of the day after that driving. Our destination for the night was a bush camp on the Mt. Conner cattle station. Cattle raising in Australia is profitable because many of the plants have very high protein levels, so cattle raised on them is healthier or tastier or something. Of course, at other times the cyanide levels in those same plants gets too high, killing the cattle that eat them. Not to mention all the other ways cattle can die in the outback. Cattle stations in the outback are usually enormous. The biggest Australian cattle station, Anna Creek, is six million acres - bigger than Belgium and four times as large as the biggest cattle ranch in the U.S.

At the bush camp we met our host, Ian, the owner of the cattle station. He was a very cool guy (must run with the name). He was the quintessential hardy outback type, friendly but soft spoken and a man of few words, knowledgeable and tough enough to enjoy living out where life is still very hard. Around the campfire he obliged us by telling us all about the different ways one could die in the outback. Besides the usual venomous snakes and spiders, other highlights included a type of wood that will give you gangrene within 12 hours from a splinter, and bullet ants, enormous (I mean enormous) ants with the most painful sting of any insect in the world. Oh good. His wife told us about the time a Common Brown Snake (euphemistically named, as it is horribly venomous) slithered into the outhouse she was using, and she had to sit there with the snake wrapped around her ankles until it decided to leave. They also told us about the various rescue operations they had been involved in, including a Checkoslovakian couple who were never found ("Yeah, they're still out there somewhere," chuckling) and a hiker Ian singlehandedly tracked and rescued ("I'm not sure he was all there in the head").

The next morning (okay, technically day five, but it fits better in here), Ian took us out on a walk to see the sun rise on Mount Conner, which was very pretty. He also showed us a lot of different plants and other features of the landscape (Ian: "This here is a bullet ant nest. They're all still inside the nest at this time of morning, but I'll poke it with this stick so some of them will come out." Everyone else: "Uhhh...."). You could tell from the way he talked that Ian truly enjoyed the land and his work.

Side note: For a good time, read about the Schmidt Pain Index for insect stings (on which bullet ants receive the highest rating). The descriptions are fantastic, and the story of the index's origin is pretty funny too. Entomologists are a strange breed.

Outback Trip: Day Three


When we stopped at the bush camp in Muloorina, the bus sank almost to its front axles in soft sand. So the next morning, before we could drive anywhere, we had to get it out. We dug out the back wheels and stuck boards under them to get some grip, then everyone got behind the bus and pushed it out. The morning's drive was more of the Oodnadatta track. Along the way, we saw a strange sculpture garden in the middle of the outback, the dog fence (the longest fence in the world), and Lake Eyre. The name "lake" is a bit misleading, because at least from our vantage point there was no water to be seen, but there was a vast expanse of salt flats. The lake only floods after periods of heavy rainfall in Queensland, which means it is mostly dry for years at a time (the last time it was actually "full" was some time in the 1970s), and the extremely salty water leaves behind salt deposits when it recedes, resulting in a huge expanse of salt. Side note: Lake Eyre also has its own yacht club. Australians have sort of an odd sense of humor...

At lunchtime we stopped at William Creek, a town of population 6. Besides a fun little park of relics (old machines and a couple spent test rockets someone had picked up out of the outback), the other thing bringing us to William Creek was flights over the Painted Desert. The Painted Desert is a pristine area of land full of beautiful mineral deposits and rock formations. Only the locals know the exact location of the area, and they aren't interested in telling anyone else. "Letting people tramp all over it would just ruin it," said our pilot. "It's better we just leave it untouched." About half the residents of William Creek run a small airfield, and they will fly people over the Painted Desert in light aircraft, which is what we did. They put us in the backseat of a small little plane, and our pilot flew us out to and around the Painted Desert. It was a beautiful area, and the plane flight was a new experience for all of us.

That afternoon we drove to Coober Pedy, the opal mining capital of the world. The town of a few thousand produces around 70% of the world's opal. Most people in Coober Pedy live underground, since that's the best way to stay cool in an area that can get very, very hot. We stayed at an underground campground for the night. Sound strange? Yeah, we thought so too. It was a campground that had probably started as someone's opal mine, and at some point had been expanded into a series of big rooms cut into the ground, where we could set up our swags and camp just as if we were anywhere else. Also that night we got a presentation from a local on the night sky. As you can imagine, the stars in the outback are stunning. He showed us a bunch of constellations (including the beloved Southern Cross) and told us some interesting astronomy facts.

Outback Trip: Days One and Two

There's photos from the entire trip in that set, but you're cheating if you look ahead. And don't think I don't know about those of you who have already gotten into them. Inquisitive scoundrels, I'll find you...

Day one was quite uneventful. After classes on Friday, we packed up our stuff and got right on the bus. We drove straight through most of the evening, heading north through Port Augusta, stopping at a truck stop/grocery store/restaurant for a pizza dinner, and then continuing on to the campground at Wilpena Pound where we were spending the night. It was dark when we got there, so we set out our swags and pretty much just went to sleep.

The next morning, we got up nice and early, and after a quick breakfast, we hiked up Mt. Ohlsson Bagge. It was a steep hike and the sun was relentless, but the views of the surrounding area were fantastic. From the top of the "Bagge" we could see all of Wilpena Pound. The area is a flat plain encircled by a rim of hills (see an aerial photo here), so it made for some very impressive scenery. If you don't mind the large file size, there's a hastily stitched panorama I took here.

After hiking back down, we ate lunch and got back on the bus for more driving. A lot of the afternoon driving took us along the Oodnadatta track. A "track" in Australia means an unpaved road, usually privately maintained, and often of questionable quality. The Oodnadatta is one of the more well-used tracks, but it was still a rather rough ride at times. At one point they sent a student out to tramp through a flooded section of track to see how deep it ran before we tried to drive through it.

Later in the afternoon we stopped briefly in Farina, a ghost town. Built around the railroad, the town died when the railroad line closed down. Now all that's left are slowly collapsing ruins. It was pretty eerie, especially set in the vast emptiness of the outback. Later we passed through Maree, the home of the Maree Man (we didn't stop, though). Camping that night was ostensibly a bush camp in Muloorina, the only indications of an actual camp were a road sign and a couple "long drop" toilets (lovely descriptive name, isn't it?) that we had to walk about 600m to get to.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Outback Trip: Overview

Hi all,
Sorry for the radio silence for a while now. I didn't have anything new and exciting to post for a bit, and then I got very, very busy with schoolwork and planning an upcoming backpacking excursion, and didn't have time to put anything up before we left for our grand trip to the outback.

We left last Friday and got back this Saturday. The trip was organized by IES, the program hosting us (Kangaroo Island was organized by them as well). We traveled on a bus from Adelaide all the way up to Alice Springs, making lots of stops along the way. Our guide, Bill, estimated that we covered a little over 2300 km one way. In the evenings, we slept outside in "swags," which are sort of a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and tent all rolled up one. They were surprisingly comfortable, and plenty warm (it did get quite cold at night). We cooked all our food, usually over campfires. Ironically, we ate much better that week than we do here at Lincoln.

One of the advantages of traveling by bus was that we got a very good idea of just how big Australia is. You can travel for hours without seeing a single sign of habitation, a lake, or a paved road. At the same time, it's a beautiful country. Despite the sparse plant life and general flatness, the ground is deep shades of red, the sky is always bright blue, the sunsets are amazing, and there's a general feeling of serenity that's hard not to love.

It would have been nice to have more time to explore some of the areas we passed through, but that's a sacrifice that had to be made to travel that much ground in a week. All in all, it was a fantastic time, although I am glad to be back here and clean finally.

For the details of the trip, because there's so much to report, I think I'm going to put out reports one or two days at a time, so keep checking back here for the next week or so, as I'm going to keep pushing stuff out. I'm in the process of organizing all my photos, so I probably won't get anything more written up tonight, but expect more soon!