Saturday 25 October 2014

Australia's greatest roadtrip

A full tank of petrol, a loaded iPod and nothing but 2,800km of Australian highway ahead...

Published 17/05/2014 | 02:30

The rugged landscape of Australia
Ayers Rock disappears in the car's wing mirror
Thumbs Up: Edel gives her best Dolly Parton impersonation

'And keep an eye out for roos in the dark!" came the old lady's cry of wisdom, as her country drawl echoed forebodingly along the bush roadside.

It seemed that in Australia, wildlife road-safety tips came with driving directions as standard.

My friend and I looked at each other, laughing with irrational gusto; not so much because we'd struck Aussie cliche gold, but rather that after vowing to avoid the notorious night-time driving in the eerie Outback, we knew we were about to fall at the first hurdle.

Armed with limited coffers, a loaded iPod and a Dolly Parton wig, Edel and I had left Adelaide earlier that day to embark on one of the world's greatest road-trips: to Australia's great Red Centre. However, as we made that momentous right-turn on to the Stuart Highway, no more directions would be needed. The legendary pan-continental thoroughfare, which stretches 2,800km (or five days) between Port Augusta and Darwin was a one-way linear affair, branched only by undeviating dirt tracks – and an uncertain fate for those who dared to traverse them.

After a full day of pedal-to-the-metal acceleration and twilight coasting, night had fallen by the time we reached the desert hub of Coober Pedy; its bizarre moonscape hinterland dotted with opal mining mullock heaps and abandoned ghost vehicles that never quite made it to their next refill.

Skirting both the Simpson and Great Victoria deserts, the town endures mercury bubbling summers, and as a result, most homes and businesses here are famously made up of dug-out dwellings. A real case of down under, Down Under.

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Following our day of Outback isolation, Coober Pedy's one-horse downtown offered total urban overload: people, stores, pick-up trucks, cafe and doghouse bandying the novelty moniker of 'Underground'.

Fittingly, Edel and I checked in to the Desert Cave Hotel, where our pitch-black cavernous room, hewn into the sandstone rock, came complete with oil lanterns to mole our way outdoors in the event of a power cut.

Coober Pedy's macho swagger is almost paradoxically riven with kitsch. 'Mad Max' and 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert' were both shot in the town and it seemed that half of their movie props had been left in their wake.

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On-location photo-opps rested around every corner. From the town's Opal Museum (necessitating obligatory hard-hats), to the vast and lonesome lunar plains – we found ourselves wandering its quirky environs like Ned Kelly meets the Village People.

Other noteworthy sites included the Serbian Orthodox church, the Breakaways Mountains and the Dingo Fence – the world's largest man-made structure, which keeps the wild dogs from migrating from the cattle country in the north to the sheep farms of the south. It's one of the most curious towns any traveller could encounter.

Fuelled up on 800kms worth of petrol, caffeine and Cadburys, we finally left Coober Pedy behind and the Stuart Highway stretched out again, punctuated with iconic scenes of Outback touring: freight trains panned by and road trains roared by, while above, eagles harried the skies on the lookout for road-kill.

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In the bush, meanwhile, camels grazed, dingoes skulked and herds of wild horses galloped across the stardust.

These were snapshots captured over a week of motoring, however. In real-time, driving through Oz meant miles of bitumen and countless horizons were conquered without yielding any sign of life. Little wonder they call this land 'Never Never'. As we crossed the NT (Northern Territory) borderline, with the Bush spilling out into nothing, it rendered an audible agoraphobic gasp from both of us.

Eight hours and a red-alert fuel tank later, we were crawling our way along the roadway-cum-runway towards Alice Springs, home of the 'Flying Doctors' and the region's major (or only) tourist crossroads.

We weren't in Alice for its upcoming Camel Derby nor its impressive selection of Fosters on tap, however. As the gateway to the Red Centre, we were spring-boarding towards the ultimate Aussie road-trip endgame: Ayers Rock (aka Uluru).

With our 2WD Toyota curtailed to the main highway drag, our onward leg saw us ditching driving duties for the guided tour as we hopped aboard the backpacker bandwagon with overland specialists Adventure Tours Australia. We were picked up from our digs the following morning,and joined a cargo of Euro, Aussie and Japanese tourists who were defiantly dozing amid the check-list of hostel pick-ups.

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Our guide Mel's dawn stereo chorus of AC/DC at full throttle soon had everybody sitting upright. And with 1,500km of 'Now That's What I Call 80s' in reserve, she started as she meant to continue.

The desert odyssey was a hands-on, Kumbaya affair, with an itinerary of firewood collecting, open-air barbies and marshmallow toasting, all in the backdrop of the NT's most spectacular natural wonders.

Over three days, we toured from the sacred rock formations of Kata Tjuta to the lush Eden of King's Canyon, but it was Uluru itself which was the most anticipated pit-stop.

Almost 500kms from Alice, we arrived at the sacred Aboriginal site just before sunset, as the Instagramming masses were gathering for traditional Prosecco sundowners. The coach loads of crowds might have been an incongruous buzz-kill but they were quickly overshadowed by the evening's kaleidoscopic light show, illuminating Uluru in rippling shades of amber and blue.

After camping outdoors that night under a magnificent Milky Way, the next morning would reveal the true majesty of Uluru. While still a hot debate, climbing the monolith is largely considered an ethical no-go nowadays, so we decided to go bush walkabout instead and take in a 10k dawn trek around the base.

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Edel and I struck off at daybreak, just as the sun was about to shimmer in the horizon, offering welcome relief from the winterish morning chill. Then, proving that the early kookaburra catches the worm, we eked out the perfect gum tree, reclined and lost ourselves in the beginning of a new day in the Outback.

In the know

Coober Pedy is a quirky town that was used as a location for the films 'Mad Max' and 'Priscilla Queen of the Desert'.

Need to know

Getting there

Emirates (01 517 1600; emirates.com; or the Emirates Reservation office at 2 Hume St in Dublin) fly from Dublin to Adelaide via Dubai from €769 |return, with Business Class rates including chauffeur transfers starting from €3,696 return.

Renting a car for an A-B Outback road-trip can prove quite tricky. Hertz (hertz.ie) was the only company which allowed travel from SA to NT but they charge a AUS $1,000 drop-off fee for their trouble. Our Camry came to €47 per day: we just had to drive it back to Adelaide…

A word to the wise: Kangaroos and livestock cause such a driving hazard in Oz that few rental companies will insure dusk to dawn driving. We’d a few escapes with dingoes and boomers so stay alert and reduce speeds come evening.

Staying there

The Desert Cave Hotel (desertcave.com.au) in Coober Pedy has rates from €62pps while dorm beds/rooms at Annie’s Place hostel in Alice Springs cost €14/€40pps.

Adventure Tours Australia’s (adventuretours.com.au) trips to Uluru start from €205 for one night. For more info, visit australia.com

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