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On the morning of our last day together as traveling companions with Wayoutback Desert Safaris, we wake to the sound of birds. We are not much more than 100 kilometers from Alice Springs, but well and truly in the heart of the outback. There are no amenities here that we have not brought with us. To reach the nearest toilet, our driver/guide points to the shovel and suggests walking a good long way from camp, well away from the water that has attracted all the birds.


Most of us are soon mesmerised by the aviary all around us. This is a wonderland for bird watchers and long telephoto lenses. A large, awkward-looking baby hawk sits on a branch nearby, waiting for his parents to bring his breakfast. Flocks of budgies dart and soar in the sky overhead, gradually joining in larger and larger numbers until the sky seems covered with them. It is hard to imagine these same birds confined to cages, perched in solitary confinement in sombre cities around the world. Out here we can see them for the gregarious aerial acrobats they really are.


One of our number wanders back to camp from a short walk and describes a creature Tamara thinks may have been a wild turkey. We are immersed in rich wonderland within a very dry jungle. it is magical, the perfect morning for our last day together.


We take our time over breakfast and slowly gear up for our trip back to civilisation. Most of us have exhausted our store of clean clothes. Our one and only rendezvous for the day is with a lady named Loz, the host and spokesperson for the Oak Valley Aboriginal Community, due south of Alice Springs.


As scruffy as we are, she takes us in. We are the Whitefellas who have shown up to hear her stories and to listen to the land. She shows us a hill full of rare fossils to start with, remains of the last retreat of inland ocean. We walk together through scrub bushland which should be rich with bush tucker, but it has been too dry. We scramble up to a sacred site replete with rock art.

She is full of stories, personal family history and tribal stories that connect her people to the land as powerfully as glue. By the end of the afternoon we will all fall under her enchantment. One story that stuck with me was about her uncle, if memory serves. Years of writing have failed to improve my memory and I am without notes.


He lost his leg after being thrown from a horse. Despite being flown to a hospital in Adelaide, they best they could do for him was a wooden substitute. That didn’t stop him from riding, swimming swollen rivers, doing anything the young man wanted to do. In time, he made himself a better leg, articulated at the knee and ankle. Sent the old one back to the hospital as an offering.

It is time to go. We clamber back into Snooty for the drive to Alice Springs, the gathering of luggage, the brief goodbyes. Later on, a handful of us who are staying close to the centre of town will get together at a pub to drink a toast to the group adventure. In the morning, we will climb on metal birds to head our separate ways. Five rich and wondrous days will slip into memory.





John McDouall Stuart was one of the most accomplished and famous of all Australia’s inland explorers. Stuart led the first successful expedition to traverse the Australian mainland from south to north. despite poor backing from the Government of South Australia. He never lost a man even though he encountered some of the harshest conditions on the continent.

The explorations of Stuart eventually resulted in the Australian Overland Telegraph Line being built and the main route from Port Augusta to Darwin being established, now called the Stuart Highway in his honour. He was born in Scotland, the youngest of nine children. His father was a retired army captain serving as a customs officer. His parents died when he was in his early teens and he came under the care of relatives. After graduating from the Scottish Naval and Military Academy as a civil engineer, the young man emigrated to Australia in 1838. He was a delicately built man, only 5′ 6″ tall (168 cm) and 121 pounds (55 kilos).

John McDouall Stuart

It was on his fourth expedition, in the Spring of 1860. that Stuart came across the rugged region now called the MacDonnell Ranges. He and two other men had departed from Chambers Creek, South Australia on horseback, intending to find the centre of Australia. Unexpected rain soon ruined half their supplies, then, ironically, water holes seemed to disappear. Scurvy set in among the small group and Stuart’s right eye began to fail.


Nevertheless, they found a major watercourse in early April which Stuart named the Finke River, and they followed it north-west to some rugged hills, which Stuart named after Sir Richard MacDonnell, Governor of South Australia. On 22 April 1860, according to Stuart’s calculations, the party reached the centre of the continent. Geographers no longer regard it as the exact centre, but that has done nothing to lower Stuart’s reputation.

Despite his many accomplishments, to say that Stuart discovered this area is like saying Columbus “discovered” America. The Arrente people had lived in the area for more than 30,000 years when the Europeans put in an appearance. They were desert people, constantly walking the country to gather food from underground larders, picking fruits and seeds, hunting animals and birds. Steep narrow chasms and gorges cut into the hills, some retaining pools of water throughout the year.


This is a refuge for some rare and threatened plants; it is home to the smooth, white-barked ghost gum, the desert she-oak, river red gum, corkwood and coolibah. Twelve mammal species have disappeared since European contact, but there are still Red kangaroos, bilbies, mulgaras, and the black-footed rock-wallaby, although they are endangered. Goannas and a variety of other reptiles are still common, as well as 160 species of birds.


Unlike Stuart, we are traveling in style on a trusty steel steed capable of carrying all sixteen of us, our gear, water and food to boot. Our fourth day takes us from Glen Helen Resort to Ormiston Gorge, the Ochre Pits, Serpentine Gorge and Ellery Creek Big hole before we launch well off the beaten path, heading into the back of beyond– Owen Springs Reserve.


For thousands of years, Aboriginal people gathered ochre from the banks of a sandy creek site about 110 kms west of Alice Springs. The pits consist of several layers of multi-coloured, layered rock used by Australian Aborigines in ceremonies and played an important role in the Aboriginal economy, being traded with neighbouring clans and “countries”, in every direction on the continent. Prior to European settlement of the area in 1880, only certain Arrente men were allowed to collect the ochre.


It was considered some of the choicest ochre – soft to touch, vivid, with a slight sheen to it. The colours range from gold to crimson. After the ochre was mined by the Western Arrernte, it was ground and mixed with Emu fat for ceremonial body adornment.



If you want to get a 4 wheel-drive bus stuck in the middle of nowhere, you could hardly do worse than head across a dry river bed at the end of a long, hot day. We were following the meandering path of Hugh River, heading for what promised to be one of the only places in the area with any water left. It would be our campground for the night, a paradise for birds.


Within ten to fifteen minutes of getting “bogged,” we had an audience, a truck full of Aboriginal men, who seemed amused at our plight and not particularly interested in getting their hands dirty. Our fearless guide and leader had no such qualms. She was soon digging out loose gravel from around the tires and directing us to unload the trailer. Snooty was well and truly stuck.


After watching us awhile, the Ute full of husky men simply drove around us and disappeared. It is at times like this that your brain flashes back to all those missed opportunities to sign up for road service. Tamara was nonplussed. What is an outback adventure without the adventure? As it gradually dawned on us that we really were going to have to do this ourselves, the group gradually stopped throwing out questions and suggestions, and put minds and muscle behind the effort.


Despite some serious reservations about our ability to push the trailer out of the creek bed and up the other side, it seemed like the only way to get Snooty unstuck. After a handful of frustrating attempts, Snooty finally got the traction it needed and came free. We followed this with a concerted push and the trailer followed the bus up the dry river bank traveling on human power alone.


Stuart would have been proud. It was a day to remember, and a night to celebrate.


At the tail end of our long, semicircular dirt journey, we find ourselves some 150 kms north of Uluru, still 325 kms southwest of Alice Springs. We are taking the scenic route. Each day of our trip involves a stop to gather firewood. Tamara, our guide and guardian, pulls Snooty off the road at places that look as random as the rest of the countryside, but she has chosen spots where permission has been granted to thin out the dead wood on the ground.

We all descend from the bus into the midday heat and scatter. We become hunters and gatherers, not so very different from the natives of this land. We are gathering the makings of fire for our evening meal. Our guide clambers up on to the roof and waits for the offerings of sticks and branches, rejecting those that are too small or too big or too rotten, arranging it all into a bundle that can be secured to the vehicle. It is hot, dirty work, as unfamiliar to us as bringing down an emu with a boomerang. We are glad when it is over.


At the western end of the George Gill range lies Watarrka National Park. It is a rugged landscape of rock holes and gorges, dominated by the spectacular natural amphitheatre of King’s Canyon, towering 100 meters (300 feet) from the valley floor. Rock wallabies and dingoes live here, but they are shrewd enough to vanish from such a large, noisy group.


At the top is a massive plateau of red sandstone, shaped by wind and water over thousands of years. Our six kilometre hike will take us up 500 well-formed, but steep steps to the top, then weave across weathered-dome rock formations and gradually down again to a secluded ravine called “the garden of Eden.” The park is named after an acacia tree (also called the umbrella bush) that the Luritja people know as watarrka.


More than 750 plant species have been recorded here, including one species of fern that is found only in the park. The water at the bottom of the slot canyon optimistically called “the garden of Eden” includes sixty or so rare, relict species, such as the creeping swamp fern. This has survived fifty million years, from a time when a rainforest covered the area. Seed-bearing trees and insects attract eighty species of birds. They keep watch on us while we eat our lunch, ready to take advantage of our crumbs.


Like many explorers, Ernest Giles seems to have stumbled upon the calling after failing at everything else. He was born in Bristol, England, but he emigrated to Australia when he was fifteen, joining his parents in Adelaide. In 1852 Giles went to the Victorian goldfields, then became a clerk at the Post Office in Melbourne, and later at the County Court. Tiring of life in town, Giles headed for the bush. By 1861, he was exploring on the Darling River, looking for land capable of cultivating hemp, a valuable comoddity at the time.



Giles didn’t attempt a regular expedition until 1872, when he left Chambers pillar (a sandstone formation 160 kms south of Alice Springs), with two other men around the middle of August. They traversed much previously untrodden country to the northwest and west. Finding their way barred by Lake Amadeus and the horses getting very weak, a return was made to Adelaide, where the party arrived in January 1873. Giles was the first European to see the Olgas, Lake Amadeus, and the rugged formation now called Watarrka.


The following year, another young English immigrant/explorer named William Gosse traveled through the same region, discovering Ayer’s Rock and one of the most interesting geologic formations in central Australia– Gosses Bluff. The original crater is thought to have been formed by the impact of an asteroid or comet approximately 142 million years ago. The original rim has been estimated at about 22 km (14 miles) in diameter, but this has been eroded away. What remains is about 5 km (3 miles) in diameter, 180 m (590 ft) high, the eroded relic of the crater’s central uplift. The impact origin of this topographic feature was first proposed in the 1960s, the strongest evidence coming from the abundance of shatter cones.


A Western Arrernte story also attributes its origins to a cosmic impact: in the Dreaming, a group of celestial women were dancing as stars in the Milky Way. One of the women grew tired and placed her baby in a wooden basket. As the women continued dancing, the basket fell and plunged to the earth. The baby’s fall forced the rocks upward, forming the circular mountain range. The baby’s parents, the evening and morning star, continue to search for their baby to this day.


When we reach our home for the night, the reward is well worth waiting for– a cool, refreshing dip in Pioneer Creek. Like all the other animals, we follow the water and sleep under the stars. On days like this, life is very good indeed.



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