My first target was Wilpena Pound in Flinders Ranges National Park, a 300km detour from the Stuart Highway. On the way I stopped to take in some aboriginal artwork sited in caves, which was simply beautiful. The artwork is completely in synch with its natural surroundings and looks stunning - the hand-prints being my favorite, created as the maker spat ink over their hand to create a silhouette.
What struck us most was being on the edge of the outback, already the land was flat and empty, broken only by Flinders Ranges, a small and modest range, whos beauty lies in the way they loom over the flat landscape and dominate the view, revealing all their intricate forms and formations. You can trace the journey of the mountains as they rise and fall around you as you meander between them. To get to them, we drove over millions of creek beds, all dry, and all exposing the red soil and clear curving lines where the water will flow...
Wilpena Pound, the most famous feature of the ranges, is a naturally formed basin, like two cupped hands cradling a luscious, and perfectly protected, basin in the centre. Climbing up the edge to stand of the very rim of the pound and looking down into the valley beneath, circled by the protection of the ranges, I realised that Australia is a country you can only view in panorama. No photograph will ever be able to do it justice.
The other cause for excitement was the sheer abundance of wallabies, kangaroos and emus roaming around the national park, oblivious to the disturbances of us people tramping around. In most countries, you feel like the glimpse of wildlife is a rare and precious thing, but in Australia the animals are so common that after a few days they become simply part of the landscape. Which isn't to say that I don't love wallabies and kangaroos, because I do. How an entire species (kangaroos down to wallabies, pademelons and the elusive kangaroo rats) decided that the best method of transport would be by hopping is beyond me. But hop they do, and their faint absurdity will always be endearing to me. In fact, almost all Australian wildlife is humorous in same way.
Koalas animals with the demeanour of adorable cuddly creatures are constantly high on eucalyptus leaves and bellow like bulls throughout the night. Platypuses were so ridiculous that it took scientists a long time and a lot of arguing to accept that they actually existed. Platypuses, along with echidnas, apparently decided that they wanted to be different to all the other animals, and decided to combine key mammal and reptile features into their own special little animal group: the monotremes, or mammals that lay eggs. I don't think there is anywhere else on earth you will find a collection of such adorable and absurd animals. And the birds! They are wonderful. Although I would normally discard bird watching as a dull and pointless hobby, to bird watch in Australia is a wonderful thing.
From Flinders’ ranges it's a long drive to the next point of call on the Stuart highway Coober Pedy. Apart from a few roadhouses along the way (Glendamo, population 15, Pimba, population 50ish) it's the only 'town' until you reach Alice Springs, which lies on about the halfway mark of the Stuart Highway, and almost exactly in the middle of Australia itself. On the way to Coober Pedy, you drive through a series of huge salt lakes, the biggest of which is Lake Eyre. You can catch a few glimpses of them from the Stuart Highway, but most of them are only accessible by 4x4 or air. That's one of the biggest problems with Australia: most of the best stuff is hidden sneakily down 4x4 tracks, so your average tourist can't get there. Throughout this trip I will continuously curse both my lack of time and lack of giant 4x4 car which would get me down all those dirt tracks I looked down longingly as I sailed past on my safe, asphalted road.
Luckily, however, I happened to stop at one of the many rest areas along the way. This one was labelled 'Lake Hart' and to my overwhelming happiness was not just a rest area, but led not only to a lookout but down to one of these salt lakes. At first you don't realise that the vast expanse in front of you is made entirely of salt... it reflects light like the surface of an immense lake. I could only imagine these first parched explorers, spying one of these lakes from the distance, and rushing towards it, overjoyed at having found water.... only to be bitterly disappointed to find nothing but salt. Even if there was water, it would be completely undrinkable. Whatever my imaginings, Lake Hart was magnificent. Endless expanse of pure white salt stretching to meet endless sky with a tiny strip of black on the horizon marking where this vast expanse ended. It was as pure as snow and felt cool to the touch, reflecting the glare of the sun.
I have no idea why it wasn't a major tourist attraction on the way to Coober Pedy (thankfully!) but I thought it was one of the most spectacular things I had ever seen. The best thing about it, however, was that after examining the map I discovered that Lake Hart is a tiny fleck on the map compared to the other great salt lakes in the area. That that huge, immense plain I had just stood on was a tiny, insignificant speck compared to the others, filled me with excitement. How I would love to go to these other giant lakes; unfortunately I would have to leave that for another time... and a 4x4 car....or aeroplane.
Read Part 3 Coober Pedy