After our first night on a regular Big4 camping ground with the kids in Alice Springs we packed up our stuff and hit the road to the famous and absolutely gorgeous Kings Canyon, a mere 322km from The Alice, which means it is basically in the neighbourhood, speaking in Australian terms. Kings Canyon is well worth a visit, as I will be able to demonstrate to you in my next post – lesser known than neighbour Uluru (again, speaking in Australian terms), Kings Canyon is in essence the Australian Never Never from one of its most glorious sides.
Deep valleys with sheer cliff walls, a respite for local wildlife for which the area is one of the last structures in the desert where water can be found after longer spells of drought, and with spiritual significance to the local Ulpinyali & Lilla people, this rock formation should not be left out on any outback itinerary.
Embarking on our first leg of the journey we were slightly puzzled by Google Maps’ travel time estimates – around 5.5hrs for a distance of 322km seemed a bit far-fetched given the great condition of the road and the non-existence of traffic, but if we had spent more time reading our Lonely Planet guide in preparation for this trip, we might have discovered early on that around half of the road would be unsealed.
Alas, this tiny mistake would cost us dearly on that day and would result in us spending far more time on the road than originally planned, in fact far more than the generous estimate we had been given by Google Maps.
The first one and a half hours of our trip went by comfortably, until we reached the tiny town of Hermannsburg. We had vowed to make use of any opportunity to refill the fuel tank while driving in remote areas, so we pulled up at the local service station/supermarket/community place/post office.
The numerous signs beckoning travellers to take the turn off from the highway, fantastically named Larapinta Drive, down to the Hermannsburg main street were surprisingly inviting, more than in the usual way –as if not just to invite travellers to spend their money here, but almost begging or persuading them with a sense of dispair. I found this quite surprising, given that there really was no competition or alternative out there – outback places don’t need to out-do themselves to win customers (and they hardly do).
So we set the indicator and left the highway to head into the little town centre, which was a service station, a dusty, littered playground, a closed art gallery, and not much else. We arrived at 10am on a Sunday morning and there was no-one out there except for an Aboriginal mother with her kids making use of the play equipment in the fresh winter breeze.
Some horses were grazing next to the road, from time to time a dog could be seen. The service station was still closed for another half an hour, so we switched off the engine and waited for the owner to open up the shop, while the kids stretched their legs and enjoyed the park.
While a couple of locals slowly trickled in, we had plenty of opportunity to explore the immediate area, not that there was much to see or to do on this Sunday morning, but there were a couple of things about Hermannsburg that seemed different to your usual Australian country town.
Hermannsburg has been established 1877 as a German Lutheran mission which served as a link between the local Aranda people and the white settlers. It still is very much an Aboriginal settlement and there are a number of things that became apparent when visiting.
Photography of people and their houses is forbidden in Hermannsburg, and this is totally understandable as Aboriginal people and their way of life is no tourist attraction and should remain within their private sphere. Alcohol is forbidden to bring into the community – even having alcohol in your motorhome fridge can be considered a serious offence, and this certainly came as a bit of a surprise to us. The big sign on top of the service station that warns drivers off in unmistakably big letters to not drink & drive must be up there for a reason, although it seems to be directed towards the white population.
Once the shop had opened up, we went inside to pay for the fuel. Pumps are operated by service station owners in these areas, too many people have issues with addiction to petrol fumes. Luckily, the owners of the roadhouse were very friendly and also pointed out that a) the next stretch of today’s journey called Mereenie Loop Road would have to happen on gravel road, and that b) we would have to purchase a pass for travelling this section of the road as we were travelling through aboriginal lands. The costs for these passes are minimal and serve a good cause – the communities benefit greatly from this extra stream of income. However, the full meaning of unsealed road still didn’t really hit us. But the careless comment that other people in motorhomes had travelled the distance before came to mind a couple of times during the ordeal that would follow and it was sort of reassuring.
The shop itself was an experience too. Besides the fact that it was not well stocked at all considering how far away the next supermarket must be, and mostly consisting of empty shelves, the lack of lollies and other sweet stuff, carefully kept out of reach of sneaky fingers, was striking. Posters all around informed in easy language and with illustrations about healthy diets, a bit like in a school class room. Other posters warned about children using their parents’ social benefit cards for the public telephone without their parents consent. Besides this, there was not much else happening in this shop, even the post office was only manned a couple of hours per week. There was nothing romantic about this place, it was very matter-of-fact, and a bit sad in its lack of appeal and strict educational warning signs.
Outside the shop we found another educational sign, this time explaining the operations and purpose of the police. I think you get the idea.
But it would be unfair to only point out the problems, tensions and issues that a place like Hermannsburg might have. Up the road there are a number of interesting historic buildings that can all be visited 7 days a week. We just didn’t have time to do it while we were there, and in retrospect we are glad we didn’t spend more time in Hermannsburg as – unbeknownst to us at that stage – we had to continue our drive for another almost unbearable 7 hours on dirt road.
After refueling we continued our journey to Kings Canyon and after a couple of minutes the road surface turned from smooth grey to corrugated, dusty red. Despite what we had been told at the service station, the condition of the road would not improve for the next 200+km. We were shaking and rattling through the outback in a massive motorhome that had the shape and agility of a driving wardrobe, with pots and pans rattling, and springs squeaking, while trying to make a neck-breaking 30km/h.
After an hour we re-considered – would it make sense to press on or should we rather drive all the way back to Alice Springs to take the sealed road to Uluru? What if we punctured a tire or broke the caravan in some way that could be directly traced back to our use of an unsealed road – something that is clearly not covered in the rental insurance? One option looked as unappealing as the other. We checked with other drivers that we met on the road – all of them clearly better prepared, mostly with 4 wheel drive, but our brains were unable to accept the fact that we would have to endure another estimated 6 hours of this rattling and shaking.
After some deliberation and consideration, we decided to continue, all the while hoping that at least the corrugated surface would improve. It didn’t. Nor were there any less rocks threatening to puncture our tires. Even worse, towards the end we had to navigate around holes with deep sands which carried the risk of us getting stuck on the road for good.
The scenery around us was enchanting and beautiful, but we had no sense of appreciation for this. Too great was our worry we might not make it to Kings Canyon before sunset. At least the road was wide enough to manoeuvre around the worst bits, and there were other travellers on the road, making far more speed than us but at least it gave us the feeling of not being alone out there.
I have to say, the kids managed well during our 7 hours on this road, probably they were not yet weary of travelling long distances and still enjoyed the novelty of the trip. Due to the violent shaking it was not even possible to draw pictures or do activity books – I have no idea how we actually passed the time without ever getting down.
Some 30kms before Kings Canyon, the road suddenly became sealed again, which we greeted which big cheers and a tear of relief or two. But to our disappointment this lasted only for a couple of kilometres, probably to assist the only climb and descent we had during the trip to Kings Canyon, which by the way was also the only look-out spot along the way. After that, there were another 20-30mins of dirt road until we finally, finally with the last rays of sunlight rolled into Kings Canyon Resort.
Our learning: Make sure you read your guide book carefully. Check with locals if the roads you intend to travel are safe. Do not think that the trip from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon via Hermannsburg was a short-cut, it is not. In fact, it is definitely the wrong option during the summer months when rainfall is more likely to occur. You don’t want to get stuck when the road is flooded. However, you do get to enjoy a much more enchanting desert scenery and the most beautiful colours, at a much slower pace.
Kings Canyon will be my next topic, and I will be happy to share some of the most amazing photos I was able to take here – both from the air as well as on the ground. So please make sure you come back soon.
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