My coach pickup for the trip to Alice Springs was at 6:15, so it was another early rise with far too little sleep. The pickup bus was actually heading to Darwin, but dropped half of us at a service station where we swapped coaches with some other people. I settled into my new seat (second row, left hand side, aisle seat) next to a French girl (Nadege, I think) and the coach pulled off on the first kilometre of the 2200 we had to go.
Our driver and guide introduced himself as Laurie (a Laurie driver! B’dum! Yeah, OK – he wasn’t impressed either) and gave us all the rules and a rough guide to where we’d be going, stopping, sleeping and so forth. As we set off, he popped on a recording of two songs which were to be our “wake up” tunes every day of the trip – G’day G’day and The Road Less Travelled. I would grow to loathe the former, mainly as it’s far too cheerful for 5:30am!
Pretty much everyone aside from the driver slept for the first couple of hours. On the way to our first stop, we passed over Windy Hill – the highest point in Queensland at 1100m above sea level. Atop it are 26 huge windmills which provide enough power for 3000 homes in the area. Just past this is Ravenshoe (Raven’s Hoe as opposed to Raven Shoe), which is Queensland’s highest village at 900m above sea level. Once a timber town, it’s turned to tourism for its income though we didn’t stop there! We did stop at Millstream Falls. These are the widest falls in Queensland, though there’s no (obvious) way down to swim in them. They were pretty much the only flowing water we were to see for days, though, and very scenic. Photos were taken, lavatories used and bums placed back on bus seats.
As we progressed along the road, random tunes were played on the stereo. As with any journey, this is never quite loud enough to be really well heard but sometimes little bits just get stuck between your ears. A handful of notes did just this. Some guitar. Airy. A little riff. Then a few more. It built, and a saxaphone came in. Every hair went up on my body and for the first time in what is almost eight months I felt homesick. Local Hero by Mark Knopfler. For those who don’t know, this is the music played as Newcastle United run onto the pitch at St James’ Park. I know they’re doing rubbish right now, but they’re still my team and it’s still a memory that sticks. So here I was, about as far from home as it’s physically possible to be while on the same planet, in a bus with 42 other people, in the desert… with a tear in each eye.
Lunch was at the Oasis Service Station, though we had a DIY picnic. Everyone mucked in to chop tomatoes and so on for sandwiches. An injured cockatiel wandered around pinching the scraps while other birds sat a distance away and had bread thrown to them. A pregnant cow was walking around and thoroughly enjoyed licking the salt off my arms. Cows have rough tongues, by the way.
The service station is home to Australia’s smallest licensed bar – 54cm wide, 103cm long. But it still sells the usual crappy Aussie beers. Not a bottle of Brown Ale in sight! Armed with an ice lolly I got back on the bus and we set off for another couple of hours.
We hadn’t seen much wildlife so far, the only wandering critters being cattle. The Aussies in the Outback rear Brahman cattle, which originate from India. They’re hardy, used to the dry and dusty climate and are very resistant to ticks and fleas. The famous red dust of the Outback is actually rust. There’s a lot of iron in the ground and it rusts causing the colour.
Our next scheduled stop was at Porcupine Gorge. We didn’t pick the best time to see this landmark – apparently it’s at it’s most attractive just after the wet season when there are a lot of pools remaining from the Flinders River flowing through it. Instead, we saw an arid swathe cut through the sandstone, but with some lovely rock formations around it. Amazingly, even in these conditions, there are plants growing from the rocks.
After an hour’s sweltering, we boarded the coach for the final leg of today’s stage. At a little after 6pm we pulled into Hughenden and checked into the Great Western Hotel. I was bunked with three other English lads in the cosy dorm room (with aircon – yay!). We enjoyed a decent dinner and I managed not to come last at killer pool. This was partially helped by my first beer in three weeks. And my second. And my third…