Big Question Marks

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Going Outback Pt II: Ghost Towns & Mountain Hikes

By now, we were still marvelling at the silence of the Outback-- day and night, we'd barely meet another soul. We passed through Wilcannia, a former gold mining town which had a ghost-town feel to it-- dilapidated buildings and not a soul on the street (it was really hot outside though). Next it was Broken Hill, a relatively large town close to the South Australia border. It's known as the "Silver City", and the town has been built around a giant silver mine (looks quite weird to see a huge mound behind the town's buildings, and it always sounded like a construction site). There was also gold mines back in the day, and the "downtown" was full of Gold Rush-era, well-preserved buildings. It's also been a hotspot for films-- the Palace Hotel is a huge pub featured in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, and nearby ghost town Silverton was the filming site for Mad Max II. Since Adrian's a huge Mad Max fan, we drove out to the spooky town to check out the tiny pub and the scenic sunbleached buildings of the town. The publican told us about the crazy dust storms that come through town, as well as the floods that close off the town from civilization when too much rain falls. We even met some wild donkeys hanging out by the (closed) museum/jail. There are a few people who live and work there-- there are a few art galleries, a house which we saw a ute pull into, and the family who runs the pub are residents, too. But otherwise, Silverton had quite the spooky, deserted air to it.

Nonetheless, Broken Hill was the closest we'd get to civilization for a while. We crossed into South Australia later the next day, through a manned quarantine checkpoint (you have to toss out your fruit & veggies just between most states here, it's crazy!) and straight into a dark storm cloud. We stopped in at the info centre in a cute town called Quorn, just below the Flinders Ranges National Park, and got the bad news we'd been dreading: the Oodnadatta Track was closed due to rains the Friday before (it was already Wednesday by then!). Norm, the biker who planted the adventuresome idea in our heads earlier that week, had told us authorities close the roads due to creeks flooding, but mostly so that vehicles don't create but ditches and ruts in the soft, wet ground. Since this was the rainier season (despite the drought), there was always the chance it would get closed down. Word is, if you travel on the road when it is closed and are caught, you'll be fined $1000 per tire. Yikes!

Disappointed as we were, we decided to at least check out the Flinders Ranges the next day and see if the track would reopen. It would be a detour-- the path we were taking is on the east side of some very large (and dried-out, we believe) lakes and there was no way north to join the main north-south highway, without the unsealed tracks. We'd have to detour back south for about 300km, and return north on the other side of the lakes-- a lot more time and fuel, but we'd heard the Flinders Ranges were worth it in scenery.

We drove further north, checking out historic ruins of sheep stations (abandoned because of the inhospitable conditions, heat and drought) and some Aboriginal rock paintings along the way to the National Park. We paused for the night in a wee town nestled in the mountains called Hawker, along the road where every town felt more and more like the end of the line.

Hanging onto our last bits of hope, we arrived inside Flinders Ranges National Park, to begin a hike with views of Wilpena Pound, a mountain range with a circular valley in the centre (apparently shepherds used to round up their sheep in this natural "pound"). And we got the news-- the Oodnadatta Track had reopened! As long as there wasn't another freak rain (we were told they'd had a huge amount of rain this month compared to normal), we could do it with ease, even without a 4WD, we were reassured. So with a burst of excited energy, we opted for a hike with great views and kind of overlooked that it was the only one listed as "Hard". Two hours of steep rock climbing to the top of Mount Ohlssen-Bagge found us sweaty and exhausted at the top (why do we always seem to hike in mid-afternoon?). We'd seen a few lizards but all the other wildlife was sensible enough to stay inside for the day. The views were phenomenal though and it was a much easier time down the steep trail, even with jello-ey legs.

We found a sweet campsite in the park (after "snaking" a refreshing shower from the Wilpena Pound Resort at the trailhead...) after a winding drive past emus sipping from puddles and roaming kangaroos-- by a dry riverbed and a mountain, and watched the stars from our peaceful site. In the morning, another camper came by to check out our trails map and we warned him about Mt Ohlssen-Bagge. He may have suited it better than us though, being a Bavarian who wore his lederhosen camping (we met him again in Coober Pedy, days later, in his lederhosen again!). We opted for a more peaceful trail through some grasslands and through a gorge that day... figured our energy is best put into the Outback Track driving the next day!

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