Coober dawnCoober Pedy is an Mos Eisley-esque opal mining outpost in the middle of the Outback – there’s virtually no vegetation or water, and people only live there because there’s opals in them thar dunes. Due to the extremes of temperature, most people choose to live underground (where it’s a constant 23 degrees) and the name Coober Pedy is derived from a local Aboriginal phrase meaning “white man’s burrows”. The place feels very small town-y and isolated (which it is) – up until recently, you could buy high explosives at the local supermarket and most blasting is still done using home-made bombs of varying size (the opal seams themselves are mined using modern equipment, and people often extend their subterranean homes to search for more). Due to Coober Pedy’s nature as a desert outpost with facilities such as drinking water (the best in Australia, as it’s taken from boreholes and purified), several desert-set films have been shot in the vicinity including Red Planet, Mad Max, Pitch Black (the shuttle set is still in town) and, my personal favourite, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

We trundled into Alice Springs the following evening, which is also a small desert town (though not as small as Coober Pedy) and a former overland telegraph repeater station. The super friendly Alice Lodge Backpackers was my base for the next few days – I’d come all the way up here to see Uluru (still another 400 km away), around which a thriving tour industry was built. Taking an organised tour was pretty much my only option, as the various self-drive camping companies worked out more expensive even with three people – still, it meant three days with no driving and food provided so it wasn’t all bad.

Opal tunnelPitch Black

Don't walk backwardsAlice Springs

UluruOur tour kicked off at Kings Canyon (in Watarrka National Park), a huge weathered sandstone area which reminded me a lot of the Cederberg in South Africa. Up on the rim, the domes and valleys looked like some odd alien city. We camped out in the bush, sleeping in swags (bedrolls with a thick groundsheet and zip-up canvas uppers, like bivouacs) and playing some guitar around the campfire (firewood had to be collected by hand, which involved walking out into the bush and pulling up any standing deadwood we could find). It was overcast, so there were no stars to be seen, but it was thankfully a little warmer due to the cloud cover. The second night, however, was clear and freezing – and the Southern sky was a sight to behold.

Kata Tjuta (1)Kata Tjuta (2)

Kata Tjuta (3)Kata Tjuta (4)

WatarrkaOn our second day, we drove up to Kata Tjuta National Park (also known as the Olgas), a large formation of sandstone domes (Kata Tjuta means “many heads” in the local tongue) used for various sacred Aboriginal ceremonies. The rocks were huge and imposing, looming over the tourists scurrying round the base (and blasting them in the Valley of the Winds), and we were well-primed for the grandeur of Uluru itself. Everyone’s seen the photographs, but (like the Taj Mahal) its actual physical presence is a lot different. For a start, it’s enormous (around 10 km circumference), with huge cracks and ripples in the sides (it’s formed of vertical strata, which got turned through ninety degrees when shoved out of the earth due to tectonic activity a long time ago). It’s not rectangular either, more of an arrowhead shape. The climb to the top was closed as it was a bit windy, but I hadn’t been planning on going up anyway as the local Aboriginal community asks you not to. Uluru means “meeting place”, and is very significant in the local (and national) Tjukurpa (Aboriginal worldview, often misleadingly translated as “Dreaming”) – the best-known Tjukurpa available to the uninitiated is the battle of the Kuniya (non-venomous snake) and Liru (venomous snake), which created many of the rock formations around the area.

Uluru waterholeWave rock

Ormiston valleyBack in Alice Springs, around half of the people on the aforementioned tour took it upon themselves to rent a couple of cars and head out to the West MacDonnell National Park; another series of sandstone hills a hour or so out of the city. While in Kings Canyon, our guide had talked at length about how much better this area was than the one where we were (not winning himself any kudos from his boss as we’d all paid to go on the tour) and so we decided to check it out for ourselves. As it turned out, he was right. We took a long walk along Ormiston Gorge, and were suitably awed by the towering cliffs and impressive rock formations. At dusk, several black-tailed wallabies (also known as swamp wallabies; Wallabia bicolor) appeared around the rocks looking for food, and proved surprisingly unafraid of a bunch of humans and their cameras. We rolled back to Alice at sunset, a few dollars down for fuel but with a sense of independent sightseeing achievement.

After several days in Alice, a lift out to the east coast turned up and (all being well) I set off early on Monday with three other backpackers for a couple of thousand kilometres of Outback road. Cruise control never sounded so desirable.

Ormiston GorgeSwamp wallaby