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The Northern Territory and South
Australia - a short tour


... the famous ghan, darwin, alice springs, adelaide, kakadu, litchfield, katherine gorge, uluru (ayers rock), kata tjuta (olgas), barossa valley, kangaroo island, the great ocean road

Top  hits  &  hot  tips

Hitpicking nitpicking comments on the Ghan raiway journey and some places along the route - Recommended services, accommodation and attractions, plus a note on the Lindy Chamberlain case
(Dave  Robinson,  Brisbane,  October  2004)

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Arafura Shuttle, Darwin
The Museum, Darwin
Banyan Tree Cafe, Darwin
Panorama Guth, Alice Springs
Alice Wanderer Town Tour
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Kangaroo Island Highlights Tour (SeaLink)
Great Ocean Road (Adelaide
to Melbourne by car)

RECOMMENDED

Zest Restaurant, Novotel Atrium, Darwin
Skyline Casino restaurant, Darwin
Kakadu National Park one-day tour
(AAT Kings, captain Phil Waite)
Territory Wildlife Park, Darwin
Dino Scungio, Darwin Holiday Shop
Mindil Beach Markets, Darwin
Sunset Dinner Cruise on "Cape Adieu", Darwin
Katherine Gorge tour ex Ghan
The Date Farm, Alice Springs
Mekong Thai Restaurant, Adelaide
Barossa Valley day tour (Gray Line)
Southern Right Motor Inn, Warrnambool

DISAPPOINTING

The Ghan (Red Kangaroo sleeper
rail journey, Darwin to Adelaide)
Darwin Botanic Gardens
Ayers Rock and back in a day (Emu Run)

GIVE THEM A MISS

Territory Discoveries (NT Tourist
Commission holiday providers)
Litchfield National Park one-day
tour (Aussie Adventure Holidays)
Yots Cafe, Cullen Bay, Darwin

RECOMMENDED BY OTHERS

East Point Military Museum, Darwin
Aviation Heritage Centre, Winnellie, Darwin
Araluen Centre for Arts, Alice Springs


Introduction
Fairfield Travel (Brisbane)
Insurance, health and safety
Flights - Qantas, Virgin Blue
The Ghan
Darwin and the National Parks
Alice Springs and Ayers Rock (Uluru)
Adelaide, the Barossa, the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island
The Great Ocean Road route to Melbourne
Disclaimer

The legendary Ghan
The legendary Ghan about to leave Darwin

Ghan route map
Map of route taken by the Ghan
RED - The Ghan, Darwin/Adelaide, BLACK - Indian Pacific, Adelaide/Perth


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Introduction


Map of Australia
Map of Australia

In October 2004 my wife and I flew from Brisbane to Darwin, with the objectives of seeing a little of the Northern Territory, experiencing the famous Ghan train journey from north to south of the continent and doing some sight-seeing around Adelaide and along the Great Ocean Road route to Melbourne from where we flew back home. We did all this in about 19 days. As always, we had a great time, but (speaking for myself) there were some great disappointments as well as pleasant surprises on this trip. Why did we do it. Well, we went on the Ghan because it's famous, and to Ayers Rock because it's there. These are not good reasons for going on holiday, so it's just as well we had much more in mind, because many of these other attractions proved to be much more exciting. I cannot recommend to anyone to see the Northern Territory the way we did. Read on and find out why.

As in my other travel notes, the views expressed here are mine alone and all comments and evaluations are relative, in the sense that one expects to get more of a buzz from, say, a famous train journey than from a backstreet cafe. They are also relative to my impressions from previous holidays, mainly taken overseas.

Fairfield Travel (Brisbane)

Once again most of our trip was booked through Fairfield Travel, the agency in our local shopping centre at Fairfield Gardens, south of Brisbane city. This agency handled everything with its usual efficiency and helpfulness, and I've no reason to change the comments and recommendation   I made at the time of our New Zealand trip earlier this year (well, actually they were upgraded some time ago). Still, after the Ghan/Darwin experience I'm inclined to question their knowledge of tour providers.

Insurance, health and safety

We took out travel insurance with the Atlas travel club of which I am a member. Insurance for up to six months continuous travel within Australia costs only $15 per person. It does not cover rental vehicle excess waiver insurance. (Also see comparisons in notes on our 2002 overseas trip).

Overseas visitors should note there's little danger of catching any strange or nasty disease in Northern Australia, with the possible exception of Ross River Fever, contracted from mosquitos mainly from February to April. Insect repellents may be useful, not just for mosquitos but especially for the flies and sandflies, which can be a nuisance in the national parks and even in town. However, let me know if you find a repellent that really works against our Aussie breeds of fly! Don't forget to take your sunhat (hats with a net to keep flies off your face are commonly used in NT), sunglasses, suncream and a large, leak-proof water bottle. And whatever else you do, NEVER swim in any river, lake, water-hole or the sea unless your tour leader says it is safe to do so. Crocodiles and stingers (jellyfish) are common and both can be lethal.

Flights - Qantas, Virgin Blue

Qantas is the only airline currently offering a low-cost flight to Darwin arriving at a sensible time. Virgin Blue flights are a bit cheaper but arrive after midnight. With Qantas you have to change in Cairns but this is no problem. We actually ended up with the same cabin crew and probably the same aircraft. The flight was very comfortable and the snacks and meal provided (free) were good. The Virgin Blue flight from Melbourne to Brisbane was OK apart from the cabin re-pressurisation on landing. This time it was so bad my wife complained about it too - normally she only notices the de-pressurisation on take-off. As with our Freedom Air flight from New Zealand, I'm putting up with itchy, aching ears long after coming home.

The Ghan

The Ghan has an interesting history. The present train is very different from the ones that rattled along the narrow gauge line from Adelaide to Alice Springs from 1929 to 1980. Rail Australia's website boasts: "Experience one of the world's greatest train journeys aboard The Legendary Ghan... the ultimate journey through the heart of the continent... experience one of the most fascinating great train journeys of the world... marvel at the spectacular Australian landscapes". I quite enjoyed the long haul from Darwin to Adelaide on the Ghan, because I like train travel. Having said that, I'm sorry to add that scenically it was without doubt the most uninteresting long train ride I've ever been on, the standard of service was indifferent, the level of comfort and style in the Red Kangaroo class was very ordinary and overall I thought it was extremely poor value for money. (I'm comparing it with normal rail travel in Australia and other countries as well as the few "famous" train journeys I've experienced in the UK, Switzerland, India and New Zealand.) I can't imagine why the Ghan is virtually booked out months ahead, though the high proportion of Australian pensioners on board might provide a clue.

Let's start at the beginning. My first mistake (prompted by my travel agent) was to book the Ghan through Territory Discoveries instead of dealing direct with the railways. The documentation they provided for this booking (together with coach tours and hotels) was in my view totally unacceptable, being hopelessly jumbled up, raising many questions and, unforgivably as it transpired, omitting the railway reservation number. The excuse they gave for the jumbled documentation - "the government needs it that way" - was pathetic. Who cares what the government needs, the job of the agency is surely to provide documents that are friendly to the traveller. If the bureaucrats want a different format, then they should produce two versions. When I came to reconfirm our Ghan booking in Darwin, I was extremely glad that a pleasant guy called Dino offered his help, because the railway people couldn't confirm it without that wretched missing reservation number. So Dino had to get it from the Territory Discoveries mob, who of course were closed, so we had to wait till the next day to sort out the problem. Dino, by the way, is owner of the Darwin Holiday Shop, a travel agency and souvenir shop adjacent to both the upmarket Saville Park Suites and the so-called Transit Centre. When we came to board the train, the person at the station also complained about the lack of a reservation number - just as well Dino had written it down for me.

Despite the appalling documentation, the transfer and check-in went smoothly. Red Kangaroo class passengers are picked up by coach at the Transit Centre, where their bags are labelled with their next destination - in our case Alice Springs. Large bags aren't allowed in the cabins as there's simply no room for them. In fact when the cabin was arranged in sleep mode, I found it hard to find room for my toothbrush. Actually there are two narrow cupboards in the cabin, and a foldaway sink for tooth cleaning and washing hands, but the tapwater may be unsafe to drink. This sink rattled so much at night that I had to stuff a paper towel around it to quieten it down. After that I slept well, as the bunks were surprisingly comfortable. In sitting mode, however, the seats in the Red Kangaroo sleepers provide less room and comfort than those in the day/night sitters.

Soon after leaving Darwin, the scenery settled down into the monotonous pattern that was to remain with us until the approach to Adelaide, some 3000 km to the south - a dry red plain mottled with low scrub and clumps of grass. Only the proportion and height of the vegetation varied slightly. Occasionally there would be a bump on the horizon, and south of Alice Springs there was brief respite with a bank of dry red hills. We saw one kangaroo, a couple of camels, a few cattle, two human beings (railway workers) and the occasional soaring bird of prey. Not a single tunnel, only one bridge (over a bone-dry riverbed) that went past in a flash and nothing, absolutely nothing to catch our attention. Somewhere along the line, about 200km from the middle of nowhere, I was suddenly struck by a cruel, harsh thought: had the Japanese succeeded in their invasion of northern Australia, this would have been an ideal site for one of their prisoner-of-war camps. Ah well, I tried to remind myself this is the legendary Ghan. Luckily I had anticipated a degree of monotony, and read the book I had brought with me (a disappointing choice - the latest novel by the prolific, multi-talented author Rodney Hall - little wonder I was getting nasty vibes!)

At dinner time we made our way along the narrow passageway to the diner, only to find that dinner was not yet being served. Back to the cabin, past the laminex tables and the dusty line of wine bottles on display at the entrance. After half an hour there came an unapologetic announcement that dinner was now being served. After awhile I returned to the diner, where I was confronted by a queue extending half way up the next carriage (it's counter service only in the Red Kangaroo class). I went back to our cabin and waited. When eventually I got around to ordering our meal, my wife's choice had run out, so I had to improvise. I noticed some other passengers were unable to get what they wanted too. The next time we ate dinner on the Ghan was after the Alice Springs break. This time they stuffed up our order, giving us ham and cheese toasted sandwiches instead of the cheese and tomato that we wanted (we are vegetarians). The only consolation for this rotten service was that at around 9.00 pm, when we were thinking of going to bed, there was an announcement for Gold Kangaroo passengers that "the blue sitting for dinner is about to commence". Thank goodness we weren't included in that group! (We had chosen not to travel Gold Kangaroo because of our eating habits and the exorbitant cost. Their sleeper cabins, however, are more spacious and include a small ensuite.)

Before reaching Katherine, much to the annoyance of people wishing to order food, the diner counter was taken over by a couple of people selling tickets for the Katherine Gorge cruise, an optional extra that you can do while the train stops in Katherine for about 4 hours. We had been informed by our travel agent and all our travel brochures that this option would be available but could only be booked on the train. It was in fact a "must do" part of our itinerary. Imagine our surprise, therefore, when an announcement came that there was only a limited number of places on the cruise. Mad rush for tickets. Queue a mile long. Irate Swede who queued and queued and only wanted to buy a can of coke. Sorry sir, we're not selling drinks now. Just what we needed to prevent ourselves getting too relaxed! I was lucky and got our tickets. Katherine Gorge was indeed one of the highlights of the journey, a place to which I could easily return. I would have been as mad as hell had we missed out.

At Alice it took almost half an hour for our luggage to be delivered to us. We should have got a transfer to our hotel, but nobody seemed to know anything about it, and as the hotel (the Larapinta) was so close (or so we thought) we decided to walk. The two-night sojourn here was a welcome break, and on the whole worthwhile (see below). A free bus took us back to the train (nobody tells you about these things - you need to ask hotel receptionists etc, preferably well in advance). Off we went into another day of nothingness. In the evening, tiring of my book, I joined my wife and her friend/distant relative (a sitting class passenger who had joined us in Darwin) in the dining car, where they were chatting to a young German of unknown sex. The rest of the ladies in the diner were being entertained by an Italian comedian with a pocketful of carrots, and before long the entire carriage had erupted into unstoppable laughter. This, I thought, is what the Ghan is really about. Incidentally, our friend found the day/night sitting class quite comfortable and she was able to sleep well - once the other rowdy occupants of the carriage had quietened down around midnight.

On reaching the Adelaide Plains early in the morning, the dry scrub gave way to green grass, with signs of habitation and sheep and cattle here and there. Soon some low hills appeared in the distance, and finally an increasing density of houses, industry and garbage. At last we were there, another 35 minutes wait for our luggage and a short cab ride to the city centre. A cab seems to be the way to go if there are three passengers or more, otherwise the shuttle bus is cheaper (but slower).

The cost? The entire journey from Darwin to Adelaide costs $440 in a day/night sitter, $1390 in a Red Kangaroo sleeper and $1740 in the Gold Kangaroo class. Pensioners get discounts of $242, $556 and $557 respectively. This makes the sitting class a very good deal for pensioners, and not bad for others, but those thinking of doing the Ghan in a sleeper might consider going by plane instead. The lowest Qantas fare from Darwin to Adelaide with a stop-over in Alice is currently $386, and the total travelling time is 4 hours, compared with 38 hours on the train. If you want to visit Katherine, you'll have to add on the extra time and cost of doing this by coach from Darwin. Truthfully, I don't think even compulsive railway buffs would miss much by not travelling on the Ghan. It might depend on whether your budget is a serious constraint. As a way of seeing the "Red Centre", I suppose the question is: who would want to see it unless you've seen just about everywhere else in the world first? You'd have to be a real Aussie, with an Aussie sense of space and beauty and little desire for overseas travel. I don't think I fall into that category. But my dear spouse wants to do the Indian Pacific next, so I'd better start looking for a really thick novel.

Darwin and the National Parks

The reaction from some of the residents was curious - why on earth would we want to visit Darwin? Well, why on earth would anyone want to live in Darwin? It's set in a flat, uninteresting environment, for much of the time the weather is atrocious and, being the closest Australian city to Asia, it is chocker-block with the military. Yet people are coming to live here, in droves. And we found it a delightful city to visit for a week in early October, when it was still not too hot and humid, and we could understand why people might want to make it their home. It's perhaps the only capital city in Australia where you can cross the main street blindfolded at any time of the day. October, they told us, is the first month of the "build-up", a time of increasing cloud and storm activity before all hell is let loose in the peak of the monsoon period, from December to March.

Hotels - We stayed the first two two nights in a double room in the Novotel Atrium, a pricey but quite good hotel on the esplanade. In our room the showerplace was small, the Queensize bed too soft and there was no balcony (commonplace in this storm-ridden city). It's chief features are the pleasant atrium and the first class Zest Restaurant, where you can get, amongst other things, an excellent smorgasbord breakfast for $16. All the staff were very helpful. (However, close by are the two Holiday Inns, which appeared to offer rather better value for money.) Being very budget conscious, we then stayed five nights in the Value Inn, very well located just around the corner in Mitchell St. The triple rooms here are all the same size - extremely cramped, no in-room coffee making facilities and the showerplace perhaps even smaller than in the Novotel - but the bed was firm and quite comfortable. We had problems (more than one) with their accounting. In general, hotels in Darwin seemed unduly expensive compared to other Australian cities of similar standing. The Value Inn was an exception, but I couldn't recommend it.

Restaurants - I've mentioned the Zest. One of the best value cafes in town is the Banyan Tree, conveniently located next to the Transit Centre. It offers breakfast for $7.50 from 5.30 a.m. onwards, and friendly service. We used this cafe often, both for breakfast and lunch. Just the ticket for a bite to eat before catching that early morning coach to your next touring destination. The restaurant overlooking the pool and ocean in the Skyline Casino, close to Mindil Beach, provides an excellent smorgasbord lunch for around $10 - exceptional value considering its comfort, surroundings and pleasant service. As vegetarians, we also used the Indian Food joint in Knuckey St - very ordinary food but good value nonetheless. Salvatores, next to MacDonalds, provided very ordinary fare, value and service. Vegetarian problems again - an ostensibly vegetarian dish actually contained bacon, not mentioned on the menu. Other restaurants we tried were OK but tended to be pricey. Our worst shock in Darwin was Yots Cafe on the wharf at Cullen Bay. Here we paid $22.80 for two cups of tea and two quite ordinary pieces of cake. Neither the view nor the service justified the price.

Transport - By far the most economic and most convenient way of getting from one place to another within Darwin is by the Arafura Shuttle (phone 8981 3300). Just $2.50 from anywhere to anywhere within their domain. They invariably arrive promptly and the minibuses they use are air-conditioned. There's also an open-air bus called the Tour Tub that does a regular circuit and you can hop on and off as often as you like for $25/day. Taxi fares in Darwin are a bit high. There's no rail system and the bus system is pretty sparse.

City attractions - One thing that Darwin lacks is good views - it's just too flat and the virtually beachless coastline is too uninteresting to capture your attention. (Anyway, it's too dangerous to swim in the sea.) We watched for the much acclaimed Darwin sunset on several evenings but saw none that was very special (the best was on the day of our "sunset cruise" - see photo below). We marched in the heat of the day through the Botanic Gardens, but found little in the way of garden - more like a park, really, with a few exotic trees and shrubs. There were signs telling you which way to go, but these were ambiguous and we got lost trying to find our way out to the Museum. The parkland along the waterfront (esplanade) is quite pleasant. There are a couple of viewpoints suitable for watching the sunset (but little else); at the southern end is Parliament House, with its good, attractively positioned restaurant, and at the northern end is the popular Aquascene fish feeding attraction.

The Museum is really good. It includes Aboriginal art, natural history, a maritime display and in particular a gallery about Cyclone Tracey. There are some pleasant relaxing spots and a restaurant (a bit pricey) with a view. Other tourists we met recommended the East Point Military Museum and the Aviation Heritage Centre at Winnellie. One "event" we really enjoyed was the Mindil Beach Market on Thursday night. Here were loads of food stalls from a wide range of cultures (mainly asian), lots of trinket stalls and multi-cultural music to boot (good enough to sit and listen to for an hour).

Tours and cruises

     Kakadu National Park Day Tour with AAT Kings - Kakadu is not to be missed and this tour did it very well in the short time available. The coach was comfortable and the coach captain, Phil Waite, was the best we came across on this holiday and gets full marks from me. He spoke very clearly and interestingly and was always helpful, though he could have injected a little more humour and perhaps more useful information into his commentary. The highlight of the tour, however, was the Yellow River cruise. The guide was good but I felt he could have provided a lot more information about the wildlife and pointed out many more species. I was the only person with binoculars on our boat, and I certainly needed them. The Aboriginal Cultural Centre, Warajan, was also excellent (but we were to see more of these centres and they became boring, especially for one of my temperament - it's impossible to find a clear line between fact and fiction in Aboriginal culture, and I'm inclined to look upon the latter with disdain). The rest of this tour was only so-so. Kakadu (what we saw of it) is not the most varied or scenic of places.

     Litchfield National Park Day Tour with Aussie Adventure Holidays - This was probably the most disappointing and upsetting "coach" tour I have ever been on. When you visit an important national park you expect to be shown the main features, plants and wildlife. Either this tour failed to show us most of these things, or Litchfield has little to offer - in which case it was not worth taking us there to start with. Instead we were asked to swim in the waterholes. But if you didn't want to swim, there was nothing else to do. At the last swimming place (The Buley Rockholes, I think) there was no natural shade and nowhere comfortable to sit, so we wandered around for an hour in the scorching heat until my wife, desparate to get out of the sun, found a bit of shade beside the toilet block. At Wangi Falls there was some grass and semi-shade. Here it was suggested that non-swimmers try the rainforest walking track but a notice and ropes at the entrance indicated it was closed for maintenance. We went anyway, and I'm very glad we did because it was the best part of the whole tour, and the only spot with any trace of active wildlife. True, we were shown some waterfalls, but they were pretty pathetic at the end of the dry season and mostly not comparable to falls in many other parts of Australia. As for wildlife, the only interesting things we were shown were the magnetic and cathedral termite mounds. During the daytime in October, Litchfield is a dry, lifeless place, its chief redeeming feature being its up-and-down terrain, as compared to the surrounding flatness that typifies the Northern Territory. As for the tourist company that took us there, well, the small bus was comfortable enough, and the driver, a girl with a giggle, was pleasant enough, but she had a wierd, grubby sense of humour. She was extremely short on relevant information, preferring instead to tell us personal tales of her own. Or could it be that there's just not much of interest to tell about Litchfield? The company should either advertise this tour as "compulsory swimming" or drop it altogether. Oh, the included lunch was limited but not too bad.

     Territory Wildlife Park Half-day Tour with Aussie Adventure Holidays - Half a day is not sufficient to do this park justice. It is a developing site with widely spaced exhibits, meaning much walking or much hanging around waiting for the "train" to take you from one to another. If you've only got half a day, my suggestion is plan it around the birds of prey display but forget about the pelican and croc feeding. Don't miss the walk-through aviary and nocturnal house. The driver that took us there was helpful but his commentary was largely wasted as he insisted on delivering it without using the PA system.

Darwin sunset
The sun goes to rest in Darwin beneath a brooding sky

     Sunset Dinner Cruise on the "Cape Adieu" - This was excellent, relaxing, fine food and service and an adequate commentary. BYO. Weather permitting, the boat uses sails. They take you all around the harbour and stop to view the sunset (not bad this evening - see photo). It's possibly better to see the sunset from the water than from the esplanade, although from Mindil Beach you get an uninterrupted view too.

Alice Springs and Ayers Rock

“The beauty of nothing in the middle of nowhere” - David Reyne, Getaway

As we had only two nights in Alice and one full day was taken up with Ayers Rock, there's not much I can say about Australia's most central city, except that it was very different to what I had imagined. Actually it's not a bad little town, centred around the pleasant Todd Mall and very tourism orientated. We stayed at the Larapinta Lodge (or Larapinta Motel, as the sign says), a little out of town close to the railway station. A triple room here cost $68.50 per night - a really spacious room with a decent kitchenette and quite comfortable beds. The proprietor was always friendly and helpful, but seemed to have too much on her plate, as she was apt to disappear for periods of half an hour or so. I would recommend this place if it were not for its lack of cleanliness. The shower, toilet, crockery and cutlery were dirty and the pool and surrounds were squalid, even after a promise to clean them up. There was possibly a legitimate excuse. We arrived on a day when an Aboriginal convention at the motel was ending. Apparently these people, especially the children, had left the place in an absolute mess.

     City attractions - Undoubtedly the best way to see Alice in a couple of days is by using the Alice Wanderer Town Tour (phone 8952 2111). This minibus picks you up and drops you off more or less wherever you want, at specific times about an hour apart. The $35 ticket is valid for two days, and they don't have to be consecutive days. You have to phone them if you need a hotel pick-up. The crew are friendly and accommodating and I can thoroughly recommend this service.

Not forgetting that we didn't see all the main attractions, my wife and I thought the best place in Alice was the Panorama Guth in Hartley St. The centrepiece is the incredible Panorama (I'm giving nothing away) but I was equally impressed by Henk Guth's framed paintings in the gallery below - he made me see in the barren Red Centre landscape something I simply could not see for myself, and surely his artistry puts him among the best of Australian landscape painters. The gallery also exhibits many other fine artists, including Albert Namatjira, and various Aboriginal artefacts.

The Royal Flying Doctors Service Visitor Centre is small but quite interesting, and it has an excellent cafe. No need to wait for a conducted tour (as the sign suggests) - just make your way in through the door behind the desk. One thing that surprised us in Alice was that all the food seemed fresh, as if it had been picked the same day. At the Date Farm cafe we ate the freshest salad sandwiches we'd ever tasted, not to mention the largest date scones. Reception and service here were great. As well as various types of date palm, this site has some small aviaries, a small fauna reserve and various pictures, artefacts and, of course, date products for sale. A few places on the Alice Wanderer route we thought were hardly worth a look, e.g the Olive Pink Botanic Gardens. The Araluen Arts and Entertainment Centre was highly recommended by one resident. Finally, we were disgusted to find that Alice had caught the dreaded continental disease of demanding payment to use public conveniences.

     Ayers Rock and back in a day - If you arrive in Alice by the Ghan on Thursday and take off again on Saturday, then the only economical way of seeing Ayers Rock and Alice is to do the Emu Run tour to the Rock on Friday. (There could be other operators doing a similar thing.) It's one hell of a run, starting at around 6.00am, 6 hours there, 6 hours exploring the Rock area and 6 hours back. We were actually away for 19 hours in all. You not only see the Rock up close, but also the Olgas, Mt Connor (in the distance), Ayers Rock resort, the Aboriginal Culture Centre and of course some of the Aboriginal artwork on the Rock. There's also a barbecue dinner whilst watching the Rock at sunset.

The Emu Run outfit took two coaches to Ayers Rock, each only about half full. This made for a comfortable trip - all the more so, considering the objectionable, rowdy group of ladies on the other coach (we only had to suffer the displeasure of their company at dinner time). Although our coach was old - a 1986 Denning - with a rocky suspension, the seats reclined well back and leg-room was good. The coach had two drivers, one of whom slept whilst the other drove. The commentary was adequate, although one of the drivers spoke too fast and unclearly - not helped by the poor PA system. Instructions were garbled, and a Korean student sitting in front of us, though speaking excellent English and understanding us well, couldn't understand a word this driver was saying. I didn't fare much better myself. Food, carried on the coaches, was simple and offered no choice. Lunch was a ham, cheese and salad roll, while the BBQ dinner consisted only of sausages and salads, with a sparkling wine or red cask wine to drink. For this dinner we sat on plastic stools in an unattractive bus park with no facilities, and where loads of other buses were also present. It was a very rushed affair. Then we lined up to take photos of the Rock in the setting sun.

A lot of people visit Ayers Rock because they think it's the biggest rock in the world, and this myth is perpetuated by Red Centre tourism operators. Actually Mt Augustus in Western Australia is a monocline twice the size of Ayers Rock, and rising to about three times its height. Another reason for visiting the Rock is to see the ancient Aboriginal cave paintings. But as far as I can ascertain, the rock art here, although important, is by no means the oldest in Australia. Another reason is to climb to the top of the rock, but parts of Uluru are sacred to the Aborigines so climbing on it is discouraged. Uluru is associated with Aboriginal Dreamtime culture, of which you can learn a lot in the cultural centre here or in any of a number of other centres scattered around Australia. Frankly, after coming across so much of it, I find this Dreamtime stuff quite boring - it seems so absurd in this day and age. Sometimes one gets the impression that some of it has been invented for tourists (or white people), most of it is Aboriginal myth (largely not disclosed to white people) and the very small remainder could be factual. It's astonishing how many people confuse the nonsensical with the spiritual! Oh well, it's "our" heritage, it sure is an ancient culture and I guess it deserves a modicum of respect. But for me, one of the most intriguing tales concerning Ayers Rock is a modern one - the case of Azaria Chamberlain. I could never believe that a court would find someone guilty of murder on such slim evidence, particularly when the alternative hypothesis - that Azaria was killed by a dingo - was totally reasonable. Ayers Rock does indeed inspire belief in the improbable! (See philosophical footnote.) Another reason for coming here is to watch the changing colours as the sun sets. This again is nothing like as spectacular as it's made out to be. As the sun goes down the Rock gets darker, as you'd expect, and so does all the rest of the scenery. Only in the last couple of minutes is there a reddening in colour, but my camera picked it up better than my eyes. The two photos on this site are unadulterated and show the extremes in colour. They don't compare with the posters on sale to tourists. I think you'd need an exceptional sunset, an imaginative artist or a cheating photographer to do the hype justice.

The feeling I got from my visit to Uluru was - Here's a big lump of rock that does not live up to the name of biggest rock, most historical site or most anything - except perhaps most barren. The nearby Olgas (Kata Tjuta) are some more lumps of rock, also barren but more beautiful than Uluru. The coach tour did not even give us enough time to walk to the end of the gorge for a close-up view. We arrived back at our hotel well after 1.00am next morning. I remembered my traveller's motto and wished I could have seen Uluru through the visionary eyes of Henk Guth.

As the Ghan pulled out of Alice that afternoon, I realised I had met a unique lady, a person of stark beauty and enduring spirit, to whom many must feel an overpowering attraction:

But I would walk five hundred miles
And I would walk five hundred more
Just to be the man who walked a thousand miles
To fall down at your door


Adelaide, the Barossa, the Adelaide Hills and Kangaroo Island

     Adelaide City - Without doubt, central Adelaide - the "square mile", as it's called - is the neatest, greenest and most architecturally interesting capital centre in Australia. It is also one of the easiest of towns to find your way around, suffers little congestion and has a respectable climate for most of the year. October is a good time to visit this city, when the trees are green and the spring flowers are in bloom. The main drawbacks to Adelaide (as a place to live) are the limited extent of attractive scenery in the surrounding environment, chilly winters and scarcity of decent beaches.

We stayed at the Plaza hotel in Hindley St, right in the centre of town close to the Rundle Mall. This old hotel (not to be confused with the Stamford Plaza) is definitely a place for the budget-conscious. Security is not the best and some of the rooms appear to be used for longterm occupancy by dubious looking (and sounding) characters. Still, it suited us well, the staff were polite and helpful, and we were given a fairly spacious two-room suite on the quiet side of the second floor, with a double (not queensize) bed and a reasonably large ensuite that functioned quite well. From here it was an easy walk to the Torrens river parklands, the Adelaide Festival Centre and the fine buildings in North Terrace, including the Art Gallery of South Australia, the South Australian Museum, the State Library, the University of Adelaide, Parliament House, Government House, and (a bit further away) Ayers Historic House. It was also only a short walk in the opposite direction to the Town Hall and Victoria Square. There are also some nice building facades in Rundle Mall.

The attractions we appreciated most were the riverside parklands, the Botanic Gardens, the Art Gallery and the Veale rose garden (but there are other gardens, such as the International Rose Garden, which we didn't see). Our favourite eatery was the Mekong Thai Restaurant in Hindley St. For lunch, the smorgasbord at the Skyline Casino looked a fabulous deal, but you had to book ahead (we didn't). To get around Adelaide we used the free bus, which does circuits every 10 minutes in both clockwise and anticlockwise directions, and we did a half-day tour with Gray Line. The commentary on this tour was quite useful, but the coach only stopped at Haigh's Chocolate Factory, which we could easily have done without, and at Glenelg, an up-and-coming seaside suburb. It would have been much better had we stopped at some of the main historical places. I think it would be better to do the city sights on your own (time permitting, and assuming you've done a bit of research first) and perhaps take the tram from Victoria Square to Glenelg.

     Coach tours out of Adelaide - We did three tours with Gray Line Adelaide (including the city tour) and one with a combination of Coachlines and SeaLink. All the Gray Line and SeaLink coaches and captains were first rate, but the Coachlines fellow was pretty useless, apart from being able to drive a bus (see below). The Barossa Valley (full day tour) was looking green and quite pretty, and the vineyards, wine-tasting and lunch were enjoyable. The half-day tour of the Adelaide Hills was great, but Hahndorf was a bit disappointing - it's gone very touristy. Plenty of good eating here at reasonable prices. Not much else to say about these tours.

One of the highlights of our SA visit, and indeed of our entire holiday, was the full-day Kangaroo Island tour. It's a pity it got off to a bad start. The hotel pick-ups were running a bit late and this sent our Coachlines driver into a panic. He seemed so flustered I wondered whether he'd be capable of driving the coach from the city to Cape Jervis, where you board the ferry. He did, but with no commentary whatsoever and no instructions what to do when we left the coach. Nor were there any announcements on the ferry, so we had no idea where to go when we disembarked. But after awhile we realised we had to look for a SeaLink coach driver, who would have a list of his passengers. These issues apart, the ferry ride was very comfortable and on-board snacks and video were quite good. The island tour was fabulous, although perhaps too much time was spent looking at Australian sealions. Overseas visitors seemed just as intrigued by the large numbers of koalas, but we were only given about seven minutes to see and photograph some. An excellent lunch was provided in nice surroundings. Kangaroo island has a remarkable diversity of scenery, vegetation and wildlife and it's undoubtedly a place to which I could return again and again. I wish!

The Great Ocean Road to Melbourne by car

Adelaide marked the end of our great Ghan tour but, as we wanted to visit relatives in Melbourne, we decided to go there via the Great Ocean Road route. As a pensioner and a member of RACQ, I got an exceptionally good rate from Hertz through Fairfield Travel - only about $67 for two days for an automatic Pulsar. (Here's the dreadful Hertz website if you want to test your patience.) This deal included unlimited kilometers, drop off at Melbourne Airport and a reduced insurance excess, but to remove the excess altogether involoved paying another $30/day. The pick-up and drop-off were very quick and trouble-free. The first day's driving, to Warrnambool, was easy - straight roads with very little traffic, and the coastal scenery along much of the route was fascinating. Lunch at the pub in Kingston SE was good and terrific value, and a staff member gave us some useful maps and information about our journey ahead. The diversion to Robe was hardly worthwhile, and Beachwater only a little better. The Blue Lake at Mt Gambia was worth a look. This sunken lake looks blue in any kind of weather. At Warrnambool we stayed at the Southern Right Motor Inn, on the eastern side of town. Possibly the best value stay of our entire holiday, this motel had a large, very well equipped central kitchen and games complex, though there were no phones to be found anywhere. Warrnambool itself is not bad if you stay clear of the main highway. Be sure to fill up with fuel here, because it's hard to find and expensive until you get to Torquay.

Soon after Warrnambool you turn off onto the Great Ocean Road proper, the road becomes increasingly winding and there are lots of places to stop to see the rock formations and other sights - all worth seeing. As well as these seascape icons, if you've got time consider doing some inland diversions and the short walk along the fabulous rainforest boardwalk at Maits Rest (west of Apollo Bay), and/or Melba Gully (near Lavers Hill) where at night you can see glow-worms. Slow coaches and caravans along this stretch of road can test your patience, as there's little opportunity to get past them. Other tourists are always the bane of tourists! After Anglesea (west of Torquay) there's nothing much to see and getting through Geelong is painful.

Disclaimer

All opinions expressed are mine alone and would-be travellers should make their own enquiries. While to the best of my knowledge the factual information in this article was correct at the time of recording it, I cannot accept responsibility for any inaccuracies.

.......Dabs of Grue........31/10/04..........................HOME


Philosophical footnote on the Chamberlain case

It just goes to show, a traveller in Australia is just as much at risk of getting thrown into gaol due to a shonky court decision as a traveller in any other country.

My interest in the case of Lindy and Azaria Chamberlain, and others like it, runs much deeper than unease with the sort of evidence that is presented in order to prove guilt, not to mention the influence of media sensationalism and public prejudice. It was not just the lack of hard evidence that I found disturbing, but the question of whether the alleged murder of a nine-week-old baby should be treated as murder, i.e. with exactly the same concern as if the victim had been a responsible adult. (Conservatives and Christians will already be wincing, but please hear me out - what little I have to say!)

I'm looking for evidence too - evidence that a nine-week-old baby is a more sensitive and intelligent creature than, say, an adult pig (or a dingo!) All the evidence of which I'm aware in fact tends to point the other way. So, if killing a young baby is murder, so is slaughtering a pig. But if slaughtering a pig is not murder, why should we regard infanticide as murder? Let's be consistent! The reality surely lies somewhere in between. Neither killing a young baby nor killing an adult pig is as bad as killing an adult human being, though both are thoroughly despicable, barbaric acts.

If you really believe young babies and adult human beings are in the same category (in relation to the concept of murder), then, in my view, you'd be terribly inconsistent not to include pigs and dingoes in there (not to mention human embryos, and if those, then why not pig embryos, sardines and cockroaches?) And why doesn't our negligent attitude towards the millions of preventable infant deaths in third-world countries count as mass murder? Well, it doesn't and it shouldn't, but it's a serious crime against humanity nevertheless.

As for the cockroaches, I hope all you "Rights to Life" people never ever step on one. (All I'm suggesting is it's high time we learnt to grade individuals and all living things, instead of simply putting them in black and white categories such as "human" and "non-human".)

There are, of course, some other issues concerning infanticide that may not apply, or apply to a lesser extent, to killing animals. Perhaps the main consideration is the distress caused to other people, in particular the sense of loss caused to the parents. But in the Chamberlain case it's the parents who are the accused, so this claim cannot be brought against them. Perhaps the real crime is the "offence" caused to people's sense of decency.

So it seems to me, not only did Lindy not deserve sentence on account of the evidence, she probably didn't deserve it on account of the seriousness of the alleged crime either. Sensationalism surrounding the case was simply not warranted. Apart from the unreliable forensic evidence, her plight was largely due to public prejudice, typical of the kind sustained by traditional religious beliefs. As for Aboriginal "religion" and folklore, you might now better understand my negative attitude towards such things, when they are still taken seriously. Thank goodness some Aborigines are putting it on the stage, where it belongs - where we can laugh along with it instead of at it.

You think I'm nuts? Well, it's what travel does to you. It changes your outlook and turns you into a traveller through life, instead of remaining forever rooted in the past, and in a culture still addicted to nonsense.

Whatever, I trust that one day Lindy Chamberlain will be entirely exonerated from the ludicrous charges brought against her. I have nothing but contempt for the idiots (regardless of social status) who believe she is a murderer, when anyone with even a faint sniff (or an abundance) of zoological knowledge would surely judge the odds to be about a thousand to one that her child was, quite simply, dingo food.