This is the tale of a man, his tentative, unwary bride, and the astonishing story of how he convinced her that a honeymoon in the outback was a good idea. It’s his journey, but we can all benefit from the lessons learned. Words and images by Quentin Long
The Stuart Highway is the black ribbon of tar that journeys through the heart of this country. Travelling a whisker under 3000km from Port Augusta in the south to Darwin in the north, the highway is an unexplored icon to most of us.
It’s probably the last place most sensible newly married husbands would choose for a honeymoon. The luxurious, indulgent romantic destinations pimped by the glitzy honeymoon brochures are few and far between in this neck of the woods, or should that be desert. Actually, as I found out, they are non-existent.
“Take. Me. To. The. Pub.” The order comes out as one of those quiet, terse directives that no man, like Pavlov’s famous pooch, can disobey. “I need to get as drunk as possible to forget this experience.”
John McDouall Stuart was a tough, short Scotsman who, on seven different exploratory expeditions through this country, never lost a man. He also never took along a woman. Maybe there was something in that. He remained unmarried. Too late now.
My wife, the World’s Most Beautiful Bride (aka TWMBB), is a smart negotiator. In return for four days of outback road trip from the Barossa Valley to Uluru, she made me promise her five glorious nights at qualia, arguably the most indulgent resort in the Whitsundays, if not the entire country. This was to be followed by two nights at quirky and fairytale-like Thorngrove Manor in the Adelaide Hills. And, just to make sure, six nights of lounging, drinking and eating at a cottage in the Barossa. The journey would end with another two nights of luxury in the outback at Longitude 131º.
Like I said: good negotiator. I paid dearly for these four fun-filled days on the road.
“The police were there all night.”
Olympic Dam is the single largest known deposit of uranium in the world, the fourth-largest copper deposit in the world, and sucks up ten percent of all the electricity used in South Australia. It has 300km of underground roads. On a Monday, if there are enough people, they give you a tour of this mine. I have to see it.
“What do you mean the police were there all night?” TWMBB asks me. “Where the hell are you taking me?”
Kevin with a thick Irish accent had taken my booking at the Myall Grove Caravan Park at Roxby Downs the night before. He’d promised to call me that morning to confirm. Beginning this part of our honeymoon by departing the Barossa without accommodation locked in isn’t the most comfortable feeling in the world. Learning that the police had “been there all night” at our intended destination was a little worse.
Lessons for new husbands No. 1: Not all information has to be volunteered.
But at least we now had somewhere to stay.
Travelling north, the wide-open rows of Barossa vines gives way to the more enclosed and looming hills of the Clare. The open plains of wheat country are next, with a prominent sign pointing left to Snowtown. TWMBB is happy to see us turn right. The cropping country recedes as the Flinders rise to the right like a crease in the Earth’s crust (well, that’s what they are) and the Spencer Gulf creeps closer on your left. Then you arrive at the apex of the gulf, Port Augusta.
Port Augusta is the leaping off point for the journey through Australia’s red heartlands, the precipice after which you’re on your own and in the outback. The Visitor Centre here is a wealth of information. Except at 4:40pm on a Sunday. The helpful staff couldn’t confirm whether the mine tour the next day would go ahead. The floor-to-ceiling maps of the outback on one of the walls are extremely useful and detailed.
“So where exactly are we going?” asks TWMBB.
“See this roadhouse? We turn right there and head 100km out to Roxby Downs.”
“So this is a detour? And you don’t even know if we can do this tour?”
Lessons for new husbands No. 2: The less certain you are, the more certain you have to sound.
Spuds Roadhouse is the first roadhouse north of Port Augusta at a speck on the map called Pimba. We need to refuel, but the sun is dipping and TWMBB wants to arrive before dark. Promising to be quick, I start to fill up. One of the ubiquitous outback 4WDs pulls up at another pump. Four good ol’ boys roll out, each holding a beer. Including the driver. TWMBB says she’s off to refresh. The good ol’ boys like what they see – she is TWMBB after all – and show their appreciation via wolf whistles. One of them seems to need to freshen up as well. TWMBB quickens her pace. On her way back there’s a certain amount of “get me the hell out of here” in her stride and look.
Lessons for new husbands No. 3: Do not mention Wolf Creek on a road trip up the Stuart Highway.
Drinking away the memories
Irish Kevin greets us at the caravan park in Roxby Downs. He’s short and stocky with extensive amateur looking tattoos up his arms. The transaction complete, I have to ask what an Irishman is doing out here. “Ahh, the Troubles,” he says, audibly pronouncing the capital T. “My father was killed in the Troubles and I was too hell-bent on vengeance, so my mother and sister sent me out here.”
Fair enough. Those tats look very much of the prison variety.
At our cabin, the key sticks and the door doesn’t open immediately, giving TWMBB ample time to take in the fist-sized hole in the door. “What the hell is that?”
“Hmm, not sure.”
“It’s a fist hole. Someone has punched this door.”
The door finally gives and the first scents of our small cabin waft out to us. It hasn’t been opened in a while. Amazingly, not many travellers come out here – honeymooners fewer still. The sparse cabin has a small kitchenette, the grey carpet is probably as old as the prized vintages that now seem a distant Barossa memory, and the bed and bedding isn’t far behind. TWMBB has steeled her resolve. “Take. Me. To. The. Pub.” The order comes out as one of those quiet, terse directives that no man, like Pavlov’s famous pooch, can disobey. “I need to get as drunk as possible to forget this experience.”
As the last drops are wrung from the bottle of white wine, TWMBB is satisfied. “That was actually a good pub meal,” she says, surprising me. But not nearly as much as when she then says, “Isn’t that Merv Hughes?” TWMBB is consuming at a rapid rate, so it’s easy for me to pretend not to hear.
“You’re Merv Hughes, aren’t you? Do you remember my husband?” With a load of Dutch courage on board, TWMBB is suddenly at Merv’s table. I take on the new husband responsibilities seriously and act as protector in the wings. Now I have to mumble to Merv that I met him briefly three years ago in Port Douglas. He’s understandably struggling but smiles and decides the best tactic in the face of the wildly grinning and slightly swaying TWMBB is to give an unconvincing “Yeahhhhhh . . .”
Merv is being hosted by the BHP Billiton crew as part of his ambassadorial role for men’s health group Andrology Australia.
Roxby Downs was built for the mine, which only opened in 1988, so everything in town is relatively new. It’s also breeding ground of breeders. Of the 5000 people here, more than 30 percent are under 15. For most of its life, Roxby Downs has had the highest birth rate in SA, so I’m not sure Merv’s message is needed here. The men’s health, in certain respects, seems to be doing fine thankyou very much. But after observing the size of the local men it’s obvious there’s not a lot to do but drink, eat, breed and punch the occasional door, so I could be wrong.
Lesson for new husbands No. 6: In the face of ven the harshest adversity, wives will find a way to shop.
The tour the next day goes ahead and is a solid two hours of amazing mining and engineering fact after fact. I’m not sure how TWMBB is feeling about her 20 hours in Roxby Downs. But she surprises me again: “I’d love to spend a week here. I want to understand how people live out here. It’s amazing.”
Lessons for new husbands No. 4: Predicting a wife’s reaction is never, ever going to be easy.
Australia’s Dirtiest Old Man
On the 450km journey from Pimba to Coober Pedy, the land becomes increasingly bare. Short shrubs become shorter still, until they disappear altogether and there’s nothing but rocks and desert. Nothing lives out here without the care and nurture of a crazy person.
Coober Pedy is the attic of Australia. What doesn’t fit anywhere else in the country seems to end up there. What can you say about a place where the Aboriginal people refused to live for the 40,000 years preceding the arrival of Europeans?
It even looks like an attic. The sparse, golden dusty township is overflowing with the remnants of the many movies (particularly Sci-Fi) that have used the strange town as a set. The latest, Pitch Black, left a Star Wars-looking vehicle parked in the main street.
The official census says 2229 people live in Coober Pedy. The tourism people say 4000. If you don’t want to be found, you’ll have no problems in Coober Pedy.
The Comfort Inn is an underground motel. It’s far cheaper than the older and more established Desert Cave Hotel, which is booked out except for some dank and tired aboveground rooms that smell like our cabins at Roxby Downs. TWMBB isn’t going to stay here; why come to Coober Pedy and stay aboveground?
Comfort Inn owners Dean & Val Clee bought the land to set up the hotel – and their fundamental Christian church. In the excavation of the hotel and church next door they found a swathe of opals rumoured to be worth around $500k. TWMBB is thinking of converting. But there’s no guarantee of more opals.
It says a lot about a place when one of the attractions on the town tour is the graveyard. The amazing gravestone of Karl Bratz can be found here. On his deathbed in 1992, he made his own arrangements, which turned out to be a keg at his burial. The keg was tapped at his gravesite and his final wishes observed: “Have a beer on me.”
The highlight for TWMBB is the home of Australia’s dirtiest old man, Crocodile Harry. His underground home became a haven for backpackers and travellers in his time. Harry, reportedly a Baron from Latvia, was a crocodile hunter in the tropical north who headed south, lured by elusive opal. His home is stuffed with oversized sculptures of naked women and the knickers and bras of many of the visitors. In a bizarre trend, the many female visitors to Harry’s place were encouraged to hang their underwear with notes of dedication to Harry. TWMBB is fascinated and mesmerised in an “I can’t look away” kind of way.
Lesson for new husbands No. 5: Just because it’s dirty, doesn’t mean wives won’t try it.
Australia’s Worst Burger
The Breakaways are 33km north of town. This is where many of the moonscapes used by those geeky movies are shot, and it shows. Driving to the edge of the escarpment, the land drops off to a red and golden expanse pierced by rocky towers. This floor was a sea 70 million years ago and astonishing fossils litter the old ocean floor, right here in the middle of the desert. Then there’s the Dog Fence. Without a patch of grass to cock a leg on, why the world’s longest fence wanted to come this far north to keep dogs from stock is rather perplexing.
Back on the fourth day of our time at qualia, TWMBB outdid her indulgent self by declaring at breakfast: “I just couldn’t eat anymore smoked salmon.” At Marla, 233km north of Coober Pedy, TWMBB rued those words as the roadhouse served up the worst burger in history. It looked more like meat extender than meat. And tasted more like cardboard.
Marla is the northern bookend of the Oodnadatta Track. Another 50km up the road, and 8km down another detour, the Iwantja Arts Centre is in the centre of the Indulkana Aboriginal Community. Unusually, the community invites passers by to visit the centre and meet the artists, perhaps even purchase some works. TWMBB is keen. She’s never been to a community before, so this might be interesting. The track leading in jumps over the new Ghan railway (the old one is much further east near the Oodnadatta). The community was a typically dishevelled looking place with relatively happy artists producing some interesting Anangu Pitjantjatjara central desert dot art. The football oval has not one blade of grass but does have two wild horses grazing on the trees that would provide shade for spectators. TWMBB found a piece she loved that now hangs in our living room.
Lesson for new husbands No. 6: In the face of even the harshest adversity, wives will find a way to shop.
Australia’s Worst Barra
We crossed the border into the NT and started racing. As the speed limit increased, so did TWMBB’s pulse in anticipation of the luxury that is Longitude 131º, now just 350km away. To prepare for the grand entrance, we stopped the night at Erldunda at the Lassiter’s-Stuart Highway junction.
The rather swish-sounding Desert Oaks Resort Erldunda had all sorts of options from camping to backpacker bunks to motel-style. We went for a motel-style room, which was more than adequate. When I went to investigate the pool, I arrived in the middle of the desert in the middle of Australia to find two snorkelers. The female shrieked with fright when I disturbed her perfectly executed snorkelling with a perfectly executed swan dive. After much spluttering and fussing, she managed to tell me in a silky French accent that she was practicing for the Great Barrier Reef.
After that terrible lunch at Marla and a liquid entrée at the pub, TWMBB’s order of barra for dinner looked like the high-risk choice. I went for the steak. I ended up with the leathery barra, while TWMBB enjoyed my rump.
Lesson for new husbands No. 7: When the wife orders badly, so do you.
Normal Programming Resumes
Rising early the next morning, TWMBB was giddy with excitement. The four harsh “boy honeymoon” days were seen off and normal indulgent luxury honeymooning could now resume. The short trip in to Uluru was much longer than the 250km on the clock. The sight of The Rock rising on the horizon and driving, driving, driving with the monolith continuing to grow before your eyes gives you the appreciation of just how massive it is. “I didn’t realise it was that big,” says TWMBB.
Lesson for new husbands No. 8: Wives like to be surprised by big things that appear small in the beginning.
We left the rental at the airport and were whisked off by Longitude 131º staff to the exclusive tented accommodation. Greeted by the then General Manager Anneke Brown with a glass of champagne, TWMBB was overcome with emotion. Normal programming had resumed.
Lesson for new husbands No. 9: New wives look best with a glass of champagne, swooning on soft luxury beds.
In the months since our honeymoon, those four days of less than indulgent desert road trip have been the story we tell the most for its challenges. It also causes us the most laughter.
Lesson for all new wives No. 1: Misadventure can prove to be the source of the very best memories.
The Diamond Standard
AT’s diamond grading system for 5 Carat honeymoon spots:
1. El Questro
Colour: D. The Kimberley at its best, with gob-smacking landscapes, colours and activities. Clarity: FL (Flawless). If you can get the Chamberlain Suite, it’s probably the greatest in the entire outback.
2. Longitude 131º
Colour: D. Australian travel doesn’t get any better than private dune sunset drinks with fresh coffin bay oysters. The red heart of Australia at its best. Clarity: VVS1 (Very Very Slightly Imperfect). The guides can be hit and miss, as can Table 131º.
3. Sal Salis
Colour: D. The understated Ningaloo Reef is so remote it seems such a privilege to be there. Clarity: VVS1 (Very Very Slightly Imperfect). The limitations of just 10 litres of water per person per day is understandable, but can be a challenge.
4. Arkaba Station
Colour: E. Australia’s holy land, it feels that ancient. And the Flinders Ranges are so distinct it’s a real sight to behold. Clarity: VVS2 (Very Very Slightly Imperfect). Somewhat far from some of the highlights of the region.
5. Bamurru Plains
Colour: D. The Mary River Flood Plains are incredibly beautiful wetlands teeming with wildlife; you need an escort around the grounds in case of wondering buffalo. Clarity: VVS2 (Very Very Slightly Imperfect).The rooms aren’t quite as luxe as many other top-notch outback retreats and the extra charge for aircon is not the friendliest of moves if the humidity is climbing.
6. Rawnsley Park Station
Colour: E. Also in the Flinders, but better located than Arkaba at the centre of the three most spectacular ranges. Clarity: VS1 (Very Slightly Imperfect). The private eco villas are beautifully done, but not omg luxe; the meals are great but not outstanding.