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The weather has turned hot, but then we are in the tropics now. We crossed the Tropic of Capricorn shortly after leaving Alice Springs this morning. It was marked by a small monument by the side of the road, but since we were flying down the Stuart Highway at 130 km/h, it was far behind us by the time we registered its existence. Yep, the speed limit around these parts is 130. And yet, even that feels slow when faced with a flat, featureless plain in all directions covered with a more or less uniform smear of mulga, spinifex, and the odd eucalypt struggling against the harshness of the climate, pierced by this long, straight ribbon of bitumen that disappears into a shimmering heat haze both ahead and behind.
We were on the road after checking out of our last relative piece of luxury for 1,200 kilometres. We'd risen at 08:00 and eaten Weet Bix for breakfast in our room. On the way out of town we stopped for a coffee for M. and to fill up the car with the cheapest petrol so far of the trip: $1.65 a litre.
Then, it was up the track north. We passed the tiny town of Aileron and stopped at Ti Tree for a toilet break. The pub there bills itself as the most central pub in Australia. By "central" we're assuming they don't mean "convenient to everyone". We also passed and stopped at the Warburton Memorial - a stone cairn by the side of the road in memory of Peter Egerton-Warburton - too add to our growing list of photos with song connections. This time to another Midnight Oil track, Stars of Warburton.
Ti Tree roadhouse
Next stop was Barrow Creek, where we had a walk around the historic old telegraph station, built in 1872. It was a repeater station for the Overland Telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin, and is kept in reasonable condition by the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service.
Barrow Creek telegraph station
Just before Wycliffe Well, we turned left on to a dirt track that we'd spotted on Google Maps' aerial view of the area in an attempt to get the 10 km or so west of the highway to the confluence point at 31°S, 134°E. The road was blocked by a gate with a sign warning it was kept closed to prevent the spread of tuberculosis and brucellosis - diseases of cattle. We opened the gate to pass through and closed it behind us. We drove west along the easy dirt road until we reached a turning circle marked by nothing but a windmill - for pumping artesian water for the cattle we had seen standing around near one point of the road. From here it was about 3 km cross-country to the confluence point. We recorded the GPS location of the end of the road and began driving across the spinifex and scattered mulga.
Dirt track off the Stuart Highway
We made heavy going progress about 500 metres until we were forced to stop by thicker and thicker stands of mulga. It was going to be too slow and difficult to try to get there in our small rental 4-wheel drive, and the thought of slogging 2.5 kilometres on foot through this terrain where we couldn't see more than about 10 metres in any direction was too dangerous to contemplate. So we stopped to snap photos at 21° 00.610' S, 134° 02.735' E, then turned back to where we could just see the windmill marking the end of the road. If only the vegetation had been a bit more open we could have made it. But at least we did our best.
Entering Wycliffe Well
A bit further up the road was the fuel stop of Wycliffe Well, billed as the "UFO Capital of Australia". So naturally we had to stop and take photos of the alien decorations, both outside and inside the tiny roadhouse, including walls full of newspaper clippings reporting strange lights in the sky in the area. We bought an incredibly tacky UFO souvenir tea-towel for Paul, and a rather cool alien design T-short for me.
Eighteen kilometres north of UFO central, we pulled in at the Wauchope Hotel (now the Devils Marbles Hotel) - the only building within sight, and our bed for the night. We are in one of six demountable rooms, which is cosy and comfortable nonetheless. There is caravan parking outside, a few square metres of actual green grass for campers to pitch tents, and even a tiny swimming pool.
Abandoned trucks, near Wauchope
We are resting out of the heat of the mid-afternoon and will head out around 5pm to check out the Devil's Marbles, some 10 km further down the road. The plan is to see them just before sunset, then wait for darkness to fall and catch some stars before returning here to the hotel for dinner.
The evening went pretty much as planned. At 17:15 we left the Wauchope Hotel to drive north to the Devil's Marbles. Before leaving, we checked with the lady at the bar what time they finished serving dinner. She said around 8:30, so we planned to be back from the Marbles well before.
The Devil's Marbles are an amazing rock formation which litters both sides of the Stuart Highway over an area several hundred metres square. Across this region, enormous weathered granite boulders lie scattered across the landscape, seemingly like a clutch of giant red eggs. In fact the local Aboriginal tribes consider them to be eggs of the Rainbow Serpent.
In reality, the marbles are formed by progressive spalling of onion-like layers off the coarsely grained granite. Faults and fractures in the original strata produce rectangular blocks, some seven or eight metres across, which have had the sharp edges and corners rounded away by the passage of time and the alternate freezing and baking of the central Australian desert climate. The granite exists only in a small region a kilometre or so across, a subterranean outcrop of the volcanic rock amidst a sea of soft sandstone that makes up the surrounding desert.
We arrived in the late afternoon sun as it shaded into dusk and wandered around the formation, first taking the short self-guided loop walk with explanatory signs and then simply at random, moving from one interesting clutch of boulders to the next. Several other cars were there, and people were climbing all over the formations. It was a bit of a job getting photos without other people in them.
Devil's Marbles at sunset
As the sun reached the horizon, the rocks began glowing a rich red-orange colour in the darkening sky. We continued meandering between the piles of boulders, stopping here and there for photos of the incredible shapes, colours, and textures. As we walked back to the car in the deepening shadow, a busload of people began singing gospel songs to the accompaniment of a guitar in the carpark. They left as we got there, and we pulled out the tripod and flash gear for some more photos in the falling darkness.
Devil's Marbles in twilight
After some tricky exposures, we packed up and headed back to Wauchope for dinner, driving through the star-spangled night sky, with the faint afterglow of the sun on the western horizon.
Devil's Marbles after dark
We got back about 19:30 and went straight into the bar for dinner. M. ordered the only veg option on the menu - vege patties with salad. I opted for the "beef and reef" - scotch fillet steak with six chili prawns on top, plus salad and chips. The meals were good, and I had a ginger beer with mine. We ate outside in the pleasant beer garden to avoid the smoky interior of the pub, and the night air was pleasantly cool without being cold.
Dinner at Wauchope Hotel
After filling ourselves up we went back into the bar to grab an iced coffee milk carton for M. to have with her breakfast in the morning, and a Super-Choc Drumstick ice cream for me for dessert. We walked back to our room at the very rear of the complex (by "complex" I mean a gravel yard with the hotel at the front, some caravan sites in the middle, and the demountable motel rooms to one side) and I set up my camera in the darkness to try to take some shots of the amazing night sky.
The black sky here is carpeted with stars. The Milky Way glows across the sky like a twisted spine, bright and clear. It's been a long time since I've seen a night sky as dark and clear as this, and so many stars.
We turned in for the night, listening to the sounds of the singers we'd heard at the Devil's Marbles. It turns out they are the Sydney Street Choir on a tour of the Northern Territory, and they managed to set up some of their own audio equipment in the pub for some karaoke and sing-alongs. (Check their blog page. The photo on 21st August of them singing near the Marbles, with the white bus - we were standing right behind that bus! [link removed as the blog and photo have been removed])
M. has borrowed a hair dryer to use after her shower - from one of the women who works here. They didn't have one to lend to motel guests, so the lady offered her own personal dryer from her residence. M. said I'd return it soon, but the woman said don't worry, give it back in the morning.
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