Taking two young boys on a 2600-kilometre, tri-state outback road trip, Paul Chai wasn't sure what to expect.
On our last day in the outback, we have a gruelling full day's drive from Wilpena Pound to Silverton, past towns that are little more than a train station in the scrub. The kids are content to spot emus, play DJ and compare road kill for hours on end. Then we have a sunset stroll to Silverton's celluloid-famous drinking spot, the Silverton Pub, where we scan the walls for Polaroids of Mel Gibson in Mad Max and laugh at the lewd sayings dangling from the pub's roof.
The outback to me was always about appreciating the vast distances, the ruggedness, the nothingness and the space to think; simple pleasures like a cold beer after a long, hot drive. To see my kids, devoted screen jockeys aged 10 and 7, get that without much prompting makes me think the trip is a success.
We're capping off a seven-day round trip from Melbourne taking in the Flinders Ranges and Broken Hill in a six-berth Apollo Motorhomes mobile home. The freedom to spend the last night on a square of red earth metres from the Silverton Pub is a definite highlight. I'd visited the pub all too briefly years before; now it is my local, if only for a night.
Silverton is a classic outback town of just a few buildings where silver ore was first discovered in the region in 1875. The town, including the famous pub, is also well known for its roles on the silver screen, starring in movies like Razorback, Mission: Impossible II and, most famously, Mad Max 2.
Our accommodation for the night is at Penrose Park and we are gruffly assigned our piece of red dirt by the attendant. The park is a simple affair with some caged birds, farm animals and pre-OH&S metal playground equipment sticking out of the ochre sand. The whole evening is given a Mad Max-like boost by the fact there is a 4x4 race in town and some seriously pimped cars are rolling by kicking up dust.
In the morning we visit the Mundi Mundi lookout, 10 minutes out of town that was home to the initial chase scene in Mad Max 2 and then visit the Mad Max 2 Museum on the hill above the Silverton Pub.
This museum may be the most outback thing ever, a mix of isolation, obsession and oddity. British bloke Adrian Bennett loved the movie so much he collected memorabilia and then moved from Bradford in Britain to Silverton to open the museum. It is a cramped, eclectic place with every inch of space covered in photos, posters or relics from George Miller's classic. (The kids get a heavily edited viewing of the cult flick on our return home)
But the trip is not all movies and muscle cars. The previous two days are spent exploring the ancient amphitheatre of Wilpena Pound, or Ikara to the local Adnyamathanha people, meaning "meeting place" as Indigenous people from all around were drawn to this special place for ceremonies for thousands of years.
The Flinders Ranges is a great place for a road trip and on the approach to Wilpena Pound we spot emus along the side of the road, see animal skulls nailed to farm fences and watch wedge-tailed eagles spiral overhead. We also start to see the granite ripple of the ranges themselves on the horizon.
One of the things about driving in the outback is how slowly things change, unlike the cut-and-thrust onslaught of a city drive. Gradually, the ranges in the distance envelop us and we are entering the Flinders Ranges National Park. By now the whole countryside seems to have a warm red glow as the afternoon sun reflects off the ochre cliffs and we roll into our home for the next two days.
Our powered site at the Wilpena Pound Resort is perfect, right near a thatch of spindly trees that is home to an emu family and kangaroos resting up for their evening sortie.
It's time to use our legs and we take a sunset hike on the not-to-challenging Drought Busters track but then decide we might tackle Mount Ohlssen Bagge instead; the latter is real mountain goat stuff (and we see a few feral goats themselves) but we don't quite make it to a view of the Pound before turning back for dinner around the fire pit.
The following morning we awake to the family of emus kicking up dust outside our van and we head off on the walking track determined to see the view today so we take the track to Wangarra Lookout, a red dirt track that takes us past the Old Homestead, a settler's home. Past the homestead it is straight up again but we push on and end up at a viewing platform over Wilpena Pound and the scale of this huge natural amphitheatre is revealed. That night we take part in a welcome to country at the Wilpena Pound Resort and find out that the Adnyamathanha believe the ranges were created by two dreaming serpents and get shown the local flag with Ikara represented by a circle in the corner.
The following morning on our way out of Wilpena Pound we take the short walk to Arkaroo Rock. Here, past red rockfaces and more feral goats, we will see that same round symbol with lines radiating out like the sun, but this time it is not on a flag but in ochre and charcoal rock paintings in a cave below the Chace Ranges where it has been for millennia – a reminder that the outback can be a very humbling place.
FIVE OUTBACK PITSTOPS
CARRIETON , SA
The town where the South Australian outback starts, Carrieton, is a great stop, and would be even greater if the one pub in town was not closed for good. The Carrieton Caravan Park is housed in the old rural school with the principal's residence and an old classroom converted into air-conditioned accommodation. Here you can park on the old field and start a game of cricket on a pitch left over from the school days, then chill in the school's old art room that is now a communal rest area with couches and an open fire.
A two-street outback stopover full of metal sculptures of the local wildlife, a gorgeous red brick post office and the Giant Red Gum. Unlike the Giant Koala, or Big Merino, this tree just outside Orroroo is real, a massive gum tree with a circumference well over 10 metres and thought to be 500 years old. We often forget just how many trees the early settlers cut down and seeing this mega-gum is a reminder of how the country used to look.
This South Australian town's claim to fame is that it is the home of R.M. Williams, the boots you will see on a good many outback feet. Settled in 1871, there is also a lovely creek walk full of ducks and a classic outback pub with a stuffed crocodile hanging over the front door.
BROKEN HILL, NSW
Upon arrival at Silver City it is funny how busy it seems after days in the bush. But it is fun to explore Broken Hill stopping for a drink in the Palace Hotel, parking our big motorhome in the same street that the boys from Priscilla, Queen of the Desert parked their bus, then winding up the dirt road to the Miner's Memorial that overlooks the town.
SILO ART TRAIL, VIC/SA
The Silo Art Trail spans Victoria and South Australia where several towering wheat silos have been decorated by street artists that make for some seriously high-impact roadside stops. To learn more about the project and where to find it, see siloarttrail.com
The Euro Deluxe motorhome from Apollo Motorhomes Holidays sleeps six. There are also two dining areas and an awning, full kitchen and bathroom. Prices from $114 per night. See apollocampers.com.au
We covered 2600 kilometres from Melbourne, past Adelaide and across to Broken Hill before returning to Melbourne.
Nightly accommodation varied but the Wilpena Pound Resort offers powered sites from $25, wilpenapound.com.au. Carrieton Caravan Park offers powered sites from $20, carrieton.com.au/caravan-park. And Penrose Park in Silverton has sites at $20 for a family of four, silverton.org.au/penrose-park.
Paul Chai was a guest of Apollo Motorhomes Holidays.