Justine Tyerman overcomes her snake phobia in Australia's Red Centre.
Aaron knocked on my cabin door early on Day 2 of my Ghan Expedition across Australia.
My hospitality attendant had come to inspect my kit for the day and was clearly not happy with my bare toes and legs. My toenails could do with a touch-up, I thought, but I didn't have any varnish with me, and my legs were lily white.
We had been advised to wear long pants, socks and covered-in footwear but I hadn't really given much thought to the reasoning behind it. I assumed it had something to do with the weather – a cold snap in Alice Springs peut-être?
"It's never cold in Alice, darling . . . no, the clothes are for snake protection," Aaron said, studying my expression for a reaction. Aussies love to shock Kiwis with snake talk.
Satisfied with the look of horror on my face, he added:
"This IS the Northern Territory and this IS snake season and you ARE hiking today."
I toyed with the idea of opting for the bus trip to the School of the Air, the Royal Flying Doctor Service Base and the National Pioneer Women's Hall of Fame instead of a day hiking in snake country but Aaron eyed me pointedly and delivered strong hints that to change excursions at this late stage would be 'wussy'.
"Just stamp your feet as you walk, stay in the middle of the bunch, and you'll be fine," he said cheerfully.
So I 'womaned-up', put on extra-thick socks and long-pants, faced my worst fears . . . and had a brilliant day hiking.
It was forecast to be a mere 32 degrees so the day was not too scorching hot.
Disembarking at Alice Springs, we were greeted by an impressive bronze statue of an Afghan cameleer.
The plaque told us that work on the planned railway from Adelaide to Darwin began in 1878 assisted by hardy Afghans and their camels that ferried passengers, food, supplies and freight to Alice Springs. When the railway reached Alice in 1929, the train became known as The Afghan Express and later The Ghan.
The township of Alice Springs began life in 1871 as a repeater station along the Overland Telegraph Line. Alice is just 200km south of the geographical centre of Australia - halfway between Darwin and Adelaide, literally the 'Red Centre' of Australia. The economy is based on tourism, farming, gas and mining.
Called 'Mpwante' by the indigenous Arrernte people, the area has been inhabited for around 40,000 years. The population is 28,000 of whom 20 percent are aboriginal.
Our coach driver Andrew was an excellent guide with extensive knowledge of the region, especially the flora and fauna, from his days as a nurseryman.
Our first stop was a historical site at the foot of Mt Gillen - a memorial to John Flynn (1880-1951), a Presbyterian minister whose vision was to construct 'a mantle of safety over the Outback'. Flynn founded the Australian Inland Mission to bring medical, social and religious services to isolated Outback communities. In 1928, he set up the first flying doctor base in Cloncurry, Queensland, and soon after, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the world's first air ambulance, was born.
Andrew then led us on a nature walk, talking about points of interest such as the parallel MacDonnell Ranges formed 350 million years ago.
We stood beneath a beautiful 200-year-old ghost gum with a pure white trunk and branches. It survives in such arid conditions because of its far-reaching roots that extend sideways as far as the leaf canopy, seeking underground water.
As I gazed skyward at the giant tree, Andrew casually said he spotted four snakes at the base of the tree yesterday.
Seeing my jaw drop, Lisa, who accompanied us from The Ghan, said:
"Don't worry Justine. Aussie snakes are scaredy-cats. When they sense vibrations, they usually hide from people, not like South African snakes which are aggressive and come after you."
It was the word 'usually' that had me worried.
'Note to self – do NOT go to South Africa.'
The next part of the expedition took us up to the Cassia Hill Lookout with stunning views of the Alice Valley, Heavitree Range and Simpson's Gap. The arid, rocky terrain looked very snaky to me so I stayed with the group and stamped my feet all the way to the top of the hill, much to the amusement of a chap from Brisbane who said he had a king brown living under a rock in his garden.
"Yes, it's venomous," he replied to my obvious question, "but it's been there for years and doesn't bother me."
"Really?" I replied, incredulous.
"Yep. They're also known as mulga snakes – there are large stands of mulga around these parts."
"Oh really? Perhaps you'd like to point them out to me," I replied.
An Aussie couple piped up saying they found a highly poisonous brown snake in bag of garden bark the other day, and chopped its head off with a spade.
I made it safely to the lookout, walking in Andrew's footsteps and stamping all the way.
At the top, I was so fascinated by the views and the geology of the area, I forgot all about snakes.
The ancient rust-stained ranges surrounding us were the sandy bottom of an inland sea about 900 million years ago. Over time, enormous pressure from within the earth slowly raised the sea floor causing the water to drain away.
The schist rock we were standing on was 1600 million years old, one of the oldest rock formations in Australia.
The last of our hikes was to the spectacular Simpson's Gap, a deep gash in the mountain range 60 million years in the making. Known to the Arrernte people as 'Rungutjirpa', the gap is the mythological home of their giant goanna ancestors and the site of several Dreaming trails.
The first Europeans to explore the gap were the surveyors for the Overland Telegraph Line who came upon the area while searching for a route north from Alice Springs. It was named Simpsons Gap after A. A. Simpson, President of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society. The Simpson Desert was also named in his honour.
As we hiked along a path beside a dry riverbed, the rock walls began to close in on us until the canyon narrowed to a cleft just a few metres wide. The track came to an end at a pool which, in years gone by, fed into Roe Creek, the dry riverbed we had just walked alongside. The craggy red rock faces soaring high above us on both sides glowed in the reflected light of the pool, and from some angles, overlapped and intersected, casting deep shadows.
It was deliciously cool in the shade so I lingered there a while, absorbing the history and tranquillity of the place. As my fingers traced the crevices of the ancient rocks, I wondered what stories they could tell after 60 million years. I felt a deep sense of reverence for 'Rungutjirpa'.
I took my time heading back to the bus, hoping to see signs of the colony of black-footed rock wallabies that inhabit a rocky outcrop below a cliff face. Only about half a metre tall and well-camouflaged, they're hard to spot but after a while, I fancied I saw something hopping. I claimed it as a wallaby sighting anyway.
A pair of statuesque rock pinnacles stood nearby as if guarding the colony. They looked like huge man-made sculptures, hewn from the rock.
An information board about the 240km Larapinta Trail, one of Australia's newest and most popular trails, took my eye. I'd love to spend more time exploring this magnificent landscape, and now I've (almost) overcome my snake phobia, it's entirely possible.
Dinner that evening was at the historic Alice Springs Telegraph Station under a canopy of bright stars. Our brilliant chefs from The Ghan prepared a delicious feast starting with chicken and leak pie entrée with a bush chutney and paw paw salad, followed by a main course of succulent beef tenderloins, jacket potatoes, salads and roast vegetables, and desserts of pavlova, chocolate brownies and cheeses and dried fruits. The champagne had an extra effervescence that night.
After two days of mixing and mingling, I was surrounded by familiar faces, and the joie de vivre was infectious. People were dancing, singing, riding the resident camels, watching a blacksmith at work and exploring the beautiful stone buildings of the historic telegraph station.
Sylvia from Barcelona, one of my new train mates, had taken the opportunity to fly to Uluru for the day, an optional extra offered on The Ghan. She was ecstatic about the experience, something I'll hopefully do on my next trip to Australia.
Later in the evening, as the stars began to twinkle in the clearest sky in years, an astronomer named Dan gave us a guided tour of the night sky. Armed with a powerful laser beam, he pointed out the Southern Cross, Milky Way, Saturn, Pluto, Neptune, Mars, Venus and many of the constellations. Peppered with inimitable Aussie humour, it was informative and highly entertaining.
Before the night was over, I strolled around the station and learned about the obstacles faced by pioneer Sir Charles Todd and his team in constructing the Overland Telegraph Line that linked Australia to the world.
The 2900km line extended from Port Augusta in South Australia, to Palmerston (now Darwin) in the Northern Territory, along a route closely following that of explorer John McDouall Stuart. Construction of the line with its 36,000 poles began in 1871 and was completed in just 23 months, opening in August 1872. It linked with an underwater cable network to London, meaning that communications that had once taken 120 days to arrive by ship now took only 48 hours.
The Alice Springs Overland Telegraph Station was established in 1871 and was one of 12 along the line. The station operated 24 hours a day.
Before the railway was completed in 1929, camel trains carted supplies from the railhead at Oodnadatta to Alice Springs. The trip took two weeks, each camel carrying 250kg. Caravans of 50 camels were a regular occurrence delivering supplies to the station. What an awesome sight that would have been.
The station ceased operation in 1932 when it was replaced by more modern facilities in town. Since its closure, the station has served as an education centre for part-aboriginal children from 1932-42; wartime army base during World War 2; and an aboriginal reserve from 1945-1963.
The restored barracks, post and telegraph office, Morse code machines, station master's residence and kitchen, and outbuildings such as the harness, buggy shed, battery room, and shoeing yard were fascinating.
There's still a registered, operational post office at the station and all mail posted in the original red postbox is stamped with the Alice Springs Telegraph Station Commemorative Franking Stamp.
Back on The Ghan, Aaron quizzed me about my day.
"Stupendously enjoyable," I said. "The entire day."
"What? No slithery creatures in the undergrowth?" he winked.
"Not a one," I replied airily.
It was then I realised I may have actually overcome my snake phobia.
"Well done Justine. There's a wee chocolate treat on your pillow as a reward for your great bravery!"
After narrowly missing the spectacle of an Aussie bushfire by showering at precisely the wrong moment on my first evening on The Ghan, I slept with my venetian blinds open for fear of missing another dramatic sight. I was rewarded with beautiful moonlit scenes of vast deserts, dry riverbeds, distant ranges, silvery light flickering behind gum trees and the shadow of the train on the terracotta terrain.
• The Ghan Expedition is a 2979km four-day, three-night train journey through the 'Red Centre' of Australia from Darwin to Adelaide.
• Justine travelled courtesy of international rail specialists Rail Plus and Great Southern Rail.