Relaxing in Broome

Broome is a small town perched on the Dampier Peninsula in the far north of Western Australia, about as far away from the state capitals as it is possible to be. The town developed around the pearling trade, and because of this is one of oldest multicultural towns in Australia, as Japanese, Chinese and Malay divers came to work on the pearling ships from the mid 19th Century onwards. While pearl farms are still big business in the region, the town now lives on tourism, attracting a primarily domestic market for some Australian sun in the winter months.

The town centre is made up of two streets lined with cafés, high end gift shops, galleries and pearl shops. Also on the main street is the Sun Cinema, where I went one evening to see Finding Dory (to get me in the marine life mood for my next destination, the Ningaloo Reef). The oldest operating outdoor cinema in the world, it opened in 1916 and has rows of deckchairs facing the big screen, only slightly more comfortable than normal cinema seats. As the trailers started we realised that we were sitting right under the airport flightpath, and the thundering of aeroplanes passing over our heads every half an hour  added a certain drama to the experience.

It is a sprawling, spread out kind of town which seems to expect everyone to have their own transport, and which makes it feel bigger than its 16,000 people. There are several attractions spread out along to beachfront (well, mudflats-front) side of the town, one of which is the Broome Museum. Located in the former Customs House and run by the local history society, it offers mini exhibitions on all kinds of things, from the Second World War to sailmaking and ropes, from the Australian equivalent of the Women’s Institute to an impressive but random collection of sea shells. The main event though is a display about Broome’s early pearl industry, which was really interesting although it made me feel a bit funny reading about early divers, knowing what I now do about underwater atmospheric pressure and decompression sickness.

While the beach on the town side of the peninsula is all mudflats and marshland, the western side has Cable Beach, a lovely stretch of white sandy beach famous for sunsets and camel rides. A fifteen minute bus ride from Broome proper, it’s a mini resort town, with its own hostel, bar, and a whole range of hotels, centred around the popular life-guard covered section of beach. From there I followed a walking trail that took me south through the bush parallel to the beach towards the outcrop of Gantheame Point. It wasn’t really walking weather – about 32 degrees – and as there weren’t many people around who thought that walking in the heat was a good idea, the trail was mostly deserted. It was nice, fairly sheltered walking, with lots of birds around. The bushes rustled ominously every so often, and in some spots the sandy path was covered in the unmistakeable curve of snake tracks, but I didn’t come across anything that looks like it wanted to kill me, much to my disappointment.

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Trail near Cable Beach

After a few kilometres I climbed a metal staircase up to the top of the sand dunes and dropped down onto the beach and walked along the shore. Only a short distance away from the busy swimming beach, this section of beach was almost completely empty, with a few sailing boats moored a little way out. It reminded me a little of the beach at Khok Kloi in Thailand, where I did my volunteer teaching a few months ago; quiet and serene, covered with little crabs, but with big sand dunes instead of fancy houses.

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Gantheaume Point

Coming closer to Gantheame Point the dunes turned to cliffs and I had a bit of an adventure clambering over orange rocks trying to get up to the road, and reached the carpark and information board covered in sweat and dust. Gantheame Point is home to a lighthouse and a biological research centre, as well as some fossilised dinosaur footprints. Unfortunately they can only be seen every few weeks when low tide is particularly low, so I wasn’t able to see them, but I had a nice time walking around looking at the piles of bright orange rock on the headland, all flat and flakey-looking like slate.

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Gantheaume Point

Heading back to Cable Beach, I took my shoes off and walked along the edge of the water, dodging all the washed up jellyfish half buried in the sand like gigantic globs of pinky phlegm. Arriving at the kiosk near the swimming beach, exhausted and dehydrated, I treated myself to an ice cream, a cold drink and a well earned rest.

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Cable Beach

The main event on Cable Beach though is the sunset, marketed as the best in Australia. The day before my walk, I had spent the afternoon relaxing on the beach and stayed to see whether the sunset would compare with the many, many sunsets I’ve seen on my travels. I got a nice quiet spot on some rocks a little way away from the main beach, which turned out to be right next to the 4X4 track onto the beach. I haven’t seen it anywhere else, but in Australia it’s apparently a very popular thing to drive right onto the beach to enjoy the sea and sand without getting wet or sandy and especially, as it turns out, to watch the sunset. Cars and motorbikes turned up in droves coming onto the beach next to where I was sitting and driving around the headland to the special beach just for cars. The sunset itself was ok, even if I was sitting on Broome’s own Piccadilly Circus, although I found myself spending more time looking at the couple a little way in front of me, posing for artsy-wistful photos of each other gazing towards the sunset. As soon as the sun disappeared the cars started driving past me again in the opposite direction, but soon after that, dozens of camels came across the sand being led towards their farm, fresh from the sunset camel rides that Cable Beach is known for.

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Camels at sunset

I had been half intending to stay in Broome for a while and find some work, but after a few days’ relaxation I decided to move on. I was still in holiday mode and couldn’t quite summon the motivation to look for a job, and as nice as Broome is for a few days of sunshine, I didn’t love it enough to stay for much longer. And besides, I’d seen lots of adverts for diving and snorkelling further along the coast, which had left me impatient to get there as soon as possible. So after four days in Broome, I got the overnight bus to Exmouth, WA.

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Roadtrip: The Kimberley

The Kimberley is the northernmost region of Western Australia, tucked between the Indian Ocean and the Northern Territory. It is rugged and harsh, and very sparsely populated with only a handful of towns spread over an area slightly smaller than Sweden, but it also contains some impressive scenery, National Parks and even a lake. This lake, Lake Argyle, was our first stop in Western Australia and our first detour as we left the highway for a while to climb gently up through the red rocks, stopping at the Lake Argyle Resort, perched in a pretty spot overlooking the lake. There are several ways to ‘experience’ the lake, from helicopter rides to taking a dip in the infinity pool, but we couldn’t find a way to walk down the steep bush-covered slope to actually get down to see the water in person, so after enjoying the view for a bit we headed on back to the highway to the town of Kununurra.

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Lake Argyle

I should stress at this point that although ‘highway’ is technically the right word, the Victoria Highway, which runs from Katherine to just past Kununurra, and the Great Northern Highway, which goes from there to just beyond Port Hedland, are not what I would think of as highways. They are mostly single lane roads with a hard shoulder of hard orange dust, and the occasional two-lane overtaking section. They are well-maintained though and very easy to drive, and wide enough for any campervan – they’d have to be to accommodate the road trains, huge trucks pulling two, three or even more trailer loads. They’re pretty intimidating and can throw you off guard when one comes blaring towards you while you’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the empty road.

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The highway

Not that the road is that empty really; the Kimberley is a popular location for Grey Nomads and other campervan enthusiasts, and there are all manner of 4x4s, minivans and caravans on the road – not enough to make it a ‘busy’ road but enough that you rarely go more than a few minutes without seeing another vehicle. The question then is whether the drivers of the cars passing in the other direction are nice people or not, i.e. whether they return the ‘driver’s wave’, as you lift your hand marginally from the steering wheel to acknowledge their presence, and to give your hand something to do. This is what passes the time on these roads…

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The road

After making a lunch stop in Kununurra, a pleasant town that was bigger than I expected and surprisingly busy, we carried on driving through the afternoon until we reached our stop for the night on the edge of the Bungle Bungle National Park. Sadly we didn’t have time to visit the Bungle Bungles (or Purnululu) themselves, a rock formation comprising collection of huge stratified beehive-shaped lumps, as it takes a whole day to visit them, so we had to be content with staying in the caravan park on the edge of the National Park. It was fantastically remote and wild, with no lighting and few cooking facilities; the toilet and shower blocks were open-topped basic cubicles of corrugated metal, open to the sky. The stars were awesome.

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Sunset at the Bungle Bungle Caravan Park

The third day of the road trip started a little later, as we had been making good time, and we spent the day driving through the flat plains towards Derby, passing through the towns of Hall’s Creek and Fitzroy Crossing. These were the kind of strange, slightly creepy places that I had been expecting, with quite a lot of housing but very few businesses or obvious employment sources. It makes me wonder what the people here actually do, as there’s very little tourism in the towns themselves and there obviously aren’t any cities or bigger towns nearby to commute to. Apart from a supermarket and a primary school, and one or two other bits and pieces, I couldn’t see much that would actually support the population. Fitzroy Crossing particularly had an intensely quiet, ghost town feel about it; I could barely imagine living there, let alone growing up there.

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More road

That evening we arrived in Derby (to rhyme with Furby), a decent sized town by the sea. Walking along the tidal mudflats to the wharf it felt like weeks since I’d been near the sea, and I had to remind myself that it had only been three days since I had watched the sunset at the Mindil Beach Market in Darwin. Driving through the bush had had that effect I think, seeing nothing but dust and rock and bush almost makes you forget you were ever near the sea. I can easily imagine how it sent some of the early pioneers into insanity, even before you take dehydration and hunger into account. Back at the caravan park we were treated to a free concert from an Irish guy who has lived in Australia for many years. He serenaded the Grey Nomad audience with his songs (complete with backing track) about the beauty of nature and how the sun shines in the children’s faces, with song titles like ‘Kununurra Man’ and ’90k’s from Darwin’. It was like a cross between an old people’s home and Butlin’s.

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Derby Wharf

The town of Derby is built on a spit of land surrounded on three sides by reedy mudflats and then the sea. As such the town centre stops abruptly on these sides giving way to a vast flat space and lots of sky. It’s really very pretty and we spent the next morning looking around. For a small town it has an interesting history and care has been taken to preserve some of its historical features. This includes the old gaol, a ramshackle, open-sided tin hut which housed aboriginal prisoners in terrible conditions from 1906 until 1975. We also visited the Prison Tree on the edge of town, so called because it was a stopping point for aboriginal prisoners who were being brought to Derby for punishment or forced labour from more rural areas. The tree is a Boab tree, which have important spiritual significance in Aboriginal culture, and they are pretty cool trees. The species dates back 170 million years, while some individual trees are known to be over 1000 years old, and they look very distinctive. The trunks grow outwards, rather than upwards, becoming bulbous and swollen as they get older, but the branches remain relatively small. The tree is resistant to fire and as it grows the trunk becomes hollow inside. Like so many Australian plants and animals, they look a bit ‘not quite right’, like a child’s drawing of a tree, but they’re very nice all the same.

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Prison Boab Tree

Driving into Broome, with its international airport, street lights, and defined parking spaces, was like landing back on Earth after a trip to space. We were back in civilisation, albeit still hundreds of miles from the nearest city, and I was ready for a bit of rest and relaxation.

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The edge of town and a boab tree, Derby

Roadtrip: Darwin to WA Border

I had booked my train tickets a few months earlier in a moment of spontaneity, and it was a few weeks later that I started thinking about what I would do once I got to Darwin. To the west there appeared to be more or less nothing until you get to Perth, to the east is Cairns and the well-worn backpacker route of the east coast. I had heard good things about the east coast, but at the same time it sounded a bit hectic, a bit Gap Yah for me, and I quite wanted to do something different. But as I didn’t want to fly and couldn’t afford one-way car hire, transport through the all but uninhabited north west was looking problematic. I almost resigned myself to splashing out on an Intrepid tour, when I came across the idea of rental relocations.

The layout of the Australian road system lends itself to long-distance road trips, and because of the distances involved, many people will do a point-to-point rather than a round trip. This means there are cars and campervans that a returned in one place that need to somehow get back to their origin, and there are websites, like imoova and coseats, where you can find them. The fees are nominal and companies often reimburse some of your fuel, so the only costs are insurance, living costs, and petrol. The caveat is that you have a limited time frame to return the vehicle, and a mileage limit so you can’t take a roundabout route, and you put down a fairly hefty deposit to encourage you not to go AWOL.

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The campervan

Discovering this when I was still in Melbourne, I booked a two-seater kitted-out campervan to drive from Darwin to Broome, in Western Australia, over four days. I reasoned that I could either go on my own and see how I fared mentally with only myself for company, or if I met anyone on the way heading in that direction I could take them with me and share costs. I wasn’t sure which I option preferred (are you more likely to get murdered a) by a random stranger when you’re driving alone in the middle of nowhere or b) by a secretly psychotic almost-stranger while you’re driving with them in the middle nowhere?), but on the train to Darwin I met Cat, a youth worker from Leeds who was interested in heading in that direction and displayed no psychotic tendencies whatsoever. And so, after a few days in Darwin, we hit the road on my second Australian road trip.

Despite being more than twice the size of France, the Northern Territory has a population of just over 210,000. This is the smallest population of any Australian state or territory, including the tiny ACT (Australian Capital Territory) which is basically just Canberra. Around two thirds of this number live in Darwin, so the rest of the Territory is quite spectacularly empty on a scale that I can’t quite get my head around. For this reason, I was expecting our 1278 mile drive to be quite dull without anything much of interest to look at, and that was partly true. I hadn’t appreciated though how long distance driving changes the way you look at things. After an hour or so of driving through the bush, you find yourself noticing the smallest changes in the landscape, and pointing out things that under other circumstances would not be at all noteworthy. Aren’t the patterns on those rocks cool! Isn’t it weird how these bushes are different from those bushes before! Hey look, another termite mount! Cows! It’s weirdly therapeutic, to start noticing and appreciating the differences from one patch of emptiness to another.

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The route from Darwin took us south at first, following the Stuart Highway alongside the train line back to Katherine, and we stopped at the hot springs for lunch. I’ve had disappointing experiences with hot springs before, like in Banff where it was basically an overcrowded outdoor pool – nice views, but the turquoise tiles and chrome steps detracted from the naturalness a bit – but Katherine was lovely. From the car park you wouldn’t know there was anything there, there’s barely even a sign, but as we walked down the steps into the valley, we found a stream, interspersed with pools and small waterfalls, shaded by tropical leafy trees. It was really nicely done, with enough subtle handrails and sympathetic landscaping to feel natural and very relaxing.

Carrying on into the afternoon, we headed west along the Victoria Highway passing through the (relatively) dramatic Gregory National Park. We stopped for fuel at the Victoria River Roadhouse, a remote, tiny place where the pump isn’t connected to the tills and they trust you to tell them how much you owe. One of the campervan rental conditions is that we were not allowed to drive between dusk and dawn, primarily because kangaroos have a habit of bounding into the road at sunrise and sunset, so we stopped for the night in Timber Creek, a settlement of 200 people centred around a hotel/roadhouse/caravan park on the highway. The creek itself, which runs along one end of the caravan park, is home to crocodiles (the hotel holds a croc feeding session for visitors every couple of days) and the surrounding tree contain the biggest bats I’ve ever seen in my life. Needless to say we picked a camping spot nice and far away from the creek.

Keen to get on, we got up bright and early the next morning, and after a couple of hours arrived at the Western Australian border at around 10:00am. Or at least, 10:00am Northern Territory time, as in the excitement of having to surrender all the fruit and veg we’d bought the previous day, we forgot about the 90 minute time change between the states. We didn’t notice until that evening, and spent the whole day living an hour and a half ahead of everyone else. Should’ve had a lie in.

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Western Australian border

Darwin and Litchfield National Park

All of the cities and bigger towns I’ve visited in Australia have been familiar on some level, whether they felt like they could be anywhere in the Western world like Alice Springs, or distinctly Englishy like Adelaide. Driving into Darwin, on the other hand, I was reminded more of Southeast Asia than of Europe.

It makes sense in a way; well above the Tropic of Capricorn, Darwin is closer to Singapore than it is to Sydney, and feels like a completely different country to the southeast coast. Coming into the city of the shuttle from the railway station and driving along the main drag of Mitchell Street, it reminded me of Phuket, with bars opening out onto the street, little Thai restaurants, and backpacker hostels pumping out the tunes. My hostel was one of these, full of eighteen year old Brits and Europeans out for a good time and making me feel very old.

In the day times, on the other hand, I felt comparatively youthful as I wandered around reading information boards surrounded by the same class of retired couples who had been on the Ghan. As well as the train travellers were the Grey Nomads, the Australian baby boomers who upon retirement buy a caravan, leave home – sometimes selling their houses – and spend months or years at a time driving around the country in a permanent state of vacation, often to the horror of their children.

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Sunset at Mindil Beach

Darwin is a bit of a confusing town; on the one hand it is a major city, the capital of the Northern Territory with an interesting history, lots of growth over the last few years, and a few hipster cafes to rival Melbourne, but on the other it feels like a bit of a backwater, left behind by the bigger cities in the southeast, with ugly buildings, tacky gift shops and few good restaurants. The buildings at least aren’t really it’s fault; all but leveled by Japanese air strikes in the Second World War, and then again by a cyclone in 1974, the city centre is all concrete. Having said that, the recently revamped Waterfront precinct is pleasant (despite reminding me a bit of the newer parts of Central Milton Keynes), and most of the inner harbour has been turned into a swimming area which is very pleasant. It’s also the location of the first attack on Australian soil by Japanese forces in the Second World War, which sank more ships than Pearl Harbour and lead to the city being evacuated.

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Darwin’s Waterfront Redevelopment

Most people coming to the Top End go to one of the National Parks in the area, and I had booked on to a day trip to Litchfield National Park, which is a couple of hours’ drive away from Darwin and famous for having excellent waterfalls and swimming holes. Which surprised me when I heard about it, because I was under the understanding that northern Australia in general and this part of the Northern Territory specifically was Crocodile Country, which to me suggested that swimming anywhere might be a bad idea. But in typically casual Australian style, it was explained to me several times that I was perfectly safe for two reasons; it’s only saltwater crocodiles that kill humans, the freshwater crocodiles (or ‘freshies’) tend not to attack, and although saltwater crocs do come to Litchfield, it wasn’t the season for them to be there anyway. It was difficult not to see the crocodile warning signs stating a little too ambiguously for my liking that swimming was permitted, that saltwater crocodiles are not usually found here at this time of year, and that freshies rarely attack humans. But, I rationalised, the water was extremely clear, so I had a decent chance of seeing them coming, and besides there were plenty of people around who looked like they’d be slower swimmers than me.

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Florence Falls

I tend to think of waterfalls as a bit of a tropical backpacker cliché, but I have to admit Litchfield does it well. We went to three swimming spots with assorted walking trails, waterfalls, streams and pools, and all of them were lovely. There was enough signage and maintenance to feel like the area was looked after, but it was left alone enough that it still felt natural and serene, and although there were quite a lot of people, you never had to walk or swim far to find some peace and quiet. And of course, every carpark had seating areas and public barbecues. At Wangi Falls I climbed up the rocks into a hot tub-sized rock pool, at Florence Falls I swam behind a waterfall, and at the Buley Rockholes I just sat with my feet in the water, and it was all very lovely.

Alice Springs and the Train to Darwin

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Australia is a really big country. Even now that I’ve travelled across some of the biggest, emptiest bits, my brain still struggles to really accept it. And in more or less the middle of this big country is Alice Springs, a town in the middle of nowhere if ever there was one. The population is around 25,000, about the same as Skegness, and to get to anywhere bigger you’d need to drive for 16 hours on the Stuart Highway, either north to Darwin or south to Adelaide.

But the strange thing about Alice Springs is that it doesn’t feel particularly like an outback town stuck in the middle of nowhere. You don’t get to the edge of the town to see buildings abruptly give way to rolling desert and think wondrously, ‘if I walked in this direction non-stop I’d see nothing but bushland and desert for 20 days until I hit the Pacific coast’; there’s nothing in the people or the buildings that hammers home that you are in the middle of a desert, with no permanent river for hundreds of miles. Instead it feels more or less like any old small town. The town merges undramatically into the surroundings like towns do, high street becomes suburbs becomes light industry becomes bushland; the buildings are unremarkable with lots of concrete squareness and a few shopping centres; there’s even a Kmart and a Target.

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Alice Springs from Anzac Hill

That’s not to say that it is an unpleasant place to be, quite the opposite. As a popular tourist destination there are plenty of attractions to fill visitors’ time before or after their visit to Uluru, including a Reptile House, a Desert Park, and lots of Aboriginal art shops. There are also a few museums, including the wonderfully named Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame, a collection of exhibits located in the former town gaol telling the stories of the first female European settlers in the outback, and more generally notable women of Australian history. The stories and pictures of these tough women, dressed up in Victorian and Edwardian finery in the heat and the dust, are fascinating, particularly that of Bertha Strehlow. In 1936 for their honeymoon, she and her husband went on an expedition into the outback with a team of camels, fighting thirst, disease and the heat. Bertha became seriously ill following a miscarriage during the trip, and would certainly have died if not for the assistance of an Aboriginal group that came upon them and nursed her back to health.

What is now the town of Alice Springs was originally a hamlet called Stuart, sitting between a Heavitree Gap, a space in the MacDonnell Ranges that is symmetrical and perfect enough to be man-made. First settled in the 1880’s when gold was found nearby, the population remained tiny until the Second World War, when it was used first as a depot base and later as a home for civilians after the evacuation of Darwin. Anzac Hill, overlooking the town and Heavitree Gap, pays tribute to this as well as being an important location for the Arrernte Aboriginal people.

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A dry section of the Todd River

Prior to the town being settled, Alice Springs began in 1872 as a telegraph repeater station on the line from Adelaide to Darwin and from there on to Europe. The site of the telegraph station, a few kilometres from the town, was named after what was mistakenly thought to be a permanent waterhole on the Todd River. The river, named after Sir Charles Todd, Postmaster General of South Australia, is dry for most of the year to the extent that several walking trails go straight through the river bed without so much as a stepping stone. I found this one afternoon as I walked along the river bank to the Telegraph Station a few days after an unseasonal thunder and hail storm and heavy rain. Because of this, parts of the river actually had water in it and arriving at the Telegraph Station I found my trail disappear down into the river and continue on the other side. Instead I followed a trail beyond the Telegraph Station, past a small cemetery housing some of the first telegraph operators, and up to the small rocky lump of Trig Hill. There were no other people around here at the edge of the bush, and I tried not to think about snakes and spiders, but in the end I encountered a much more welcome kind of wildlife. My guide on the Uluru tour a few days before had explained that we wouldn’t see much if any big wildlife – camels, wallabies or kangaroos – because the desert is big enough that they can easily and willingly avoid the roads and the people. But sure enough, on the walking trail I heard a rustle and a whine like a puppy from the bushes, and when I stopped, a young kangaroo hopped across the path, followed by two adult kangaroos. They all froze and stared when they saw me, and hastily hopped on a few metres when I moved, then stopping and staring again to see what I would do. Whenever they moved they went in the same direction as the path, so I followed them in this pattern for about ten minutes; I stopped, they stopped, we all stared, I walked on, they hopped on.

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Kangaroos in front of Trig Hill

The second leg of my train trip felt much quicker than the first, and was much quieter. While the one Red Class carriage had been full leaving Adelaide, from Alice Springs it was less than half full, so everyone was able to spread out and be comfortable. The sun was setting as we left, and when I woke up the next morning we had left the Red Centre; the ground was brown, although still with a distinct orangey tint, and there was more greenery and farmland. At about 9am the train stopped in the town of Katherine for a few hours, for the all-inclusive passengers to do a cruise along the gorge, and I took the opportunity to go for short walk along the gorge and through the bush. It was a nice surprise excursion, a very welcome leg-stretch, and a lovely first experience of the Top End.

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Katherine Gorge

Returning to the train for the last few hours of the journey, I went to get a cup of tea from the café car and got chatting to the Train Manager, Wayne. Once the return to journey to Adelaide was complete, he would be going on a solo road trip to visit his daughter in Mount Isa, in outback Queensland, before carrying on to the north Queensland coast. I told him about my plan to drive a campervan from Darwin to Broome, and not only did he give me my tea for free, as a ‘fellow traveller’, he was also one of the first people I’d talked to who didn’t react like I was doing something scary and dangerous. “It’s a great thing, to drive around the country. Good on ya, mate”.

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Alice Springs Station Platform