Last night was the coldest night we have experienced so far on this trip. At 7.30am Bertha’s thermometer showed -1 degree (yes, negative one degree). We’re sure that it was colder than that earlier on. We figure that being in a low lying river flat the cold just settles in. The power went off at about 8.30 am so the diesel heater was turned on immediately – that’s one investment we definitely don’t regret!
There was another glorious clear blue sky and by 9.00am the thermometer was showing 5 degrees – a little more pleasant but unfortunately we haven’t packed clothes for the snow on this trip.
After packing up we headed back down the Ross Highway through the spectacular scenery of the East MacDonald Ranges. Our first stop for coffee was at Emily Gap (how could we not given that we have a grand-daughter Emily). This is a beautiful, peaceful place with a walk along a dry riverbed amongst amazing rock structures. In places it almost looks as though you are walking through walls made from stone blocks. A feature of Emily Gap are some aboriginal rock paintings relating to 3 caterpillars.
From Emily Gap we continued our journey into Alice Springs. After a quick stop at the showgrounds public dump point we continued on to IGA for more supplies. We tried calling the Tourist Information Centre to see if there was somewhere we could top up the fresh water tank but couldn’t get through, so we soldiered on!
For lunch we stopped at the Old Telegraph Station carpark. From there we were back on the Stuart Highway for nearly 80 kms. At one stage we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn.
Eventually we turned east down the Plenty Highway for another 77 kms to Gemtree Caravan and Tourist Park. Ann had actually made a booking from Alice Springs while we had mobile reception. The Plenty Highway actually goes through to another 745 km to Boulia in Queensland, but Gemtree was far enough for us.
The last 70 kms or so are single lane which keeps the driver on their toes to say the least. You never know what’s coming around the corner or over the hill when you will have to move off the road! We met several trucks and SUVs and all but the largest truck moved to the side of the road so we could pass comfortably. The big fellow wasn’t moving for anyone, especially not a motorhome, so we were fortunate to find a wide strip of roadside where we could stop while he passed us.
Gemtree Caravan and Tourist Park is a 250 acre family run tourism business run by Aaron and Kate McMaster, and they do it extremely well!
The brochure describes it as “Genuine Outback Hospitality”, and it really is. Gemtree is a very spacious campground/outback experience. We were shown to our site by a chap on a quadbike. We have power, and although the water is artesian, it is drinkable so we hooked up. There is a handy mulga tree which the grey water hose is watering. We even have a fire pit if we want to light a fire.
This place is a mixture of on and off-road caravans and campers, with only one motorhome (Bertha) and we think only one campervan. There are some very serious off-road rigs here – many are happy to have an un-powered site, have their solar panels out, and have a campfire going most of the day.
There are plenty of things to do here at Gemtree with the main attraction being gem-stones. They offer long half-day (ie 8.30am to about 2.00pm) guided tag-along fossicking tours – garnet on one day and zircon on another, or you can buy a bag of rocks and wash and sort them in more comfort at the caravan park. They will sort and classify any treasures that you find as part of the deal.
Kate and Aaron’s sons Mac and Tom are third generation students with Alice Springs School of the Air. Schoolroom tours can be arranged and you can even leave your own kids there for a couple of hours! There are 5 students at Gemtree and with Kate being a teacher it doesn’t look as though they miss out on much by being remote. Technology has changed a lot in 3 generations and schooling is now all internet driven.
Twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturday, they have a camp-oven dinner by the billabong (which is (currently totally dry). Fortunately Ann booked dinner for us from Alice Springs which was just as well as there were no vacancies by the time we actually arrived. ‘Kate’s Campoven Kitchen’ won the 2010 New Tourism Innovation Award for Central Australia, and it is amazing what they do and how they do it. They have won a variety of other tourism awards since.
A tour of the Campoven kitchen is included as part of the ‘5 million star dinner’. They can actually feed up to 300 people from this kitchen! Dinner under the stars with kerosene lanterns on the tables was absolutely delicious, and we made some new friends. For dinner we had roast beef, roast potatoes (cooked in repurposed beer kegs), roast pumpkin, roast onion, broccoli and cheese sauce, cauliflower and cheese sauce and a secret recipe gravy. The serving sizes were generous! There was also the Billabong Bar, which definitely wasn’t dry, with a variety of beverages available to have with your meal.
After dinner Kate showed and helped narrate a 1963 movie which featured her great-grandfather and her uncle Charlie Chalmers as an 8 year old. It was actually a promotional film for the first boarding school in Alice Springs and Charlie was the first student. Until this school (St Phillips) existed remote students had to do their senior schooling in Adelaide, at great expense and inconvenience. Kate was able to add extra details to the film and explain more about the 5 generations of the Chalmers family and their association with the area (Kate was Kate Chalmers before she married Aaron). A pleasant end to a great evening. Although it was only about 8.30pm it was starting to become cold so everyone hurried back to their accommodation to warm up and settle in for the evening.
On Friday nights Gemtree offer Baked Potato dinners with paddy melon bowls, and on Sunday they offer Karaoke and fish and chips. If you can’t be bothered with that they also offer take-away meals delivered to your site. Not bad service for such a remote place!
No TV, mobile or internet here, but we’re still living the dream!