Flying Docs




In Alice Springs and Katherine, David Whitley discovers how people living in the remotest parts of Australia remain attached to the rest of the world.


The real Outback?

On my journey through Australia, I have been travelling across what I deem the Outback. In reality, I’ve been sticking to the main highways with the odd diversion up a short gravel track. It’s still more than many Australians will cover in their lifetime, but I’d be deluded if I tried to convince myself that I was really living the Outback life. For a reality check, a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service Visitor Centre in Alice Springs is in order. The RDFS is a truly remarkable organisation, and one that literally keeps the people of the Outback alive.


Flying Doctors

For some people living in remote Aboriginal settlements, cattle stations and roadhouses, the journey to the nearest hospital with adequate facilities can be measured in days rather than hours or minutes. The Flying Doctors provide an essential lifeline, and run regular emergency missions to dirt airstrips in the middle of nowhere which are being lit up with car headlights. That’s the showy part of proceedings, but the more mundane day-to-day tasks are equally as vital as the nick-of-time airlifts. The Flying Doctors also distribute medicine chests to key spots such as police stations, pubs and homesteads. The drugs inside are labelled with numbers so that people have to phone for diagnosis rather than self-prescribe, while body charts are divided into segments so that the ill/ injured party can explain what hurts and where. The Flying Doctors also run regular preventative healthcare clinics amongst the Aboriginal communities on their patch – and for the Alice Springs base, 90% of the 30,000 people in the area it covers are Aboriginal.


RDFS base visit – Alice Springs

A visit to the base is utterly engrossing. Come on a weekday and you can watch the controllers in action, while comparing modern equipment and resources to those the RDFS had in the past is an eye-opener. The 1958 medical cabinet has a nice bit of cocaine in it, while the pedal radios used to keep the line open to the doctors up to 600km/h away would have been of limited use if you’d just broken your leg.


World’s biggest classroom. 

Another insight into Outback life comes a lazy 1,000km or so up the road in Katherine. The School of the Air here boasts that it is the world’s biggest classroom. And given that its catchment area is three times the size of the UK, this is probably a fair call. Yes, that was three times the size of the entire United Kingdom. When we show up, there are precisely zero children in the building, but the teacher is plugging on regardless. With pupils living up to 1,100km away from Katherine (and even further for those based overseas in the likes of Kazakhstan and East Timor with their miner/ charity worker parents), turning up every day just isn’t practical.


Schooling by satellite

So instead, children living in Australia’s most remote spots are home-tutored (usually by their mother) and have proper school lessons conducted via satellite. The set up is remarkable – the teacher sits in what looks like a radio studio, using cameras to point to what she’s talking about.The kids, meanwhile, interact by satellite phone and a little chat frame in the bottom of the screen. It’s a high-tech set-up and, by and large, it works. That said, choir practice can be a little interesting with the phone lag... Up until 2006, this was all done by (rather crackly) radio. But now the kids can see the teachers during lessons. It’s a huge leap forward, and watching the system work brings a tear to the eye. It’s a privilege to come across children that cherish their school lessons and the interaction they bring to their lives. It’s also yet another amazing achievement in taming some of the harshest, most isolated country on earth.


More photos here






You can count the miles down the Stuart Highway from Alice to Urldunda in dead kangaroos. There’s not a helluva lot else to look at though and my eyes began to glaze over somewhere after the thirtieth ‘roo road-kill. These road-kills have had a horrifying effect on Australia’s biggest bird of pray. The wedge-tailed eagle, with its eight-foot wingspan, is irresistibly attracted to this transcontinental smorgasbord and, having no natural predators, it is quite ready to do battle with any vehicle that has the audacity to try to scare it off its meal. Trackside roadhouses are full of yarns about drivers who were terrified to see a half-dead wedgie coming through the windscreen at him. “He was all torn and bleeding and spitting feathers when he turned up here,” they tell you. “Funniest bloody thing you ever saw!”


Outbackers have a wry sense of humour. They continue to see themselves as pioneering characters and in a sense they still are. This is the forbidden land that the first settlers knew by such mysterious names as Beyond the Black Stump, The Never Never or simply the Red Centre. The Northern Territory is ‘the real Outback.’ Southern roadtrains are not considered worthy of the name here in the Top End where they have five trailers, stretch to over fifty metres and are capable of sucking the windscreen-wipers off your car as they pass.

Even ‘roos wouldn’t be seen dead on the Lasseter Highway from Urldunda to Uluru. This is the real desert and feral camels are more likely here. There are said to be as many as half a million wild camels in Australia and they are of such pure and hardy breed that some have been sold to Saudi Arabia for racing stock. Territorians in general seem to be delighted at this proof that they also even have the world’s toughest camels. (Although they never got around to feeling that way about the rabbits).

This is dingo country too and even in the resort around The Rock you will often see semi-tame dingoes searching through the bins. The trouble is that the dingoes have mated with dogs from the Aboriginal camps and they are not as shy as they used to be. In some camps the Aboriginals live in fear of what one little girl described to me as ‘cheeky dogs.’ She said she was frightened to go outside after dark because of the dogs. But these dogs are cheeky in a way that only Outback animals can be cheeky: there have been reports recently of people who were actually killed and eaten by ‘cheeky dogs.’

Up here termite mounds grow to cathedral-like proportions and ‘dunny budgies’ (flies) are so thick you get tennis elbow shooing them off. Legend has it that at times the flies can carry small children away. Territorians are immensely proud of their fearsome wildlife and will warn you that the snakes here are so smart that if you drive over them they’ll wrap themselves around your differential so that they can follow you into your house.

Even a relatively short roadtrip from Alice to Uluru, just 5 hours each way (a mere jaunt in the scale of the Outback), shouldn’t be undertaken without proper preparation and a reliable vehicle. This simple journey to The Rock once took me three days when I was stranded by torrential rains and trapped in the little settlement of Curtin Springs. The population of five swelled overnight to almost fifty and some people were attacked by a herd of feral camels that were driven crazy by the excess of water.

Even a relatively short roadtrip into the Outback remains an adventure. The camels and the cheeky dogs might not get you but there are countless terrible things that could happen to you on these remote highways.…and whatever it might be there will always be an Outback ‘character’ who will see the funny side to it.



Hunter Valley



David Whitley returns to Australia’s Hunter Valley wine region and shamelessly plumps for exactly what he did three years ago.


As a general rule, travel is about the thrill of the new. Exploring new horizons, sampling new experiences and making discoveries is generally where the thrill comes from. But sometimes a bit of what’s familiar can be just as rewarding.

One of my favourite places in the world is a small (but very stylish) bed and breakfast in the middle of Australia’s Hunter Valley. The Hunter Valley Cooperage ( sits right in amongst the vines, and I’ve found few greater pleasures than tucking into Gay and Warren’s top grade breakfasts as the morning sun bathes the vineyard in that fresh, happy light of a new Australian day.

We first stayed there in 2008, and fell in love with ‘The Retreat’ – something of a wooden upstairs barn decked out with random shells and owls as well as all the mod cons. Returning to the Hunter Valley this time, we possibly should have experimented by staying elsewhere, but frankly we didn’t want to. In fact, we did pretty much exactly what we did three years ago. And if that’s not cool, then so be it – cool’s overrated. 


You can’t go to the Hunter without tasting lots of wine (or rather, you can, but you really are missing the point tremendously). It’s Australia’s oldest remaining wine region (not the first – the first Aussie vineyards were in Parramatta, Western Sydney), and there’s a wonderfully unsnobby attitude at the cellar doors. Again, we could have done things differently, but elected to head out with Peter Kane from Aussie Wine Tours ( Most wine tours in the Hunter involve being trailed around the usual suspect big wineries in a tour bus on a pre-ordained route. Pete specialises in taking couples and private small groups around, however, and he picks the wineries according to the tastes of his passengers.


It’s a brilliant way of doing it – he asks about what sort of wines you like, what sort of wineries you fancy visiting and generally what floats your boat. He then plots out the itinerary as he goes along, accommodating awkward requests to taste viogniers, zinfandels and grapes that only really exist in Narnia.He really knows his stuff, and while we’re tasting he’s clearly working – chatting to the staff and winemakers, keeping his finger on the pulse of what’s happening where. It’s an impressive display of schmoozemanship.


The other massive bonus to going on a small private tour is that you can get into the wineries that won’t allow the big tour buses in. And, frankly, I wouldn’t have found Piggs Peake otherwise. Winemaker Steve Langham clearly doesn’t go in too much for etiquette; he doesn’t enter wine shows or pay fees to be listed in wine guides. He just makes extraordinarily good wines (with a little help from Junior the Alsatian) and people come to him. 


There’s no stinginess with the samples either – we end up ploughing through 11 or 12 different glasses, of which at least seven are a level above anything else we have tasted or will taste all day. If it wasn’t for customs allowances, we’d have wandered out with case after case. Better still, we were invited back behind the cellar door to have a look at the grapes fermenting in giant vats. Don’t tell health and safety, but we were allowed to dip our fingers in and taste the juice. If it never gets made into wine, they could still make a fortune by selling the juice as a soft drink.


By the time we’re dropped back at the Cooperage, we’ve got deliriously happy smiles on our faces. We’ve done what we know, repeated a winning formula from three years ago yet still managed to make a fabulous new discovery. It doesn’t get much better than that...



Eat Streets, Art Streets: Adelaide Food and Art Tour



Huge, colourful images of geishas line a brick wall off Adelaide’s Rundle Street, and they’re far more glamorous than the alley they overlook.

A fine example of the street art to be found scattered through the city’s Central Business District (CBD), they’re attached to the wall of a nightclub called Sugar.

Which seems appropriate, as the next stop on the Adelaide Feast tour is a chocolate shop. Or more elegantly, a chocolatier. Steven ter Horst is several cuts above the average sweets shop, turning out handcrafted chocolates in a stark modern interior of exposed concrete and timber benches.

I try two chocs with intriguing fillings: salted caramel; and lemon, ginger and tamarind. They’re accompanied by the Aztec Chilli hot chocolate, which contains traces of birdseye and jalapeno chillies, cloves, cinnamon and star anise.

And this is just one stop on the tour, which unusually takes in both food and street art, the latter creating breaks during which to digest the plentiful snacks.

We began with kibbeh and falafel at a small Lebanese eatery on East Terrace, then paused to admire a bright green painting of a boy and a dog on a nearby door.

Then we headed through the narrow laneways that were created when Adelaide’s original fruit and vegetable market was decommissioned. In its place is a jumble of apartments, shops and cafes, many along the attractive lane known as Ebenezer Place. It’s here we pass a sculpture of cauliflowers and crates, a reminder of the market era.

My guide today, Caitlin Harvey, is knowledgeable about the streets we’re passing along, pointing out art and relating some of the South Australian capital’s more entertaining history.



She’s also a conjuror of foodstuffs, as we weave down laneways and side streets in pursuit of interesting edibles. Next on the list is the frozen custard served by a burger joint which evolved from a food truck. It’s delicious on this hot day, but I’m already starting to feel full and we’ve three more stops.

We pass a huge swirling mural on the side of another nightclub (this seems to be an Adelaide thing), then stroll through the beautiful Adelaide Arcade. Built in 1885, it has three resident ghosts, according to Caitlin, who relates their stories as we pass through. I’m most moved by poor Sydney Byron, aged three, who haunts an adjacent laneway.

Our next food stop is Regent Arcade, where we find the sushi train of Michiru. It’s tasty colourful food that also provides theatre, as the staff bustle behind the counter to keep the train loaded.

I clearly made a mistake eating breakfast today, for there are two stops still to go. Next is an informal modern Vietnamese place decorated with bicycle wheels. People are crammed along narrow tables here, eating banh mi, steam buns and pho. I opt for a “coconut crushie” drink instead.

The last piece of street art is a dynamic mural by the Toy Soldiers crew, featuring futuristic warriors bursting through a brick wall.

They’re far more energetic than me. I’m happy to slip into a comfy chair at the final food stop, a cupcake cafe in the attractive neo-Gothic Epworth Building.

Eating a pumpkin and spice mini-cupcake, I feel satisfied with the results of this three-hour exploration. Adelaide has surrendered its secrets: both artistic and culinary.

You can get Adelaide included as a stopover on a Navigator round the world or on our Discoverer round the world



Tour: The Adelaide Feast tour costs A$25 (tour only) or A$69 (food included); book via Feast on Foot at (

Accommodation: Housed within Adelaide’s historic, centrally-located Grosvenor Hotel are the Mercure and the Ibis Styles

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Great Southern Rail and Accor.



Alt Uluru



David Whitley’s travelling partner was sceptical about the merits of Australia’s famous big red rock. And then she walked around it...

“Well, it’s just a big rock, isn’t it?” Katrina, it is fair to say, was excited about our drive-through-the-Outback adventure, but didn’t quite get why Uluru was so special. OK, we pretty much had to go there if we were heading through central Australia, but paying to stay at the severely overpriced resort and taking a six hour round trip out of the way was of debatable merit. I knew differently. I’ve been to the artist formerly known as Ayers Rock before. And I know what those who fly in, take a picture or two and fly out are missing out on.

Everyone has seen the postcard shots of Uluru. Many realise that it changes colour depending on the light, and many know that sunsets and sunrises featuring the big red rock can be pretty spectacular. But that’s just one of the rock’s faces you’re seeing. Walk around it, and you see many, many more – each one thoroughly striking. Black streaks formed by water courses over the millennia stripe the sides, chasms have been carved out and caves have been gouged into the almost 90 degree cliff faces.

Some parts appear as a heavily pockmarked face, an acne-ridden teenager that makes Stephen Hendry look like a Clearasil model. Holes remind of damaged plaster that has been attacked with a sledgehammer. The kinks, bulges and hollows form a vastly different shape at every turn. From one angle, Uluru looks like a dome; from others it looks like a series of corrugated ridges or the break-outs of a jelly mould.

Some parts are weathered to the point of appearing scabby; others seem firm, smooth and mighty. Formations and features set the imagination running wild – you start seeing whale’s tails or the heads of ET, Darth Vader and a disgruntled/ constipated man.

The contrast with the plain Uluru rises from is dramatic too. Although this is the desert, vegetation does pretty well out here. The branches of spindly white-trunked trees add a touch of menace, like snakes lashing out wildly from a Gorgon’s head. Salt bush covers the least fertile soil, while more impressive beasts clamber higher where they can. The red dirt is sprouting an oasis of green, but the rock itself is starkly barren except for a couple of hardy pioneers trying to grow in narrow cracks where rainwater occasionally flows.

Aside from occasionally debating whether a formation looks like a snake’s head or a fish, we walked around for just under six miles in an entranced silence. To the local Anangu people, Uluru is a sacred spot. Others bleat on about its spirituality. I’m an old cynic who doesn’t buy into that sort of nonsense, but it has a certain magic about it that cannot be described in words or pictures.  It’s far more than just a big rock, and once you’ve walked round it, you’ll understand why.

As my sceptical compadre neatly put it, “Wow, I’ve fallen under its spell.”

Disclosure: David was a guest of the Ayers Rock Resort