The drive from Uluru to Melbourne was huge – about 2400km all told – so I did it in three stages, with breaks at Coober Pedy and Adelaide. The landscape between Uluru and Coober Pedy is flat and desolate desert scrub, but on approaching Coober Pedy the road is surrounded by hundreds of mounds of earth, varying from a few feet high to the size of a caravan. Coober Pedy is home to serious numbers of opal mines, and the mounds are the dirt from the vertical shafts built in the search for gems; the miners don't fill the holes in because when you're following a seam of opal rich dirt and you dig underneath a filled-in hole, the loose earth will collapse down on top of you. It's a sensible reason, but it makes Coober Pedy look like it's home to a colony of huge desert moles.
The town itself is pretty apocalyptic, which is probably why a lot of Mad Max 3 was filmed here, back in the days when Mel Gibson still pretended to be Australian. The summer heat is so searing and the winter nights are so cold that a large number of houses and hotels are underground, where the temperature is comfortably stable; it's a novel sight and a good excuse for a local tourist industry (along with the opal mines, of course), but overall Coober Pedy is a pretty rugged place, and I didn't waste a great deal of time exploring. I simply booked into a caravan park, pitched, cooked, and settled in with a book. I got talking to this middle-aged guy who was driving his motorbike round the eastern route, and who should hear my voice and wander over but Dennis and Marion (of King's Canyon push-starting fame), who happened to be staying in the same park. It was yet another coincidence in the small world of the Red Centre.
The following day I drove from Coober Pedy to Two Wells, the little town that's north of Adelaide and home to Dave and Karen. The drive was desert until Port Augusta, and then the most amazing thing happened: greenery. I'd forgotten what green fields and forests looked like, not having seen any since Perth, and it quite spun me out as I drove past Mt Remarkable (something I'd missed on the way up as I'd gone via the Flinders Ranges before). There were loads of cows and sheep, all kept off the road by fences, each looking well-fed and healthy; I just wasn't used to this environment at all. Luckily Dave and Karen had the antidote in the form of a slab of ice-cold beer, and it didn't take long for everything to start making sense, of a sort.
On Saturday we went for a drive round the Barossa, with Karen very kindly driving while Dave and I ploughed our way through an Esky of beers. I still hadn't got used to greenery, let alone beer (between Darwin and Adelaide I'd had just one stubby), and the whole experience was beautiful. The Barossa is a stunning area, but after months of desert and stark landscapes, it's even more wonderful; more than once I found myself wondering whether I was back in England, which goes to show that either I'm beginning to forget what England really looks like, or West End Bitter is powerful stuff.
Sunday turned out to be a struggle, not surprisingly; the drive to Adelaide and then on to Melbourne is a long one, and it's even longer with a hangover. It passed without incident, however, and it was pleasant to be driving down Adelaide streets that I'd walked around some five-and-a-half months before; the nostalgia really kicked in as I got lost in the middle of South Australia's capital city. The same would have happened with Melbourne, except when I arrived it was dark, the traffic was a huge shock after months of not even seeing a traffic light, and – surprise, surprise – it was raining. Good old Andy; he'd stocked the fridge with a selection of international bottled beers, and we made a brave attempt to drink 'em all while catching up on all the gossip. It was quite a homecoming...