Our RTW ticket included a wonderful flight over the outback from Cairns to Alice Springs. The landscape was how you may, and we certainly, imagined Australia to be, red dusty and dry as a bone. Awesome mountain ranges rose out of the endless flat plains of the outback with the occasional line of trees denoting where an underground river flows.
We arrived in Alice on a downer, discovering my continued affliction of loosing/mislaying/theft of my wallet had followed my to the other side of the world. Sadly it had been nicked at Cairns domestic airport lounge, which included ALL my cards; bank, credit, driving, YHA and even the global gossip card too. You name it and it was gone. To make things worse we did not have the telephone number for Sentinel 24hr international cancellation service and so had to wake Arabella in the middle of the night to cancel them all. Thankfully no one has tried to use any of them and I imagine it was dumped, fleeced of the small amount of cash before we left the lounge!
Having missed our free ride to the hostel quite unexpectedly we secured a lift in a private hire taxi to Annie’s Place. Our driver preached of his friend the talented Aboriginal opera singer which made for an entirely bizarre journey. Annie’s Place is a great hostel inclusive of towels, something that has become a priced luxury since living out of a backpack and keeping a towel dry is a constant challenge these days. Alice, as it is affectionately known, was a strangely deserted place on the afternoon we arrived. We saw few people and even less Aborigines. The sandy river basin, where some of the Aborigines live, was dry, wide and littered with large trees. Wandering down the main street the cinema was screening ‘The Dark Knight’ which made James intensely happy, so we caught an early supper (avoiding the Kangaroo, Camel and Emu on the menu) and watched Keith Ledger enthrall us with his final performance. Despite my dislike of ‘dark’ movies and a childhood fear of clowns/jokers, since watching IT at too young an age, this was a masterpiece of acting prowess and very entertaining. I both stayed awake throughout and didn’t close my eyes more than once!
Up before dawn along with the entirety of the hostel for our three day outback adventure tour with Wayward Bus (now Adventure Tours). Around town we went collecting our comrades and the shoe left behind on the pavement by our Italian contingent. Blowing up my neck pillow and strapping on my eye mask I drifted quickly back to sleep as we journeyed into the outback and towards Kings Canyon.
Our tour bus comprised of a mixture of German, Polish, Italian, English and Japanese and the two Ozzie guides. By mid-morning we were finally compos mentis and by way of an ice-breaker an introduction of ourselves to the rest of the bus was requested by our hosts. We each in turn took too the mike and wrote our names and nationality on our window for familiarities sake. Swiftly the cultural and language barriers were bridged. Ben proved to be a character with no fear of embarrassment and a love of the lime light and who gave us all an education in popularity… Tongues wagged between us about a German girl who appeared a little familiar with our senior guide. Brett, our guide, was a newbie and so we had Spud to supervise the trip. Brett did a great job despite his nerves.
Stop-offs were regular, but sadly just the same as the road side cafes on the east coast with bad food and worse coffee/tea. Some roadside cafes kept wildlife, but personally this was not much fun for us or the animals involved.
With walking boots, a wide brimmed hat, 1.5 litres of water and factor 40 on all our exposed pink parts we ventured up the steep face of the red rock. The view from the top was spectacular. A mountain range that just appears out of the endless flat expanse of the outback, making trees look like bushes by its magnificence. Kings Canyon used to be underwater evidenced by the seashells and ripples made by the ebb and flow of water in sand fossilised in the rock. Amongst the undulations of the mountains and canyons was the Garden of Eden. This is a small water filled valley, reflecting like a mirror the rich angular red rock and the deep blue hue of the cloudless sky, which contrasted beautifully.
As evening fell we drove to our campsite deep in the bush. As time-honoured tradition would have it supper was prepared by the girls and the fire stoked by the boys as even on the other side of the planet some things never change. The stew was cooked in cauldrons around the campfire as we sat around on benches in eager anticipation that it would soon be ready. Another girl and I attempted to make smores with only marshmallows and chocolate, but they were still yummy. Our group was mainly single men and the one next door mainly single women, but the cold night prevented any cross pollination! Weirdly ‘happy birthday’ was being sung repetitively in the distance as Ben entertained us all.
Sleeping options were minimal, swag or hut, take you pick. Brett persuaded us that swags are indeed warmer in the cold outback nights. James needed more convincing to sleep outside with his fear of spiders and wariness of snakes, but as luck would have it these creatures hibernate in winter: happy days! Swags are army green canvas bags that encases your extremely thick sleeping bag and includes a flap to cover your head too. They aren’t the most inviting of sleeping arrangements but I was happy to be able to sleep under the crystal illumination of the beautiful southern constellations and Milky Way. Quickly the dubious head flap found its way closely covering my head to retain even a modicum more of my heat.
James woke to find a dingo stealing my remaining marshmallows! Braving the cold of the morning the hot showers were extremely welcome and the breakfast even more so.
Kata Tjuta (The Olgas)
Made from the same rock as Kings Canyon and also red through the oxidisation of its iron content Kata Tjuta is a completely different formation. The rocks are much more rounded than at Kings Canyon. This walk was equally beautiful as we learnt more of the history and flora of this place. In dramatic fashion as our walk finish so did my zoom lens. Effectively the automatic zoom stopped working and had to be manipulated manually. This was a moment of intense distress for me as we boarded the bus for sunset at Uluru. Seeing Uluru has been a life ambition for me since my childhood geography classes. Why, why, why had this happen now? Perhaps the Aborigines were protecting the sacred nature of their iconic rock. Whatever the reason it brought tears to my eyes.
Uluru (Ayres Rock)
With Aboriginal music playing we drove towards Uluru as the sun slowly lowered in the desert sky. Impressive is an understatement. Transfixed as we came closer, it is as I had always imagined. I was at once immersed in a deep connection with the cultural significance of this place. Trudging through the deep sand with champagne laden igloo (ice box) we found a spot away from the thronging spectators. Ignoring the plastic vessels which contained our champagne we toasted this personally unique occasion as I tried to remain calm as our tour members jumped the fence to have their precious photo taken. Struggling with my broken lens I found it hard to both capture this wonderful photographic opportunity whilst experiencing this moment romantically with J. It was a little haphazard, but we managed to do both. The changing colour of Uluru is unbelievably rich and mesmerising at dusk. Having done the Aboriginal walk in the Blue Mountains this gave us a greater understanding and respect of this ancient and primitive culture than those in our tour group chose not to respect. Darkness falls quickly here and like a blanket it blinds you. Reflecting on our experience we wish we had driven there independently, but none the less this was amazing. Back at camp we made supper, enjoyed a few beers and some campfire banter before opting for a (hopefully warmer) hut for some privacy. The was indeed the warmer option, Brett!
Before dawn we were up and ready to see the sun rise again on Uluru whilst completing the base walk. You can climb Uluru, but we were urged not to in respect of the Aboriginal culture that surrounds this sacred place. Sadly the German contingent opted for the climb too the distaste of the rest most of the group. We personally hope this will soon be banned.
My experience of capturing Uluru at dawn was not as I had imagined. We arrived only a short time before the sun bathed the rock in light and much of the beginning of the base walk was protected as photography was prohibited. So we ran from vista to vista seeking the optimum spot to record this spectacular moment. Without a tripod and with a zoom lens sounding like an extremely expensive rattle, I was glad of my wide-angled lens and am under the circumstances, pleased with the results. We were of course blessed with a beautiful sunrise and blue sky which set the scene perfectly.
The base walk is amazing giving you a real understanding of the size, shaped, structure and spirituality of this place. Uluru itself is stunning. Made of beautifully shaped molten lava flows and like an iceberg most is hidden underground. In winter Uluru is warm and inviting when bathed in sunlight, but cold in its shadows. Aboriginal stories of the Rainbow serpent, ceremonial traditions, man’s and woman’s business and education are illustrated along the way.
Brett and Spud then enlightened us about some of the history and culture surrounding Uluru. Most Aboriginal stories told to ‘White Folk’ are simplifications of their beliefs and thus come across as childish. In fact many of their stories are like fables invented for children to keep them out of harms way. Aboriginal drawings were used to educate their children. Young men were made to stand alone, without speaking for days as a test of their maturity, before their walkabout begins.
We learnt of man’s business and woman’s business of which I will not write/speak out of respect to the Aborigines.
The Aboriginal culture centre brought all this together in a simple clear exhibition, though the film fell short in its attempt to communicate what an Aboriginal life constitutes. My understanding is; a woman’s role was to bear and nurture children, protect the men from snakes, collect bush tucker and educate the girls and a man’s role was to protect their skin colour, hunt and make men out of boys. The communities also had various leaders; administrators, medicine men etc. They are a nomadic culture, though this seems to have been all but lost in recent times.
Sadly we had limited time here before our long trip back to Alice in the heat of the winter sun.