camping in the blooming outback.
10.03.2011 - 14.03.2011 33 °C
Wednesday, March 9
After a hurried morning of grabbing coffee and finding transport to the train depot in the pouring rain, I boarded The Ghan for my 24 hour excursion to... Alice Springs! I was soaking wet and pretty grumpy as I settled myself in my seat (which would also serve as my bed that night), and I almost didn't notice the 20-something guy that sat down next to me and started up a conversation about my Australian travels. I detected from his accent that he was probably German, and I was right: he hailed from Munich. What is it about Germans and Aussie train travel?!
As with many Germans I've met throughout Australia, the guy, Patrik, was spending a year working and traveling around the country (he'd actually spent 4 months doing onstruction work in Leichhardt - small world much?) and we had a grand old time discussing our love of Sydney and our disappointment of Darwin (he'd been so disappointed, in fact, that he'd spent the rest of his Top End trip in Bali.)
After only a few hours on the train, we pulled into Katherine for a break - a FIVE HOUR break - so that the Gold and Platinum class passengers could disembark and enjoy a cruise through the gorge. Having already enjoyed a boat ride, I spent the hours in a pub with Patrik and another girl from Munich (whose name escapes me), then over at a cafe where we met Melissa, a sweet English girl from Sussex. We grabbed dinner from a nearby grocery store before heading back to the train for a couple hours of Uno, during which we picked up another friend, Alcide from southern France. Unfortunately, I didn't do so well at defendig my nearly undefeated Uno record.
After a restless night's sleep curled into a tight ball across two seats (our car was pretty empty), I looked eagerly out the window to see the sun rising over... an unchanged landscape. Where was the red dirt?? Everywhere I looked, I saw the same trees, shrubs and thick grasses we'd passed through the day before. Turns out Australia's center has also seen quite a lot of rain this year.
Checking into the YHA, I met up with Alcide (who was also staying there) to check out downtown Alice. The atmosphere of the town is a bit strange: it's not exactly a "destination" tourist town in itself; rather, it's the stop off point for travelers looking to check out Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon, so most folks fly into Alice a day before their 3-day excursion, then fly out the day after their tour ends. Since it was pouring rain, it wasn't too happening on the main street. However, I found plenty to do:
- Alcide and I enjoyed a free didgeridoo lesson from Andrew Langford, a well-known musician who has toured all over the world (including a stop in Muir Woods!) and runs a didgeridoo shop. Alcide was a natural and managed to produce some actual notes from his instrument, while I tried to cover up the fact that I was basically spitting through a tube of wood. (When we returned later for the group lesson, I did much better. Will have to work on the "circle breathing" technique a bit more.)
- Checked out the Royal Flying Doctor's Service, which has helped people living in Australia's most rural areas receive medical care since 1928. It's pretty incredible - Alice Springs' service, which includes six doctors and nine nurses, covers a 600 km radius. That's roughly the size of Great Britain. According to our tour guide, they respond to an average of six calls per day anywhere in that radius (that day, by 4 p.m., there had only been one call.)
My bedtime was early that night, as my Uluru tour bus was due to pick me up at 5:55 the next morning. Yikes!
Friday, March 11
Right on schedule, my second Intrepid tour truck arrived to take me to Uluru - a 450 km drive away. This tour group was bigger than my last with 13 passengers (younger too, but still significantly older than me), plus two guides-in-training who were about my age. At the (thankful)request of a fellow passenger, our driver, Gavin, obliged to stop for a fresh brewed coffee before taking us to a camel farm for optional rides. As we pulled into the farm, Gavin de-sold the camel rides well: for $6, we could enjoy a 5-minute ride around an oval-shaped paddock. I'd been keen to try riding a camel on this trip, but when we arrive at the camel farm, I could see what Gavin meant: the paddock was pathetic, and the camels actually looked upset about being tied up with saddles on their humps. Taking a look around, I could feel myself further resenting this place as my eyes rested on the dingo tied up next to a pet dog (dingoes are wild dogs and not normally kept as pets) and the red desert kangaroos hopping helplessly around a fenced enclosure. The place was like an animal prison, and I was happy when we left after just a few minutes. I'd have to find another opportunity to ride a camel elsewhere.
Hopping in the front seat, I chatted with Gavin about hiking around America (a native New Zealander, the guy has hiked, biked and run around California and the southwest) as we drove past Mt. Connor (from a distance, this looks A LOT like Uluru) towards our campsite for lunch. Our camp was in Yulara, a tiny town built specifically to service tourists heading to Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
Finally, FINALLY, we packed into the truck and made our way to the cultural center at the base of Uluru to further understand how the Anangu people, the Aboriginal tribe who originally settled in Yulara, have survived the intense heat and ridiculous number of flies who populate the area (best purchase on the trip = a fly net that covered my face.) Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a place of great significance to the Anangu people and their cultural traditions, which is why they urge people to not take any piece of the rocks from the park - or to climb Uluru. Gavin shared with me a fascinating piece of history:
The Australian Government took over the land and made it a national park, but when they gave the land back to the Anangu people in 1995, they did so with a 99-year lease that would allow the government to turn one of the sites into a bigger tourist attraction (a.k.a, let people climb it.) Ceremonies take place at both sites, but since Kata Tjuta holds a bit more significance to the culture, the Anangu people allowed the installation of climbing cables on Uluru. There are signs everywhere urging people not to climb Uluru out of respect for the land and their traditions, as well as in the interest of their safety (Uluru is quite steep and it's pretty windy at the top), but thousands of tourists still do it every year.
Having learned how disrespectful it was to climb Uluru in my Aboriginal culture classes at UTS, I'd made a promise to myself that, when I finally got to Uluru, I would not climb it - and I wrote my promise in the visitor center's guest book. If this hadn't been enough to convince me to respect this cultural site, fear would have done the trick: the center has a binded collection of letters from a world of travellers who have visited Uluru, taken a piece of the rock home with them, and then sent it back to the visitor center years later with a letter of apology and a request to please replace the bit of rock because they'd been suffering terrible bouts of bad luck since they'd left. Some of the letters were quite comical, but others talked about relatives who had suffered illnesses or died soon after the travellers' arrival home. It was heavy stuff.
The walk around Uluru's base (which is more than 9 km around, so we didn't do the whole thing) was hot, but it was beautiful. The contrast between the rock's reddish orange color (which is from all the iron ore in the dirt; ordinarily, the rock would be black) and the dazzling blue of the sky was breathtaking, and I must have paused every 10 feet to take a photo of the rock from every possible angle.
It was too windy to climb to the top, so we trouped over to the truck (Gavin had kindly driven to pick us up, saving us from a heated walk back) to go watch the sunset over the rock (they have specific parking lots for sunrise and sunset viewers.) We arrived to find several other tour groups who were doing the same thing, all standing in front of tables laden with chips, crackers and cheese, fruit and bottles of champagne. Lovely.
Saturday, March 12
Today was another 5 a.m. wake-up call so we could eat a quick breakfast before driving over to Kata Tjuta, where we would embark on a challenging 3-hour hike through the 34 massive boulders that make up the park. I know I'm not selling it well, but this was my favorite day because unlike our walk around Uluru, this hike allowed us to walk through The Olgas, appreciating every individual rock and all the plant life that lived amongst it. I found myself astounded all over again at how green everything was, as I'd been expecting a barren landscape similar to Arizona's.
That night, we drove to Kings Creek Station, a cattle farm near the next day's hiking destination: Kings Canyon. To fuel up, Gavin and the guides in training whipped up a fabulous campfire meal where the chicken, potatoes and curry dishes were actually cooked in pots covered in campfire ash.
Sunday, March 13
Our last 5 a.m. wake-up call - much as we complained, we were always rewarded with a stunning sunrise and a cooler climate in which to hike (still, it was funny when we finished these 6-7 km hikes by 10 a.m.)
Paddy's mum had told me how beautiful Kings Canyon was, and she was right: the reddish brown walls of smooth rock, the blooming Garden of Eden where other hikers swam in freshwater pools, and rocky lookout points that provided sky-high views of the crevice.
We walked around the perimeter of the canyon - another solid 3-hour loop - before heading back to the campsite for lunch and showers. Then it was back to Alice Springs, and the next day, Sydney.
I feel like a bona fide Aussie now.
For more photos of the trip, click here.