We’re in a cafe in the airport at Alice Springs, with half an hour to kill before our flight to Darwin boards, so I thought I’d start writing about the last few days – we’ll probably post this later tonight from Darwin once we’ve had a chance to go through our hundreds of photos! We’ve had an absolutely amazing three days on the tour of Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon, hiking and camping amidst the most incredible scenery, watching the sunset over Uluru, sleeping in swags under the stars, and generally having a wonderful time!
On the first morning of the tour, we got up at 5 a.m. to get showered and dressed, and went down to Reception when it opened at 5.30, to put our luggage in the storage room and get our free breakfast (hilarious – two pieces of bread per person, doled out from behind the reception desk in sandwich bags, and then you could go through to the kitchen where there was some butter and jam and a toaster!) Then we sat in the dark and waited for the bus to collect us – at the last minute, I had kept out our warm jackets, thinking they’d be handy as pillows. We were expecting it to be hot – it’s the desert, right? But actually, in the pre-dawn dark it was bloody freezing, even in town, and it was much colder out in the desert once we got there – we were very grateful of our coats, and just wished we also had hats, gloves and scarves, too!
The bus arrived at 5.45 to pick us up, and we met our driver / tour guide / mechanic / chef for the three days, a nice Aussie chap called Dave, and got chatting to him as we headed off to collect others. We were the first pick-up, but we went round lots of other hostels and hotels until we were a group of 18 – we later picked up another 6 in Yulara, the nearest town to Uluru, so it was a group of 24 for the tour. There was a German couple called Birgit and Markus, who live in France near Geneva – Markus works at CERN – and were travelling after a conference Marcus had been to in Melbourne. A Dutch couple called Alex and Rose, who are engaged and planning their wedding – an Aussie girl called Sheri who was travelling around on her own to see a bit more of her own country – an English girl called Amy who was on a Working Holiday Visa – a South African girl called Faith who was in the middle of moving to Sydney permanently – an American chap called Steve who was over here to study at Canberra uni on an exchange – a French Canadian guy called Sam who was also on a study exchange – a young German guy called Felix who was in Australia visiting his sister – another Dutch couple, a Swiss family (parents, and 20-something son and daughter), a German family also with a 20-something son and daughter, and a young French chap travelling with his mother. It was a really nice group, and it didn’t take long for everyone to settle in and start chatting, which definitely helped to make the trip more fun. We all had to do a lot of pitching in to help with cooking, washing up, packing and unpacking and making camp, and it was nice for it to be so sociable while we were doing all that stuff!
Anyway, once we’d picked everyone up, we drove down to the tour company’s office and all went in to pay our final balances, pick up our free pillows, and go to the loo – I quickly realised it was a good idea to go to the loo at every opportunity, whether I needed to or not, as it might be a couple of hours till the next chance! Then we headed out of Alice Springs onto the long, straight road through the desert, the Stuart Highway, with signposts showing the distance to Adelaide – a long way! It was incredible driving through the vast openness of the desert – huge open skies all around you, and red dirt, and little shrubs and trees, and occasional hills, but mostly just this huge, flat expanse of desert. Dave added ‘DJ’ to his list of accomplishments and had his iPod playing music the whole time we were driving, unless he was pausing the music to chat to us over the microphone and tell us some interesting facts about the drive, or the scenery, or our plans for the next hour or two. He had a good knack for appropriate tunes, so we had some quiet chill-out music for the morning, but Pink Floyd as we drove towards the Uluru sunset, and The Beatles as we drove home from it, with didgeridoo music as we arrived at our bush camp, and Dave Matthews Band on the long drive home.
Our first stop from Alice Springs was at a roadhouse that was also a camel farm – we were sat in the front row of seats in the bus, so we were first off the bus at every stop, and we went straight in to the counter, where we ordered bacon sandwiches and paid for a camel ride, then went outside for the camel ride, with the promise that our sandwiches would be waiting when we got back! The camel ride was brilliant – they’re so big, I hadn’t realised we would be so high up! You get onto the saddle while they’re kneeling on the ground with their legs tucked under them, so Chris got on first, and then I got onto the second seat behind him, and the guy told us to hold on tight and clicked his tongue to the camel to get up, which it accordingly did, lurching one way and then the other as it got its legs up under itself! The chap took a photo of us, and then led us at a walk down one side of the paddock, which was hilarious – it’s such an uneven gait, you lurch around all over the place! I can definitely see why they’re called the ‘Ship of the Desert’. When we turned round to come back, the chap told us to hold tight again, and got the camel running (I can’t say trotting or cantering or galloping, it was much more ungainly than any of those!) while we jolted along giggling and hoping not to fall off. Getting down at the end was the getting up process in reverse, lurching around as the camel went down onto one knee and then the other. We loved it, and thought it was well worth our $6 each! Funnily enough, no one else in the group went for it, but we were glad we did. We went back in and claimed our bacon sandwiches and Chris got a coffee, and then it was back on the bus for another couple of hours. We saw some wild camels later in the distance – apparently some of the camels brought over for early expeditions were later released into the wild, and there are now 1.5 million wild camels roaming the Outback!
We stopped another couple of times before Yulara – once at a roadhouse with a bottle shop, so we could all buy any alcohol we wanted for the trip (we bought two bottles of the cheapest red wine in the shop, as everything was expensive – captive market, I suppose, being the only bottle shop for 500km in any direction!) and once at the side of the road, down a dirt road off the main highway, where Dave announced that we were getting out to collect firewood! There was lots of dead wood on the ground around the trees, so we all picked through it and brought back the best bits for Dave to load on top of the trailer, and felt very proud of our hunter-gathering skills. Also during the long stretch of driving, Dave got each person to come up to the front, sit next to him facing back down the bus, and give a little introduction to themselves over the mic, with a list of questions he’d prepared – name, where you’re from, job, where you’re travelling, favourite movie, favourite music, favourite place you’ve travelled, and a funny story about yourself. It was a very clever idea, because it really helped to put faces and personalities to names, and broke the ice very well.
As we were driving along, Chris spotted a big red flat-topped rock in the distance, and nudged me, and then a few other people saw it, and started shouting to Dave ‘Is that it? Is that Uluru?’ He made us all vote as to whether we thought it was or wasn’t, and then told us that it’s actually a monolith called Mount Connor, which the tour guides all refer to as ‘Fooluru’, because it’s the first thing you see on the way to Uluru and it looks a bit like it, so everyone always thinks that’s it. The actual Uluru is smaller, but infinitely more impressive once you’re there.
We arrived at Yulara at lunchtime, which is the resort town near Uluru / Kata Tjuta National Park, originally called the Ayers Rock Resort. It has an airport and various accommodation, and is the closest place to stay to visit Uluru. We drove in and went straight to our campsite – the tour company has a number of campsites there, all arranged around a central big shower and toilet block, and each individual campsite has permanent tents – huts, really, with bunk beds in them – and a kitchen block with a big table, sink and fridge, and a big BBQ and a firepit. It was a lovely campsite, very well thought out, and we hardly noticed other groups there – we only bumped into people occasionally at the toilet block. When we arrived, it was all hands on deck to unpack all the food and cooking things, and make hamburgers for lunch – it was really interesting to watch who took charge, who shrunk into the corners, who was really happy to work but needed someone to tell them what to do – I really enjoyed it, as I usually end up taking charge and organising people in that sort of situation, but there were plenty of other organisers around, so I just picked up one little task at a time and got on with it! I think it might be something to do with the sort of person who likes to travel, because I kind of imagine that in most groups of 24 average people, you’d have quite a lot of not-very-useful people, but actually almost everyone in the group was right in there getting things done. Different people got involved in different ways, but everyone took a turn at cooking or washing up or doing something to help make camp, and it all balanced out very well.
After lunch, we piled back into the bus and Dave handed out our National Park permits, and we drove through the gates of the National Park – we could see Uluru in the distance, but we headed first for Kata Tjuta, which used to be called The Olgas (when Uluru used to be Ayers Rock). It’s an incredible beautiful and bizarre rock formation – 30-odd huge lumps of oddly-shaped rock, all covered in the ever-present red dust, looking from a distance as though some giant has carelessly dropped a pocketful of pebbles onto the ground. When you get up close, they’re huge and imposing, with giant cracks and canyons between them, and trees growing in various places where water gathers. The whole place feels prehistoric – a few people commented that they felt as though a dinosaur could come wandering round the corner any minute – and it’s a landscape unlike anything else I’ve ever seen. Flat desert all around, and then these huge rocks, jutting out from absolutely flat plains. We’ve taken hundreds and hundreds of photos over the three days – everywhere you looked was just so beautiful, with these huge, clear blue skies and green trees and red rocks.
We got to Kata Tjuta and had a safety talk from Dave, mostly about the importance of taking full water bottles with us and drinking from them often – even in the winter, it gets very hot in the middle of the day, and it’s very dry, and the sun’s so strong – you really have to be aware of dehydration, especially when you’re hiking. We all went off as a group and stayed together throughout the hike, which meant stopping to regroup occasionally as the faster walkers broke away from the slower ones, but it meant Dave could stop and tell us interesting things as we went, and you could chat to different people as you set off in a different order from each stop – it was very sociable walking! And such stunning scenery, it distracted you from the occasional difficult, steep bits of the walk! We scrambled up the last bit of steep rockface to an amazing view through between two of the rocks, and as we arrived at the top, Dave pulled a big packet of biscuits out of his backpack – nothing has ever tasted so good! We sat and ate our biscuits for a few minutes, and took more photos, and then headed back down the same track, back to the car park, and onto the bus again.
We drove towards Uluru and as we got closer and closer, the rock became more and more impressive-looking – it really is one of those rare things that’s even better than you expect in real life, even when you’ve seen hundreds of photos of it. We parked at the ‘Sunset Viewing Area’, and got a very clear view of how popular a pastime Uluru Sunset Viewing is, when we drove in to find twenty or so tour buses parked up, with tables in front of each one laid with linen tablecloths, and glasses of champagne being poured out for the guests who were sitting in rows of chairs unloaded from the buses! Our little gang of backpacker tourists grabbed the coolbox from the bus and walked up a path Dave pointed us toward, until we were just a few minutes away from the main crowd, with a great view of Uluru, and a little clearing all to ourselves! Dave opened the coolbox to reveal bottles of champagne, and our plastic mugs from the camping kit, and a tray of snacks and dips – very welcome! We all took turns taking photos of each other and saying to each other in awed undertones, ‘This is such a Bucket List thing to be doing!’ while toasting with plastic mugs of champagne. I think we were all much happier to be up the hill with our mugs than down in the crowds with linen tablecloths! The sunset was spectacular – the sun sets in the opposite direction to Uluru, from the viewing area, and you see the amazing colours reflected on the rock, which turns redder and redder as the sun sets. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and it was utterly beautiful.
After sunset, we wandered back down to our bus – now almost the only one left in the car park, the big coaches beat a fast retreat once the sun’s gone! – and headed back to camp. We made and enjoyed a lovely dinner of kangaroo steaks, camel sausages, beef steaks, coleslaw, and potato gratin – I happened to be chatting to Alex while he was BBQ-ing, so managed to ask him to completely over-cook a couple of pieces of roo steak for me, which I thoroughly enjoyed! While some people were cooking, others were unloading bags into tents, and making a campfire, so after supper we all sat around the campfire chatting and realising just how bloody cold it was getting! We had the choice of sleeping in the tents, or in swags around the campfire. For those who can’t picture it, a swag is a peculiarly Australian idea, a sort of canvas sleeping-bag with a foam mattress in the bottom and a flap at the top that you can fold down over your face – you unroll it and get into it in your sleeping bag, and zip yourself in. About half of us decided to try the swags, including Chris and I, so we eventually unrolled them round the fire and went to bed. I imagine on a warm summer’s night, it would have been wonderful to sleep out in the fresh air, under the starts – on a freezing winter night, though, with temperatures somewhere around 3°C, it was decidedly nippy! Chris and I had our sleeping bags and also fleece blankets, which helped somewhat, and we pulled our swags up around the fire, but we were both still freezing all night, and neither of us slept well. It was lovely to look up at the stars, but I really was too cold for comfort! I was lying awake at 5 am when someone’s alarm went off, and I thought I’d get up early too, and go for a shower to warm up.
Everyone else got up at 5.30, still in the dark, and we rolled up our swags and had breakfast (I had Coco Pops, which I haven’t had for years, and loved the luxury of chocolate for breakfast!) and then locked up the kitchen, packed our bags into the trailer, and drove off towards Uluru. Sunrise was at about 7.30 a.m., and we arrived at the base of the rock at around 7. Dave dropped us off at the start of the 7km walking track around the base of the rock, with instructions to keep walking with the rock on our right, and we ought to manage not to get lost! So we headed off along the path, wrapped up warmly – Birgit lent me her scarf to wrap around my head, as I was hatless and had cold ears, and Chris lent Amy his jacket, as she didn’t have one with her and looked absolutely freezing. The walk was one of the best things I’ve ever done – as the sun started to come up, the rock started to change colour, from grey to pink to orange to red to deeper red, and all the light and shadows were just amazing – I kept tripping over my feet because I couldn’t take my eyes off the rock! For at least an hour, it was just our little group – it would seem that most tour groups either don’t get up so early, or don’t do the whole base walk – and we were halfway round before we started to bump into other people who were parking at a car park on the far side, and walking down a short section of the track to see the caves with rock art, and the water hole.
We took lots of photos of the rock from every angle – the bump that looked like a whale, and the holes in the rock that looked like Darth Vader, and the steep edges and the flat edges and the curvy bits and the lumpy bits, and the places where the path went right up to the rock so you could touch it or stand on the edge of it, and the places where you were hundreds of yards away and could get a wide view of it. It was absolutely amazing, and I just wish I could describe it better – maybe the photos will help. We had discussed various options for the morning, the day before, and Dave had said that if any of us wanted to climb it, we could do that instead of the base walk, but the local Aboriginal people ask that we respect their ownership of Uluru as a sacred place, and not climb it at their request. One of the girls said she was quite tempted to climb it, but once we’d done the walk, she completely understood why we shouldn’t – and I have to say I agree, it felt like a very special, untouched place, and it was somehow uncomfortable to see people climbing up it – like ants scrambling chaotically all over something big and majestic. Hard feeling to describe, but I’m definitely glad we didn’t climb it. The climb is dangerous, as well – it’s up a very steep, sheer rockface, and they’ve put in a line of iron posts with wire running between them for people to use as a handrail to drag themselves up, and to hold onto against the wind, but still 40 people have died climbing it.
When we finished the base walk, Dave was waiting for us with the bus and a tray of fruit cake and oranges, which were a very welcome snack after a 2½ hour walk! When we’d all had a little rest, we headed down to the Mala Walk, which is a track along the side of Uluru, which marks a lot of the places that were used by the Aboriginal people who first found Uluru and used it as a ceremonial place. We were told we were very lucky, as usually the tour guides lead the walk, but we were going to be led by an Aboriginal man, an elder of the local people, who knew the culture and the stories of Uluru and would share them with us firsthand. We met our guide, Wally, and his translator at the start of the walk. I’ve got very complicated feelings about how the next hour or so went – Chris and I have talked about it a bit, but I’m still not quite sure what I think, or what I want to feel about it, or what I do feel. I didn’t like that it was all translated – we were told Wally was more comfortable speaking his own language than English, which is fair enough, and it was interesting to hear him speak – such a strange language, with very unusual sounds to it – but I felt as though the translator was adding a level of interpretation that I wasn’t comfortable with, that he was being so careful to be politically correct, and to walk on eggshells around Wally. Every sentence he translated seemed full of attempts to demonstrate what an important and special culture it was and how much the National Park rangers respect the Aboriginal stories and traditions, and it just didn’t ring true for me – there are so obviously so many problems with the way the Aboriginal people now live in Australia, and the people you see in town look so miserable, and even Wally looked so uncomfortable in his grubby Western clothes with his lumberjack shirt buttoned with the wrong buttons – I say this not to be disparaging about him, but to try to explain that he didn’t look like a representative of a revered and dignified culture, living in the way he wants to – he seemed like a lost soul telling stories about a past that’s been all but destroyed. There didn’t seem to be any easiness or humour in the way he talked, or the way the white tour guide translated, and everything he told us about their culture seemed to be in the past tense, not a reflection of the way they live now. I just don’t know – maybe I’ve missed the point of the Aboriginal culture, or the way it’s being integrated into modern Australian life, but it all feels to me like grasping at straws, trying to make it sound as though things are better than they actually are. It seems to me that for the Aboriginal culture to survive in a meaningful form, it needs people living it – and it doesn’t seem to me that at the moment Aboriginal people find it possible to live in the traditional way, and also interact with Western culture. I feel as though the only way genuine Aboriginal culture could survive is amongst isolated groups who have little or no contact with the Western world, and that feels very sad. Anyway, as I said, both of us came away from the tour with complicated and conflicted feelings, which couldn’t entirely be described as having enjoyed the experience, although we’d heard a lot of interesting things about Aboriginal creation stories, and how different caves and areas were used in earlier times.
We headed back to the campsite for lunch – we made burritos – and then packed up everything from the kitchen and piled back into the bus for the drive to Kings Canyon, with a stop along the way to collect more firewood. We made it to the Kings Canyon campsite just before dark, and stopped to refuel the bus at the main resort, where we saw a couple of dingoes wandering around! They’re not aggressive in the same way as the Fraser Island ones, though, and apparently there’s no trouble with them in the Northern Territory. We drove out along a dirt road to our campsite, which really felt isolated and in the middle of the bush – there were two other groups from the same tour company, but apart from that, we were in the middle of nowhere! We enjoyed the spectacular sunset all around us as we drove out to the campsite, and then made camp and made chicken curry for dinner. We sat around the campfire having a drink and toasting marshmallows, and Chris and I realised it was our 3 month anniversary, so we all had a drink to that! We decided to try sleeping in the tent, in the hopes it would be warmer than the swag – we also borrowed an extra sleeping bag from Dave, which helped a lot. We had a much better night’s sleep!
In the morning we had another 5.30 start, had breakfast and packed up the camp, then drove to Kings Canyon as the dawn light started to appear. We parked in the car park and set off as a group on a 3 hour hike around the rim of Kings Canyon, which was absolutely amazing – of all the three walks we did, this was the one where you felt as though you were right in the midst of the scenery, wandering in the rocks. We walked up 300 steps cut into the rock at the start of the walk, which was knackering, although beautiful as the sun was rising! But then we were up on the rim, and we walked along on the flat for a long time, till we came to the canyon – we went down steps into the valley of the canyon, and walked along a path to a water hole where we stopped for biscuits, then went back up the steps on the other side and along the edge of the canyon. It was a brilliant walk, and everyone really enjoyed it.
When we got back to the bus, we drove back to the resort and parked at a lunch picnic site, which just had a kitchen space and tables. We unpacked all the remaining food and had an eclectic lunch of sandwiches, leftovers and anything we could find in the boxes of food – we found some custard and peaches and had that for dessert! Someone spotted a bearded dragon sunning itself on a rock, so we all gathered round and took photos of that. Once we were finished lunch and packed up, we started the long drive back to Alice Springs, via stops at a couple of roadhouses, and the lookout point for Mount Cannon. Chris wandered off at one of the roadhouses to take a photo of a huge road train – it’s amazing how big some of these things are, and when you see one heading down the road towards you, you definitely feel like getting out of its way – Dave pulled almost off the road a few times to avoid them!
Dave had organised a table at a pub in town for that evening, so we all got dropped off at our various backpackers and hotels, agreeing to meet at the pub at 8. Just about everyone made it, which was lovely! We had a bit of hassle when we arrived at the backpackers to find reception was closed, and although there was a woman inside tidying up, she resolutely ignored us knocking on the window! We had to go across to the bar and get the barman to open up so we could get our stored luggage and our room key. Then we got to the room, and there was no hot water for showers, only luke-warm. So, disappointing backpackers! Anyway – we got changed and walked to the pub, Annie’s Place, which was only a few minutes down the road. We had a very enjoyable evening with everyone, drinking jugs of pear cider, eating nice pub meals, and swapping email and blog addresses so we can all swap photos and keep in touch. Birgit and Markus have said that if we go and visit them in Geneva sometime, Markus will see if he can take us on a tour of CERN, which we’re very excited about! Chris suggested passing round a glass for a tip for Dave which everyone thought was a nice idea, and Dave was blown away by it when Chris eventually presented it to him, he said it had never happened before! So, that was nice. We eventually left at about 11, and walked home, where we thoroughly enjoyed a good night’s sleep in a warm bed!
This morning we packed, made some phone calls to finalise our arrangements in Darwin, then got the shuttle bus to the airport – Chris realised halfway there that the room key was still in his pocket, so there went our $20 key deposit, but the bus driver said he’d drop the key back for us! I started writing this in the airport cafe, but had to cut it short when we went to board the flight. I’m now finishing it in our room in a backpackers in Darwin, so we can get it uploaded before we go off gallivanting tomorrow!
We arrived in Darwin at 3pm to sweltering heat, and got a taxi to the car hire place, where we were both dripping with sweat by the time we unloaded our bags from the taxi! We went into the air-conditioned office to do the paperwork, and picked up our car, complete with camping gear – a two-man tent, cooking stuff, chairs and tables and a cool box, which should be able to keep us going for a couple of days while we explore Kakadu and Litchfield National Parks. We stopped at a supermarket and a bottle shop to buy snacks and pear cider, then drove to the hostel and checked in, unloaded our bags into our room, got changed into shorts and flipflops, and headed off in a taxi to the waterfront for our sunset cruise around Darwin Harbour.
It was a lovely old boat, a pearl lugger called Streeter, and there were about 30 of us on board – it was BYO drinks and snacks, so we put our ciders in the coolbox – ice and glasses provided – and sat on deck, drinking and nibbling on Doritos and dip while we motored out into the bay, and chatting to the people around us – the party sat next to us were celebrating, as two of them had just got married this afternoon, with the other two as witnesses! It was a lovely evening, we were out for about 2 ½ hours, and saw a beautiful sunset from out on the water.
We walked back into town with a woman we’d been chatting to on the boat, through the lovely waterfront bars and restaurants, along a raised walkway over the road, and through the pedestrianised precinct in the middle of town, which obviously has free WiFi, as there were lots of people lounging on benches with their laptops and iPhones! It’s a very pleasant city – lots of restaurants and bars with tables spilling out onto the street, and a very buzzy nightlife feel. We really enjoyed the walk back up the main road to the hostel – we stopped on the way for a takeaway pizza, which we’ve just been enjoying in our room, with the last of the pear ciders, and the air con blasting away! We’re going to get up early tomorrow and head off for a couple of days at Litchfield and Kakadu, before heading back to Darwin on Thursday night, ready for our flight on Friday. We’ll try to blog again before we head to Singapore!