Many months ago when I was booking the first elements of this journey, I knew I wanted to spend time in the Red Center of Australia to see Uluru (The Rock Formerly Known as Ayers) and stand out in the desert night under the constellations of the southern sky. I also decided I would do this segment as part of a tour, so that when I did run into the Western Death Adder – an event that I really felt was inevitable – there would be someone close by to suck out the poison. There are a plethora of tours out of Alice Springs from the most luxurious to the least, and having canvassed my online community for their input I chose the least. I’m happy to report now that I did survive, and I’m very grateful to the friends and family who encouraged me to experience the Outback in the least pretentious way. I could not have imagined just how much fun I would have on my three day tour with Way Outback Desert Safaris®.
There were fourteen in our group, split pretty evenly between North Americans and Europeans, and an assortment of ages from twenty to sixty-somethings. I was not the oldest adventurer but I was the lone Canuck. Our intrepid, funny and ever-so-encouraging guide, Bec and our ultra-effective and fun alternative to a camel, Bindy the Isuzu completed the team.
Our five hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru included interesting rest stops. We were exhorted by Bec to “squeeze one out, if ya’ can!” as the next ‘pee break’ might be a few hours away. This station was known as something of an SPCA for camels. There are more than a million wild camels in Australia, descendants of the animals turned loose to fend for themselves when train travel replaced ‘The Afghan’ camel route. The station partially maintains itself by offering camel rides for tourists and is also something of a museum of days past, when camel racing was almost as big as horse racing in this part of the country.
Some of the dirt tracks along our route included kilometers of washboard that almost rattled our fillings out. One of the first orders of the day was to stop along the road to gather firewood for the evening. This involved the fourteen of us wandering out in the desert among the scrub and snakes while Bec waited on top of Bindy to stack and tie up our fuel. Bec’s advice to ‘kick it before you pick it up’ gave me such confidence that by the second day I wore flip flops to scrounge for wood. Silly, really.
“Bet you thought this was Uluru!” sang Bec. She has a wicked sense of humour, that one. This is Mount Conner, which seemed to me to be no less impressive. I still can’t quite reconcile the fact that Mount Conner is on private land. How would you like to have this in your back yard?! You can see the erosion around the base, as weather eats away at the sides of the mountain and reduces it to sand.
This is Uluru. Uluru is a monolith, meaning that it’s one piece of rock, where Mount Conner is…well…a mountain. Uluru (pronounced Oo-loo-roo with the accent on the first syllable) is one of the most sacred sites in Aboriginal culture and it’s easy to see why. Trekking across miles and miles of flat, barren desert and then stumbling over this would be a religious experience for anyone.
It was once pretty common for sightseers to scramble up Uluru, you can see the route in the faint white track and there are metal hand-holds hammered into the rock. But like most sacred sites in the country, Uluru has been returned to the Aborigine and leased back to the government with the caveat that management sits with the primarily Aboriginal board of directors. Parts of the monolith are closed for cermonial reasons or, as importantly to prevent erosion or degradation of the site.
There is an Aboriginal story or fable for every mark, rift, texture and indentation on Uluru. The stories mostly originate from the ‘Dreaming Time’ when Aboriginals believe the land was given into their care for safekeeping. The stories have been preserved for many thousands of years by being told through each generation. There’s much regret these days over the intentional disparagement and near eradication of the Aborigine culture that’s such a rich part of Australia’s heritage. And there is real anguish at the reality that the tremendously rich heritage will ultimately be lost as new generations – stranded between cultures – show less and less interest in carrying forward the ancient stories.
We debated whether the spirit at Uluru is a man or a woman and then all agreed that with curves like these she could only be a woman. In fact one of the areas where photos are not allowed is a rock formation that looks like an inverted uterus. The stories say that spending a night in this cave increases fertility.
It’s said Uluru’s power is so great that if you try to take any of her away you will suffer bad luck. There is a stack of ‘sorry rocks‘ at Uluru – rocks that have been sent back by people who thought a little souvenir would be a good idea and then suffered the curse. Bec tells us they often receive the rocks back with letters detailing long tales of misfortune, and statements of abject contrition for having offended the spirits of Uluru.
Seeing the sun set on Uluru is a ‘must do’ so we pulled into the view point, found a spot for Bindy between rows of massive, air conditioned tour buses and staked out our viewing spot amidst groups of well-dressed folks and linen-covered tables of champagne glasses. While we were staring intently at Uluru our Bec had her own surprise in store and our own version of champagne glasses. This would be the first of a number of Bec’s lovely surprises along the way.
As the sun set over Uluru I turned around and caught this shot of Kata Tjuta (pronounced kaa-tuh-joo-gah with the accent on the joo) in the distance. This would be tomorrow’s destination…if we made it through the coming night in the desert. This group of rocks used to be called The Olga’s after some colonizers wife. I like the Aboriginal name much better.
We camped our first night out at a somewhat civilized looking ‘resort’ area in Yulara, near Uluru. There was a big open shed for cooking and storing our stuff, a large fire pit and very civilized washrooms and showers to service a number of camping and trailer sites in the area. Everyone pitched in to chop vegetables for a kangaroo stew and then we all pitched in again to do the dishes, that included all those champagne cups. This is Bec demonstrating how to get our sleeping bags into our swags and get zipped in for the night. The weather was still cooler than usual and the night was very cold but there was a gorgeous full moon. We could not see as many stars as we would have liked because of that big, gorgeous moon but I woke sometime in the night to Orion winking down at me. I’ve always had a bit of a thing for Orion. Simply awesome.
This was the scene at four AM (!) the next morning when Bec rustled us out of bed to see the sun rise over Uluru and Kata Tjuta – thirty or forty sleepy women in one public toilet trying to brush teeth, hair etc.
We had time for a quick cup of coffee in the dark, a bowl of oatmeal and then we packed up our swags and made off to a good vantage point. I thought sunrise at Uluru might be a lot like sunset at Uluru but it was different. For one thing there was no champagne. And for another thing it was still quite cold. But we stood there patiently talking in whispers for what seemed like forever and were eventually rewarded with this…
The weather forecast said it would return to hotter temperatures on this day so we headed directly to Kata Tjuta so we would do most of our trek there in the cooler morning. There are thirty-six or so separate peaks at Kata Tjuta so it didn’t take much of a stretch of imagination to feel that the spirits here might be male. In fact, it’s a men’s ceremonial site in Aboriginal lore and women were prohibited. We saw about a dozen of the peaks on our hike.
This is Bec explaining how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were thrust up onto the landscape. Does that look like a map of Australia to you? I think the big, round rock is Uluru and the group of small ones is Kata Tjuta. Sort of.
One for Canada. I added a stone to this little cairn.
If you saw the movie “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” this might look familiar. The story takes place in Australia and much of it was filmed at Kata Tjuta. This is Priscilla’s Gap.
This is our group after a pretty significant climb. That Bec was really something. She went up those mountains like a goat but with a big pack on her back. The pack, as it turns out has medical supplies, extra water and another surprise for ‘her people’ – oranges and granola bars.
I was not quite so goat-like and was predictably the last person in the group to make it up. No worries. I made it and was rewarded with a beautiful orange. And was it ever good.
We spotted this little ‘Roo on our way down from Kata Tjuta.
Outback Microwave. This is our lunch thawing on the dash of the Isuzu. After our Kata Tjuta hike we stopped at one of the road stations on the road to Kings Canyon for a lunch of sandwiches and cold beer.
Bec was looking forward to our camp at Kings Canyon. She said it’s her favorite of all the camp sites and it’s mine, too. I loved this remote site in the bush where we all really felt the isolation of the Outback. We drove down a jarring red dirt road to get here and almost ran into this herd of camels.
Swags are not only a very good way to keep warm on cold desert nights and keep any creepers out (she says hopefully), they make a good seat around the fire. That’s Bec up on top of Bindy. Poor thing. It was hard to draw her out of her shell.
Now some of you will know that I am a bit picky about bathrooms. Function is more important than form but I do like certain amenities. Just not sure what to say about this except that I tried like hell to not have to get up in the middle of the night to pee. As it turned out, I was unsuccessful and even with an incredibly bright moon illuminating the way, tip-toeing down this path in the dark was still a pretty creepy experience.
It had a good view. I’ll say that for it.
In the evening we took a short walk up the hill from our campsite to watch the sun set over King’s Canyon. I would have felt much less romantic about this if I had known that the next day we would scale these cliffs in what, for me would be the most challenging hike yet.
Dinner was a delicious chicken and vegetable stir fry, with rice cooked in a pot on the campfire.
And there was desert dessert! In celebration of Andres’ birthday, Bec cooked damper in a pot over the fire and decorated it with Smarties. Damper is an Outback bread made of self-rising flour and water, with a little sugar for a sweeter bread. It was a staple ‘back in the day’ and would carry a bloke a long way.
Bec sharing local lore before bed. Having been cold the previous night I layered on everything I’d brought with me before stuffing myself into my swag. Within a very short time we were all stripping down. It was a beautiful warm night and as quiet as I have ever…not heard. Sometime in the night some of us heard the howling of a pack of something. Dingos?
Climbing King’s Canyon. Don’t be deceived. This hill was followed by another, and then another. And it was HOT. The signs at the park entrance, that included a long list of dire warnings to deter people like me from foolishly attempting to hike it, suggested one liter of water for each hour of walking. We would be out for three hours and we each had about a liter of water.
At several points in this very hot climb I thought about dying so by the time I reached the top of this incline I didn’t want to stray too far from the emergency phone. A week earlier when I was touring Kakadu National Park I had spent a lot of energy swatting at flies that tried their best to crawl into my nose, ears and mouth. I saw a woman walk past with one of these fly nets and I thought to myself “Now, that’s one very smart woman.” It was the best five bucks I ever spent. They call the constant waving away of flies ‘the Aussie salute’. It looks a lot like the Winnipeg salute.
I think I can see my house from here. Or maybe Russia. Actually that’s the visitor center and our Bindy way down there. It would be awhile before we’d see it again.
Our group up on the plateau of King’s Canyon. It was mid-morning by the time we took this photo and it was so hot that if I stood still for too long I thought I could feel myself starting to cook. Literally. Does that big rock behind us look like a turtle to you?
The terrain on our route to the Garden of Eden – really! – was astounding. Some of the rock faces were so perfectly rippled that you could almost sense the water of the great oceans that eons ago carved out this canyon. Speaking of water, we are less than half way through our hike at this point and my water bottle is almost empty. Not good.
The beginning of the descent to the Garden of Eden. Two things crossed my mind at this point. Firstly, the billabong at the bottom of this valley is closed for swimming due to the high coliform count and I’m assuming that means no drinking either. And secondly, once we go down we will probably have to come up again.
This is almost the end of the dry season here but the Garden of Eden still seemed lush compared to the arid rock above us. Many of us talked about coming back here in The Wet to experience what the place is like when these canyons and crevices are running with water and the billabongs are full.
This very still, dark and deep pool did look a bit dodgy but we could all imagine what it will be like in the wet season, when the pool will be fed by a high waterfall. You can see the high water mark in the darker colored rock that’s exposed now.
We took a lovely, long rest break here so everyone could take photos and so some of us could see if we could fall into the water from the rock ledges around it. Bec had another surprise for us. Hmmm….what does one serve in the Garden of Eden? Of course…apples. She also revealed that her pack held additional water. What a girl.
Some of the most spectacular scenery was on the way out of the Garden of Eden on the long track back toward the park entrance. This is looking down into the Garden.
Does this look like a turtle to you?
Just taking this picture made my stomach flip over. It’s every bit as steep and scary as it looks and laying down on those rocks was like stretching out on a hot skillet. Now I know how a steak feels.
These rocks hive off from time to time and go crashing down into the deep valleys below, very much like a glacier falls away only not as often. Bec pointed out that this triangular shaped rock that Helene, Alex and I are lying on will probably be the next piece to give way. Right.
As we walked along the lip of the plateau on our way back we spotted, away across the canyon a lone walker. He stood and returned our frantic waves and seemed to get a charge out of all of us snapping his photo. He must surely be very familiar with King’s Canyon to be out walking it alone. I love this photo that to me expresses the insignificance of a person in the vastness of the place.
Far too soon we were back on board and heading for Alice Springs and the end of our tour. I was absolutely chuffed to have completed the hikes without holding anyone up, and with new-found confidence I just wanted to keep going. But instead we pointed Bindy north-ish and headed across The Giles. This is a dotted line on any road map of the area. I typically like nothing better than taking the road less travelled but a dotted line on a map of the Outback is a horse of a different color…in this case, red. We swerved and skidded through deep red dirt for about an hour and Bindy really showed her stuff. I really do want one of these trucks! The Giles is notorious for it’s fickleness and as much as we would have liked to see more water in the Garden of Eden, the notion of adding water to all that red dirt was simply mind boggling. This road is impassable for much of the wet season and I was tickled to have driven it.
Our last stop was a brief encounter with…wait for it…Dinky the Singing Dingo. I kid you not. The award-winning dog was not in singing form, apparently resting his voice from a recent ‘tour’ of Alice Springs but we got to have a visit anyway. I’m not really a dog person but maybe if a dog could sing…
And then, far too soon it was time for us to say good-bye. We did have a last dinner together at Monty’s in Alice Springs before we went off in different directions the next morning. We hardly recognized each other in clean clothes and looking terribly civilized again.
I headed off to my hotel by the ‘river’, the Alice Springs Crowne Plaza for a couple of days of luxury that I felt I had earned.