Australia Trifecta Part I – Out & About In The Outback -- Alice Springs & Uluru

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It is said that adventure is merely discomfort remembered.  If so, the non-stop flight from LAX to Sydney must be a grand adventure indeed.  Fourteen hours cramped into an airplane with complete strangers.  And the movies sucked.


We left for Australia on a Friday night (the summer solstice, in fact) and we were scheduled to arrive in Sydney early on a Sunday morning.  Because we were heading west, and thus back through time, the longest day of the year just kept getting longer…. and longer…... and longer.   In fact, by my watch, our June 21 was about 32 hours long.  Sadly, we had no June 22 at all, so if that was your birthday, it’s why you didn’t get a card from us (it simply never happened).  Miraculously, we rocketed directly from the 21st to the 23rd, skimming right over the 22d.  There is something philosophically troubling about losing an entire day of one's life.  I mean, what if I was destined to do some greatness on June 22, like find a cure for cancer or discover the meaning of life?  Maybe I would have started flossing.  But we'll never know.  Adding insult to injury, all we had was Brittney Spears’ big screen debut in “Crossroads” and Kevin Costner's horrid "Dragonfly" in tinny headphones to console us.  Told you the movies sucked.


Odder still, United Airlines achieved an "on-time departure" even though we were still sitting at the gate, when, according to my ticket, we should have been several miles over the Pacific Ocean by then.  Turns out Sydney-siders don't like jumbo jets flying over their heads before 6:30 a.m. or so..... a half hour after we were supposed to land.  You'd think United would take this into consideration when scheduling flight times.  United's solution to this is to close the airplane doors on time, and then sit and wait for a half hour to leave (they haven't heard of flying slower??). 


At any rate, we left the summer of Los Angeles and stepped fourteen hours later into Sydney’s antipodean winter.  Our shorts and t-shirts immediately marked us as tourists in a sea of pale faces, overcoats and mufflers.  But we weren’t staying for long.  We were flying directly to Alice Springs, in the Red Centre.  But, in order to get from Sydney’s international terminal to the domestic terminal, you have to take a bus across the tarmac, dodging planes the whole way.  Well, not that bad, but for the main gateway to one of the Pacific’s largest cities, the system struck me as highly primitive. 


The QANTAS (no, there is no "u" missing) flight to “the Alice,” as it’s referred, is another 3 hours or so, adding to our over-long day.  About half-way through the flight, the vast nothing-ness of the Sturt (no, there is no "a" missing) Desert is broken by a single line stretching from one end of the horizon to the other:  the dingo fence.  The 5,500 kilometer long dingo fence (the longest fence in the world), is, as its name implies, designed to keep dingoes in.  Or out.  Depends on your perspective.


During the flight I was also introduced to the resourcefulness that has clearly helped the Australian people survive and thrive in such an inhospitable landscape.  Pulling out the traditional “barf bag” from the seatback in front of me (simply out of curiosity), I noticed that it was a combo “barf bag/film developing envelope.”  On the bag was written these almost remorseful words: “Please take this bag with you and pass on to family or friends if you are unable to use.”  I am not sure whether we are supposed to pass it on to our friends to barf in it, or to have their film developed.  I just hope that whoever is "able" to use the bag for the former purpose doesn't forget and drop their film in it……..


Almost exactly twenty-four hours since we had left home, we arrived in Alice Springs exactly as planned, and the weather was warm and dry.  Alice is tucked in just behind the MacDonnell Ranges, nearly smack dab in the middle of the country, and in the southern third of the Northern Territory.  Alice Springs, formerly named Stuart, was the original capitol of Australia (the current capitol located in Canberra).  Alice began as a telegraph repeating station on the Overland Telegraph Line, and was soon renamed in favor of the Postmaster General of South Australia, Alice Todd.  Alice is out there (the city, not the postmaster’s wife).  And it’s still out there.  To this day there is still no rail line between two of NT’s largest cities, Alice and Darwin, to the north, although it is said to be completed soon.


Alice is split down the middle by the Todd River, which is spanned by a twenty foot high footbridge, bearing witness to the amount of water that can come through this town in the “wet.”  During the dry season, however, the riverbed is pocketed by groups of displaced aboriginals, who seemed to spend most of the day sitting on logs and drinking.  We were told that the aboriginals we see in towns like Alice were kicked out of their tribes.  Whether that is true or not, I do not know.  The plight of the Australian aboriginal is striking and shocking, but there are others that can address those issues more intelligently than me.  To an outsider, however, that there is a serious problem is clear. 


We were staying at the Orangewood Bed & Breakfast.  Primarily, I chose Orangewood because, well, any company that prominently features a cat (or any pet) on its website can’t be all that bad.  And Angus – and the accommodations – were as advertised.  Our hosts were Lynn and Ross Peterkin, although Ross was away at Ayers Rock on rotation as part of his Royal Flying Doctor Service duties (a service which strikes those of us from the USA as anachronistic, but which is yet more testimony of the sheer remoteness of Outback life).  We stayed in the cottage at the rate of AUS$175 per night.  It was a very comfortable two-room suite with a full bath, television, sitting room and a kitchenette.  Breakfast was served in a bright sitting room with a wood-fired stove to keep the freezing morning temperatures at bay.


Fall temperatures in Alice are in the high 70s or so during the day, but, being desert, plummet to freezing at night.  The desert air is also bone dry, so much so that by the time we left the Outback I had completely lost my voice.  We were originally scheduled to do a five day camping trip, leaving Alice the next day and ending up at Uluru, or Ayers Rock, from where we would fly to Cairns and the warm east coast.  However, the travel gods shined down on us and we found our 5 day trip canceled (fortunate? We were to find out why….)  We rebooked a three day trip, leaving the day after next, and decided to explore Alice and its surrounds.


The first day, on the advice of our hostess, we went to Alice Springs Desert Park.  This is a fairly new attraction that is well-laid out and presents the various micro-climates of the Outback in small bite-sized pieces. The wild bird show was especially fun, and seems to be Alice’s pride and joy.  Nearly every local we spoke to stressed the importance of getting to the Park by 9:45, "in time for the bird show."  In a small amphitheatre facing the vast expanse of the Western MacDonnells, various birds of prey were presented hunting and feeding in their “natural” habitat.  Because we are in the very territory in which these birds live in the wild, sometimes it was difficult to tell which birds were part of the show, and which were wild interlopers simply out for a free meal.


We followed our morning at the Park with a stroll down the Todd Mall, Alice’s main shopping thoroughfare.  That we were in a different country was demonstrated by a little old lady at a bus stop across the street from the Post Office, where we were heading.  As we prepared to cross the street, the woman asked whether we would be “so kind as to take her mail to the post office,” to save her a trip across the street.  Sensing a responsibility to represent our home country and flag and to do our part to help dispel the well-entrenched vision of the “ugly American,” of course we agreed to do our duty and ferry her post across the street.  She probably thought we were Canadian.  Most people did. 


That night we went to Casa Nostra (no, not Cosa Nostra) for dinner.  Good Italian food, BYO.  Here’s a tip, do not order “spaghetti marinara” in Australia if you want spaghetti in tomato sauce, unless you want spicy spaghetti with seafood.   What you want is spaghetti with tomato and basil.  The owner was gracious enough not to charge for my mistake, although not without a small lecture about reading the menu.


The next day we took a day trip with Emu Run to visit the various gorges cutting through the Western MacDonnell Ranges.  Our guide was one-legged Billy (his name, not ours).  He actually had two legs, but one was a bit gimpy.  Ormiston Gorge, Standley’s Chasm, Simpson’s Gap.  It was a pleasant day, although after a bit one gorge, gap or chasm looks a bit like the last.  One would think that the sites were named for various adventurers that brought the west to the Outback.  Not so.  Most sites in the Outback, including Ayers Rock and the Olgas, were named in honor of the financial benefactors of various expeditions.  Accordingly, Kata Tutja, or the Olgas, were named for Olga, the Queen of Spain. 


Standley's Chasm             Simpson's Gap                  Ormiston Gorge                                                      Glen Helen Gorge



That night, on one-legged Billy’s recommendation, we hit Eastside Fish & Chips.  Order the Barramundi rather than the cod.  It’s a bit more, but worth it.


We also took a nice sunset walk from the B&B out to the Telegraph Station (well, about ˝ way because it got dark).  Beautiful ghost gum trees and a wild kangaroo jumping across the trail.   I realized that kangaroo in Australia are like deer at home.  They even get hypnotized by the headlights on the Road Trains, the tri-trailered semis that move goods around the country, just like our “deer in headlights.”  But here, of course, it’s “Roo in headlights.”  The truth of this was borne out by the fact that we saw many more kangaroos lying on the side of the road than bounding across them.


Early the next morning we were picked up by Northern Territory Adventure Tours for our three day camping trip.  NTAT caters to the younger backpacker crowd.  I had done a three day camping tour from Darwin through Kakadu National Park, and thought they would be a good fit for a trip to Uluru, as Ayers Rock is known to the aboriginals.  Camping in the outback, bush meals, it all sounded so Australian.  And, while Wendy and I like a good meal in a nice hotel now and then, we also like to rough it now and then. 


True to form, the majority of the people on or bus were in their early to mid twenties.  We had riders from Canada, Germany, Japan, and Ireland.  Wendy and I were the only Americans.  Our route was to take us from Alice to King’s Canyon (again, named after a Sydney-side businessman who funded the exploration), where we would hike through the canyon and camp out at NTAT’s permanent camp site.


On the way, of course, we had to stop at one of the obligatory tourist stops, which was a Camel farm.  The camel rides were a bit silly, just a five minute ride around the paddock led by a farm worker.  We passed on the rides, although the baby camel was quite cute (and quite smelly).


King’s Canyon is really just another gorge, although a magnificent one.  The hike around the rim takes about three hours and, since we had a guide, we did the hike in the opposite direction than the public.  This was good, since the brilliant planners placed at the head of the opposite direction an extremely steep slope, sardonically called Cardiac Hill, with good reason.  Standing on the rim of the Canyon however, made it worthwhile.  It reminded me of the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland.  Scoot up on your belly and look straight down.




In the middle of King’s Canyon is what has become known as the Garden of Eden.  A watering hole in the nook of the canyon surrounded by ancient palms and ferns.  Unfortunately, the Outback had not had any rain for over four months.  As a result, the water in the hole was quite fetid.  Although our guide warned us against swimming in the hole since it was filled with “shit,” literally and figuratively, when we arrived there was a huge group of teens and twenty-somethings swimming in the hole, making me wonder whether I should find out who makes Hepatitis A vaccine and buy some stock immediately.  I would be rich.


We made our way out of the canyon and headed for camp, where we all pitched in and collected firewood, started the fire, helped to prepare and cook dinner, clean up afterwards, in the dark, with temperatures plummeting and a thick coat of dust covering everything (which is why a five day trip would have been too much... this was not an easy trip).  The meal was cooked directly on the fire, in a traditional camp stove. 


We slept out that night under the stars in swags, traditional Australian outback bedrolls.  They are quite warm, and we were close to the fire, but the freezing air, not to mention ubiquitous dust, was not doing any favors for my declining throat condition.


The next morning we headed for Uluru and Kata Tutja.  The first glimpse of Uluru is from about 30 miles away or more, and I don’t believe I will ever forget it.  Seen for a split second from a sharp rise in the road and appearing like a ghostly phantom, it shimmers and then disappears as quickly as it came, and you wonder if you really saw it.  It is several more minutes before it reappears, glimmering red in the distance.  It sounds like an exaggeration, but it is truly one of the awesome sights in the world, and one can only imagine what was going through the minds of the first Westerners to see this huge monolith rising mightily from the red sands. 


Kata Tutja, some twenty miles from Uluru, is a collection of huge stone mounds rising from the flat of the Outback.  The literal translation means “Many Heads.”  Although there are more than three, the aboriginal people of Australia have no words for numbers greater than 3.  Wendy and I skipped the advertised “four hour hike” to an outlook in the Kata Tutjas, and relaxed with a good book and a bottle of water. 


That evening we headed to the required Uluru sunset viewing and champagne toast. Everyone within 100 miles seemed to be there, and we had to walk far to find an open viewing spot.  At sunset, Uluru changes with every second and changing ray of the sun.  From light brown, then to bright orange, then a dusky orange, then dark red, evolving before our eyes.  I took 30 pictures or more, and each one is distinctly different.



That evening we opted to sleep in the tent in NTAT’s permanent campsite at Ayers Rock Resort.  Ayers Rock Resort is actually a town, run primarily by aboriginals.  Every Australian that lives there must also work there, sort of like a company town.  We were told that the moment you lost your job was shortly before the moment the local gendarmes would escort you to the town’s border. 


Uluru and its surrounding land was originally the home of the local aboriginals, and is considered very sacred.  There are locations that are forbidden for non-aboriginals to photograph, or even see.  The aboriginals also retain the right to close Uluru down for their ceremonies.  It fell into the hands of the Australian people, but the aboriginals eventually reacquired ownership.  However, it is somewhat misleading, since a condition of the return of the land was a 99 year lease back to the Australian government.  The continuing struggle was evidenced by the sign which had previously read “Ayers Rock Resort” but which had been spray painted over with the words “Uluru Resort.”  The government giveth, and taketh away.  This alone explains why people continue to climb Uluru, even though the aboriginals ask you not to.  The aboriginals have no say whatsoever, even though the yearly glut of climbers is actually damaging the rock by wearing away the top layer. 


For us, whether to climb or not was never a question.  The ancient owners have asked us not to, there really doesn’t need to be any more debate, does there?  In the brochure the aboriginals write with respect to climbing the rock:  "That's a really important, sacred thing that you are climbing...You shouldn't climb.  It's not the proper thing."  However, the line of people – called mingas, or “little ants” by aboriginals – dutifully climbing the rock revealed that there was no shortage of people for whom this was not a question either, but who reached a different philosophical result.





We opted for a sunrise 10K walk around the base of Uluru.  Just as at sunset, the rock takes on various shades of life as the morning sun rises to warm the freezing ground.  Again, some places are off limits for photography, and not always very well marked, so you have to know what you are shooting if you choose to take photos.  Our walk took approximately two hours, at a slow leisurely pace, allowing plenty of time to take in the majesty of the rock, to view some minor rock art, to visit watering holes, and to watch a kestrel hunting just beside the trail, exhibiting the very same behavior that had been demonstrated to us at the Alice Springs Desert Park.  Just as the night before, with the sun going down, the sunrise, with the moon going up, was just as spectacular.......




The Path                                       The wave cave                              Watering hole                   Willy Wagtail, our favorite bird


Entrance into Uluru is AUS$16.25.  You must keep your entrance ticket with your name written on it on your person at all times.  If you are asked to produce it by a ranger and cannot, they have the right to escort you out of the park. 


After lunch we were dropped off – voiceless, weary, sunburned and tired – at the Ayers rock airport.  I was quite relieved to remove my hiking boots and fleece and stuff them deep, deep inside our luggage, never again to be seen by me on this trip.  Our next stop was the wet, warm tropics of Cairns and Tropical Queensland.  I couldn’t wait.

part 2


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