Well, those of you looking forward to a riveting discussion of the "Bloomin' Onion" will be disappointed. This is a tale of the real deal Australian Outback. The one with lots and lots of red earth, dangerous critters and high temperatures.
Like many of my adventures, the decision to travel to the red centre was a bit of a last minute affair. While still in India, I sought the advice of a few fellow travelers who were either natives to the country or had been there at some point in the recent past. I'd actually done a little research on flights from Perth to Alice Springs and on to Sydney, and could actually hear my checking account whimpering. However, upon multiple rounds of questioning, the consensus was that if you're going to visit Australia and you're on a trip like mine, it would be a sin to bypass the real outback. Damn.
On Sunday the 19th, I hopped a Qantas flight from Perth to Alice Springs. On this rare occasion, I had a window seat - not that it mattered much. There's absolutely nothing to see. Just outback, bush, desert and... outback. Oceans of red earth with brushstrokes of pale green. It was a little like flying to Vegas - a whole lot of nothing to see on the way.
As we sailed closer to Alice (as the Aussies call it), the desert started to fold up into small hills and rough, rocky ridges. Every so often, bright white amoebas of long-ago evaporated salt lakes nestled themselves into the red rust of the earth. At one point, the captain told us to look out the right-hand side of the plane, as we were about to pass over Uluru (aka Ayers Rock - fyi - As you might imagine, Uluru is the Aboriginal name, and Ayers is the white-man version. Since ownership of it was passed back to the Aboriginals a while back, Uluru is now the proper term - yeah, I didn't know that either). I crouched over some little old guy to get a look. It was pretty big - even from the air. Much to my surprise, it was irregularly shaped - a rounded blob with blunt protrusions - nothing like the smooth oval I thought it to be from the pictures.
The next morning at 6:00am about five others waited with me for our tour of the rock. A few minutes later, a mini-bus-like ride pulled up to our hostel. Our driver, a true-blue Aussie named Derbie hopped out and said hello through a tanned face and old sunglasses. A half-assed effort at the logistics later, we all jumped on, hoping this was the right bus. After a bit more formal check-in procedure at the tour group headquarters, 22 of us set off in a smallish 24 seat bus towing a small enclosed trailer on the back.
It was 470+ kilometers to Uluru from Alice. That's a long way no matter where you are. And, like the flight in, the ride proved that outside of Alice, there's nothing to see out here. About 30 minutes into the ride Derbie said we'd drive almost 500 kilometers and pass four people's houses. That's even more remote than western Nebraska, which is pretty much desolate. There's just nothing out here.
After about an hour of driving and sleeping, we stopped at a camel farm. I'd never really associated camels with Australia. And according to Derbie, they aren't indigenous. They were apparently brought here by the Afghan people who were enlisted to help early settlers make a home in the outback. Long camel trains were used to get supplies from one area to another. However, once the continental railway was finished (appropriately called the "Ghan"), four-wheel-drive vehicles and better roads came onto the scene; there wasn't a big need for camels anymore. All the camels were just let go - left to their own devices out in the desert. Today, there is apparently camel surplus in the country. They just run wild all over the outback. There are so many in fact, that some people make a good living catching and selling them to the Middle East.
Another hour or so and we stopped for pictures - some rock formations in the distance formed what looked like a toothbrush - fairly amusing. It was nice to get out and stretch, but even at 10:00 or so it was getting hot. It was interesting to get a look at the shrubs and trees and the real red dirt they were somehow growing out of. The landscape reminded me a lot of Arizona, but with about 50% more vegetation, and no cacti. We climbed up a little hill of red dirt to see a salt lake - and watch our highway stretch into the horizon and disappear. Standing there in the middle of the day, seeing nothing but red earth and shimmering heat waves makes you feel kind of small.
We still had a couple of hours to go, so Derbie wisely distracted us by initiating a game of trivia. Through the course of the game we found out our 22 persons represented 12 different nationalities, which I thought was pretty cool. Here, in the middle of the hot Australian outback, a bus is sailing down the highway carrying people from England, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Ireland, Korea, Germany, France, Japan, Canada, Australia and of course, the good ol' US of A. As is par for the course, I was the only American in the group. Most of them were in their 20's - making me feel like the old guy at the club. Fortunately, though there were some older (50+) Dutch people on the trip, so I didn't pull up the rear by myself.
We knew we were getting close when Uluru appeared on the horizon in the distance. It was really pretty cool to see - even ten kilometers away. We found our campsite and unloaded some stuff. The set-up was actually pretty nice - much better than I thought it would be. After my safari in Kenya earlier this year, I had set my expectations pretty low. It turns out the site is shared with several other companies, and had permanent buildings in the middle with showers and toilets for both men and women. Each side of the building had two long rows of sinks, one flanked by showers, and one by toilets. Unfortunately it had rained a couple of weeks ago, and the lights are always on, so there were about 50,000 moths inside. But, given the alternative, this is living in luxury!
There was of course a drawback - our site had no tents set up, meaning we were sleeping on the ground. More on that later. On the plus side, it did have a covered cooking area complete with a shed containing a refrigerator. Australian priorities are in check - we might not have tents, but can definitely keep the beer cold.
Damn it was hot. The shade sucked, and the sun was unbearable. Jack, an air-traffic controller from Holland, had a super-Swiss Army watch with a thermometer. He left it hanging in a tree in the sun for 15 minutes to get a reading. When he looked at it - it read 47 degrees Celsius. You don't have to do the conversion to know that's pretty f'n warm.
After lunch we went for a drive to the nearby rock formations called Kata Tjuta (Olgas). They were beautiful. We had a chance to see them from a distance, and then take a short walk between them. It was pretty amazing scenery. The rock looked like it was somehow fused together, but in a way that didn't seem normal (not that I'm a geologist or anything) - it looked like a fruitcake (to steal Derbie's words). We probably would have enjoyed the walk a lot more had it not been so blazingly hot. It was just ridiculous.
After about an hour we headed back to the campsite for a swim in the pool. Knowing the likelihood of having a clean pool at a campsite was slim to none, I opted for a shower. I grabbed my stuff, and headed toward the building. As I turned down the left-hand row of showers, I noticed some movement on the ground at the end of the hall. I had to look twice. A two-foot long yellow lizard was padding around on the brown tile floors. He was eating moths. It would stand still, then flick its tongue out to snare one. Then, he would be off to another part of the floor, moving way too fast for my liking.
So yeah, there's a two foot goanna in the damn shower room. Now, I can put up with a lot of stuff, but this is something different. The biggest problem was that the shower stalls were open at the bottom, and the little dragon was running into each one of them systematically looking for more dinner. I can't think of too many things more disturbing than having an Australian goanna darting in at your feet while you're naked in the shower.
So, what do you do? You wait, that's what. There are a hell of a lot of moths, and he seems to be enjoying himself. Thankfully, I must have caught him at the end of his meal, because about five minutes later, he came slithering toward the door - looking me right in the eye the whole time. I backed out, trying to not produce any sort of obstacle or shock that would send him back into the room. Right on cue, someone else came around the corner. The lizard froze, and retreated back into the shower room. Son of a... Fortunately, he must have been ready to leave, because about 3-4 minutes later he flopped out onto the cement of the entryway, an under the fence. Good Lord.
After my shower, a bunch of us went up to a lookout to watch the sun set on Uluru. It was really quite beautiful.
After dinner, and posed with a ridiculously early start, we began to think about getting some sleep. We all became quickly familiar with "swags". Swags are essentially just a mattress of foam about an inch and a half thick and encased in a zip-able shell of canvas. We each got one, as well as a sleeping bag to go inside it. You go inside the sleeping bag, which goes inside the swag. If properly put together, it's a fairly nice little package.
Unfortunately, there are few problems to deal with - First, you're sleeping on the f'ng ground in the f'ng outback! Is it possible people in Australia haven't seen "The Crocodile Hunter?" Spiders, scorpions, snakes, big bugs, God knows what else... But apparently this swag is supposed to keep you safe and sound. Right. Second, swags aren't built for 6'9" people. No matter how you get situated, it isn't comfortable. And I didn't really want my head sticking out. And I found out too late I didn't have a pillow. I ended up using a half-empty water bottle - which, as you might expect isn't very good. Finally, if you missed it before, it's freaking hot outside. Even after the sun goes down it's still 35 degrees Celsius. A sleeping bag inside a canvas shell doesn't exactly cool you down. So, you have to leave some of it unzipped, which, as outlined above in point one, makes you more vulnerable to the inhabitants of the desert.
To make a long story short, I didn't sleep well. The benefit though is that at about 1:00am the bright half moon dipped into the horizon, leaving one of the most brilliant night skies I've ever witnessed. Only twice before have I seen stars so near - so close you could almost touch them - in the waters of the Antarctica peninsula, and in the Samburu game reserve in Kenya.
Morning came early - I was up at 4:00. And yeah, I slept with my shoes on - No way am I leaving them outside... Who knows what might try to climb in there... Son of a...
It took forever for everyone to get ready, which pissed me off. I was on the bus, ready to go, and watched the sky go from black to a medium blue. Damn it! I booked this trip to see sunrise, damn it. Let's go!
After what seemed like an eternity, we made it to the viewing area and got to see most of nature's daily show. And, it didn't disappoint. The only bummer was that we were too close to get the entire thing in the frame. Oh well, what can you do?
After a quick breakfast, we rolled over to the area of the rock where the adventurous can climb to the top. Yes, you can climb the 346 meters to the top of the rock - but the Aboriginals don't like it one bit - this monolith being sacred and all. As we passed by, I could see a bunch of people already on their way up - they looked like ants against the early morning sky.
A bunch of people decided to do the climb, and after some deliberation, I declined. Partly to respect the wishes of the natives, and partly because I really wanted to do the base walk - to see the entire thing from the ground level. In the end, I made the right decision. The walk was cool, and I got some great views.
After a quick lunch we packed up our camp and headed 300 kilometers to the King's Canyon Resort. We pulled in for a much appreciated dip in the pool. After the swim, I showered (no goannas this time) and walked with Derbie up to the nearby convenience store/bar. We sat down for a while, had a beer and watched the Simpsons. Not a bad way to avoid the heat.
Eventually we collected everyone and drove to our campsite. This one had tents for us, which was a relief to many. As I contemplated this, Derbie mentioned a few things he shouldn't have, like how if he were a spider, where would he be hiding? Yeah, in these nice permanent tents. Right.
While everyone contemplated this, Jack and I walked a few hundred meters over to a rocky ridge which promised to offer nice view of the setting sun. We were soon joined by a few others from the group. At one point, one of the German guys I'd talked to earlier asked me how this compared to some of the other sunsets I'd seen. A tough question, but a good one. How does one compare sunsets?
As darkness fell, we all wandered back to the camp (with an eye out for snakes and such), and started a fire. I love campfires - the way the flame pulsates and recedes. It's alive in some way - breathing, eating and playing.
Around nine o'clock, people started talking about going to bed, as Derbie said we needed to get up at "stupid o'clock" to ensure we could do our walk of King's Canyon before the oven was turned on. People started getting their stuff around - grabbing their swags and heading for tents. Some actually decided to sleep on the ground again. Once everyone had become settled, I put my plan in action. I didn't really feel like sleeping on the ground again, and shutting myself in one of those tents just seemed like a bad idea. So yes, I slept on the bus. Indeed, it wasn't overly comfortable, but it was spider, snake and scorpion free.
Much to my surprise, we actually all got going pretty well the next morning - likely due to Derbie's threat of leaving us, which we all laughed at, but sort of believed. Didn't really matter for me - I was already on the bus. We made it to King's Canyon at about 5:30. A beautiful setting in the early morning light.
We started our walk as a group, but somehow I ended up getting ahead of the pack a bit. I started up the aptly named "heart attack" hill" - about 200 meters of rough stone stairs. It was tough, and my chest was on fire by the end. I about did have a heart attack. Mainly because I'm in the worst shape of my adult life right now.
It was beautiful at the top - the sun wasn't fully up yet, and painted the sky a wonderful pale blue. As I took some pictures, some of the young whipper snappers in our group passed me by and went on ahead. I used the opportunity to space myself out a bit. On walks like this, it's good to have some room of your own. Soon there was a good 100 meters before and after me - a little peace for this bit of the walk.
I got into an area which was pretty open - about 15 meters of space to my left ending in a rocky drop-off, and another 20-30 meters of flat land on my right ending in a rock face pushing up about 40-50 meters with lots of ledges and nooks. A few steps later I noticed movement to my left. I turned to see a 4-foot kangaroo sitting about 20 feet away, right at the edge of the drop-off near some low bushes. He'd just come up the rocks. It was beautiful. Don't ask me what kind it was - what the hell do I know about kangaroos?
He stared at me for a bit. It was one of those moments where time slows down a bit. A peaceful moment where you feel total peace. I'll remember it for a long time. Inevitably, a few other people came in range behind me. He took a look at them and started hopping - long and graceful bounds, passing right in front of me. He went from left to right, landing on a low ledge and stopped. He turned to look at us. It was great. 30 seconds later, some dumb Dutch ladies from another group walked out towards him to get a better view. He of course promptly bounded off and out of sight. You don't get that experience too often in Missouri.
The rest of the hike was amazing - one great view after another. It's hard to describe them all.
After our adventure, we piled back into our bus for the last time, and set sail for Alice Springs once again.
At the end of the day, I'm glad I talked myself into going to the outback. Expensive, yes, but it was three days of experiencing a country outside of its cities and urban vibe. Three days of real Australia. Three days I'll never forget.