I just spent a week in the outback of central Australia. Flying doctors, school of the air, fly in – fly out jobs, this place is vast and remote. The terrain is gently undulating, rather than pancake flat as I imagined, and greener, thanks to rain in February. The growth cycles of the plants are not tied to the seasons, but rather to the rain, which is rare, sometimes not at all for a year or more. When it does rain, it tends to pour, overflowing dry rivers and promoting growth spurts. On average, there’s just enough rain for it not to be classified as a desert, but it is very arid, as my lips and hands will attest. (I used lotion for the first time since leaving home). Overall, the scenery reminds me of the American southwest, with lots of red soil and a smattering of fantastic rock formations, thought we don’t have kangaroos or camels wandering about. (Initially imported for transport, camels are now being exported back to the Middle East).
31 March – Alice Springs
As someone mentioned when I told him I was going from Auckland to Alice Springs, these two places have nothing in common except they both start with the letter “A”. One is a green port city, the other a dry outpost. With a population of about 28,000, Alice is the third largest city in the Northern Territory, and there are no springs.
It was a long day getting here. I got up at 4:00 a.m., which is 12:30 a.m. here. Jane, another of my wonderful women hostesses, picked me up from the airport at noon. We had lunch and then I explored the town while she returned to work. I started at the mall where I did a little shopping and spotted a dot painting, which I now regret not purchasing. I just missed feeding time at the reptile center, but got to hold a python. Jane dropped me at the desert park where I got to spend a wonderful hour walking from aviary to aviary. I virtually had the place to myself and wished there was more time before closing.
1 April – West MacDonnell Ranges
I took a day trip to numerous spots in this colorful mountain range with only three other tourists, including the same Aussie American I chatted with on the plane yesterday; he’s taking about three weeks to hike the Larapinta Trail, something I wouldn’t consider in this heat. Our guide was very knowledgeable and shared a lot of information with us, about both local history and nature.
I got dropped off at Jane’s home and enjoyed a beer and meal with her and her co-worker, Odette. They both assured me that Cooper’s Pale Ale is the best beer in Australia and I need not look further (so far my samplings have proved them correct). It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening, much of it spent lamenting that Americans take too few vacations.
2 April – Getting to Uluru
I was picked up at 5:40 a.m. (thank you Jane for an early ride to the rendezvous spot) for a three-day camping trip. There were twenty-one of us, the majority exchange students from other countries. There was also four people from Finland and a few Aussies, seeing Uluru for the first time.
It’s a long drive to Uluru, more than five hours, on an almost straight road. With a few stops along the way, we reached our campground in Yulara, the town just outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in time for lunch. Afterwards, we visited the cultural center (the land surrounding this area has been returned to the Aboriginal people and they manage it jointly with the park service), and took a couple short walks near the base of Uluru. The majority of this broad monolith is underground and what we see is one end of a giant rock formation that has been turned on end.
A light rain started right after dinner, so the majority of us, including me, rolled out our swags under the tables in the dining tent. Turns out the rain stopped shortly and we would have been fine outdoors.
3 April – Kata Tjuta
We were up at 5:00 a.m. so we could have breakfast before driving to the Kata Tjuta dune viewpoint. Kata Tjuta (“catta-jew-tah”) means “many heads” in the local Aboriginal language. (This rock formation was previously known as the Olgas). From there the sun rose behind Uluru, far in the distance.
After sunrise, we took a 7.5 km circuit in the Valley of the Winds section of Kata Tjuta. Other than my left foot, which has suddenly started killing me, it was a wonderful hike.
After lunch, we drove to Kings Canyon where we settled in for the night. Dinner included kangaroo steaks, which were too chewy for my taste. This time I slept out under a full moon. Just after I drifted to sleep, another camper spotted a scorpion. This led to much commotion and the scorpion’s demise. I rechecked the perimeter of my swag and went back to sleep hoping nothing would crawl on me during the night.
4 April – Kings Canyon
Once again we were up before dawn for a drive to a trailhead. We took a four-hour hike though the Zion-like Kings Canyon, a wonderland of sculpted red rock. Other than the first stretch, nicknamed Cardiac Hill, the rim walk was not difficult. I taped up my foot, took ibuprofen, and stepped carefully.
After lunch, camel burgers, those of us going back to Yulara boarded a very comfy tour bus for our three ride, while the rest of the group returned to Alice Springs. We made one stop along the way and reached the Outback Pioneer Lodge with plenty of time for a shower before sunset. My private room with a shared bath is both my most expensive overnight lodging and the cheapest room in town.
I walked up to the viewpoint near my hotel to watch the sunset. We didn’t get the magic red light on Uluru, but the sunset over Kata Tjuta was amazing. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was an unusual sunset, apparently caused by a lunar eclipse that I missed.
I had dinner with a couple fellow campers, a cook-it-yourself BBQ/salad bar combo, eating outdoors with a nice band in the background.
5 April – Yulara
There were clouds on the horizon so sunrise wasn’t spectacular. I walked around this tiny town, the fourth largest in the Northern Territory, visited all the galleries, and bought a few small souvenirs; I really like some of the Aboriginal designs. My foot was throbbing, so I spent the afternoon lounging around the lodge, repacking my suitcase (to fit in my purchases) and sorting through hundreds of photos.
Words cannot describe the beauty and joy of standing on the top of a red dune and watching an amazing sunset, especially while wearing shorts and enjoying a gentle warm desert breeze. I am a happy traveller! BTW, this trip has convinced me that I need to move to someplace where I can enjoy the warmth of summer wearing sandals.
At dinner I met a nurse from Queensland and had a nice long chat over a beer. She is heading back to a remote Aboriginal community for another ten-week stint in a nursing home. The place is so remote that a bus runs only twice a week, when rain or Aboriginal “men’s business” doesn’t close it. (Most aborigines, many separate tribes and languages, remain secretive about their stories and rituals).
6 April – Uluru
I finally had clear skies at sunrise and saw the oxidized rock turn red, nice. I was going to walk around the base, about 6km, but turned back a third of the way around since my foot was aching again. I strolled back, thoroughly enjoying the view. Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon were both beautiful, but Uluru is the most peaceful. It feels good to be here. I could easily stay longer, but I’m catching a mid-afternoon flight to Cairns.
Sorry for the length of this entry and the number of photos, I don’t have time to edit further.