March 10, 2004, 19:25: Alice Springs, Australia - Melanka Backpackers
I now understand why I've noticed blue and orange are quite prevalent here, on shop signs, clothes, vehicles, etc... The outback is a harsh place, although you can eke out a living if you have the knowledge, and don't take anything for granted. It's hot. Fortunately, we didn't have that much killer weather on our tours, although I can begin to appreciate what a full on cloudless summer day is like. I think I'm beginning to tan.
The trip started off at a very early time in the morning, something I don't wish to relive at any time. The night before, I had misplaced my toiletries, and was searching around frantically for a couple of hours, keeping me up much later than anyone getting up at 5am should have been up for. Turns out someone had returned it to reception, and I was quite relieved. Glenn was to be our tour guide. We set off, and the first stop was a camel farm. Apparently, there are tens of thousands of these animals roaming around the outback freely. Camel rides were offered, but I wasn't that interested, due to the camel not really being indigenous to Australia, and spending $5 for a couple minutes entertainment.
We were heading off to King's Canyon, an area I was not quite familiar with in the McDonnell Ranges. Kings Canyon lies only a couple hundred kilometres from Alice Springs, but takes 3-4 hours to get there simply due to the road structure. On the way there, I had the chance to get intimately familiar with the outback landscape. I was surprised at how green it was. This is apparently because of the season, which is the rainiest part of the year. This proved to be true once we got there, experiencing mild rain while at Kings Canyon. We had a quick lunch and headed off for a good 3 hours or so of walking around the ridge of the canyon. Being a tech support geek doesn't help on the climb up to the top of the ranges. It was a fairly steep angle, and was pretty consistent all the way to the top. After the workout of the century, the view from the ranges was pretty nice. Walking around for a bit more than an hour, we came upon an area known as the Garden of Eden. This is permanent waterhole, which happens to be quite isolated and shielded by the range, and most of us went for a swim. We spent about half an hour there, and turned back to go to the camp, getting rained on the way back. I don't know if I would have been able to do the walk without the rain.
At camp, we had a meal prepared in large thick metal pots with lids... They were thrown in the fire, and had hot coals thrown on top of them for a good hour or so before it was ready. The didgeridoo was passed around, and I managed to make a couple more semi-coherent noises, much to the surprise of people sitting around me.
I can't say I'm usually a big fan of camping, but this was actually half decent. We had mini cabins each outfitted with a couple of bunk beds. Unfortunately, I had to be shacked up with the typical dorky German tourist (as described in a book I read recently about Australia - the name escapes me at the moment). He was wearing a blue hat that had "Australia - kangaroos" written on it, didn't speak English well, had practically hairless legs with high socks, and seemed to be quite disciplined and punctual. This became quite the painful proposition, as when I tried to go to sleep, the German fellow woke me up to talk a little bit (I had earplugs in). He seemed to want to tell me that he could only go to bed after he had brushed his teeth, and this was a critical process in his routine, including setting out his clothes for the next day. After telling him this was all well and good, as well as apologizing for not hearing him at first due to the earplugs, I let him know that I would be going to sleep now, and putting my earplugs back in. I fell asleep for about 10 minutes or so, when I was woken up by someone tapping on my arm... Confused and disoriented, I pulled out my earplugs to hear "Are zees yerr zocks on ze vloor?" . I confirmed that, yes; these socks directly beside my bed, as well as the rest of the clothes piled with the socks, are mine. I then repeated that I was going to sleep now, but thanked him for his concern on my footwear and assured him all should be well in the clothing department now this great mystery had been solved.
We got to "sleep in" till about 6:30 that morning. I would have appreciated this more, if the German fellow hadn't set his alarm for 5:45 and spent about 10 minutes organizing his backpack, shaking the whole bunk bed for the whole process. Getting up this late was a real treat compared to the 5am of the day just past. This day, we would be heading out to Yulara, which is a small resort area designed to be a base for those visiting Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). It's a pretty expensive little area. 1.5 Liters of bottled water ran you typically about $3.50, and a "hotel" room ran about $500/night. This is an expensive place. The whole existence of this resort is hinged on people's fixation of staring at, walking around and taking pictures of giant rocks. I will reiterate this is one strange country at times. This was not as long as a commute (about 3 hours) and we made it in good time.
After a short drive around Uluru, we stopped for a quick lunch, and headed out to Kata Tjuta, a set of smaller, yet just as tall rocks. We had another 3 hour or so walk ahead of us, and when we got out, we were attacked by bush flies. These are probably one of the most annoying creatures in existence. Each person was probably swarmed by about 50 flies, which appear to have a strong desire to buzz around you while attempting to land in your nose or ear, or on your eye. These flies don't actually bite, and don't appear to do anything other than land on you, sit there for a couple of seconds, walk around, fly off, then repeat the whole process again. Now, once you get about 50 or so flies doing this to each person, you begin to get the picture of how annoying and persistent these things are. This was also the height of fly season. Perfect. We walked through the Olgas, heading towards an area known as The Valley of the Winds, which is really quite a spectacular view of the rocks. It looked like a painting. It was impressive. So was the sunset at Uluru, where we watched the colours change on the rock for about half an hour.
When we got back to the campsite, a large meal was being prepared, which was well earned. We had beef stir fry, potatoes with melted cheese, rice, and sausages. The stir fry and potatoes were particularly excellent. Glenn can actually cook quite well. He was also a very funny guy, always cracking jokes, playing games on the bus, and sharing his wealth of knowledge about the outback with us. We slept under the stars, in Australian Swags, which are basically a portable mattress in a bag, with a sleeping bag inside. The weather couldn't have been much better, and after staying up for a little while by the campfire, we slept until the middle of the night, when we were woken up to go to the sunrise. It was 4:45 am. This is cruel and unusual punishment. I went and had a quick shower, which was discouraged because we supposedly didn't have the time for it. We got to the sunrise lookout and spent a good 45 minutes waiting for the sun to come up. This was supposed to be quite spectacular, but turned out to be fairly disappointing compared to the sunset.
I had originally had the intention of climbing Uluru, but after hearing about the requests that the Aborigines have made not to have tourists climb all over their sacred place, I decided not to climb it, and opted for the base walk instead. This walk was about 9km long, and gave you a very good view of the rock. This is no small object. It stands about 350 meters high (approximately 1100 feet or so), and just comes up straight out of the ground. Apparently, it goes further than 7 kilometres underground as well, and the section we see has been pushed out of the ground by geological activity. This is the largest monolith (single stone) in the world. The angle this thing comes out of the ground is practically like a cliff most of the way around. I suppose it's not so ridiculous to have such a lucrative tourist site operating a few kilometres away. The walk was quite spectacular, and I managed to snap a few shots as well. They don't look nearly as impressive as the rock does in person, and I would say this truly does warrant the long trip out to see it.
We made it back to where we started our walk, and Glenn took us on a little tour offering some insight on the stories that have been associated with certain locations on the rock, and their significance to the Aborigines. We then set out for a quick lunch, followed by hours of driving back to the remote town of Alice Springs - which was beginning to feel more and more like a metropolitan city compared to the largely uninhabited 5000+ square kilometre free range cattle stations patchwork that was the outback. Glenn mentioned these stations typically have about 10000-15000 cows roaming around at any given point. The area that we covered on the trip is geographically very small, and it felt like forever. The trip down from Alice Springs to Adelaide which I will be making tomorrow is approximately 2200 kilometres, and that's only about halfway down the continent, on the relatively short north-south traverse (as opposed to the east west which looks much longer). I have a newfound respect for the size of this continent, and the explorers that originally traversed it and mapped it all by foot, and I think that's only appreciated fully once you've been here.
I have made many friends this trip, and that's really what made it fun. There was a very diverse group of people, some from England, some from Bavaria, one from Switzerland, some from Japan, a few from Ireland, and one Canadian. This is an experience I will remember the rest of my life.