Yulara, NT, Australia
Alice Springs is the end, middle and start of the Red Centre. A quaint little town, this is the gateway to King’s Canyon, Kata Tjuta and that red onion peel monolith they keep talking about.
Who the f*ck is Alice?
Sir Charles Todd, while researching locations for a telegraph station, found a convenient spring not too far away from what is now known as Todd River. He named the spring after his wife, Alice. The town soon followed suit, and he prepared to move the whole family there.
Unfortunately, the spring wasn’t, it was rather a hole that had happened to be waterfilled due to recent rains, and the family never moved there. So there was no Alice in Alice Springs, nor was there a spring. Nevertheless, the town persists, and is quite the unique little place. Backpackers abound, and there is a decent number of eateries, cafés and bars around. The town holds many weird annual events, the most famous being the Camel Derby and the Todd River Regatta*. Unfortunately the timing wasn’t right for any of those, but we did get to partake in another staple of the town, namely browsing the many art galleries, displaying aboriginal and often mindblowingly beautiful art. The urge to buy was just precisely thwarted by the combined efforts of money, shipping and the lack of justicegiving walls back home. But in the future, yes, I could definitely go for some mesmerising indigenous art.
We only had one free day in Alice, and that was mostly spent catching up and our breaths, but we did get to have a quick look at the dramatic landscapes (driven even more dramatic by means of the irregular sky) of Simpsons Gap. We also got married and got to sample Aussie specialties such as emu and pavlova.
Who the f*ck is Ayers?
Pretty soon we headed west though, and before long a reddish, oblong monolith arose from the horizon, and people’s camera phones started clicking in the bus. Our ginger tour leader didn’t stop for better photo ops, though, but calmly explained that the rock in the distance was jokingly referred to as Fooluru, and so the first of many interesting facts and tidbits was delivered by our soulless leader.
The actual rock formerly known as Ayers Rock (after then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers) eventually appeared, and we all got out for real photos before heading in to camp for setup and lunch. Our pack consisted of Europeans, mostly Dutch, German, Scandinavian and Latin speaking**, and we had a bit of an introduction round at lunch.
The afternoon was to be spent much closer to the rock. Due to the extreme heat, the base walk (all around the base, some 10 kilometres) was closed, and we only did a shorter, 2 km walk, but even that proved to be too much for some in the scorching heat.
The whole area, with the actual Uluru in the middle, is sacred to the traditional owners. Some parts are more sacred than others, and some places are only meant to be seen by the men, whereas others are strictly for women. While the rules don’t apply to non-originals, there is a ban on photographing those places: photos inevitably show up in the public domain, and if an indigenous man happens to see photos of any sacred female site, or vice versa, they risk being punished for it. Hence, you’ll see no such pictures here.
While having dinner and awaiting the sunset on Uluru, the symptoms of the previous walk in the heat (intensified by convection and radiation from the rock itself) began to show. One co-traveller showed signs of heat stroke, and soon enough we had to abandon station to get her to a clinic. We got some nice photos in, and Caroline, being always a nurse, stood by her until the hapless traveller finally got to go to bed in an airconned hotel room. The rest of us rolled out our swags and slept under the stars, ready for an early start next morning.
Who the f*ck is Olga?
Apparently there’s a 4 in the morning as well. In order to catch the sunrise on Uluru, we got up ridiculously early and drove to the lookout spot. It was crowded, and the rock was quite a bit away. It was still worth it, though, as a quarter turn anti-clockwise lay Kata Tjuta, much closer and as awesome a rock formation as Uluru.
So that’s where we headed next. It was still early, and there was a nice breeze blowing up. Unlike Uluru, you can actually get up close and personal in Kata Tjuta (which means Many Heads), and we started our short walk around, by, and in between the giant boulders. Led by our knowledgeable tour guide, the flora and, to a lesser extent, fauna, was laid out. The fact that the wind kept the temperature down on reasonable levels meant that he agreed to let the more adventurous of the gang to follow the full path and complete the full circle. With most of the other tourists out of the way, the stunning scenery turned even stunninger. The breeze kept us cool, but it would turn out to be a short-lived friendship. With the wind came the dust, and by the time we reached camp, there was a full on dust storm.
Dinner was crunchy that night. Swags were rolled out in the kitchen tent, by the pool, or anywhere else where one could find some semblance to shelter. On the plus side, though: there is nothing like a bit of rough condition to make people realise that they don’t have to sheepishly wait around the trailer for their specific bag; all bags need to be unloaded, and ownership can be sorted out once they’re out, much quicker and more efficient-like.
King of the ‘o?
The wind lasted throughout the night, and it was as welcome at Kings Canyon as it had been frowned upon during the night. Another strenuous walk, made easier by the cooling breeze.
In Watarrka National Park lies Kings Canyon, yet another stunning set of rock formations in the Red Centre. Kings Creek drains the whole plain, and the part with the Canyon provides a varying rim walk, made more interesting by the facts and tidbits provided by our guide. Pretty much every grass, bush and tree can be used for something, be it spears, glue, poison, spearheads, toothpaste or, you know, all of the above. Just not eating. Just like the fauna, most of the flora in Australia will kill you. Out of the four species of bush tomato, three will kill you, or at least make you seriously ill. The fourth is presumably as nutritious and well tasting as a regular tomato, but they are hard to distinguish. Bush tomato roulette is not recommended.
Pretty much every grass, bush and tree can be used for something
Kings Canyon is impressive enough from up close, but to really get the full scope of the vastness of the surrounding plains, which composes the basin for Kings Creek, it’s a good idea to see it from above. We took a helicopter ride of the surroundings, and it was fun, stunning and cool, and gave a new perspective of things.
Alice springs. That mythical backpacker place. So much more than a backpacker magnet. The arts, the history and very welcoming locals.
After the farewell dinner at the Rock bar we had a nice sleep in, a nicer English brekkie and then a slow trek around the centre. A slightly tired
but happy couple met up with three lovely ladies. We drove out to the Simpson’s gap. Under a magnificent Gum Tree I cried tears of joy when I married my best friend, my lover, my travel companion and my partner in crime.
Next day started early, very early. Have you noted that we have consistently had early mornings? 0600, 0700 and hardly any late starts. This leg of the journey would not prove any different. The soulless (his own words) ginger tour guide picked us up at the YHA at six am. The music were (not surprised) from the 90ies. Again.
No complaints from the fuddie dudies. Aka the hubs and me. The millenials though were slightly bored.
A loooong drive later filled with wombats (not the real ones but the code word for loo break) and coffee breaks we finally saw the rock! Uluru the magnificent. So pretty, so large, so smooth and so red. I loved it. I am soo going back when the temperature is not in the high 40ies. We had yet another heatstroke. Rather scary.
Swags are a now my favourite sleeping outdoors gear. Comfy, roomy and quite snakesafe (I think).
Sunrises, sunsets, four different bush tomatoes where three of the will kill you (our tourguide very nicely offered the four vegetarians the possibility to help him find out which tomato is the good one. “we will have at least one of you alive…” ). Apart from the dangers from the flora, the risk of the sandstone rocks collapsing beneath us, the scorching heat, the very steep climbs, and of course the intense thirst the walks were very safe. All over the pathways the rangers, the locals and the landowners (the native Australians) had put upp AEDs, satellite emergency phones and helicopter-friendly landing places. If anything would happen it would not be the fault of our hosts. Aussies sure care for the environment and for their guests.
No vegetarians were harmed during this trek.
*) Probably the only regatta to have been (once) cancelled due to the presence of water. Yep, Todd is a dry river, and the boats participating in the regatta are bottomless, and propelled by way of feet, Flintstones style.
**) From The Netherlands, Germany/Austria/Switzerland, Sweden/Denmark and Romania/Italy, respectively