Ok, ok…it’s not ALL about Alice Springs. In fact, I only spent a little over a day there. The rest off my time was spent camping through Red Centre with Wayoutback Desert Safaris. It was definitely a major highlight of my trip. At night, we slept out under the stars around the campfire all snug and warm in our swags. During the day we hiked. Our vehicle was my favourite so far. Apparently all of Wayoutback’s trucks have names. Ours was Bindi. We soon grew to love Bindi and what she could do. She’s a big 4×4 truck designed to deal with anything the Australian outback can throw at her. We definitely put her off-road capabilities to the test on a few occasions, but she never let us down.
Our first stop was Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock. I’d been looking forward to this for a long time and it didn’t disappoint. In the past, the thing to do at Uluru was to climb it – about a 2 hour trek to the top. In recent years, however, since the land has been returned to its Aboriginal owners, climbing Uluru has become less popular. For the Anangu, Uluru is a very sacred place. Many of their most sacred stories (Tjukurpa) take place here. The belief is that in the dreamtime, while the world was being created, the first beings walked through the land making it what it is today. The Tjukurpa all have three elements. First, there is navigation. If you know the stories and what signs were left, you can orient yourself and get where you need to be. Uluru is particularly useful in this manner as it is visible for a huge distance (60 km or so). Secondly, the Tjukupa tell about how to live. They define men’s and women’s roles and teach lessons about how to get along and settle disputes. Lastly, the Tjukurpa identify features or markings that are believed to be the physical evidence (Tjukuritja) left by the first beings as they travelled through the land.
The Anangu are the keepers of the land where Uluru stands and they have a strong sense of responsibility for what happens to people who visit there. While they do not forbid the climbing of Uluru, they do strongly discourage it and ask that people do not climb. There are two main reasons. First, the route to the top is exactly the same route used by a central figure in one of their creation stories. As such, the entire length of the climb is over sacred ground. Secondly, the climb is dangerous. Over the years, almost forty people have died in the attempt. For someone to die on their land, particularly on a sacred path, is very distressing for the Anangu. So…well…we didn’t climb. Instead, we did the 11km base walk which was really quite interesting. Along the way, there were signposts describing the various sacred sites and the stories that go along with them. I don’t have pictures of these sites (if you want to see them, you’ll have to go yourself) as they request that no photos be taken in some of the more sacred areas. The stories are teaching tools and it is deemed inappropriate to view the sites from any other location.
Next stop, Kata Tjuta, formerly known as “The Olgas”. Although it was about the same length, this hike was significantly more demanding than the Uluru base walk. The base walk was all on flat ground on a well defined path. Kata Tjuta was definitely NOT flat. There were some significant portions of “up” and “down” and in places the path was quite steep, sometimes with loose rock that made footing a bit precarious. We did, however, have our first really good wildlife sighting. Right near the beginning of the hike, we came across a Euro (mid-sized kangaroo like critter) with a joey in her pouch. She stood about watching us for a minute or so, then went bounding off over the rocks. So cool.
King’s Canyon was possibly my favourite hike. The mountain that contains King’s Canyon was formed by the same geologic events as Uluru and Kata Tjuta, but the top layers were somewhat different. For some reason, fractures formed in the top surface in a fairly regular geometric pattern. Over the millenia, these cracks have widened and the elevated portions have eroded into domes. So what is left is a fairly regular set of domes with wide flat spaces between.
I took pictures, but they just don’t do it justice. It’s one of those places you just have to see in person to really appreciate. We climbed down to a place called “The Garden of Eden” for a mid-morning snack. It was quite a climb down and back up again, but definitely worth it. There was a pool there that looked like it would have been great for swimming except that the lack of rain had left it too low and it was getting a bit stagnant. Oh well, maybe another time when there’s been a bit more rain…
That was the last hike we all did together. We’d started off as a group of twelve (I’m still lucking out with group size…) but half of our group was on a shorter tour so they left us after King’s Canyon. That meant that for the last half of the trip, there were only six of us plus our guide. We were sorry to see our travelling companions go, but it was great having such a small group for the remainder of the trip. Lots of room in the truck, and lots of flexibility with our itinerary.
The place we camped after the King’s Canyon hike was a brand new place for Wayoutback – they’d just contracted to have a permanent campsite there. It was definitely different from the other sites. It even had permanent tents – with beds! Of course, we all chose to sleep in our swags around the fire anyway – with the amazing view, how could we not do so? The cliff behind the tents was huge – the scale doesn’t show up in the picture – and at night it was very subtly lit from below. Nothing harsh, just a gentle glow. At the foot of the cliff was a great little swimming hole. The cool, clear water was most welcome after the day’s hike.
The next morning, it was off to Ormiston Gorge. I’d never heard of this place, but this was the other hike that might have been my favourite. There was such variety. It started off with a bit of climbing up and down, wound its way up to a peak that overlooked the valley, then a long meandering path down into the valley itself. The best bit was near the end, walking through the gorge itself. There was no path for this part, just boulder hopping through the gorge back to where we’d started. We did have to wade across the water at one point, but luckily the water was very low – only knee high. We all sat down for a bit of a rest by the water and eventually spied a Black-Footed Rock Wallaby perched halfway up the cliff on the other side. It was a hot day and he was having a bit of a snooze on the ledge. We watched him slump further and further forward until, at one point, he almost toppled off the edge. He woke up with a start and a scramble of claws and repositioned himself into the Buddha pose in the picture. I guess he felt a bit more stable there, because he promptly went back to sleep.
My favourite campsite of the whole trip was at a place called Red Bank Waterhole and getting there was an adventure in itself. Our guide showed us the road we would take on a standard Australian highway map. Granted, it wasn’t marked as a major road…but only in Australia would this track have been marked on a map. I managed to get two pictures out the front windshield while we were driving, but only on the better stretches. Parts of it were much rougher than the pictures. It was definitely a four wheel drive track and any lesser vehicle wouldn’t have made it. The place we camped was about as “outback” as it gets. Just a firepit and our swags alongside an almost dry riverbed. No facilities at all. The silence and the dark at night were absolute and we were woken up in the morning by an amazing chorus of wild budgies.
As with almost everywhere else I’ve been, it wasn’t nearly long enough. I only spent a little over a day in Alice Springs and there was definitely more to see and do there. I’d like to have had more time, but I’m not sure I could have survived the heat much longer. I lucked out with the weather – there was a “cold snap” while I was camping and hiking – mid to high twenties most days. Hot enough, but not nearly what it might have been. By the time I left, though, the temperatures were creeping up into the thirties…and higher…
My lasting images will be of the vivid red sand dunes set off by patches of green against the bright blue sky. It’s a spectacular but very unforgiving landscape. Most of the time, bridges span dry riverbeds. When there is rain, the dry riverbeds turn into torrents. It’s a land of extremes – and no compromises. But that’s what makes it what it is.