Journey to the Centre of Australia

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Alice Springs

It was just after midnight when we headed for the Greyhound stop, it wasn’t due to leave for another half hour so we were surprised to see it waiting in the bay already. What was even more of a surprise though was bumping into a couple we had met on the boat on the reef over New Years. It was great to see them and it turned out we had been allocated the seats next to them on the coach anyway so we had plenty of time to chat (though as it was past midnight we were all a bit on the tired side). It was a bit strange having allocated seats on the Greyhound though, in our numerous trips this was the first time we were told where to sit and the driver didn’t seem to be the happiest of people. The first leg of our four bus journey to the Red Centre took us back South along the coast to Townsville. For the majority of this stretch I was in the Land of the Zzz’s, with only fleeting moments of consciousness, however during those moments I felt a little uneasy with the style of our happy drivers driving skill. Alex, who unfortunately had to endure the experience conscious as he doesn’t tend to sleep on vehicles, described his driving as having all the finesse of a brick propelled by firecrackers – and I have to say based on the glimpses I had and the reaction of our two friends when we got off the bus at Townsville confirms this as pretty accurate. At this point we parted ways for the second time, they were headed further South whereas we were about to start heading West.

During the remaining journey (a journey which lasted thirty-something hours in total) we met Natalie whilst sharing a table at one of the various rest stops along the way. It turned out that she was also doing the Rock Tour on the same dates that we were, though she was staying at a different hostel in Alice Springs. When we did finally arrive in Alice Springs it was nine in the morning. The YHA where we were booked to stay was a short walk from the bus stop so we loaded ourselves up and headed off. As we were a little early to check-in we just left our main bags in their luggage room and headed off to sort out some errands. This ended up taking most of the day and although we were ready to drop at any point from the lack of proper sleep on the coach (particularly for Alex) we kept going until all was sorted. We knew that we had an early start the next day (we were being picked up at 5am) so we headed to a local pub for dinner. It was actually raining at the time we headed out – turns out the week we were there was during Alice Springs wet season, which lasts a whole 2-3 weeks – and so when we saw the pubs blackboard advertising a roast our taste buds were tingling at the thought. After placing our drinks order, we then waited half a century for someone to collect our food order, then proceeded to wait the remainder of the century to be told that in fact the roast was no longer available. Gutted. At this point we would have left however in the year leading up to the turn of the century our drinks had arrived so we kind of had to stay. We had a brief look over the menu and made our second choices: for me, the good old Aussie burger and chips and for Alex, a salmon salad. This was put through the kitchen quickly and I’m pleased to say the food was actually rather good, it was just a shame the service didn’t match it. Anyway! Once we were fed, it really was time for sleep (unfortuantely the delays at the pub had led to it being a bit later on in the evening than we had hoped but nevermind!).

The Rock Tour

The next morning we were waiting at the front of the YHA at 5am awaiting pick-up for the tour, it was here that we met Sabrina and Laura; two friends travelling together from Germany, they were also coming on the Rock Tour. Our hostel was the first pick-up of the morning so we got comfy in our seats and started chatting to Adam (aka Cow); our guide for the next few days. By the time we had completed the hostel pick-ups the bus was about half full (including Natalie who we had met on the Greyhound). The rest of the group would be picked up from Ayers Rock Airport later in the day.

We headed off along the Stuart Highway and after letting people settle on to the coach and have a chat amongst themselves Adam proposed the Introduction Game to us. We had recently stopped for a quick loo break at which point he had written some headings onto the inside of the windscreen:

Name / Country

Brief History

Animal / Furniture / Colour

Best / Worst travel experience

First / Last OR Most Embarrassing moment

Now most of these are pretty self explanatory headings, however I should point out a couple of things; the third one (animal/furniture/colour) doesn’t relate to what your favourite (whatever) is but rather what you would be. Also the final line was supposed to be your first and last kiss OR your most embarrassing moment, however quite a few people divulged both or at least tried to. So we each took it in turns (Adam taking the lead), to sit up the front and use the microphone to tell the rest of the group a bit about ourselves. It was a really good laugh and great way to break the ice for everyone (though people had been talking before then but afterwards you really did feel you knew everyone that bit more). I think the most memorable answer was when Harry (a guy from Austria) said that the animal he was most like was ‘a creepy fish’ – we later determined he was refering to the Anglerfish and the reason behind it was that he really liked eating seafood and that he was creepy. We laughed so much and even when I think of it now I chuckle to myself.

After the introduction game the coach fell into a mixture of chatting and sleeping (although early on in the day, it had been an early start for all and perhaps a bit too early for some). One of the key points Adam recited to us was the importance of drinking lots and lots of water during the trip. Natalie, Alex and I admitted to each other about our usual lack of water-drinking so we came up with an ingenius, fun way to remember to drink… it was called ‘every time Adam drinks, we drink’ … catchy name don’t you think?

Before too long we had reached Ayers Rock airport (it actually did take a fair while and we had stopped a couple of times for toilet breaks and to buy food/drink if desired but in the grand scheme of things it was the next marker of the trip). Here we picked up the other half of the bus. Now the original plan was that we would play the intro game again so we got to know them too however we never actually got around to this. Nevertheless the group merged rather well and we headed on to the first proper stop of the tour. We went to Ayers Rock campsite where we delighted in having a brief dip in the pool. Well, we thought it was going to brief, just a quick 20mins, however it turned out Adam had just got his numbers in a muddle and so after a quick dip, we then returned to the pool for a slightly longer dip. It was so refreshing 🙂

Next stop, Uluru National Park to finally see Uluru with our own eyes. We were not disappointed. Before we actually visited the rock up close, we went to the cultural centre to learn about the history and the Anagnu [ah-na-nu] (Aboriginees of the Uluru region), and their stories related to the Rock. Adam was passionate about the people on his tour understanding the Rock and its significance to the Anagnu people. Tjukurpa [chuk-ah-pa] is the Anagnu word which describes their stories; it is their law, their moral code and a very important part of their lives. Tjukurpa is composed of sections, such as Men’s Stories, Woman’s Stories and Children’s Stories. As anyone (even outsiders like us) can know Children’s Stories, this is what Adam shared with us. However to know any of the other stories you have to be of the Anagnu and even then it is only once the elders have deemed that you are ready will you be told another story. They are not written down, just passed on from generation to generation verbally.

Once we had an understanding of the stories and their link to Uluru we undertook the Base walk. We opted for the ~6km walk (as did all the group) and armed with water, powerade and knowledge we were off! I was filled with awe when standing infront of the huge rock formation, the scale of which really can only be appreciated when you are standing infront of it. I am led to believe that it is as tall as the Eiffel tower, except instead of being tall and thin, it’s tall and vastly wide. As we walked the Base we experienced a variety of weather, from the intense sun with sparse clouds, to an overcast sky, to a sprinkling of rain and back again.

The walk finished near the Uluru Climb; a point of contention between the Anagnu people and the tourist board. You see, the area permitted to climb is a sacred walk taken by Anagnu men, earned by their passage into manhood and attained though great hardship. So to see hundreds of tourists taking this route just for something to do on a saturday morning, it isn’t hard to see why this practice is gradually becoming less acceptable. Additionally, all culture aside, you can see the erosion of the Rock’s surface as a result of the large number of people regularly undertaking the walk. My memory being as spectacular as it is, I can’t remember the stats Adam told us; however the number of people that climb Uluru has dropped each year (assumedly because they have more of an understanding of the issues). Each year there is also a vote held between the 12 custodians of Uluru, a combination of Anangnu and white Australians, on whether to allow the climb. Every year the person in the same position votes to keep it open (the representative of the Tourist Board). As long as this continues people will have the option to climb Uluru, as a unanamous vote is needed for any changes to be made. It is an interesting philosophical and political dilemma, one that Alex and I pondered over and discussed on several occasions.

We had all finished the walk by 6.30pm so it was time to jump back on the bus briefly so that we could drive to a spot some km away to cook dinner, eat and enjoy the sun set on the Rock. We had a tasty noodle stirfry courtesy of Chez Adam and then turned our attentions back to the Rock – unfortunately it was a little cloudy that night so little of the sunset was actually seen. Despite this, the view was still pretty sweet.

Once darkness had descended it was time to get back on the bus and return to the Ayers Rock campsite. We slept out in swags and were hoping to see the most amazing starry sky – such as we experienced out on the Reef over New Years – however there was still a fair bit of cloud about so little could be seen. Due to the threat of rain overnight everyone opted to set up their swags in the shelters (whose actual purpose was a little kitcheny area). Alex and I managed to bagsy a countertop which would hopefully secure us from any pesky ants and had the bonus of still allowing us to see outside. Considering it is probably the most exposed style of camping I’ve ever had, I slept pretty soundly through the night, the only exception was waking up around 3am for no apparent reason – however by this point the clouds had cleared and I was able to gaze up at those beautiful, endless stars for a bit before drifting to sleep again.

We were up at 5am again the next day. We packed up everything quickly, loaded back on the bus and headed through the dark to Uluru to watch the sunrise. Once again there was cloud about, however it looked so impressive with the cloud that we didn’t mind.

After lots more photos we headed towards the Rock again to undertake the Mala walk. This was the most guided of our walks as Adam explained more stories relating to each part of the Rock (this included the Men’s cave, Women’s part and the old Men’s cave).

Once this walk was completed, we bid farewell to Uluru and moved onto Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas). Here we did the Valley of the Winds walk. The first part of the track the whole group did together, then where the path branched we stopped whilst Adam explained how Uluru and Kata Tjuta had formed. Instead of just explaining it with words Adam used the dirt and rocks around to create a mini-landscape and moved the rocks around as he narrated the changes they have undergone. After the mini-geography lesson we had the choice of two routes: one was a circular route, about 7km; the other option was about 4km (2km to a point where you would meet the group taking the long route and then the same 2km back). It was a very hot day, we were armed with water and powerade and we felt up to the challenge so we chose the long route. Probably a third of the group chose to do the long route, out of those people Alex and I formed a little group with Julia, Natalie and Alex II. There were breathtaking views all around us and I don’t regret taking the long route one little bit, however when we were standing at the bottom of a steep climb that led to the meeting point (~5km into the walk) I really felt like my legs were going to give way on me. I was out of powerade, low on water and the only food we had was an apple. Alex had the apple, which he claims was the tastiest apple he has ever eaten and was a great relief from the, now rather warm, water.

Alex II was the first to make the top, received by a cheer from the group at the top. Natalie and I both felt a little funny on this climb so took it slow and steady. We all made it up in one piece and to my relief there were some biscuits to munch on which instantly made me feel much better.

After a little break whilst we waited for everyone to make it to the meeting point we headed along the final 2km or so. This was the most challenging walk of all that we did whilst on the Rock tour but it felt so good when we reached the meeting point, to look down at the valley we had walked up and survey the landscape.

Once we were back on the bus it was time to move on again, we left Uluru National Park altogether and headed on the big drive towards Kings Canyon; our final destination on the tour. Whilst heading out Adam noted that the sky was threatening rain in the distance so we pulled over on the highway and collected firewood… well… most of the group did. Myself and a few others helped Adam move the swags from on top of the trailer, into the trailer and when the trailer was full, into the bus. It was agreed that it was better to be a little squished in the bus than have wet swags to sleep in that night.

When we arrived at the sleeping grounds for the night there were two jobs to sort. One; build a campfire. Two; prepare dinner. Harry (the creepy fish) and Alex took charge of building the fire up – Alex kept agitating the fire with a large stick, which was deemed the ‘firestick’. Meanwhile I was helping to prepare dinner, on veg prep duty. Once it was all ready for cooking Adam took the cook pots and put them on the campfire. It felt right that we should cook on a campfire when out in the bush.

While dinner was cooking everyone sussed out where they wanted to put their swag for the night and quite a few of the group sneakily laid claim to said area. Alex and I would end up on the picnic benches which doesn’t sound much but was rather a premium spot I feel – undercover and off the ground, but still with a view of the stars.

Once dinner was ready we all tucked in, sitting around the campfire, surrounded by darkness and chatting away. The original idea had been that we would all sleep around the campfire, however as the night progressed the rain made an appearance and so people had been wise to find sheltered spots earlier in the night. Alex however is not one for early nights, or one to give up on a fire easily so he stayed up quite late keeping the fire going (He challenged the rain… when it eventually stopped most people were asleep but the fire hadn’t died, so he won). A combination of his bushmans hat, khaki-green clothing and keeping the fire going kind of earned him a bit of a Bushman rep.

The final day was another 5am start. We set off on the drive to Kings Canyon, our final destination of the tour; and what a fantastic walk it had to offer. The whole group stayed together and did the Rim Walk. The hardest section of this is probably the very beginning, an incline affectionately known as ‘Heart Attack Hill’. Luckily despite the steep and numerous rocky steps, the weather was mercifully cool so everyone made it to the top in one piece. After this ascent the walk actually turns rather leisurely and yet again we were greeted with phenomenal views in every direction. Even with good cameras, we still couldn’t seem to capture that feeling of awe when you stand gawping over the edge of the canyon.

Whilst on the walk Adam was looking for someone in the group who had been scratched or cut recently and as it turned out Alex had a very small nick on his leg, he was to be the guinea pig for some Aboriginal medicine. Adam broke off the stalk of a plant growing on the canyon: Sarcostemma australe, or ‘Ipi-Ipi’ to the Aboriginal people. The stalk contains a milky sap, which he squeezed onto Alex’s cut. It was essentially nature’s plaster. We checked on the cut about half hour or so later and it had sealed up with a covering like clear plastic. In all, it was very much like PVA glue.

By the time we reached the end of the walk we had done many things that had become routine over the last few days: we were left breathless by the views (though the walking might also have had something to do with it); drank litres of water; and had a conversation with some strangers on the otherside of the canyon (ok so maybe the last one was only at Kings Canyon). Now it was time to load up once more into the bus and begin the long drive back to Alice Springs, however our adventure wouldn’t end just yet.

It is a tradition of the Rock tour for the group to go out for dinner at the Rock bar in Alice Springs on the night you return. I’m pleased to say everyone was up for this (except one person who couldn’t attend) and so after a few days in the bush we had a couple of hours to spruce ourselves up and go out for some tasty food: a great end to a great adventure. And why you may ask was our guide known as Adam ‘Cow’ Coop? Well, that’s a story for another time…

5 thoughts on “Journey to the Centre of Australia

  1. My favorite part would be the camping in swags… But wait, I’m doing that right now 🙂

  2. Well Lucy and Alex,
    what a wonderfully exhausting few days you have had, after reading about the 5am starts and all the walking around, up and down The Rock and Kings Canyon I am absolutely exhausted [oh the joys of being young] so it’s a nice warm bath for me and a cup of coffee before hitting our swag. Enjoy the remainder of your holiday, we look forward to seeing you both on your return. xxx

  3. That was a truly great adventure guys 🙂 so so lucky – dont think you can come home and sleep on our counter tops or picnic tables tho !!! lol Really looking fwd to seeing all those amazing piccies and finding out about Adam ‘Cow’ Coop !
    Lots of Love
    Mum xx

  4. It’s a lovely amazing experience you tell, Lucy.
    So there were no pre-built tents then? Ours were built already but I’d rather have built our own shelter like you guys so we knew what lurked within! You remember our ‘mouse’ experience? – hmm!

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