Wanting to see the outback and the true heart of Australia, we hopped on a Qantas flight from Sydney to Alice Springs on the 14th March after four brilliant days in the city.
The three hour flight offered some amazing views first over the spectacular gorges of the Blue Mountains north west of Sydney, and then over the sprawling farming land that continues inland from Sydney for about an hour. The contrast of the interior was stark - the farming land suddenly turned to barren, grey land on which there was no sign of roads or any kind of civilisation. The only features were deep trenches streaked across the land that seemed to have been scraped out of the rocky earth by giant hands, and the odd pool of grey, sulphuric-looking water. It looked like about the last place on earth you would want to find yourself. We must have flown for about an hour and a half over this landscape before the landscape finally changed to the red soil one associates with Australia and we landed in Alice.
The views of the outback from the comfort of our Qantas plane
We arrived to heat in the high 30's Celsius and checked into our hostel, run by friendly South African, Wayne. Wayne is another great hostel owner that we've met during our travels. He learns all his guests' name and makes sure that you've got everything you need. He was always working on his garden, making sure that the newly planted tree didn't get too much sun by setting up an umbrella over it and constantly watering and nurturing all the plants. You had to admire the effort in the middle of the desert!
We then had a bit of time in the afternoon to check out the town. Alice Springs is an oasis in the middle of some of the harshest territory on the planet. While it's not exactly charming, it is fascinating. It's a town of about four streets, where most of the shops are tourist centres or aboriginal art galleries, with the rest being pubs.
In the blistering heat, we made it to the Flying Doctors Centre to learn about the medical service in central Australia before retiring to the shade of our hostel to prepare for our tour the next day.
The flying doctors visitors centre - very interesting yet incredibly not a single reference to the hit 1980s TV series
A striking thing in Alice is the presence of Aboriginal people. We had not seen a single aboriginee in Sydney, but Alice and the Northern Territory, is an Aboriginal centre. However, the impression was not good: groups of aboriginal people congregated in the shade of local parks and street corners chatting amongst themselves, apparently not working, and living a parallel existence to the white Australian population. It is true that there are many galleries selling aboriginal art in town but these are invariably run by white Australians. This is not a comment on Australia's politics - we know far too little to give an opinion about that - but the scale of the gulf in lifestyle and attitudes between white and aboriginal Australians is very evident in Alice Springs. The aborigines we saw seemed to be stuck in a very difficult rut - no longer in their traditional way of life but very obviously not integrated into the urban life that has been built around them. Incredibly, we saw African and Indian immigrants working in the supermarkets of Alice and driving taxis but we saw very few Aboriginal people doing any kind of work in the town.
On the morning of Thursday 15 March, we were collected from our hostel at 6 am for our three day outback tour to Uluru and the surrounding area. We had taken a budget backpackers option and it felt a bit like we were climbing into the school bus as we took in the youthful faces of our fellow travellers in our tour mini bus. We were definitely at the upper end of the age range! On the six hour drive south to Uluru, our guide and driver Wookie got us all introduced - it was a diverse group ranging from 19 year old German backpackers to a Chinese fashion journalist, an English theme park manager and a Hungarian banker living in Sydney.
Our guide, Wookie, a proper Australian bloke
We kicked off with Uluru that afternoon. We had been in two minds as to whether we would climb it before coming out here. Until the 80s, visitors could camp at the foot of the rock and climbing was the thing to do. That has changed significantly in recent years and now only around 20-30 percent of visitors climb the rock. As it happened, it was closed anyway due to the risk of bad weather, but a trip to the Uluru cultural centre convinced us that it was better to respect the wishes of the local tribe and to not climb the rock. The Uluru national park is tribal property and the extent of the access granted is generous, so it seemed logical to respect the requested limits. We did the 9 km base walk right around the circumference of the rock instead of climbing.
What can you say about Uluru, a site you feel you have seen a hundred times in pictures before you see it "in the flesh"? Well, what is amazing is that it looks completely flat from a distance but actually every face of the rock is different: the surface is almost scaly, with holes in the surface that look like they have been scooped out to form bizarre shapes. There are black lines of algae running down channels where water flows when it rains, which it does surprisingly often. There are also caves in the rock that look like the inside of waves that contain ancient rock art.
Views of Uluru from the base walk and some of the cave art
Various corners of the rock are off limits for photography because they are sacred ceremony sites, used either for men's or women's rituals in aboriginal society. No woman may see the men's sacred sites, and vice versa, even in a photo. Knowledge has to be earned in aboriginal society, and the are severe punishments for those who obtain knowledge without permission.
The aborigines have stories about how all of the principal holes and caves on the rock were formed- each of these is evidence of the validity of tjukurpa (the often used term "dreamtime" is perceived as derogatory ), their belief system. Amusingly enough, as we respectfully pocketed our cameras while passing a sacred male elder's site on the rock, we were passed by a group of aboriginal children with their dog who proceeded to clamber all over the site. Ours is not to question!
If you want to understand the significance of Uluru to aboriginal people, the evidence is this: of the hundreds of aboriginal languages spoken all over Australia (mostly not mutually comprehensible), there is one single word they all share in common - Uluru. That is an astounding thing in a country as vast as Australia and among people as dispersed as the aboriginal tribes here.
You can probably guess from the above that our tour guide turned out to be very knowledgable about the aboriginal culture and geology of the area and we learned a lot as we went along. However, Wookie couldn't change the weather and when we went to our viewing spot for sunset over the rock, we were greeted by nothing but clouds - no sun in sight and so no postcard perfect snaps for us. It was unique in all the wrong ways! The highlight of the event for us poor backpackers was the free-for-all on the left over canapés from the pensioners travel group that also turned up for the sunset. Brought back all kinds of memories from the sea lion feeding time in Valparaiso.
"Has the sun set yet?" You can't have good luck all the time when travelling.
Competition for places to watch sunset at Uluru is fierce - this tour bus of pensioners from Essex tried to muscle in on our viewing spot. The backpackers enjoyed clearing up their leftover canapés once they had left for their hotel
After some dinner and beers with "sunset", we headed to our camp site to set up our swags for the night. For those who don't know what an Ozzy swag is, it's a kind of cocoon containing a foam mattress that you zip yourself and your sleeping bag into for camping out in the bush. The piece de resistance on this contraption is the so-called "monster flap" - a piece of material that folds over your head to encase you in your swag and keep the bugs out. Given what you see crawling around on the ground out here, it's good to have a monster flap! Because it rained both nights we were out in the bush, we ended up sleeping in our swags under an outdoor shelter so no romantic star gazing possible...
Next day's sunrise over Uluru was as spectacularly uneventful as the sunset unfortunately. As we all strained our eyes through the clouds, hoping for a glimpse of sunlight, Wookie announced that sunrise had happened two minutes ago and dragged us all onto the bus.
"Has the sun risen yet?" Another day, another layer of thick clouds...
Cloud cover was a bit of a blessing though for the activity of the day - hiking in spectacular Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) near Uluru. Kata Tjuta means "many heads" and is a collection of stunning red rocks which was formed in a similar way to Uluru. The highlight of the hike was spotting some kangaroos hopping among the peaks (which apparently only happens when it has been raining as they come to drink from the watering holes - envy thing happens for a reason!).
Hiking in Kata Tjuta
Our first sighting of kangaroos, in the desert of all places
What on earth are they up to?
Oh, er... We left them to it.
On the way to our campground for the second night, we stopped to view Mount Connor - yet another monolith measuring 30km around its base and rising to a perfectly flat peak. Because of its likeness and proximity to Uluru, it's known as "fool-a-roo" and local guides take bets on how many tourists will mistake it for the real thing.
That's not Uluru, you fool.
Our second night's swagging was spent at King's Creek where we set up a campfire, enjoyed some beers and bush tucker (well, er, chile con carne) and toasted marshmallows for dessert. The campsite had toilets and hot showers, as we had enjoyed at Uluru the night before - more luxury than we had been expecting!
Camp fire banter with the kids.
Our final day started well before sunrise with breakfast and packing up camp then arriving at King's canyon in time for the sun coming up over the beautiful red stone of the canyon. We enjoyed a really scenic guided hike through the canyon, the highlight being a dip in the rock pool at the "Garden of Eden". Fortunately no crocodiles spotted in the pool and the water was easily ten degrees warmer than the last rock pool we had swum in in Patagonia.
Hiking through King's Canyon and the reward of a swim to cool off. Thankfully no Crocodile Dundee moments
On the long ride back to Alice Springs Helena came up with the plan of a music quiz for the bus, which she made up on the spot using Wookie's iPod. The entire bus was awed by Helena's wide ranging music trivia: "name the son of the artist's ex-wife", "name the film this song appeared in", "where is the artist buried" etc. There was a definite Swedish bias, as Roxette and Ace of Base featured heavily - how sad to think that these classics were released before some of our tour companions were even born!! The right hand side of the bus narrowly beat those on the left and it helped an hour or so of the monotonous bush scenery pass by.
"Is it Roxette ... ?" Helena's music quiz proved a hit on the tour bus
A thorny devil that our tour guide spotted from the bus and showed around - not as vicious as he looks! These guys have a fat deposit on their back that is a decoy for birds that want to swoop down and eat them. What is even more impressive, they drink water with their feet!
Our final stop of the tour was at the local camel farm just outside Alice. It is a little known fact: (a) that camels roam the Australian outback, having been imported from Afghanistan in the early 1900s to help with labouring (building the telegraph line), and then set free when replaced by cars and lorries (in fact, Australia now exports its pure breed camels back to the middle east!); and (b) that Alice Springs is a centre of camel racing. The guy who's camel farm we stopped at is a champion camel racer and allows you to ride a camel for a small fee. Otherwise, you can enjoy stroking his pet dingo, feed the very cute pet kangaroos and try to avoid the vicious pet emu (all of these are animals rescued from injury in the wild). Or you can just buy an iced lolly in the shop. That's what we did.
Australian camels are so pure in their breeding that they are now exported to the Middle East!
Helena and friendly dingo
A stroppy Ozzy emu
Our final evening in Alice Springs was spent at the local Rock Bar with our tour guide and group enjoying a final meal together and a few beers, which coincided with St Patricks day. They were celebrating the occasion hard in Alice Springs, notably by shaving a few of the locals' heads in the pub for charity.
Alice Springs - home of camel racing and charity head shaving or in this girl's case, colouring
We were glad not to be hanging around any longer than necessary in Alice Springs - once you've done a tour to Uluru there is not a whole lot else to do, so we hopped on a flight to Brisbane on Sunday morning. Coming to the centre of Oz was a big trip in itself but definitely worthwhile not only to see the amazing sights of the interior but also to learn about the aboriginal culture. Next stop, Byron Bay on the east coast - a world away!