We arrived in Alice Springs into a rare bout of “rain” and cool weather. It was only about 27 degrees, and I counted at least 12 raindrops coming from the sky, which is apparently quite the downpour for the desert town.
With little intention to linger in Alice Springs, I did have the chance to briefly catch up with a friend of mine, who I had met in Canada and had returned home to Alice. We had a brief catch-up, and she gave us some recommendations for our trip. The major one of these was to take the “other” way of getting to King’s Canyon, our first stop on this leg. The main, highly touristed route goes south from Alice along the Stuart Highway before cutting west and then back north for a short jaunt to the canyon. It appears to travel mainly through relatively boring and not particularly scenic desert, and will take you about five hours (461 km and 4.5 hours, according to the King’s Canyon Resort website).
The second option was to head west and then south, following a slightly more direct route. This route cut through the Macdonnell Mountains, took the Mereenie Loop Road, and was promised to be “heaps better” than the alternative. There was also a large proportion of it, or 198 km to be exact, that was unsealed. “A normal gravel road,” Kirsten stated. “You can go like 80.” This route would also take about 5 hours. (320 km and 3.5 hours, according to the website. This is a lie.)
It was clear what option I was pushing for.
The first bit of the trip was lovely, the only fault was perhaps in our choosing of the stops along the mountain range. One we did nail was the Ellery Creek Big Hole. Outstanding scenery, the water appropriately icy for a desert watering hole, and a strange blanket of calm and serenity in the air made a swim here an incredible experience. A few feet from the shore, I fought the shivering in my bones and the rising goosebumps on my skin and submersed myself entirely. I burst the surface of the water, and the cold seemed to wrap its tendrils around my chest as I struggled to catch my breath. In a moment, my breath and heart rate seemed to have returned to normal, and I took a few strokes to the center of the water hole. Sound from the shore seemed to drop away and I was pulled forward by the urge to keep swimming towards the rocks that rose up around the far edges. As I floated there, in a rare state of serenity, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that we had arrived at someplace very special.
We carried along our route with a couple of unorganized and un-thrilling stops; time, indecision, and popular opinion restraining us from partaking in any of the gorge walks throughout the mountains.
We carried on, wanting to arrive at our destination, King’s Canyon Resort, by a decent hour. And then we hit the unsealed part of the road. It felt like someone had churned up piles of spiky rocks into rock hard concrete, let it set, then broken it up a bit, added some serious potholes, and covered the whole lot in a thick layer of unrelenting washboard. All 198 kilometers of it. Several times, we saw a shredded tire laying on the side of the road, making us cross our fingers in hope that our Rav’s rubber would stand up to the challenge. A breakdown out there would have been dismal, with no cell reception and the frequency of other vehicles being about once an hour.
This was not taken particularly well by my travel companions, though everyone did hit a point after about two hours where we could do little more than laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. It was comparable to the level of sleep deprivation where everything just becomes exceptionally funny.
Each rise in the road came with a surge of hope that we would spot the end in front of us, and subsequently squashed when we reached the crest and saw the wide, rocky “road” stretching out into the distance. Each paved floodway, steep incline, or set of sharp corners was met with a sigh of relief accompanying the momentary reprieve, and then slightly bitter resignation when the road returned to the jarring sound and vibrations of the endless washboard.
Trying to remain positive through the mounting tension in the air, I viewed this as an interesting twist to our adventure. I even had the thought, though I doubt I bothered to voice it, that if we went fast enough we could potentially just skirt over the top of the washboard, smooth sailing. This optimism was not necessarily shared by the rest of the group, though, weeks later, comments were made about their bitter memories of the road softening with the passage of time. After doing some research on the road after the fact, it appears to the be the universal opinion that this, in fact, the best way. Reviews mentioned “some corrugations,” and it may be that we hit the road immediately before it was scheduled to be grated. Despite the mission, I would still give this route another go, just making sure to allow a solid day for the drive to give enough time to enjoy it and the stops along the way.
Eventually, the washboard ended and the rattling faded from our ears into the black night sky behind us. We set up shop for one night in our sweet cabin in King’s Canyon Resort. Feeling the desire to treat ourselves, we headed out for dinner, most of us opting for the parma on special. Aussies seem to have attempted to claim Chicken Parmigiana as their national dish. I’m not sure how or why they’ve adopted this Italian classic and claimed it as their own, but it’s a staple on most pub menus, and any proper Aussie will undoubtably, at one point, insist that you have a parma while visiting their country.
The following day, we split ranks, and my mom and I headed off to walk around the top of King’s Canyon. The rest of the group did the creek walk through the center of the canyon. I found King’s Canyon to be one of the most stunning places we visited in the Australian Outback. The walk was excellent, with very few guard rails inhibiting our ability to get to the very edge of the best views. The walk started with a large staircase that looked as though it had been more coaxed into being than made by hand. The natural rocks formed a solid staircase-like climb to the top of the Canyon, where we skirted along and around the top of the canyon before making our way down.
Out next stop was, of course, the iconic Uluru though, along the way, we discovered something that none of us had been aware of before the trip. En route to Uluru, there is an even larger monolith that sits on a privately held cattle station. Without a tour, stopping at the roadside lookout is the only way to view Mount Connor / Attila. A couple of post-trip Google searches later, and I have very little information on the mountain, with one website telling me that the height of Mount Connor is only a few metres shorter than Uluru, but that its circumference is about three times greater.
We stayed in a two bedroom cabin in Ayers Rock Resort, a few kilometres from the entrance to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. We spent our first evening lounging on our patio, enjoying the warm desert air and making plans for the two days we had to explore the rock and surrounding area.
My Dad and I woke bright (not literally) and early the following day, and headed off in the dark, cold, morning in order to catch the changing colours of Uluru as the sun peaks over the horizon and lights up the rock. We were, of course, not alone in this endeavor. We watched, with growing trepidation, as a line of tour buses made their way to our communal destination. The park had, of course, catered for this influx of camera-toting tourists (some even came with boxed breakfasts and coffees) and had built a two-tiered viewing platform so everyone could capture the majestic and serene moment of the sun rising over Uluru in the remote Australian Outback. Right.
In an attempt to recapture some of that magic, we headed down to the walking path a few metres in front of the platform (where about six other people were milling about, their view of the iconic rock unobstructed by the half-balding heads of random tourists) and watched the glowing red rock come to life in peace.
After returning home for a quick nap, we were up and out to the rock again, this time to walk the 10.4 kilometre track around the base. The rock was actually much more fascinating up close than I would have initially guessed. Most of the postcard-esque photos we associate with Uluru show the rock in its entirety, sitting in what seems to be the centre of the remote and endless Outback. As I walked around the base, however, I was struck by how much it changes and how many sections of the endless red stone appear entirely unique. The surface of the rock is incredibly varied, with some sections so interestingly textured they could have been carved or painted. We saw water holes and the dry evidence of waterfalls, a source of life for people and animals alike, hidden amongst the barren surroundings. There were a number of sites along the base that hold special significance for the Aboriginal people of the area, and are said to be equivalent in importance and their history as an ancient religious scripture. We also saw the site that houses the still-operational Uluru climb, despite the fact that it is widely accepted to be disrespectful to climb the rock. The proportion of visitors who climb Uluru has dropped significantly over the last ten years or so, and requests for people to respect the culture of the Aboriginal people and not climb Uluru are printed in most of the tourist paraphernalia and on signs around the climb itself. There is a strong push to close the climb entirely.
It was my mom’s birthday that day, so that evening we went out to celebrate. In true vacation style, the previous morning we had all wished her a happy birthday, as we had all lost track of our days. Now on the correct day, we went to an outback barbecue where we purchased a selection of meat (kangaroo, crocodile, emu, steak), cooked it ourselves on the barbecue, helped ourselves to the buffet salad bar, and sat back to listen to a one-man cover band . Excellent birthday.
Kata Tjuta (known also as The Olgas) is also in the national park and actually has more cultural significant to the Aboriginal people of the area than Uluru. Comprised of a cluster of large rock formations that provided shelter and was a haven for water, life, plants, and animals, Kata Tjuta was therefore a haven for a survival.
We had a flight to catch early-ish that day, so our exploration of Kata Tjuta wasn’t as extensive as I would have liked. We got some incredible views of the place as we drove to and fro, and took a short walk into the rocks for a closer look. You could happily spend hours exploring the numerous pathways and lookouts that snake through the formations.
And that was pretty much that for our time in the centre of the vast country. We prepared to board our plane back to Sydney, and a rush of excitement overtook me as we headed towards home. Home to the friends and the love that awaited me in the closest place I’ve had to home in quite some time.
I left the rest of my family to their own devices for a day and a half in Sydney, and they organized themselves a trip out the Blue Mountains and some sightseeing around the city. I took advantage of my day off from touring to catch up with the crew, do some life admin, and repack my bags in preparation for New Zealand.