The Red Centre

Trip Start Jan 01, 2008
Trip End Dec 29, 2008

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Maui Campervan

Flag of Australia  ,
Thursday, May 29, 2008

We arrived at Darwin airport at 11.00am, nice and early for our flight to Alice Springs, unfortunately, the incoming flight wasn't quite as punctual as it was having some problems and hadn't even left Ayers Rock yet!  On check in we were told that it would be leaving not at 2.30pm as scheduled but at 3.30 pm.  Taking this with a pinch of salt, we settled in for a long wait. The notice boards eventually gave up showing the time of the flight and it we finally took off at 5.30!  Not a word of an announcement from Quantas - god help the Australian and British travelling public if these two organisations ever finally merge!

The Red Centre is as far as it is possible to get from the sea in Oz.   After a couple of hours on the plane we land in Alice Springs and head of to the shuttle bus we are the only passengers, the driver ids very friendly and chatty and takes us on a bit of a tour of the town so we can get our bearings and he points out the best places to shop and eat and is generally a mine of useful information. He drops us off at our hotel, the Aurora which is pretty much an old motel which has been refurbished but it is right in the centre of town and has one of the best restaurant in Alice attached to it, the Red Ochre Grill.  We eschew the delights of the "bush tucker" on the menu and head off in search of dinner and end up in a bar/pizza place which serves up some of the best pizzas we have ever tasted outside of NYC.

In the morning we collect our campervan from Britz Car Rental and find that we have been upgraded to a sort of VW stretched van, which at first sight seems enormous and my first thought is how am I going to drive that? The van has pretty much all we could want and is more luxurious (and bigger!) than some of the hotel rooms we have stayed in.  We have a double bed, gas hob, air-con, refrigerator, microwave and even a shower and toilet!  The only problem is it is like driving a bus but we soon get used to it and head off to do our food shopping in Alice Springs town centre.  Thankfully there seems to be very little traffic anywhere in Australia although negotiating the mini roundabouts in town caused a few minor panics but thankfully everyone gets out of our way.  We found out the camper is 7 metres long...........

Having stocked up with supplies we head off south along the Stuart Highway (who is this guy Stuart and why has he built this very long road?). As we drive along yet another very long and very straight road, something strange happens; people driving in the opposite direction keep waving at us.  At first we think that there is something wrong with the van, but then realise that there is some sort camaraderie on the road in this part of Australia and everybody is just being friendly (and are probably just happy at finding another vehicle on the road). So different from the UK where the main gestures used are shaking fists and the raising of a single middle finger! The only exception to this is fellow motorcyclists who will usually nod to one another on passing.

The drive to our first stop at Kings Canyon is around 500 kms right through the outback and takes around 5 hours. The scenery is pretty much flat for all of journey with the exception of Mt Conner which is often mistaken for Ayers Rock and is actually much larger. We stop along the way for lunch and to fill up with petrol at a station which also doubles as an Emu farm and Camel riding centre!

We finally arrive at our campsite, The Kings Canyon Resort, connect up the van to the power and water and head off to the bar for a couple of beers.  We forego the evening's entertainment in the bar, which tonight is an Australian rock n roll and comedy duo, in favour of tonight's dinner cooked in the van of Kangaroo Bolognese, forgetting, of course, that our kitchen is also our bedroom and that the smell garlic and onion tends to linger somewhat!  Oh well, we may have to rethink our menu options!

As we look out at the sun setting over Kings Canyon we spot some Dingoes walking around the campsite.  The sight of the sunset over the escarpment is amazing and as night comes the stars come out and again, what a sight! The lack of light pollution enables us to see many, many more than ever we would at home. In fact we have never seen a nightscape like this before (well maybe in Africa).  It is obviously not only us that appreciate the sight as now the Dingoes start to howl and continue doing so, on and off, all night!

In the morning we head off to Kings Canyon itself.  On arrival we are faced with the option of two hikes, a short one, along the canyon floor, or the longer version (6.5km) along the canyon rim.  Now 6.5kms may not sound that long, but it starts off with a climb up an incline of about 45 degrees which takes about 30 minutes.  Before we even get to the slope we notice the other major problem in the area; flies!  They are everywhere and just won't leave us alone!  Insect repellent has no effect and we end up wrapping scarves around our faces in an attempt to keep from swallowing too many. Once we get to the top the flies become less of a problem but then we notice the heat.  Most of the area is bare rock which obviously absorbs the sun's heat and radiates it back. The temperature is around 34c and not a cloud in the sky.  The climb is, however, worth it as we look out on some of the best views we have encountered here in Australia. Every step of the way is yet another magnificent outlook - definitely worth the hike!  All around the canyon rim there are lookouts, usually over precipitous cliffs.  Warnings abound not to go too near the edge - as if I needed reminding. 

Approximately halfway around the walk we cross over the canyon itself and look down into "The Garden of Eden", an oasis of lush vegetation surrounding a waterhole on the canyon floor.  Having crossed over this we head on back across more bare rock and absolutely no shade to the end of the walk to the edge of the escarpment where Terence Stamp looked out in his sequined underpants in "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" - that well known Aussie transvestite movie!

Kings Canyon has definitely been our favourite experience of Australia so far - Ayers Rock will have to go some to match up. 

The campervan experience, despite my initial scepticism (it was Carolyn's idea), it great and I am really enjoying it. There is almost no limit to freedom as to where you can sleep or eat.  The Australian's take it very seriously indeed. Some of the gear they have got is amazing ranging from trailer tents the size of a small bungalow (with integral bbq) and "All Terrain" (four wheel drive) campervans that can literally go anywhere, no matter how rough the roads to portable satellite dishes for TV and telephone.  From talking to various people along the way, it seems that most Aussies take off every weekend in these vehicles and some of them take off on road trips around the country for months at a time.
Uluru (Ayers Rock)  After breakfast we leave Kings Canyon on the 300km trip through the outback to Uluru. Again the scenery is pretty much the same, very flat desert scrub land interspersed with the odd, sparse forests of trees which look as though they have moss hanging from them. About halfway through the journey we see a flat topped mountain in the distance, not, as many assume, Ayers Rock, but Mount Conner, which is much larger than Ayers Rock.

After 3 hours or so, we see both Uluru and the lesser known, but arguably even more spectacular Kata Tjuta (a.k.a The Olgas) in the distance an hour or so later we arrive at Ayers Rock Resort and our campsite for the next 3 nights.  Ayers Rock Resort is spread over a very large area and consists of a wide variety of accommodation from luxury hotels suites upwards of $1000 per night to our little patch of (very red) earth at $36 per night.
We decide not to waste any time and set off again to drive to out to the cultural centre close to Uluru itself. As it is now late afternoon we decide to park up at the sunset viewing platform in order to catch one of the most famous views in the world. Soon we are joined by many other vehicles all with the same idea. The rock at sunset is spectacular to say the least.  As the sun goes down the colour slowly changes to a fiery red and as the sun dips below the horizon darkness comes quickly and we head back to the campsite.

We are up again at 06.15 and head off to catch the sunrise around the other side of the rock.  We arrive just in time for the sunrise and already the car park is half full with people eagerly awaiting the dawn.  The people watching is almost as interesting as the rock as bus loads of Korean tourists pose for photos in just about every position possible (including, strangely, lying down in the middle of the road??). Their breakfast is ready and waiting for them at a long  table at the side of the road facing the rock and 30 or so sit down to eat their cornflakes in sight of the rock - very strange.

The sunrise side of the rock does not have such a good view of the rock (the sunset is by far the best view) which is perhaps why a new viewing site is being built and opens next month.
After watching the sun rise and taking some photographs, we head off to the start of the Mala Trail walk and here in the car park we have bacon sandwiches for breakfast - certainly amongst the more scenic places we have had breakfast.

It is very cold, around 5 degrees C, so we wait a while before setting out on a walk around the base perimeter of the walk.  At the start of the walk there is also the start of the climb to the summit of the rock which we decide not to do as there are many signs around asking tourists to respect this most sacred of aboriginal sites and not climb the rock.  Unfortunately some people choose to ignore the requests and climb anyway just reinforcing my long held view that some people really should not be allowed passports!

We start off on the walk in a clockwise direction and quickly realise that the rock that seems very smooth and solid from a distance, is actually interspersed with gorges and caves although in some respects it still looks like the biggest pebble in the world, which I suppose it is. The pathway sometimes passes right next to the rock and sometimes quite a distance out affording many different views.  There are also a number of spurs off of the main track to water holes, gorges and aboriginal rock paintings.  All the time the backdrop to the rock is the most incredibly blue sky we have ever seen. Looking out from the rock you can see for miles and miles and there is none of the haze of pollution nearly always seen in Europe.  It really brings home how bad the state of the world's ecology has gotten.

The walk right the way around the perimeter is about 12 kms including the various diversions and takes about 3 hours.  Our feet ache, it is starting to get hot and the flies are a real pain, but it is worth every second.
At the end of the walk we head back to the campsite, stopping off to have a look around the "town square".  There is a supermarket, shops, restaurants, a bank, in fact just about everything a small town would have, even police and fire stations. However, the "town"is just the design of a very large tourist resort for those visiting The Rock and Kings Canyon (which is just as well as Alice Springs, the next nearest town, is 5 hours drive away!).

Kata Tjuta  (The Olgas). The next day, we are up and ready for another walk, along the "Valley of the Winds" trail along, up and through The Olgas  (15 years ago all the aboriginal sites in Australia adopted back their aboriginal names, which is why everywhere now seems to be known by 2 names).  Todays'  walk is nearly 8km and again starts with an uphill climb in the heat of the day and comes complete with the flies that seem to home in on us wherever we are in the outback.  The Olgas are actually 36 giant rock domes (the aboriginal means many heads) and the walk is both spectacular and strenuous.  About half way though, we scramble up a rock face and find ourselves in the centre of the boulders in a really lush green area.   Then we climb back out to the desert and continue on our way in the arid outback.  Our leg muscles really know we have been on a walk when we get back in to our van.
Another early morning for us, as we prepare to head back the 5 hours and 450km from Ayers Rock Resort to Alice Springs.    Mornings are a fantastic time to watch the local birds flying about and this morning we see Budgies, Parrots and all manner of multi-coloured feathers.   Throughout our time in the outback we have not seen a cloud in the sky which is perhaps why it is recognised as one of the driest places on the planet.  The drive back is long, but made slightly more interesting by avoiding the cattle, camels and kangaroos that wander across the road, the results of mans interaction with the local livestock is evidenced by the range of carcasses littering the roadside!

We finally arrive in Alice and stop at the sign on the city limits to take a photo of the Alice sign for Alice, our niece, whose birthday is coming up soon.

In the morning we pack our bags and get ready to say goodbye to the campervan which is quite sad really as we have grown rather attached to it both as a means of transport and a place to live!
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