Once we were full, we stopped at the Rock Tour office so that everyone could settle their bill and sign their life away (we're getting used to doing that on this trip!) and then shuffle back on board. Our tour guide then introduces himself as Bruce Lee, because his name is Lee and he thinks he’s Bruce Lee (mind you he is not of Asian descent, but instead a kiwi from New Zealand, but who I am to judge his self-proclaimed nickname). He’s about our age and reminds us of a Kiwi version of Bear Grylls from the Man vs. Wild series. Bruce Lee tells us that we’re not campers, we’re his Rockies for the next few days (since we are on the Rock Tour) and that we have a few hours of driving until our first stop so we can relax and snooze. In the meantime, we can noodle on Bruce Lee & the Rockies.
Everyone definitely fell asleep and two hours later we pull in for our first refuel stop at a local rest stop. We weren’t super hungry but since we weren’t sure when our next meal was going to be Dave and I shared a toasted cheese sandwich which was quite good in the early morning cool weather. Once we’re back on the bus we notice that Bruce Lee decorated it by writing in blue & yellow markers on the windows so now we’re officially Bruce Lee & the Rockies. After we get going a bit he gets on the microphone and tells us more about himself (he’s from New Zealand but his family now lives in Australia) and then tells us that he has a sheet of questions that each of us will take turns coming up to the front to answer on the mike.
Bruce Lee says that we have to get to know each other as we’ll be one big family for the next few days. The questions were actually pretty good ice-breaker questions for this kind of a group although hearing 21 answers (22 if you include Bruce Lee) was a bit repetitive. The questions were, where are you from, why are you here, when was your first kiss, when was your last kiss, etc. There were a group of about half a dozen young men in their early 20s from England, a young couple from England, a few girls the same age from Germany, one French woman, one Italian fellow, one lady from Holland, one Swiss gentleman and a family of four (mother, father, daughter and her boyfriend) also from England. Our intro went over well when I answered the 'tell us an embarrassing or unique thing about you’ question – I shared that I had never ever been camping before and this was my first time. Everyone gasped and Bruce Lee looked over at me and said, "well, this should be interesting then."
By this time it was late morning and we were pulling into our first stop and activity for the day, King’s Canyon. It’s referred to as the Australian Grand Canyon as it’s made of huge rocks with iron ore that have been worn down or fallen over time. Bruce Lee tells us to open the Esky in the back (Esky is short for Eskimo, a brand name of a cooler company and everyone refers to the cooler on wheels as an Esky) and pass out the pre-wrapped sandwiches, apple and granola bar to bring with us. We’ll be hiking about 8 kilometers today over 4 hours and eating lunch during the tour. There are also places for us to fill up our water bottles as even though it’s not super hot, it’s still really important to hydrate.
The first thing we notice is that there are loads of flies swarming around and some people even wearing a funny looking head covering that looks like a mosquito net just for your face. Apparently the flies are really bad in central Australia although they are just annoying they don’t bite or cause any harm. We never really got used to the buzzing and tickling all around us though. Today’s hike was the most physically challenging and the hike around King’s Canyon starts with “Heart Attack Hill” to get up to the canyon. It was tough but we made it to the top in the middle of the pack (the family of 4 from England already lagging behind) and were rewarded with fantastic views. We were able to hike all around it, stopping every so often for Bruce Lee to give us some information about the canyon, wildlife, and the Aboriginal details. We stopped under trees whose bark provides natural SPF for lunch and learned that the pre-packaged sandwiches consisted of a tiny piece of meat, tiny piece of cheese, one leaf of lettuce and some stale bread. Good thing this tour doesn’t cost a lot…oh, wait, it does! I guess the fees don’t go towards food (as we later learned).
We take the long way back to the entrance of the hike to pass through the river and pools of water that flow through the canyon. Unfortunately, it’s too cold to swim although some of the young Brits considered it (you know because when you are 20 years old you can swim in water that is 50 degrees). We head back to the bus and Bruce Lee tells us that we’re heading to our camp site for the night which is deep in the bush, not at a campground or anything. Before we can do that, though, we need to collect firewood from along the side of the road otherwise we won’t have fire to make dinner or keep warm. When we booked this tour none of the information we saw indicated we’d be pitching in or doing this much work!
About an hour after leaving King’s Canyon (and another nap) the bus stops in the middle of the outback and Bruce Lee tells us to hop out and collect firewood. Every so often a car or bus comes tearing through the road but otherwise its dead quiet in the middle of the outback. As we tromp through the forest tearing branches off of dead trees I am praying that there aren’t any snakes or spiders in the way that we could possible upset. This is our true Crocodile Dundee, outback Australia experience! Once Bruce Lee tells us that we have sufficient amount of firewood we’re back on the bus for another hour’s drive to the office to check in for the campsite. On the way, Bruce Lee tells us that this is the place where we can also buy beer for tonight and the next night at a discount of $2.50 per can of beer if you buy by the case ($5 if you buy the beer per can). I immediately sign up because I’m now thinking the only way I will be able to sleep is if I’m knocked out. It takes some time to negotiate since once the total comes in we’re 17 beers shy from 90 (3 cases) and the discount is only good in 30-packs so everyone has to pony up for 17 more beers. Now we have 90 beers for 22 Rockies (of course Dave and I ordered the most) and the sun has fully set so we can head to our bush camp to set up camp and make dinner.
About an hour later Bruce Lee pulls off of the main road to a dirt road and drives another few kilometers in the pitch black. He’s had an interesting playlist this whole time (from rock to pop to metal) and gets really excited so he puts on “Smack my Bitch Up” by Prodigy and starts doing wheelies with the mini-bus, luggage cart and all. Once he’s calmed down a bit we pull up to an area with a fire pit, cover off to the side and miles of outback. He shuts off the engine and declares that we’re here. We’re where?! This is where we’re sleeping tonight. Bruce Lee tells us that we all have to help out to make dinner otherwise its a few more hours until we eat.
So he opens the luggage cart and pulls out a table, bowls, kitchen equipment, 2 gas burners and puts us all to work. We make chili con carne with rice and a vegetable stew and it takes about an hour to make. While it’s cooking we get our swags out of the cart to sit on around the fire and pop open the beer. A swag is what we were promised we’d be sleeping in out here, in addition to a sleeping bag. I guess I hadn’t read the brochure in enough detail or didn’t understand it, but I thought a swag was like a big canvas sleeping bag set up like a hammock so that you were off the ground. I was wondering how Bruce Lee was going to help us set 21 of these up for us when I then find out that the swag is nothing more than a canvas sleeping bag with a flap over the head opening that doesn’t fully close. And they go directly on the ground. I’m going to need more beer and a hit over the head with some of the spare firewood.
We have a few beers and then enjoy dinner which was a strange choice but we were so hungry it didn’t matter. Shortly afterward my stomach started hurting and based on the noises from the other Rockies all night long I don’t think chili con carne was the best dining option but what do I know. The bathroom situation was also bush-style. I was fully expecting a hole in the ground and that’s it, but luckily they built a little lean-to over the hole in the ground so you had a semi-door you could close and a seat you could sit on to do your business. Bruce Lee also handed us a roll of toilet paper so this was luxury as far as I was concerned. The only problem was that after chili con carne night this hole in the ground was pretty gross and I had to keep using it which made it worse. The hole was several meters away from the campfire so it was a good thing that we brought our head lamps (also called a torch by all our English friends) so that I could see any wildlife on the way.
The good news was that I didn’t see any spiders or snakes but the bad news was that there were little field mice everywhere. And I mean everywhere – they were fearless and climbing over and around everything. You could hear them rustling in every trash bag, food area, shelf and evens scurrying across the ground. I hunkered down in my sleeping bag and in my swag but when I pulled over the flap it didn’t really close so that the sides by my head were open.
This was nice to allow some airflow but I soon realized it was direct access for the mice to snuggle in the warm swag with me. I had drifted off to sleep but then shortly afterwards felt something scurry over my body in the swag. Through the canvas it sounded and felt like a huge animal so my first reaction was to throw the flap off and scream. I had woken Dave up and he told me that it was just a mouse and to be quiet not to wake everyone else up. Well, I’m sorry, but mice scurrying all over me is cause for concern while everyone else is snoring and farting. They can deal. I was just praying to make it through the night!
5:50am, Saturday morning and we're standing outside our hotel/lodge in about 40 degree F weather in the dark waiting for a mini-bus from The Rock Tour to pick us up. The mini-bus pulling a luggage trailer finally rolls up at about 6:15am, long after the reception lobby has opened up so that we could have brought our luggage down this morning for storage instead of last night. We hopped on board and since it was dark and early we didn't really see who else was in the bus, but we were able to grab two seats towards the front of the bus which made me happy since I figured it would be a long drive. We made a few more stops at other hostels in town and eventually had a mini-bus full of 21 campers and a driver (who we later learned was also our tour guide).