Australia - Yulara (Uluru, Olgas, Kings Canyon)

Trip Start Dec 05, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Friday, May 12, 2006

Day 1

In an attempt to set a new record, we were on the road for 7:15am; needless to say we were up early, yet again. A 5-hour drive took us from Alice Springs to Yulara, the town/resort that borders the national park containing Uluru (Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). As you drive towards Yulara you see what appears to be Ayers Rock, and it is only when you drive straight past it that you realize that it is actually Mt. Connor, another monolith that is much bigger and steeper than Uluru. This sight mistakes many people but as soon as you see the real thing you wonder how you could have ever got the two confused.

The first sight of Uluru fills you with a breathless wonderment, an almost spiritual feeling that you are gazing upon something truly magical and sacred. The way it stands in solitary splendour, its smooth complexion and vibrant colour unlike anything else in its vicinity. It is easy to understand why the aborigines hold such respect for the giant rock.

On arriving into Yulara we immediately booked into the only campsite in the area. This gets very busy, especially in the high season so it's worth booking or at least getting there early. The resort is a huge complex of hotels, bars, restaurants, shops and a campsite, all closely linked by roads and various lookouts over Uluru. It is an oasis in the middle of a barren dusty landscape and although some people may argue that it goes against the nature of the area, it is definitely a welcome place of relaxation after touring around the various sights during the daylight hours.

On leaving the resort we made our way into the nearby National Park and paid for our passes, $25 (10 GBP) each for a three-day pass. Our first stop was the Olgas, a collection of 36 rounded domes with the tallest, Mt. Olga, rising 200m above the height of Uluru. The Olgas were originally a monolith similar to Uluru but have been weathered into the individual domes over the ages. At first the view was a bit disappointing, with the colours looking dull and lifeless from the lookout point (PICS), however as we approached the foot of the hills we rounded the corner and the sun shone directly onto the face of the rock, giving off an amazing orange glow - what we had hoped to see (PICS).

Wanting to reach Uluru by sunset we left the Olgas and drove the 48km between the two natural phenomenons, reaching the 'Mutitjulu' waterhole walking track with time to wander to the waterhole (PIC) and get a close-up look at the face of Uluru which is actually a lot more textured and blemished than we had expected from a distance and from photos we had seen (PICS). The flies were becoming a pain so we popped on our attractive fly nets - a great investment; they didn't bother us at all after that (PICS)!

The sun was beginning to descend close to the horizon so we made our way to the sunset viewing area, a car park located in a great position for experiencing the dramatic spectacle which occurs as the sun disappears. Uluru changes colour from a bright orange to a purple-blue as the light fades, producing some spectacular magical scenes (PICS).

The car park filled quickly and obscured the view of Uluru - there was only one thing for it - Andrew climbed up onto Gizmo (PICS) and used the extra height to get a great view of Uluru, without any other people or vehicles in the way. Luckily Gizmos roof took Andrews weight!

Returning to the resort after sunset we went to the Outback Pioneer hotel to try out their BBQ dinner. It is basically a cook-your-own restaurant where you order the raw meat and then use one of the dozens of BBQs to cook your meat while filling up your plate from the salad bar. The food was amazing, perfectly cooked by Chef Bishop (PIC) and included Kangaroo and Crocodile Skewers, Emu and Beef sausages, and a burger - our plates overflowed! (PICS) We were entertained by some great live music and once we could eat no more we waddled back to the campsite and collapsed into bed.

Day 2

"Insanity" - Well that's what we thought as we dragged ourselves out of bed at 5:30am, in the freezing cold to watch a big rock get gradually lighter as the sun came up from its slumber.

We headed over to the sunrise viewing area, on the opposite side of Uluru to the sunset view, and waited for the sun to appear. Again the colours changed from a deep purple to the familiar orange and as the heat from the sun warmed our bodies we began to appreciate the spectacle in front of us (PICS). The views weren't quite as great as at sunset and the whole process seemed to take a little longer, but it was still something worth seeing at least once.

With Verdi still feeling the cold (PIC) we took a couple of snaps of us in front of a vivid orange Uluru (PIC) before getting back into Gizmo and making some warming porridge right there in the car park. After breakfast we drove out Kings Canyon, around 300km from Uluru, to undertake the walk around another of the Red Centres' natural wonders.

Kings Canyon is a huge 270m high canyon based in the Watarrka National Park. There are actually two walks that can be taken on, a 1-hour stroll through the base of the canyon or a 3-4 hour (7km) hike over the top of the canyon walls and into a number of different features within the canyon. Feeling brave, or stupid, we decided to go for the 3-4 hour trek, beginning with the hardest bit, a steep climb up a rocky arrangement of 'steps' to the summit (PIC).

As we reached the top we could see the vast expanse of the canyon splay out before us, and we also began to appreciate the distance we had just climbed (PICS). The scenery around us as we continued the hike was nothing short of spectacular; sheer drops, picturesque tree-covered outcrops, ledges, crevasses and some strangely shaped formations along the way (PICS).

The 'Garden of Eden' and 'Lost City' were features of note deep in the center of the canyon, the former requiring a descent into the base of the canyon before climbing back up some man-made steps to the top again to continue the hike. They were interesting points along the way, but the most awe inspiring part of the trek was just the shear scale of the Canyon - making you feel so tiny within it. Finally, just over 2 hours after we had started, we were back at the car park. Hot, tired and ready for a rest we had another 3-hour journey back to Yulara - hopefully before the sunset.

Unfortunately Verdi was left driving the last half an hour in the dark, with her fingers crossed that a kangaroo wouldn't leap out in front of us as we sped along the highway back to our campsite. Luckily nothing risked its life, although we did see a wild camel galloping through the bush (if galloping is what camels do!) and we returned to our campsite safely and in time to book another night at Yulara and then find a place to watch the FA Cup final.

Our campsite did not have a TV room and we were not prepared to pay the $400 (160 GBP) for the cheapest room in the resort with a TV so we had to find somewhere else. Luckily the Outback Pioneer hotel agreed to keep their TV room open until 2am so that we could watch the game. Thankfully our efforts were not wasted as Liverpool won the FA Cup in a dramatic, albeit nerve-wracking game - prompting celebrations from Andrew and a fellow Liverpool supporter, Barnaby, with whom we had watched the game (PIC).

The game finished and we retired to our campsite, satisfied with the result of the footy and exhausted from the day's exertions.

Day 3

The extra day that we had booked at the Yulara campsite was a blessing, after the sunrise wake-up and the late night that we had had the night before we needed a lie in. We did just that - getting up at 1:30pm! A lazy afternoon followed, with pancakes for brunch and then a spot of cleaning (ourselves, our clothes and Gizmo) before heading out to see the Olgas at sunset.

We reached the lookout just as the sun dipped below the horizon and managed to get a couple of shots (PIC) and began driving towards another lookout to try and get a different view of the mountain range. However, as we traveled along the road, at around 100km/h (62mph) we felt one of our wheels go! It was a fairly gentle blowout and Andrew was able to keep full control of Gizmo and pull it over to the side of the road. Getting out and surveying the damage we found that the tyre on the front drivers side had blown and opened up in a couple of areas (PICS). It was time to replace our first tyre...ever! Finally we figured out what to do and only gave up when the jack wouldn't go high enough to get the tyre off - useless jack!

It was at this point that we started to look for someone, ANYONE, to help. It was dark by now and we were about 30km from the campsite. Luckily a Czech couple pulled up in their Toyota Hiace and had a very similar jack to us, except theirs went as high as it was supposed to (PIC). Ten minutes later we had replaced the tyre, Verdi tripling as torch holder, camerawoman and Czech liaison, and the friendly couple followed us back to the campsite to make sure our wheel didn't fall off on the way.

Back at the campsite we reflected on our bad luck for the blowout and our good luck that someone had stopped, before making dinner and getting to bed.

Day 4

Andrew had woken early to get one last look at the sunrise over Uluru. Our park pass had expired so he used the campsite lookout and stood there freezing for half an hour while the sun slowly emerged (PICS). Back at the van Verdi had packed up and had breakfast ready and soon after we left the campsite and headed out of Yulara.

Our first stop of the day was an enforced one, to the nearest mechanics for "one new tyre...please". We had another spare but something we read a while back suggested that it was best to have two spares, especially whilst in the outback. The garage said the spare we had put on in place of our blowout was fine so we replaced our other front one which was looking a bit worse for wear. We were told that the tyres were actually 6 years old and normally only last 4 years, and the 14,000km that we had done since we had bought Gizmo was nothing short of remarkable on one set of tyres!

An hour and a half and $136 later we were back on the road and ready to drive the 700km to Coober Pedy - another long day of driving lay ahead.

Taking the driving in turns we each did about 200km before Andrew took over for his second stint. No sooner had Andrew started driving and was cruising along comfortably than BANG! Our "fine" spare tyre, which we had put on last night, decided to blow and not in a nice gentle way like the first - it exploded and Gizmo swerved over to the other side of the road. Luckily nothing was coming otherwise it would have been 'Hasta-la-vista'! Andrew kept pretty good control over Gizmo and pulled off to the side of the road again.

Again we tried our jack but to no avail so we waited for another friendly passer-by. Within minutes an Australian couple came to our rescue and between us we managed to get our other spare onto the car. Our Aussie saviour explained that it looked like our tyre was a re-tread from the way it had 'peeled' off the wheel - not a good idea for long distances and yet surprisingly legal! (PICS)

The unexpected stop had dented our plans for a Coober Pedy destination so we ended up staying at a small homestead where we only had to pay $4 for the night. The adjoining pub, 'Happy hour' and cheap meals made us feel a whole lot better before we made our way to bed.
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