Week Thirty Five - The Outback

Trip Start Aug 26, 2003
Trip End Aug 24, 2004

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Flag of Australia  ,
Tuesday, April 27, 2004

Having read through this weeks entry before posting it, let me pre-apologise for the candied frippery therein. Don't know what you're smiling about. You've still got to read this mulch.

Day 226 - Tuesday 20 April

After a nice lie in we get up and decide not to bother going on the harbour cruise. Instead we just lie about then walk along the main drag, looking into various bars and restaurants. Our preferred dining venue is all no smoking so we walk back up and down the street. After a thinking drink in Shennanegans we decide to eat next door in Café Uno. We eat well and leave early for the short stroll back to hotel. We pay to watch 'Love Actually' which is actually very good.

Day 227 - Wednesday 21 April

Choo - choo. All aboard. It takes twenty minutes to get to the railway station which is quite a way out of Darwin. The gathered passengers are expectant. The train gleams in the station. Everyone takes photos. The Ghan has only been running since its inaugural trip in February when it was over a kilometer long. For our journey it has been trimmed back to half a km. The train is named after the Afghani cameleers who used to ferry train passengers from Katherine to Darwin before this section of the track was opened. Most carriages are for Gold Kangaroo passengers. We are in one of the two lowly Red Kangaroo carriages with the rest of the backpackers. Our seats are comfy enough and recline about as much as an aircraft seat only with more legroom. We have access to a lounge, a dining car and a smoking 'capsule'. We are late leaving Darwin for some reason and the driver soon announces that because of this, the tours arranged for the Gold passengers in Katherine have been cancelled. We weren't aware of the trains schedule and had thought that the train just went hell-for-leather to Alice Springs. We are surprised to find that we have a four hour stop in Katherine and a two hour stop somewhere at three in the morning. We arrive in Katherine at 2ish and take the bus into town. The majority of folk in town are 'black fellas'. We decide to get out of the heat (38 degrees with winds gusting at 1km/hr) and join the aforementioned in the local motel. The locals pay us no heed as we sit at the bar watching them playing the pokies and pool. They drink jugs of beer. The bus takes us back to the train at 5.15pm. The rules of the train require passengers to purchase all their alcohol requirements from the buffet car. We have brought a box of wine (white and by now very warm) and after purchasing a glass of wine each, top up from our box under the table. Various films and documentaries are shown on the screens overhead. We sit beside five of the least crack Irish girls (nurses) that we have met. Soon we give up and, as there is no sign of any murders taking place, decide to try to get some sleep around nine o'clock. I have spotted a double seat four rows back which is unoccupied so I make my way there to try to lie down. Firstly I try lying on the floor but the combination of the angle iron against my head under the seats and my feet being stepped on by passersby, mean a rethink. I eventually devise a sort of platform using the table wedged under the seats and the back of those in front. If scanned in 3D I would look like Colin Jackson, mid hurdle after being shot in the head from long range. Even in this twisted position I am nearly asleep when the rightful occupants return from the dining car. They apologise for waking me as I 'looked so comfortable'. I join Nicola back at our seat and spend the next few hours trying to sleep.

Day 228 - Thursday 22 April

I think I snatch about three hours before getting up at 4am and joining the other insomniacs in the smoking capsule. Nicola wakes shortly afterwards. We head down to the lounge and wait for the sun to come up. Dawn begins with an orange band above the horizon, under navy blue skies. The stars shine platinum. As the day begins we pass sad and sleepy looking wild donkeys. Nicola spots a kangaroo. The land is deep red, with bush and trees equidistantly scattered amongst wispy hay coloured grass. Small bush fires burn menacingly alongside the track, their flames more orange than necessary. Whitehead Fire Brigade would love this place. The sky turns a blue that Dulux should make. Call it Aussie Skies. To beat the rush we are first into the very satisfactory showers. We are also first in the queue for breakfast when the buffet car opens at 7. Prices are surprisingly reasonable. Two cornflakes, two coffees, one egg and bacon roll and one yogurt costs $12 - ₤5. The train rolls shyly into Alice Springs. Aboriginals huddled round campfires telling Dream Time stories, wave as we pass. A ring of rubbish forms their boundary. At the station all but 8 of the 244 passengers are disembarking rather than travel on to Adelaide. The guard informs us that the train is fully booked for the onward journey. Car hire companies and backpacker hostels are represented on the platform. Ignoring them, we pick up our bags and get a taxi into town to the Europcar office. Our Mitsibushi Lancer (white and automatic) is ready and we cast off in the direction of Alice Springs. The town is compact and we park and nip into Coles for some essentials. We buy 6 x 1.5 litre bottles of water for $3.80. Undecided as to what to buy to eat we decide on a quick Macdonalds instead. The taxi driver informed us that it would take about 6 hours to get to our first stop of Kings Canyon. As we set off I feel that we are going rightly at 130km/hour. Soon, however, all manner of vehicles are passing us so I notch it up to 150 -160 km/hr. No more vehicles pass us. The countryside has the mesmeric quality that you read about but don't really believe. The verges are occasionally enlivened by dead cows and tyres. Unreasonably large eagles eyeball us from their jaggedy trees as we pass. The roads are straight, flat and voluptuous. Tyres hiss over their velvet surface. After 300kms it feels like Trumpton where the scenery is drawn past the stationary car. I'm tired, Nicola's quiet. The petrol warning light is getting seriously pissed off as we make it into the only fuel depot for miles. Unleaded petrol here, at Kings Canyon, costs $1.37 per litre. in North Queensland we paid $0.79. We reach Kings Canyon Resort at 3pm after leaving The Alice at 1115, 480 kms on the clock. We have passed about 6 cars over the journey. At Kings Canyon Resort (the only accommodation in the area) we are offered a room upgrade from basic to deluxe for an extra $50. This brings the price of the room up to $295 for the night excluding breakfast. This is far and away our most expensive room in Australia. After viewing the two rooms of course we upgrade. The deluxe is much bigger and the spa is nice. Due to our knackeredness we decide not to do a walk in the Canyon but just take a walk at 5pm to the 'sunset viewing platform' in the resort. Walking down the boardwalk through the bush, we are covered in flies. At the viewing deck there is a fellow from Tipperary and one from Dublin. They are good company as the sun sets over the beautiful rocks of the canyon. The lads had done the 4 hour walk around and into the canyon, and The Garden of Eden replete with bathing pools and recommended it to us. We leave as the bulk of the guests are arriving. Back in our, just adequate, room we settle down to watch 'My Restaurant Rules'. We have bought pot noodles for dinner and cornflakes for the morning. Not long after our noodles we are asleep.

Day 229 - Friday 23 April

Our money saving scheme of bringing Cornflakes with us is nearly in tatters when we realise that there are no bowls in the room. After rinsing out our noodle pots we decide that, to avoid Chinese tasting Cornflakes, we will eat out of the coffee cups. Three cups later we pack up and drive 10kms down to the car park at Kings Canyon. Time constraints mean that we cannot do the main walk and have to settle for the family friendly walk into the canyon. We are back in twenty minutes and are very disappointed that we cant do the main walk which looks stunning. We have 450kms to get to Ayers Rock Resort and by now it is 11am. We head off back down the road we have come. I tailgate the first car to have overtaken us and together we cruise at 160km/hr to the main road to The Rock. Turning right we have 200km to the resort. If it's possible the ground gets even redder. Rounding a rare bend we are confronted by the rock in the distance. We pull over to the side of the road to take some photos. As we drive off we pass a sign saying 'Mount Conner Viewing Stop - 200 m. We learn later that everybody thinks that this is their first encounter with the rock. It is impressive none the less. (I am typing this on the flight from Alice to Sydney and the stewardess has just admired my Lifebook. I told Nicola that it was a babe magnet, she just rolled her eyes). We check into The Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge in the Ayers Rock Resort complex. Our 'budget lodge' is basic but fine. It is the first time that we haven't had a TV for a long time. The room has two sets of bunk beds. I take the bottom right, Nicola takes the top left. This configuration reminds me of a two dice (OK die). I reckon that there are twelve possible combinations, thirteen if you are on honeymoon, four if you are gay. I'm sure where you pick says something about you. For Nicola I think she just wants to be as far as possible from the floor and possible cockroach incursions. In the village of the resort we have perfectly fine chicken wraps with chips for $7 each. We sit watching aboriginals drinking and playing pool. They smell of BO but that's maybe because of their culture. It takes about half an hour to drive out to The Olgas. This is a range of sandstone mountains rising out of the dessert and is only 30kms or so from Uluru. They are stunning. Again we don't have time to do the walks so drive back to the main event. It is hard to describe how impressive Uluru is. You have seen all the pictures a million times and you are sure that you are going to be disappointed when you see it in the flesh but it is just breathtaking. We call into the Aboriginal cultural centre. There are no Aboriginals working in it. The displays and films are interesting and it is free. The centre is adjacent to the rock and we next drive around the rock. Our planned walk around the rock is shelved due to the time and the rock is closed to those wishing to climb it due to high winds. The rock itself is different the whole way around. Caves, folds, waves, holes, lines, trees and splits all stagger the senses. To get ahead of the pack we drive out to the sunset viewing area for cars (as opposed to coaches). There are already ten or so cars there when we arrive at 4.45pm. Sunset is scheduled for 18.23. We drive up and down the hundreds of parking spaces before picking the optimum one. We are beside two nice Ausssie fellows stopping off on their way north. I set my camera on the fence ready for the right moment. It is peaceful with the noise of the crickets only occasionally disturbed by the whirr of a camera, the shreek of a bastard child then the crash as my camera blows off the fence onto the concrete. It breaks into one piece. The telescopic lens is bent and wont close. It is jiggered. Kindly, one of the Aussie guys lends me his video camera to take some stills. It is not the same though. The rock does change colours as the sun drops. It is quite beautiful. When we are sure that there is no more to see we join the slow cavalcade back to the resort. A few helicopters whiz overhead ferrying their lucky passengers home. After freshening up we wander into the centre of the site. The aboriginals have gone, replaced by Germans enjoying the all-you-can-eat buffet. Prices are surprisingly reasonable. A one man band entertains. An elderly German couple join us in the smoking area occasionally. Then they make the move permanent. Shortly afterwards we say our goodnights and retire to our $140 per night room.

Day 230 - Saturday 24 April

Another 3 cups of Cornflakes before checking out at 6.30am. The balance of our bill is $2 which is a voluntary contribution to the Aboriginal community. I had thought that a jug of beer was more like $10. At our car an agitated Swedish couple ask for a lift to the rock as they have missed their coach. Obligingly we oblige. They are a charming couple who arrived in Australia last night and had forgotten to change the time on their alarm clock. A car in front seems to think that we have all the time in the world to make the 7.03 sunrise. We make it in good time however and the Swedish couple give us their e-mail address in payment. It is cold standing waiting for the rock to do its thing. Groups of backpackers flap their arms to keep warm. Girls on the shoulders of boys giggle in anticipation. The flash of disposable cameras fail to light it up. For a moment it looks as though the sun has risen but failed to impress this old piece of stone. Then it happens. It is as though some invisible operator is slowly turning up a dimmer switch for a great red lamp inside. You expect it to hum but it is quite silent. Even the crickets seem to be holding their breath. Germans smile. So do we. I feel like crying. Shadows are drawn on the rock, filling it out like an inflated wine box bag. I am sort of glad that my camera is broken. I would prefer to remember it just as it is. Mere light pixelations would never do it justice. My desire to beat the crowds kicks in and we drive away from the sight. In the rear view mirror the rock has already forgotten us. Maybe thousands of road workers were out overnight sweeping the road clean. Pristine tarmac once again rolls out in front of us. A dead kangaroo is a reminder that this isn't a Playstation driving game. After a stop, halfway, to fill up with petrol we carry on into The Alice. Could it be only four hours ago since we left it? At The Crown Plaza ($140) our room isn't ready. We leave our bags then call into the adjacent Alice Springs Golf Club. In the Clubhouse is a sign reading - 'Congratulations on being ranked 59th best course in Australia'. A more impressive claim is that it is ranked 7th best desert course in the world. Fortuitously, they can squeeze me into a cancellation at 1233 provided that I can produce a handicap certificate to enter their Saturday competition. It is now 1133 so we drive into town and grab a quick KFC. We drop the car off at Europcar after filling it with fuel. Total trip 1500kms. Our taxi takes 25 minutes to arrive leaving 15 minutes until my tee off time. Back at the hotel we grab my bags from behind reception and I change in the lobby. Nobody wolf whistles. I leave Nicola to repack and jump back into the taxi. We make it in time. On the tee I join Nicky and Peter. Both Aussies, she is a mother of four and he is a prison officer. He sits in his buggy listening to the footy on the radio between shots. She is slightly more talkative. Her husband is a police officer. He retires in 9 years when they will move from Alice to one of their investment properties on the Gold Coast. She wont go out after dark because of the Aboriginals. I ask him what percentage of the prison population are Aboriginals. Ninety five percent apparently. The course is super with the greens as smooth and fast as the road from Uluru. I play as though I have never done. The least said the better, and this weeks entry is already too long. After a couple of drinks (Peter doesn't join us as he is in the smoking lounge) I walk back to the hotel. Nicola is in our lovely room having spent the afternoon lying by the pool. She didn't swim as there were too many people about. The Thai restaurant in the hotel is nice but rather than proceed on to the casino next door, we take the remains of our wine to the room. We have seen enough for one day.

Day 231 - Sunday 25 April

We share one full breakfast, happy to be eating Cornflakes from a full sized bowl. I eat the greasy stuff, Nicola eats the fruit and yogurt. I half expect her to burst into Pilates. She doesn't so we pack up and check out. Our taxi driver asks us where we are going to. Sydney I happily reply. She meant where in Alice Springs. Twenty minutes and $25 dollars later we are at the anonymous looking airport. The Sunday papers haven't arrived yet. We board our Virgin Blue flight on time. Nicola has two glasses of red wine. I have two gin and tonics. Six dollars each drink. On our decent into Sydney, two and a half hours later, we see The Opera House and the bridge. It is Anzac Day and the roads are quiet. We arrive at our apartment in half an hour. Maestri Towers Apartments are within sight of our last apartment in Sydney and just behind the Imax Cinema in Darling Harbour. Our fourth floor room is huge but at the back of the building with no view. We ring down and surpirisingly get moved to the front on the eighth floor. Our balcony is three times bigger than our big room. We can glimpse the water between buildings. Like old hands we walk knowingly to The Three Wise Monkeys Bar round the corner. It is thronged with service men and women bedecked with medals. I can only assume that they wear their forefathers' medals. Everyone is very drunk. The big Maori doormen have a busy time turning people away. We sit upstairs looking down at the door. It is fun watching the faces of those refused impossibly trying to feign sobriety. In the bar below star struck civilian girls, wearing sailors caps, are snogging furiously. The scene would be more appropriate for a dockside departure to Iraq. Medal-less we walk home past endless corner couplings in the hormone frazzled evening air. With a block of smoked cheese (Sophie's fav), some wine and beer we sit in front of My Restaurant Rules. The Sydney restaurant is eliminated from the show. This scuppers our intention to visit their restaurant while we are here. The Italian brother and sister contestants, and 'owners' of the Sydney operation, are inconsolable. Nicola cries with them.

Day 232 - Monday 26 April

I get up at 4am and am sitting here typing this up. All the rushing around over the last few days catches up with us. We spend the rest of the day catching up with e-mails in our room and watching TV. At 6pm I nip out for supplies and get a Chinese for dinner. We spend the rest of the evening in front of the TV then crash at 11pm. Tomorrow we take the laptop to the Fujitsu Service Centre to hopefully get it fixed so we will be out of touch for a while.
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