and out of Australia
Wed 16 Jan 08 - Sun 27 Jan 08
Photos are here.
From Hobart I flew back to Adelaide where I stayed for one night before getting up early the next day to start a 6-day outback tour. It was an epic journey, some 3200 km (2000 miles), in a bus similar to what we toured in in Tasmania. I waited for the bus in front of my hostel, so early it was still dark, but it didn't come, which was really worrisome. It finally did show up nearly an hour late and I was the last to be picked up, so the only seat left was at the front, which made me feel a bit outside the rest of the group, but fortunately we all switched around seats a couple of days later.
We headed north out of Adelaide; after a couple of hours the landscape was already mostly flat and dry. Only 3 days previous I had been in cool Tasmania, bundled up in the warm clothes I did have. Now we were starting to get a taste of the heat awaiting us as we moved farther into the outback. We made just one cultural stop for the day, at a cliff with some Aboriginal paintings. We then carried on toward our stop for the night, the bustling town of Parachilna, population 6. We brought our stuff into the bunkhouse and then hit the pool that was right outside it. I hung out with and got to know some of the members of our group. Later we were treated to a very Aussie BBQ of camel sausage, kangaroo, and emu. The emu was particularly tasty. At 10 pm, some of us hung around the back of the bunkhouse for the entertainment of the evening: the nightly passing of the world's longest train, carrying coal to Port Augusta. It's so flat there, we could see the light of the train for ages before it finally got to us. The driver blew the horn as he passed and then the train clattered past us for a solid 3 minutes. That fun over, many of us headed to bed. It was eerie and exciting going to the toilet in the middle of the night. The bathrooms were separated a bit from the bunkhouse; above me were so many stars, I could easily see the specks of light even without my glasses, and to my left was unimaginable emptiness.
The next morning we had a "late" start of 8:00 and we drove to a nearby gorge where the rocks have shifted sideways and you can clearly see the layers deposited eons ago when that area was under water. Our guide, Clark, was big on geology and there was a lot of that to talk about in the various places we visited. The drive in the gorge was a bumpy one on gravel road, the only real off-road part we did. I originally had signed up for an 8-day tour, but it was cancelled because it didn't have enough people. The 6-day tour was essentially the same, but we did skip travelling on the dirt tracks and instead stuck to the highways.
In the gorge we stopped next to a steep, rocky hill where we could spot yellow-tailed rock wallabies. We did see a few and it was amazing to see how they can hop around so quickly on the rocks. Clark found that at some point on the gravel one of the back tires of the bus had gone flat, so he had to change that before we headed back out of the gorge. Our next stop was Wilpena Pound, a huge circular area with high rock walls that used to be used as a grazing area because the rocks formed a natural enclosure. We had the option to go on a hike that went to the top of the rock walls, or stay on the Pound floor and walk to an old settlement house. I wanted to avoid a strenuous walk in the heat, so I took the easy option, which was still beautiful. The path went through some shaded green areas and we saw emus and wallabies, before reaching the house and a viewpoint that took in the whole of the Pound. That night we stayed at a sort of campground, though we slept in a cramped, crowded bunkhouse that wasn't the best environment for me getting much sleep.
It was a very early start the next day because we had a very long drive ahead of us. We were up around 4 so that we could leave just before 5 to have time to reach the opal town of Coober Pedy by the afternoon. We headed off in the dark and it was another moment when I appreciated my front-seat view. There was a lot more wildlife out at that time of the morning, feeding before it got too hot when the sun came up. I could tell things were going wrong though, Clark was having trouble getting the bus to shift into the right gear and there was a burning smell coming from the engine. He finally made a call for help to the tour organizers, telling them he was stuck in 5th gear and also the speedometer had stopped working. I was worried about what we were going to do and I felt like I was the only one who knew anything was wrong since most everyone else was snoozing behind me. I soon fell asleep myself and woke up much later to see it was light out and we were pulling into a truck stop on the outskirts of the town of Port Augusta which was more south towards civilization again from where we'd been. It was the planned route actually, we had to head south to pick up the main highway that goes north all the way to Darwin. Clark came to a stop and told us about the problems with the bus and said that they were sending a replacement from Adelaide, but in the meantime we were stuck at this bus stop. In the end, we had a long, boring, 4-hour wait for the replacement bus. We hung around the bus, napped, paced, and brought a lot of business to the little shop at the truck stop as we kept going back for snacks. Clark blamed all of our problems on these rocks from Uluru (Ayers Rock) that we had with us. Someone who went on one of these tours before had taken home some small rocks from around Uluru as a souvenir, even though, since it's a national park and sacred spot, it wasn't the most respectful thing to have done. Apparently the rocks had caused this person some trouble, so he mailed them back so that they could be returned to where they had come from. And now Clark was sure that we were also cursed by these displaced rocks. He had never had so much as a flat tire before and now one thing after another had gone wrong.
By the time the new bus came, it was still only 11 am, we had left so early. We really had to book it to Coober Pedy though, nearly 500 km (over 300 miles) away. There was an opal mine tour scheduled for us which we still hoped to make. We only stopped a couple of times on the way, as briefly as possible, and made sandwiches on the bus for our lunch. We got into Coober Pedy around 6 and the people at the opal tours graciously stayed late so we could still have our tour. We watched an incredibly cheesy video about how opals are formed and how they are mined, then took a tour around an underground house which is typical of the town (it's a way to escape the outback heat). We got to sleep underground ourselves, in a bunkhouse carved out of a hill. It was huge, so we got to spread out and have much more space to ourselves. I slept wonderfully, thanks to the coolness and relative quiet.
By now on the trip, it was a luxury to be up after dawn. This was the last time we would have that luxury. Another long day in the bus was ahead of us, driving from Coober Pedy, crossing the border into the Northern Territory, then eventually heading west towards Yulara, the resort near Uluru. There were only a couple of points of interest on the way (besides the dingy little places we would stop at for breaks or lunch which I guess were interesting in a quirky, out-in-the-middle-of-nowhere kind of way). First, not far outside of the moonscape of Coober Pedy, we crossed the dog fence, one of the longest structures in the world. It covers some 5,300 km (3,300 miles) in an attempt to keep dingoes to the north, away from the sheep and agriculture in the south. Then later we stopped for our lunch break at the Northern Territory border where I could feel an increase in temperature even compared to Coober Pedy. Our poor bus fought its hardest against the heat, it definitely was preferable to no air conditioning, but it wasn't as cool as we hoped. But considering that it was very hot outside, the bus was packed, and we were doing a lot of miles at a high speed, it's understandable that it couldn't get much cooler.
Life on the bus
We arrived in Yulara and unpacked at our campsite. There were these little, permanent tent-like things, a wooden base with canvas over them and doors, with two beds in each. There was no way anyone was going to sleep in them, they were so stuffy that to go in for a just few minutes to get something out of my bag left me drenched in sweat and dying for air, so they just were places to keep our stuff. Some of us went for a refreshing swim and then the whole group went up to a viewpoint to check out Uluru and to watch the sunset. We were disappointed actually, the rock looked small, and we would have preferred to have watched the sun set behind it rather than shining on it. I think I took more photos of the sun setting behind Kata Tjuta (The Olgas; rocks similar to Uluru, but in smaller, more rounded shapes) than I did of the famous changing colors of Uluru. Back at the campsite, Clark had dinner prepared for us, and we hit the sack early so we could watch the sunrise at Uluru the next morning. We slept out in the open on swags, something typically Australian, referring to a bedroll with a foam mattress and a cover that can protect you from the rain, which is also very portable. Ours were made of heavy canvas, which is fine in cold, wet weather, but in the desert heat, I rolled the canvas flap back and put a sleeping bag on the mattress. I still was too hot to even crawl into the sleeping bag, so I slept most of the night under the broad outback sky in just a tank top and shorts, only covering up a bit when I realized mosquitoes were after me.
The next morning we dragged ourselves up at 4:30 am to get to Uluru in time to watch the sunrise. I decided 4:30 wasn't early enough and accidentally got up an hour earlier than that. The Northern Territory doesn't observe daylight savings time, so we had to put our clocks back an hour when we crossed the border. Unfortunately I forgot to change the time on my alarm clock, so I got up and was all dressed and ready and wondering why no one else was up yet. I realized what I'd done and went back to sleep for awhile.
At the rock, we had the option to do a full walk around the base, or go to the sunrise watching area and then do half of the base walk once the sun had come up. I went for the latter option and hung around with a few other people from my group. On the drive over to Uluru, I came to appreciate it much more. The road passed pretty close at one point and the tiniest bit of light was beginning to appear behind the rock, just enough to be able to pick out its silhouette. Then I got a sense of how large it really was, and seeing it in this predawn light was powerful. Unfortunately standing with the other hordes of tourists watching the sunrise is not quite as wonderful of an experience. People jostle around for hundreds and hundreds of photos; I had an Italian woman not so kindly ask me to get out of her photo. I overheard someone else say "we're here at the crack of dawn to watch a rock."
Those of us from my group soon moved on so we could start the half-base walk before it got much later (and hotter). Being up close to Uluru meant you could see how much variation there was in the rock: cracks and holes and crevices, all of which have meaning to the Aborigines of the area. There was also a surprising amount of vegetation. Once our group reconvened after the walk, Clark explained more about the sacred rituals which the Aborigines held at Uluru, which unfortunately don't really happen anymore. We drove on to Kata Tjuta and he told us a bit about it as well. It was all a bit of a blur for me though because, while I had taken care to carry a lot of water for the walk that morning, I didn't bring much food with me, so I was really low on energy. There was a short walk we could do at Kata Tjuta, but I gave it a pass and lay on a bench in the shade with my hankerchief over my face to keep away the flies. I only came back to life more after we returned to the campsite and had lunch, but I regret not fully taking in the things we saw.
We packed up at the campsite and drove to a campsite near Kings Canyon, which we'd be hiking the next day. The two look relatively close, but it was still quite a drive. After another wonderful swim in an outdoor pool, we settled into the campsite, which was pretty much the same as the one we were just at, but much more in the middle of nowhere. As it got dark, we heard dingoes howling in the distance, perhaps at the full moon that was beaming down on us. We slept in the open in swags again, which made us perhaps even more vulnerable in this location. I don't know, I didn't really worry myself, I don't think dingoes are really a danger, though I woke up in the middle of the night and noticed that their howling had gotten closer. I enjoyed being in such a unique place, sleeping outdoors, so far from any cities. It is one of my favorite memories of the trip.
We had a rough morning in order to get up and be packed up to leave for Kings Canyon. Clark wanted to start walking before the sun was up or else it would be too hot to do the hike safely. In order to have time to pack and then drive to the canyon, which was not all that close, it meant being up at 3:30 to leave at 4:30 to start walking at 5. Oof. It hurt to be awake, and even more so to try to tell my body to eat breakfast, even though it was essentially the middle of the night. In the end, I appreciated the early start. We were the only tour group there, hiking the main steep climb to the rim of the canyon by flashlight. Any sounds from animals and bugs really carried through the air and the moon had gone down so the stars were really visible. With so much open sky, you could sense much more the gradations of dawn. We got to the top and out to the rim of the canyon just in time for the sunrise. It was all an amazing experience. We could see the car park filling with buses and cars, so I was glad we got to do the main part of the hike on our own and before it got much hotter. When we arrived at the canyon, it was still 30C (86F).
From there, it was a 3 hour drive to Alice Springs, the final destination for most of us on the tour (some carried on north to Darwin). We made some rest stops. We stopped for "lunch" at 11 am; by then we'd been up 8 hours. A wild camel ran alongside the bus on the highway and Clark told us about the amazing ways in which camels are adapted to the desert. Not long before Alice Springs, he asked if anyone wanted to ride a camel. I thought it was a setup for a bad joke, but he was serious. Up ahead was a camel farm run by a guy he knows, so we stopped in for the chance to ride a camel around a little fenced area. I passed the opportunity by, I don't know why, but I watched others in the group go for rides.
We soon arrived in Alice Springs and that night had a last dinner together as a group in this quirky bar with bizarre decorations covering the walls. I stayed one night in a hostel where some others of the group were also staying, but I moved the next day to a motel that I stayed in for a couple of nights. I didn't plan to be in Alice Springs for 3 days, and it's not something I'd recommend, but I had the extra time because my tour was changed from the 8 day one to 6 days. I of course would have preferred to have gone back to Melbourne earlier, but I had already booked my flight and I couldn't afford to change the ticket. So I holed up in the desert, spending most of the day in my air conditioned motel room. All the days I was there, it got to at least 40 degrees (104F). I did try to see some things in the town though. I went to the Royal Flying Doctor visitor center to learn about their medical service to the remote corners of the outback. I twice tried visiting a place that rescued joeys whose mothers had been killed (often if a kangaroo is hit by a car, the mother dies because she gets the brunt of the impact, but her body protects the joey). These people care for the joeys and raise them until they are old enough to be released into the wild. There was the possibility to feed them and just generally hang out with cute little kangaroos, but the rescue center was closed when I went by. Maybe it was just too hot.
I finally flew back to Melbourne, which was really good to be back in, somewhere familiar. I couldn't believe though that it all was almost over. You know it is going to come and it's still so hard when it finally does. At my hostel, I reunited with my large suitcase that I had left with a friend in early December. I also had a bunch of mail that had collected which included many Christmas cards, though Christmas was a month past. The next day was Australia Day and I caught a parade that celebrated the multitude of ethnicities in Melbourne. In the evening on Federation Square there were drumming performances by all sorts of different groups: African, Turkish, Japanese, Chinese, Aboriginal.... The celebrations ended with fireworks, all on this wonderful, warm summer evening.
Chinese lion dancing
Before going back to the hostel, I walked along the river and wondered how I could leave this place behind, how I could leave summer behind. The next day was my final full day in Melbourne and Australia. I spent it getting last-minute things, doing various things one last time. In the evening, I decided to go to Federation Square to watch the men's final of the Australian Open tennis tournament. I'm not a tennis fan, but I'd been watching some of the matches since I was in Alice Springs and I'd been hearing about this young French guy, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, who came out of nowhere to end up in the final against Novak Djokovic. I'd paid vague attention to him absolutely killing Rafael Nadal in the semifinals. Now I thought I'd join the sports-loving Aussies in cheering on this underdog who was without a doubt the crowd favorite. The match was shown on the big screen in Federation Square, so I found a spot amongst the huge crowd gathered to watch a match that was going on for real only a couple of kilometers upriver from us. It was an amazing atmosphere that could have been beaten only if Tsonga was Australian. Tsonga unfortunately lost, but it was a close match, so there was plenty of excitement. It wasn't how I imagined I'd spend my last evening in Australia, but it was so memorable, with all of these strangers coming together outdoors, watching the sun set just behind the big screen, and the city all around. It was actually a perfect way to say goodbye to Melbourne.