I was embarking on a trip of a lifetime… starting in the middle of nowhere.
I had just finished up my job in Sydney and was going to be starting a new role in San Francisco, a city that I had heard great things about from all who had been there, although it was a place that I had never seen firsthand. Luckily I had arranged to have a month and a half vacation before starting work again, so here I was with my boyfriend Michael, spending a week in Australia’s Northern Territory on an Adventure Tours trip, before spending some time in Bali (Indonesia) and Seoul (Korea) before jet setting to the US of A.
June to August is winter in most of Australia. But with Australia being so vast, climates vary, and while Alice Springs faces the same fate as its southern cousins at night, during the day the temperature usually hits the generous mid-20s. We got off the plane from Sydney and were greeted with a warm 27 degrees – and not much else but a tiny runway, sundried shrubs, and passengers leaving the airport via bus or car, red dust flicking up behind them.
Arriving a day before our tour commenced, our bed for the night was at the Haven Resort, a hostel apparently close to the town center. We wandered up the flat, barren streets to town (it’s about a five-minute walk) and found a grocery, pharmacy, and a few fledgling restaurants – but not much else. People strolled aimlessly, while the shop where we ate our MSG-tasting noodles had staff who sat around bored, waiting for the next customer to arrive.
Honestly, unless you have a reason to stay longer, Alice Springs is a place to stay for just one night en route to somewhere more interesting, like Uluru or Kings Canyon. The hostel we were staying at was clean and we had managed to score a double room all to ourselves, TV and en-suite bathroom included. The beds are comfy and clean; it’s $10 for linen if you need any.
Waking up the next day for a 5.40 am departure from our hotel, we stumbled out to the darkness, meeting our guide, Ilse, as well as the 24 other tourists hailing from France, the UK, Holland, Italy, Japan, and Korea in our mini-bus that we would be with for the next three days. We would be making our way south to see Uluru (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), and Kings Canyon before snaking our way back up to Alice Springs.
First stop after sunrise was camel riding. While camels aren’t native to Australia (they were introduced via the Middle East and the Subcontinent), they thrive in the Aussie northern climate and now number over one million in the wild. Here we found two, ready to be ridden on – costs you $6 for a couple of minutes. Ironically, besides riding a camel you could also eat one in a burger, in the café across from where they slept…
With Alice Springs being close to the heart of Australia, we soon made it up to arguably the most central point of the country. The actual center is open to debate as it can be measured in a variety of ways – median, gravity, etc. We also realized how remote we were when we saw the prices of goods at the gas station – petrol was a whopping $2 per liter (50c more expensive than other Aussie cities), while ice cream, water, and sweets were in some cases double the average price.
The Northern Territory hosts two dual UNESCO World Heritage places – only six other such sites exist. In the one national park, there is Uluru and Kata Tjuta – both giant rock formations that have come out of the ground and continue to evolve and erode to this day. Kata Tjuta, otherwise known as the Olgas, is Aboriginal for “many heads”. Interestingly, in the Aboriginal language the numbers only go up to three – then after that everything else is “kata” or “many”. In fact, there are 39 massive red rock formations, with the tallest well over the height of Uluru, which is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest monolith in the world.
The surrounding land is as flat as a pancake, this is what makes these rocks even more amazing, as some of the formations are apparently as tall underground as they are above the earth. The color of the rocks is interesting too – thanks to the rich iron ore in the soil, the dirt is a deep red color. The rocks themselves have rusted over the years thanks to the iron, giving them this rich redness.
We trekked for a couple of hours around some of the “heads”, trampling across rocks piled high above each other, walking uphill to see a sliver between some of the heads where sunlight peeked in between, opening up to let us see the land below and the blue skies overhead. It is hard to describe the feeling that you get when you climb up a hill and check out the views – it’s simply glorious. While the rocks seemed fairly solid, in some places it could be quite unsteady as some of the stones continued to erode, exposing the grey original color of it underneath.
Next stop was Uluru, which is a few kilometers away, facing Kata Tjuta from across the plains. With the sun starting to set, we were here for a quick stop to have a sip of sparkling wine, cheese, and dips while overlooking the rock change its color, from a rich red to a shadowy purple. It’s a great idea – one that many other tour groups had capitalized on, as they set up their own champagne/cheese feasts in varying luxury.
Returning to our campsite, it was a dinner of camel (sadly, no I didn’t feel bad about eating the animal that I rode on earlier that day), sausages and salad before sitting around the campfire. With nightfall upon us, the temperature had dropped dramatically, but rather than sleep in the tents provided, most people chose to sleep in a “swag” beneath the stars. A true Aussie outback experience, a swag is a canvas bag that you can put your sleeping bag in – it has a big flap at the head to keep away the cold (or the mosquitoes) at night and is easy to roll up and dust off the next morning as you make your way through remote country. With a full belly and another fantastic view, despite the cold, it was easy to fall fast asleep.
Getting up at 5 am is not something that comes naturally to me. I never spring out of bed – and I definitely will not when I’m waking up in darkness, facing the freezing cold, sleeping on the floor next to a campfire that has dimmed overnight.
Yet on a holiday, we will overcome all of these obstacles in the quest to see that tourist attraction that we’ve been dying to check out. Today it was Uluru, or Ayers Rock, which is in the Guinness Book of Records as the largest monolith in the world.
As the bus made its way to Uluru where we would see the sunrise over it, the sun started to also rise and paint pastel pink, violet, and orange streaks across the sky. In the semi-darkness, we arrived and followed the green lights dotted across the footpath to where we could see the front of Uluru. Most people continued up the path to an elevated platform, however, Michael grabbed my hand and led me to the left where we stood on ground level with the massive rock.
It was absolutely freezing while we took a few customary tourist snaps, but then the unexpected happened. He proposed. I’ll spare the specifics other than to say that I was shocked, taken aback… but happily, said yes. Nothing like a romantic sunrise over a big rock to give me a big rock.. and make me overly emotional!
Uluru is 9 kilometers in circumference and most people don’t walk around it entirely – rather, they do what we did and walk half of that, which takes about 1.5 hours at a leisurely pace. It is well worth it – if you’ve seen pictures of Uluru on postcards they are taken from far away which gives the illusion that its surface is smooth – yet this is completely the opposite.
Up close, you can see not only the deep pockmarks that it has but also the thick, black, tar-looking residue from water that has slid down the rock over thousands of years. You can also check out a small watering hole on the base walk, as well as see some examples of Aboriginal rock art – the ones that you can see though are not very old, only about 150 years.
Uluru is incredibly sacred to the Aboriginal people, particularly the Mala tribe who were from the area. As such, there are areas where you can’t enter and areas that are strictly for women or men only. While you can climb Uluru if it’s not windy, the Aboriginals do request that you don’t do this for sacred reasons. Also, postcards will never have pictures of Uluru from the back – so unless you go there, you won’t know what it looks like (see the end of this post though if you want to read a description).* While many tourists did take photos of the back while on the bus, Mike and I decided not to.
Unfortunately, someone within the Mala community had died, which meant that we missed out on the opportunity to have a guided walk around Uluru with someone from the tribe. Luckily, Ilse was incredibly knowledgeable and provided us with a solid rundown of the area. We saw some bush tomatoes, learned about bush medicine, and found out about some Aboriginal myths and legends. Be sure to also check out the nearby cultural center to learn and see more about how Aborigines lived.
The next morning, we awoke again at the crack of dawn on our tour, leaving our campsite to go to Kings Canyon, a hiker’s dream. While we trekked through the canyon through winter (and yes, it was freezing the whole time – I wore four layers pretty much through the whole four-hour hike), there are numerous signs all over the place stressing the importance of drinking water regularly and ensuring that you have brought enough with you.
Be sure to drink lots of water in the warmer months, wear layers that you can easily put on/take off while walking, and also protect yourself from the sun even if you’re not walking in the middle of the day.
The trek starts off with a challenge almost immediately – trekkers are confronted with a steep hill with an almost vertical ascent leading 100 meters to the top. While it wasn’t fun with a blocked nose and a cough (Michael and I had terrible colds thanks to the winter we had left behind in Sydney), the views from above were well worth it. Similar to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas), the rock is a rich red in color thanks to the iron in the soil, however, beneath the rust, the rock unveils a marble white underneath. Also, the rock is incredibly brittle-looking in places.
Making our way across, we stopped at the “Garden of Eden”, a watering hole in the shade, where you could sit peacefully and look up at some of the massive trees growing overhead and birds flying around. The landscape from the top of the canyon is a lot drier – rocks are piled on top of each other, resembling stacks of crumbly pancakes or waffles in the wild, while the cliff face is a sheer, smooth surface in contrast.
There are more comprehensive walks that you can do, but unless you are an avid hiker, the four-hour walk sufficed. The hardest part of the walk is definitely at the start, but at the end it’s a simple step down some rock stairs, all the way back down to the parking lot.
*Uluru spoiler alert: So, you’re curious to know what Uluru looks like from behind, eh? From seeing pictures, most people get the impression that Uluru is longer than it is wide – but actually, the width of Uluru is about two-thirds the size. While there are still lots of pockmarks and black streaks across the rock on this side, one massive part in the middle has eroded to look like a profile of an Aboriginal person looking left… perhaps this is why this part of the rock is so sacred to the Mala tribe.