Thursday, 12 July 2007

Alice Springs and Uluru

The Ghan train travels from Adelaide to Darwin, it’s main stop being at Alice Springs... a town about as central in Australia as you can get, very much in the middle of nowhere. Until they built the train tracks to it, about the only ones capable or brave enough to make the trip through the vast deserts were the Afghan camel drivers. And the “ghan” comes, in some fashion, from these legendary men willing to brave the extremes to bring goods across the scorched barren lands. We caught the train from Adelaide around noon on Sunday July 8th... middle of the Australian winter. As opposed to Canada, heading north in Australia means going from colder to warmer climes. And so we, who hadn’t seen a rain-free day since we left Bourke over three weeks ago, looked forward to the dry warm desert.
Twenty five hours later, we disembarked the Ghan train in Alice Springs. We had each taken a turn sleeping on floor while the other took up the two train seats, and we slept surprisingly well. Hours were spent reading, typing, talking, and staring blankly out train windows. Train travel in economy has very little to recommend it, other than the fact that it means more mobility than being on a bus for the same length of time and is slightly cheaper than a plane ride. One day.... one day I will take an overnight on a train during which I will sleep in a bunk, and be rocked like I was on the ferry ride.
A shuttle bus took us from the airport to Annie’s Place, a moderate sized hostel whose main recommendation is the fact that they’re associated with the Mulga’s Adventure Tours. These tours are advertised solely through word of mouth, and are the cheapest tour you can find for a three day trip to Ayers Rock and surrounding sites, as well as being one of the few that does it’s best to get you back in time for the next train out of town.
We had a whole afternoon to waste, and ended up popping into the reptile centre a short walk from Annie’s place. There they did a presentation on the various common reptiles of Australia. And then they let us hold some. Just for you mom:
We went out for supper with a girl from Switzerland who was staying in our hostel room. We thought we were outback when we worked in Bourke. She had just arrived in Alice Springs on her way to Ayers Rock Resort to work as a waitress for 6 months to complete her training in hospitality services. The entire population of the area is basically whoever is working at the resort (approximately 1000 employees) and a few local businesses, plus the tourists (lots and lots and lots and lots get the picture.) And it’s a four hour drive from the closest and only town in the area, Alice Springs. Good luck to you Rachel!
The Mulga tour left at 6am the next morning... well it actually ended up leaving closer to 6:30 thanks to Maxie, one of the girls on the tour who forgot to set her alarm. And that set the tone for the timing of the whole trip, late, later, and/or hurried for most things. I think a majority of us slept for large portions of the drive to King’s Canyon, the first stop of the day. We all ate a quick lunch of either tuna salad sandwiches or egg curry sandwiches when we arrived. King’s Canyon, advertised as Australia’s Grand Canyon, is an impressive sight. We did the long walk around it, which begins as a steep climb, reminiscent of Cape Hauy. Once at the top, the path winds towards steep cliff edges with amazing views...

We stopped for pictures and lounging on the edges of cliffs about 3 or 4 times and stopped briefly at a pool where only four guys from the trip were brave enough to risk freezing their nether regions off as they swam across the deep shadowy pool hidden between high cliffs. Everyone arrived back at the bus hungry and tired, only to be told we could have a bicki (biscuit, which we call cookies at home) and supper would be at the campsite. So we set off for the campsite, arriving after dark, and were sent out to find wood. There was no dry wood in the area. Nothing beyond some spindly live trees and random bits of broken branches. Our fire was randomly large and smokey (from the live trees we threw on), or rather weak. Supper was pasta noodles with chili sauce made with camel meat. Not bad (*Laurie: it was delicious!!!! as everything is when your tired and super hungry!!!). Our next lesson was how to use a swag. First step is making a comfortable spot on the ground, getting rid of rocks and sticks (*Laurie: Heather did this step). The you unroll the swag and shake it out (*Laurie: i think i did a half shake as it was freezing cold at this point and all i wanted to do was climb in!), using a flashlight to look for any snakes or spiders that might have made a home in it (*Laurie: yeah...its winter they’re all hibernating...though we did keep our shoes in the swag instead of out of it as they do tend to resemble holes to any creature looking for a place to sleep). The swag, which is like a large canvas sack with a zipper up one side and an inch thick mattress, is filled with your sleeping bag and pillow, you zip it all up and climb in. It got reallllllllllllllly cold because deserts loose heat fast, especially in winter when max daytime temp is 22C, nights are close to 0C. There’s an extra flap of canvas that you can flip over your face to keep out the night air. I think we all used it.
Up before dawn, we were at the next destination before sunrise. The Olgas, also called Kata Tjuta, are impressive hills that look like a bunch of massive boulders dumped in the middle of nowhere. I think both Laurie and I enjoyed these more than Uluru. After a leisurely breakfast, we went for a walk through the Olgas. Lunch didn’t happen until around 2pm, in full view of Uluru (Ayers Rock). Here we had the option of walking around “the rock” or climbing it. The local aborigines ask that people not climb the rock, because many people are injured or killed climbing the rock every year, it being such an arduous and dangerous climb. They also see it as a sacred site, and wish to keep it to be climbed only for sacred ceremonies. After much deliberation on respecting wishes and reasons for these requests we decided that we would regret not climbing in later years. So we along with “Irish” (otherwise known as Simon), started climbing. I got a small fraction of the way, hit the part thats almost totally vertical and not only could I not climb it, I was actually too frightened to go further. I decided to stop and go back. I went back to the bus and was guided by our second tour guide to where the rest of the group was walking. So I got a little of the stories and legends of the local area. And Laurie climbed Uluru with Simon, meeting Christian and Pierre (two other guys from the tour) at the top. Well done guys! * Side note from Laurie: well done!! thats all she can say!! that climb was STRAIGHT up a freaking mountain! i have never climbed anything this steep in my entire life! i almost had a heart attack! and Simon...being the non stop bundle of energy had the gall to RUN up some of it and then taunt me that i couldn’t keep up! oh the names i called him won’t be repeated! and along the way up people keep telling us “you’re almost there!” where?!?!!? closer to a steeper part!?!?! or “thats the hard part the rest is easy!” yeah now we go UP and DOWN vertical!!! when we were headed down Simon and i decided to tell people there was an ice cream shop at the end and to try the pistachio ice’s delicious after such a vigorous climb!! the view from the top is a spectacular, panoramic view of miles and miles and miles of....yup...flat, desert nothingness...its can see the Olgas, and Mount Connor which is the Uluru look alike and varioius other blip’s in the landscape! Totally worth the climb...but if you ever do not under estimate your fitness level as i was ready to die on multiple occasions! Heather’s currently laughing at me...what she doesnt know is that my heart rate hit about 240 and didnt come down for an hour...and drinking water and then starting up again i felt light headed...a basic course in Uluru Rock Climbing is essential...too bad it doesnt exist...actually its called “DONT CLIMB ME!” *end side note

We hightailed it from there to the lookout point where we photographed the changing colors of the rock. And got a little bored waiting... so Simon stole some champagne from under the noses of another tour... we decided to try for a group picture, and managed to get some girl to take it... right when the rock was changing colors. Ooops. And in the anticlimax, we drove to our new campsite for another late night dinner. Unfortunately, our guide accidentally stole someone else’s site, and we ended up having to move sites right after dinner. There were a lot of angry words exchanged and all of us were a little riled up, which resulted in us ripping up so much dead wood at the new campsite that none of us were cold, some actually got burned from the heat of the fire. Laurie, myself and Sunni found the largest log/tree of all and carried it back to the fire, tossing it straight on.
Another early morning... though not as early as we were supposed to get up because the tour guide forgot to set his alarm. Even so, we were the first to park and wait for sunrise at Ayers Rock. Very similar to sunset, I wouldn’t bother with both. We managed a proper group shot though, after the sun was done rising. Then it was off to the cultural center or finish walking around the rock. Annsofie, Veronica, Laurie and I decided to find some tea or coffee and relax at the cultural centre. They had some really neat aborigine art there as well. All a little too pricey for our budget though.
Finally, it was time to return to Annie’s Place (with a short stop for those who wanted a 5 min. camel ride) and then to the Ghan.

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