Monday’itis was in full swing two weeks ago as my alarm went off at 5 am in the pitch dark middle of Australia. Got up and ready to go for The Rock Tour, downed some free breakfast, hopped on the bus and promptly fell back asleep for a few hundred kilometres until we stopped at Eldunda for morning tea. The directions to get to Uluru from Alice Springs are pretty easy: go south on Stuart Highway, turn right at Lasseter Highway, turn right at the sign for Uluru: total distance, about 450kms.
Our group of 19 seemed pretty awesome once we picked everyone (and our beer) up. First stop: Uluru! Formerly known as Ayers Rock, it is one of the most iconic images of Australia, perhaps even topping the Sydney Opera House. It was afternoon by the time we finally got into the park, and we started with a look around the cultural centre, to get a bit more information about the Anangu people and their traditions. The ‘Sorry Book’ is also housed in the cultural centre, along with numerous bits of rock and dirt that visitors to the rock have repatriated to the site over the year. According to legend, if you take something from or climb the rock, you will have a string of bad luck, and only apologizing or returning what you have taken will do anything to stop it. The book was hundreds of pages thick, containing letters from all over the world, asking the aboriginal peoples for forgiveness for either taking a piece of the rock which they have enclosed in their letter, or just saying sorry for climbing – some recent letters I read included rocks that were taken from the site in the 70s and kept for years, travelling around the world before being returned home. Originally I had really wanted to climb the rock, but Sam, our tour leader, drew a very simple and meaningful comparison between the rock and your own home. He suggested that if I went for dinner to his house, and was asked to take my shoes off, that I most likely would, out of respect for his wishes. If he had come over to my house and I had asked the same of him, but he hadn’t removed his shoes, I might be a little miffed. Climbing Uluru is like not taking off your shoes in someone else’s house when they’ve asked you to: you wouldn’t want to upset a friend, much less make a bad impression on someone you’ve just met, so I chose instead to complete the 10.6km base walk around Uluru instead.
It was late afternoon by the time we headed out for the walk. Since so many of the sides of the rock are sacred to the Anangu people, there are signs indicating that photography is prohibited at many points along the walk. After about 6 hours in the bus, though, it was great to be out and walking, and we all started chatting and getting to know each other. There were 19 of us from 9 countries on the tour, with varying degrees of English and endless travel stories to share. Being back in the backpacker circle was amazing for just sharing memories and tips on what to see and do, how best to get around, and what to miss in favour of a little-known gem. Two and a half hours later, we had circled the rock and become friends, and it was time to head over to the sunset spot to try to catch a glimpse of the glowing rock in the setting sun.
Sam made us dinner while we took endless photos of the rock changing colour – it didn’t quite seem to glow as much in person as it does on TV, however, just being there was enough. Surreal even. Honestly, I’d known that the rock was in the middle of Australia and a bit of a hike to get to, and I feel really lucky to have made it there with such a wicked group of people. After sunset, dinner and a couple of beers, we headed back to our campsite, where we had a quick lesson in the art of swagging. A swag is probably one of the best Australian inventions I’ve seen (along with the stubby holder). A sort of massive canvas sleeping bag, it has a mattress – no ThermaRests here people! – a plastic bottom, and a flap that you can pull over your head to prevent getting dew’ed upon in the night, while not suffocating to death. Just tuck your rented -10 degree sleeping bag inside your swag, and you can sleep quite comfortably under the stars in the Outback on a winters’ night in shorts and a t-shirt! If I had a choice between swagging and sleeping upright on a seater train, I would choose a swag every time.
The next morning our wake-up call was at 5:30 am. Sam stoked up the fire so we could see in the pitch black morning to roll up our swags and get out to the rock in time to see the sun rise behind the massive monolith. (Yes, did you know that Uluru is actually one giant rock?! Biggest rock in the world, so cool!) We ate breakfast in the parking lot next to the bus and then drove about 30 minutes over to Kata Tjuta, or The Olgas (after the tallest peak, Mt. Olga). We did 2/3rds of the Valley of the Winds hike, and honestly, I’m glad we didn’t do the final part. The place, although beautiful, was eerie and creepy and a bit foreboding. The couple of hours we spent hiking around and listening to aboriginal creation myths was more than enough, and it was nice to be out in the open air again.
We ate a quick lunch and went back to the rock to finish off the rest of our base walk. By the afternoon, a huge cloud had come in and it actually RAINED in the Red Centre. And not just a few drops of spitting rain, it rained in droves (for about 5 minutes) and our little group taking shelter in one of the overhangs of the rock became part of the lucky 4% of people who visit the rock who get to see it in the rain!
That afternoon we had a long drive in the setting sun to Kings Canyon. Stopping only to collect enough firewood to cook that night’s dinner, we made it just in the nick of time to watch the sun fade away over the horizon. Back at our campsite, we sat on our swags around the fire and helped watch over dinner as it cooked in the coals. A few beers later it was time for another night under the stars of the southern sky.
The next morning we were up again before sunrise, and hiked like mad up to the top of the canyon to get there in time to greet the day. It was really pretty and we followed it up with a three-hour hike around the rest of the canyon before heading back to Alice Springs via a camel farm. There are over 1.3 million camels in Australia, mostly feral, which were let free in the 1900s by their owners, who were ordered to shoot them once they had served their purpose in helping to build the telegraph line. Camel raising and racing is a highly popular sport in the Red Centre, and we all took turns racing camels down a small track – so hilarious, especially when we put Kim, our barely English-speaking South Korean friend up on one, at least she will have some very interesting stories to take home! Arriving back in Alice, we all had a few hours to get changed and showered and met up back at The Rock bar for dinner, drinks and final farewells.