Chasing Horizons #26: The Red Centre and an Australian Icon – Alice Springs, Northern Territory, Australia

The Red Centre and an Australian Icon

Alice Springs was a good place to dwell for a while. After the long trip down the track, most of my travel companions booked straight onto bush camping tours to see Uluru. At Annie’s Backpackers, Jo made us most welcome when we arrived dusty and tired into Alice. His most particular memorable line was that as professionals in the backpacker industry we were all friends and we wouldn’t be subjected to the “hard sell” for their particular brand of Malga tour around the Rock.

Of course I wanted to tour the Rock but I was keen to move further south and straight onto Adelaide. Jo’s Malga tour did not suit my needs but again Wayward Bus had what I wanted. By starting the “Just the Middle” tour, on completion I would transfer to the Alice to Adelaide bus trip without the need to return the 300km back to Alice. The only hiccup was that I would have to wait until Tuesday. No problem, I would hang out in Alice, catch up my travelogue updates and take in a few sights. Of course Jo’s nose was completely out of joint for not signing up for his tour and I nearly found myself evicted from the hostel as all of a sudden all beds were “taken”. So much for no hard sell?

Late on Friday afternoon I walked up the short, sharp ascent situated at the northern end of town to the top of ANZAC Hill, so named after the war memorial which has been erected on the summit to the Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps. It offered fine views across Alice Springs down to the MacDonnell Ranges. South of the town the Stuart Highway made its way through a break in the mountain range, the Heavitree Gap, onto Uluru and beyond.

Another interesting feature that I saw from atop ANZAC Hill was the Todd River. This river winds through the town and is spanned by a road bridge and has picnic spots along its banks. An event that draws large crowds is the Henley-on-Todd Regatta. This series of boat races is complicated by the fact that water actually hardly ever flows along the sandy riverbed. Nevertheless, races are held for sailing boats, doubles, coxless fours, eight’s, in fact every boat class you could think of. All the boats are bottomless and the skippers and crews’ legs stick out and they simply run down the course.

Near Alice Springs the Wildlife Commission of the Northern Territory has created a park showcasing various desert habitats – a sort of desert within a desert. You have to ask why? It’s not like there isn’t already enough desert stretching out for as far as can be imagined… AND they charge good money for you to go and see this. Normally an obvious ploy like this to extract more tourist dollar would not interest me, but everyone I had spoken to, to a man, insists that the Alice Springs Desert Park is a “must see”. It is situated about 5km west of the centre of town but can be a problem to get to if you don’t have transport.

With low expectations I decided to hire a bike from my hostel and cycle the short distance. This would have seemed the right thing to do – a bit of exercise and cost effective. But I was too busy taking in the surroundings as I rode through Alice Springs’ suburbs and just wasn’t paying attention to where I was going. I missed the park’s turnoff, instead riding out into the Outback desert, thinking the park was still further down the road. I passed a sign indicating a minor tourist attraction, Flynn’s grave. Rev. John Flynn was the founder of the Royal Flying Doctors Service, which has become essential for providing medical assistance to families and stockmen on cattle stations in remote parts of Australia’s hinterland. His grave is marked by the distinctive “devil’s marble” headstone. In 1952 one of the stones was taken from the Devil’s Marbles site, south of Tennant Creek. This so upset the traditional Aboriginal owners, they were never consulted about the “theft” of this stone from their sacred site. In a generous act of reconciliation the Aboriginal community of Alice Springs offered a replacement sacred stone and the original returned to its rightful place.

On I pedalled into the Outback in search of this desert park that I was certain I would be around the next bend, eventually I was riding through the West MacDonnell National Park. As I cycled I remembered news stories and television reports about young Australians going for joyrides into the Outback never to be seen alive again. I became aware that I had neglected to bring any drinking water along and by now I was pretty thirsty. Eventually, miles from anywhere, I decided to turn back. I guess I would have to make do with an energy sapping cycle through the West MacDonell mountain range, the scrub and low eucalypti trees the only desert park I would be visiting.

I did find the elusive Desert Park once I discovered my mistake after cycling 10km back to the outskirts of Alice Springs in searing heat and finding the turn off I had missed on my outward journey. In my parched state I must have been looking slightly worse for wear because the park ranger in the ticket office charged me the OAP concession admission price of $12. I made straight for the cafeteria and sculled a chilled bottle of water as well as 500ml of cool drink.

Refreshed, I made my way into the exhibition centre with its welcoming air-conditioned interactive displays of Australia’s habitats and how these have been adversely effected. I read about the ignorance of the early settlers, the uncontrolled plague of feral species like foxes, rabbits, horses and cats. There were photographic time lines of how extreme weather conditions like drought and floods have changed the Australian countryside. In the theatre I watched a spectacular 20-minute film (shown on the hour, every hour). It takes you through the evolution of inland Australia with its vast Inland Sea, ice ages and tectonic shifts that shaped the landscape. The producers have a fantastic sense for the dramatic, in the final scene the camera panned across the MacDonnell Ranges when the big screen dropped away to reveal the real life mountains bathed in bright sunshine through wall-to-wall floor-to-ceiling bay windows. You are invited to come and explore the landscape for yourself.

Now rested I walked outside. Three primary desert exhibits, very dry, not so dry and dry with flash floods are spread out over a 1.6 km walk. As I walked I was amazed how diverse these arid ecosystems of central Australia are and the relationships that Aboriginal people have with their land. Scattered throughout the park are walk through aviaries and enclosures, I lingered in these for quite a while enthralled by desert parrots, bee-eaters, kookaburras and bandicoots.

Best of all was the Nocturnal House where on entering from the harsh bright sunshine outside I tripped and bumped into barriers and persons until my eyes adjusted to the dim lighting simulating night time – what do they do at night, turn on the arc lights to simulate day? Marsupials not normally seen by us daytime earth dwellers were on display in large glass fronted enclosures. Prowling, scurrying and hopping obliviously about were eerie looking potoroos, bettongs, numbats. I spotted weird looking creatures like the colourful thorny devil and scary carnivorous ghost bats all from a safe distance. My favourite was a couple of very active bilbies, which are small kangaroo-like creatures with a mix of rat and rabbit thrown in for good measure. Even the animators at Walt Disney couldn’t have come up with a creation this wonderful.

My only disappointment was that I missed the free-flying birds of prey exhibition. Oh to see the raptors like eagles, kites and falcons in full flight.

The Alice Springs Desert Park is quite splendid.

Back in town whilst walking the streets looking for a authentic Aboriginal didgeridoo to send home I was much more aware of the flocks of noisy bright pink galahs grazing on the lawns, parakeets and lorikeets whizzing by in flight. It all gave the impression of being in one big aviary.

As mentioned earlier, Alice is the main jump off point for travellers to visit Australia’s most famous tourist destination, Uluru or Ayers Rock. So after six days of dithering and seeing most of my new chums go off on their own trips to the Rock, some even returning with stories of spectacle and wonder, so finally it my turn to depart arrived.

My own trip to the Red Centre was again with Wayward Bus. Our guide, Russ, collected me, early on 15 October 2002. With all my bags, including two large boxes of souvenirs and beer were loaded into the trailer with the bags of my other 12 companions. We headed south on the Stuart Highway, through the Heavitree Gap in the MacDonnell Range.

Our first stop was an hour out of Alice Springs when we stopped for breakfast at Jim’s Place. This roadhouse is a popular stop for tours because of the owner’s (Pete?) singing and dancing dingo. Inside, a mangy thin dingo-looking dog was walked up to the piano on a chain lead. When Pete invited one of our group to come and play a tune on the piano the dingo sprang up onto the keys and actually started to howl. Really, even when the tune was changed the dog changed it’s howling in what seemed to be an attempt to keep tune. And this sort of entertainment in the Outback is for free.

Then it was back on to the endless, arrow straight highway for hours and hours of driving. This is a familiar story for tours in the vastness that is the Aussie Centre. We all soon settled into reading, dozing or listening to music on our Walkman headphones, God knows how you are expected to listen to the bus stereo with all the ambient noise whilst tearing at high speeds along the track. We had one minor incident when 4-5km down the road, after a toilet stop, the trailer doors flew open and one of the girls’ backpacks fell out. Doubling back to search for the bag a motorist had found it along with half a dozen bottles of shampoo and moisturiser in the bush on the roadside. The bag was pretty messed up after hitting the tarmac at high speeds.

At another roadhouse, Eridunda, we turned west onto the Lasseter Highway, which is much the same as the Stuart Highway (long and straight), and made it to our evening campsite, the Kings Creek Cattle Station, by mid-afternoon where we had a late lunch. The tour company had a permanent camp here, i.e. shed with fridge, work surfaces, sink and running water. Also stored here were camp stools, mattresses and real swags. There is nothing like roughing it with a bit of fair dinkum bush camping.

That night we had a pretty innocuous spaghetti bolognaise dinner which didn’t impress me so I declined my share. Afterwards around the campfire the group dynamics of being twelve relative strangers being thrown together for four days kicked in. This involved much joke and story telling and basically getting to know each other. It attests to the skill of the tour guide to ensure that this group bonding occurs to make for a more enjoyable trip, if it doesn’t happen naturally then it’s up to the guide to make it happen. I am generally a tour guide’s dream – or nightmare depending on your point of view – because having camped and safaried in Africa I will naturally gel complete strangers into a social group.

Next morning we were all up for a hike before sunrise. The ridiculously early start was warranted because today we were going to hike along the rim of the Kings Canyon. We will need to have completed the major part of the hike before the searing heat of the day. Nestled in the Watarrka National Park near the western end of the George Gill Range nature has carved out a canyon with contrasting ochre coloured walls. The Canyon takes its name from Kings Creek which flows from it. Russ drove the “short” 40km as the sun poked its head above the horizon. In all the vastness of the outback I noticed a subtle change in the vegetation, as we drove along Luritja Road alongside the imposing Seymour Range of hills. Instead of the endless eucalypti and wattle tress, a newcomer was making more and more of an appearance. The Desert Oak, which is a large conifer tree with spiky needles for leaves and tiny pine cones. The shade cast by a group of these trees is most welcome on a hot day.

We started the “Rim” walk from the car park at the base of the canyon where an excellent interpretation centre with a 3-D model of the canyon and information on how it was carved out by tectonic separation, glacial and water erosion. Off to the right, gentle rocky steps lead up the mountainside which was thankfully still shaded as the early morning sun had not risen sufficiently to clear the towering cliffs. In no time we had attained dizzy heights with views over a myriad of weathered sandstone domes. Far below the flat arid plains stretched on forever.

Continuing, we had made our way up through the maze of domes and came out upon a plateau and gaped in awe across a wide U-shaped chasm to other hikers precariously perched on the other side. The flat plateau dropped away down sheer vertical cliffs which formed sides of the valley. The U-shape is characteristic of typical valleys carved by glaciers, making Kings Canyon a true canyon (unlike the Grand Canyon with V-shaped valley walls caused by water erosion only, making it actually a gorge). Approaching the edge is so intimidating and scary that I had to leopard crawl flat on my stomach to the edge and peer into the vast red canyon. The cliff faces were so smooth that I could imagine what marks I could see were in fact scars left by the glacier as it slowly slid by.

Walking around the rim, always mindful that one slip and I could stumble over the canyon edge 100m to into the valley below. At a distinctive anvil-shaped rock a wooden staircase lead us down into a narrow gorge lined with native figs, mountain gums and ancient cycads. At the base the creek flows into a triangular rock pool. The Garden of Eden is a serene pool surrounded by tall red cliffs on all sides. Not to be missed, except when we came upon the pool it was rather crowded by fellow tourists some noisily swimming in the dark waters.

After resting and taking in the peaceful surroundings for half an hour I climbed out of the gorge onto another plateau to get more spectacular views from the perspective of being on the opposite bank of the canyon. Again this plateau was littered with domed sandstone outcrops. The path meandered through the “Catacombs” and the “Ancient City”, both aptly named. Eventually the path cut inland and around a headland before dropping steeply back to the valley floor. It was late morning by now and the sun was high in the sky and extremely hot. Now I was thankful for our early start and that we chose to ascend up the opposite, less taxing bank. The climb I was descending now was particularly steep, it’s not called ‘Heart Attack Hill’ for nothing. Half way down I passed a family coming up. There was Dad with a toddler in a cradle in his back, two large older kids and incredibly Mum was carrying small baby in a sling. I mean, what were they thinking? Walking up a most physically demanding climb in the heat of the day? I hope they were OK and enjoyed the hike.

Once back in the car park an ingenious entrepreneur had set up a refreshment stall vending the best tasting cold drinks and ice creams I think I have ever had. With ice cream dripping off my chin I remembered the cult Australian movie Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is about a group of three drag queens that make their way across the outback in a bus – which is christened Priscilla. One of the drag queens utters a classic line from the film, “I want to be a cock, in a frock, on a rock”. In full drag outfit and over-the-top make-up the scene that follows that famous line was filmed here atop Kings Canyon. Stunning.

After an early lunch we then journeyed back along the Luritja Road and west onto the Lasseter Highway. Now the landscape features looked more and more desert-like with fine red sand dunes covered with clumps of spinifex and wattle bushes. We passed the enormous Lake Amadeus – this salt lake was pretty much dry but it is reputed to be the size of England. A fuzzy red haze hung on the horizon, caused by dust and smoke blown up from a spate of recent bush fires.

Eventually, after miles riding through of the one of least hospitable regions in the world we happened upon a service village for the national park, Yulara. It was discreetly tucked away amongst low hills and sand dunes. Here we paid our fees, stocked up with ice and headed to the camp ground. This time our permanent camp was even more luxurious than the previous evening, with long tables and benches, gas barbecue and kitchen. We quickly set up camp and headed straight into the national park itself.

The sense of anticipation was thick in the bus. The late afternoon sun adding to the already red glow coming from the landscape. Then, there it was in all its glory. Uluru. An imposing red monolith rises 348m out of the red surrounding scrub land. Uluru is 3.6km long and shaped like a baker’s loaf of bread. It has a 10km circumference at its base – it is believed that two thirds of the mighty Rock lies beneath the sand.

Bad Joke – above are the dimensions on the Rock, can you work out how much Uluru weighs? One stone.

Our tour guide, Russ, must have done this before. Once Uluru was in sight and it grew to dominate our vision as we drove along the approach road for a few kilometres to its base he played a cheesy song, “Raining on the Rock“, by John Williamson. The song is a rock-cum-folk ballad that touches on the Aboriginal cultural significance and the spiritual power this monolith has on the Australian psyche.
Well, it certainly stirred up the emotions of being at Australia’s most well known tourist icon. In my book this song will always have an association with the Rock. I will need to download it from Napster as soon as I get home and whenever I hear it I will transported back to Uluru and the captivating Red Centre.

Uluru is probably the world’s most immediately recognisable natural phenomenon. I had travelled half way around the world to see the imposing red bulk. As I stepped from the bus to within touching reach of this powerful and arresting piece of stone I had tears streaming down my checks. I knew I was experiencing one of life’s earth defining travel moments.

You may have noticed that I have never referred to Uluru as Ayers Rock, the name given it by the early explorer William Gosse in a major bit of sucking up to his father-in-law and South Australian governor at the time. To the Anangu Aboriginal people it is known as Uluru, the name also given to the surrounding national park. This also includes Kata Tjuta christened by another early pioneer Ernest Giles as the Olgas. The Anangu own the rock but is conveniently and permanently leased to the white federal government. Out of respect to the cultural and sacred importance our guide explained that it is politically correct to refer to these sites by their original Aboriginal names.

As for climbing the Rock in the old days it was considered the highlight of any white Australian’s holiday to the Red Centre. But it is important to note that climbing Uluru goes against Aboriginal spiritual beliefs and the Anangu prefer if visitors do not climb, calling the climbers “Minga” which means ants. It’s as if someone was found swinging from a crucifix in a Christian church or entered the holy of holys in a synagogue. They also feel responsible for all people visiting and when someone is injured or dies they are greatly saddened and drastic actions are taken, like smashing a rock against their heads or moving away for years at a time.

Totally captivated by the power of Uluru, Russ drove us to the sunset viewing area which was full of large, expensive looking, air-conditioned coaches with hundreds of tourists dripping with gold and diamonds and sporting expensive video cameras. The coach and hotel staff were dressed in suits and ties and were setting up tables draped with white tablecloths and serving wine, champagne and finger snacks. We set up right alongside with our fold down camping stools, beers, chips and dips. It was again proved how rude Japanese and German tourists with too much money can be. Give them less than a quarter of a chance and they will barge and push so as to position themselves directly in the path of your perfect sunset shot. At one stage whilst chatting with our group enjoying snacks and sundowners, with my back half turned to the Rock, one guy actually erected his tripod over my left shoulder.

Uluru didn’t disappoint. It put on a spectacular show for us, the Rock itself changes its colour through a series of deeper and darker red shades before it fades into grey as the sun drop beneath the horizon. After the sun had set, and the more expensive tour coaches had packed up and returned to their five star hovels, we still sat there in awe unable to say anything profound or even humorous. Not least wanting to move ourselves for fear of breaking the moment and the atmosphere of this spiritual place would disappear forever.

Far from being emotionally drained by the inspiring sunset at Uluru I returned to the campsite on quite a high. Once again taking charge of our barbecue supper by organising our group to prepare salads and cooking of the meat. I think Russ was in a bad mood because he did take me aside and thanked me for helping out while he disappeared whilst getting his head back together. No worries Russ, my pleasure and I don’t think anyone even noticed. I sat up late that night around the camp fire having deep meaningful conversations with anyone who cared to listen.

Day two at Uluru. Again long before the sun even considered rising for it’s daylong toil across the impossibly blue sky, we were up and making our way back to the Rock as it slumbered alone upon the boundless emptiness of the desert. Of course “Raining on the Rock” was again blaring out of the car stereo. We made our way to the sunrise viewing area. Compared to the sunset area this was not a well laid out car park but no less amount of coaches and buses, with their load of obnoxious tourists, was parked up along the roadside on the north-eastern side of the Rock. At dawn, the whole colour shading show was performed in reverse.

Again we were one of the last groups to leave before we drove to the rock base. Now I could see that the ant connotation to the foolish people opting still to climb Uluru was very clever and accurate. Silhouetted against the morning sky were hundreds of climbers strung out in a line, looking like ants climbing a dung heap – the “Minga” mob. Although the number of visitors to Uluru has risen steadily over the years the number choosing to climb has dropped rapidly. It is aggressively discouraged by all the literature and tour guides alike – so once in possession of all the facts why would anyone want to climb? Only one of our group, Margaret, an elderly Canadian wanted to climb but declined either on moral grounds or because it was too strenuous. I don’t care, most importantly she didn’t climb.

I didn’t climb Uluru – I walked around the base. This is 10km long and just as rewarding, more so even. We took it at a leisurely pace and still completed it in 3-4 hours. Along the way we were able to get up close and personal with Uluru. The red stone surface is not as smooth as it seems from afar, the smooth sandstone takes on a more flakey appearance. The shape is also less regular with diagonal sediments forming diagonal ribs up its sides that wavey curve into gullys. Along the way we explored caves, including one shaped like a perfect standing wave – sound familiar?

Some of the caves contained ancient paintings, testament to the revere that this place holds in aboriginal culture. There were also spiritual sites along the way, many in the shape of animals parts, that we were not allowed to photograph. There was a wallaby tail, an emu head and dog head rock and all have sacred fables attached. Surprising enough we also happened upon a couple of water holes. One, Mutitjulu, is contained within a solid red valley – the marks on the rock tell of the battle between two ancestral snakes, Kuniya and Liru (the Rainbow Serpent). By the time we finished the walk most of the philistines had completed their desecration of the Rock and the route was closed to climbers for the day as the weather had really warmed up by now and there was a great risk of heat exhaustion or something fatal.

On the way back to our camp we stopped at the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre for a cup of coffee. There was not much to see here, except some welcomed air-conditioned relief from the stifling heat. The displays are more to do with the Aboriginal interpretations of their Dreamtime – the creation of the world. Disappointingly there was nothing about the formation or history of Ayers Rock itself. Maybe that was me being the white racist intruder. Of course there was the obligatory arts and crafts shop selling overpriced paintings and Aboriginal artefacts and other typical tourist fare.

After the excitement of the Rock and suffering from indigenous overload it was nice to rest up for a few hours around the pool near our campsite. I practically had the place to myself and loved the solitude and the cool relief the water offered. This was what being on holiday was all about.

But all to soon it was back on the road again, this time 50km west to the less well known, giant rounded rock of Kata Tjuta (the Olgas). Meaning many heads, these monoliths are equally impressive and maybe even more captivating. Like Uluru, Kata Tjuta is part of the same formation of sandstone deposits but unlike the Rock these rocks are of a courser sediment. These are known as bornhardts, a bulk of rock resistant to the erosional forces that wears away the surrounding plains. (Attila, or Mt Conner, is the third sandstone outcrop in the series and is made up of finer sediments and Uluru falls somewhere in between).

I think we had had our fill of walking around awe inspiring red rocks. We opted for a short walk to take some group photo’s and returned back for our second Uluru sunset. This time we witnessed it from a lookout near the camp, a further distance from Uluru itself. Still, it was spectacular with the added bonus of witnessing the sun setting directly behind the Kata Tjuta. I swear with the Olgas silhouetted against the red/orange sky I could make out the profile of Homer Simpson lying on his back with his hands folded over his vast protruding stomach. Too many cultural experiences and too many awesome sights were obviously effecting my judgement, I think.

I slept well in my swag that night and we left early for the long journey back to civilisation. During the drive we stopped at a roadhouse at Mt. Ebenezer where I found a “Raining on the Rock” postcard, it had 3 or 4 pictures of rare rain storms over Uluru. Karin, a token Australian in our group, hated John Williamson and cringed every time we played the song, and that was often I can tell you. As a parting gesture I got the whole group to sign the card and presented it to Karin as a reminder of our magnificent trip. Regardless of the crass music, hey?

You know that bug that drives travellers to the far flung corners of the planet will never really be driven out of the system until Uluru and its power has been experienced. I now crossed it off my “to do” list and started the long journey home.

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