The best decision of this road trip was to press on to the Ayers Rock Campground before evening, giving us the next full day at the national park. Even though it made for a long day, it was worth it to get set up and relaxed before glimpsing our first sunset at Uluru. “The Rock” is iconic, one of the most famous images of Australia. But what I hadn’t even heard of before this trip was Kata Tjuta, the other area of the park, and these formations (also called the Olgas) are every bit as stunning.
Since stewardship of these landmarks has been joint between the Anangu people and Parks Australia, there are restrictions on staying overnight in the park itself. Climbing Uluru has not actually been banned, although it’s always being talked about, because the Anangu don’t believe in climbing it and a lot of people who do climb have been overcome by heat exhaustion or even died. There are spiritual reasons why the traditional custodians of Uluru don’t want people to climb it, but they wouldn’t have to tell me. In those ridiculous temperatures? Another excellent reason for getting there the night before was that before 11:00 in the morning is the only reasonable time to hike.
As it was, we got in plenty before the best part of the day was gone. A lookout five minutes’ walk from our campsite showed Uluru and Kata Tjuta at sunset.
We’d seen some amazing stars on our journey, but nothing compares to the night sky over Uluru. Even though we’d emerged from a seemingly deserted highway to find that the world had descended on Yulara, it’s not a city, and there’s no light pollution to obscure the southern sky. Looking up at night, I felt like I could fall into the Milky Way. I’d never seen a sky like that before, even in rural Ireland.
The next morning, instead of being hours’ drive away, we got up before dawn and made our way (carefully!) to a viewing point to watch the sunrise.
As we drove around to different viewing points, Uluru seemed to follow us, appearing different colors at different times of day and more spectacular from each angle. I suppose one of the reasons it’s always seemed special is that it rises alone from the plain. The Anangu believe that sacred ancestral beings created Uluru and Kata Tjuta in the dream time.
|Kata Tjuta from the sand dune viewing area|
We made our way further down the highway to Kata Tjuta, which I’d read actually has the best walking in the park. Certainly there were fewer people there. First we enjoyed blessed shade in the gorge called Walpa.
It was only 10:00 and we hadn’t worn ourselves out yet, so T. suggested the first part of the Valley of the Winds. This whole hike is 4 vigorous hours return, but the first part goes to Karu Lookout and was worth doing in itself.
As I’d suspected, the rest of the circuit was closed from 11:00 as the temperature was forecast to hit at least 36 degrees C again! We were starting to get uncomfortable already, so we walked back and went to the Cultural Centre. On the way, we were confronted by probably the most famous view of Uluru—the angle crowds gather to photograph at sunset.
The Cultural Centre requests no photographs, but I can give you the gist of the Anangu story. Their tradition has been handed down orally since time immemorial, and now that the administration of the park is a cooperative effort, black and white are working together. Equal. Seems like such a simple and obvious thing.
We watched Aboriginal artists at work there. You can buy paintings, but the proceeds from everything you buy at the shop goes to the local indigenous community. Even the exceptionally nice lamington, a kind of sponge cake popular in Australia, that we tried at the coffeeshop.
It was too hot to do anything in the afternoon so we just hung out in the campground pool! Once again, I was glad we’d come the day before and had the best part of the day to spend here.
The next day we made our way back to Erldunda Roadhouse, at the junction of the Lasseter and Stuart Highways. Kids running barefoot through the parking lot were another image of contemporary Aboriginal life. I learned more at our next stop, the Alice Springs Desert Park. While we had passed riverbed after riverbed that all appeared completely dry, I now know that that is true only on the surface. Aboriginal people know where to find “soaks,” areas of water in the creek bed, identified by which plants are growing there. It occurred to me that traditional knowledge is just a different kind of knowledge; it may not be valued properly by those who don’t recognize it. I’m sure Aboriginal people had no reason to value knowledge of firearms, until they faced guns in battle.
It is the misfortune of many indigenous Australians today to know four or even five languages, while living in a society where their fourth or fifth language—English—is the one that counts economically. If they lived in Europe and knew that many languages…but such is the unfairness of the world. Anyway, we saw a brighter side of contemporary Australia when we finally hit the big town of the centre, Alice Springs. Uncle’s Tavern, named after “Uncle” Ly Underdown in the 1950s, was a place where black and white were equally welcome, back when that was hardly the norm. It’s still a nice place with a diverse staff and clientele today.
|Didgeridoo and beer list, Uncle's Tavern|
Alice Springs was a bit of a shock, with the first traffic lights since Port Augusta (not to mention the first chain restaurants). The Desert Park was a nice place to visit in the afternoon. It features a nocturnal exhibit with many mammals and reptiles, some no longer found in the wild on mainland Australia. I was especially taken with the python, because we’d bought a small “dot” painting of Python Woman the day before. The price was reduced because we could only buy sections of the python—someone had already bought her head!
While we were at the park, a big group of people swooped in, like the birds of prey, and their tour guides kind of took over. These were the passengers on the Ghan, the (pricey) passenger train that runs all the way from Adelaide to Darwin, like us. I imagine it must be a very different experience to see the country from a train window and be taken everywhere. T. was less impressed with the Desert Park since no dingoes were to be found in the dingo area, and I’m starting to doubt the existence of dingoes myself. Emus, on the other hand, are everywhere.
|Doug, local guide, gives a briefing at the Desert Park|
The birds—magpie, barn owl, hawk owl, wedge-tailed kite—were impressive. I was glad we’d already seen so many of them in the wild (if the “wild” in the magpie’s case was Celia’s backyard!) After the park we went up Anzac Hill.
Anzac, of course, comes from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps, but now refers to all armed forces personnel from this part of the world. Anzac Hill is a solemn memorial to all the wars in which Australians have served, and there have been many. I found this the most sobering:
A sign there says that Vietnam was the longest conflict in which Australians have been involved, but that is no longer true.
The hill is also a great lookout over Alice Springs and the MacDonnell Ranges to its east and west.
There’s a lot to see in Alice Springs. We did our best to sample it, going by the historic telegraph station. The Alice was the first European settlement in central Australia, and it was through here that the Overland Telegraph Line, from Port Augusta all the way up to Darwin, first connected Australia with the outside world in hours, rather than months.
Before leaving Alice Springs, I have to make mention of our campground, Wintersun Caravan Park. We pulled in and I asked the woman at reception,“Have you got any caravan sites?” (Note British diction—I’ve been misunderstood saying tomayto and things over here.)
“We have lots of caravan sites,” she said. “And some of them are empty!”
“In that case, I wish I needed two.” (She found her own joke funny so it seemed only polite to laugh along.)
I regret not getting to know anything about lesbian and gay Alice Springs, as the town is supposed to be the mecca of central Australia in that respect. We got to town too late to visit the lesbian-owned cafe, and the Alice is Wonderland festival is no longer held post-Mardi Gras, as it was in the early 2000s. Nowadays, Alice celebrates Pride in September instead. Fans of Priscilla will recall that the road trip destination in that movie, and its eponymous bus, was Alice Springs.
But we were on the road again, and although it would be some time before the desert outback gave way to the familiar humidity, we did stop at the actual latitude of the Tropic of Capricorn.
We had a long way to drive to our stop on day 6, but we did take a short loop off the highway to view Karlu Karlu, also known as the Devil’s Marbles.
There’s a signposted walk from the parking lot and it’s supposed to take twenty minutes, but it didn’t even take us that long. Which was fortunate, because it was hotter by that afternoon than it had been in the morning at Uluru.
|T. for scale|
Tennant Creek was the next town of any significant size. Just based on the people walking around on the street, I got the sense of a large Aboriginal population. We only stopped to get diesel, though, as fuel is supposed to be more expensive at our overnight stop—the Threeways Roadhouse.
There were no black faces at Threeways. There was, however, an interesting mix of truckers and travelers, at the junction where the north-south Stuart Highway meets the Barkly Highway to Queensland. One group of people we met at the campground was traveling all the way from Bundaberg (seems so long ago now!) to Alice Springs via these highways. They were headed for a big archery competition there.
We already knew that more than five hundred people were participating in this competition, as someone at the Yulara campground had also been headed there. In this particular convoy was a woman who competed in the Commonwealth Games; unfortunately, this year’s Games on the Gold Coast do not include the elective sport of archery. One of the guys in the group proudly showed off her tattoo: “Delhi 2010. That’s our girl!”
The roadhouse bar was full of truckers dressed in orange. I can’t decide if the one woman trucker or the archer was more butch (and you know that’s a compliment coming from me). They were all pretty friendly but the chattiest was the other woman in the bar, who I think was just hanging out with her friends. In any case, we instantly doubled the female population of the bar. It was a relaxed place and I can only imagine the long, lonely days of someone who drives a 60-wheeled monster on this highway for pay.
|T. asked if anybody minded her taking pictures|
Before we left the Threeways junction, we paused at the memorial to John Flynn, founder of what is now the Royal Flying Doctor Service. The Reverend Flynn was a Presbyterian minister whose vision was for "a mantle of safety" over the remotest part of Australia.
By the time we got to Katherine, I was ready to “glamp,” and we did just that at Knotts Crossing. They have a motel and cabins, but we got a campsite, complete with our own toilet and shower “en suite.” They also had a restaurant and bar beside a very nice pool. Sheer luxury!
After our swim, we spent some time at the poolside bar, where I had one of the more surreal experiences of our travel. The bartender was from Singapore, which was a change after the outback, and before I could ask about his country of origin, he asked about mine. This happens sometimes when T. orders a Budweiser and I want to explain that it isn’t for me, but in any case he pegged me as being from the U.S., and so of course wanted to talk about the president. I said no more than “Well…” and off he went about the Clinton “scandals” and how one thing he thought Tweeter did right was to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, because he, the Singaporean barman, was a Christian. Try to keep up.
I should have taken the opportunity to say I do pray for our leaders but I was waiting for T’s beer, and so I just said something noncommittal about nobody being all bad (which may not even be true). Then the barman said he had heard that the vice president, Mike Pence, was a very strong Christian, and we need someone standing up for Christian values. Don’t we?
Well really, what could I say? How could I possibly convey to a devout Singaporean barman what Pence’s Christian values mean to a gay exile from America? In any case, there was little opportunity for me to speak. The barman was still marveling that although many Australian people and some European backpackers come through Katherine, “only once in a blue moon” does someone from America stop by. And he threw in a free bag of chips, and brought over a big pitcher of cold water, as if he’d just been reading Matthew 10:42 that morning. “Whoever gives…even a cup of cold water” —proving, once again, that the lasting impression of someone’s faith isn’t what he says he believes, but how he treats others.
The surreal part was that the entire time we were there, country songs were playing in the bar, such as I used to hear growing up in Tennessee. It was nostalgic and at the same time a little bit creepy, under the circumstances.*
|At Leilyn (Edith Falls)|
And so we emerged at the Top End, with one side trip into Katherine Gorge/Nitmiluk National Park. We didn't have time to swim in the upper pool, and the lower pool was closed because of crocodiles anyway! But we did hike up to the top of the falls, between 9:00 and 10:00 in the morning. It must have been the humidity but it was the hottest I'd been on the road trip, possibly in my life.
There were a couple of things I learned from our taste of the outback. First, and we knew this going in, was that it was only a taste. The outback is absolutely enormous and most of it is only accessible by four-wheel-drive. There are vast deserts and tracks that require you to carry all your own fuel, water, everything. But even if you’re not that adventurous, with enough time and a well-prepared 4WD vehicle, the sky is literally the limit out there.
The other thing was that we could easily have spent twice as much time doing the trip that we did. Coober Pedy and Katherine could use at least a full day (there are great day trips from the latter), and Alice Springs more. And everybody told us to go to Kings Canyon, but it just wasn’t a feasible diversion given our constraints of time and 2WD. If I were to do this again, I would find a way to build in those extra days. If nothing else, having to put in all that driving was tiring, although we saw memorable things every day along the way.