Roadtrains, Roos and a big red Rock!
We set off from Townsville on the east coast, eagerly anticipating our road-trip across the geographical and cultural heart of the country.
We weren't to be disappointed.
It was one of the best experiences either of us have ever had. In just 2 weeks we covered a distance of 5031 kilometres!
Driving through the outback is amazing, in terms of the sheer scale and inhospitable nature of the place as well as the sights you see (9 foot anthills, swarms of huge grasshoppers, birds of prey, lizards and kangaroos everywhere!). At times it was so hot that when you stepped out of the car, you could only bear it for 30 seconds before you had to get back in and turn on the air-conditioning!
When it's almost 40 degrees, what might be a nice cooling breeze elsewhere actually feels like someone has turned on the fan of an industrial heater and aimed it at your face! It actually makes you feel a little nauseous as it's so unpleasantly hot! Couple that with the multitude of flies that instantly attack you (literally - you run around waving your arms like a maniac!) and you can see why we decided to take 20 litres of water and the same amount of fuel with us. Just in case. You don't want to get caught short on anything in this part of the world, in case you get a flat tyre or break down.
We did actually come across 2 Swiss girls who'd crashed and rolled their car about 100 yards into the bush - it looked like it had been there a long time as the car was an absolute wreck and covered in dirt, but the crash had only just happened.
Luckily, some off-duty cops had already stopped and were helping the shocked and bleeding girls away from the wreckage. We were very wary about stopping when first flagged down and kept the car rolling with the window only slightly down (Richard had his foot on the gas!) but it soon became clear as we slowed that there was a genuine problem.
The girls were okay in the end, we helped put their stuff in the back of a pick-up and they were taken to a medical centre a couple of hundred kilometres away.
On the way to Uluru, we stayed at some strange little villages where there was one high street, a couple of residential roads, a petrol station, spit and sawdust (literally) pub and very little else. We kept ourselves to ourselves and moved on early in the morning to avoid the worst of the heat and to just be on our way!
On average, we drove around 500km a day, setting off around 7am and usually arriving at our destination by 2 or 3pm. Driving in the afternoon in that sort of heat is no fun, air conditioning or not. It can be very tiring and the straight roads can hypnotise you quite easily, so we made a point of swapping drivers every 90 minutes or so.
Having driven through the ‘interesting’ outback towns of Hughendon, Mount Isa, Tennant Creek and Alice Springs, we covered 2512 kilometres and made it to Yulara, the resort outside of Uluru National Park (Ayers Rock) in less than a week. After all that driving there was only one thing left to do, so we set about making sure we had the best seats in the house for the sunset viewing that evening!
We were not disappointed by the experience, it was breathtaking. It was incredible to see how the colour of the rock seemed to change from second to second, warm pink to orange then cool brown back to earthy red, all in the matter of a few minutes. We sat on the edge of Maggie’s open boot, drank warm coke and enjoyed the magical display for well over an hour and long after darkness had fallen. We both had a feeling that we’d finally experienced a little of what Australia is really about.
Eager for more we set our alarm for 4.30am the following morning in order to see the sunrise. It was surprising chilly as we watched Uluru, and waited for her colours to come alive. Just after 6am the first rays of sunlight hit the rock and it lit up, we watched intently as the colours intensified, getting warmer with every second.
It appeared almost alive as it pulsated as every new ray of sunlight passed over it’s surface, just as with the sunset Uluru seemed to glow. It was a spectacular display and a very humbling experience, it’s easy to see why people have been inspired by this very spiritual place for tens of thousands of years.
Everyone is asked NOT to climb Uluru, due to its spiritual and cultural significance, but still many people choose to ignore this request and put their lives in danger, it’s a perilously steep hike. Unfortunately those people who do climb often are ‘caught short’ at the top and thanks to them the watering holes that surround this area have now been poisoned so badly that it will take years of work to undo the damage caused. The traditional owners are hopeful that the climb will be closed in the next 18 months, maybe animals will in time return to this area.
We decided that rather than climb we would walk the 10 kilometres around the base of the rock, starting with a Ranger guided walk along the Mala track. We met our guide at 8am, he was able to share with us some of the stories of how the land was created, how the park was returned to the people and is now jointly managed with the traditional owners.
He also showed us some of the rock art sites and told us about some of the plants and their uses. We finished this part of the walk at the stunning Kantju Gorge and enjoyed a brief moment of cool shade before we continued along the base walk.
As the morning wore on the colours of the rock changed again, from bright orange to almost peach, in places where the rock had weathered away it appeared like rusting metal. Every corner we turned provided another wonderful perspective of this awe-inspiring place, caves, boulders, colours, contours all there for the eye to explore. It really is so much more than just a big red rock once you get up close and personal.
As the midday sun beat down we were glad to reach the end of the walk and the wonderful air-conditioned sanctuary of Maggie.
Our short time exploring this wonderful part of the country was well worth each and every kilometre driven to get here, next stop Kings Canyon!
The drive to the scenic Kings Canyon area was around 400km, a short journey by this trips standards! Here you could walk through the canyon on various routes and also visit Kathleen Springs.
On our first evening, we took a little picnic to the viewing platform at the back of our accommodation and watched the sunset over Kings Canyon.
It was a more subtle experience than sunset over Uluru, and while the canyon looked great, the evening sky was also impressive. We could see for miles and the subtle changes in the colour of the sky as the sun went down were really lovely - hues of pink, purple and blue over the canyon and orange rays of evening sunshine lighting up huge cloud formations - as the photos below illustrate:
Early the next morning (to avoid the worst of the heat) we walked through the deep valley of the Kings Canyon. Huge cliffs on either side were decorated with massive red boulders as we stepped through dried-up river beds lined with trees, some flourishing and others burnt-out.
It was good to see that Aboriginals’ beliefs in the area were being well respected with sacred areas being fenced off. Having reached the end of the walk, we came to a huge natural amphitheatre with a fantastic echo and fascinating cliff faces with over-hangs that seemed to defy gravity!
Later that afternoon, we took a trip to Kathleen Springs, which is a smaller valley than that of Kings Canyon but just as interesting. The end of this trek brought us to a small green oasis at the bottom of a cliff face, the cliffs and trees there offering welcome respite from the unrelenting heat of the sun.
The water hole here is a sacred area, believed to be inhabited by a Rainbow Serpent (a universal Aboriginal figure, regardless of area or tribe, who appears in many ancient stories and is believed to have helped shape the landscape in this area) who must not be disturbed or disrespected, lest he becomes angry and wrathful! Luckily, we did neither!
Kakadu National Park was also an extraordinary place, we went on a boat trip down the East Alligator River where freshwater crocodiles could be seen in their dozens as we sailed through amazing tropical scenery towards sacred Aboriginal areas.
Our Aboriginal guide steering the boat shared his knowledge of the wildlife and cultural history of the local area as he steered us round the crocs!
We also visited the Bowali Visitors Centre to find out about walks in the area and watch a video about the wildlife of a nearby billabong.
One of the areas of interest that was recommended to us was the Nourlangie Rock. Here we found amazing lookouts and also ancient cave paintings dating back tens of thousands of years. The rock art really is incredible. Some consist of block colours, others have fine detailing and many are still vibrant in colour, astonishing when you consider the thousands of years that have passed since they were painted.
The nearby Anbangbang shelter has provided local people with refuge from the elements for the last 20,000 years. Evidence of this can be seen on the rocks, which have been used to grind seeds. Take a look at the picture below - you can clearly see the round indentations carved out over the years.
Not far from here was the Nawurlandja Lookout, a huge sloping rocky outcrop which seemed to go on forever (we gave up trying to find its summit under the relentless mid-morning sun!) and provided stunning views of the vast bush land wilderness which extends further than the eye can see! Being there made us feel really lucky, and also quite insignificant in the face of such overwhelming and untamed natural beauty.
So we feel like we've really seen some of the history and heritage of Australia now, especially regarding the Aboriginal people. The injustices, prejudices and crimes committed against these people are hard to believe. It's another story of genocide that's been neatly swept under the carpet but is at least slowly being recognised today.
We'd left ourselves 2 weeks to sell the car in Darwin, and true to form (we sold our car in NZ in double-quick time) we sold it on our first evening here to some likeable European lads, who offered us the right money there and then (well, after 2 test drives and some phone calls back to Dads in Germany!).
So our budget for SE Asia is looking quite healthy, meaning we can afford to stay in reasonable accommodation and avoid the budget buses (where many Westerners have their baggage rifled through and the drivers work 23 hours straight in one shift!).
Darwin is extremely hot and humid (though not quite as hot as Kakadu, where it was in the high 30's/low 40's on some days), meaning that when we've not been in the lovely air-conditioned library using the free wi-fi, we've been sunbathing by the hostel pool or swimming in the outdoor pool near the amusingly named 'Fannie Bay'!
We went to an excellent evening market last week which was on Mindil beach. It had live bands, stalls selling every kind of international food imaginable, arts and craft stalls and cheap clothes too. We bought delicious curry, then ate it on the beach as the sun set over the sea and the band played in the background. It made us feel really privileged just to be there, soaking up the carnival atmosphere! We enjoyed it so much that we went back the following Thursday for the last market of the season, which ended with a bang! We sat on the dark beach with hundreds of others and enjoyed a spectacular firework display.
We also went to a fantastic open-air cinema on Saturday night, watching Balibo and the Stone Brothers under the stars while sitting on deck chairs and spotting the occasional bat fly across the full moon above (it was Halloween after all!).
We've booked our hotel in Singapore, it's a little more expensive than our daily budget allows for, but we've got a surplus now and wanted to ease our way gently into our Asian experience - it's going to be a little more challenging than the countries we've visited so far (except perhaps Fiji) and so didn't want to start off staying somewhere that wasn't a sanctuary when we need to get away from all the hustle and bustle!
So it's next stop Singapore!