Let’s Take This Outback

G: It’s quite fair to say that Australia has a lot of sights that can be found elsewhere in this big, beautiful world: ocean and beaches, mountains and rainforests, bustling international cities; but the one thing that sets it apart is the dry and dusty red center of the outback. A place so vast and empty you sometimes need to register your plans with the government, with areas that have still yet to be traversed by Westerners. A place with some of the most poisonous creatures, and roughest people, you’ll ever meet. A place with hot, dusty days and cool, quiet nights under a blanket of innumerable stars stretching all the way to the horizon. And a place we definitely wanted to experience!

Once we left the east coast, we buckled up for the 3,000km journey to the center of Australia with Uluru as our goal. One of our stops before it got too barren was a place called The Boulders, another incredibly gorgeous display of nature with a touch of spiritual energy whizzing about. Something that made this place even more special was our encounter with an Aboriginal, named Eric. He taught us about the important relationship the indigenous tribes have with the land and the correlation to their spirit animals. Before Europeans arrived, there were over 250 different territories inhabited by specific tribes. Each one had their own history, traditions, and language, and passed down their stories through art. Some of this can be seen today through rock art, traditional dance performances, and dot paintings on canvas.

B: It was only a couple hours south to Townsville where we stocked up our final supplies. From there we went west on the Flinders Hwy through outback Queensland. Almost immediately the scenery changed from rolling green hills near in the cool sea breeze to dry prickly spinifex bushes atop brown and red earth. Every so often we’d see an abandoned car off the highway, usually vandalized in some way, possibly flipped over. We were told they might be from travelers who broke down and it was too expensive to tow and fix, but others said it was the Aboriginals who no longer had a need for a vehicle and ceremoniously gave it back to the earth. Either way, it was odd and quite frequent. Small towns dotted the highway every 100kms or so with their own “claim to fame”. Most were related to a dinosaur discovery in the area, and we later learned that we were one the dino-trail through Queensland. It might be interesting to some visitors, but most of the big finds have been relocated to museums in the US or England. Still, the signs were witty and full of puns. We were also greeted with a swarm of flies every time we stepped out of the car. They’re persistent little buggers that try to fly up your nose, ears, eyes, and mouth, if allowed. I swear they’re solar-powered though because once the sun sets, they disappear! Fortunately, we got a fly net ahead of time.

Our first night landed us in the tiny town (if you can even call it that) of Nelia. We stayed with a nice man and his pet goat Sebastian, both quite the characters. He’s got a piece of land that he tries to cultivate with chickens, turkeys, and geese, but things weren’t very organized and the land was incredibly dry. We just liked the goat. 😉

From there we continued west through the odd mining town of Mt. Isa. Mining is the only thing that town stands for and it’s really not worth much more than a quick stop. There’s a huge mine in the center of the town! It’s disgusting. Back on the highway, we continued through desolation heading west. This became a consistent theme of the outback – hours upon hours of uninhabited driving under the magnifying glass of the sun. The sky blanketed blue in all directions and the sun crept slowly around the windows of the car, back to front typically favoring the right side (north), every few hours requiring a shift in body position or placement of clothing to cover from the burning rays. Despite the emptiness, it was intriguing. Because of the emptiness, it was mesmerizing. We listened to music, podcasts, and books. We finished “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell and “Freakonomics” by Steven Levitt and Stephan Dubner. Although our destination was Uluru, the journey is what made the experience exponentially more worthwhile. It’s incredible how far you can drive across Australia without seeing anything of particular importance. And yet, the desert is teeming with life. Each roadside info stand talked of lizards, snakes, rodents, and birds that thrive in these harsh extremes. When there is just the least bit of rain, the whole landscape bursts to life and meadows appear virtually overnight. Unfortunately, they also disappear just as quickly when it becomes dry again.

Another full day of driving (8hrs) brought us to the Three Ways. The highway heading west literally dead ends halfway through the country and you can either go north to Darwin (12hrs) or south to Alice Springs (6hrs). We said, “Screw you, Darwin, and your perfectly sensible theories of evolutionary progress! We’re going to hang with Alice in her Springs!” 😉 But before we got there, we camped at the Devil’s Marbles. It’s an unbelievable natural phenomenon where the earth has eroded layer after layer over millions of years leaving behind giant clumps of condensed granite that have then been worn down from wind and rain, smoothing out the edges and creating the appearance of scattered marbles big enough to belong to the devil! (ya know…if you believe in that sorta stuff)

It was still another 4hrs until we got to Alice Springs the following day, but as we got closer the scenery came to life. Hills started rolling and rocky outcrops began rising from the desolate plains. Suddenly, there was a thriving oasis of a city in the middle of this barren landscape, complete with car dealerships, fast food joints, and high-rise hotels. The next major city (Darwin or Adelaide) is 1500kms away! Alice Springs was initially established as a telegraph station between Darwin and Adelaide, right on the Tropic of Capricorn. There would be one train that came in per week and it was the highlight for all of the residents. It brought much needed supplies, food stocks, and visitors. And this was until as recently as the 1960’s! Now, Alice Springs is the gateway to the Red Centre with several hundred thousand tourists per year coming in by road or plane. There isn’t much to do in Alice per se, but there’s a lot of natural beauty in the surrounding areas.

G: But the beauty of Alice is the hub of Aboriginal art galleries and exhibitions! It seemed that every second store down Todd Mall offered racks of hand-painted Aboriginal art including a laminated certificate of authenticity: the artist’s name, their tribe, a picture of them holding up the piece, and sometimes the meaning behind the symbols. I appreciated the transparency and acknowledgement that the artist was getting their deserved recognition and fair financial compensation. Some local artists work in studios provided for them, while others spend time painting at home in order to teach younger generations their family stories and techniques, and then bring it in to sell. After many stores and viewings, we settled on a very unique piece which I can’t wait to hang up when we find our nest back home!

B: But of course, after we shopped all day and spent a good deal on a quality piece of work, an Aboriginal woman approached us in the parking lot where we stopped to have lunch. She had paintings she wanted to sell and was currently working on a few in the park. We had a polite look at her stuff and I saw one that was decent, so I asked, “How much?” “20 dollars,” she replied. It wasn’t nearly the caliber of the one we had just purchased, but I bought it anyways to support her work.

Outside of Alice Springs, we spent a day exploring the West MacDonnell Range. We did some beautiful hikes in the red rock country, some with Aboriginal rock art. We also visited Standley Chasm, which was eerie to walk through because of the narrow opening between large rock faces. The area is famous for attracting local artists to capture the light, color and texture of the chasm.

Next, we ventured to Kings Canyon, about 4hrs drive from Alice. King’s Canyon is a 6km circuit, with the first 100m being a straight incline until it summits, and then it’s an easy trek along the beautiful red rock formations. It almost felt like we were walking amongst ancient ruins. The formations were pretty unique and displayed what the earth can do when left undisturbed for millennia.

G: But the main reason for trekking all of this distance into the outback was to see the giant monolith and sacred Aboriginal site known as Uluru. It seemed like we were never going to get there after four days and over 2,500kms of desolate driving, but about 50kms away, a small spot appeared on the horizon appeared. Uluru is essentially a massive rock that has formed in the middle of nowhere. It’s 3.6km wide and takes 10.6kms just to walk around the base! Geologists believe that it sits almost like an iceberg, in that about two-thirds of it is still underground.

We decided to free-camp about 40km away and woke up early to catch the sunrise the following morning. The park only offers a three-day pass for $25. Extreme weather conditions were in check, and it was easily 40C in the sun (104F), which made the walking trails only possible in the early morning. After the sunrise, we started the 10.6km base walk. The park recommends finishing all walks by 11am, but we could already feel the wall of heat by 9am. It was just too hot…but this is the outback after all!

Before our walk, we saw the spot where climbers go to summit the sacred site. Sadly, tourism to Uluru thrives on the idea of climbing to the top, despite the Aboriginals request not to. There were signs plain in sight, but people couldn’t care less. One lady we spoke to shrugged it off saying “I’ve wanted to come here since I was a little girl and hike this thing.” Interestingly enough though at the Visitor’s Center there was a book entitled I Didn’t Climb the Rock where visitors could explain why they didn’t climb. I don’t know why you’d want to climb, considering that 40 people have died trying. Likewise, there was another book of letters from people who felt guilty taking rocks and sent them back to be free of bad karma. A 17 year-old girl wrote in to say how she felt her life has had a dark cloud over it and she attributes it to taking a rock from around Uluru for memorabilia. Even around the base walk, there are signs that ask visitors not to photograph areas as it sacred to the dreamtime stories of the men and women of the area. The spiritual presence hangs heavy and all I can think about it how lucky we are to be able to experience this remarkable place.

B: We stayed at Ayers Rock Resort for a night, which hosts over 300,000 visitors per year with six different lodging options (and the only accommodations around). We finished our sightseeing early and found relief from the heat in the pool and the shops in the Town Square. I even participated in a didgeridoo workshop and learned more about the Aboriginal instrument that is traditionally only played by males. At sunset, we returned to Uluru for a dinner out of our portable home as the massive monolith was glowing orange and red in the sinking sunlight.

The next morning, we awoke before the sun and drove another 50km to catch the sunrise at Kata-Tjuta Dune Viewing (aka The Olgas) which coincidentally was a great viewing spot of Uluru in the distance. Kata-Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in local language, which makes sense as the the site is made up 36 domes. Once the sun was up, we headed further into the park for the 7.4km Valley of the Winds walk. The signposts where not as clear the first part of the trail so we got a little lost, but it was all worth it when we saw some kangaroos nearby. Back on track, the trek was beautiful as it climbed through valleys with views of massive boulders and sedimentary domes. Water stations appeared every so often to remind visitors to stay hydrated in the ghastly heat.

After the trek, we enjoyed a little more of the Ayers Rock Resort and then made it back to the free camp outside of the park where we stayed before. That evening, we mingled with an Aussie named Carl on a 6-month road trip with his wife Diane, both newly retired.  Over a campfire and under a glimmering blanket of stars stretching all directions, Carl recited his jovial bush poetry and stories of being a tour guide on Fraser Island. To top off the Aussie evening, we got a visit from a hungry-looking dingo sniffing around for scraps in the cool night air.

The outback is a big and beautiful stretch of country if you come prepared for the abundance of sun and lack of water. The heat is intense, the towns are remote, and the critters are deadly, but once you settle in with a fly net and a drink, it’s the true Aussie experience. I can’t imagine visiting Uluru any other way.

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