Australia 1: “The Outback”

As soon as the plane started its descent into Ayers Rock airport, I fell in love. Surrounded by red land, green shrubs and chalky mountains, I could tell this place would be good for my soul. The airport was like a shack and I hopped straight off the plane directly into the baggage belt, picked up my bag and walked out the door 5 metres away to jump on an AAT Kings free bus shuttle to the Ayers Rock resort in Yulara. Located about a 10 minute drive from the airport, this resort has all of the accommodation options for staying in Ayers Rock, a post office, a supermarket, a group shop and a few restaurants. Locals dressed in khaki clothes, walking boots and HATS, gloriously welcoming me with “G’day”, I definitely felt as though I was in Australia as I have always imagined it.

My lodgings – Outback Pioneer Lodge – was the cheapest around but still pricey in backpacker terms at $38 (AUD, obvs, which is about £25 with $1 being around 60p) for a bed in a 20 bed female dorm; not as hideous as it sounds as the beds are in one long row with every 4 being separated by a wall. Anyway, with a camel statue out the front, a pool round the back and a shack bar in the middle it was perfect. After checking in I went out for a walk to explore the resort and head to some of the nearby Uluru lookout points. The resort is in a sort of circular shape surrounded by a main road, but you can cut across the “lawn” in the centre using various paths that weave through the sand. It’s just so unreal and absurd and wonderful.

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After stopping at the supermarket at the Town Square (where I was hit by Australian prices – $4, or £2.40, for a small bottle of water) I started to walk back across the lawn towards the Imalung Lookout point when I met Erin; an American searching for the same lookout point and also happened to be staying at Outback Pioneer. We joined forces for the evening, easily slipped into conversation and quickly fell into a natural rhythm with one another. I will say now that Erin – my “spiritual sister” (yes, it’s daggy, we know, that’s the point) – was one of those people you meet while travelling that you immediately click with, and we happily flowed from sharing our demons with one another to making each other roar with laughter at the most ridiculous things. It is rare that you find you can be completely “you” with someone so quickly and feel totally at ease with them that you trust them with your darkest and most silly selves.

It was a short walk up a slight hill to the Imalung Lookout point, where the skies were completely blue and therefore showcasing the reddy brown colour of Uluru rock in contrast with the green and purple shrubbery nearby. It was crazy how small it looked and how vast the land around us was – it was beautiful. Embracing being annoying tourists and perhaps denting the serenity of the spot, we did that douchey pose where we pretend to be holding up the Rock with our hands. Sorry, everyone. I had been told that the Naninga Lookout was the best spot for sunset so we walked there next (through the Ayers Rock campground) to watch the colours in the sky surrounding Uluru change in front of us as the sun slowly set behind us.

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We then walked back on ourselves to the Town Square to pick up takeaway noodles from Ayers Wok (yup, actual name!), where you pick your sauce, noodles and filling for $16 (£9.60), and took it back to our lodge so we could shovel it down in time to be picked up by our bus at 8pm for our trip to the Field of Lights. An exhibit created by Brit Bruce Munro and open for only a year, you are driven towards Uluru where there are millions if coloured solar panels that light up at night; it was pretty magical and even more beautiful when you could walk to the top of a sand mountain to a lookout offering Panoramic views of he lights that cast a silhouette of Uluru in the background. At that moment, sat in silence with Erin at the top, I felt the outback was just where I needed to be. It’s somewhere you can be vulnerable without being exposed. A place to get over someone or let go of something; somewhere to mend a broken heart.

I was picked up at midday the following day for the start of my 3 day/2 night Ayers Rock experience with The Rock Tour – a cheaper and “rougher”, more authentic outback tour at $375 (plus $15 sleeping bag hire, totalling at $390 AUD, or £234) I was collected in a minivan by Tour Guide Ange and the 10 or so others whom had come from Alice Springs. You could start the tour from Alice Springs at 5:30am or Ayers Rock at midday, the only difference being the journey to AR as the cost us the same; I would recommend starting in AR and spending the night there beforehand as I preferred it as a place to AS.

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We first drove to our campsite for that night to drop off the fire wood they had picked up on the way and to eat lunch (a cheese and salami sandwich) before driving to the base of Uluru to spend a couple of hours at the Cultural Centre. You learn about the stories the Aboriginals have told us about Uluru (the original, Aboriginal name before Westerners discovered it and name it Ayers Rock), how the Aboriginals managed to claim back their land and agreed for it to be a National Park so we could visit it and watched videos to understand the importance of Tjukurpa, which is basically a law they live by with regards to relationships, religion, politics, being – something that underpins everything to them and is their way of life.

Around 3pm we started a 2 hour walk around the base of Uluru, walking along a tree-lined path with the grand Uluru rock to your right, seeing the gorgeous red clay up close with the burning sun shining down from behind the various peaks of the rock. There’s something quite magnificent and humbling about it, whilst at the same time feeling peaceful – especially when you veer in towards the rock to reach the Mutitjulu Watering hole with the sound of the natural water trickling down. There is also a cave you pass where there are aboriginal paintings on the rock surface – there is definitely a sense of “other” about this place, where you want to know more but also enjoy the mystery it offers.

The end of our walk was at the point where people were climbing Uluru; a controversial and contentious issue amongst aboriginal and local people. Whilst it isn’t illegal to climb Uluru, there is a public request from the aboriginals that we do not climb Uluru (which they themselves have not done). The first reason is safety – there is an extremely low “fence” that reaches the middle of your calf and leads the way but nothing else to hold on to on this slippery slope to get up and back down again, the danger emphasised by the number of deaths (at least 36) that are a consequence of attempting to climb Uluru. The second reason is environmental – there is a visible white line cutting through the red clay from where walkers have “scarred” the rock surface. The third reason us respect – aboriginals have not climbed it, seeing it is sacred, and they ask us not to out of respect. Unfortunately the government believe the opportunity to climb it draws a lot of tourism and therefore still allow it to happen, despite the above. It’s a shame that people’s sense if pride and glory means that they still climb Uluru even though they are aware of the background, thus perpetuating the tourist aspect.

Late afternoon we drove to a spot about half an hour from Uluru to watch it’s changing colours as the sunset behind us – it was crazy how it moved from being orange to red to brown in a matter of minutes. It was, of course, a very popular spot swarmed with tourists, but that actually created a buzz and a thick air of appreciation as groups of people sipped champagne and cooked barbecues as they gazed in awe at Uluru under a sunset; we sat on the side of the road and tucked into our chicken stir fry once the sun had gone down.

We then drove back to our campsite, started the fire and lined up our swags around it, drank ciders and ate toasted marshmallows, walked out to a lookout spot for views of Uluru and the millions of stars, and then got into our sleeping bags and swags for a night of sleeping outside under the stars with the nearby fire keeping us warm. I woke up often, finding it difficult to get comfortable but struck by the bright stars staring back at me – it was pretty surreal.

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We were woken at 5am to the sound of “Sun Walking” by Crussen (which is now my song for the Outback) being gently played from a speaker, had breakfast and got dressed before driving to a popular lookout point of the sun rising behind Uluru and illuminating Kata Tjuta. Sadly a lot of other people pick this very spot so it was hard to get an unobstructed view, plus it was still rather chilly albeit bright at this time of the morning so I had to hop on the spot to keep warm, but having the sun slowly rise across this quiet, open space if raw, pure land was really magical. Similar to how I felt in Iceland, there is nothing manmade or artificial about this part of the outback and it’s as though your soul is touching nature.

We then drove to the base of Kata Tjuta – which is a series of mountains – and hiked up the side of the mountains, with the hot sun starting to take a more central position above us, to a viewing spot of the valley below and mountains in the distance. I literally can’t get enough of how vast and pure this place is – I felt as though I could just sit there, gazing, for days on end. I walked ahead on our hike back down, enjoying the solitude and opportunity for personal reflection and space. As we drove away, passing the base of Kata Tjuta, Sweet Disposition came on the playlist – a personal favourite with a lot of memories attached, it was ridiculously fitting.

We drove to Kings Creek but made a pit stop for lunch at a ranch nearby, on the way there stopping to pick up fire wood from the side if the road (a much harder feat than you might imagine) and another to get a close look at a Thorny Devil that Tour Guide Ange spotted on our drive. Once at the Kings Creek campsite we showered (not together, unfortunately) and had dinner before spending another night under the stars. Although this time it started to rain pretty hard after about an hour, so a few of us went under shelter to then find we had even more mosquito bites the next morning. Well, at least we didn’t get wet.

I should mention that we were up even earlier on our last morning, being woken at 4am so we could drive to Kings Canyon and start the canyon walk before the sun rose, as it gets really busy after that point. Kings Canyon is different to both Uluru and Kata Tjuta and spectacular in its own right, yet there is a thread of beauty and grandeur, the kind that takes your breath away, in all of them. The walk took around 2-3 hours, clambering up rock, crossing streams, sitting by waterfalls and gawping over the edge of the canyon into the trees and Valley below. I am running out of words to describe the beauty and experience of the outback, so I guess I will just have to let pictures do some talking.

Once back at the base of Kings Canyon we drove to another ranch to have Lunch before driving on to a camel farm. I feel as though I didn’t spend much – maybe $7 dollars for a 5 minute ride – but it was so much fun. I wasn’t really sure what to expect and had been dared to do it without laughing, which I had thought would be easy but once I was seated up on Mirindy and she started trotting, I began inadvertently bouncing up and down in time with her feet, my bum literally shooting off her back and all the way up into the air and back down again, that I literally couldn’t help it but to shriek and laugh with delight. I’m not sure I have ever grinned so hard.

We then spent the rest of the afternoon driving into Alice Springs where our tour would finish. We were all dropped off at our accommodation – mine being Alice Lodge Backpackers – and then we all made our way to the Rock Bar (did someone say Rock Bar??) for food and a celebratory drink. Alice Springs is a cute little town but nothing compared with Ayers Rock, but as a plus my hostel was near a side Road called Lindsay Avenue – one of many recognitions and appreciations of both my first and surname in Australia. Makes a nice change to the nickname of “Brexit” from one of the other Rock Tour guides – will I ever escape the Brexit chat from foreigners??

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After one night in Alice Springs I had a flight the next morning to Cairns to begin travelling the East Coast, but nothing would compare to my experience in the outback and, as I finish writing this post months afterwards I can say that I felt a peace and connection here I didn’t quite regain in the rest of Australasia, realising that one of my favourite things about travelling is experiencing vastly different cultures to my own. I will even admit the despair I felt at moving away from this – physically and emotionally – had me sobbing in my dorm bed on my first night in Cairns. This leads me to finish with a quote from a fellow outback explorer – one that resonated with me – on the reason their dad gave for handing over a chunk of his savings to fund them getting the help they needed during a time of trouble; “Well it was saved for a rainy day, and it sounds like it is pouring inside.”

LS.

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