One of the best and most memorable adventures I’ve ever had traveling was to the Australian Outback. The itinerary for our three-week jaunt down under offered some varied places to stay: a jungle hideaway in Byron Bay, a luxurious 5-star beach club on Hamilton Island, and a quaint boutique hotel in Sydney. To further add to the mix, I booked us on a 3-day backpacking camping tour through the Australian desert: day trip to the Olgas, camping in the Kata Tjuta wilderness park that hosts Uluru (aboriginal name for Ayers Rock), and finishing with a three-and-a-half hour hike through famous Kings Canyon. We figured since we were flying halfway across the world, we might as well go somewhere we would likely never go again in our lifetime.
Since this post could go on for quite a while, I’m going to take mercy on you and separate it out a little. Enter Outback Odyssey Part 1: The Olgas and Ayers Rock.
The adventure begins when we land in the tiny Ayers Rock airport, straight from the lovely cosmopolitan town of Alice Springs (no facetiousness there, really – it’s the bloody Paris of the Outback). As soon as we land, the heat smacks me in the face, full-on. It’s I-just-landed-on-Mars hot. Hotter than Melbourne. Hotter-than-the hoary-hobs-of-hell, as Cam and I like to often joke. Pure, unadulterated, 45-something-degree-dry desert heat.
We settle in to wait for our tour company to pick us up. A long time later, bored out of our minds in the tiny confines of the airport, we decide to brave the heat and go outside. There’s nothing out here besides the bare, unforgiving desert, red sand, the blazing sun, and a few taxis. Not much better, but at least it’s different.
We continue to watch the minutes tick by, with only the scrubby flora and the eerie silence to keep us company. Thinking we were going to be forever stuck counting shrubs and trying to wrestle a water bottle out from the broken vending machine, something happens. Actually, a few things happen, and in typical fashion, all at once. The airport gates open up, unleashing the next crowd of arrivals; the taxis come to life; and lo-and-behold, our tour bus appears, chugging, spitting and backfiring across the lot. Cam immediately snaps to attention, wrangling our bags.
Then, so close to me that I almost miss it, a giant red lizard casually crosses the parking lot. I’m not talking about some small commonplace gecko type, or even an iguana. This thing is huge; like Great Dane huge. And it’s not slithering along the pavement, either; instead, it’s walking on all fours. As my brain struggles to catch up with what I’m seeing, the bus pulls up, blocking my view, and I try in vain to catch another glimpse. But as fast as it came, it disappears, amazingly agile for such a large creature. This pic is pretty close to what I saw, camouflaging itself to blend in with the red sand desert:
Of course, being busy flagging down the bus and all, Cam completely misses it. So, I tell him that he’ll have to trust the that I’m not exaggerating (for once), and yes, it was as tall as a Smart Car. He’s dubious. However, I’m later vindicated when, en route, we stop for lunch at a place which happily is right beside a museum with dioramas with Outback flora and fauna.
It’s here where I learn what the small dinosaur I thought I saw (and find proof that I wasn’t completely losing it) is a Perentie, (you gotta watch this video), the largest lizard in Australia. I point out this awesome fact with pride. It’s my first Aussie freakshow animal wonder, the first of many to come. (Think: giant poisonous snakes, king toads, and plate-sized spiders. It’s true what they say: Australia is trying to kill you.)
Back at the airport, I am suddenly fueled with adrenaline as I help Cam throw our bags on the bus. After brief introductions, we find the only two remaining seats, one of which is right beside our guide and driver: Aussie born-and-bred Kyle, a young, amiable fellow, who looks like he walked straight out of Crocodile Dundee. Our small group consists of a smattering of Europeans, including a British family of Mom, Dad, daughter and son-in-law, a couple of Danes (natch), a young Spanish woman and her companion: a young Argentine fellow whose name we instantly forget, but upon whom we bestow the nickname “Argentina”. I have an instinct that this guy will no doubt be a constant source of entertainment for the rest of the trip, and sure enough, he doesn’t disappoint.
Off we go to the Olgas, a group of large domed rock formations in the middle of the desert, a place where many spiritual ceremonies are performed. As we all clamber out of the bus and start making our way to the rock trail, we quickly notice a lot of tourists wearing funny hats with a mesh net draped across the front. How ridiculous, we think, sniggering to ourselves. It doesn’t take long before we realize why they are wearing them. Within minutes, we’re swarmed by black flies, who, attracted to sweat and the liquid protecting your eyes, literally cling to you. It’s a good thing it wasn’t more than 517 degrees out.
We then join the ranks of those who were stupid enough not to have purchased a ridiculous hat, and begin endless swatting motions, AKA the “Australian wave”. Let’s just say at that point, we would have paid $100 on the spot for one of those hats. The people wearing them certainly looked comfortable – well, in the sense that they were only melting rather than melting and being pestered to the point of insanity.
Next up is Ayers Rock for sunset, and a preview of what we’ll be hiking around the following day. Although we aren’t the cheapest tour group going; we’re not top-level luxo, either. Put it this way: when it comes time for the viewing, loads of massive air-conditioned coaches show up at the viewing spot and tourists spill out, quickly overrunning the place. They busy themselves with setting up lounge chairs and helping themselves to champagne, water crackers and brie; a supposedly perfect accompaniment to sunset over the rock. By contrast, we’re in a tiny lemon of a bus reminiscent of the 70s, the air conditioning being the windows, and chips, dip, and wine from a box at our disposal in case we get sunset-hungry. Chairs? I don’t think so. Turns out it didn’t matter; with a backdrop like Ayers Rock, you really didn’t need anything more. The sunset was, in a nutshell, out of this world (see above), just like the 10 million pictures you’ve already seen of this … rock.
Many oohs, ahhs and camera clicks later, it’s time to head back to our campsite in the pitch-black dark. When the sun goes down in the desert, that’s it; no lingering light, just complete, utter darkness. Definitely no streetlights. As we were the last people to be picked up (due to a scheduling error; don’t get me started), this is the first time Cam and I actually see our campsite.
Or not see, as was the case. Because we didn’t have the daytime advantage of the rest of the campers, things become quite tricky quite fast, especially since we can’t find our flashlight. I think it was at the bottom of our humongous backpack; the perfect place for it. We commence unpacking our gear in utter darkness, careful not to bump into a bilby, or God forbid, a Thorny Devil. As is the only sane thing to do, most Aussie outback animals tend to hide during the harsh heat of the day, coming out to forage at night. A comforting thought when you’re tiptoeing to the loo in the middle of the night with nothing but flip-flops on and armed with a roll of less-than-pointy paper.
Pre-dawn arrives way too quickly. We rise to the sound of Kyle banging on a kitchen pot, our cue to move. Although slightly primitive, it definitely works, and I feel like I am 10 again, back at summer camp in BC’s interior. Rubbing our eyes, we trudge to the communal bathroom to wait in line with numerous other sleepy, crabby campers, brushing sand and picking dirt off their bodies. The line-up is out the door, and it’s survival of the fittest for a bathroom stall. As soon as I see a free one, I lunge. So does our good friend Argentina. Desperately having to pee means manners are out the window, so I swat him away and he grudgingly acquiesces. Machismo does come in handy sometimes, I think.
With less than 10 minutes to departure, there’s no time for modesty, let alone any kind of primping. All I can manage is to splash water on my face, run a brush across my teeth, check my clothes for spiders or other creepy-crawlies, and I’m done. The Fairmont, it ain’t, and that’s just fine with us.
Stay tuned for Part 2: Kings Canyon. For those of you who have seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, be warned that the only thing our experience has in common with the film is the geography.