Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon
To many Singaporeans, Australia is not only a favourite holiday destination but also a promise for the future whether it’s children’s education, career choices or retirement. My elder sister migrated there more than a decade ago – nothing out of the ordinary. She had fulfilled the same dream that many Singaporeans have. For holidays, most Singaporeans would hang around the city, visit the beaches, vineyards, a couple of farms and parks. But being the maverick that I am, popular things seldom appeal to me. I need to see some bad ass places that will kick the butts of the wimps. So when I finally decided to visit Australia after having travelled to so many places throughout Asia, I decided to plan an ambitious Aussie Odyssey with camping trips to the wild and desolate Red Centre, hoping that the three of us would live to tell the tale.
It took only a little more than fours hours to fly to Darwin. At 29 deg C in the afternoon, it didn’t feel very different from Singapore. Apart from the scrawny trees and dusty shrubs, Darwin looked a bit like some small town in Malaysia, helped in part by the taxi drivers who were almost uniformly Indians or Nepalese. After checking into the Frontier Hotel, I realised that it was quite a distance from the town centre. The main road outside saw very little traffic. Waiting for a taxi there required the luck of a lottery winner. Darwin being our entry and exit point, we only had time for one place of interest. I decided on Crocosaurus Cove.
It turned out to be quite a worthwhile visit. We’ve been to crocodile farms in Thailand and Malaysia, but this Crocosaurus Cove takes the cake. There were glass tanks and cages with clear water, allowing excellent views of the creatures. The place didn’t even smell bad. To me, the most impressive “exhibit” has to be the “cage of death”. For a fee, you can swim with crocs, protected by a “glass” cage. Getting into the cage was not exactly my cup of tea, but it was fun to watch. There were many other live exhibits including an aquarium with gigantic barramundi. My favourites are the reptilian exhibits like this blue-tongue lizard.
Mitchell Street is like the Khao San Road of Darwin with a number of tour agencies, convenience stores, bars, restaurants and fast food outlets. Though it’s a lot neater and cleaner than Bangkok, Darwin gave me the impression that it’s a place for the young. With it’s balmy weather, the streets were thronged with youths in T shirts and shorts. After our visit to Crocosaurus Cove, we had authentic Turkish kebab (prepared by Turks) for dinner. The only problem is, almost nothing in Darwin seemed authentically “Australian”. It was almost nightfall on our first day and we had yet to come across anyone speaking with a recognisably Australian accent. I was beginning to feel a bit cheated.
We woke up a bit late the next morning and we almost missed our flight to Alice Springs. Pacing around the hotel lobby when the taxi we booked seemed to be taking too long, the hotel manager revealed that very few taxis would ply the streets at night or early in the morning as robberies were quite common, helped in part by the drug and drinking problem. Fortunately, the check in counter at the airport was still open and we managed to check in and board our flight. 2.5 hours later, we landed in Alice Springs which was distinctly chilly at 6 deg C. There was no taxi queue at the airport and we had to wait quite a while before one came. The drive to town brought us through a semi-arid plain dotted with struggling shrubs, fields of short grasses, wiry bushes and emaciated trees.
The walking street and glitzy shops at Todd Mall made Alice Springs look like some travelling bazaar that had decided to park itself in the middle of nowhere. No modern building seemed to belong in this dreary cowboy town. After we’ve checked into our hotel, we went down to the travel agency which would provide the services for our trip to the Red Centre. We confirmed the pickup at our hotel the next morning.
Later in the afternoon, we climbed Anzac Hill. The photos on Google didn’t do justice to what we saw. It was a very worthwhile and easy climb with marvellous views of the surroundings. Everything in Alice Springs is within walking distance, but there were so many anomalies about this town that I was beginning to feel a bit disoriented.
Dinner was surprisingly good and it came from a bunch of chefs who were still very Italian in their approach to food preparation. Business was slow, but the chefs were cheerful and took pains to do everything by hand. We had to wait a while, but everything was done in the open and we could stand next to the chefs and watch them perform as we complained about Singapore and Italy. The pasta and the pizza were delicious. I especially enjoyed the seafood pasta which was so rich and flavourful. On top of the good food, the chefs and waiter were jovial and the dining experience was so pleasant and relaxing. I say, screw productivity.
In spite of the early night we had, waking up at 5.00 am was tough, especially for the kids. It didn’t help that it was freezing cold outside and the warm bed had a magnetic effect on our lazy bodies. Our guide, a fine young man from Germany, showed up punctually with a bus and a trailer for our bags. The sky was still dark when we picked up the last passenger from Alice Springs. Our guide Patrick gave us a brief introduction and urged us to go to sleep while he drove to Uluru, a road trip that would take almost 5 hours.
It was a long drive, the dark monotony outside the shuddering windows broken by the rising sun, illuminating sharp peaks and tables of rock that emerged from the complex, changing landscape that is neither verdant nor barren. The glare from the sun reached a peak when we pulled into the national park. Above our heads were miles of blue, cloudless skies. Patrick asked us to wait at the Uluru Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre while he picked up more people from the airport. There were some interesting exhibits, but not quite enough to justify an attention span of 2 hours.
At the end of a long, somewhat frustrating wait joined by swarms of friendly flies, Patrick returned and the group size swelled to 17. Then came the “warning” which was pretty fair but it still didn’t quite prepare us for what was to come. For the next couple of days, (we were told) we had to help with the food preparation, collection of firewood and washing of the dishes. Patrick also wanted us to wake up before dawn and once the bus was parked, alight in 1 minute – military style.
The first site that we really wanted to see was of course Uluru. The path was red, dusty and practically flat. Walking in an anti-clockwise direction, the multiple lobes of this erratic piece of rock revealed the true character of Australia’s most famous landscape. Like the rest of the outback, Uluru is not completely bare. In the tiny nooks, crannies and puddles, shrubs managed to find their niches, perhaps like the early immigrants in this vast, untouched land. The path was covered with red sand and dust. Going at a very brisk pace, we covered the entire base in about 2 hours. Our walk ended at the starting point for the climb up Uluru. The route is closed when winds are strong and even when it’s calm, climbing is discouraged and there’s no shortage of folks out there preaching the need to respect local Anangu customs and beliefs. And by the way, drones are not allowed either. Here is a video of an American tourist who came without a guide to warn him of all the “dangers”.
But as you can see, anyone who has climbed anything steeper than Kinabalu should find Uluru a piece of cake. The only significant “danger” is that you risk offending the aboriginal folks who regard the rock as sacred. Patrick then brought us to see some of the sights around Uluru. It was late in the afternoon and with moving too much after the base walk, the flies decided to land on our faces. It certainly seem like there were more of them buzzing around sacred Uluru than in Pakistan.
As Patrick explained the aboriginal customs and beliefs, he told us that we were just “children” in our understanding of Anangu Tjutaku, the law that governs interactions between humans and the environment and the stories of creation passed down from generation to generation mostly through word of mouth and pictorial representations. I figured that with all those flies buzzing around my face, I would certainly not be able to master enough Tjutaku to work as a conservationist in the Red Centre.
We drove off to the dinner lookout which was really the high point of any Uluru trip. With all the separate lobes overlapping one another, forming a nice red table rising from the flat outback, it was really quite a sight to behold. Not surprisingly, the area was crowded with other groups, some of whom were obviously bigger spenders than we were. As it turned colder, the flies vanished. The tables decked with white table cloth and champagne glasses were unfortunately not ours. We could only watch from a distance while Patrick prepared dinner at the makeshift kitchen set up at the rear compartment of the trailer. I’m not sure if the well-heeled folks did the base walk, but if you have the time, it’s good to see the what lies behind and between the overlapping lobes of this enigmatic landscape.
It was dark when we finished dinner and drove off. Patrick blasted loud music as we entered the campsite. Though the camping ground was as earthy as any bare patch in the outback, there was a clean, well-maintained building equipped with toilets (with toilet paper) and hot showers. Unfortunately, the “creature comforts” ended there. We slept out in the open with only sleeping bags, swags and a dying campfire to protect us from the freezing cold. As the swags did not zip properly and the sleeping bags were not as good as touted, I kept waking up to check the kids for hypothermia. It was a tough night with little gusts of freezing wind every now and then. That’s the price you pay for being bad ass.
The next morning saw us waking up at about 5.00am. The hasty packing and loading were again, very military. We were driven out of the campsite to our breakfast point which turned out to be another crowded lookout. With the sun still waiting in the wings, everything seemed frozen, from the livid seas of grass to the tiny moon against a grey sky. The cold was biting as we devoured our bread and sipped lukewarm coffee. The glow in the east announced that magical moment which most people would sleep through unless they’re on holiday like this. Abandoning breakfast, we rushed off to make the early wakening worthwhile. From the wooden platform, we could see the many “heads” of Kata Tjuta receiving the first rays of the sun while Uluru, facing another direction and some 50km away, was a dark mass with a bright halo.
After watching sunrise on Kata Tjuta from a distance, it was time to see it up close. There are two walks inside Kata Tjuta. One is the 2.6km Walpa Gorge Walk and the other is a challenging 7km hike through the Valley of Winds. This being a bad ass trip, it had to be the Valley of Winds. The latter would take you through some steep slopes with plenty of loose rock waiting to break another ankle. It took us about 3 hours to do the entire walk. The most interesting part was the steep hike into a gap between two massive vertical hills. My No. 1 is now strong and independent. He went with the group. My overweight No. 2 had to be coaxed along. He too made it through the entire course, surprising everyone.
From Kata Tjuta, we headed back the way we came, stopping at the Mt Connor or “Fooluru” lookout for lunch. Across the road was a sandy mound overlooking one part of Lake Amadeus. In spite of the glaring sun and a cloudless blue sky, it was chilly under the shade. The lunch was hardly comforting. We had wraps with tuna, ham, tomatoes, lettuce and probably a few flies. Most of us had only one wrap before we hopped on the bus for the 4-hour drive to Kings Canyon; stomachs half empty.
Before we reached our night stop, Patrick wanted us to help collect firewood. Yep, he was going to cook many dishes that night, so a lot of wood would be needed. Any wood we collected had to be thicker than his arm. So off we went into the red sand, shaking and tugging at dead trees till they toppled and carrying them back to be loaded on the trailer. It was hard and dangerous work but strangely, nobody protested. After some driving, we finally arrived at our second campsite. Patrick was busy starting the campfire, pouring in some hand sanitiser to help igniting the wood. Some of the wood we collected were whole trees. We soon had a very big fire.
There was quite a bit of variety that night. We even had freshly-baked bread, but given the limitations, hunger played a big part in helping the food go down. The toilet block was as good as the first campsite’s, but this was a lot smaller. We all had a nice hot shower and against Patrick’s advice, I was the first to move my bags into the first tent. Thanks to the tent, the second night at Kings Canyon was infinitely more comfortable. The most challenging hike on this trip would take place in the morning.
© Chan Joon Yee, Knapsack Treks