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Homeward Bound

In the darkness of another cold desert morning, I waited for my ride to a nearby farm where I had signed up for a different kind of Outback sunrise experience: a camel ride across the desert sands. Originally imported into Australia in the 19th century for transportation, many camels were released into the wild when they were no longer of use and now a massive feral population exists in the country, the largest in the World. Due to their potential for environmental damage, the Australian Government has taken steps to keep their numbers in check. In an ironic twist, Australian camels have been exported back to the Middle East for breeding stock and consumption. In Australia itself, some camels have been farmed, and the camels at the Uluru Camel Tours make up the largest working camel farm in Australia. This was to be the last sunrise that I would witness on my great Australian adventure, and it was the coldest I had been on my trip. It still amazed me the extent of contrast between the cold desert nights and the hot desert days.

In the darkness we were introduced to our camel train. Each camel could take two people, so each group were assigned their camel, with myself and a couple of others getting a camel to themselves. I’d never ridden a camel before, although in my past I’ve ridden horses, elephants and an ostrich. I had many layers of clothes on in an effort to keep myself warm, and was grateful that I had a pair of gloves with me. With the battered sun hat I’d purchased in Adelaide, I looked comical as my photo was taken while my camel took to his feet. Once the large group of people were mounted, we were off. It was an hour’s gentle wander through a well marked trail across the red sands to a series of lookout points where we could watch the sun rise above the horizon and light up the now familiar outline of Uluru. The shadows of the camels added to the experience and whilst there was a lot of waiting around whilst people got their photos taken, I actually didn’t mind because the camel behind me kept me entertained as he chewed religiously next to my foot. The second lookout point that we went to gave a view across to Kata Tjuta and both went through the same colour changes I’d seen before. Like each day previous, it was to be another gorgeously sunny day in the Outback.

Photography by Uluru Camel Tours

Photography by Uluru Camel Tours

Photography by Uluru Camel Tours

 

Back at the farm we got a homemade breakfast before we were driven back to the Ayers Rock Resort. I was checked out of the Outback Pioneer Lodge, and had a few hours left before my transfer to the airport. With a plethora of lookout spots to choose from, I’d already made use of several of them over my stay, but one I hadn’t been to was the Uluru lookout which was within walking distance of the lodge. Following a red sandy track across the desert landscape, it felt like I was leaving the resort behind and heading out in to the wilderness, although the occasional noise of traffic told me this wasn’t really the case. I came across a colony of ants bursting up from under the ground and there was so much interesting flora to look at.

 

When I reached the lookout I had it to myself, and proceeded to go snap happy taking all sorts of angles and selfies in a last ditch effort to record this amazing place. There were several points to choose from and I made use of them all. Only when some other people arrived did I leave. A little further along was a war memorial, and from there I cut back to the resort, taking my time admiring the plants, and the birds that accompanied me. I even managed to capture a photograph of a lizard, when normally they would just scurry under a bush before the opportunity arose. When it was time to board the bus to the airport I was sad to leave the place, but I was happy that I’d done it justice.

 

At the little airport, whilst waiting to check in, a trainee ground staff accidentally pressed the wrong button on the computer system and managed to shut down the whole flight whilst I was at the counter. There was a long wait to fix the problem whilst people in the queue became increasingly restless. I’m sure many of them thought I was the hold-up, but eventually the flight got reopened and things got moving again. I had a window seat on my flight to Sydney, and I looked down on both Kata Tjuta and Uluru as we took off, flying past the latter before banking to head east. Like the previous flights, there was a long expanse of desert below, occasionally broken up by large dried lakes. Finally we touched down in Sydney, my favourite city.

 

I always stay in the same place whenever I come to Sydney, the YHA hostel in the Rocks district. Aside from being the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in, not only is it in a prime location, but its rooftop terrace has an awesome view. It was dark when I finally got out to explore. I stuck to Circular Quay and wandered around the waterfront absorbing the view and the atmosphere. It is always a vibrant place to be. I was undecided about dinner, and in the end just ate dessert at the Guylian chocolate cafe.

 

Whenever I visit a place I’ve been before, aside from going to my favourite places, I always try and do something new. My best friend lives in Sydney so we met up for breakfast at one of my favourite cafes, then caught the ferry to Cockatoo Island in Sydney harbour. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it has been used both as a dockyard and as a convict establishment, and now you can wander amongst the remains of both of these at your leisure. It was an interesting place to walk around, although mainly we were catching up on each other’s lives as we walked. Being in September, there were seagulls everywhere with plenty of chicks around, some of them in rather precarious positions. In the end we went from looking at the historical sites to chick spotting as the birds were everywhere. We sat with a cider in the sun at the little bar, and later before catching the boat back to Circular Quay, we sat at the little cafe near the pier with the Harbour Bridge visible behind us.

 

That night we headed out of town to go to a comedy show. One of the good things about exploring a city with a local is that you get to see places that you wouldn’t normally go to as a tourist. My friend lives south of the city centre, and in the darkness I quickly lost my bearings, and still have no idea where we ended up. It was a good show and a nice end to my last full day in Australia. My friend had plans the next day so I was on my own again for my final hours in the country. My flight wasn’t till the evening, so after checking out, I was quick to jump on a boat to Manly.

The ferry ride over is a great way to view the harbour, and being the weekend, it was busy. I was lucky to get a table at an Italian cafe on the main strip, and had a delicious sandwich and dessert with my coffee for brunch. On my first visit to Manly back in 2012, I did extensive exploration around the nearby national park, but I didn’t have the luxury of time on this occasion, and so stuck to the promenade that hugs Manly beach, and then around the popular coastal track to Shelly Beach. Out here it was sweltering and sunny, and eventually I retreated to the air-conditioned shops for a breather. I got sucked into a donut shop near the ferry terminal and found some shade by Manly Cove to enjoy it.

 

Despite the sun at Manly, the cloud was building up over the city and the wind brought up a bit of spray over the boat on the way back. There was a large market on in the Rocks district and I used the last of my time to walk through it. The market itself was packed but nearby one of the pubs was running Oktoberfest and aside from the crammed outdoor seats, there was an audience of tourists taking photos as the bar staff walked around in lederhosen, carrying large jugs of beer. Eventually though, I retreated to the rooftop terrace of the hostel to stare over the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge one last time. I adore Sydney, and hate to leave it as much as I love to visit it. But after 5.5 weeks, my Australian adventure was over, and now it was just time to head to the airport and head home.

Kata Tjuṯa

It was following a poor night’s sleep, from a hot and stuffy room and roommates coming in and out in the wee hours of the morning, that I was thrown awake by my alarm. It was still dark outside when I was picked up by Bruce who drove me and a band of other early risers to head back into the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park. Previously known as the Olgas, Kata Tjuta is a conglomerate of 36 domes made of a mix of granite, basalt and sandstone. Located 25km (15.5miles) to the east of its more famous neighbour Uluru, Kata Tjuta proved itself to be just as worthy of exploring, and once more I was up before dawn to witness yet another staggering sunrise.

There were already colours blending into the sky as we parked up and walked to the lookout spot. It quickly became packed and there was a silent jostling match as people vied for prime position. Like Uluru the day before, the rock mounds of Kata Tjuta went through a colour change as the sun got closer to breaking the horizon, and in the distance, the hulk of Uluru became surrounded by a beautiful purple-peach glow. By the time I realised that the sun was actually broaching the horizon right next to Uluru, it was too late to get anywhere decent to see it and I, like many others, were forced to perch on the fence struts, balancing precariously just to see over the heads and shoulders of those in prime position.

 

Kata Tjuta itself came into its own once the sun was above the horizon, and it suddenly started to glow red. I really wanted to stay and watch the colours burn more, but we were under strict instructions to be back on the bus within 10mins of sunrise, so that we could get moving. It is always my bug bear of organised tours, being tied to the schedule and crowds that go with them, but without my own transport, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Another 40mins or so would have been perfect, but we had a hike to do, and our guide wanted to get going so as to beat the crowds that would soon accumulate.

 

There are two hikes to do in the valleys of Kata Tjuta: the Walpa Gorge walk and the longer Valley of the Winds walk. I would have loved to have done both, but was only given the option of one on the tour, so I naturally went for the longer one. We all set off together, but gradually the group spread out. The Valley of the Winds forms a circuit, and our guide recommended we walk it anti-clockwise, so we all duly took his word. With a time limit to make it back to the bus, I duly became snap happy as I took in the desert flowers and creatures amongst the rocky landscape.

It was a rocky walk in to reach the loop track. There was shadowing in places which hid some of the detail, but those rocks that had sunlight spilling on to them, were clearly as scarred as Uluru was. The Karu lookout on this track is where the route can be closed in hot weather. The track is completely exposed to the elements with little shade the whole way round, so there is a 36oC temperature limit, above which, walking further is prohibited.

 

Once the loop track was reached after a descent, there were suddenly bushes and vegetation littering the route. Birds were flitting between the branches and flowers were blooming in pockets near the side of the track. The initial section was in sunshine, but after crossing a dried-up stream and gaining altitude, it was in shade all the way to the Karingana lookout, deep within the valley. The sides were steep in this shaded section, and as I got easily distracted by the flora, I was soon left behind by the rest of the group. As I dawdled my way up to the lookout, it soon became clear behind me that the tourists had arrived en masse, a steady stream of people behind me or overtaking me at regular intervals.

 

It was windy and cold at the lookout, the wind driving up through the channel created by the mounds, and it was easy to see how the walk got its name. I descended down the other side of the lookout, spotting a beetle among some flowers, and continuing to marvel at the fauna here in this harsh environment. In front of me now were more of Kata Tjuta’s mounds, and once on the relative flat, I was exposed to the full power of the rising sun.

 

Most people had overtaken me now, and I found myself alone for sections of the return leg. Not realising I wasn’t even halfway yet, I continued to dawdle, and spent a lot of time looking backwards, where the best view was. A few people walked the trail clockwise, but the vast majority, like us, had walked it the reverse. With the sun low creating great shadows in the valley, and my constant want to turn around and look behind me, I can’t help but feel it would have been better to walk it clockwise after all.

 

Behind me, many of the domes were still dark in colour, but the ones nearest me on the trail were bright orange. To my right, spanning a great distance was the flat desert landscape of the Outback: red sand speckled with low-lying vegetation. Away from these rock formations, there was not a landmark in sight, and it was easy to see how you could get lost away from here.

 

At a water station, I found a flock of zebra finches, a pretty little bird, and afforded them some time to watch them before pushing on. With the sun getting higher, and the temperature pushing up with it, the crowds of walkers had long since dissipated, and suddenly conscious of the time, I quickened my pace to complete the loop and head back out the track to the waiting bus. I made it back within the allotted time, but it was clear that I was the last to arrive and that they’d all been waiting a while for me. But I had paid a lot of attention to the flora and fauna, and was satisfied that I’d done the hike justice.

 

It was still morning when we returned to the Ayers Rock Resort, and I used my time to wander round the retail precinct, organising another couple of spur-of-the-moment tours, and buying the obligatory fridge magnets that I collect from anywhere I visit. The resort runs some free activities at various times of the day, and a little after noon, I joined the Bush Tucker talk, where one of the staff taught us about edible plants and flowers that were in the vicinity, and how they are used by the Indigenous people of the region. I got to eat some food that had been made out of the local vegetation, and afterwards, with my stomach wanting more, I had lunch at one of the cafes in the square.

 

From the Town Square, I cut behind the Emu Walk Apartments, one of the many accommodation options in the resort, to visit the Wintjiri Arts & Museum which was one of the free things to do there. I love Indigenous artwork and found many paintings that I loved and would have loved to have bought had I had a house to put them in and money to spare. Aside from the art gallery of local artist’s work, the compact museum gave a fascinating insight into the geology and natural history of the region, as well as a concise history of the local Indigenous groups. For such a small museum and gallery it was very interesting and kept my attention for some time.

 

Now well into the afternoon and under the blazing hot sun, I went up to the little mound at the back of the complex which offers yet another lookout over to Kata Tjuta. From this location, the view was across a giant field of solar panels that harness the sun’s energy to power the resort. From back at the Town Square, I then cut across the large expanse between the retail centre and the Outback Pioneer lodge where I was staying, via the Imalung lookout. This desert expanse between the sections of the resort was teeming with pretty little flowers, and at the top of the mound I was rewarded with the same view of Uluru that I had been grinning over for the last couple of days. As I walked back to the lodge, a little lizard skittered between the low vegetation.

 

As the sun started to lower again, I was collected from my accommodation for that evening’s sunset tour. This time I was headed back to Kata Tjuta, and our guide was immensely passionate about it, explaining that it is believed to be the place where Anangu’s creation ancestors first appeared on Earth. As with the day before at Uluru, I lapped up the information about the local people’s culture, this whole area being immensely sacred to the Indigenous people of Australia.

In a scene reminiscent of the sunset sail in Darwin, I was quietly excited to discover there would be unlimited glasses of bubbles and plenty of canapes to accompany the sunset. I made it through 3 glasses whilst watching the spectacular colour changes of Kata Tjuta’s rock. The guide who brought us there proclaimed the sunset here to be far superior to that at Uluru, and whilst there was clearly a bit of bias, I did find that the colours seemed a bit more stark and dramatic this close up. It was less crowded here than the sunrise spot had been and this meant I could move around at leisure as the sun dropped towards and then below the horizon. Nicely warmed by the alcohol, I shut away thoughts of my impending return home and just absorbed the scene in front of me, living in the moment, as I had done with every sunrise and sunset that I had witnessed thus far on my great Australian adventure.

 

It seemed only right to stop for ice cream at the supermarket on the way home, and now in pitch dark, I again walked back to the lodge across the central expanse of the resort. In the spot of light lit up by my torch, a little mouse ran into the bush in front of me, and above me the stars sparkled on my last night in the Red Centre. The next day I was to fly out from the place that had well and truly taken me under its spell, and that meant just one more sunrise to wake up for…

The Red Centre

It’s interesting how different an experience people can have at a place. I recently heard someone say their friend described Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) as ‘just a big rock’ and as such they weren’t fussed about going themselves. To say my opinion of Uluru is the total opposite would be an understatement. From the moment I stepped off the airport transfer bus at the Ayers Rock Resort, there was the hint in the air of something special. I cannot put in words the emotions that I have attached to the next few days of my trip. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but something about this place spoke to me in a manner that I cannot describe. Perhaps it was the immense heat fogging up my perception. Or the mesmerising idyll of the red sandy desert. Or the fact that I saw some things that I’d wanted to for a long time. Or perhaps it was all of it, combined together into a hot desert perfection. Whatever the reason, Australia’s Red Centre is a very special place for me.

A lot of people visiting Uluru do so from Alice Springs, nearly 6hrs away. Without your own transport this means being tied to the constraints of an organised tour. When I found out about the Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara, the nearest accommodation to Uluru, I knew that this was where I was going to stay. Offering a choice of accommodation types, a retail and eatery zone, and ready access to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, it was the perfect base to explore the area. I was on a budget and had booked into the backpacker wing of the Outback Pioneer Lodge. The complementary shuttle from the nearby airfield circled the upmarket resort accommodation first before dropping me off at the lodge. There was a bit of queue to check in, but getting this out the way, I was soon dumping my stuff and getting out to explore. The resort is set up in a large U-shape with a wide wild zone in the middle. The tourism and retail centre was at the far side of this central wilderness zone from my accommodation, but despite the heat and availability of a resort shuttle that regularly loops between the zones, I decided to walk under the blazing sun to the retail area to arrange some excursions, grab a drink at the cafe and visit the supermarket to stock up on food. Reliant on a twice weekly train delivery for supplies, there were quite a few empty sections where stock had run low. This was life in the Outback.

 

Taking the shuttle bus back to the lodge, I followed a trail leading out the back of the accommodation, up a small hill to a view point where I could see not only across the desert to Uluru but also Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas), the lesser known rock formations in the region. A crowd gathered as the sun lowered, and we watched the changing colours across the famous red rock. The resort is littered with walking trails, several of which lead to natural hillocks offering a sunset and sunrise viewing spot. Aside from the people, I was accompanied by some doves and as the sun lowered, a large colony of ants appeared out of the ground. Aside from a few wisps near the horizon, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I watched in silence as the rocks turned from orange to various shades of red, and the sky went through a range of blues. Only once the colour changes faded into darkness did I leave to eat dinner before going on a night time excursion.

 

My trip to Yulara coincided with a temporary outdoor art exhibit called the Field of Lights. At the time of visiting, it was only due to be there for a few months, but it has since been extended until 2020. Made up of 50,000 lights spread across the equivalent of 7 football fields, the artist Bruce Munro has created a colour-changing light display to be enjoyed in the darkness of the desert night. It has proved very popular and was close to being booked out during my visit. I had had problems making a booking online in advance and as such thought I would have to miss out on it, but I was lucky to be able to grab a last minute ticket the day I arrived, and at the scheduled time on my ticket, I joined several coach loads of people to drive out to the field in the middle of nowhere to go see it. After a briefing from the staff about how best to enjoy it, and when to be back at the bus, I did my best to escape the crowd and take it all in.

Two paths lead through the exhibit – a long path and a short path. I opted for the longer one first and once the crowd of visitors thinned out a little, it was easy to get lost in my own thoughts. Early on into the experience I looked up to see not only an amazing array of stars but I was overwhelmed to see the Milky Way very distinctly sweeping across the sky above my head. I’d never seen the Milky Way before and I was awestruck at how clearly it appeared. I spent the rest of the night torn between the dazzling light display below eye level and the mesmerising astronomic display above me. Following first the long path and then looping back round through the short path, I was last to get back to the bus pick-up area, only to discover our bus was running late. I spent the time staring up at the Milky Way until it was time to board and return to our accommodation where I attempted to sleep in the hot and tiny dorm room.

 

The next morning I was awoken by my roommates stirring so it seemed like a good idea to get up and watch the sunrise. Donning my clothes and making the short distance to the lookout hillock, I huddled in the chill morning air watching the colour creep back into the sky and the landscape below it. It amazes me how cold the desert night is, considering how hot the desert day is. I’ve read stories of people lost in the desert succumbing to the cold nights despite putting up with the hot arid days. As time passed I was eventually joined by others although less than had ventured out the night before for the sunset.

The hulking outline of Uluru grew clearer and clearer as the sky turned from a deep blue, lightening through to peach and pink ahead of the sun bursting above the horizon. Then the form of Uluru changed once more from a deep red, lightening up to the characteristic orange. In the distance, Kata Tjuta went through the same changes and it was very evident it was going to be another cloudless day. Aside from those other early risers, there were a couple of courting doves strutting around the lookout, and unfamiliar birds flitting around the nearby foliage.

 

The sun rose quite quickly and there was plenty of light spilling across the landscape by the time I retraced my steps back to my room to get ready for the day. I had pre-purchased a ticket for the Uluru Hop-On, Hop-Off bus service and arranged to be collected for the first day trip into the park. Ready and waiting, I was excited to board and get going, ready to explore up close the behemoth that I’d come all this way to see. Just a short drive from Yulara, we reached the entrance to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, an exposed tourist mecca under the baking Outback sun. This was the day I had waited for for a very long time.

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