Saturday #39: Just Down The Road

After 38 reports of what I’ve done on 38 consecutive Saturdays, I think it’s time to break with tradition and elaborate on what I did last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For some people, reading a 2000 word blog post might be the modern day equivalent of being forced to sit through the slideshow of Uncle Bob and Aunt Connie’s 1977 trip to Disney World. I get it. For those people, I have included a whack of photos to break up the monotony. And don’t talk to me about monotony! I just completed a three-day, 1454 km bus trip through the Australian Outback for the sole purpose of viewing a rock.

Wanna see my slides?

Friday, March 27: All Aboard
I had pre-booked a three-day, two-night “backpacker style” bus trip from Alice Springs to Uluru, Kata Tjuta and what’s generally known as The Red Centre. The Emu Run bus pulled up to the front of my hostel at 5:44 a.m., precisely one minute ahead of schedule. The driver introduced himself as Bez. I got a good reading on him from the start. And with just two other passengers already on the 20-seat bus, I was able to score a prime seat directly underneath the strongest of 16 air-conditioning vents.

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We made a few more pickups before leaving Alice Springs. By the time we hit the highway we added a retired John Deere dealer from Queensland, a retired Lebanese flight attendant and her German niece, a tax consultant from Missouri who lives in Switzerland, and a med school student from the UK. When got to Uluru we headed straight to the airport where we picked up two Korean students, two Chinese students, one German student, a Dutch management consultant, and three Americans who work for a US defense contractor in Saudi Arabia.

There are at least three companies running very similar tours out of Alice Springs. According to the commission salespeople who manned the tour desks at my hostel, all the tours are virtually identical. They all visit the same spots – although some mix it up by doing the stops in the reverse order – and they all have similar buses.

I was skeptical. How could Emu Run get away with charging $360 for a tour when The Rock Tours and Way Outback Tours are charging $305? They’re all competing for the same tourist dollars and in the outback the tourists are mostly backpackers. You’ll look pretty hard to find a more frugal group of travelers. My gut told me there had to be some difference so I went with the $360 option in the belief that you get what you pay for in very competitive markets like this.

I can’t prove that the food, champagne, sleeping bags, or the bus that Emu Run used were any better than the competition’s. What I do know is that Emu Run employed a World Class driver / guide / mechanic / chief cook and bottle washer. Bez Condon was without a doubt the best tour guide I’ve encountered after nine months of continuous travel. If he was the only “upgrade” the extra $50 was money well spent.

We were halfway between Alice and Uluru when Bez slammed on the breaks and jumped out of the barely stopped bus. He ran back down the highway, picked something off the middle of the road, and trotted back to the bus. I don’t know if it’s his life’s mission, but reducing road-kill one lizard at a time would be an honorable goal. After giving everyone a close look of what we might be sleeping with tonight, Bez returned the lizard to the shoulder of the road and made sure he was headed to the ditch. Once a guide, always a guide, I guess.

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Shortly after we got rolling Bez issued his first challenge: Who would be the first to spot Uluru? I was seated near the front of the bus so I had an advantage, or so I thought.

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Within the hour this massive rock appeared on the horizon and Old Eagle Eye Hamilton shouted out “Uluru!”

Bez mimicked the sound of a gong. “Wrong,” he said. “That’s actually Mount Connor, or as I like to call it, Fool-eru. And Mike, you’ll be on dish duty tonight.”

I still haven’t figured out why Uluru draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year and has an economic impact in the hundreds of millions of dollars (flights, tours, campgrounds, lodges, 5-star hotels, etc.) yet the larger Mount Connor sits in the middle of a privately owned cattle station and is visited by only a handful of tourists. I guess it all comes down to marketing.

After a quick stop at Uluru airport, we headed straight to the Uluru cultural and interpretive center for a backgrounder on aboriginal law and religion (Tjukurpa) and watched a film depicting the Aborigines’ first encounter with European explorers.

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We didn’t stay as long at the centre as I would have liked but I understood why we had to stick to a schedule – the amazing Uluru sunset doesn’t wait for tardy tour groups. Besides, we had champagne on ice.

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I’m likely the ten millionth tourist to take these same photos but somehow it still felt like a unique experience. I can’t explain why “The Rock” changes colour in such a dramatic fashion as the sun sets, but it does and it’s truly magical. And no, the plonk has nothing to do with it.

After sunset we drove a short distance to Emu Run’s permanent camp which consists of a kitchen and a screened-in dining area that was great for escaping the omnipresent flies. Everyone pitched in as we attempted to get dinner on the table before it was completely dark. We didn’t make it.

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I couldn’t tell the difference between a kangaroo steak and a Ponderosa rib eye, circa 1975, and I wouldn’t expect to see it on the menu at Ruth’s Chris anytime soon, but I’m glad I got a chance to try it.

There are no tents or cabins at this campground. Instead, we slept “under the stars” in traditional outback swags. For the uninitiated, a swag is a tough canvas bag with a flap that covers your head. Inside the swag is a thin foam mattress and a lightweight sleeping bag. You simply zip yourself into the swag, pull a fly net over your head, and use the optional canvas flap if you’re worried about birds leaving souvenirs on your head. Inside the swag you’re reasonably safe from the millions of Australian critters, big and small, that would like nothing more than to kill you. (That’s only a slight exaggeration, by the way.)

Saturday, March 28: We were up sparrow fart

The sky was awash with stars – the Southern Cross being the brightest of all – when my alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. John, the colourful farm implement dealer who slept closest to me, remarked that we were getting up “sparrow fart.” I assume that means pretty damn early. After a camp breakfast of hot tea, cold cereal, toast and Vegemite, we left camp at 5:15 a.m. and drove for 30 minutes to reach a popular viewing spot before sunrise.

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Again, I took hundreds of shots that thousands of other tourists have taken before me. Without a doubt, the sun rising behind Uluru was even more magical than Friday’s sunset.

Note: I often boost the colour saturation on my photos but in this case I have purposely avoided that to give you a true feeling for the outback sunrise. If anything, the colours were even more vibrant in real life!

We left the Uluru viewing spot around 6:30 and headed for Kata Tjuta before the heat became too oppressive. There are several hiking trails at Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas) and we opted to the 6 km loop through the “Valley of The Winds.” Most people felt that it was a somewhat challenging hike due to rough terrain and a few steep climbs. Everyone agreed that it was worth the effort!

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By noon we were back on the bus and headed towards our camp for night #2. In this neck of the woods you can drive for two or three hours without seeing a house or barn. Thankfully you do come across the odd wayside inn and even a few cattle stations selling gas (‘petrol’ in Australia) and diesel. Around 3:00 pm we made a fuel-beer-water-toilet and ice-cream stop at Peter and Ashley Severin’s Curtin Springs Cattle Station.

It’s hard to envision the size of these cattle stations (farms), even after driving across the open plains for hours on end without seeing anything larger than a ramp used for loading cattle onto trucks. And even those are spaced about an hour’s drive apart. Curtin Springs isn’t the largest cattle station, but at 1,028,960 acres it’s pretty damn big. As the sign says, that’s 4164 square km.

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The Severins established Curtin Springs in 1956 and they own and operate it to this day. Over the years they’ve added a gas station, restaurant, motel, dorm-like accommodation, bar, beer and liquor outlet, and of course a gift shop. Some of the girls on the trip complained about the selection of items on offer in the store. The clothing was more “rodeo” than “Rodeo Drive.” One of the Chinese students summed it up pretty well when he said in disgust, “They sell shit.”

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Around 5:00 p.m. we pulled into our camp for the night at Ian & Lynne Conway’s King’s Creek Station. John and I had agreed to split the cost of a helicopter ride over King’s Canyon but unfortunately it was too close to dusk and we wouldn’t have time in the morning. I didn’t tell John but I was happy to keep my Visa card in my wallet.

King’s Creek Station isn’t as big as Curtin Springs but at 825,000 acres it isn’t the kind of place where you’d expect to find a guest knocking on your door and expecting to be fed. We did! Apparently this heifer regularly wanders up to the kitchen and refuses to leave until she’s fed a head of fresh lettuce.

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The Conways still have about 5000 head of cattle but the focus of their operation is slowly but surely shifting to tourism and camel farming. Yes, camel farming. Camel meat is a lean, high in protein and low in fat. The hides are five-time stronger than cowhide. Since camels are too large to transport on double-decker cattle trucks, and hauling them to the closest slaughterhouse used to be a multi-day affair, the Conways have built a specialized camel processing facility on the property.

One of the girls on the trip was a strict vegetarian – as are about 20% of the backpackers I meet – so I repeated what a crusty old farmer in New Zealand once told me: “If the Lord didn’t want us to eat animals, he wouldn’t have made them out of meat.” She didn’t find it the least bit funny.

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It wasn’t until a few days later when I posted a photo of the uncooked camel burgers on Facebook that someone pointed out the week-old ‘Best Before’ date. I don’t think it was an issue as the burgers had been frozen. Another friend asked if I was worried about eating meat that sold for $0.00. I had no answer for that one!

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Once again we slept under the stars, nestled into our swags while the dingoes howled in the distance. I’ll never again pay for a bed in a hostel when swag camping is an alternative!

Sunday, March 29: Heading Back to Alice

On Sunday morning we packed up the swags and were on the bus bright and early. After filling the bus with $2.44 per litre diesel, we headed to Kings Canyon (Watarrka National Park) for a two hour hike through the 450 million year old geological theme park. The rock formations in Watarrka are amongst the oldest surface rocks on earth.

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In other posts I’ve told about encountering a massive flood in Winnipeg, hail the size of tennis balls in Alberta, and the largest earthquake to hit Napa Valley in 30 years, but I wasn’t expecting any dramatic weather patterns in the Australian Outback. I knew that it would be hot and dry, all day, every day. After all, some cattle stations haven’t seen a drop of rain in eight years! But of course it rained when I showed up.

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None of us brought rain jackets so some people made do with garbage bags from the bus. This guy didn’t want to get his hair wet so he didn’t bother to punch holes for his head and arms.

I wasn’t feeling the best on Sunday morning and I was nervous about slipping on steep, wet rocks so I decided to skip the “rim walk” and do the “valley walk” instead. I can see how others would view this as a cop-out but after being around 20 or more people on a 24-7 basis for the past three weeks, I was happy to take my time exploring a 3 km long creek bed, all alone, even if it was raining lightly. I didn’t see or hear another person for three hours. I needed that!

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We were back on the road before noon. By mid-afternoon we arrived at Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse where I bought a traditional outback hat made of distressed kangaroo leather. It was an $85 investment. I lost it before midnight. (I consoled myself that it was heavy and wasn’t going to travel well anyway.)

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Alice Springs appeared on the horizon around 5:00 pm and 30 minutes later we were back in town. According to Bez we covered 1454 km. That’s a long way to drive to see a rock! Fortunately there was an amazing sunrise, two nights of swag camping, a great guide/driver, and a nice group of people that made it one of the best short tours I’ve done.

Coming up next…
My plans for Monday, March 30 include a nap, laundry, and a trip a camping supply store. On Tuesday I’m off on another 3-day, 2-night tour to Darwin in Australian’s tropical Northern Territory. According to Google Maps, that’s another 1493 km road trip. In the Australian Outback they call that “just down the road.”

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