This isn’t a post about one of the “wonders of the world”, it’s a story about the journey to get there – a journey of several days and thousands of kilometres, through the great Australian Outback.
“…all around you is a 360 degree golden Mitchell grass emptiness…the great Australian outback.”
- Ted Egan, Australian folk musician
I woke up. I was in the front seat of the van. Roughly two hours had passed and yet the landscape hadn’t changed. Red earth and a 360 degree golden Mitchell grass emptiness.
It was in this landscape that we came upon Aileron roadhouse. We pulled off the Stuart Highway and came to a rest on the red earth and Mitchell grass. Like most travellers who stop here, we were hooked by the giant Anmatjere man who has been built on the top of the hill – along with a sign that says “AILERON” in the same fashion as the one over Hollywood that says, “HOLLYWOOD” – for the express purpose of enticing people like us to stop.
There’s an Aboriginal art gallery that was closed, but to our delight the giant Anmatjere man now has a giant woman, with giant child, and spearing a giant goanna, to keep him company, and from a certain angle you can even see the giant vagina.
We passed a herd of goats.
“Wait,” said Ruth. “Do you notice anything strange about one of those goats?”
I scanned them, then saw it: on the right, on all fours, hunched down to goat height and eating the goats’ food with a sheepish look on its face, was a massive kangaroo.
As we watched, two goats were play fighting nearby and one made a charge at their new goat friend, only to realise his mistake just in time and slowly back away.
We ate crisp sandwiches, pissed on the red earth and Mitchell grass emptiness and went on our way, having seen not another human soul.
“I’m 46 miles from Alice
And I’m thousands of miles from my home.”
- Catherine Britt
About 45 kilometres from Alice – and singing “46 miles from Alice” – we crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, where there is a picture of a goat and some informative plaques. This was the first time I’d left the Tropics since India. Also, being a Capricorn and “stubborn goat” myself, this was a very spiritual experience for me. (I’m kidding.)
Alice Springs (Mparntwe in Arrente) was the biggest place we’d been in over three months. The stop signs, presence of other cars and having to actually look for a place to park, cook or even take a piss stressed me out (yes, I guess road-rage is relative) so we hit a bar in Todd Mall called Epilogue to use the WiFi and charge our phone from a plug-socket in the back.
On our map, the Todd River runs, big and blue, directly through town. It took us a couple of minutes to realise that the vast expanse of orange dust that cuts through Alice is in fact this Todd “River”. A sign warns, “no swimming” and once a year the “Henley-on-Todd Regatta” sees people running Flintstones-style down the dry river bed in bottomless boats. The event was once cancelled, sadly, due to water in the river.
We were meeting Paige and Sanka, but Liquorland and BWS were closed. (Sunday.) We bought some food in Coles and then in Woolworths somewhat optimistically bought some lemonade as a mixer. Then the woman on the checkout said to Ruth, “and do you have a receipt for the items in your bag?”
“What, these things that say ‘Coles’ on them?”
“Oh. Oh, they have ‘Coles’ on them don’t they.” Still craning to check. “Sorry…just procedure.”
Ruth stormed off, but, being of somewhat tramp-like appearance, I’m fairly used to this kind of thing, so took the opportunity to confirm her impression of me by asking where one might find alcohol at 2 pm on a Sunday afternoon. She idly mentioned that yes, only the drive-through bottle shops are open, and gave me crappy directions to one that went: “Do you know [a place]?
“Okay, well do you know [another place]?
“No.” I know here. Give me directions from here!
But it didn’t matter. Alice is small, so we drove ’round the corner and found it – the Todd Tavern – and picked up a carton.
We tracked down Paige and Sanka to a caravan plot at Heavitree Gap (Ntaripe, where the East and West MacDonnell Ranges almost meet under the clean, blue desert air like a natural south city gate). They weren’t in yet. We went to the bar and tried to wangle a staff discount (since we’re technically employees of the company) but the chef wasn’t having any of it.
Then we ran into Sanka on his break. He gave us the code and we poached a shower (2389?) and then cracked open the beer (and cider) and joined him. Paige got back and it turns out her parents were wine-makers in the Clare Valley and that we have a lot in common: we’ve both been around a fair bit and hate our hometowns with a passion.
The scrapbooks came out (Paige is Queen of Scrapbooks, at least in the way that Michael Jackson was the King of Pop), we shared stories, learned of her time spent homeless in London playing Thomas de Quincey (Confessions of an English Opium-Eater), their trips to Sri Lanka, New Years’ Eve under Sydney Harbour Bridge with the cockroaches and the Poles and a random gang of Sri Lankan refugees – just one small part of an epic road-trip from Adelaide to Brisbane that we would soon attempt to plagiarise ourselves.
Sanka had to go back to work and, a few drinks later, the rest of us called a cab and hit “the town”. The cabbie, who quite amusingly (for us Brits at least) was called Frank, turned to me and said, “this’ll make you laugh, right, but I just got out of rehab…Yep, this is my first day back on the job in…”
He went on to tell us about “the trouble with the Aborigines” – we passed many – and that “all the taxi drivers are Indian…all called ‘Singh’! Haha!” He laughed a kind of nervous laugh that shook his sinewy arms and his whole, racked body, on which something had taken its toll.
“Ice,” he said. “I gave up alcohol…and then, better late than never, got into the “party substances”…”
He gave us his card (to poach work from his company?) so I was able to negotiate a discount fare for our return. (Frank: 0431111372. Alice Springs Taxis: 131008.)
Bojangles was closed. Town was dead. We headed to Monte’s, where backpackers and locals alike crowded in booths amidst cool, scrappy, unpretentious decor in the beer garden kept cool by glittering misters in the heat of the day, then later by the arrival of night as the sun came down long and slow and barely noticed, spreading out its red glow over the Gap as we drank craft ale, cider, whisky, rum and coke, ate incredible pizza and talked the night away – travel and work goss’ mostly…
Afterwards we called up Frank again, who veered all over the road as he twisted round to speak to the girls in the backseat, gesturing all over the car with one wild, scrawny old arm, the other clasped so firmly on the wheel that his knuckles had turned white.
Back at theirs, we sat outside the caravan, joined now by Sanka.
Finally, shattered, we said our thank yous and goodbyes and crashed out in the van in their parking spot.
We woke as the sun came over the tallest tree and (very quickly) began to warm up the van. (7.40 am?)
I got started on breakfast (tea, coffee, porridge oats) at the barbeque area – a tremendous desert wind blew through and tossed a china mug to the floor, smashing it to pieces – then we knocked, but there was no sign nor sound of Sanka, so left a note saying we’ll see them in Europe…
Leaving town, we spotted the Medicare building, so registered inside. Aborigines hung around – inside and out front – covered in various bandages, crutches and splints, scraggly greying hair, big, knarled noses, cowboy hats and dusty chequered shirts, mostly old, many obese.
Then we drove out of Alice, and that same, flat, bright orange Mitchell grass emptiness enveloped us once again.
“…Alice. Alice? Who the fuck is Alice?”
We put the MacDonnell’s behind us, passed strange mesa-hills, stopped for fuel prices at Stuart’s Well and Desert Oak, all roadhouses now blending into one – some I may remember ’til the day I die, but most already forgotten by the time we reach the next one – and the giant hedgehog, (which later disappeared without a trace!)
Out on the road again, we saw red swirling in the distance like a bush fire. No, it was a kind of tornado, whipping up the red earth in its path, coming right for us. We came to a complete stop and it just missed us.
As the sun sat on the horizon, winking goodbye, we rushed for Sandy Way rest area, the closest free camping to Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort; twenty-something kilometres further on) is extortionate.
You have to drive over the dunes and along a red-dust track to get to the camping area. It doesn’t get much more Outback than this! We found an out-of-the-way spot on the edge – the beginning of the infinite Australian wilderness.
A green 4WD camper played accordion, banjo, gypsy music as we cooked a stack of fried egg sandwiches, darkness set in and I tossed the shells into the blackness beyond the lantern light, should a hungry dingo pass this way.
We talked, danced – the music still playing through the “night” – and pissed naked in the starlit sand…surprised to find ourselves drifting off around eight or nine.
We woke to darkness at 4.30 am and started out, back over the dunes, for Yulara – the light from the headlights cutting wedges in the darkness, then fading imperceptibly as the pale blue light of dawn leaked into the sky and gave shape to the landscape, revealing the lone and distant Mount Conner, Uluru’s decoy, which we, like the many thousands of tourists before us, mistook for the big rock itself.
We passed Yulara Airport (and the signs that tell people which side of the road we drive on in Australia, despite the fact that we were thousands of kilometres into Australia in any given direction) and found the Shell garage, but it was closed until 6 am (by which time we – and everyone else who comes here to see Uluru at sunrise – would miss it). So, running on empty, the sky lightening fast and now following the column of rear lights, we paid our $25 each and entered Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – the woman stressing that we right our “own names” on them “as soon as possible”, fearing what I’d already thought of: we’re going to sell these (or give them away) at Sandy Way on our return. (You get three days.)
We’ve all seen the photo of Ayers Rock, but there’s nothing like seeing it grow and change shape and twist and contort and rise up before you a big indigo blotch against the dawn sky, as you snake towards it through the vast expanse of nothingness.
The best spot to see Uluru at sunrise (without the aid of a helicopter) is the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku lookout, from where you can even see Kata Tjuta some 50 kms away in the distance.
From there we hit the Mala car park, from where you can pick up many walks, including a foot-beaten trail leading up to the top of Uluru. A locked gate said the path was closed and listed the penalties, while a guy, who’d already jumped it with his kids, yelled back to his wife and friends, “Come on! They’ve just kept it locked to try to scare you. They can’t do anything.”
Actually, he’s right. Climbing Uluru is not against any Australia or Northern Territory laws. But, because it’s not something that is done in Aboriginal culture, the Anangu – who co-manage the Park – do everything they can to try to convince people not to do it, from not opening the gate in the morning to locking it for “adverse weather conditions”, “rescue operations” and mysterious “cultural reasons”. They even sell T-shirts, bumper stickers and so on with the slogan, “I didn’t climb Uluru.”
I don’t have a problem with anyone climbing it – actually it’s exactly the kind of quasi-rebellious stunt I’d have pulled in my younger years – but we didn’t climb it because my days of needing to prove I can get to the top of big things for no reason are over. (Though I reserve the right to retract this statement at any time.)
Oh, and over 35 people have died trying it.
In the typical photo of Ayers Rock (just Google it) it’s one smooth, rounded red rock. However, walking the base walk – around the caves, rock art, sacred, sensitive sites and Dreaming stories, ephemeral waterfalls, giant pockmarks in the rock as, over the millenia, it dies of some mysterious disease that rocks know – you see the myriad views, colours and textures. Every bend reveals new facets and shapes.
At the Cultural Centre they play a really interesting documentary about the struggle of the Anangu. There’s a bit where one of them makes the point that selling art and handicrafts and trinkets to survive isn’t helping them, it’s marginalising and hindering them. I knew it! Fuck you, Lonely Planet! In the displays, pictures showing the dead are covered, as is also the custom further north in Kakadu and Arnhem Land.
We found some shade and fell asleep…
…Then made it back to Yulara for that fuel. I forgot which side the tank was on and the guy came out to say I was “stretching the pumps” – even though I clearly demonstrated I wasn’t – and made us move.
“What’s your problem?”
“It’s not my problem, it’s the boss.”
“Tell your boss to get fucked!” (You don’t mess in this heat.)
Since there’s nothing to do in Yulara except exchange money for shit, we headed to Kata Tjuta, all blue – all that sky between it and our eyes. First you come to the Dunes Viewing Area, which is the best place to see Kata Tjuta at sunrise, then the Sunset Viewing Area, which…well, is pretty self-explanatory.
From here there’s a short, easy hike into Walpa Gorge or the more intense Valley of the Winds, which is probably the best way to get amongst and experience the Olgas, but, like Kings Canyon, has to be started first thing or it gets too hot.
Kata Tjuta means “many heads”. There are 36 domes and the tallest is actually 200 metres taller than Uluru. (Uluru is 348 metres…with a “girth” – which we all know is more important – of 9.4 kilometres.)
Then we split for another aptly named Sunset Car Park, this one at Uluru, then hit the road again.
I saw a two metre snake crossing the road but couldn’t swerve and heard it pop and splatter its underbelly against the van’s. Poor thing.
Strong side-winds swept unchallenged across the open emptiness. Another tornado crossed the road right in front of us, scattering bits of dead, dried-up scrub and dust and Mitchell grass, and giving the van a violent shake on its way past.
We stopped at Curtin Springs (Roadhouse) where they allow free camping. Showers are $3, but of course we snuck in anyway, the lights attracting literally hundreds of crickets and beetles that flew at us and swarmed our stuff and we had to make a naked run for it.
We enjoyed a nice pasta dish and then had to pack it up hurriedly as the dust storm came.
I dreamt of storms and life on the road…