Perth, Australia, February 17
Australia (Part 6)
Once again, we rose before the sun to stow our packs and board yet another 4WD people carrier for the last segment of our Red Rocket outback tour. Our new guide was Chris, whose background in geology made for interesting explanations of the sites we visited. Of the group we had travelled from Darwin with, the only person continuing on with this segment was our Swedish friend Johan. Including Johan, Sue, and I, our new group consisted of about twenty people. The biggest downside of this part of the tour was that the vehicle was brutally uncomfortable for anyone over 5'7". The seats were tiny and leg room was non-existent. But don't worry... I let them know about it on the feedback form provided at the end of the tour. I'm sure the situation will be fixed up in no time, mate.
After a good bit of driving and loss of circulation in the legs, our first stop was at Watarrka National Park where we explored the major attraction, Kings Canyon. We hiked the six kilometer Kings Canyon Walk, observing the eroding rock domes making up an area called the Lost City. At one point we crawled on our bellies up to the edge of a steep cliff leading into a very deep canyon. Below was a waterhole surrounded by lush vegetation known as the Garden of Eden. Eventually we made our way around the canyon and descended into it then back up the other side.
By late afternoon we arrived in Yulara. This small, well-manicured town has basically one purpose: to serve as the hospitality center for tourists visiting nearby Uluru (previously called Ayers Rock). Yulara contains mostly way upscale resorts with the most expensive rooms situated such that the balcony affords amazing sunrise and sunset views of the enormous sandstone rock. Our digs, however, would be at a campsite operated by the tour company. After we unloaded the truck, Chris sent us up a hill to see the fabled Uluru sunset while he started cooking dinner. He even supplied us with some boxed wine. Unfortunately, the skies were a bit cloudy so we didn't get to experience the fiery red color that the rock is famous for.
Uluru is 1,150 feet high, 1.5 miles long, and 5.5 miles around the base. That makes it the world's biggest monolith. (Monolith means "large block of stone". I just looked it up.) It was originally named Ayers Rock after South Australian premier Sir Henry Ayers by explorer William Gosse in 1873. The area is also the home of the Anangu Aboriginal people and in 1985 the area was returned to their control. They became joint managers of the land, which is listed as a World Heritage area, and in 1995 was renamed Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. (Kata Tjuta is the Aboriginal name for another nearby spectacular rock formations previously known as The Olgas.) The Anangu regard Uluru as one of the most sacred sites of the Dreaming.
For our night in Yulara, we had the option once again of sleeping under the stars in a swag. As guide Chris was demonstrating the unrolling of the swag for those who had not been on the last trip, we braced for the discovery of the fake snake. It turned out that Chris was not quite the prankster that Rob was, and the demonstration was uneventful. However, as everyone was checking their swags later on, the din of unzipping zippers was broken by a blood-curdling scream. Apparently, someone from the last tour group who had been using the campsite left a fake snake inside one of the rolled-up swags in the storage shed. The unlucky recipient of that swag was a quiet Dutch girl who did not at all see it coming. She was crying hysterically, even moreso after she was told it was a fake snake. We all felt badly for her. Luckily, she was with her boyfriend who was able to console her somewhat, but the episode put a damper on the whole evening. And then it began to rain, so we ended up sleeping in tents anyway.
The following morning Chris woke us at four o'clock so that we could be at Uluru for the sunrise. There is a trail that leads up to the to top of the rock; however, the Aboriginal people prefer that tourists do not climb it, but instead walk the trail at the base. They consider Uluru a sacred site and only Anangu elders make the climb during ceremonial times. Besides, they do not want tourists falling and hurting themselves, as they take such accidents extremely personally. But if people absolutely must climb, they do not try to stop them. We learned upon arrival that the climb was closed anyway because the previous night's rain had made it too dangerous, so in the darkness we began the ten kilometer base walk.
The walk afforded fantastic views of the unique geological features of Uluru. The rock layers which were once horizontal have become deep vertical grooves into the smooth rounded sides. Along the path we passed several sacred Aboriginal sites, where signs stated that the taking of photographs was prohibited. About halfway through the walk, with the sun rising and bringing out the deep reddish-orange color of the arkosic sandstone, Sue and I decided to scramble a few meters up a steep slope so that Johan could take a picture of us. As we were posing, a group of air-conditioned-tour-bus-type people led by a testy middle-aged Australian woman were approaching on the trail from a different direction. She stopped her group and called out to us in a rather irritable voice. "EXCUSE ME?! DO YOU HAVE PERMISSION TO BE CLIMBING UP THERE???" Now, I almost came back with something like, "Good morning! Yes, actually we're working with Dr. Wollongong from the National University in Canberra and we're measuring the effects of moisture-based erosion on this face of Uluru. Did you happen to pass the doctor on the trail? He seems to be running a bit late this morning." But instead, I thought better of it and we just played dumb and quickly made our way back down to the trail.
After completing the circumnavigation of Uluru, Chris led us on a short trail called the Mala Walk which lead past some interesting Aboriginal sites and a cave resembling a giant stone wave. We then packed back onto the truck and headed to nearby Kata Tjuta. The unique geology of this area has caused giant dome-shaped rocks to be scattered about. From a distance, the silhouette resembles a prostrate Homer Simpson. We hiked the Olga Gorge walk between Mt. Wulpa and Mt. Olga, the largest dome at 546 meters.
After lunch at a desert rest area, we headed back to the campsite in Yulara, packed up the truck and started the nearly 500 kilometer drive back to Alice Springs. Along the way, I began to feel not quite right on the insides, but I just figured it was due to eating an unhealthy amount of mystery bush tucker for the past week. We arrived in Alice by late afternoon and Chris dropped us at our hostel, Annie's Place. As we settled in, showered, and prepared to head over to the Melanka Lodge for another presumably below average but free meal with our tour group, I felt worse. Still thinking I just needed to eat some proper food, I walked the half mile to Melanka's with Sue and some other people from our hostel. As we approached the entrance, though, the waves of nausea started coming on and I had to sit outside and collect myself, while Sue went in to eat. A few minutes later I was feeling dizzy and feverish, so Sue all but carried me back to Annie's where I had a less than restful night.
In the morning I was feeling better, but very weak and not able to eat much of anything. We walked downtown to attend services at Potter's Church and surprisingly met several Americans. We learned that the U.S. and Australia jointly operate an airbase near Alice Springs and there are many American military and military-employed civilian families in the area. We accepted a ride back to the hostel from a very nice Australian man and I spent the rest of the day in bed while Sue went shopping.
On Monday morning we hit the road again. Our destination this time was Adelaide in South Australia where we would be catching a train across a very large stretch of outback to the city of Perth in Western Austrailia. Our mode of transport was again a 4WD people carrier vehicle, operated jointly by Northern Territory Adventure Tours and Oz Experience. The two day trip was not so much a sightseeing tour, but more like we were hitching a ride from the tour company who just needed to get the vehicle back to Adelaide.
The trip consisted of driving, periodically interrupted by food and toilet breaks at various roadhouses situated along the desolate highway. Australian roadhouses always present an interesting slice-of-life. They mainly provide fuel and food to the drivers of giant roadtrains which thunder up and down the Track. The food served is mostly of the deep-fried artery-clogging variety, though I was occasionally able to find a piece of fruit. Sue developed a liking for the "meat pie", consisting of some form of mystery meat enclosed in a chewy crust. The meat pies were, however, hit-or-miss, as sometimes they were oh-so-tasty and at other times wholly unedible. Another interesting but unfortunate feature of the typical roadhouse is the tendency to have an adjoining fenced-off area serving as a habitat for various Australian wildlife, such as kangaroos and emus.
After stopping at one such roadhouse, our guide (I think his name was Craig) gave us the option of continuing on the highway or taking a adventurous dirt road through the rough outback called the Oodnadatta Track. We voted for the rough track and actually started down it, but then Craig did some mental calculations and announced that we actually did not have enough fuel to make it the whole way. Besides, if his boss found out, he would be in serious trouble. So, we made our way back to the highway and continued on in smooth bitumen bliss.
We stopped for the night at the town of Coober Pedy where 80 percent of the world's opal supply is mined. Due to the extreme temperatures in the area, most construction occurs underground. Most homes and businesses are carved right out of the rock. An added bonus of this type of construction is the possibility of discovering valuable opals on your plot of land. Indeed, some people who originally planned two or three bedroom homes expanded to five or six (or more!) when a vein of opal was discovered during excavation. After touring an opal mine, we convened at a restaurant for pizza and beer, then retired to our rock-walled hostel.
The next morning we were back on the road before sunrise and by late in the afternoon we arrived in Adelaide. We wished that we had more time to spend there, as we had read and heard that Adelaide is quite a good little city to visit. But, we had a train to catch, and we were in Adelaide for all of about two hours before rolling out on the Great Southern Railway's Indian Pacific line.
The Indian Pacific line runs from Sydney on the eastern coast in New South Wales all the way to Perth on the western coast in Western Australia. Our part of the trip, from Adelaide to Perth, would take a total of about 40 hours. To save money, we opted not for a sleeper car, but instead spent most of those 40 hours sitting upright in our slightly reclinable seats. I would rate the seats as slightly better than coach airline seating, but not as good as first class. As we were receiving instructions from the train's night manager about various things we could be thrown off the train for, it was hard to not feel like genuine "steerage". Plus the fact that the door separating the sleeper cars from ours was kept locked. (We did briefly entertain the idea of somehow talking our way into an empty sleeper...) The dining car, however, was actually very nice and the food was good. Eating all of our meals there (instead of in the lounge car or, even worse, in the seats) made the ride bearable.
A large part of the trip was spent crossing the Nullarbor Plain stretching from South Australia into Western Australia. The Nullarbor, which literally means "no trees" in Latin, is an incredibly flat and desolate expanse of land. I did a lot of staring out of the window and all there was as far as the eye could see was small, scrubby brown bushes on top of Martian-red sandy soil. Occasionally a kangaroo would bound away as the train rumbled by and once we saw a pack of wild camels. During that time we crossed the longest stretch of absolutely straight track in the world - 297 miles worth.
Somewhere along the way, we stopped at the no-horse town of Cook, population counted-on-one-hand, which used to be a fuel and provision stop for older trains. These days it seems to just be a place to let train-riding tourists stretch their legs and see the harsh outback landscape up close and personal. I thought I heard someone announce that the train would be refilling it's water supply there, but I can't imagine where the water could be coming from. All I saw there was hot, dry, and dusty.
Escaping the Nullarbor, we stopped for three hours on Wednesday night at the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie. Sue and I strolled around a bit and ended up talking with three local guys at a pub whose only purpose in life seemed to be to donate their entire paychecks to the bar. They were very nice guys and Sue actually struck up a heart-to-heart conversation with one of them. However, it did not take long for them to accidentally break a glass, and the management asked them to say goodbye. An hour later, on the way back to the train, we passed by the open door of another pub and saw them again. We talked with them a while longer, long enough for them to drop another glass on the sidewalk, and then we headed back to the train for another wonderful night of sitting upright.
We finally arrived in Perth on Thursday morning and made our way to the Coolibah Lodge hostel in the Chinatown area of North Perth. Our room was small, but clean and comfortable and air-conditioned. We stayed in Perth for a few days. We went grocery shopping and did some cooking at the hostel. I spent a lot of time at an Internet gaming center nearby the hostel, working on updating the website. Most of the time I was there, I was surrounded by a crowd of teenage Asian boys playing some kind of network shoot-anything-that-moves type of game. Of course, every speaker in the place was cranked to full volume. Amidst the non-stop barrage of machine gun fire and explosions, a computer generated voice incessantly called out "FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!" I relished the periodic ten minutes of silence when they all froze their games and stepped outside for a cigarette break.
The weather in Perth was gorgeous and from what we saw of the city we really liked it. We walked around the downtown area quite a bit, and also took a bus into the suburbs to attend church on Sunday. That afternoon we walked to Kings Park. The park is filled with great walking paths and many people were out picnicking and enjoying the beautiful afternoon. We went to the Australian war memorial and a lookout that gave a great view overlooking the city.
Dave in Kings Canyon
Dave falling in Kings Canyon
The Lost City, Kings Canyon
Edge of the Cliff, Kings Canyon
Sitting on the Edge, Kings Canyon
Valley of the Garden of Eden, Kings Canyon
Nest at top of cliff, Kings Canyon (not sure what kind of birds)
Garden of Eden, Kings Canyon
Top of the Valley, Kings Canyon
Monitor Lizard, Kings Canyon
Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), aka Homer Simpson lying down
Uluru (Ayers Rock) at dusk
Uluru Base Walk (1)
Uluru Base Walk (2) - Sunrise
Uluru Base Walk (3)
Uluru Base Walk (4)
Uluru Base Walk (5)
Uluru Base Walk (6) - Sunrise
Uluru Base Walk (7)
Uluru Base Walk (8) - Rainbow
Uluru Base Walk (9)
Uluru Base Walk (10)
Uluru Base Walk (11)
Uluru Base Walk (12)
Uluru Base Walk (13) - Fox
Uluru Base Walk (14) - On the Slope
Uluru Base Walk (15) - Do you have Permission???
Uluru Base Walk (16) - Trail to the Top
Uluru Base Walk (17)
Uluru in the afternoon
Olga Gorge Walk, Kata Tjuta
Olga Gorge Walk (2), Kata Tjuta
Desert Flowers, Kata Tjuta
Kata Tjuta in the afternoon
Roadhouse Emu (1)
Roadhouse Emu (2)
Dave, Suzanne, and Johan the Swede
Entering the Oodnadatta Track
Opal Mine, Coober Pedy
Top of mineshaft at sunset, Coober Pedy
Captain Davidson and his Ship, Coober Pedy (leftover prop from Star Wars)
The Nullarbor, Western Australia
Engine of the Indian Pacific, Cook
Passenger Car of the Indian Pacific
Indian Pacific - Coast to Coast
Perth Skyline from Kings Park
Fountain, Kings Park, Perth