The holiday we took in Australia’s Northern Territory is the exact reason why I moved to Australia. Lisa and I spent 5 days starting in Alice Springs, visiting King’s Canyon, and then Ayer’s Rock (Uluru).
A Town Like Alice
Ever since Lisa and I read A Town Like Alice we’ve wanted to visit Alice Springs, in the Northern Territory of Australia. Originally settled as a mid-point for telegraph relays during World War II, the desert community is now 30,000 people including a NASA station.
Saturday morning we began our usual travel routine, grabbing a Museum stop train to the Airport. This time we flew Qantas instead of Jet Star (Qantas’ discount airline) and there is almost no resemblance between the two airlines. Shockingly we were served food on the flight, which I haven’t had on a domestic flight in any country in years. We arrived in Alice Springs to a bright sunny day, which would be the norm for the next five days – rarely ever seeing a cloud in the sky for more than an hour over the entire holiday. However, a desert in the winter is still cold – and a cold wind greeted us as soon as we stepped off the plane onto the tarmac.
As always, we manage to pack our trips with activity every waking minute, so we dropped our bags at the Desert Resort, where our A-frame cabin was slightly colder than the inside of our refrigerator back home. (A-frames are great for hot climates, keeping all the heat up high and letting the floor cool down. There aren’t great for cold days and nights. This A-frame would be the only type of structure we’d sleep in, in the four different rooms/cabins of our trip, so avoiding getting frozen was a major challenge every night).
Cycling to the Simpson Gap
Our taxi took us to Longhorn Cycling, for a 3 hour mountain bike ride to the Simpson Gap, a divide in the lengthy range of low mountains that stretch out away from Alice Springs. Clarke, our tour guide, led us out and back along a 30K ride on a sealed path, so no stump jumping or off-road skills were needed. Clarke is a third-generation Alice Springs local, who studied Geophysics, and who can explain everything about the rock formations. Because the layers of rock are exposed, you can see how the earth has been pushed up and pushed down as you trace the curves in the layers of rock. The return trip to Alice Springs meant a headwind, but Lisa powered through. For me, it was the best possible way to start a holiday – out in the countryside, on a bike, with the sun shining down on me.
Almost any guide to Alice Springs will warn you about being out late at night. In recent years, attacks on tourist by a small segment of the local aboriginal population have occurred, and so visitors are encouraged not to walk around Alice Springs at night. We asked every resident we met, and they all agreed: it was unlikely that anything would happen, but better safe than sorry: take a taxi at night. Since a 10 minute taxi ride in Alice Springs is about $30, the taxi business is a good one to be in, and all of our taxi drivers were from either India or SouthEast Asia and had moved in the last couple of years. The challenges that the aboriginals face are strikingly similar to those of Alaska Natives who I knew growing up: alcoholism, high incarceration rates, and general difficulty living inside Western Culture where all values seem upside down. Back to Alice Springs, Lisa and I ate a couple pizzas at Monte’s and then took a taxi for the 1.5 km back to our icebox bungalow to sleep.
Let’s Get Ready to Rumble
Sunday morning, Kath from Outback Quad Adventures ranch picked us up at our bungalow, and drove us out to Undooyla Station, a working cattle ranch with between 3,000 and 6,000 head of cattle. We rode Quad bikes for 3 hours around the ranch, learning about how a modern cattle ranch works, and at the same time having a ton of fun racing along desert roads, bouncing along bumpy trails, splashing through shallow creeks. The water for the cows is pumped up from underground creeks using windwills or solar power – a smart approach that I know my Uncles would all love. The temperature had dropped below freezing over night, so we started the ride with cold wind, but warmed up as the sun rose higher. Lisa was grinning ear to ear the whole time, and our faces were caked with dust at the end of the ride. Once again the scenery of the ranges on either side of the ranch were incredible.
And One More Thing…
As soon as we were off the quad bikes, Kath tossed us into the Land Rover and returned over the bumpy road back to Alice Springs, grabbed our bags, taxied to the airport, and 50 minutes later we had touched down in windy Ayer’s Rock. The aboriginal name for Ayer’s Rock is Uluru, and we had hoped to spend a couple of hours looking around before we drove to King’s Canyon that night. However when we picked up our rental car at Hertz, the conversation went like this:
“Here’s your outrageously expensive fully pre-paid rental car”. Okay, thanks.
“This comes with no coverage. Would you like to purchase some outrageously expensive insurance.” Since we don’t have car insurance, sure thing.
“Now that we’ve added that, let me tell you that this only covers you during daylight hours.” Um, okay. Why?
“The most common accidents are single vehicle accidents.” Ah, you mean roadkill. It’s great that your policy doesn’t cover the most common thing you’d want to be insured against.
“Also, there is a 100 km limit per day on these cars. Above that you pay $0.25 per mile.” Great. Since you basically can’t get anywhere without driving a few 100 kms a day, this is even better. Please give me the keys before I find out that you will charge me each time I use the turn signal.
So, we started our drive to Kings Canyon immediately so we’d get there while the sun was still up and the rental car was covered. We did see our first dingos! We expected mangy desert dogs that looked starved. These were quite the opposite – beautiful red-coated wild dogs that moved quickly and strongly, with their ears permanently at attention.
What happens when Bryan books the trip
Lisa and I usually go for the cheaper options for hotel rooms during travel. Well, this time our rooms at the Kings Canyon resort didn’t have a bathroom, and the available bathroom was an open air bathroom (think campground) with open air showers (behind walls, just not sealed with doors or windows)! Given that the temperature at sunset was around 10-12 C (50-54 F), and the wind was blowing through the shower, let’s just say we dried off quickly. The heater in our room (again an A-frame) barely produced heat. After a mediocre meal in the cafe and a decent night’s sleep, Monday morning we upgraded to a room with a bathroom. (Which turned out not to have any heat at all except for a small space heater, once again in an A-frame).
Hiking Kings Canyon
The day turned out to be spectacular. Every day in the Northern Territory (except during “The Wet”) has brilliant blue skies. The middle of Winter is not a warm place except near the top of the territory, and we were in the Southern portion. But our hiking trail ascended quickly up a set of stone steps and warmed us up, even in the cold wind. About half way along the hike, a detour takes you into “The Garden of Eden,” an amazing Oasis in the middle of this desert canyon where rainfall collects and you have tons of vegetation. Apparently this year there is even more that usual due to the fact that the last two years have delivered more rain than any period in the last 50 years, so we were seeing the desert at its most green.
With each step in the Canyon I was happier and happier. Since landing in Alice Springs the cramped nature of Sydney had slowly eroded. I felt more like myself every time I took a deep breath of the air and enjoyed the fact that there was often not another soul around but the two of us. I am not a city kid, despite having lived in cities. This escape-from-Sydney was perfect.