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I had to refuse Mark’s suggestion for a title for this blog of ‘We will, we will Ayers Rock you’. Firstly because for the millionth time of me reminding him, Uluru hasn’t been Ayres Rock since the mid 80s and secondly of course because that really is just plain bloody awful.
We are in Alice Springs, in the middle of Australia, miles and miles from everything. It is the desert but they have had lots of rain and were due some while we visited – it no longer surprises me at this point, but apart from a few showers at night, cloudy skies and a cooler than normal temperature, it’s actually been nice. It’s odd being so very far from everything. We would most definitely be screwed if any kind of ash cloud style incident occurred.
We are in a hostel for the first time in Australia. It’s a fairly quirky place. Bright, colourful, basic but friendly enough. I haven’t missed hostelling though, that is for sure. Tiny kitchen and so few toilets for so many people and walking miles in the dark to get to the toilet in the middle of the night (trying not to trip over any snakes on the way!).
I get the impression the owner of our hostel was once laid back and thought running a hostel would be great but over the years has been worn down by lots of feckless backpackers. I love his wall of shame in the kitchen. We are allowed 2 pieces of bread and a bowl of cereal between 4 and 9am for breakfast (trust me, this sounds tight but this is unheard of in a hostel – any breakfast is amazing). People, however, clearly took advantage of this free food and took to digging in at other times. So he setup a webcam in the kitchen – hence the wall of shame. There is a girl crouching down with a bowl of cereal, a bloke who is completely starkers (it is only 10.40pm) and most peculiarly a girl who has on a t-shirt but no bottoms, including knickers. Bizarre and most entertaining and of course a warning to all those naughty, unprincipled backpackers.
After arriving and settling into the hostel, which consisted pretty much of putting down bags and finding plug sockets to charge things, we headed into town to explore. It’s actually not as small as I had thought it might be judging by some descriptions, but the real centre is probably made up of only a few blocks. There wasn’t a huge amount of people about, a few folks milling around down the main shopping street, Todd Mall, an uninspiring pedestrianised area they built in the 80s. There’s a little theatre type space there where they sell musical instruments and do little shows. There was a guy playing didgeridoo. It’s not the first time we’ve heard this in Australia, obviously, but he was particularly good. It is such a gorgeous sound when done well. Very calming!
There was the odd restaurant, cafe and mostly day-to-day shops.
We headed up to a restaurant/bar that I had read about which sounded touristy but fun. ‘Bojangles did not disappoint.
It was a big place with every inch covered in some kind of interesting outback style paraphernalia. The outside space, in particular was amazing with an entire old car out there, seats made up from old tractor seats, shot up signs, old mining equipment.
Inside had some interesting touches – the snake who lives in a huge glass cabinet containing a motorbike and the taps in the toilets which come out at different sinks when you turn them on, causing much head scratching.
We later went for a below average italian (seriously, how can an italian overcook pasta – they should be strung up) where we met a lovely girl from Wales working there. Can’t imagine staying in Alice for a long time, I think it might send you a little batty, but unsurprisingly with the problems we’ve been having, she’d run out of money!
Next day we were being picked up at 6am for our long day trip out into the red centre to visit Uluru among other places. We’d really ummed and ahhed about going ahead with this trip as it was rather expensive but we concluded we couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Uluru (or Ayers Rock as Mark continues to call it). And it was at least 4 hours drive to it from Alice and there didn’t seem to be any other way without flying and staying in the screamingly expensive resort there. Seriously, to stay on the campsite there is more expensive than a night in a fancy London hotel.
I have always wanted to go to the red centre. I love the desert and I’ve always gotten quite dreamy when I’ve seen images of the place with the rich red sand dunes and the dry arid terrain. So, I have to say, I was rather gobsmacked and a little gutted at quite how green all of the red centre is currently.
I did find my little pockets of red and it probably looks like there is more if you look at the photos, as I was obsessed with capturing the red and shunning the greenery.
The reason for this is 2 fold. Firstly they’ve had an incredibly rainy year. It’s not a total freak thing. I have seen pictures of floods from back in the early years as well as one in the 70s – but normally they are in a constant dry state. So, the soil is rejoicing in all this rain and the much of the plant life is thriving.
The other, slightly more sinister (I think) reason is due to a kind of grass that has been ‘introduced’ to the region. They have a special place in the desert where they experiment with different species to see how they would thrive in the desert, often to see how they could help with farming.
They introduced a tough type of grass, a little at first, but then en masse by spraying it from planes. This is all well and good but the desert has it’s own system of how things work and most of the plants actually need fire to keep going/to re-seed. The indigenous folk have been setting controlled fire for years and when the authorities handed over the Uluru national park area back to them, to be co-run with the national park service, back in the 80s, they showed them how the fires work and also how certain natural plants control the fire themselves. So, the problem with this grass, alongside it thriving a bit too much and changing the red centre to green, is that it burns at a higher heat than the other natural vegetation. This means that the bushes and trees which have seed pods and things like that which should explode in a fire and scatter the seeds about, are at such a high heat, the pods don’t explode, they burn out. It’s depressing how people don’t seem to learn the lessons of introducing outside species of animal and plants to places. It’s normally for some kind of monetary gain, for farming etc, but it often leads to total disaster – like the ever pesky cane toads. I’m sure it won’t be the last time though. Exasperating! Will be interesting to see if the red centre, in drier years to come, gets it’s redness back.
I can never tire of the red sand though, it’s just gorgeous. And it is set off beautifully against the bushes and trees that have been burnt and so are black and silver and a lot of the greenery has a silvery tint to it as well.
Our ‘day trip’ as I say, began at 6am and we weren’t due to be dropped off until gone midnight so we were prepared for a lot of time on the coach doing nothing. The first few hours we did get to catch up on a little sleep from the early start but after that, it was amazing how the time was filled and even though we were on the coach for majority of the time, we were always entertained.
The first stretch before a toilet/tea break was a good 3 hours. It was great to watch the desert past by from the coach window (after I’d gotten over my upset at the desert being green). We had 2 drivers/guides on our coach, Calvin and Tic, they were both great. They were very funny, incredibly knowledgeable and extremely Australian. They also had a real respect for the land and the indigenous peoples and basically took the piss out of themselves, each other and any and everyone! Tic told some great lies, like the communication towers were used by the farmer (who owns land the size of scotland on the edge of the national park) to play music to his cows to keep them happy. He reckoned every time we went passed one and couldn’t hear the music is because the farmer (Joe I think his name was) was changing the cd. Lame but made me laugh, especially to think that somebody, one day, might believe that to be true.
Our first proper stop was Kata Tjuta in the national park, which was a mind blowing sight which could easily equal Uluru. It was made up of lots of bumps and domes and the texture of the parts that had broken off were like nut clusters. Much of this place is very sacred to the local aboriginals and so you can’t access that many areas as they still perform important ceremonies there.
We then went to the Cultural Centre where you weren’t allowed to photograph (along with certain areas of Uluru which are considered sacred).
I thought it was interesting although we didn’t have a whole lot of time. It contains some of the stories from creation time, about how Uluru and Kata Tjuta came to be and about how they grow up and are taught/learn their ways. I particularly liked the ‘Sorry’ book, where people had taken bits of rock from Uluru over the years, have had bad luck befall them and so have sent them back with a letter of apology. Quite right too. A bit like stealing the treaures from the
Egyptian tombs. Although there was one letter from a lady from last year, who hadn’t taken a rock or anything and hadn’t knowingly photographed any of the banned areas but thought that she must have because she then went to Japan where they had the earthquake and the tsunami. I think she may have been a little unhinged, bless her, so might have been best to leave that one out!!
We then went to see Uluru up close. We’d been admiring it at different angles, from a distance all day. It really is just gorgeous. It’s actually odd that it is solid rock. Kata Tjuta, despite looking similar, is made up of a less compact mixture (for want of a better word, all this geology stuff confuses me), so it crumbles more easily and there are clusters of rock lying around. I thought these rather looked like honey nut cluster cereal! But Uluru was made up of finer stuff and so has created a solid rock which is only shaped by wind and water erosion.
The stories surrounding the different markings on the rock were fascinating (to me anyhow, Mark didn’t really like that side of things). I could have listened to them all day, although there was a lot of death and destruction – lessons learned but not really happy endings.
Two things we learned at the cultural centre, related to the story, I thought was a particularly interesting insight. Firstly, there are the stories that children our told, like the ones we were told. Then there are many further stories, but you have to earn these stories as you get older and wiser. Age isn’t always relevant to the stage you are considered to be at, it’s more about personal growth. So you could be in your 30s but if you are still considered to be irresponsible and you haven’t learnt, you could still not be told anything further than the children’s stories. We, as outsiders, would not get past these early stages of course. And these stories/learnings continue for your whole life. The second thing, is that locations are important. One of the stories from Uluru meant that the indigenous tribe that used to live there, ran away and fled to South Australia, never to return. What happened to them next? Well you have to go to South Australia to hear about that. That, partly, is what going ‘walkabout’ is for – going off to learn the stories, to grow. Interesting or what? Well it was to me, not Mark – philistine!
As the day began to end it was clear that the cloudy weather wasn’t going to produce the glowing sunset everyone hopes to capture. So, rather than going to the sunset car park where everyone congregates (only buses/tours are allowed at this prime spot after 4pm), we agreed with Tics suggestion that instead we start by going to the brand spanking new sunrise car park they spent 22 million dollars on to have our alfresco dinner, then head off to the other place at the last minute to catch the sunrise. This turned out to be a genius plan. If nothing else, because they have toilets there, as apposed to the other place – these kind of things became important when you were travelling for hours at a time, but mainly because not a single other sole was there. It wasn’t the most genius thing to build this new place and spend so much money (although how beggars belief – it really is just a car park, some toilets and a few wooden viewing platforms) and put it in a place that was rubbish at sunset when most people are about. Anyway, we enjoyed a lovely bbq style dinner with lots of (surprisingly tasty) sparkling wine, with all the space in the world, with not another soul about, overlooking the gorgeous Uluru. We then packed up and headed over to the sunset spot where there were tons of people waiting for that, oh so key moment. Just remember when you do see those amazing shots of Uluru with the sun setting behind it and the rock glowing red, which seem so serene and calm, that the photographer is most likely in a car park with tons of other tourists all taking the same shot or others with pictures of themselves jumping up and down in front of it or trying to hold it in their hands. Not quite as serene, but fun none-the-less.
After this we headed home, eventually getting back to our hostel at about half midnight. A long day, but definitely worth it.
Other things we learnt/saw on our day out in the desert:
There are about a million and a half camels roaming free around the Australian outback. They were brought over in the early, pioneer days, to carry stuff through the un-explored desert and then somehow many ended up going free and breeding happily. They thrive in Australia (although it’s not ideal for the environment, as per other feral animals) and are such healthy animals, they get rounded up and sold back to the Arab lands.
We didn’t get to see any, darn in, but we did learn a very interesting fact. If you’re gonna get bitten, you’re better off being bitten by a bigger snake, rather than a smaller one. This is because that a large snake knows not to use all it’s venom on an attack, as they will have no venom left for when they next need to eat. The small, young ones, haven’t learned this lesson and bite, using all the venom up, which is worse for you and them, as they could end up starving. The big ones are essentially giving you a ‘back off’ bite.
The road to WA
We passed a road, which apparently goes all the way to Western Australia, for 1100km. Not particularly amazing but there is no bitumen, this is a red dirt track the whole way – over 680 miles!
The Man from Snowy River
On the long drive home, we filled in the first couple of hours watching the Man from Snowy River, a movie I’d never heard of from the early 80s, set in the rough terrain of the mountainous outback in pioneer times. Starring the very un-australian Kirk Douglas as two brothers. Fabulously cheesy and perfect way to end the day.
We didn’t have much time left in Alice but I did manage to drag Mark along to the Royal Flying Doctors visitors centre. Geeky, but really interesting. And although they have grants, the aircraft and lots of other things all rely on donations – crazy huh?
Mark did enjoy it in the end and decided that when he grows up he wants to be a pilot for the flying doctors.
We finished our time in town with a quick drink in the nearest pub. It was basic but did the job, but the strong smell of germaline was a bit off putting so we headed home and passed the time throwing wine gums at the ceiling fan to see if it would chop them up (in case you are interested, it didn’t, it just batted them back – don’t try this at home kids!).
One final note on Alice Springs. I’d heard/read much about Alice and it’s social problems and was expecting so much worse. Sure, there are people hanging around town doing nothing and in the night time there is the odd person lying around drunk, but nothing majorly off putting, particularly if you’re used to seeing people lying around drunk as much as we get in Brighton.
And also, let’s face it, Alice Springs is a small town that is TOTALLY in the middle or nowhere. All small towns that don’t have great employment and people don’t have that much money or much to do, you get people hanging around and ‘social’ issues. In fact, walking around the bland buildings and on the badly paved pedestrian street, passed some dodgy people, it reminds me rather of my last place of work, Redhill….
One of my favourite things about Alice was that it had lots of galahs. Firstly, I love the word itself, especially when it’s used as an insult, a la ‘you flaming galah!’ Secondly, because they are just funny old birds (bit like me, eh?). They kind of waddle about and seem to be a bit stupid. Like many birds though of course, they look lovely and graceful when they take to the air.
Other thing I loved..
The Old Timers Village is an old peoples home in the town and they even have their own little museum with stuff from the early days of farming etc.
The music everywhere seemed stuck in a time warp. Everywhere we went, including the Woolworths supermarket, was playing only music from the 80s. Mark, of course, felt right at home!