Group assembled, we hit the road south out of the Alice Springs area. Natalie, the guide, told us we would need to “stop to pick up firewood” at some point. So I wasn’t surprised when about an hour into the journey we began slowing down and she announced it was time to get the wood. I was a bit surprised that we weren’t at a shop but were literally pulling over to “pick up firewood” directly from the dried bush on the side of the road. So the whole lot of us got out and picked at the chaparral until we had a reasonable quantity.
By the time we got into camp near Kings Canyon, it was getting on dinnertime so we got a fire going (I was disappointed we used a lighter, I was hoping for two sticks or a flint, ala Bear Grylls) and put our pot of spaghetti bolognaise on. The camp itself was modest but accommodating, with permanent tents, a kitchen/dining area and real toilets and showers — and signs reminding us not to feed the dingos (right), a few examples we saw as we were pulling in.
After dinner, I joined a game of Uno with the younger Swiss kids (younger in this case meant they were all in their early 20s), the Ukrainian and the Germans. You find out a bit about the world when Uno evolves into a drinking game. For example, Garoslav proudly boasts that he comes from a city near the Azov Sea that is the second-most polluted city in Ukraine. The Swiss girls were from German-speaking cantons and the Swiss boys were from an Italian-speaking canton and neither group was particularly kind in their words for the French-speaking cantons. And Luka, the English bloke, really does say “blimey!” on appropriate occasions.
I bunked with Patricio (the Italian), whose English skills were admirable for being entirely self-taught, if uneven. A couple evenings later, while we were having our unofficial farewell dinner (more on that later), Patricio asked how old I was. Not wanting to sound like the old fogey I was (turned out I was probably the oldest in the group), I subtracted a couple years and said “35.” He said, “You age well, I’m 35.” Patricio, kind-hearted soul he was, really looked about 40.
After an abbreviated night’s sleep, we awoke at 5 a.m., had some cereal and headed out to Kings Canyon. The canyon is probably most famous in the United Stated for the scene at the end of “The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert,” when the drag queens hang out over the verdant edge and just “look fabulous.” Following a stern lecture to bring enough water for the hike, we began our quick ascent (which hit a 60-degree angle at one point) and climbed what felt like 1,000 feet before the trail evened out.
Circling around, we found the great view from “Priscilla,” where the canyon splits wide, a river making the undergrowth below a verdant green to contrast with the red desert. I don’t know who looked more fabulous hanging over the canyon — me (below) or Guy Pearce.
We continued our trek, this time to near the canyon floor, where we found what is euphemistically called the “Garden of Eden (right),” where the shaded, lower irrigated reaches make a small tropical zone, complete with 100-million year-old plant species and tropical birds in the middle of the Northern Territory desert. It was a refreshing stop after our hike and the Ukrainian even stripped to his underwear and took a brief swim in a river-created pool.
We completed the circle of the canyon, piled back into the bus and (after stopping at a picnic ground for sandwiches) headed off to Uluru — a three-hour drive, complete with a stop at a road house, where emus roamed free. After checking into our campground, we came into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, where we saw the monolith.
I supposed I was expecting I would have some sort of spiritual experience when I first saw the imposing monolith, but what I really felt was a sense of accomplishment in just getting there (and ticking off one of my “places to see before I die”). I also thought, “Dang, that’s an awfully big rock.” But mostly I was just happy I was there.
Because of the late hour (we would have much more time the next day), we just made a brief quarter-circle around Uluru, but that was enough time to get a sense of scale that a photograph just can’t impart. “Awfully big rock” is right. We also took in some Aboriginal art painted on the side. No one — neither Natalie nor the rangers — could tell us if the art was hundreds of years old or just painted on Wednesday.
Uluru at sunset is supposedly one of the most-inspiring sights in the world, as the red twilight accentuates the red sandstone monolith. Hundreds of tourists lined up with champagne in the viewing area, providing a spectacle in and of themselves.
But the same rain that would later inspire my “memorable thought” (as stated in part I) would cloud over the sunset — making the rock just turn dark instead of red. In compensation, we got the spectacular sight of a rare desert lightning storm.
Night two of our tour ended with a chicken stir fry in the campground kitchen followed by another few rounds of the Uno drinking game. I must say that my iPhone was a hit with the European kids, who admired both the technology and my eclectic music collection. There were complaints that I didn’t have enough Moby in my collection.
I turned into the four-man tent (I was the only person in it who couldn’t speak Italian) and fell asleep in the top bunk as wind and rain buffeted the sides of the tent into my sleeping area. Between the fact that I was extremely fatigued from my early arising that morning and that I had to get up at 4 a.m. the next day, I didn’t let it bother me.
To be concluded ...