My Red Centre tour group.
The last time I arose at 4 a.m., it was 1989 and I was a poor student working at a McDonalds in La Crescenta, Calif., and needed to warm up the grill before the restaurant opened. Thus it was with some difficulty that I arose Saturday so we could see Uluru at sunrise. It was even more difficult as the rain had continued most of the night and I knew it was still cloudy.
An additional source of disappointment stemming from the clouds was the inability to see the stars. From the time I was 11 years old, I had always hoped to examine the southern skies, and seeing a whole new set of constellations that can’t be seen from the Northern Hemisphere (in fact, I had usually imagined seeing them from central Australia).
For example, I had hoped to see the Southern Cross — which features prominently in the Australian flag. I had also hoped to see the constellation Centaurus, which features Alpha Centauri, the closest star system to Earth.
But the clouds were being frustrating. Moreover, the moon was nearly full — spoiling the view in the few clear patches. Luckily, I had a clear night the week previous (although also partially spoiled by moonlight) on my drive from Albany and had seen the unseen-from-the-north bright star Canopus and had gotten a glimpse at the amusing site of seeing familiar constellations (specifically Orion and Taurus) upside-down.
While I never did get to see the Southern Cross, the clouds finally parted enough to give me a glimpse of Alpha Centauri — my favorite star since reading an old Isaac Asimov book in 1983.
After a quick brekky consisting of muesli flakes, we drove to the sunrise viewing area at Uluru and, thanks to the clouds, saw the sight of the dark blob of Uluru become the bright blob of Uluru. A bit deflated, we drove to the Rock itself, and began a foot trek halfway around.
As I wrote before, it’s difficult to gauge the enormity of Uluru from pictures. When you’re up close, the former Ayers Rock presents a much more massive profile than you might expect. While I hadn’t planned to climb Uluru, I was a bit gratified to see that the climb was closed that day because of the storms in the area (it apparently gets very slippy when wet), frustrating some of the rather insensitive European boys in the group who very much wanted to climb. Below: A detail of some of the cracks on Uluru.
There were a number of sites around Uluru’s perimeter where one could walk up to the rock and lay hands on it. A surprising number of gullies went down the side, but the rain had broken briefly and there was no water flowing down. We found some more Aboriginal art sites, a water hole and — in a rare concession to Aboriginal beliefs — a couple areas of the rock where photography was absolutely forbidden (left), and enforced by a $5,000 fine, because those areas were considered sacred by the Aborigines.
We spent a couple hours at Uluru, where the flies were taking advantage of the refreshing rain to jump on anything resembling a spring flower — such as my bright yellow shirt (below). The group then headed off to nearby Kata Tjuta, about a half-hour away.
Kata Tjuta, also known as “The Olgas,” is a group of ancient giant rocks that have been eroded over the past 300-plus million years into an undulating series of hikable canyons, valleys and gullies. My tour group took the five-mile hike into the famous “Valley of the Winds,” where a sudden crack just below the summits of adjoining peaks creates a wind tunnel, difficult hike and amazing views of the valley below.
Exhausted, we hiked back to the van, had a short lunch back at the campsite, then began the long haul home. Most everyone, worn down by the two hikes and early rising, slept on the drive. I only awoke when Natalie swerved the van to avoid a kangaroo nonchalantly hopping across the road and when we stopped at a roadhouse to refuel.
Knowing that our group mainly consisted of poor university-age students, Natalie suggested that the group dine for the night at Annies Place, a hostel in Alice Springs that had a built-in restaurant where the meals were only $5. Sounded good to us. Arriving back into town, we were dropped at our respective lodgings. I checked in at my hostel, showered then walked across town, figuring I didn’t know anyone else within hundreds of miles so I might as well join them.
The restaurant was cozy, but served good food for $5 (I had the fish and chips). The deco consisted mainly of classic Italian movie posters and front pages of newspapers (below), usually highlighting some misfortune that happened to a tourist in the area — shoes melting on Uluru, dying of horrible diseases and pleas to “Help Bring Back Virgin” (Virgin Blue Airlines). With beer and tequila flowing amply, I learned a bit about my fellow travelers.
For example, Kirsten, the Scottish girl, did her thesis on geese counting on the Isle of Islay. Patricio, the Italian, drove a big fast motorcycle back home, but had to sell it. Matteo (one of the Swiss boys) and “Heidi” (aka blonde German) were in the process of “hooking up” (if you know what I mean … but why was I the one who felt pressured to let her wear my Montréal Expos jacket because she had decided to wear a white tube top in the rain?), etc.
After finishing dinner, we walked up the street to Alice’s most hopping nightclub, Bojangles, which seemed to hold everyone in town between 18 and 35. After a brief misunderstanding at the bar (I ordered “a midi of VB [Victoria Bitter]” but somehow ended up with both a VB and a Carlton Mid), we settled in front of the dance floor for some conversation.
I found a pair of off-duty Aussie soldiers next to us and (no doubt sounding buzzed as I was) thanked them for “helping us with (stuff) we couldn’t finish ourselves.” “We’re all in it together, brother,” was the kind reply, accompanied by a number for a cab company.
Returning to my travelling companions (right, at Bojangles), I ended up spending a lot of time with the Irish contingent of our group and found out two things: they considered all non-Guinness brew inferior and apparently Irish people have a secret hand signal or something, because my new friends from Cork were briefly joined by an unknown fellow from Dublin.
With the hour getting late (almost 2 a.m.) and my needing to catch a train the next day, I excused myself and exchanged very friendly goodbyes with folks I had known for less than 72 hours and would likely never hear from again, despite the sharing of a couple e-mail addresses.
That led to the surreal moment I mentioned in Part I of this tale — walking home at 2 a.m. in a residential area of Alice Springs in a driving rainstorm after a night of clubbing (all parts of that being atypical behavior for me).
The next day, after taking pictures of the rain-swollen Todd River (bone dry for something like 360 days per year), I caught the train to Adelaide, met my Internet friend Helen and slept at another hostel before catching the train on Tuesday to Sydney, upon which conveyance I write this entry.Me at Kata Tjuta.