EXPLORING ALICE SPRINGS AND AYERS ROCK- AUSTRALIA’S RED CENTER
I finally made it to the very middle of Australia- the ‘Red Center’.
It was freezing. Whoa! I had prepared myself for cold nights but had not anticipated feeling frozen. I had long forgotten the sensations of cold air on my face and sitting on icy toilet seats.
Nor had I anticipating the dryness of central Australia’s air. During the 1 ½ day drive down from Darwin, I’d watched my lovely tan skin morph into lizard legs. Simply horrifying.
The first thing I did in Alice Springs was buy moisturizing cream and proceed to slather it on 2-3 times every day. That worked wonders and lizard skin soon became a distant, scary memory.
But was that a hint of a respiratory cold creeping in during the second frozen night in my tent at Alice’s campground? Obviously my body did like the cold, dry climate of central Australia. For the moment, I ignored the wheezing in my chest and turned my thoughts to my recent wonderful hot, sweaty days in Darwin, just a week before. That trick worked and I eventually fell asleep in the frosty air.
Purely by chance, I’d arrived in Alice Springs just in time for the annual Alice Festival. I joined the opening festivities, complete with an extensive parade and free champagne and sushi, offered at one of Alice’s prominent galleries.
I hob-nobbed with the locals, who were an artistic, alternative-lifestyle collection of characters from around Australia. To top off the festivities, the weather changed drastically, treating me to several lusciously hot, dry sunny blue-sky days. That also halted my wheezing, at least for the moment.
I spent three days vigorously exploring the area near Alice on my trusty bicycle. I cycled one hour out to a date farm where I learned all about date palms and then indulged in several tasty date desserts.
The following day I visited a camel farm. I learned all about the pachiderms and their history in Australia, which was surprisingly long and extensive. They’d been imported to Oz in the mid 1880s. I also rode a camel briefly around the paddock. I discovered that they are wonderful animals– calm, placid and affectionate. That day I became a huge camel fan.
Back in Alice Springs, I visited several art museums and galleries, all packed full of Aboriginal art. I also learned about Aborigines’ lifestyle, beliefs and cuisine.
But the crowning point of my 9-month Australian adventures was about to begin: a road trip to Australia’s famous Ayer’s Rock and other nearby rock outcroppings, canyons and gorges. I’d been wanting to visit Ayer’s Rock, aka ‘Uluru’, for more than a decade.
Quite luckily, I teamed up with an exceedingly fun, cool group of travelers for that road trip. They proved to be the best crew I traveled with during my entire nine months in Oz. Our troupe consisted of a clever German girl, a witty English guy, a hilarious Japanese boy, a fun-loving Italian girl and myself. We entertained ourselves immensely along the way.
We headed out across The Red Center’s vast open plains of red earth and scrubby brush, where we drove for hours. Finally we spied a bump on the horizon. Uluru. It gradually grew larger and larger as we approached.
When we could witness the bulging mound in all its glory, we were compelled to stop, take photos, and marvel at the astounding rock. I’d been anticipating that moment for so many years, and there I was.
Uluru was not the least bit disappointing. In fact, I was surprised that it was even more captivating than I’d imagined. Strangely, that huge red rock mound exudes a very warm, inviting ‘stay here with me’ atmosphere. Bizarre, I know, for a rock, but that’s how it felt.
Also surprising, Uluru is not smooth and symmetrical like it appears in photos. While it is composed of very smooth red rock, it’s riddled with potholes, pockmarks, ridges and creases. And it’s quite oddly shaped, not at all the symmetrical oval I’d expected.
The Aboriginals and the Australian government jointly operate Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park. Aboriginals strongly request guests to not climb Uluru, which they consider sacred land. However, the climb is not prohibited or illegal. To climb or not to climb is each guest’s choice.
For myself, as an avid outdoor adventurer, hiker and mountain climber, I was inclined to climb. And although I by no means wish to be disrespectful towards the Aboriginal’s beliefs or religion, I also do not want my own life decisions to be controlled by another culture’s religion, especially if I don’t adhere to it myself. I decided to climb.
My new Japanese pal, Chewie, was also eager to climb. Our German, Italian, and Brit companions decided to respect Aboriginal beliefs. Instead, they hiked the 9 km trail around the base of Uluru.
To my amazement, Ayer’s Rock is incredibly steep. It was possibly the steepest climb I’ve ever made in all my years of mountain climbing. In fact, that ascent would be a serious problem for anyone unfit, timid, inexperienced or afraid of heights. Even though I consider myself quite fit, I had to stop many times to rest. Chewie, on the other hand, ran most of the way up, that bugger.
Most of the other climbers we met were Japanese. Only a few Westerners made the climb. Eventually, we reached the top, huffing and puffing. (Well, I was, not so much Chewie) Once on top, it was a long walk across, up and down little ridges and valleys, to Uluru’s actually summit.
Views of the surrounding countryside were absolutely fantastic. Flat scrubby plains stretched out forever in all directions. Nearby were the Olgas, a group of magnificent rounded red rocks, like a cluster of small Ulurus.
After basking in the views, Chewie and I crossed the gigantic rock once more then carefully climbed back down. My toes crammed into the front of my shoes and my thighs cramped as we descended the nearly vertical mound of rock. But we made it unscathed.
Afterward, we caught up with our pals to watch a stunning sunset. Uluru gradually shifted colors from glowing pale yellow-orange to bright pumpkin orange to deep red to dark brown. The following frigid morning at sunrise, we marveled at Uluru’s color display in reverse.
We visited Uluru’s Aboriginal Cultural Center, where we learned even more about Aboriginal’s ‘bush tucker’ (food), beliefs and customs. Then we drove to the Olgas for a dramatic hike amid rocky, canyon-like walls.
That night I fell ill. A bad chest cold was coming on. The freezing weather, which we’d confronted after leaving Alice, finally did me in.
The following day I could do nothing more than laze around while my pals hiked through King’s Canyon. By evening, fed up with missing the adventures, I started a course of antibiotics (which I always carry for just such occasions) That proved to be the right decision. I quickly recovered and enjoyed the rest of our road trip.
We visited the West MacDonnell Ranges, where we explored more canyons, mountain gaps, and viewpoints. Then we slowly drove back to Alice Springs.
Sadly, at that point, we all went our separate ways. I explored Alice for two more days before flying to Sydney to visit my good pal, Kat.
I managed to stay in touch with those wonderful travel companions for a year or so, then we all drifted apart. How odd to share such special moments with people and then never see them again. At least I hold my memories dear.
Have you ever visited Uluru?
If so, did you climb or not? What were your impressions of the place?
Do you have any special places in the world that you’re dying to visit? Where?