September 25 – 29, 2013
Alice Springs to Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)
Touching down in 30°C Alice Springs was quite a shock to my system that was just getting used to the mildly chilly weather down in Melbourne. I would eventually get used to the temperature, but not so for my wallet. Just when I thought Victoria was expensive, Alice Springs took it to another level. $60 per day without unlimited mileage for our Nissan sedan equaled to a final payment of $400 – more than doubled what we paid in Melbourne for merely one extra day. Gas was also a telling indicator; $2.06 per litre in Alice Springs vs $1.69 per litre in Melbourne.
After stocking up on food and water in Alice Springs, another long day of driving was ahead of us, this time 460 km to Watarrka National Park. If this Aboriginal name doesn’t ring a bell, the famous Kings Canyon within the park should. Driving south along the Stuart Highway, I soon started to miss the greenery in Victoria. I stepped on the gas as hard as I could to no avail; the monotonous blanket of red soil stretched seemingly to the infinity. Actually my description wasn’t entirely accurate – the desert was surprisingly well vegetated, so people who find spinifex and shrub attractive would love this drive.
We arrived at the Kings Canyon Resort just after sunset at 18:30. The no-frill “resort” is in name only, although our Budget Lodge Quad room, $120 for the night, was spacious, with four separate beds and our own fridge. Everything was about 20% more expensive than Alice Springs. Gas was an astronomical $2.21 per litre.
For the rest of the evening we were trapped at the shared kitchen painstakingly pan-frying a whole chicken over a very weak flame. All three of us were thoroughly drenched in an oily odor afterward. Even though the return on invested time was low, I had fun cooking my own dinner in the middle of nowhere.
I found myself awake at 6 am in need to take a piss. My wife and Becky were sleeping soundly. During my bathroom trip, I debated with myself whether to go back to sleep or head out. I didn’t have much time to dither; the sky remained dark, but a glow of light from the east was getting brighter by the minute. Recalled passing by a lookout with a good view of the Kings Canyon yesterday, I quietly sneaked back inside the room to grab my car key, camera and tripod.
The desert seemed less hostile at dawn. When the sun rose from the horizon, it cast an orange hue on everything on the ground, including the ubiquitous dull red soil. Under this soft glow life in the desert indeed seemed possible and right on cue a wild dingo breezed by. This golden hour didn’t last long and the brick-red desert soon reappeared.
Kings Canyon Rim Walk
Even for those who don’t wish to see the sunrise, it is always preferable to begin the day early in the desert. By 8:30 we were at the base of the canyon, about to embark on the 6 km Kings Canyon Rim Walk. Besides the burgeoning heat, we were greeted by another Outback specialty – flies. We countered the onslaught with the hideous but effective head nets bought earlier in the morning.
The beginning of the walk was the most difficult, where we climbed a steep slope appropriately called by the locals as Heart Attack Hill. The slightly challenging ascend aside, the rest of walk along the canyon’s rim was mostly flat. The view of the canyon was fantastic, but what’s even more interesting was seeing the effect of erosion and tectonic change on the canyon’s red sandstone surface. The rock’s many curves and lines, result of being exposed to one of the harshest environment on earth, are a manifestation of nature’s power that is millennia in the making.
By 10 am the temperature had risen to well above 30°C. A welcome reprieve appeared in the form of a permanent waterhole biblically named as the Garden of Eden. We didn’t take the detour to the waterhole, but the sight of dense vegetation and the sound of bird chirping were enough to energize us for the second half of the walk.
We finished the walk around noontime, in about four hours. I am really proud that my wife, who has acrophobia, was able to complete the walk. Now I know what she is capable of, we can raise the ante and try something more strenuous in the future.
Sunset at Uluru
Back on the road. The scenery was the by now all-too-familiar red soil and spinifex. 330 km of driving on a road bypassing nothing but red desert was hypnotizing. The gals weren’t too comfortable with long distance driving, but they took turns in sharing the mundane task. Mount Conner was the only notable sight along the way, one which I mistakenly thought was Uluru at first glance. Too bad Uluru was another hour drive to the west.
Uluru, a name originated from the local local Pitjantjatjara people, is also officially known by its English name Ayers Rock. A tourist outpost called Yulara is set up just outside of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. This tiny village is mainly run by a monopoly called the Ayers Rock Resort, supplemented by an ANZ branch, a post office and an IGA supermarket. Five accommodation types are available, from very expensive to outrageously overpriced. Our choice was the $46 per person Outback Lodge’s Budget Quad room. For 20% more than what we paid at Kings Canyon we got a dorm room that’s 1/3 the size. It did come with a properly equipped communal kitchen.
The price of our room aside, everything else in Yulara was around the same price as Alice Springs. A piece of steak at IGA cost the same as the one we bought two days ago, only ours was turning black because it had traveled 450 km without refrigeration (we had stored our food inside a thermal bag).
A three-day pass for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park cost $30. The road towards the Uluru sunset lookout was teeming with traffic; the cars we saw on this 10 km stretch was already a few times more than the number we came across over the past two days. Most of these people probably flew straight to Ayers Rock Airport from Alice Springs and the coast.
The parking lot was packed. Saturday afternoon at Costco packed. The mood was festive. Everyone seemed genuinely excited about being there, even though the famous piece of red rock was another 20 km away. We found our own piece of real estate with unobstructed view of Uluru, after some struggle. Flies were ambushing us from left and right, distracting us from the rock’s slowly evolving colour.
The true spectacle came right after the sun was out of sight and everyone was busy getting back to their cars. While our attention was fixated on Uluru, an all-engulfing darkness had emerged from the east and forced the fiery orange glow of dusk into a hasty retreat toward the west. A battle between light and darkness was on display above my head, one that the former was destined to lose. Soon all the wonderful colours – the brick-red sand, the deep blue sky, the brownish green scrubs – were swallowed up by a flood of darkness.
This was our chill-out day. We decided not to climb Uluru out of respect for the local Aṉangu people. We woke up late, had an hour-long brunch, bought grocery, sent out postcard, washed clothes and took a noon-time nap. After a week of nonstop driving, I enjoyed not being behind the wheel for a change. My heels, cracked open because of the extremely dry weather, also required some rest.
By 14:30 on the previous day we had climbed the Kings Canyon Rim Walk and on our way to Uluru. This day? We were about to set off for Kata Tjuta. Sometimes taking a rest is important too.
Even though Kata Tjuta is located just 40 km west of Uluru, we saw very few cars along the way. Overlooked by many, Kata Tjuta is both taller than Uluru (1,066 m vs 868 m) and more varied in shape (comprised of 36 separate dome-shaped monoliths)
There are only two walks open to the public: Valley of the Wind and Walpa Gorge. Our late start meant we wouldn’t be able to complete the Valley of the Wind walk, an unpaved trail of loose stones through the heart the monoliths. Reaching the underwhelming Karu Lookout, 1.1 km from the car park, was as far as we got. We did however complete the easy 2.6 km track to the viewing platform of Walpa Gorge.
Some idea might look good on paper but is actually terrible in reality. Take for example having dinner while enjoying the sunset at Kata Tjuta. The picture on the tourist brochure looks perfect – enjoying the sunset while casually holding a glass of sparkling wine in one hand. Somewhat misleading is the absence of flies. From what I observed of the group of people at the sunset viewing area, it was extremely troublesome to be constantly swatting away flies while attempting to take a sip of liquor. That’s a privilege, $125 to boot, that I was glad not to be a part of.
Another day, another sunset. How to keep myself from feeling jaded? Any mention of Hong Kong’s smog would easily do the trick.
We were drawn to Uluru because it is one of the most recognizable natural landmark in the world. But to the local Aṉangu people Uluru is much more than an imposing piece of lifeless rock. This place is their cultural and spiritual home, the conspicuous setting of many of their myths and legends. We learned a little of the Aṉangu tradition and stories after joining the Mala Walk, a 2 km track on the northwest side of Uluru led by a Darwin-born Aboriginal ranger.
Back to Alice Springs
We made it back to Alice Springs at 4 pm after another mind-numbing drive through the sea of red soil. We got a triple room at the Chifley Hotel, amazingly 50% cheaper than what we paid for in Yulara.
With only an hour or so of sunlight left we went to Simpsons Gap, the closest (17 km) of the many points of interest in West MacDonnell National Park. The waterhole is home to the black-flanked rock-wallaby, which like many other desert wildlife is most active at dawn and dusk. We did see a few along the trail, finally breaking our streak of traveling a thousand kilometers without seeing any wildlife. Also there was a couple posing for their pre-wedding photos. I admire their ability to stay composed in such a windy environment.
We had dinner at Alice Vietnamese Restaurant, about 10 km out of town near the airport. The price on the menu was shocking – all entrées were at least $25. We ordered a $40 vegetable hotpot, which turned out to be nothing more than broiled vegetable in water. With an empty stomach I decided to cut our losses.
Every Sunday morning an open-air market is held on Todd Street. Alice Spring might be thousands of kilometers from anywhere, but a surprisingly international flavor was on display, from Korean pancake and Kiwi fish taco to of course Aboriginal craftwork.
Unlike the United States where the presence of Aboriginal is confined to Indian reserves, Australia at least put in the effort to celebrate the local culture decimated by the emergence of European settlers. A cynic might point to that most tourist money flows back into the hands of the Caucasians while many Aboriginals continue to be unemployed. Crime and alcoholism are major issues in Alice Springs and during our brief time in town I had already seen a dozen drunks lingering in the street. That said, at the very least some portion of the Aboriginal culture is thriving. Paintings in Alice Springs’ galleries command thousands of dollars, indicating a robust demand for Aboriginal art.
Let me reiterate – I try to avoid zoo and aquarium as much as possible. But with only two hours left in town, the Alice Springs Desert Park was our only sensible option. The park was somewhat similar to Healesville Sanctuary in attempting to replicate the local fauna’s natural habitat. It is divided into three sections – Desert Rivers, Sand Country and Woodland Habitat. Just like the names might suggest, with the exception of bird, very few animals reside in these ecosystems.
So here is one man’s take – running contrary to the popular online opinion, I don’t think anyone who gives this park a pass is missing out much. Unless you are really into ornithology.
Thoughts on the Red Centre
I know my fair share of Australians, majority of whom are immigrants originated from Hong Kong. Not one of them has visited the Red Centre. Not a single one. The reasoning is not hard to understand – the place is difficult and expensive to reach. For the same time and monetary commitment they can go to Bali or at least the Gold Coast.
Even with my Qantas package I felt the sting of the high cost of traveling in this region. Everything is considerably more expensive than the coast. The weather is unbearably hot and dry even in September. And the vast traveling distance means many hours of driving. But simply put, I don’t feel like I have been to Australia without seeing Uluru with my own eyes.
That feeling alone justifies our long drives through the desert.