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Friday, 06 February 2009

Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback

Written by Kristen Hamill
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They thought we were slightly nuts.

 

Six of us, all students at the University of Adelaide — three Americans (Jonny, Kate, and myself) one Brit (Carrie-Ann), one Canadian (Taylor), and one Aussie (Jakob) who had made the trip before — were making a five day round-trip from Adelaide, north through 1500 kilometers of empty desert, in the middle of the Australian summer, without air-conditioning.  Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillWe were headed to Uluru, the giant red monolith also known as Ayers Rock, sacred to Aboriginal tribes and as much an Australian icon as the kangaroo.

 

“Are you sure about this trip?” My aunt asked me warily over a cup of tea in their cottage in the Adelaide Hills. “The outback can be quite dangerous.”  I did my best to reassure my Australian aunt and uncle that we had a flawless route map complete with multiple campsites in each town, a foot-long grocery list that included gallons of water and sunscreen, and most importantly, a zero-liability rental insurance policy on our campervan. Regardless, Australians know better than to trek into the outback without a guide in November, one of the hottest months of the year. “Whatever you do,” she said over the phone the night before, “don’t drive at night.”

 

We picked up our campervan in Adelaide and set off through the city, eager to reach our first destination, Coober Pedy, by nightfall. After a brief stop in Port Augusta, we were soon in the true outback, where red sand lined the road, gas stations were few and far between, and passing drivers always waved, happy to see another sign of human life.

 

Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillWhen Bill Bryson wrote in Down Under, “the great virtue about driving through emptiness is that when you come to anything - anything at all - that might be called a diversion you get disproportionately excited,” he was probably referring to the abundance of unintentionally hilarious road signs.  There were signs reminding us that Drowsy Drivers Die, to Never Leave The Vehicle if we broke down, and that walking backwards around mine shafts can result in death. There were also the “Caution, Cattle” variations: “Caution, Cattle X-ing”, “Caution, Cattle Jumping”, and our favorite “Caution, Cattle Keeping it Real”.

At six o’clock, we realized the day’s ten-hour drive was a bad idea, and everyone started to fade in the November heat. Carrie-Ann, Taylor, Jakob and Kate sprawled out on the cushioned benches in the back, trying to catch a breeze from the van’s tiny sliding windows, while I rode up front with Jonny.  My eyelids, along with the sun, were starting to droop when something with spindly legs darted in front of the van.  “JONNY!” I screamed as he hit the brakes.  One of the back seat cushions hurtled down the aisle taking Kate, who had been half asleep, with it.  She slammed into the dashboard, luckily cushion-first, and I looked up in time to see an emu dart into the bush.  Minus a nasty jab from the gear shift Kate was fine, but up-right seating positions and safety belts were unanimously decided upon.

 

Not 80 kilometers outside Coober Pedy our headlights caught the tail-end of a large cow keeping it real in the middle of the road.  Jonny swerved so hard the van nearly flipped.  We braced ourselves from being thrown on the floor or pelted with groceries and water bottles tumbling from the cabinets.  Skidding onto the shoulder, we got out to walk off the adrenaline. The desert was black, not even a flicker of light from a distant town. If we had rolled, we might have been stranded for hours or possibly a day or two, with nonfunctioning cell phones, a dinky first aid kit, and a dozen frozen sausages for food.


We made it to the campsite without any further mishaps and decided to tour the town the next morning.  Coober Pedy is a major opal mining town, producing over 70% of the world’s supply. The Aboriginal translation of the town’s name is “white man’s hole”, and buildings and homes are built underground to avoid temperatures as high as 140 degrees. We followed signs for “The Big Winch” to a sandy parking lot decorated with fourteen-foot tall foam pillars reminiscent of the worm-like creatures that shot out of the ground in the movie Tremors.

 

The Big Winch, as it turned out, was a lookout over the center of town; a dusty valley dotted with conical piles of mullock and tin-roofed houses built into the sides of pink sandstone. The lot belonged to a small cabin with a porch that held a disturbing amount of junk: an enormous ring of rusty keys tacked below a sign Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillHave You Lost Your Keys Recently?, a troll doll dangling from another sign Smile You’re on Candid Camera, an ancient computer collecting dust on a rusty swing. The porch looked straight out of an Australian horror movie about an outback-dwelling serial killer we had just seen, Wolf Creek.  Just as we were considering hightailing it out of the Big Winch, the screen door creaked open and a small man in glasses teetered onto the porch. We approached him for directions to the town’s underground Serbian church.

 

“Yes, I’ll show you, come with me,” the man said with a huge smile, and hunched towards the door, motioning for us to follow.  Putting aside our better judgment, we followed the man with the creepy porch décor into a dark kitchen. “WOLF CREEK ALERT!” Carrie-Ann whispered loudly as we winded around a table laden with maps and into the living room.

“We’re really just looking for some directions,” Taylor called out to the man as he shuffled silently down a hallway.

 

Without a word, he led us into a small room packed with opals of every size, color, and shape. The man plucked out a few bracelets from a case and offered them to us, “Good prices!” We backed away apologetically, mumbling excuses as we bee-lined for the door.  He followed us back out in the lot clutching a box filled with pebble-sized blue and green opals.  Jonny, feeling guilty, caved and bought one for twenty cents.

 

Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillWe stopped at the Serbian church to experience the underground life, then got back on the road. After the near-death experiences of the night before, we found a campsite in Erldunda, about an hour from the Northern Territory border, well before sunset.  Like many of the roadside “towns” in the outback, the campsite and gas station at Erldunda was Erldunda. We befriended a blind wallaby and a scruffy cat that lived at the campsite, and spent the rest of the night by the pool drinking boxed wine and dodging giant European wasps.

 

Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen Hamill

 

The following morning we got started early to Uluru. It was a four hour drive, and we were so anxious to get there, every rock in the distance looked like it could be Uluru.  Several false alarms and wasted photos later, we saw a slice of Uluru’s glowing rock face many miles away.

 

Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillLooking like a lonely red monster towering over the flat desert landscape, it was not difficult to see why Uluru is so sacred to Aboriginal tribes. Uluru proved to be more than the smooth hump of red rock I’d seen on postcards and calendars. Up close it is a mass of curves, clefts, and discolored channels where water once streamed. A trail of handholds led up the ridge of the rock, but we decided not to climb what the Aboriginals considered a spiritual object. There weren’t hikers on the rock that day anyways; it was over 100 degrees and the sun was so brutal I could feel sunscreen sizzling on my arms.


Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillWe followed a path lined with informational plaques explaining Uluru’s Aboriginal history. An overhang of the rock shaped like an ocean wave served as a mock surfing photo-op and a place for all of us to get out of the sun. We circled the monolith, exploring all of its caverns and inlets, until the heat got the better of us and returned to the van.

 

 

 

Later in the afternoon we visited the park’s other major landmark—Kata Tjuta, Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen Hamillalso known as the Olgas.  Kata Tjuta, meaning “many heads” in Pitjantjatjara, was a cluster of 36 weathered rock domes, similar in color to Uluru.   After hiked around the base of Kata Tjuta the boys decided to walk through the poetically named “Valley of the Winds”, while the girls and I explored the rest of the park.

 

In the late afternoon we drove back to Uluru to watch the sunset. Sunrise and sunset are the times to watch Uluru's color change; depending on the season and weather conditions the rock can turn from silvery-grey to orange, sun-bleached yellow to violet, or to Uluru's most well-known shade—that deep red that is synonymous with the Australian outback.   We found a vacant spot along the park fence and settled down to watch the sun work its magic.  The first sign of color crept in from the east, outlining clouds in pink and orange.  Uluru’s transformation was so quick if you had turned your back for half a minute you’d have missed it entirely. As the rock faded from red to brown, we waited for a sign of dingoes or wallabies in the bush, and then went back for dinner.

 

 

Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillFrom Uluru we drove to Kings Canyon to hike off excess calories consumed in the form of kangaroo wraps and baked potatoes the night before.  The steep initial incline was a killer, but the view was worth the pain. Anyone who has seen Priscilla, Queen of the Desert will remember the scene where the three drag queens proudly gaze over Watarrka National Park from atop the canyon rim.  We found ourselves in that exact spot, minus the feathers and sequined undergarments, admiring the incredible red desert landscape. Halfway through the 6-kilometer hike we climbed down into the “Garden of Eden”, a large waterhole shaded by palm trees and oversized ferns. Everyone else jumped right in, but it took some prodding to get me into the dark water. In the end, I held my breath and prayed that the creatures skittering over my calves weren’t large enough to eat me.

 

We spent far too long swimming, and paid for it by getting lost on the way back after losing sight of the trail markers. We chased the sun back towards Coober Pedy, dodging wallabies, cows, and a herd of horses continuing to keeping it real for us in the middle of the road.  $10 got us a camp site in Mt. Ebenezer’s abandoned lot and we decided to grab a few drinks at the bar attached to the gas station.   The bar was dead besides a few truckers and a rough-looking couple at the pool table, but the bartender, a friendly middle-aged woman, served us a round of XXXX Gold beer bottles with a welcoming smile.

 

“Should be a good night,” she said, plugging a microphone into a stereo behind the bar, “the Emu Train is coming!”

 


 

We downed the cheap beer like water as Carrie-Ann, Kate, and Jonny compared war wounds from their rolls down the canyon and the aisle of the campervan. A few rounds in, the doors to the bar flew open and the Emu Train—a bus of elderly tourists—filed into the room. The bartender was now crooning into the microphone and winking at the truckers leaned against the bar. When she saw Kate and me waiting, her face lit up.

 

“Come on girls,” she cried over the music, “this one’s a classic!” She said turning up the volume to a ‘50s song neither of us had ever heard.

 

“Our D-I-V-O-R-C-E, becomes final today,” she sang, swinging her hips.  “Oh I wish that we could stop this D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” she thrust the microphone across the counter at us, “SING!”

 

Maybe it was the XXXX Gold, maybe it was the fact we knew we’d never see anyone in that bar ever again, but within a few minutes Kate and I found ourselves singing Shania Twain to a bar full of greasy truckers, weary-looking senior citizens, and one jolly bartender. The night ended with Taylor and Jonny losing to the rough couple at pool, and the six of us closing the bar with a boozy rendition of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”.  We boiled a pot of noodles and wandered into the desert to watch the stars before heading to bed.

 

We anticipated Day 5 of our outback adventure to be the least eventful; all we had planned was a full day of driving back to Coober Pedy to celebrate Thanksgiving. When the van swerved hard to the left it felt like another near miss, until a clump of feathers flew by the window. Jakob and Taylor, who had been in front, ran over to a heap in the road about a hundred yards back. Jakob covered his face and doubled over.

 

“Oh my God,” Kate gasped. “It’s an eagle.”

 

There had been a group of black wedge-tailed eagles picking at a kangaroo carcass on the side of the road, left by a careless driver who didn’t consider the hazards of unattended road kill. Instead of flying into the desert when we approached, like his companions, this eagle spread its 8-foot wings and flew towards the van, careening into the windshield. Its legs were broken and the asphalt was dotted with blood. Jakob informed us that these eagles were an endangered species. As if we didn’t feel rotten enough.

 


 

The six of us stood silently watching the poor bird try to shuffle away, wondering if we could administer first aid to an eagle.

 

We decided to find help for the eagle in the next town. An hour later we pulled into a gas station at Marla. Taylor, Carrie-Ann and Jonny stayed to call the rental agency about our shattered windshield, and Jakob, Kate and I walked to the police station. Jakob told two bored-looking cops our tragic story. They weren’t impressed.

 

“A wedge-tailed? Yeah, happens all the time,” the cop laughed. The two of them griped about road kill, and then remembered why we were there in the first place. “Alright,” the cop said, “I’m heading down that way in a bit. I’ll see what I can do.”

 

Dejected, but having done the best we could, we drove (very slowly) to Coober Pedy. Things started to look up once we fired up the campsite grill for a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner of turkey and cheese melts, fried potatoes, sausages, bread, and apples. We lit a sparkler on the mound of sandwiches and Jonny made a speech.

 

There was a lot to be thankful for that night, not to mention narrowly avoiding being chased out of the campsite by the management (we had accidentally paid for only 5 campers, not 6). We were also thankful for Uluru sunsets, refreshing canyon watering holes, singing bartenders, animal-friendly cops, sympathetic campsite managers, and double-laminated windshields.

 

Uluru or Bust: Adventure in Australia’s Outback, University of Adelaide, Uluru, Ayers Rock, Kata Tjuta, outback camper trip, Uluru’s Aboriginal history, Valley of the Winds, Kings Canyon, Coober Pedy, The Big Winch, Mt. Ebenezer, travel Adelaide, Kristen HamillThe ten-hour drive back to Adelaide was a long one, especially with a half-functioning windshield, but once we had parked the van outside our university housing, we didn’t want to leave it. We’d become so attached that we spent one last night in the van, looking at photos and laughing about the past five days. Our trip had been far from flawless, and maybe my family had reason to caution us, but our outback adventure was one I will never forget.

 

©Kristen Hamill

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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