Blog 20: Northern Territory - Alice Springs to Uluru
On Sunday we will be driving some more desert, so here is an early blog post - hope you enjoy it!
The Red Centre. This is the heart of Australia. Some might say both physically and allegorically. The dry red dirt of the outback, indigenous culture, stunning landscapes and wide open spaces. Every kilometre, every subtle change in landscape, every slowly revealed twist and turn of the road is a deeply affecting reminder - this is a special place.
This week we began by resupplying in Alice Springs - didn't actually see much of the town - then heading into the West MacDonnell Ranges. We made it as far as Angkerle Atwatye (Standley Chasm) and decided to stay for the night. It was refreshing to drive less than a hundred kilometres in a day.
Angkerle Atwatye 'the place where water moves between' is one of very few permanent water sources in the red centre. After the drive in you meander your way along an ever deepening valley - white contortionist gumtrees growing in, on or under the rocks of the watercourse share the space with 350 million year old cycads. The path winds and turns and eventually you arrive at a pair of vertical red walls. The ground is littered with eroded rock of every colour - whites and greys and purples and browns. The wind whispers through the cool air of the chasm and it is easy to understand that this is a special place, a spiritual place, a sacred place.
It was an easy decision to spend the night. Shady trees, nice facilities and friendly neighbours. We met a group of six hikers who were three days away from completing the Larapinta Trail, a 223 km hike along the West MacDonnell Ranges from Mount Sonder to Alice Springs. We picked their brains about their favourite spots along the way and were a little envious of their athleticism in completing the track.
On Tuesday morning we woke before dawn and climbed (in the dark) our own short section of the Larapinta Trail to a lookout above Standley Chasm to watch the sun rising over the Ranges. Electric orange clouds, crisp blue dawning sky and the stretching and erosion of shadows along the rock faces of the West MacDonnell Ranges. This part of the country was starting to get really, really beautiful. We descended for breakfast, packed away and said goodbye to the hikers before turning west to explore more of the Ranges.
Each gorge, waterhole, mountain and bluff here has it's own unique character. A personality that reveals itself in the light of different times of day, or the different angles and distances of approach. We spent much of Tuesday and Wednesday exploring the special places of this area and were constantly struck by the beauty of the landscape. The red dirt, green grass/shrubs/trees, blue sky. Adam has a vague theory that part of the reason this landscape is so pleasing to the eye is that it engages the full colour spectrum of your retina. If you look carefully there is every colour - red, brown, orange, yellow, dark green, light green, blue, grey, white, black, indigo, violet. This is the Arrernte country that Albert Namatjira is famous for painting. It is easy to see where his inspiration came from. This landscape instils a kind of reverence in the visitor.
West of Angkerle Atwatye we moved into Tjoritja (The West MacDonnell National Park) and stopped by Ellery Creek Big Hole for a swim. Another permanent water source, this water hole was busy with good reason - the water is cool, clear and deep. The swim was refreshing and invigorating after our morning hike. We got chatting to a couple from South Australia, a School Teacher and a Spiritual Healer. A quick lunch after our swim and it was off to explore more of this beautiful National Park.
A lookout along the way gave us our first proper view of Mount Sonder. We were even more impressed with our new hiking friends when we saw it. Our next stops were two different gorges, each with their own special character. Ormiston Gorge is deep, wide and home to some ancient gnarled eucalypts. There was water in it and people swimming when we wandered around. Redbank Gorge, in the shadow of Mount Sonder, took forty-five minutes of creek bed hiking and rock scrambling to get to the water. Narrower and deeper that Ormiston, this one was hosting a large group of backpackers with inflatable pool toys. You could easily spend a few days exploring these gorges at different times of day to get a sense of their personalities. Alas, we only had limited time, so we continued on our loop along the Red Centre Way.
The lookout at Tylers pass gave us a panoramic view of the ranges in the late afternoon sun. The landscape had changed here again - sparser, pipe-cleaner shaped twiggy trees (some cousin of the sheoak I think... Confirmed as Desert Oaks), more sand, less sandstone. To our south-west we could see the looming form of Tnorala (Gosses Bluff), an ancient meteorite crater thrust upwards from the surrounding flat plain.
Our journey then hooked around onto Larapinta Drive with the setting sun behind us. Ntaria (Hermannsburg), an aboriginal community where there once was a mission, and home of Albert Namatjira was our stop for the night. At first it seemed a bit dodgy - the campground had non climbable 2 metre high fence with three strands of barbed wire, and campers were to lock the gate at all times. It actually ended up being a really nice set up inside, clean amenities, a brand new monster of a BBQ, lots of areas to camp and even a friendly white cat that came from somewhere. Also worth stopping the night was the experience I had the next day.
We needed to return our key for the campground gate at the supermarket over the road from the campground. It was about 9 in the morning, and it turned out to be rush hour at the supermarket. Except I was the only white person in there. And no one was speaking English. The people of Ntaria speak Arrarnta language. Grandmothers to babies, a broad spectrum of the community, all going about their morning shop. It struck me that in this place this is perhaps the closest I have ever been to experiencing the part of Australia that white, middle class, coastal city dwellers don't ever get. There is oodles of opportunity for people watching and anthropological introspection. I wont harp on too long, but I do hope that you (if you are a white middle class coastal city dweller like me, or even if you aren't), dear reader will find some time to think, research, think some more and challenge what you know and believe about Australia outside of your normal lived experience. Such a different place to Yulara (which we will get to in a bit).
Departing Ntaria we quickly left the highway and took a 22km winding sand and gravel track south into the Finke Gorge National Park towards Palm Valley. We crossed the bed of the Finke River four times on the way in and enjoyed some nice boggy sandy stretches. Every time Gary gets off the highway and into some more challenging terrain you can feel how at home he is. The suspension and gearbox and weight distribution and ground clearance is all designed to make driving off road an absolute joy. It is where he is meant to be. From the camping area there is a further 4 kilometres of proper four wheel drive track. Large rocks, sandy depressions and some nice technical sections where wheel placement was important. Gary even got down into low range twice on the way in. It was great fun. At the end of the track there were only two other vehicles when we arrived, and one was a Park Ranger.
The day was starting to heat up, so we loaded up on water and did the shorter of the two hikes (one hour vs. two hours) over a ridgeline then down into and back along Palm Valley. We got to enjoy a true sense of alone-ness with the landscape here. the difficulty of access and our early arrival meant the quiet of the landscape was ours to enjoy. The millions of flecks of quartz in the pink-red sand glitter in the sunlight. There is an abundance of life specially adapted to this arid climate. We descended from the ridge-line into the valley where 100 million year old red cabbage palms grow near 250 million year old cycads. It feels like journeying back into a bygone age, where a dinosaur could emerge from the underbrush at any moment. What a magic place.
Many others had arrived by the time we finished our hike, even a large off road bus had bought some tourists from Alice Springs for the day. We had a quick lunch, jumped in Gary and drove the track back out again. It was just as fun.
We decided to drive the unsealed road to get to Watarrka (Kings Canyon) the back way. To do this we needed a permit (5 bucks from Alice Springs tourist office). The road was good in some places, bad (heavily corrugated) in others and generally, other than being shortcut not particularly interesting. We did cringe when we passed a vehicle towing a caravan going the opposite direction at about 10 km/h on the corrugations. Not a fan of caravans.
One great thing about the long driving distances on this adventure has been that we get to talk - a lot! Especially about the experiences we are having and the changes in our lives that are part of this adventure and that we want to hold onto when we go back to some kind of 'normal' (not road tripping all the time) life. Travel can be transformative, but I think often it can also be nothing more than a blip on the timeline of life. When you return to the context you departed to go travelling - the same environment, people, work, culture, community - I think people tend to just slot back into the same habits, the same choice and the same way of life. That can be a great thing. But it can also be stifling. I guess it depends on how satisfied you are with the context that is 'home' as a place to spend your life.
Some things we really like about our lifestyle at the moment: Minimal possessions, no TV, more physically active lifestyle, we are in beautiful natural surroundings almost every day.
Some things we really miss: The privacy of a home, our cats, routine morning yoga, a personal bathroom.
So we travel, and we talk, and we think, and eventually the road leads us to Watarrka, and another story. Adam has wanted to visit this place ever since reading about it in Australian Author Traci Harding's Ancient Future Trilogy when he was about 14 or 15. The series is great if you are into Fantasy/Science Fiction and/or Female Heroines. Now we have both been there. Sun sets over the Watarrka National Park, we enjoy a beverage with some friendly folks (Peter and Jenny) and sleep early to be up early to hike the canyon rim.
Mother nature put on a great morning for our hike of the canyon rim at Kings Canyon. Overcast and mid twenties with the odd cooling breeze, optimal weather for hiking. The track begins with a steep set of rough rocky steps, ascending the soft sandstone side of the canyon to reach the harder sandstone on top. We met a couple from Melbourne - Steve and Inga - who were happy enough to travel at the same pace as us - fast enough to get the canyon walked in a reasonable time, slow enough to stop for photos and to take in the beauty and majesty of our surroundings.
We wound our way through eroded behive like domes and took a side track to Cotterill's lookout. The expanse of the creek valley was revealed to us, stratified sandstone layers with some stark flat faces where joints in the rock have given way. And Gary aaaaaallllll the way down there in the carpark. Oh and Steve and Jenny from the noght before, perched there on the other side of the Canyon. We took photos of each other!
Rock scrambling over natural semi-stair steps we returned to the main track, wove through more of the beehive maze of sandstone domes and descended some steps into the canyon proper. This thin gouge in the otherwise desolate landscape holds an oasis of life. We stopped for a snack at the base of the stairs before taking another sidetrack along the canyon floor, down to a permanent waterhole dubbed 'The Garden of Eden.' A very special place. A still sheltered oasis and worth of it's namesake as a slice of paradise.
We ascended the other side of the canyon and hiked again through dry, desolate eroded sandstone, the lifelessness of the canyon rim made all the more apparent by the contrast with the life below. Trees, shrubs and cycads cling to any crack in the rock where water and shade might accumulate. We walked the vaguely defined trail for another three and half kilometres, only stopping briefly for more breathtaking views of the valley below from the other canyon rim. All up the hike took just under four hours. We ate lunch weary but glad for the experience. A remarkable place to visit and well worth it.
The flat black of the highway beckoned and so we set our sights for that most iconic of Australian landmarks - Uluru. The drive to get there took us through more desert, and a brief stop at a lookout visit very impressive views of the massive mesa that is Mount Conner (Mini topography lesson: A butte is taller than it is wide, a Mesa is wider than it is tall. But in Australia we usually just call them all mountains. I like the may 'massive mesa' sounds). Also the white salt pan of a small lake trailing off the south eastern end of Lake Amadeus.
Finally, in that late afternoon, still 40 km from the rock it popped over the horizon. A purplish monolith, an icon so strongly associated with the international distilled perception of 'Australia.' Kids in classrooms all across the world make posters of this rock with kangaroos and the Sydney Harbour Bridge when they do their 'other countries' projects. We rolled into Yulara, the service town that sits just off the north edge of the Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park and found ourselves in another of those strange sort of towns.
Yulara exists because of the rock. The whole town is a giant tourist resort with various levels of budget appropriate accommodation, various levels of budget appropriate eating and drinking facilities and various levels of budget appropriate activities. There happens to be a four day cultural festival 'Tjungu' on at the moment. It also just so happens that our friends from Perth, Ayesha and Grant are here for a visit too, so we caught up over a couple of budget appropriate beverages.
The most striking thing about this place is that it is not Australia. If you were a foreign tourist, flew into Yulara directly (or even came on a bus), stayed at the tourist resort, walked around (or, if you have no respect for the cultural beliefs of the traditional custodians of the land, climbed up on top of) the rock, then flew back out again you would tick the rock off the bucket list and not learn very much about the truth of life in Outback Australia. Take your souvenir t-shirt, fly net, boomerang and miniature didgeridoo (which aren't even from Central Australia) home with you. This is a carefully sanitised experience for the general consumer. I am still trying to figure out how I feel about it. I do feel that it is wrong in a lot of ways.
Friday ended up being a rest, recover, laundry day. In the evening we caught up with Nicola - a friend via Ruth's brother Adam. She took us out to a special spot on a dune (with her super adorable dog Tahli) for sunset views of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta. As the sun went down and was replaced by the spotlight of an almost full moon, here, out on a dune, away from the hordes of tourists with just the sounds of cicadas (and the occasional circling helicopter until dusk), Uluru and Kata-Tjuta (and a distant lump on the southern horizon that may be Allanah Hill) felt like they had been placed just so for our optimal viewing, and felt strong, powerful and ageless. Here is the experience I wasn't sure was here.
Later that evening we joined friends Grant and Ayesha in exploring the Field of Light art installation - thousands and thousands of gossamer fibre optic lights create a patchwork moonlit meadow of almost-wildflowers. The silhouettes of Desert Oaks and the spindles of spinifex stalks frame the sinuous light tentacles and create a magical experience. The field is just big enough that it feels like it might go over the horizon and stretch out forever... it was very cool.
Today we loaded up on supplies to facilitate an early morning departure tomorrow. Then we made our first close approach to Uluru with the goal of circumambulating the sandstone monolith (triple word score!). Ruth describes the rock from the middle distance as looking like someone has draped a sheet over a sculpture before a grand reveal. You get closer and the diversity of features on the rock becomes more apparent. Ripples in the sandstone meet mouth-like gouges and eroded crevices. Plants do their best impressions of rock climbers in any crack wide enough to hold water. The jagged white scar where thousands have ascended to the top of the rock is apparent. The climb is closed today.
From the carpark we got up closer to begin our hike around. Now the rock is an almost uniform mottled texture of brown, red, black and yellow. Not smooth at all. Adam thinks of Engineering Geology university lectures about case hardening of sedimentary rocks. As we wander the perimeter we see caves with rock art, sheets of sheared rock that have slid down the face, the pitting, scarring and weathering of thousands upon thousands of years of the elements beating down upon the monolith. Yet it still stands, like some unbreakable siege resistant fortress of a bygone age. There are special sacred places we don't photograph or enter. The Kantju Gorge is a refreshing concavity in the perimeter of the rock. There is even a little water in the pool at the base.
The sun beats down as we weave through Mulga trees and wave away flies. A group of perfectly able bodied tourists pass us riding off road Segways. Knee pads, elbow pads, helmets. We snicker a little. We eventually finish the 10.6 kilometre walk around the base in about two hours twenty minutes. High fives. We have been hiking a lot this week!
We triumphantly drove over to the Cultural Centre (which you are supposed to visit first, but we wanted to get the walk done before it got any hotter) to eat some lunch and find out more about this place and Aṉangu culture. Neither of us knew that the returning of Uluru Kata-Tjuta to the traditional owners - the Aṉangu (it is supposed to be Uluṟu, with the underscore indicating the stressed syllable, but difficult to type) happened in 1985 and that it was a big political issue at the time.
The cultural centre is a good insight into the way the traditional owners relate to the land, the way they care for the land and the collectivist values of their culture. The Tjukurpa (traditional law) describes the way of things in the world and how the people relate to the environment and each other. Including not climbing the rock. Uluru is a place for listening. A place for learning and ceremony. Not for climbing. Also today we learned that more than 35 people have died climbing the rock. We signed the visitor register of those who have chosen not to climb. The climb is to be closed permanently soon (and is apparently also the subject of much debate, with the argument being people wont visit if they cant climb.) If you have ever thought of visiting Uluru and Kata-Tjuta, we strongly encourage you to come after the climb is closed for good to show that, perhaps, visitor numbers might even go up. We visited Nicola where she works managing an art space where Anangu artists create and sell their work.
Now, as we write, we are sitting in Gary's shade, waiting for Nicola to join us for a sunset picnic with a view of the rock... then Peter and Jenny who we met at Watarrka pulled up! We swapped photos of each other from opposing canyon rims, shared some wine and picnic antipasto (Ruth makes the best guacamole) and enjoyed the change in the personality of the rock as the sun descended. Ruth even did some low light photography.