Driving the Outback: Part 4 - Alice Springs, Kings Canyon and Uluru or Ayers Rock

The drive from Coober Pedy to Alice Springs is over eight hours and really emphasizes how huge and sparsely populated Australia really is. Nothing for 800km but the odd turn off leading to a homestead and the occasional roadkill, just to keep things exciting. Not to forget the sign to tell you when you have crossed the border from South Australia to the Northern Territory! To illustrate my point: The largest cattle station of Australia, Anna Creek Station, is about the size of a smallish country. In fact, it would be about the 149th biggest out of the listed 249 countries and dependencies, almost exactly the same size as Macedonia. It's slightly larger than Israel, El Salvador and Belize, and slightly smaller than Belgium, Rwanda and Haiti. The populations of all these countries reach millions. The population of Anna Creek Station homestead is fifteen. The outback is a place that can swallow countries whole... I'm pretty sure you could fit most of Europe in there.

However, we did see lots of wildlife from the road; the highlight being a beautiful orange dingo, perfectly Australian colored to blend in with the outback. Of course we saw a lot of emus and kangas and huge flocks of pristine white cockatoos, stunning against the dusty red outback, and a final bonus of a group of giant eagles feasting on some roadkill. I could not get over how giant those eagles were. HUGE.

Alice Springs is the biggest hub of civilization not on the coast; and is mainly a gateway for the endless stream of tourists heading to Uluru / Ayers Rock. The town itself also has a bad reputation for being quite dangerous and the need to keep an eye on your possessions. However in the evening we met a nurse friend who lives in Alice for a drink at Monty's­ - the eclectic and whimsical bar full of locals and backpackers alike.

Alice to me is a place at odds. The high street is packed full of sleek tourist-targeted shops selling aboriginal artwork for outrageous sums­, while across the road on the the curb groups of silent and staring Aborigines huddle, shabbily dressed, and seemingly with nothing to do. The debate about the aborigines is a constant topic of conversation throughout my travels. I catch snatches of it here and there, in bars, between tourists and Australians alike. The tourists are always more likely to be sympathetic, but the local Australians seem simply fed up with the whole issue. The depressed inertia seems to grip both the aborigines and white people alike; Australia seems paralyzed in its inability to come up with a useful solution. The history of the colonization of Australia is a deeply sordid one, and one I'm sure many would like to simply sweep under the rug, but Something Must Be Done­ just no­-one seems to be able to figure out what.

Shaking off these thoughts guiltily, as all inevitably and ashamedly end up doing, I made my way to King's Canyon and then on to Uluru. Uluru is undoubtedly the icon of Australia­ but for me the greatest and most awe inspiring thing I saw on my trip was undoubtedly King's Canyon. Hoping to avoid the waves of tourists sure to descend later in the day (I had seen three giant touring buses and a school group already) I walked into the canyon early in the morning along a dry creek bed lined with ghost gums- beautifully white trees with smooth bark which wrinkles in the corners where the branches meet the trees, like they have rolled their sleeves up at the elbows. I was perfectly timed to see the sun rise over the canyon rim and transform the walls of the canyon from a dull red­-brown to a glowing golden-­orange. Then, the rim walk: a sharp climb, a scramble through some boulders, a wander across a natural amphitheatre, you turn a corner... and find yourself right on the edge of the canyon, with nothing but a small sign warning you of 'cliffs' between you and the edge. A terrifying and exhilarating experience to be stood next to all that space, and look down into it at the ground far below. A couple of crazy German tourists were happily defying death and dangling their legs over the edge for a photo opportunity. I of course approached the edge only tentatively - obviously those people didn't have the normal self­-preservation instinct of NOT dangling over the edge of a very high canyon edge. But the view was simply breathtaking, spectacular, amazing, wonderful, every praiseworthy adjective I can possibly think of. The trail follows along one edge, over the very end of the canyon, and then back along the other side, so can admire it from all angles. I spent the four hours just walking around with my moth hanging open, simply awe struck, and as close to my own personal 'this is the meaning of life' epiphany as I will ever be.

Walking around, you feel as if you have stumbled across a prehistoric landscape, and indeed you have. Because if it's isolation and rare year-­round water source King's Canyon has sheltered and protected a tiny sliver of wildlife and vegetation, 60 species of which date back to prehistoric times - an amazing feeling. This impression is emphasized by the 'Garden of Eden'­ a waterhole lying near the end of the canyon which provided this wildlife with the necessary water to survive for thousands of years untouched. Climbing down, all is still, apart from the almost eerie but beautifully sweet piping of an elusive bird, the rustling of the prehistoric fern leaves, and the gentle rippling of the water.

Kings Canyon is an ancient and wonderful landscape, but Uluru, the next stop, was no less ancient and impressive. Uluru may be over­-done and over-­touristy, but it is definitely not overrated. This little story will illustrate how old Uluru is: millions of years ago, in what we now call Australia, There was a mountain range, called the Peterman Ranges. As happens to all mountain ranges, the weather gradually eroded it away, so small pebbles and grains of sand were gradually washed down a river . The river could only push the pebbles so far, and so they ended up forming a conglomerate rock, the remnants of which are the Olgas, or Kata Tjuta (a smaller group of monoliths which huddle on the horizon near Uluru) The river could push the sand a little further than the pebbles, and ended up as the huge granite monolith of Uluru. They are the remnants of a mountain range which is now little more than hills.They were originally covered by a heavy layer of sand, and over the next 30 million years the sand and landscape around, as well as the rock itself, have eroded away to the towering 'inselberg' or 'island mountain' that is left today.

Watching Uluru at sunrise and sunset truly is amazing. The color really does change from a warm glowing red, to a deep purple, to dull brown. In the morning, the rock is gradually transformed to a glowing gold as the sun slowly highlights the many pits and scars of the rock, where it has been gradually eroded away by the trails of water from a rare rainfall. No photo of Uluru will ever be the same!

I had every intention of NOT climbing Uluru, as the Aborigines ask you not to, but I accidentally stumbled across the track leading up the rock (which is sneakily not marked on any maps!) and everyone else seemed to be making their way up. The climb is horribly steep, exhausting and a little bit dangerous 35 people have died attempting the climb, but someone has thoughtfully embedded a chain in the rock so you can haul yourself up (and then cling on as you make the descent, as I did, mostly sitting down). Seeing the huge rock up close is amazing. It is granite, rough and speckled with many flecks. The entire surface is full of holes and rivulets. I longed to see it after rain when you would be able to see millions of tiny waterfalls cascading down the sides and pooling in its pitted surface. At the top, the path is marked by a white dotted line, and you clamber through the waterways of the rock itself. The view is amazing; the immense red-brown rock spread out around you, an island in the endless sea of the outback, the Olgas huddled off to one side.

The Olgas are more diminutive in sheer mass, but some are even taller than Uluru itself. But where Uluru is striking for its isolation, one big lonely rock rising out of the featureless land, the Olgas are a maze of rocks and valleys which hide pockets of luscious forest and grassland, sheltered between towering red walls. Up close, although the same red-­brown as Uluru, The Olgas are a completely different type of rock you can see the whole pebbles embedded in the walls. Wandering in-­between them everything is calm and peaceful, the sun shines down (where on Uluru the wind blew a gale) and  lorikeets flash vivid green among the trees. Stunning!

Read Part 5 - Alice to Darwin

Read Part 1 - Initial impressions

Read Part 2 - Flinders Ranges to Coober Pedy

Read Part 3 - Coober Pedy