Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Days 14, 15, 16, and 17: Alice Springs and surrounding area

We arrived in Alice Springs on The Ghan at about 10 am on day 14, fresh faced after a night sleeping squished into the hidey hole created by the two set of seat backs converging. We picked up our exceedingly tall Land Cruiser with the camper built ON TOP of it only to find out that it had a manual transmission. Now, I rarely drive in Sydney, and I certainly don’t drive ridiculously top-heavy vehicles with a stick shift. In fact, as Eric and I have been discussing buying a camper van, a major hesitation of mine has been whether I could learn to drive with the stick on the “wrong” side. After one false start, I’m glad to say I conquered my fear.

Fear returned about two hours later as I barrelled down a rough dirt road and noticed smoke spewing from the rear of the vehicle. Apparently I’d had a flat tire for some time but had not noticed given the rough conditions. It took quite a bit of fanning and pouring of water bottles into holes in the tire to cool it enough to lift. More alarming, we were now in a famous desert with no spare tire!

There was no time to waste, though, as Uluru, or Ayer’s Rock as the white settlers called it upon their “discovery,” is most famously viewed at sunrise and sunset. We pulled into the sunset viewing area with about 10 minutes to spare and were in no way disappointed.

The next morning, we got up at 5:45 am to see the rock at sunrise. It was well worth dragging ourselves out of our warm sleeping bags into the cold desert dark.

We then visited the cultural centre, run by the aborigines, which tells the stories their ancestors passed on for thousands of years about how a giant red rock came to be standing alone in the middle of the desert and about all of the markings on the rock. The cultural centre also asked that you think about the spiritual meaning of the rock to their community before choosing to climb Uluru. As we hiked around the rock, we came upon the spot where people climb, and again there was a large sign asking people to “make good choices.” Sadly, in the 3.5 hours that we hiked around the rock, we probably only saw about 15 people, but there must have been about 300 people climbing the damn thing.

After circumnavigating the rock, we drove over to The Olgas, which is basically a pile of smaller (but still giant) red rocks.

The last thing you want to do in the outback is to drive after dark given the very high odds of coming head to head with a kangaroo, which does bad things to your vehicle even if you aren’t an extended-height Land Cruiser. Therefore, we did a quick sprint of a hike through The Olgas before hitting the road to drive as far toward Kings Canyon as we could before sunset. That night we camped in a roadside rest area, and the full moon had the eeriest blue ring around it.

Next morning we sped over to King’s Canyon, where we were able to get a new spare tire. From the time we got of the train in Alice Springs, we kept running into a French girl and a Belgian girl. When we saw them on the hiking trail at King’s Canyon, it was probably our fifth encounter. We decided to stop fighting fate and hike together. By the end of the hike we were old friends and had agreed to meet up again in Sydney. So far, we’ve had drinks with them twice since we’ve been back!

That afternoon, armed with our new spare tire, we braved the unpaved roads again. After four hours of intense bouncing, we were happy to arrive in Finke Canyon just before sunset. In the morning, I drove down the most intense 4 km of 4WD track that I’ve ever been on, with lots of coaching and support from Dylan. After a quick morning hike, we returned to Alice Springs to return the Land Cruiser and re-board The Ghan. I almost had a fist fight with the car rental guy, who made me drive up the road to put an extra $2.83 in fuel in the tank, but Angela restrained me, and we made it just in time. Some people just shouldn’t be given even small amounts of power.

We were able to shower on the train, which was a blessing for everyone around us, even though our clothes still smelled, and we were able to turn our seats to face each other again. This time, I found a lovely spot to sleep just outside the toilet curled up behind a trash can.

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