There’s a bright light shining somewhere above me. The faint smell of eucalyptus, cool air on my cheeks and the warmth of my sleeping bag are vaguely disorientating. After a couple of seconds I open my eyes to a full moon beaming from the pre-dawn sky, the silhouette of gum trees, and I remember. I’m in Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia and I’m sleeping rough.
There are a lot of ways to experience Australia’s famous outback, but joining a camping safari is probably the closest you’ll get to nature, and definitely the most back-to–basics way to go. I joined a three-day group trip starting in Alice Springs, and explored a stunning section of Australia’s Red Centre and three iconic rocks: Uluru, Kata Tjutu and Watarrka.
At 348 metres, the sandstone monolith of Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) dominates the surrounding flat landscape and seems to have fallen from the sky. Its colour, which changes from pink to red and all shades in-between depending on the time of day, blends seamlessly with the trees and scrub. Even after seeing countless images of it, I’m unprepared for its sheer scale and presence.
It’s still possible to climb the rock, which was first attempted in the 1950s (and 35 people have lost their lives since). But the traditional owners, the Anangu people, ask that as guests on their land, visitors show respect by not climbing it. A much better option is to walk the 10.6km circumference, and take in the towering rock faces from all directions.
Small signs dotted along the path indicate the important sacred places for women, which are different from those for men. These are locations that the traditional owners ask visitors to respect and not photograph. It’s hot, but the walk is flat and easy. Stopping at the two water tanks to refill water bottles is essential. There are no shops for kilometres, indeed there’s little at all; it’s very low-impact tourism and nothing overshadows Uluru.
Having spent the morning driving 450km from Alice Springs with my fellow-travellers, the two-hour walk is another chance to get to know some of them. We stop at Mutitjulu Waterhole, a small pool which catches the rain that runs off the rock. Tash, our energetic guide and driver explains the ancient Aboriginal story of Wanampi, an ancestral watersnake, and the spirit of Kuniya. We all agree there is a comforting, welcoming feel here.
The Cultural Centre presents information about the Anangu people and the natural environment and is a good spot for souvenirs such as iconic Aboriginal paintings. In a quiet corner, a plastic folder of laminated pages catches my eye. It contains a collection of letters sent from people all over the world. Many of them recount stories of bad luck, and have been sent back with pieces of rock that the writers are returning to their rightful home.
A sunrise and sunset viewing is obligatory, but choose your spot wisely. It’s a circus at the designated location for buses, as at least 15 large luxury coaches unload their passengers to quaff bubbly and nibble on cheese and crackers, their voices shattering the silence. Tash tells us it’s like this every night, but there are other quieter options.
Afterwards, we find our campsite accommodation in the dying light. There is a glorious hot shower at an amenities block nearby and Tash knocks up a decent spaghetti bolognaise in the camp kitchen, which is stored in the back of the four-wheel-drive trailer. We all pitch in to help prepare dinner and tidy up afterwards. As I slide into bed, the billion-star Milky Way lights up the sky, while my fellow-campers debate the likelihood of ants entering our swags during the night. They don’t.
|How to sleep in a swag
Unique to Australia, a swag is essentially a sleeping bag, mattress and pillow inside a waterproof canvas cover with zips down each side for access. A swag is meant to be used without a tent, and the only part of the body exposed is the head. It doubles as a soft seat around the campfire and provides protection against the elements during the night. Swags were immortalised in the famous Banjo Paterson bush ballad, Waltzing Matilda, which refers to a “jolly swagman”.
Turns out Tash loves music, and 16 people are dragged from slumber to the tune of The Beatles’ Here Comes the Sun. Holiday or not, early morning rises are essential in the outback to take advantage of the cool of the morning. With this in mind we’re up before dawn to eat breakfast, roll up the swags and walk up a sand hill to take in the sunrise.
As soon as the sun pops over the horizon, we drive 50km down the road to tackle Kata Tjutu (The Olgas), the second rock formation in this national park. Although not as well known as Uluru, it is equally beautiful. The Aboriginal word means “many heads”, and the large and numerous conglomerate rocks are round and indeed head-like. A seven-kilometre walk winds through the stunning rock formations, and with a few rest stops to refill water bottles, it takes about three hours. The terrain is loose and uneven, but even so I regularly drag my eyes from the ground to the red rocks framed against the enormous and clear blue sky. The horizon goes on forever.
The afternoon is spent in air-conditioning on the 250km drive to Kings Creek Station. This is an excellent (and well earned) opportunity to nod off while counting sheep, or maybe camels.
Brought to Australia in the 1800s by Afghan traders, since when they’ve been superseded by motor vehicles, camels have slowly become a pest and now number over one million. Our home for the second night is Kings Creek Station, which runs beef cattle and camels for export, and covers 1,800 square kilometres. (Singapore, for purposes of comparison, is 710 square kilometres.)
Aside from agriculture, the station has a thriving tourism industry that sees 350,000 visitors a year passing through it. Many, like us, stay at the private campsites complete with bush showers and toilets, which are a 10-minute drive along sandy tracks from the homestead. It’s a stunning location, set amongst desert oaks on a rocky ridge overlooking the George Gill Ranges. The isolation is magnificent and complete. There is literally no one in the vicinity of our little group for kilometres on end.
|How many spare tyres does a road train need?
Because the distances are so vast, and there are few rail lines, the large cattle stations use road trains to transport stock: typically cattle and commodities. We come across a fuel tanker on the way back from refuelling with aviation fuel at Ayers Rock Airport. It has 42 wheels.
Do camels make noises at night?
Getting into the swag that night, I hear banter from one couple about the nocturnal habits of camels. Will they get nosy and sniff us out during the night? On the other side of the campfire, the youngest campers debate the merits of the iPhone 4 over the 5, though there’s no phone coverage out here.
The next morning, after another glorious sunrise, it’s less than a half-hour drive to Watarrka (Kings Canyon). This glorious natural wonder was only opened up to a fledgling tourism industry in the late 60s. Of the three rocks I’ve seen on this journey, it is without doubt the most stunning. The six-kilometre “rim walk” is the best way to appreciate this magnificent place and must be done in the cool of the morning as the heat radiating off the rocks is unbearable by midday.
Simple arrows provide directions to walk around the rim, taking in the spectacular scenery of sheer cliff faces, hidden crevices and incredible views. The Garden of Eden waterhole is a surprise. After recent rain, the river running through the gorge is full of water and teeming with life. It’s a microclimate of gums, cycads, birds, goannas and frogs. The lushness is in stark contrast to the surrounding barren rocks and harsh surfaces.
I feel a twinge of regret as I make the descent from the rim to the ground below, knowing the trip is all but over; the afternoon will be spent driving back to Alice Springs. But I’m also content, having had the opportunity to see three glorious sunrises and three stunning rocks in an action-packed three days.
Other things to do
Helicopter flights are operated to all three rocks, offering bird’s-eye views. Bookend the trip at Alice Springs, which has flights to all capital cities and offers outback ballooning; take a trip to the McDonnell Ranges; pay a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Service; or learn more about the natural environment at the Desert Park. The famous Ghan train service operates between Adelaide and Darwin.
Make it happen
Way Outback operates a three-day, four-wheel-drive Uluru Red Centre safari. It is suitable for older children and families. Five- and ten-day options are available. wayoutback.com.au
Self-drive holidays are very popular and rental vehicles are easily available. There are numerous accommodation options at Ayers Rock Resort. The most comfortable time to visit is winter, between April and November. australiasoutback.com.sg
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