Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Sydney -> Outback -> Adelaide

I've been mostly offline for the past few days while in the Outback, so I have a few days to catch up on!

On Saturday morning I got picked up from my hotel by the airport shuttle for my flight to Alice Springs, in the Outback. I was disappointed in my shuttle driver, who made me load my own suitcase in the back of his van, used his cell phone while driving, scolded another passenger for not having a printed voucher, and then after having her write all her details down on paper, reviewed it while driving. At the airport he dropped me at Terminal 2 and made me walk across a parking lot to the Qantas terminal 3, saving him one stop.

Had an uneventful flight to Alice Springs, and after a bit of a wait, got a shuttle to my hotel there: Alice's Secret. The place is spartan but nice, and very friendly. My "room" is actually an old van, with a bed in the back. It's actually very spacious and comfortable.

The Betty Boop van

Interior of Betty Boop van

After settling in and starting to organize what to take with me on my Outback tour (space is limited on the bus and I have to leave my suitcase here), I walked into and through town. At first the town seemed nearly deserted, and then suddenly there was a wave of people walking towards me. The big sporting event of the year had just ended: the Henley-on-Todd boat races. This is especially interesting because the Todd River is a completely dry riverbed, and the "boats" are teams of people dressed in silly costumes carrying a fake boat frame around them. I had just missed the end of the regatta, and joined the crowd in a pub, where I had dinner. Then I walked to a nearby grocery store and picked up something for tomorrow's breakfast and some snacks for my Outback tour. Back to the hostel and joined some of the other guests in the TV room to watch the big rugby match (Rugby Union rules this time) between Australia and New Zealand. I got to bed early, ready for early pickup in the morning.

Sunday I awoke at 4:15, about 45 minutes earlier than planned. Had breakfast and packed up, and got picked up by the tour bus at 6am. After a few more stops to pick up others, we hit the road for the 4.5 hour drive to Uluru, the main destination of our 3-day Outback tour. It's the "big red rock" in the middle of Australia. I don't normally go in for organized tours, but decided on this one partly because my friend Matt recommended it, and also because the alternative of renting a car and staying at the two resorts along the way would have been much more expensive (one company has a monopoly on accommodations and the prices are high). I also would have had to do the 12+ hours of driving. The tour accommodations weren't as fancy (comfortable tents with warm beds and blankets, though they were unheated, which made getting out of bed in nighttime temperatures just above freezing fun.

There were 22 of us in all on the tour; the others from the UK, France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy (I was the lone non-European). It was a good friendly group, including some young couples and a couple of families with parents around my age and their kids. We had a few stops along the way to break up the trip, including a camel farm where some went for a short camel ride.

We arrived at our campsite at Uluru/Kata Tjuta National park, had lunch, and then headed to Kata Tjuta for a hike. Kata Tjuta means "many heads", and consists of a few dozen rounded, eroded domes that are magnificently beautiful. We had a nice hike for a few hours that took us through many of the domes with amazing views, and our guide Sheldon had a lot of information about the formations.

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta

Kata Tjuta

Me at Kata Tjuta

After the hike we drove to a viewing area to watch the sunset at Uluru. The sun was setting opposite the big rock, and the colours on Uluru changed rapidly as the sun went down.

Back at the campsite we had dinner in the nice mess tent. The food and the company were both good, and after dinner we sat and chatted by the fire a bit.

I slept well in the tent but awoke early again, just after 4am Monday morning, an hour before I had to. We had early breakfast and headed out to Uluru. Part of the group got off for the full walk around Uluru, and some of us instead headed to the sunrise viewing area to watch the reverse of what we saw last night, on the other side of the rock. Then we got dropped off at the midway point of the base walk, where we joined up with the others.

Unlike Kata Tjuta, where erosion has created many distinct domes, the harder rock of Uluru has remained in one piece, and it's an impressive hunk of rock, with lots of neat detail on it. Some of those details are considered to be like holy writing to the local Aboriginal people, so there are a few parts of the rock signposted as "sensitive sites", where photography is not allowed.



Uluru detail

Uluru detail

Where we finished our base walk around Uluru, there's a large sign pleading with visitors not to climb the rock. Climbing used to be a standard part of the experience of visiting Uluru, especially when it was more often referred to by its "white fella" name of Ayers Rock. The request by the Aboriginal people to respect their holy place has greatly reduced, but not eliminated climbing. I was impressed by the tone of the sign, which does not forbid climbing or scold visitors, but very politely pleads for respect. While I was reading the sign, a man was next to me looking at it when his wife came, grabbed his arm, saying "You can read that later", and dragged him over to climb the rock. I'm a climber, and I enjoy "conquering" hills as much as anyone, but there are so many other places we can climb without disrespecting and insulting the local people that it's hard to understand why some continue to climb here.

Please do not climb

A question of respect

After the base walk we met up with a local Aboriginal named Vincent, who took us on a "cultural walk", explaining some of the significance of a few features of the rock, and how they fit into ancient stories of his people. He repeated bits of a story along the way, and at the end combined them with a drawing in the sand that included some of the symbols I had seen in Aboriginal paintings. His words and cadence were like poetry. At the end he told us a bit about how his people are still not treated equally in Australia, and referred to the Intervention of 2007.

We stopped by the Cultural Centre where there were some exhibits and an art gallery, and returned to our campsite for lunch. After lunch we got back in the bus and drove to Kings Canyon National Park, where we camped for the night. I had trouble getting to sleep, and only got a few hours sleep before it was time to wake up - this time at a more leisurely 5:30am on Tuesday morning.

After breakfast we went on a walk through Kings Canyon for about 4 hours. Though billed in so places as "Australia's Grand Canyon", it's a far more modest canyon that is nonetheless pretty beautiful. The walk involved some climbing up and down, and while I made out fine, my knees are feeling pretty sore after three good hikes/walks in a row, especially the right knee.

Kings Canyon

We had lunch back at our campsite, and then drove back to Alice Springs, getting back to Alice's Secret around 6pm.

Had a shower and got settled into my room, and then walked into town for dinner at a decent Thai restaurant. Picked up a few things for breakfast and returned to the hostel, had a beer and then got to bed early. I caught up on some much-needed sleep after three very early mornings in a row.

Wednesday morning I had breakfast, packed up and relaxed until my shuttle arrived to take me back to the airport. Had lunch at the airport, and then took my 2-hour flight to Adelaide.

Nice sign in the airport on arrival in Adelaide;
the open door is located where Adelaide is in South Australia.

My welcoming public transit experience in Adelaide was a good one. It was simple to buy a three-day transit pass at a shop in the airport, and I caught a bus right there that took me right into the CBD (Central Business District), just a few blocks from my hotel. I checked in, and while asking the clerk (also the barman - a good sign) if he could check that the nearby coin laundry I had found on Google was still in business he told me there's a washer and dryer right here in the hotel, which saves me a lot of schlepping. That's a big win, as I am completely out of clean clothes, and being able to do it right here is much easier!

My hotel in Adelaide

I put my clothes in the wash, had a beer in the pub, tossed them in the dryer and then had dinner. The clothes weren't nearly dry after the first cycle, so I put them back in, but when I went back up later to check on them, someone had pulled them out and put their load in the dryer, which I though was pretty rude. I checked back a little later and the dryer had stopped again, so I swapped my clothes back in! I guarded the machine until the cycle was done, at which point I took my almost-dry clothes to my room, and spread them out to finish drying overnight.

Back down to the pub to finish updating this blog, with another beer to finish off the evening before getting to bed.

[It's been frustrating trying to get my photos into posts as I want them. I need to sync them via Google+ from my iPhone (where I take the photos) to a Picasa album that is accessible from my iPad (where I compose these blog posts). The internet connections are not the best, and Google+ seems kind of unpredictable in terms of when it will actually sync all the photos I ask it to. The worst part is that Blogger seems to have some idiosyncrasies. I'm using an Apple keyboard with my iPad to compose these posts. That works fine for entering text, but when I add a photo and want to resize it, I seem to be able to do that only with the keyboard disconnected, using the touchscreen interface. And after resizing a photo, the post resets to the top, and I cannot scroll down using the touchscreen interface. So I wind up switching back and forth between keyboard and touchscreen, going back to the Settings app each time, which makes photo insertion incredibly tedious. I keep thinking I must be missing something obvious - that it can't really be this awkward to add photos to a blog post and control how they appear. This is the cost of leaving my laptop at home - definitely still the right call in spite of this frustration.]

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