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Published: December 9th 2014
Our final big treat of the holiday was The Rock Tour. We spotted it advertised on the YHA site and it looked like a really great way to finish off, well almost. The 6 day tour was organised by Groovy Grape and it would take us nearly 1500km up to Uluru, then another 300km to Kings Canyon, finishing with nearly 500km up to Alice Springs. As the tour name says, the tour focuses on great landscape features. When Caragh picked us up from Adelaide YHA, she was stopping around the city gathering the 18 people who made up the tour group. We were not the oldest, quite, but most were much younger, average age being early 20's. It turned out to be a really good group of people.
First stop off, after a couple of hours in the bus was at Clare. This was to stock up on essential provisions like fuel and beer/ wine. Once done we were off to Alligator Gorge, a remote sandstone gorge. This gave the first opportunity for a good walk around. Back on the bus and continuing on to Quorn for a night in dorms; pretty comfortable.
The get up time was at
5.15, which set the scene for the week; either because of travelling or getting to see sunrises, every morning was pre dawn get up. As we continued up The Stuart Highway we passed close to Woomera, the rocket launching area and then Lake Hart, the remains of an inland sea, which was now a brilliant white salt lake. Destination for this day was Coober Pedy, the Opal mining centre of Australia (and the World). Caragh took us to drop our bags first off. Our "hostel" for the night was underground, typical of most accommodation in the place. Normal housing would be impractical given the very high temperatures. It was just a case of using the standard mining equipment to burrow into a mountainside, seal the rock, put in electricity, then furnish. No matter what the temperatures are outside it remains a steady 20c throughout the year. once settled in we were given a tour of one of the opal mines, which was interesting to do. As a nice treat afterwards we visited the Kangaroo Rescue Centre. Run by a husband and wife team, injured or abandoned kangaroos are nursed and looked after. The highlight was seeing the 5 month old joey, that was tiny, housed in blankets in a shopping bag and fed milk from a bottle, cute.
Next morning the get up time was 4.20, to allow us to see sunrise over the spoil heaps. It doesn't sound much, but in fact was really pretty. Continuing North we finally crossed in to The Northern Territory after 2 1/2 days of driving; this place is gigantic! We finally got to Yulara, Ayers Rock Resort, at 5.30 pm. It didn't take long to set up camp, we were sleeping in Swags for the next two nights, under the stars. A swag being a canvas zip up bag with internal mattress, bit like a bivvy bag. Once sorted we were straight off to catch sunset over Uluru. This was a pretty amazing experience. The rock itself sits up majestically from the flat plains around it. One thing that took us by surprise was the number of people doing the same thing. There must have been a dozen big 53 sweater coaches as well as the smaller buses like ours. Many of the big coach groups had set up tables and chairs in the viewing area; it was just like Twickenham car park on international day. The sunset didn't disappoint, with the rock changing colour quite dramatically as the Sun dipped below the horizon. The first night under the stars gave a reasonable sleep, although we were up again at 4.15am to catch sunrise over Kata Tjuta, an equally impressive, but less well known rock feature which was nearby. After breakfast we had a 3 hour walk around the Valley of Winds. These places are so exposed and get so hot that the walking paths close at 11.00am, in an attempt to prevent visitors from heading out into what would be hostile conditions.
Carol had managed to throw in a curve ball, in that she said that we should do a skydive. After recovering from the surprise we managed to get that sorted for the afternoon. Up to 14000 feet, looking at the views, then leaping from the plane, with 30 seconds worth of free fall followed by 5 minutes or so gliding down on the parachute. We waited and waited ... Drat, the weather had changed and we only got as far as the airport that afternoon / evening. The sky was black, lightning clearly visible and very strong wind too. The silver lining though was that the jump was moved to the following morning and we would be able to watch the sunrise from the plane then jump. By the time we hit the swag the sky had cleared, it stayed clear throughout the night and the morning was beautiful. The team picked us up at 5.15 am and took us back to the airport, gave us our special pants and delivered the all important briefing. Before we knew it we were on the way up. The views were superb, obviously seeing Uluru and Kata Tjuta from above gave it all a completely new perspective. The aircraft was titchy. The pilot had the best seat (the only seat!), Carol and I sat very close to our instructor on the floor of the plane. So, the gist is simply that we we are attached, fortunately very firmly, to our instructor. At the appointed time I stick my legs out of the plane and tuck them up, cross my arms over my chest whilst leaning head back, then when the instructor shoves me, we fall through the sky, staring at the ground below. What an exhilarating experience! Once the parachute is deployed it all slows down as we descend smoothly to the ground. Landing was easy, just keep legs up and bounce along the ground on botty, supported by the instructor getting his legs and feet down first. It really was fantastic and hopefully we'll get the chance to do it again sometime. Carol's instructor had the Go Pro and filmed her, we've got the result but not yet had the chance to view it.
Once down the guys gave us a lift back to camp and we were able to join the others for a 10km walk around the base of Uluru. One of the advantages of being in the tour group is that we get the expertise of the leader. Caragh was really good. She gave lots of explanations for things like the geology and as much as she was allowed to, the significance of features to the native aborigines. There are limitations on what guides can say regarding ancient customs and meanings and there are restrictions in place to limit which bits of the rock you can or can't photograph. One of the recurring themes of the commentary was the awful way that the native people had been treated by the newcomers, so much so that Kevin Rudd, when he was leader of the country, formally apologised to the aborigines for their treatment.
Our last destination, before arriving at Alice Springs was Kings Canyon. Again we had a 4.15am start, to avoid the heat. It was worth it though. Amazing to think that what we were now walking on had, some 400 million years ago, been sea floor.
The final night was spent in Alice Springs, the highlight being a dinner for the whole tour group. It was a great social event with lots of fond farewells. For us this could have been the highlight of the whole tour, the places and people had been brilliant.
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