The Great Aussie Road Trip Part 3: Uluru and the Red Centre


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October 29th 2015
Published: October 29th 2015
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Coober Pedy to Uluru


Continued from Part 2...

Day 8:

We awake early, as we have a long day on the road. We shower and make some eggs for breakfast. It seems like we’ve been moving quick but we are not on the road until about 9:30. This is supposed to be a boring day in the van, and the road doesn’t disappoint. Once again there is literally nothing out here except this road. Though today at least we can see the train tracks for the train that runs from Darwin to Adelaide. The soil is red and desert brush trees are everywhere. I can see why people say it’s easy to fall asleep at the wheel in the Outback.

We stop at a little homestay called Marla for gas and then for lunch a few kilometers up the road at a rest stop. Once again, the flies are relentless so we eat inside the van. Back on the road we are nearing Northern Territory. For a country the size of the continental US Australia only has 7 states. Northern Territory is huge, but it’s far from the biggest. That belongs to Western Australia. Western Australia is like if you combined California, Nevada, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and Arizona into one state. Yeah, it’s big. NT isn’t even the second biggest state either. That title belongs to Queensland. Evan as the third biggest state it’s still over twice the size of Texas.

We cross the border around 2:00, but suddenly it’s 1:00. Northern Territory is in a different time zone than South Australia for whatever reason. Now I understand why the sun sets so early here. It will be dark around 6:45 tonight instead of 8:00, as we are considerably farther north as well. This will make dinner time more interesting. We will be in NT for the next week or so before crossing into Queensland, which is, of course, in a totally different time zone. Also, the speed limit in NT is 130 (about 80 mph) so that is awesome. But we’re really not in a rush, so I keep it around 115 due to the gas prices mentioned below.

Gas is starting to get more expensive. We fill up for 1.86/liter. That’s over $7/gallon. Gas was $1.15 in Melbourne, and I think it’s only going to get more expensive until we get to Cairns. At least it’s still cheaper than New Zealand. Our final destination tonight is the Curtain Springs Cattle Station. They allow freedom camping and it’s about a 100km drive to Uluru so it’s a good place to spend the night after a long day on the road.

After loading up on gas at Erlunda (price of $1.80/liter) we head to Curtain Springs. When we arrive it’s only about 4:00. We fill up on gas and figure we may as well keep going (I mean isn’t that what Forest Gump would do?). But as we are about to pay for fuel a worker comes out and tells us that a sand storm is coming, and it will be here any minute. We look off to the south. Damn, there it is. We can barely see the mountain from earlier as a red sand cloud has engulfed it. We park the van and head inside to take shelter. We order a crappy Australian beer and sit at the bar awaiting the storm.

The storm is moving really slowly. 20 minutes later it looks no closer. Off to the west it seems fine, and that’s where we’re going. We decide that the storm is not going to hit us and get back on the road. We drive for a little less than an hour and stop at rest stop that allows freedom camping near Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park. My app says this is a good spot to camp and if you climb the little sand dune you can see Uluru.

We park and head up the sand dune. It’s red sand, which I’ve never seen before, and I find it fascinating, like one of those nature shows I’ve watched about Namibia. Sure enough, at the top of the dune, the famous Uluru comes into sight. There it is: the largest single rock in the entire world, rising over 1000 feet from the ground, and surely far more into it. It’s 6 miles in circumference. Basically, it’s frikin’ big. And it’s really red. It’s the same sandstone found in the American Southwest, just on a grander scale. And other than Kata Tjuta 35 miles west, there is no other rock in the vicinity. It makes you wonder: how the hell did it get here?

We cook dinner and try to keep the flies away as the daylight fades. After we pack up dinner we decide to drive another 10 miles to another freedom camping spot. It’s a bush camp on the side of the road and it’s a bit sketch but we find it suitable for tonight. As we get into bed we notice just how damn hot it is in the van. It’s going to be really tough to sleep. We are both sweating and although we have the sunroof and the windows open we aren’t getting much of a breeze. We would leave the doors open, but dingoes hang out in this area. And I don’t really want to wake up to a dingo gnawing at my leg. We will just have to deal with the heat.

Day 9:

The morning is far cooler than the night before. It has actually become comfortable in the van. No sweating anymore. We pack and up and head to the park. But first, we stop off at Yulara, the little township outside the park that has all the hotels, stores, restaurants, and campsites that are officially managed by the park. We want to inquire about the weather because it’s really cloudy outside right now. It’s the third day in a row we are dealing with clouds. This is the middle of the desert – there are supposed to be no clouds!

The extended forecast is for partly cloudy skies with the chance of a thunderstorm here or there. A thunderstorm would be pretty cool, as it hardly ever rains here. But for now it is just clouds. There is some blue in the sky as we head towards the park. $25 a head and you get entry for three days. It makes me miss the US National Park system where you pay at most $20 per vehicle for a seven day pass. Oh well. We drive towards the rock in awe of its majesty. It’s one of the most iconic symbols of Australia and now we can see why.

The first thing we want to see is if the summit walk is open. There is controversy around this hike. The Aboriginal people request that you don’t hike it, as the rock is sacred to them and they don’t want anybody to touch it. But people come from all over the world to see and climb the rock, so they don’t forbid it, just urge against it. We respect their culture, but the thought of standing on top of the rock trumps pretty much everything else. That, and by now we have realized that pretty much everything that isn’t flat barren land is sacred here, so the word has kind of lost its meaning. It doesn’t seem special when everything is sacred. So we want to climb. Unfortunately, the park service closes the hike every day that the forecast is over 36 degrees (about 96 F), which is basically every day from October to April, so we are screwed. Apparently 35 people have died trying to reach the summit. It’s very steep and strenuous, even if not long. It’s about a 45 degree slope the entire way up. Even with a chain to help you that still seems tough. So thanks to those people who perished on the rock we cannot climb today. And the extended forecast is for 38, 40, and 36 degrees, so we are SOL.

After some pictures from a distance with some blue skies that have emerged we decide to head to Kata Tjuta, otherwise known as the Olgas. This is the lesser known of the Australian icons. Instead of one solid rock this is a series of cobbled sandstone mounds that rise just as high as Uluru. Form the air it almost looks like a foot with five toes. We will head there soon, but first I’m gonna do a camel ride.

I’ve never rode a camel before so we head to Uluru Camel Tours for a 10 minutes camel ride. Nimarta has rode a camel before so she sits out while I ride Coober the camel around with Uluru views in the background. It’s basically the same as riding a horse except the camel is a bit more tame (maybe that’s just an individual thing with the particular camel and horse I rode?). I thank Coober for the ride and we head off to the Olgas.

After a few photo ops we head to the Valley Gorge walk. The main hike over here is closed due to heat (of course) so we will have to do this one today and the other one in the morning. There really aren’t too many hiking trails in the park. To be exact, not including the Uluru summit, there are three trails. That’s it. The Aboriginals share their land with us, but they really don’t want us exploring too much of it, it seems. It’s a bit disappointing, but it is hard to complain, as we are grateful that they give us the opportunity to come and view the land.

The hike is short through two of the “toes” of the Olgas. My first observation is that these red sandstone rocks are different than anything I have ever seen before. Instead of a solid rock, they seem to be like a concrete structure formed together by medium sized stones and red sand mortar. It’s one of the most unusual things I’ve ever seen. In all the red rocks I’ve seen in the US none are like this. Uluru, just 35 miles away, is not like this. Why are these rocks like this? There are no explanations given, as the visitor’s center gives only Aboriginal cultural information, nothing about the geology and science behind the rock formations (as I assume since the Aboriginals don’t believe in the science they forbid it from being described on their land?). I ponder why these rocks look like exposed aggregate concrete as we walk the trail, trying to stay ahead of the bus-loads of tours.

At the end of the trail we get a nice view through the valley. There is a surprising amount of green here. Fertile trees in the valley seem out of place, but I guess there is water here at some times. Not today though – who knows the last time it rained here. Judging by the flies, who are apparently attracted to moisture, it has been a while. We sit in peace and quiet at the end of the trail and listen to the birds sing and the flies buzz.

Back at the carpark we decide to head to the sunset viewing point and make dinner. There won’t be much of a sunset tonight, as the clouds have come in pretty heavy now. But we would still like to watch the daylight fade over the Olgas. We find a picnic spot with a nice view and cook some beans and rice (our dinner for the last three nights – here’s to budget travelling yay). I open a bottle of wine and pour our glasses. But as I take the first sip I realize we have made a big mistake. The wine is literally hot. Red wine is not meant to be cold, but it’s also not meant to be hot. It’s awful. I pour it back in the bottle and chuck it in the fridge for tomorrow night.

The fridge really hasn’t been working since we got to central Australia. I have it set to the coldest setting, which should make it a freezer. But things inside are barely cold enough to call cold. It’s just too hot here in the desert. The first week of our road trip the fridge worked fine, but now as we are dealing with temperatures approaching 100 degrees, and higher in the van, the fridge just can’t work hard enough to keep things cold. It is just “cold enough” I would say. The wine will be drinkable tomorrow.

Our campsite tonight is the side of a dirt road leading out to Western Australia. We try to find an actual campsite I saw on my app, but the road is getting too sandy and we don’t want to get stuck. A police officer patrolling the WA border says if we can’t find the campsite we can just pull over and sleep on the side of the road, so that’s exactly what we do. We even have a view of the Olgas in the moonlight. Again, it’s hot as hell and sleeping is difficult but there aren’t a whole lot of other options here. We will have to fight the heat.

Day 10:

We awake a half hour before sunrise. It’s 5:30 in the morning. We rush over to the Olgas sunrise viewing point where we find about eight tour busses already parked. The tour busses are starting to get really annoying. It’s quite cloudy but the bright red sun rises over the horizon before disappearing behind a cloud a few minutes later. No light shines on the Olgas but we get a good view or Uluru with the red sun to its right. We’ll take it.

By 6:45 we have started the Valley of the Winds hike in the Olgas. We have to beat the tour groups. It’s a 7 km loop through the rocks with some great views. It’s actually the nicest day we have had since the first day in Coober Pedy. It’s not totally clear, but there is enough blue sky and sunshine to make the hike enjoyable. The light shines on the red rocks and gives us beautiful photo opportunities. There are a few other couples hiking with us so we get a few pictures together. The walk takes us through some of the giant rocks and shoots us out into a valley with smaller rocks on the other side. The clouds start to roll in as we finish the hike around 9:00 AM. Good timing.

We wave goodbye to the Olgas as we head back towards Uluru. It’s only about 10:00 when we arrive to the Uluru cultural center. We wash up and decide to have an early lunch. We have been up for nearly five hours already so it makes sense. After eating Nimarta feels her energy return and we decide to take on the Uluru Base Walk before the heat of mid-afternoon sets in. It’s just past 11:00 when we start and it’s starting to get hot. The forecast today is for about 39 degrees (just over 100 F). That’s like a cool summer day in Vegas!

The walk around the rock is just over six miles. The summit hike is closed again, of course, so this will have to do. It’s actually quite cool and gives us all sorts of different views of the monolith. We also get to see all sorts of caves where the Aborigines used to have meetings and make fires. One thing I notice is that the information boards talk a lot about how women weren’t allowed in the men’s chambers and men weren’t allowed in the women’s chambers. It’s not too different than Indian culture!

The sun is shining pretty hard now. The clouds have disappeared over the rock and we get some nice blue sky views. But this also means it feels even hotter. Nimarta scolds me for starting the hike too early, saying it would be better if we started later in the afternoon. But I stick to my theory that the hottest time of the day is mid to late afternoon and we keep on trekking around the rock, guzzling water like a thirty camel. By the end of the hike we have seen the rock from all directions, seen all the caves, and got in touch with the spirit of the rock. We’ve also walked over 24 km today in the hot sun. Nimarta is tired but is grateful we are back at the van and doesn’t want to chop my head off anymore. I’m pretty tired too but I remain strong and don’t let any weakness show in front of her. Like I said, a walk in the park on a cool summer day in Vegas.

After the hike we head back to Yulara and relax. We have a few hours before sunset. Around 5:45 we hop in the van and head over to the Uluru sunset viewing point. It’s pretty crowded by the time we get there but we find a nice spot and set up our table and chairs. One of Nimarta’s dreams since the first time she visited Uluru is to have a candlelight dinner over a bottle of wine in front of the rock. So now that dream will come true. We take out the bottle of wine that was in the fridge from last night and it is much tastier now that it’s not burning hot. We cheers and sit back to relax and watch the sun set.

One of the things Uluru is known for is appearing to change colors at different times of the day. During sunset it becomes a bright red. It’s pretty cloudy, so we don’t get a really good sunset, but the light is shining enough to turn the rock into the bright red color we were expecting. It’s beautiful how it changes, like a chameleon. Everyone is taking photos and we do the same. It’s a magical time and we can’t think of any better way to spend our last night in the park.

As the sun drops below the horizon the moon comes out. It’s a full moon tonight, and it appears a bright yellow color to the left of the rock. It lights up the sky as the daylight fades over Uluru. We didn’t ask for a full moon but we are certainly glad it has happened! I take out the stove and start to cook dinner. Noodles and soup, only the best for our candlelight dinner. We light the candles and they glow on the table as we drink our wine and cook our noodles. People are starting to leave now and there are just a few cars remaining, the last of the people taking pictures of the full moon and the rock.

Most people are gone by the time we start eating over candlelight. It’s nice and cool now outside and flies are starting to go away, as they don’t like the night time. It’s almost perfect. Soon we are alone. The rock is visible in the moonlight and we watch in awe as we finish our meals. Some people pay hundreds of dollars to do a tour that includes a candlelight dinner at Uluru. We just made our own! What a great way to say goodbye to this magical place.



We park the van at another bush campsite place I found on my app. There appears to be no one else here and we set up our bed. Again, it’s super hot and sleeping will be difficult. But this is compounded by the dingoes. I read that we would probably hear dingoes howling at night near the park and we hear them now. They are pretty much Australian coyotes. They appear to be pretty close, and this freaks the hell out of Nimarta. I try to calm her nerves by telling her that dingoes don’t just attack people. But she is really nervous since we have the bed set up with the back open, only covered by a tarp. Nimarta swears she hears one walk right by the van. I tell her we can move the van to be closer to the road and I jump into the driver’s seat and move the van onto the side of the road a few kilometers down towards Yulara. We adjust the bed back to the interior setup and try to get some sleep. No dingoes can get us in here, I say. Now all we have to worry about, once again, is the heat.

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