Red Centre Two - 16 to 18 January 2011

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February 3rd 2011
Published: February 3rd 2011
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We left Uluru and Katja Tjuta which had been an amazing experience and we joined a coach travelling to Kings Canyon. The coach was quite empty but we did meet a couple from Bridgewater in the UK called Sue and Nigel (Bob your home town) and they did know someone in their town with the surname of Rich. They had travelled quite extensively and were later going on to Fiji before returning home to the UK. Sue I hope you manage to read our blog and pick up some useful tips for a trip to New Zealand as we are sure you will both love it. The coach journey to the Kings Canyon was long and even in the air conditioned coach it was extremely hot as it motored along dead straight roads. We passed by beautiful desert landscapes which stretched for miles in every direction and was so very different from anything we had seen before. As we travelled along the Stuart Highway you realised that you really were in the middle of nowhere, particularly when thick stumps of tumbleweed blew across the road in front of us and hit the sides of the coach. We had an expert guide and driver called Tony who kept us entertained with his anecdotes and gave us detailed information about the land and people in the area. He told us about a chap called Jack Cotterill, who with his wife Elsie and sons John and Jim left England and came to Australia in 1952. Jack became involved in the tourist trade in Alice Springs and fell in love with the wild Australian bush. In 1960 he travelled with his son Jim to Kings Creek, the last 70 miles of which was through creeks, gullies and ranges as there were no roads. He returned to Alice sold his business and set out to establish a tourist centre in Kings Canyon but first had to cut a road through virgin scrub and sandhills for 64 miles which they did doing most of the work themselves through the long hot summer on 1960. By the end of the year they saw the completion of the road and had erected a building to accommodate 20 people. This road has made it possible for so many people to visit Kings Canyon today. They called it Wallara and embarked on a 16 year association with Kings Canyon. After John’s death in 1976 his son Jim continued to run Wallara Ranch for many years and it became established with locals and internationals as a genuine “Aussie” part of the Central Australian tourist scene. In 1990 after several years unsuccessfully negotiating to renew his lease he was told that it would not be. He went into town hired a bulldozer, returned to his beloved Wallaha, knocked it down, dug a hole and buried it. Jim now lives back in Alice Springs although he still after all this time longs to be at Wallara. A sad story but it helped to pass away the long journey to Kings Canyon on the coach. We finally stopped for a much wanted break (a long drop loo!) and had a good view of Atila (Mount Connor) sometimes mistaken for Uluru, in a unique setting in the middle of the desert. About half way to the Canyon we linked up with another coach that was going in the opposite direction to Alice Springs and several travellers got off to join our coach but there still was only seven of us actually going on the Kings Canyon, where we finally arrived in the late afternoon. We were staying at Kings Canyon Lodge, a hotel in the middle of nowhere. Our room had a veranda that overlooked the bush and several colourful birds were in the trees just outside our room including a couple of Port Lincoln Ringneck Parrots. The ‘Port Lincoln’ is the most common parrot in Western Australia but very colourful. It occurs in abundance in any arid areas that have river red gums (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) where it makes in nests in the hollows of the trees. We had dinner in the bar before walking to a viewing area and watched the sunset behind Carmichaels Crag with marvellous views of Kings Canyon in the Watarrka National Park. The next day we had a choice of undertaking a crater rim walk or a walk along the boulder-strewn canyon floor, as it was extremely hot we chose the latter which we thought would be cooler and did not mean having to climb numerous steps in temperatures which were bordering around the low forties. We walked along a dried up river bed with beautiful coloured gum trees with glimpses of the canyon rim towering above. Our guide stopped and gave us information about the flora and fauna as well as details of the local Aborigine peoples. It was extremely hot and we were so glad that we did not undertake the crater rim walk that day. At the end of the trail there was a look out point with views of the crater above and we stopped and enjoyed the view. A sign nearby indicated the end of the trail as further on was a sacred site for the Lurijta People. We looped back around a small watering hole (billabong) and were lucky enough to see a flock of budgerigars arrive and skim over the rocks and water. Having never seen these birds in the wild we were all delighted to be in the ‘right place at the right time’. I have vivid childhood memories of a large aviary in our family garden in Pickwick, Corsham, full of these colourful birds that my father and mother used to keep and never imagined being able to see them in the wild let alone in such huge numbers. The ‘budgies’ that we kept as pets in the aviary were in a variety of colours but these in the Canyon were all green with yellow forehead and throat. Our guide told us that these wild budgerigars are quite small, slim, athletic birds when compared to pet or show birds; exhibition budgies may be four times heavier than wild specimens! And while there are potentially more than 20 million different colour combinations in the modern exhibition budgerigars, wild ones are always green. Any significant variation on this would make the bird stand out from the crowd, and therefore, an easy target for predators like hawks. We returned back to our accommodation to pack.
It was a shame that we only had a short stay at Kings Canyon as it was a special place but we had to move on to Alice Springs which most people know of from the novel ‘A Town Like Alice’ by Nevil Shute. Again we stopped midway on the road to meet up with the coach from Uluru and we were joined by another person before we proceeded to Alice Springs. This journey was also hot and long and we stopped only once at a midway station for afternoon tea which was truly welcome, although when we got off the coach the temperatures were in the high 40s and it was a case of getting inside as quickly as possible. Apart from this station there was nothing else on the road and we only passed a couple of other travellers, such a barren bleak area but nonetheless very picturesque. We did finally arrive in Alice Springs entering the town through Heavitree Gap, which is the southern entrance to the city of Alice Springs and in addition to the main road also carried the Todd River and Rail access. Alice Springs being the central point for ‘The Ghan’ a passenger train operating between Adelaide and Darwin crossing through the centre of Australia. It was quite strange seeing the road, river and rail squeezing through this narrow natural gap in the MacDonnell Ranges. The Gap was an important sacred site for the Arrernte people and its use as a thoroughfare was avoided prior to the construction of the road and later rail link, even today some aborigines do not like to go through the gap and if they do so they avert their eyes. We only had a couple of days in Alice so on arrival we asked the concierge whether there was any tours going out to the West MacDonnell Ranges and Gorges which we particularly wanted to see. We were lucky as he managed to find one operator running as this was the quiet season not many operators were going out on these tours. The next morning as we waited for our transport we met up with Andy who had just returned from a Balloon trip over the Outback, we had met him and Lyn his wife in Uluru previously. They were to Darwin later that day traveling on The Ghan Railway so we were unable to meet up but we agreed to try and see them in Sydney at some point. Our transport arrived a little late but reception had come out to say that there had been a little hitch, not sure what it was though but it was good of them to let us know! The coach did arrive and on boarding we noted that most of our fellow travellers were of the ‘young set’ – should be a fun trip and it was! We travelled towards the MacDonnell Ranges and stopped at the Flying Doctor's Memorial, dedicated to John Flynn (1880-1951), founder of an airborne medical service providing emergency and primary health care to people living in Australia's Outback. Since its founding in 1928 as the Aerial Medical Service, the Royal Flying Doctor Service, informally known as the Flying Doctor, has helped thousands of people unable to reach a hospital or a general medical practitioner due to the vast distances of the Australian Outback. The Flying Doctor's Memorial is in John Flynn's Memorial Historical Reserve where Flynn's ashes and those of his wife Jean are buried. The grave is on a low hill at the foot of the MacDonnell Ranges. The plaque expresses a lifetime achievement in just a few lines “His vision encompassed the continent. He established the Australian Inland Mission and founded the Royal Flying Doctor Service. He brought to lonely places a spiritual ministry and spread a mantle of safety over them by medicine and the radio.” The grave had a huge round stone on top of it, which apparently had been replaced because the original was sacred to the Aborigines and they replaced it with another. We continued on to Simpsons Gap National Park, a beautiful area 20 km to the west of Alice Springs. There were pools in the sandy river bottom and we were lucky enough to see several of the rare Black-footed Rock Wallabies sunbathing on the rocks. It was a little annoying as we did not have our close up lens, but managed to get a couple of distant shots of these unique and rare animals. Our next stop was Standley Chasm, there are many beautiful sites in the Outback, but probably the most beautiful one to us was this Chasm. As we walked along to the Chasm the red rocks, blue skies, white ghost gums, olive cycadees and even a creek full of water made the place quite unreal, although the huge spider webs which we tried to avoid on the trail took some getting used to! We made our way back to the starting point and our driver/guide had prepared morning coffee and biscuits which were very welcome, however he had to return along the walk to find a couple of the ‘young girls’ who had got lost. They were eventually found and had missed the track as it crossed the river which was quite easy to do as we had only just found the trail ourselves. We continued on to Ormiston Gorge a tributary of the Finke River (the longest inland river in Oz), this is one of the most impressive gorges in Australia. With walls over 300 metres high in places, the Gorge is a fascinating place to explore and we were lucky enough to spend some time here just to relax and swim in the ice cool water. It was lovely to cool down but what was so magical was swimming in this unique area with huge red cliffs all around us, birds singing softly in the trees and the peace and quiet was truly wonderful. The famous Ochre Pits was our next stop and also well worth a visit if you are ever this way. The ochre is the natural mineral paint used by the Aboriginals for their paintings and ceremonies. It's very impressive to see how many different colors can be found here side by side in the cliff face. You are not allowed to remove anything from the area but several of our ‘young’ group managed to paint themselves with the ochre, one girl was quite perturbed as her partner painted a heart on her leg which she could not remove - must be love……………. We then continued to Ellery Gorge at Ellery Creek Big Hole which is a good swimming spot as this large permanent waterhole is sixty foot deep with very clear water. The waterhole is also part of the Finke River, which is believed to be one of the oldest rivers on earth (15 million years old). Most of the time the Finke River is dry, like any other river in the Outback but there are several waterholes (billabongs) where the water is deep and cold, so these never dry out completely. This year the Red Centre has had more rain than the previous seven years so there is much more water than normal (as there seems to be all over Oz) and we have been lucky enough to see a very ‘Green’ Red Centre during our stay. Even though our transport had air conditioning, it was a very welcome opportunity to arrive at Ellery Creek and take our second cool swim of the day; we particularly liked this billabong with more steep red mountains all around and soft sand beneath our feet, although there were also some slippery rocks underfoot but nonetheless such luxury in the middle of the desert. We continued on to Glen Helen where we went for a short walk along the riverbank through some tall reeds (watching out for snakes underfoot) before wandering back to a small café on the edge of the river which takes its charm from its traditional bush welcome and atmosphere. The view of stunning cliffs and the riverbed as we had a cold beer and relaxed on the back verandah chatting to our guide and fellow travellers was wondrous, we could have stayed there forever…… Our guide was an extremely interesting chap with many stories to tell and on the way back to Alice he explained a little about the Aborigine Dreamtime. The ‘Dreaming’ is a term used by Aborigines to describe the relations and balance between the spiritual, natural and moral elements of the world. It is an English word but its meaning goes beyond any suggestion of a spiritual or dream-related state. Rather, the ‘Dreaming’ relates to a period from the origin of the universe to a time before living memory or experience - a time of creator ancestors and supernatural beings. As we travelled back to our hotel we passed by very unique natural rock formations and our guide explained that these features of the landscape are the most visible signs of the past activities of ancestral beings for the Aborigines. Aboriginal peoples living in different parts of Australia trace their origins directly from these great ancestral beings. When present day Aboriginal people walk through their country, they are continually reminded of the presence of the creator beings as they travel. This happens not only through the features of the landscape but also through songs, paintings and their ceremonies. The ‘Dreaming’ system of beliefs and philosophy has different names depending on the language of the speaker. The Pitjantjatjara and related desert peoples call it ‘Tjukurrpa’, the Kimberley peoples call it ‘Ngarrankrni’ and the Anmatyerre and related peoples call it ‘Altyerre’. 'Dreaming' is often used to refer to an individual's or group's set of beliefs or spirituality. For instance, an Aboriginal Australian might say that they have Kangaroo Dreaming or Honey Ant Dreaming, or any combination of Dreamings pertinent to their 'country'. Many artworks are visual representations of the symbols associated with the artist's dreaming and you can see this from those on sale throughout the region. The Alice Springs region has some significant Dreaming sites for the Caterpillar Dreaming (Yeperenye) located in the city and close by and our guide explained that the unique rock formations we were passing were like caterpillars and they really were………… although Paul said I had had too many glasses of wine and had started to develop a very vivid imagination (don’t know what he is talking about!) We arrived back at our hotel fully satisfied with our lovely day, we had seen so many natural wonders and experienced so many different things in such a short period of time but it was now time to move on again. We arrived back at our hotel in Alice and packed our bags for our flight back to Sydney in the morning and to wherever our onward journey took us. We awoke to the sounds of birds and went on to the balcony where we saw a flock of pale grey and pink cockatoos in the trees making quite a noise they must have awoken the whole hotel…. The flight back to Sydney went smoothly with lovely views out over the desert and as we arrived over the city we had a bird’s eye view of Sydney’s icons; the bridge and the opera house. We caught a taxi back to the Radisson to pick up our cases and asked the driver to then take us on to the Citigate our next location which was near Chinatown and within walking distance of Darling Harbour. We had managed to get a better rate here as the Radisson would still not negotiate a cheaper rate. The taxi driver was a very interesting chap, all of 70+ and his driving was something to experience or not as the case may be! He asked us where we came from; he thought we were Germans (we thought we sounded more like Aussies). He then proceeded to tell us that he was Turkish but was married to an English lady but he could not remember where she came from. He said it sounded like Swansea but it was not this city. We guessed a few places but he did not recognize any of them. So he proceeded to call his wife on his mobile phone not concentrating on his driving through the busy Sydney streets. His wife came on the phone and he held it out in the middle of the taxi so that we could also join in with the conversation still whilst he was swerving around the traffic…….. His wife said that she was born in Swindon, Wiltshire, ironically about 15 miles from where I was born. She did not know the County at all though as she had moved to Australia when she was only three. Looking back it was like something out of a comedy sketch as we had a surreal conversation with her over the phone as the taxi driver (her husband) negotiated the city streets. She said to him that he always forgot where she came from and she had told him many times to remember the Country ‘Sweden’ and change the ‘e’ for an ‘in’ but he said he always forgot (I wonder how many other passengers had experienced the same conversation!) She finally signed off, calling him darling and telling him to watch his driving – some hope we think! We were glad when we arrived at the Radisson but he has been extremely helpful and left me in the taxi (telling me not to let anyone drive it away!) whilst he helped Paul get our cases from the Concierge at the Radisson and then took us on to the Citigate Hotel, explaining all about the area and where to go and eat etc etc etc. Paul did actually give him a good tip as he did manage to get us there in one piece……….. Well here we are back in Sydney again and we now have to decide where we should go next, weather permitting – hopefully see you all there.


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