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Published: November 12th 2009
(Day 578 on the road)
"The heart. The soul. The centre." I am not quite convinced about the heart and the soul bit of Alice Springs' slogan that greeted me as I stepped off the train, but the part about the centre is certainly true: The city is located a very long way from anywhere else and sits approximately in the geographical centre of Australia. And with only 27.000 people living here, it must be one of the smallest cities that can claim that most people worldwide have probably heard of it. But of course it owes its fame entirely to nearby superstar Ayers Rock (still a six hour drive away though), the main if not the only reason most tourists come here.
I had arrived in Alice Springs on a 24-hour train journey from Darwin on the Ghan train (via Katherine and its Katherine Gorge), which connects Darwin in the north with Adelaide in the south, a distance of some 3000 kilometres. The Ghan takes its name from the Afghans on camels that opened up Australia's interior to the rest of the country. The line is a considerable engineering feast and traverses some of the most inhospitable terrain Australia has
to offer, having to deal with adverse natural conditions like flash flooding (which not so long ago used to wash away entire sections of the track), fire and termite attacks. The track linking Darwin with Alice Springs was only opened in 2004, and last year it carried just under 80.000 passengers at an average speed of . In comparison, the London underground carries around three million passengers a day.
In Alice Springs, I had barely checked into the hostel I was staying at when I met Eva, an Austrian woman who had just rented a camper van for seven days and was looking for someone to share the costs and the adventure. We had a short chat and 30 minutes later we agreed that we would make a good team and that we would tackle the outback together for the next few days. As we found out later, we didn't actually get along terribly well and unfortunately had a fair share of arguments over some silly things really. But considering that we only had a very short time to get to know each other before setting off in the very confined space of a camper van for four days
it went pretty well all in all. We spent the rest of the day preparing and shopping for food, and the next morning we set off early for the 450 kilometres, six hour drive to Ayers Rock (Uluru being the aboriginal name).
After initially mistaking Mt. Connor for Ayers Rock (apparently quite a number of people do that after driving for hours through the outback and looking out for Ayers Rock), we finally got our first glimpse in the early afternoon. And it was every bit as impressive as people tell you it would be. Often with these much-hyped attractions I find myself a bit disappointed when I actually do see them, but not so with Uluru. We took way too many pictures as we got closer and closer to this massive rock smack-bang in the middle of nowhere, and before long we were standing right next to it, leisurely strolling along its base. Perhaps the only thing to disturb the whole impressive scene were the super-persistent flies everywhere.
In the late afternoon we drove over to the designated sunset-point (luckily there is another one solely for buses), together with maybe 40 other cars and camper vans. Again,
it was every bit as magnificent as I had expected it to be - to see Ayers Rock change colour from a brown over a reddish to a dark orange glow in the course of no more than forty-five minutes as the sun was disappearing behind us was mesmerising. Most cars left immediately after sunset and soon we were the only two people left, enjoying majestic Uluru under a nearly perfect full moon, right until the national park ranger told us to leave as the park was closing for the day.
The next morning we were up early to catch the sunrise, but sharing the experience with bus-loads and bus-loads of tour groups somehow spoiled the whole thing for us. We left soon after the sun had appeared and drove to the base of the mountain, as I was eager to actually climb it. Now, climbing Uluru is quite controversial, as it represents a holy site for the Aborigines. But instead of closing the mountain for climbing, they leave the decision up to you. So in effect it is open, but at the same time they ask you not to climb it. How ambiguous! I figured if it was
really that holy they would simply not allow any climbing full stop, but of course as my Australian friend Steven pointed Ayers Rock it is the main icon of Australia and a major tourist magnet, so Aboriginal interested are probably taking a back seat over commercial interests here.
Anyway, I had decided to climb it, as it turned out together with a bus-load of Japanese tourists who seemed to have very little quarrel about the cultural and religious significance of the climb. I was amazed just how steep and slippery the mountain actually was, and climbing in my battered sandals (my hiking boots being in Sydney) didn't exactly make the undertaking any easier. For many sections of the way there were handrails for people to hold on to, and most people (including me) would not have been able to complete even the first 20 minutes without them. In fact, about 35 people have died on the climb so far, and I could easily see why: If you lost your grip or stumbled on the steep parts you would without doubt slide and fall to your sure death. Going up I saw a Japanese girl crying silently with her eyes
firmly shut, crouching down on the steep mountain and holding on to the handrail for dear life. Strangely, she refused any help whatsoever; I hope she made it down alright.
Well, and about halfway up the mountain on the very steepest bit my trusted sandals decided I had tortured them enough over the last 19 months, and tore completely in three different places at once. Luckily, I had anticipated this outcome (I had had them stitched up a number of times over the last few months and knew they were near the end of their life span) and had taken some tape with me for emergency repairs. However, I did not have enough tape for three different places, and was forced to use a bandage to literally tie the sandal to my foot just to make it down the mountain again, which was by no means an easy thing to do with broken and taped sandals.
Back down 30 minutes later I was pretty shattered; I had long wanted to climb Ayers Rock, but with no shoes it seemed impossible. But as so often in these seemingly hopeless situations a solution presented itself barely five minutes later. A
lovely American couple whom we had met in Alice Springs at the camper van rental place trodded along, and I asked him if he had a spare pare of shoes he could lent me for the climb. I would have taken any kind of shoe at that point to climb Uluru, and indeed he had a pair of very white, very American-looking trainers. But who am I to complain here?! Five minutes later I was climbing again. I guess I must have been the only person in a long time to climb Ayers Rock twice in a single day (well, one and a half times to be exact).
So in the end, it was all good. The view from the top was amazing, and I spent a long time just sitting up there, taking it all in. Back down in the car park Eva was just waking up from the nap she took whilst she was waiting for me - thanks for your patience Eva, it meant a lot to me! After a quick breakfast we were off to Kata Tjuta ("the Olgas"), another impressive rock formative just 30 minutes from Ayers Rock, where we did a lovely walk,
before driving on towards another wonderful sunset at King's Canyon in the Watarrka national park, possibly the visual highlight of our trip.
Now, King's Canyon might not be nearly as famous as Ayers Rock, but it is every bit as awesome if not more, even though the scenery could hardly be more different. As the name suggest, it is a pretty big canyon, and the best way to see it is to do the six kilometre loop walk around its rim. The heat was unforgiving with no shades at all for most of the way, and the walk took us about four hours due to the sheer beauty of the place, sweating like pigs all the way in the dry heat of 38 degrees. It is hard to describe this great place in words, but try to imagine a vast canyon, maybe two kilometres long, 500 metres wide and three hundred metres deep in places, with no fences or anything that prevents you from going right up to the edge (or rather robbing on your stomach in some of the scarier places as we did). Have a look at the picture and you will get a much better idea
of this what I am talking about.
The next day, it was time for Eva and me to part, as I had booked a flight down to Adelaide (considerably cheaper than the train and about half price compared to the Greyhound bus) and Eva wanted to explore the West MacDonnell Range. It was certainly the best way to see this amazing part of Australia, much better and not more expensive than taking an inflexible package tour.
Next stop: Adelaide to Melbourne via the Great Ocean Road (Australia).
To view my photos, have a look at pictures.beiske.com
. And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon
(and most other online book shops).
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