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Australia & New Zealand – Days 5, 6 & 7: The Australian Outback

We arrived into Ayers Rock Airport shortly after 9:00 AM from Cairns. The first thing we noticed was there was a time zone shift of 30 minutes – I’ve never had that before! Upon entering the airport, the first sign we saw was about being safe when in the presence of dingos and wild dogs. I can hear a joke in Jeff Foxworthy’s voice starting with “You know you’re in Australia when…”

We then boarded our airport transfer to our hotel. The way Ayers Rock or Uluru is set up is there is a town named Yulara which is where all the people stay when they come to visit. There are a few hotels within Yulara which are all situated around a ring road. They all have a shared airport shuttle and a free shuttle around the ring road as some hotels have things other hotels don’t, like a bar. We elected to go with the budget hotel, Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge, as we were only staying there for one night and only needed a place to rest our heads. Upon arrival at the hotel, we found out our room was not yet ready so we dropped our bags off and headed to a lookout in the middle of the ring road which overlooked Uluru. The footpath was very sandy which made it a bit difficult to use my crutches, but the view was definitely worth it!

We continued across the ring road until we hit the main town square, where there were a few souvenir shops, a tour office, a supermarket, a coffee shop and a restaurant. The restaurant closed after breakfast at 10:00 AM & didn’t open for lunch until 11:00 AM, so we grabbed a coffee and a few snacks at the coffee shop and relaxed until the restaurant opened. Geckos Cafe, the restaurant, had a pretty standard menu so I went with the waygu burger which hit the spot. After lunch, we walked along the ring road to explore a bit more before arriving at the hotel. While it was not peak bug season (the summer), the bush flies were a bit difficult for me to deal with because I couldn’t swat them away when I was walking because I use crutches and need my hands to walk! We eventually arrived at the hotel and found out that our room wouldn’t be ready for another 45 minutes, so we relaxed by the pool until it was ready. Then, my Dad and brother grabbed some bug spray out of our bag and headed back out to get some exercise in while I repacked our bags to make it easier to move around over the next few days until we did laundry.

At about 2:45 PM, we were picked up by AAT Kings tours who would be our tour provider for the next three days until we arrived in Alice Springs. Our first stop was the Cultural Center, where we learned a bit about the customs of the Aboriginals, specifically the Anangu people, who are made up of four distinct tribes unified under one name and were the original inhabitants of the land. First, we learned about how the Aboriginals got their land back from the Australian government in 1985 after proving that they were the rightful owners of the land. Over the following years, the town and air strip were relocated from next to Uluru to a few miles away where we were staying in Yulara to give their sacred site a respectful amount of space. We then learned that the local Aboriginals only share certain stories with the “white people” (their words, not mine), so the stories we learned were a few of the ones they tell their children when they are growing up. After our visit to the Culture Center concluded, we boarded our coach and headed towards Uluru. On the way, our tour guide explained that Uluru was created 400 million years ago as part of the Alice Springs Orogeny, a mountain building event, which forced the ground to come up at a 45 degree angle. This is why Uluru has stratified marks in vertical lines instead of the traditional horizontal lines.

Our guide then told us three of the stories the Anangu shared.

  1. The first story was the Mala Story which begins with a group of Mala people who set eyes on Uluru and identified it as a good place to have a ceremony named inma. Once this ceremony starts, it cannot be interrupted. The men and the women were making preparations for the ceremony when two men from a different tribe, Wintalka, approached the Mala people and invited them to join their ceremony. When they declined the invitation because their ceremony was already underway, the Wintalka men were enraged and told the rest of their tribe. They created an evil spirit in the form of a devil dog to ruin the Mala people’s inma. This dog was named Kurpany & it shifted itself into many types of animals on its way to the Mala. One of the older Mala fishing women, Luunpa, spotted the spirit and tried to warn the men running the ceremony who dismissed her. The spirit eventually attacked the ceremony and killed some of the Mala people & chased the rest of the people south. Today, Luunpa keeps watch over Uluru in the form of a rock and you can see the dog’s footprints in the form of holes on the side of Uluru. The story teaches the importance of listening to others.

  2. The second story is about a battle between a Kuniya woman (a python) and Liru (a poisonous snake). The story goes that the Kuniya woman took her eggs to the base of Uluru to be born. She made deep marks in the rock as she traveled away from Uluru. At one point, the Kuniya woman needed to avenge the death of her nephew who was killed by the Liru when they threw spears (the holes the spears made can still be seen on Uluru today) at him. The Kuniya woman was so enraged she ran over to the Liru camp, but they just made fun of her. She began a ceremony with her walking stick, the mira, and hit the Liru snake with it twice. Today, you can still see the Liru’s head as a boulder next to Uluru and two cracks in Uluru are where she struck the Liru. This battle took place at the Mutitjulu Waterhole and illustrates the importance of respecting others.

  3. The third story is about the Lungkata, a lizard, who was hunting and came across a wounded emu who had been hit by another group of hunters. He knowingly took these hunters prey and ate it, which was something that was not acceptable in Anangu culture. The hunters followed the trail of blood and emu parts to a fire the Lungkata made to cook the emu. After being confronted by the hunters, the Lungkata denied taking their prey three times before the hunters left. Later that evening, the Lungkata choked on the smoke of the fire and was burned by the flames until he turned into a rock which is now on the side of Uluru. The residue of the smoke from the flames can also be seen on the side of Uluru in the form of distinct discolorations. The story is meant to illustrate the importance of being honest.

As we were driving around Uluru our tour guide told us a few times not to take pictures of certain parts of the rock at the request of the Anangu people. They claim these parts of the rock are sacred, but won’t tell the “white people” why. After about a half hour drive, we arrived at the path to Mutitjulu Watering Hole, also known as Maggie Springs. Along the short path to the watering hole, our tour guide pointed out a few of the rock features that are referenced during the children’s stories, specifically of the snake in the Liru story.

We also stopped to look at some of the cave paintings and learned what some of the symbols meant. A “U” for instance meant a person sitting down because that is the shape you leave if you sit in the dirt with no clothes on &, depending on what was next to the “U”, you could distinguish between a man, woman or child. We also saw boomerang symbols on the ceiling of the cave.

Our tour guide then brought us to the watering hole & explained that the area floods above knee level when it rains.

We then boarded our bus and headed to the sunset viewing area to watch Uluru change colors as the sun set behind us. The tour company set up refreshments for us to enjoy while we watched the sun hit the rock causing slight color variations.

After about a half hour, the sun set and we boarded our bus to go to a BBQ dinner. While there were no shrimp on the barbie when we got there, there were delicious garlic shrimp and chicken skewers. I wasn’t a huge fan of the sirloin steak they did cook on the BBQ or the kangaroo and lamb meat, but the next part is what made the night worth it. After dessert, all the lights were shut off and we turned our attention to the night sky. I have never seen so many stars in my life. For the first time in my life, I saw the Milky Way Galaxy with my naked eyes in vivid detail. Over the course of the next 15 minutes, our tour guide pointed out various stars, planets, constellations & taught us how to find due north in the Southern Hemisphere. Then, a different guide threw out so many numbers about the number of stars and planets in a successful attempt to make us all feel insignificant. We also saw shooting star!After our astronomy lesson, we headed back to the hotel for the evening.

The following morning we had an early start – a 6:05 AM pickup to go to a viewing platform to watch Uluru during sunrise. With the sun at our back, there were slight color variations on the horizon next to Uluru.

We then headed off to another famous rock near Uluru, Kata Tjuta. This rock formation has 36 domes and was made in a similar way to that of Uluru. As this formation was also a sacred site, the Anangu only give us access to a portion the site. The site is so sacred that even women and uninitiated males are not allowed to even look at it. Obviously, that only applies to the Aboriginals as we had women and children on our tour. After about 45 minutes, we arrived at a viewing platform so we could see Kata Tjuta from a distance.

After another 10 minutes, we arrived at Walpa Gorge which translates to Windy Gorge where we were able to walk about 1.6km into a crevice between two of the domes where we, as outsiders, had access to. The walk was quite rocky, but not to bad for me as most of the rocks were set and not loose. This makes it easier for my crutches as I do not need to worry about slipping out. During the walk, it was hard not to look up and admire the beautiful stripes along the rocks. As soon as you looked up, though, a gust of wind would remind you why you weren’t looking up in the first place. At the end of the walk was a viewing platform where you could see the light through the end of the gap between the two rocks.After we got back on the bus, we stopped for a few minutes at another viewing location for Kata Tjuta.

It was then time to head back to the main town as our tour was over. On the way back, our guide gave us a brief history lesson on how the “white people” first discovered Uluru & Kata Tjuta.We also learned about the four main types of plants and trees in the Outback – the mulga tree, spinefex grass, desert oak tree & gum trees. Upon arrival back in town, we hopped off the bus at the town square stop as we had about an hour and a half to kill before we needed to be back at our hotel to grab a bus. After doing a bit of research and realizing that most of the restaurants in the various hotels around the area were closed during lunch hours, we eventually headed to one of the hotels where we ate at Mangata Bistro & Bar. I ordered a brisket burger which was actually more like a brisket sandwich, but it was one of the best meals I’ve had during my time in Australia! After lunch, I caught the free shuttle back to my hotel so I could avoid walking outside with the bugs.

At 1:05 PM, we boarded a bus at our hotel headed to Kings Canyon, about 4 hours away. Along the way, the bus stopped at two roadside service areas which also doubled as camping grounds for people traversing the Outback. Both had tents and camper vans as far as the eye could see. About three quarters of the way to Kings Canyon, our bus stoped and met up with two other buses. Some people transferred to the other buses which were headed to Alice Springs and Uluru, but most people stayed on the same bus. We arrived into Kings Canyon at around 5:30 PM where we checked into our basic accommodation before grabbing dinner at the one sit down restaurant in town, Carmichael’s which is associated with the only hotel in town. The menu was eclectic as the town only gets things delivered once a week, but we each ordered a ribeye steak, which is called a Scotch Filet in Australia. I was more excited about dessert, though. I had been keeping my eye out for a pavlova cake since I landed because I remembered loving them when I went to Australia the first time when I was 12. The cake was so sweet & was essentially a large piece of meringue. It was also delicious.

My brother decided to head to bed shortly after dinner because he had an early morning hike the following morning, but my Dad and I headed down to the main strip of town which had a bar with live music (The Thirsty Dingo), BBQ counter & convenience store as we did not know that there would not be any cell phone service or free WiFi at the resort. I quite liked the idea of being detached from the rest of the world for a night, but we needed to give the rest of our family a heads up that we would be unreachable for the next day or so as they may get nervous. We wound up buying $5AUD WiFi to send a quick note and headed back to our room for the night. We had all been waking up consistently before dawn for hikes, flights and tour departures, it was great to be able to head to bed relatively early.

The following morning, the tour company offered two guided hikes. The first one left at 6:45 AM and was around the top rim of Kings Canyon where you needed to climb 500 steep, rocky steps up and then had a 6km walk around the top rim before heading back down. Our tour guide made it sound like it was a very difficult hike and that you shouldn’t do it if you had a fear of heights or weren’t in prime physical condition, so it discouraged my father from doing it. I wasn’t planning on doing it from the start, but my brother, who is a hiking enthusiast, woke up early in the morning to meet the bus. Unfortunately, the clock on the bus was running fast and the bus driver left early. That didn’t stop him, though, as he headed to the gas station and was able to grab a ride to the hike with a few people that were going that way.

The second option was a much easier 4km hike into the middle of the canyon where you stayed on the canyon floor. Aside from a few areas where you had to climb up a few stairs made out of rocks, it was very mindless walk. There also wasn’t that much to see, unfortunately. The walk was along the side of a dry creek that runs when it rains, but we learned a few things like how tadpoles will come out when it rains but go into hibernation under the rocks when it goes dry. They slow their heart down to one or two beats a year! Overall, the walk was more about just seeing the beauty of the canyon.

Unfortunately, the viewing platform was under construction so we couldn’t see the end of the walk, but I still enjoyed the opportunity to be outside. I also had the chance to try out a fly net that I bought the day prior – while it does the job, it also made it very hard to see when the sun was in your eyes. That being said, I was happy I had it as it was quite buggy!

After the walk, we met up with my brother who must have passed the tour group that did the full hike as he was down a good 45 minutes before them. Once everyone was accounted for, we headed back to the hotel to change and boarded our next bus at around 11:30 AM to head to our next city, Alice Springs. About 15 minutes into the drive, we stopped at one of the service stations we stopped at the day before to grab lunch, where I had an Aussie burger – a burger with a fried egg and beat on top. It was quite good.

We had quite a long time for lunch as we were meeting up with other buses again (one going to Kings Canyon and one to Uluru) and one bus got delayed, but eventually got on the road. Along the way, we saw wild horses and camels. I never realized that there are over one million wild camels in Australia – they were brought over to assist with the construction of telegram lines across the Outback and let lose when construction was complete. Now, they are a national pest as declared by the Australian government as they take out fences and cause a lot of damage. We eventually made it to Alice Springs at about 7:00 PM.

We didn’t have an plans in Alice Springs with the exception of doing laundry before our flight out the following afternoon, but I did not realize that the town is not the safest. Apparently there are very high racial tensions with the Aboriginals and everyone else, so most people actually stay on the grounds of their hotels in the evening. Had I known this in advance, I would have booked us in a nicer hotel as we stayed in at an ibis Styles hotel in an area of town that, again I did not realize, was not the safest. As we were walking to our room I noticed the hotel grounds were surrounded with barbed wire. Given that, we did laundry at the hotel and tried to grab dinner in the bar. Unfortunately, the bar kitchen closed at 8:00 PM, so we ordered delivery from a Chinese food restaurant. The food came, but we did not realize utensils were missing until after the driver left. Given everything was closed, we wound up using makeshift utensils to eat. I ate with chopsticks made out of toothbrushes, my brother ate with a scooper from his whey protein bag & my father turned the cover of the soup container into a eating utensil.

The following morning, we headed to the airport to catch our flight to New Zealand, connecting through Sydney!

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