Outback Adventure – Part 2

Part 1 hopefully set the stage for what the Australian Outback is like, so now I’m gonna turn to what Catalina and I actually did over our 4.5 days there.

Jetstar flight JQ664 to Ayers Rock was scheduled for 9:20am, and we got to the airport at around quarter to – cutting it fine, but in a matter of minutes we’d checked in our luggage, shuffled through security and found ourselves in the brand-new Terminal 4 with 30 minutes or so still to go. So of course we did what anyone else does upon arriving at an airport in the morning: have breakfast at Macca’s.

Catalina had her first McMuffin ever that day – the first of several firsts on this trip, not all of them as benign as an egg & bacon roll unfortunately. We scoffed down our greasy deliciousness, scrunched up & disposed of the paper bag, and began strolling towards the gate, my McCoffee or whatever in hand. At one point I spotted our plane through a window so stopped to take a couple of photos – something to post on the ol’ IG/Fb while it taxis up to the runway, seconds before obeying the instructions to turn on Flight Mode…

We kept going and it was then that we happened to pass by a monitor listing all upcoming flights, and realised we’d fucked up royally:


I looked at Catalina, looked down at my ticket – yep, that says ‘Gate 49’ – and back up to the screen.


Boy did we run.

Coffee was erupting out of my McCup all over my hand but ain’t nobody got time for that when your plane’s about to shoot off into the sky without you – all because we decided to stop for some shitty McBreakfast.

Of course our gate was right at the far end of the terminal. People at other gates stared at us careening up the walkway as if we were being shot at – until we arrived at the uninhabited Gate 49, where two women in uniform awaited us, their faces securely locked to Bitch Mode as we came to a pathetic halt before them, panting and flustered, trying to look sorry and innocent and desperate at the same time.

“You can only board if they haven’t taken your luggage off yet,” one of them declared in a Pauline Hanson-esque monotone. “Wait here while we check.”

She did and praise the Lord, our stuff was still on board. We were handed our tickets with a stern reprimand and, feeling like told-off first-graders, released out onto the tarmac to power-walk to the plane and up the steps for a final walk of shame to our seats. At least we’d made it on board.

After another 15 minutes’ delay (nothing to do with us) the plane roared off into the clouds, and once it’d leveled out and the seatbelt sign switched off, we were informed we both had a $5 in-flight voucher to use – which was just as well since I’d already pressed the assistance button for some beer. Minutes later a couple of Pure Blondes were placed in front of us complete with cups of ice. I felt at ease again. Things were back on track.


Some 3 hours later – a mere smoko by Australian flight standards – we landed at Ayers Rock. It’s worth mentioning at this point that 3 or 4 years earlier I’d gone on a similar trip to Darwin, and still vividly remember stepping off the air-conditioned cabin into what literally felt like a blast furnace – the contrast so sudden and extreme it was like walking into something solid; a thick, invisible padded wall of roasting heat.

Alas, no such thing this time. Overcast grey sky and if anything, the temperature was actually cooler outside thanks to a mild breeze. It was like we’d never left Melbourne.

You can probably imagine that Ayers Rock regional airport isn’t exactly a bustling mini-city of PA announcements, upmarket duty-free goods and immaculately dressed multinational flight crews walking around like prim cyborgs. You just hop off the plane, walk a few metres to a sliding door, step through, and find yourself in a space that’s probably smaller than the inside of Flinders St station. There’s the one luggage carousel, there’s the toilets, here are some rental car counters, and there’s the exit. So naturally, we went to the toilet, picked up our luggage (first off the carousel – almost missing flights does have its perks), and picked up our rental car – a little Mitsubishi Something, ketchup-red to go with the desert soil.

A short drive later we pulled into Ayers Rock Resort, a big loop of road around which there’s a fancy hotel, serviced ‘Emu Walk’ apartments, a campground, a Shell servo, and a ‘town square’ with a few shops and eateries. And let me tell you now – if ever you wanted to emulate ‘Humans of New York’ and set up a ‘Bogans and Retirees of Aus’ Facebook page, Ayers Rock town square would be a rich fountain of content indeed.

We turned right into the campground and within minutes were standing inside a little reception building in front of a big, unsmiling, mumbling Indigenous guy who informed us we were on lawn 14 then gave us one of those “OK to drink alcohol” passes I mentioned. Catalina took the opportunity to ask him whether Uluru’s open for climbing today, and I think it’s safe to say that if he wasn’t exactly winning the Excellence in Customer Service Award to begin with – and he wasn’t – he certainly wasn’t interested in even acknowledging her presence after that. We hastily took our maps and alcohol pass and left.

Happily, lawn 14 was at the far edge of the campground and devoid of campers – we had the whole grassy patch to ourselves. Nearby was a surprisingly clean and functional toilet block/showers/laundry/mosquito sanctuary, and each lawn came with power sockets so you could charge your phone… Coz let’s face it, if you’re under 35 and you’re on holiday, if there’s no pics it didn’t happen.

We set up our tent (another first for Cata, who’d never so much as been in one) and finally it was time to do the fun stuff. It was time to see the Rock.


Uluru – or ‘Ayers Rock’ as it used to be more commonly known – is pretty much to Aboriginal culture what the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is to Christians. It’s a very old, very sacred site – which is why our Indigenous friend at reception did not take well to Catalina’s query, since although tourists are permitted to climb the Rock (bar certain conditions – strong winds, extreme heat etc), it’s simultaneously discouraged as a disrespectful act. At any rate, the climb was closed that day so after poring over the map we’d been given, we decided to be ambitious and do the full 10km ‘base walk’ around the perimetre – an undertaking estimated to take 3.5 hours, but which I figured we could do in one less.


The Rock itself is striking. Like most famous monuments – the Eiffel Tower, Mount Fuji – the first moment you see it with your own eyes you’re kind of caught by surprise, like “OMG there it is”, and it looks even grander than you’d imagined: larger than life, radiating an energy generated as much by its renown as by its sheer scale. Even against the dreary, colourless sky that afternoon, it was an impressive sight: this massive, brooding edifice the colour of dried blood standing guard over the surrounding desert… A silent, powerful sentinel of this ageless Dreamtime landscape.


For those who don’t know, the Dreamtime is the Aboriginal version of Genesis – a Creation myth of how the world came to be. The way it goes rings somewhat familiar: The world used be a featureless void, until a time – the Dreamtime – when giant, magical beings emerged and began wandering the land, and through their actions (playing, fighting, love-making etc) they transformed the world into a rich, vibrant environment teeming with animals, plants and landmarks – Uluru being a crowning example of the latter.

There seem to be varying accounts of how Uluru itself came to be. A series of signs near the car park tell a bizarre tale involving ‘Sleeping Lizard Women’ and pissed-off tribesmen who summon an evil dingo from mud, but its ending – that the earth rose in grief at the bloodshed between two warring tribes, forming Uluru – was quite poignant, and makes all the more sense once you explore the Rock and notice how it resembles scarred, petrified flesh in many places. According to another Dreamtime story, the grooves running up and down Uluru are the legacy of a struggle between two huge serpents wrestling on top of the monolith.


Of course, these grooves were actually created by rainwater, and there are black streaks all over the Rock that show where the water flows down during the wet season. The scientific explanation for this remarkable piece of geology is, naturally, less colourful than the myth, but still fascinating, as it reveals that the vast bulk of Uluru is actually underground. What we see looming over the desert is merely the tip of a vast sandstone iceberg… The fin of a colossal subterranean megalodon of which the Olgas is another component.


In his excellent Australian travelogue ‘In A Sunburned Country’, Bill Bryson quips that this “big red rock” would be a brilliant navigational marker should a spaceship ever need to land and wait for interstellar roadside assistance:

the obvious directions to rescuers would be: ‘Go to the third planet and fly around till you see the big red rock. You can’t miss it.’

I’d go one further and say that the Rock itself is so bizarre, so seemingly out of place in this otherwise flat, relatively featureless terrain, that you could almost imagine it as the façade for some sort of gigantic military facility – an Australian Area 51, with a secret opening somewhere that slides sideways to reveal a high-tech UFO hangar inside… Ripe fodder for a David Icke conspiracy theory if there ever was one.

But I digress.

We set off on the base walk and walked… and walked… and walked. The first third of the walk is actually some distance away from the Rock itself (possibly to hide that secret entrance) but happily, it gets closer and closer until you’re walking right up alongside it, able to appreciate its multifarious surface up close. It really is visually captivating – far from having the usual jagged/smooth rock texture you’ve seen on countless cliffs, it’s patterned with all sorts of random caves and curves and cuts, some of which you’d swear were indeed sculpted or inflicted by conscious entities rather than natural processes. Signs around the walk inform you of ‘sensitive sites’ – a particular part of the rock associated with a Dreamtime story – and they tend to coincide with a particularly striking feature in the rock wall, resembling the lips of a titanic sea creature or, dare I say it, a giant vagina.


Up close Uluru has such a variety of form and texture… At times resembling a soft cheese or a mousse that’s been scooped in parts with a spoon… Other times the rock wall is smooth and looms up high and straight like a stone tsunami… Some parts have bizarre markings resembling scars and orifices on some gigantic organic entity… Others contain curious collections of boulders as if they’ve actually gathered there to form still, silent communities of their own. Had he ever seen it, I’ve no doubt Salvador Dali would’ve been obsessed with this incredible landform and its multitude of faces, accentuated all the more at the sunset by black shadows and deep red luminescence.

That’s a caption for one of my Instagram videos, which I think sums it up nicely.

As we traversed the final part of the walk, our feet getting sore, the sun finally broke through the grey sheets that had been curtaining the sky all day and set its spotlight directly on our side of the rock. It was like a lava lamp being switched on – the rock, which by now had been looking rather dull and lifeless under the darkening sky, was suddenly brought to life, glowing hot-sauce red, its weird pockmarks and protrusions made all the more dramatic by the stark contrast of light and shadow…


Finally, we arrived back at the car, still patiently waiting for us in the parking lot, its compatriots long gone. We drove back to the campground tired but satisfied, had dinner at a box noodle place called Ayers Wok (geddit?), showered, and consummated our brand-new double air mattress in the cold but cosy confines of our portable home.

Day one was over… Three glorious more to go.



Outback Adventure – Part 1

I just got back from a whirlwind trip around the Outback and gotta say, it was amazing. The ‘Outback’ – that vast swath of flat, dry, rust-coloured territory across central Australia – is like being on another planet: looking out the airplane window as you touch down, you could swear you’re landing on the barren red surface of Mars, albeit it at a colony settled by white and black Australians.

Much of this world is familiar to anyone coming from any other part of Australia, yet at the same time it’s markedly different. The beer selections, for example, are same-old: Carlton Draught, XXXX, Cooper’s, Heineken… Yet to buy a beer at any campground/resort, you need to produce a little piece of paper you’re given upon arriving there – at least in theory, since I was never asked, since (I suspect) I don’t look overly Aboriginal. The road signs, too, come in familiar formats – e.g. the trusty black-on-yellow triangles that tell you what to expect ahead – but instead of heralding a T-junction or people crossing, they warn you to ‘BEWARE OF WANDERING STOCK’, ‘WATCH FOR WILDLIFE’ and, most commonly, to flag an upcoming ‘floodway’ – a low point in the road where rainwater accumulates during the brief but intense wet season.

There are also the usual white-on-green billboards displaying how far to go until the next few towns – the numbers usually in triple figures, reinforcing the ‘tyranny of distance’ that characterizes this wide brown land. Visiting just three places in four days – Uluru, King’s Canyon, Alice Springs then back to Uluru – my girlfriend and I racked up more than 1,000 kilometres of road travel, which cost us a pretty penny in petrol and extra mileage charges. But it was totes worth it.

Driving is really the way to ‘do’ the Outback – just you and the open road, metallic pools shimmering in the distance as the heat plays tricks on your eyes. Speed cameras are absent along these remote stretches of tarmac so you can move at a nice brisk speed – 130, 140 kilometres an hour… Occasionally a vehicle will appear in the opposite direction, a tiny speck that within seconds becomes a clearly discernible tour bus or camper van or road train that in another few seconds roars by with a ferocious rush of air, and is suddenly gone – an insignificant speck in the rear-view mirror, leaving you alone and intimate with the landscape once more… Just you, your music, the sun-cooked dashboard and the faint, constant whoosh of air con.


And what a landscape it is! Contrary to what I imagined, the Outback is actually covered in vegetation, albeit of a semi-arid variety… Low-growing, thin, with the bleached greens and browns of old army disposals apparel, all growing somehow out of the fine, bone-dry red dust. Far from being monotonous, this primitive but striking flora changes markedly every half-hour or so, as if you’re time-travelling through the great eras of prehistory – now Cretaceous, then Jurassic, then the other one… At times the orange-red ground is barely visible for all the dense shrubbery and tussocks of spiky grass; then you notice it’s become mostly bare and exposed but populated by black-stumped trees with limp branches and long, wispy leaves like green hair.

You also see the occasional animal – most of them dead; unlucky critters who chose the wrong moment to cross the road. Within our first hour of driving down the Lasseter Highway we came across a fly-bitten red kangaroo corpse with empty eye sockets, then a stinking big lump of a cow, then a poor lizard still strangely intact with blood around its mouth:


By far the most common encounters are with birds – cute, fluttery little things that swoop in front of your vehicle like acrobats. No joke, these little thrill-seekers actually dive into the middle of the tarmac to let the car pass over them – the first time it happened I thought I’d hit one, then realised when I watched in the rear-view mirror that the little blighters take off again once we’d whooshed right over the top of them. Gotta get your kicks in the desert somehow, I guess.

Not all the birds are cute and fluttery though. Every now and then you see the broad wingspan of a much larger bird silhouetted against the shining blue sky… Carnivorous scavengers scouring the ground from high up for something dead or dying to pick at, their shadow slowly swirling across the road, a subtly ominous element in the otherwise bright and radiant day.

On foot, your boots dusted with what looks like dried paprika powder, you experience some of Australia’s less endearing animals. Flies are a serious pest in the Outback, and the hotter the day, the more numerous they are, relentlessly bullying you until you become one sweaty, swatting, swearing epitome of futility and frustration. Cata and I experienced this on our last full day, bushwalking up the Olgas on what was the warmest afternoon of our trip, and it was like the worst summer barbeque you’ve ever had – a merciless barrage of buzzing that simply wouldn’t let up, the little black vermin honing in on our faces again and again as if compelled by some magnetic force. Selfies had to be retaken several times as one of us would inevitably turn away or pull a face at the critical moment, thanks to a fly shooting up a nostril or into an ear… And I’ve been told not to share those dud pics under threat of death. So bad was it that many of the older (and obviously wiser) hikers we passed wore beekeeper-style netted hats over their heads, wandering the desert like women in an Islamic theocracy… So yeah – if persistence is a virtue, flies are its most fanatical disciples… And indeed we wondered, as we retraced our steps back to the car park, swinging at the air in vain with folded maps, whether it’s the same group of flies the whole time or new ones coming and going. But that’s another subject for another time.

Of course ants, spiders and snakes also made an appearance. Luckily I noticed the little huntsman when I did, scurrying across one side of Catalina’s suitcase when I flung it into the back seat of the car – which, of course, saw said suitcase immediately hurled back out of the car onto the red dirt. I say ‘luckily’ because if I’d felt that thing crawling up my leg 20 minutes later, hurtling along Lasseter Highway at Formula One speeds… Well, let’s just say there’s been a long history of unexplained car crashes in Australia. God bless ’em for keeping the flies in check but let’s face it, nobody likes a hairy eight-legged arachnid upon their person, at any time or place.

The snake, on the other hand, was actually kind of cute – clearly an infant, about 50cm long, frantically wriggling across the walking path and disappearing into the undergrowth just as I’d rushed up to it with my smartphone camera at the ready.

Ever-present, of course, were Nature’s tireless little toilers, the ants – forming dotted black lines that criss-crossed all the walking tracks, carrying little bits of whatever down into their underground kingdom of tunnels. Catalina was quite smitten with this particular lot at Uluru, their pretty blue-black exoskeletons giving them the appearance of nanobots:


Finally, of course, there were dingos. The ‘resort’ we stayed in at King’s Canyon was rife with these, as suggested from the outset by signs imploring visitors to ‘keep dingos wild’ and not leave food lying around. Although long tarnished with a negative reputation, dingos are actually pretty tame, casually trotting around the edges of car parks and campgrounds without any apparent fear of or aggression towards humans. Where we stayed, every toilet block had a gate you had to swing open to enter and on the first night we discovered why – as I parked the car, a dingo suddenly scampered out of the shadows, made its way briskly across the lawn and without hesitation let itself through the ajar gate into the brightly lit Gents, emerging a few seconds later to return to the bush as though this was perfectly standard procedure. When I went inside later I discovered why – the bin, filled with paper towel and food scraps, had been tipped over. It made me wonder how many unwitting campers have copped a shock as a result of these shenanigans… Quietly brushing their teeth in their jim-jams only to have a wild dog burst in and start rifling through the garbage. Later that night another dingo (or perhaps the same cheeky bugger) wandered right past our tent, his four-legged silhouette clearly visible through the fabric… But there were no babies around so all good.


Basically, when it comes to the wildlife in Australia, the usual logic is reversed. Our answer to the wolf/coyote is basically a Bangkok street dog, and our bears are little more than perpetually sleepy soft toys… While our pint-sized critters – the spiders, snakes and jellyfish – can kill you in an hour flat.

Well, them and the crocs I guess.

Note: This is the first part of what I hope will be a broader piece about me and my girlfriend’s 4-day tour of the Outback – part 2 will focus less on road signage and insects and more on what we actually did and saw. In the meantime, you can check out some of the photos from our trip on Instagram.