I’ve never been one for guided tours; I always felt like they were too touristy. You couldn’t do your own thing and really see what you want to see, and on top of it all you’re missing the local parts, the stuff you only find if you get lost in the area or wander a bit off the main path. But, I was going to Uluru alone, and I didn’t want to rent a car or wander the desert alone, so I bit the bullet and signed up for a three day camping tour of the area. Best call I could have made. The tour was amazing, the guide was super laid back, but really knowledgable about everything he showed us, including cultural, historical, and even geological and ecological aspects of the areas we visited.
On the first day we walked halfway around Uluru. Sounds kind of lame: we didn’t finish? But it was nearly 90 degrees fahrenheit with almost no shade and no breeze, just the brutal Australian sun and mosquitos. And Uluru is bigger than it seems. It took us around two hours just to hike halfway around, and by then everyone was ready for some cold water (ours was all warm by then) and shade. It was really incredible though, our guide pointed us through the cultural center first, which was set up by the Aboriginal people who traditionally lived in the area. It described a sort of children’s version of some of their creation stories, and it was only a children’s version, our guide explained, because to them more knowledge must be earned. They shared only the “first level” with everyone who visits the site in hopes of spreading some understanding and respect for Uluru and the country around it. Our guide gave us a little more context for the information in the cultural center. He also showed us spots around Uluru that would have had no meaning without his explanation. A rock worn smooth on one side where generations of Aboriginal women had ground paints on its surface, a pool shaded by Uluru that was a near permanent source of water, and an overhang with paintings in it that would have meant nothing to me,
but our guide explained they told the stories of Uluru, and such information as where to find water nearby. Having the guide around provided context for everything I got to see that day, it really made the experience far more significant than if I’d just gone on my own and strolled around waiting for the famous Uluru sunset.
That night was interesting too, we slept out under the stars in swags, which, I learned, are these canvas sacks that zip open wide enough to fit a camp mattress and a sleeping bag inside. They were surprisingly comfortable for just being a thin mattress and canvas on hard packed sand. We only slept a few hours a night anyway, we had to wake up around 4 each morning to pack up camp and get to our hike before the heat of the day.
On the second day we went to Kata Tjuta, which our guide translated as “many heads,” what the Aboriginal people of the area thought the large collection of massive stone domes looked like from a distance.
This was a very sacred site to the indigenous people of the area, so the hiking trails there were more strictly enforced to keep visitors from disturbing important cultural areas among the domes. We started our hike at about 6 am, and I was sweating ten minutes in. I can’t imagine trying to do hike any later in the day, or in the summer. It’s just too hot. I drank nearly a gallon of water each day, and still was mildly dehydrated by the end of the three days.
The hike was worth it though, we got some incredible views across the central Australian landscape for our troubles, and we finished the day with some Australian barbeque and a swim in the campsite pool.
The third day we went to King’s Canyon for our hardest hike yet. The trail started with a steep climb known as “Heart Attack Hill,” which we broke into three segments to avoid actually giving anyone a heart attack. Then the climb was relatively easy, tracing around the rim of the canyon and offering awesome views of the surprisingly varied landscape. We crossed stretches of barren red dirt and rock, only to round a corner into a (comparatively) lush area of bush grasses and small trees.
Halfway around we descended into the canyon to see the Garden of Eden, an area in the canyon with a permanent watering hole surrounded by tropical plants and large trees. It was a startling change from the desert above, and a welcome break from the blistering sun.
The hike back up was not as welcome, but the best view yet was at the top of the other side, where we had a clear view across the canyon, over the low mounds of earth on the other side, and out across the desert beyond.
It was an exhausting three days, and by the time we got back into Alice Springs that night I was ready for a shower and a nap. However, the tour group was full of really great people, so we all went out to a local restaurant together for one last hurrah before we scattered across the country. Our guide even made an appearance late in the night, just long enough to add everyone on Facebook and disappear again.
Going into it I was really nervous. This was my first solo travel without a support system waiting like I had arriving at Monash, and even though it was with a tour group, I had no idea what to expect. It was a really great experience though, and I think it gave me a needed confidence boost before I took off on my longer three week trip down the east coast of Australia.