Today I set off on a ten day trip across the Red Centre though, dramatic as it sounds, it would be broken up with stops back at Alice Springs and Darwin itself… so not that intrepid.
Plus, transport by 4WD truck – a little more comfortable than a minibus.
Margaret, the tour guide picked me up at 6.10am (not as horrendously early as it could have been) and we headed out of town along the Stuart Highway, also named for the Scottish explorer who cut across country from Adelaide to Darwin in the 1860s.
The first thing that struck me was how green the desert was.
Lindsay, who I met on the Ghan, hadn’t been wrong in his predictions for the new growth following last weekend’s rains, and Margaret said this would ensure far more wildlife sightings than during the previous drought ridden months.
No sooner had she said that than we spotted a dingo racing through the bush. It was the first wild one that I had seen.
First stop was a camel farm and road house to stock up with water. Margaret was absolutely serious and firm about the importance of sufficient water while we were out in the Outback.
The main reason I had booked a tour was the fact that I have no experience of travelling solo in such extreme temperatures. I don’t understand this environment so I was not driving alone across the Red Centre.
I absolutely wanted to see it but I wanted to do so safely.
There was a five minute opportunity to ride a camel – enough for photos but not enough time, in my view, to say you had ridden a camel.
The territory we were driving through was predominantly cattle stations – the recent rains encouraging the cattle to wander further than usual… more water sources, more grass.
Wild camels are abundant and camel meat is becoming more popular in Australia. Hunting methods vary, Margaret told us.
In some areas, the camels are rounded up and taken to an abattoir. In others, the animals are shot from the air (by hunters riding in helicopters and not always killed instantly.
Next stop, the Erldunda Road House. If a toilet break, fuel stop or coffee and toastie purchasing weren’t enough reason to stop here, there were also three large emus to be fed.
They appeared as soon as the bags of emu pellets were rattled.
From here, we turned onto the Lasseter Highway (nothing to do with the hotel owned by Paul Robinson in Neighbours).
A young man called Lasseter thought he had discovered gold. After twenty years of trying to find sponsors, in the 1930s, a mining company agreed to back an expedition.
The men who accompanied Lasseter were not convinced by him. After several weeks, and certain he was leading them to their deaths, they left him and returned to Alice Springs, then of course known as Stuart.
Lasseter continued but, upon finding a creek and dismounting to refill his water canteen, his camel was spooked and raced away with all of his supplies.
The unlucky man pressed on through the desert, eventually finding shelter in a cave.
Local Aboriginal people had noticed him and he had spotted them, but contact was not common and neither party approached. When they saw how badly he was struggling, they took food to his cave.
Unfortunately, he didn’t know what to do with it.
Eventually, Lasseter tried to make a final push to find help, knowing it was around 72 miles away. He managed twelve miles on his route.
A search party was eventually convened.
They met a member of the Aboriginal tribe that had encountered Lasseter and were led to his body.
How do we know all of this?
They were also led to the cave where Lasseter had diligently recorded the events and his intentions in his diary.
After around an hour and a half on the Highway, Margaret pointed out Attila – a rock formation that people often mistake for Uluru. Although it was partially obscured by dust haze, it was an impressive view and a photo opportunity would be available on the return journey.
At Curtin Falls, we spotted a tree painted blue… part of the worldwide Blue Tree Project which is highlighting that it is ok to be blue.
It’s highlighting the importance of being able to talk about depression, low mood, anxiety and feeling blue.
In the Outback, this is particularly important when you’re driving long stretches or spending a lot of time alone with only your thoughts. The blue trees are messages and indicators that it is ok to talk about how you feel.
An important reminder for anyone living in isolated, rural areas and for anyone who feels lonely.
After another hour on the road, a journey time of six hours, we arrived at the town of Yulara – a settlement that services Uluru tourism.
Margaret drove us to out campsite for lunch and, if I was looking at the right tents, camping was going to be just fine.
These were safari tents.
Sophie and Simone were our hosts at the camp and helped us set out lunch before we headed to the airport to pick up three more people who were joining us.
In the 1900s, a reserve was created in the central part of Australia and the Indigenous people were ‘encouraged’ to live here.
With the announcement of a reward for every dingo killed more and more European settlers began to move North to hunt. They didn’t know how to survive in the Outback and made contact with the local people.
In exchange for hunting and survival assistance, the Europeans gave tobacco and jars of jam.
Aboriginal people don’t have an enzyme to break down sugar and diabetes is a key health issue.
Meanwhile on the reserve, Ayers Rock or rather Uluru had been spotted by Europeans as a tourism opportunity and the creation of a national park was implemented… the Indigenous people, somewhat unsurprisingly, ended up being moved off this part of the reserve.
The land was eventually returned in 1983, UNESCO natural and cultural recognition followed in 1987 and 1995.
I’ve obviously seen many pictures of Uluru but nothing compares to seeing it… or may be it’s the fact that I’ve seen so many photos that made being there so magical.
Verna from the Amanya people and Sean, a translator from Maruku guided us around the part of the rock that is not out of bounds to outsiders, showing us the women’s and men’s caves, explaining what teaching would take place there.
Verna also showed us a number of cave paintings, explaining the legends that they illustrate.
The creation of Pleiades featured seven sisters fleeing a man who couldn’t take ‘no’ as an answer. They ended up climbing into the sky where they became stars.
The man was transformed into the Morning Star.
The cave used to be covered in paintings. However in the days of black and white photography, tour bus drivers would throw water at the walls to improve the quality of the pictures.
Many of the paintings have been washed away as a result.
Maruku is a company created to ensure that local Indigenous communities benefit from tourism which, as ever is a double edged sword.
The visit of the group today directly supports 800 people and another 3,000 indirectly because of Aboriginal law on sharing.
If there had been more time, I’d have been keen to discuss this in more detail.
We followed the road around Uluru.
Since its return to the Amanya, the road and paths close to the sacred side have been moved much further away.
Previously, the airport runway was next to the rock.
The climb up Uluru was finally closed last year, though the damage, as a result of people changing nappies, leaving their litter and defecating at the top of the rock still causes problems.
The pools and creeks alongside Uluru are contaminated with e.coli bacteria.
We walked to several caves before setting off for the sunset viewing spot and around this point, the truck’s air conditioning broke down…