Alice springs eternal

We are back in Alice Springs with only half an hour free internet (gulp) here goes with the update of the last four days before we hop on the greyhound tomorrow for Coober Pedy. We apologise for the lack of pictures, hopefully this will be remedied in Adelaide when we have more time.

Sunday 5th October 2014   Day 27.

Up at 7.00 am to repack for the flight. The juggling of clothing between various combinations of travel bags is becoming routine. After in room breakfast, with Eric pleasantly surprised by the edibility of pot porridge (with honey) we checked out and headed for the Darwin Baptist church in the nearby suburb of Ludmilla. Any town that has a suburb called Ludmilla is definitely an ok place.

The church was only two stops down the road and having negotiated a tricky gate latch, we found our way to the modern church building. This growing church runs two morning services, with refreshments in between, and we had strategically arrived in this period and enjoyed a coffee while chatting to very friendly members of the congregation. The worship was lively, albeit with unfamiliar songs and the Word was delivered by a loquacious lady who offered some excellent insights. The key point of the sermon was that in our Christian life joy is found not in the absence of trials and troubles, it is knowing the presence of God in our sufferings and continuing to trust in and love God.

After the service we called a taxi and returned to our motel to collect the luggage before transferring to the airport in very good time for a check in without a queue. Unfortunately our early arrival was not matched by our departure as unscheduled maintenance delayed us for 30 minutes. Eric learnt the hard way that confirming the pick up time and location of trips was best done well in advance and definitely not on a Saturday night or Sunday as automated systems failed to give any useful information. The flight delay gave us time to make an extensive web search to find an alternative phone number to arrange pick up for our Uluru tour. What a relief to speak to a real person. The 1500 km flight offered extensive views of the outback, becoming increasingly desert, with the bones of the continent clearly showing through in the form of escarpment and hog’s back ridges.

Disembarking was very efficient and our luggage was among the first pieces on the carousel, allowing us to transfer quickly to the airport shuttle for the 15 km drive into Alice Springs, through the Heavitree gap in the escarpment, discovered during the installation of the cross continent telegraph from Adelaide to Darwin in the 1870s. Once in our hotel room we reversed the packing of the morning to ensure that we were ready for our 5.50 am departure on the tour. This done we put our main luggage into store before venturing into the fleshpots of Alice Springs. The nightlife did not seem particularly lively and Alice Springs has the feel of small town America, with all that implies for the pace of life. We found a tavern for an excellent steak, followed by ice cream from the local ice cream parlour, then returned to sleep, ahead of the pre-dawn rise of the morrow.

Monday 6th October 2014   Day 28.   Destiny calls

We were relieved that all we had to do this morning was to roll out of bed, eat a bread roll (saved from the flight) and grab a coffee as we made ready for the 5.50 am pick up. We joined a small group on the dark pavement outside the hotel with our lightweight bags. The second truck that arrived was ours and the Canadian driver/guide introduced herself as Destiny. 11 passengers embarked at Alice Springs and settled in for the 7 hour drive ahead of us initially along the Stuart Highway, the northern part of which we had driven last week, then the Lasseter Highway.

The drive was well paced with stops every hour or so at one of the intermittent service stops including Stuarts Well, Erldunda and Curtin Springs. At each location there were toilets, fuel, café, shop and small zoo which contained camels, emus, dingoes, budgies and parrots. The scenery was at times dramatic, with steep escarpment and rocky promontories, with the distinctive red soil and relatively sparse vegetation. The vegetation was dominated by spinifex grass and generally shrubs and bushes, with the occasional tree. There were some termite mounds, far smaller than in the Kakadu

About 100km out we passed Mt Connor, a massive outlier of rock that resembles Uluru and has fooled visitors in the past.

We arrived at the Ayres Rock Resort, built in 1982 as the focus of tourist activity, and collected 129 more passengers. Apart from Martina the remaining passengers were all from SE Asia, mainly S Korea. We travelled the short distance to the campsite where we enjoyed a swift lunch before heading out to the cultural centre, which attempts to educate visitors about the aboriginal custodianship of the land, especially in terms of respecting their beliefs and customs. This includes not climbing Uluru. As in the Kakadu the aboriginal people are taking over responsibility for running the national Park and while welcoming visitors it has to be on their terms.

From here we drove the 44 km to Kata Tjuta (the Olga), a range of sandstone and coarse conglomerate hills consisting of 36 domes and cleft by gorges. Unlike Uluru, the alluvial fan sediments, derived from a huge ancestral range of fold mountains, were not folded, but remaining in their original orientation, near horizontal; producing a different response to denudation. We enjoyed a short walk in the 40 degree heat along the Valley of the Winds subject to constant reminders from Destiny of the need to drink water. The scenery was dramatic but the wildlife sparce, with no sign of the euro, a tiny rock inhabiting wallaby. However zebra finches and a very distinctive orotund lizard were spotted.

We then returned to Uluru to watch the effects of a gorgeous sunset, complete with banners of cloud, while sipping champagne (orange juice for us) and nibbling canapes, the ones the children did not get to. Back at camp we had a delicious barbecue including steak, both beef and kangaroo, and camel sausages. With yet another early start tomorrow we were soon tucked up in our beds, enjoying the cooling attentions of an electric fan.


Tuesday 7th October 2014  Day 29   Then it dawned on us ….

Sunset is inexorably followed by sunrise and at Uluru that means being on station to enjoy the effects of dawn on the mass of sandstone. In turn this meant getting up in good time before dawn at 4.15 am, to ensure being at the right place at the right time. After a subdued breakfast the party was packed and ready to evacuate the camp at 5.10 am.

There were two options as how to handle the dawn breaking experience. Firstly we could go to a viewing platform, and watch the rising sun bathe the water and wind sculpted folds of the rock or secondly we could start the walk around the base of Uluru at the northern end and watch the rising sun (fill in the rest yourselves). In true a democratic manner Joyce chose to enjoy the first experience and Eric the second.

The base walk was a fascinating, if at times a frustrating, experience, allowing a close up view of the sandstone’s (an arkose) response to millions of years of weathering and erosion. Formed, as the Olgas, under alluvial fan conditions the albeit finer lithified intermittent stream deposits were folded at a later date to create an anticline. Uluru represents the remnants of the eastern arm of this anticline, thus forming a hog’s back. Variable resistance to weathering and erosion have created a highly distinctive topography on the exposed faces, with large regions of tafoni (more or less circular pits) resulting essentially from evaporative salt weathering, basal caves and vertical incipient river valleys comprising a series of steps, comprising potholes at the base of each waterfall section. There are also more developed gorges. Although rain is scarce, when it does occur it is torrential and although the rock is porous much of the water simply pours off the hump back. The water that does soak in will eventually return to the surface through capillary effects of evaporation.

The frustration firstly comes from the need to respect local sensibilities and refraining from taking photographs of particularly sacred sections of the cliff that relate to the creation story associated with Uluru. From a geography teacher’s perspective it is hard not to photograph particularly fine examples of pseudo-karst or exfoliation. The second frustration from a hill walker’s perspective is the request not to climb the rock for safety, environmental and cultural reasons. Having considered all these Eric decided that the base walk was the correct response, although in the event this was moot as the summit was closed due to high winds.

Joyce went to the dawn viewing site, this was a raised stand and several long winding paths, which allowed for considerably more people to access the experience, than were present out of season. Hence, it was possible to stand alone and enjoy the solitude while watching the rising sun etc. This was followed by a walk around the western section of the rock, which includes the water hole and a rock art site, where Eric was encountered.
On completion of the walks, the party was taken on the Mala (the endangered rufous hare wallaby) walk by Vincent, a representative of the local community. An excellent teacher he retold the aboriginal’s story of Uluru while introducing us to the ways in which the local people use the land’s bounty while acting as custodians. At the end of the tour he gave a very impassioned assessment of the apartheid between the aboriginals and white Australia; he described his home as a third world community, who still did not have access to Secondary education. He described the problems caused by authority figures who still have a stereotyped view of aborigines.

We then returned to camp for a quick lunch and then left for the 6 hour drive to King’s Canyon via the visitor’s centre, where Joyce acquired the ultimate fashion accessory, the anti-fly head veil (a midge net by any other name). Forget the corks, this item does the business against the irritating critters that head straight for the eyes, mouth and ears, leaving Joyce looking like the lizard lady from Dr Who. We stopped at the Mt Conner sand dune viewpoint to view the massive Uluru wannabe and the salt lake that lay in the opposite direction. The dune itself was of interest with its iron stained sand released from the weather and plant hardened stable surface by the feet of visitors. We stopped briefly at King’s Creek station to collect some firewood from the bush for a camp fire. We arrived at the King’s Canyon resort as the sun set.


Wednesday 8th October 2014 Day 30  We walk with Destiny

The heat of the day has proved to be impressive over the last few days and early starts are to be recommended, honest, to avoid exertion later in the day. Despite this we had a lie today, until 4.30 am. As the alarm went the now well practised routine swung into action, albeit with a new twist as Eric brought Joyce coffee in bed, it will not last. Swift packing, stripping of bed linen and luggage into bus followed then breakfast. Our cook has produced some excellent repast over the last two days and has proved not only able and willing, but he shame facedly admitted that he had left the bread at last night’s camp, producing a somewhat depleted first meal of the day, scrambled eggs on plate.

We were away by 5.30 am and drove to King’s Canyon, eroded into the George Gill range, for the start of the walk. Again we had a choice of routes and we decided to sample them both. Joyce was most upset to find that she had drawn the short straw of the shorter, canyon floor route while Eric had all the glamour of the 6 km route that started with heart attack hill.

Joyce’s walk took one hour along a red river gum tree shaded gentle paved path, wafted by cooling zephyrs. She enjoyed the return stroll chatting to two nice ladies from Melbourne (clean limerick suggestions please).

Eric, on the other hand, followed Destiny on the canyon rim walk, which took three and a quarter hours. The initial climb was steep but manageable at a steady pace and with enforced steps. Once on the rim of the canyon the walk was much more undulating, well sign posted with steps and paved sections. Destiny broke the walk frequently to educate us on the local flora and its myriad uses, including the mulga, bush fig, bush tomato and bush coconut (not a plant but an insect gall). The weathering of the sandstone produces a visually rich landscape with a dominant dome form etched along bedding planes, weaker beds and joints.

At the furthest point we descended to the canyon floor via a series of wooden steps, to visit the Garden of Eden, the richly vegetated area around the permanent water hole in a narrow section of the canyon. Here we paused for a snack before climbing back up to the southern rim, where we soon had excellent views of the sheer cliffs just downstream of the Garden of Eden, where the canyon narrows to a gorge.

From here it was an easy walk back to the car park through an ever changing vista of sandstone hills and gorges, with pockets of vegetation. Most of the walk had been accomplished in relative cool, made more pleasant by a fairly strong breeze on the top, but as we descended from the rim the heat began to build and Eric was relieved to reach the end, where he was reunited with Joyce, who had waited patiently, for 90 mins, for his return.

A short time brought us to camp for lunch, 10.45 am lunch, I ask you, then we left for our return to Alice Springs, stopping for over an hour to allow some of the party to enjoy a helicopter flight over the canyon from the resort. We finally set off at 1.10 pm for the six hour drive.

There is something dramatic in the unfolding vistas of the outback, huge expanses of plain covered with its variable mosaic of grass, bushes, shrubs and trees, often fire blackened. Although overall it appears flat, with a distant horizon, there is some small scale topography in the form of low dunes, stabilised by vegetation for millennia and with the red sand showing through. On the horizon are mysterious ridges and escarpment, visible only in silhouette, but every so often the horizon crowds upon the road as dunes flank the road and, as we got closer to Alice Springs rock masses appear in close proximity and the rocky promontories dominate the view with their sparse vegetation exploiting the joints and bedding planes for water and stability. The endless variety of surface texture, based on the simple pattern of intersecting joints etched into a multiplicity of subtle forms by weathering and erosion, never ceases to fascinate. Ever present in all this is the cloudless deep blue sky with the sun beating down.

The road itself is straight, with few curves, travelling over the gentle undulations in the landscape. Bordered by a red strip, bare earth as a fire break, the depressions on the road are often floodways, where creeks flood during rain and the potential depth of water is marked by graduated post usually 2 metres but they can be up to 4 metres.

Signs of life are scarce as we speed through this landscape, the occasional cattle station acting as a roadstop, with occasional cattle, wild horses and birds but no kangaroo, emus nor dingoes apart from those fenced in at the roadstop. Traffic is light, a few cars lorries and road trains pass in the opposite direction. Very occasionally we are passed by cars.

We returned to the Lassiter highway, named after the 20th century adventurer and chancer with a belief in a reef of gold out Uluru way, and turned towards Alice Springs. Brief stops were enjoyed, for the first time at Mount Ebenezer station with an Erldunda reprise. We return to Alice Springs as the sun sets over the McDonnell range to our left, while the full moon rose to our right.

As readers will have realised from the above lyrical prose this was very much Eric’s part of the trip, Joyce enjoyed the scenery, was relieved not to have to do the longer walks and was truly amazed at the vastness of central Australia, even though we only sampled a small part. The campsites were well organised, the beds very comfortable, all the facilities were clean and the food was good.


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