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Monday, March 23, 2009

The Red Center

The flight to Ayers Rock was without a hitch. The small airport that was the destination had a resort bus waiting to take us to our hotels. We soon realized that Ayers Rock served a captive audience --- visitors to Uluru/Kata Tjuta National Park, and most folks just stayed in the captive Ayers Rock resort. The temperature was astoundingly warm, 37 degrees Celsius. We did not realize that this was the coolest day temperature we would experience over the next 6 days.

Like Cradle Mountain Lodge, Ayers Rock Resort was run by the Voyages company, which seemed to own a lot of captive-audience type resorts. I'm inherently suspicious of such resorts, and Voyages confirmed my fears. Our room was tiny, without even a table to sit down and eat at, the better to which to force us to dine at the restaurants.

We walked down to the visitor center, and tried to decide between the options provided for our free time. Lisa definitely wanted a camel ride, and the star-gazing option seemed like a good idea, but the resort offered Sounds of Silence, a combination nice dinner + star-gazing. I neglected to notice that the nice dinner was actually a buffet with unlimited alcohol, which really meant that this wasn't all that good a deal for us.

Looking at the guide book, we saw that the Outback Pioneer Inn had a self-service BBQ which might be interesting, so we walked over and had dinner there. The meats were interesting, beef, emu, kangaroo, and some sea food, but after trying everything I decided that I still liked beef better.

The next morning, we got picked up at 5:45am for a walk around the base of Uluru. The Anangu people ask visitors not to climb Uluru, so most tours just take you around the bottom of Uluru. Up close, the monolithic piece of rock is impressive, and the guides did a good job of getting us to a good sunrise viewing area, but the rest of the walk was meh. I could have gleaned all the stories by reading plaques around the walk, and didn't enjoy having pace forced upon me by others in the group.

We then had a free afternoon, during which we took a nap, had lunch, and read. At 38 degrees, it was really too warm to do much else. When dinner rolled around, we were shuffled onto a bus and taken to a set of dunes near the resort. The location was obviously not chosen by a photographer, as the sunset was hitting Uluru wrong, and while we could see the Olgas, they were too far away to be a realistic subject.

Dinner wasn't terribly inspired, but the star gazing portion was. The speaker had a flair for drama, and used a high powered lazer pointer to illuminate the night sky. It was easily the best part of the evening.

We were told to expect a pick up at 6:35am the next day, but when we got to the reception at 6:30am, we were told that the bus had left without us. This pissed me off, and I was even more pissed when told later that this was official AAT Kings policy --- they'd give you a pick up time but show up 10-15 minutes early, and leave without you if the hotel somehow got you registered incorrectly, or their data was incorrect.

To try to salvage the rest of the day, we rented a car and went to the cultural center, where we got a presentation of bushtucker and the traditional foods of the Anangu people. We then rearranged our schedule so that we had our camel ride that evening and then Kata Tjuta again the next morning before we left.

The camel ride was interesting. It turns out that Australia probably has a million feral camels in the country, mostly because the government tried to get the cameleers to shoot their camels rather than paying for them to be shipped back to the middle east, resulting in the cameleers just letting their camels go free. So the camel population went from a mere 20000 to a million in about a century, and Australia now has a camel population problem since in the outback they have no natural predators.

I thought that it would be like a horse ride, but instead, the cameleer had it set up like an old-time camel train --- she would load all of us up on the camels, and then lead the camels by walking in front of the lead camel, which was tied to all the other camels in a train. I got along fine with my camel, but the camel behind us kept trying to take a bite off me or my shoe. Fortunately, during the ride, he managed to get some grass and finally left me alone. The views were similar to what we got the day before, but at least we were moving. Being on a camel is very much like being on a boat --- you can't fight it, so you learn to let yourself flow with the camel's motion.

Our last night in Ayers Rock Resort went uneventfully, and we awoke early the next day to get onto the tour bus. Kata Tjuta's Valley of the Winds walk was not very windy that day, and it was down right warm by the time we got to the first lookout. We learned a few things about aboriginal traditions by the driver, who used to teach English to them. One of the interesting things was their burial traditions: historically, they would put the bodies onto trees, and only after the bones had been bleached, would they then bury what's left. Well, that can't happen in a tourist area, so they aren't allowed to do that now. One big belief is that if you die in an area and aren't buried properly according to that tradition, the place becomes haunted as your soul sticks around. Hence the request for you not to climb Uluru --- they don't want your soul hanging around if you died there (only 37 people have died, but it's not such a big place that 37 souls wouldn't make the place quite haunted, I supposed).

After we were returned to our hotel, we only had an hour before our bus transfer happened, which took us to Kings Canyon. During the drive there, I was very happy not to be the one driving, since I had never seen a road so darn straight for so long! Arriving at the Voyages-Run Kings Canyon Resort, we found it to be an incredibly run down place, with one mediocre restaurant, and not much to do but drink. That didn't interest us, but we were signed up for the 5:45am rim walk the next day anyway, so going to bed early after we were cheated out of the sunset by incoming clouds was the thing to do.

The walk around Kings Canyon Rim was easy: 6km is barely 4 miles, but even at 5:45am, the temperature was warm, and the day was projected to be 41 degrees C. The climb went by fast, with only a few stops to get pictures, and we were at the lost city by the time the sun came out and greeted us. I was used to Canyons being carved out by rivers, but it turned out that the Canyon was eroded almost completely by rainfall --- there was no river running through it! We got a geological overview, including the fact that this part of Australia once was taller than Everest! 360 million years of erosion without any tectonic plate action has made Australia as flat as a pancake (relatiely) as a result.

By the time we got back to our hotel, the day was warm, and getting warmer. We ate lunch after checking out, and were shuttled to Alice Springs by bus again, this time getting into Alice Springs Resort at 7pm. It was too late by then to do anything but eat at the hotel restaurant and do laundry.

Our one day in Alice Springs was entirely driven by the McDonnel Ranges coach tour, which led us to several short walks, a swimming hole, and the Glen Helen gorge. Again checking in at a blistering 41 degrees C, we got views of the desert, beautiful in its own way, but I was quite sick of the Australian outback by this point, and ready to return to more temperate climates.

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