The Outback (the real thing, not the restaurant)

Uluru - Kata Tjuta Travel Blog

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Chicken flavored potato chips! They really were tasty.

Surreal.  Of all the words in the English language, “surreal” best captures today’s adventure into the Outback of Australia. 

We awoke in Cairns, adventure capital of Australia, a tropical portal both to lush rainforests and the Great Barrier Reef.  After breakfast at the motel, we whisked away to the airport and stepped aboard a sparsely populated 737 en route to Ayers Rock/Uluru in the heart of the Australian Outback.  I have traveled to some remote places in this world • northeastern Montana, the Alaskan wilderness, the Pantanal of Brazil, rural Honduras come to mind • but nothing at all compares to the Outback.

Ayers rock about 20 miles off in the distance.
  Our flight lasted almost three hours and covered hundreds and hundreds of miles.  Once we left Cairns, I counted a grand total of zero towns between there and Alice Springs, which sits at the heart of the continent.  In addition to those zero towns, I counted zero paved roads.  Beyond those zero paved roads, I counted zero river beds that were actually filled with water.  We did spy a dirt airstrip or two, and every now and then (read: twice), we saw a collection of three or four buildings, but that was it.  People, I’m talking isolation.  If you want to escape civilization, we have found the place.

Of course, the land, at least from the comfort of a jet, looked desolate, lonely, and barren.  I could understand why no one would settle.

Kata Tjuta, aka the Olgas, looming over us.
  The land was not arable.  No water source existed.  And in the summer, over a hundred degrees of scorching heat would be your only neighbor.  I would not go as far as saying the land was “pretty,” yet it had some sort of rugged, admirable beauty.  Nevertheless, after a couple of hours of flying over it, I was happy to land at Ayers Rock Airport… literally out in the middle of nowhere.  

The terminal at Fitzgerald Municipal Airport (my hometown; population, 11,000 or so) is slightly smaller than Ayers Rock’s airport.

Uluru, aka Ayers Rock, off in the distance.
  (Of course, Fitzgerald cannot land 737s, but if we could, we have a lot more room to park them than did Ayers Rock.)  The weather was pleasantly cool (around 60 at landing) with a bright sun overhead.  We soon had our rental car and were on our way to the complex of hotels, motels, and campgrounds that form the only lodging options for visitors for over 200 kilometers or more.  (What a racket!) 

(As an aside, after checking in, we stopped by the little grocery store and found some curious things, including chicken-flavored potato chips.  Curiosity got the better of us, and we bought and tried them.  And, believe it or not, they tasted like chicken.  Fried chicken.)

By 1:00 pm, we were inside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

We didn't see any...but you dont see these in the states...
  Those are the Aboriginal names for Ayers Rock and the Olgas.  In 1985, the Australian government returned control of these lands to the indigenous peoples of the region, and by every appearance and indication, the government and Aborigines want every visitor to steer clear of the Anglicized place names.  In fact, they frown upon anyone hiking up Uluru, which is among the most sacred of Aboriginal sites.  They had no worries from the three of us, but we did see a number of hearty (and, at least from my opinion, completely disrespectful) souls who trekked up the extremely steep slope to the precipice of Uluru.

We first skirted over 45 kilometers to the Olgas.  These 36 domes form an eerie landscape that looks remarkably like the pictures NASA has beamed back to Earth from Mars.  The grounds were strewn with boulders and rocks, but a surprisingly large amount of vegetation grew in the region.

A "road train." Kinda scary to see it drive by. Just dont get in the way of one.
  We headed to a place called the Walpa Gorge and set about for a three-kilometer hike.  The gorge formed the boundary between two of the larger “mountains” of the Olgas.  When the wet season descends upon the Outback, rains pellet the smooth tops of the Olgas and then plummet into the canyon via seasonal waterfalls.  Those waters are sufficient to create conditions fertile enough for an oasis of sorts.  The vegetation, in places, was rich and lush, and appeared somewhat out of place in the shadow of two towering, reddened walls of conglomerate rock.  We saw precious little animal life save for the occasional chirping bird and a legion of annoying flies.  But the hike was a wonderful way to see the awesome Olgas up close and personal. 

I only wish we could have explored more of them.

Beatiful flowers out in the desert. This one was outside the hotel.
  Many places within the national park are off limits to visitors.  Aboriginal sacred sites abound, and not even all Aborigines can visit them.  The native people have a traditional law, which is subdivided into a men’s law and a women’s law.  Some sites are sacred only to women, and senior women decide when a girl is eligible to visit the site and participate in a rite or ceremony; the same goes for men.  In many instances, trespassing upon the cordoned areas carries a heavy fine levied by the Australian government.  But, out of respect for the heritage and beliefs of the Aborigines, we opted not to explore those sites that were not strictly forbidden but were still sacred.

After our time at the Olgas, we headed back across the wilderness to Uluru.  Uluru (Ayers Rock) is a massive monolith that rises 348 meters (1000+ ft) above the ground and towers over the Outback.

Another cool flower. This was in the valley between two of the giant rocks in the Olgas.
  To me, one of the most spectacular aspects of Uluru is that the land around it is completely flat… and I don’t mean the immediate surroundings, either.  For miles and miles and miles and more, the land is absolutely and completely flat.  Then, all of a sudden, Uluru rises from the ground, a red giant that dominates the landscape and commands respect.  In composition, Uluru is sandstone, but a doggone hearty sandstone with a healthy amount of feldspar flowing through it.

At one point, we stopped for a short hike that took us past some Aboriginal cave paintings over a thousand years in age.  We were fortunate to see one of their sacred watering holes hidden with the crevasses, caves, boulders, and vegetation that dot the monolith’s base.  But the highlight of the evening • and arguably of the trip thus far • was seeing sunset at Uluru.

Chris at the start of the hike into the Olgas. The wind really whipped through that valley.
  I won’t try to mock its beauty by placing it into words, and I fear that photographs will fail, too.  Suffice it to say, when the sun’s rays faded and the giant rock’s color shifted through palettes of oranges and red, we were all left breathless and in awe.  At that point, it took little imagination to understand why this place remains sacred to the indigenous people.  We all felt as if were transported to another planet for a brief period of time and were blessed to see something ethereal and surreal. 

When the monolith settled into its purple and brown evening attire, we returned to the Outback Pioneer Lodge and Hotel, our home for the evening, for supper and more.

-Chris

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Uluru as the sun starts setting.

Last few remarks from the airport with only two “gates.”  And only 1 is being used.  You'll see in the picture later.

Being in the Outback is very similar to being in the American west.  If you’ve ever been to the Grand Canyon or southern Utah, the landscape is a close match, although the plant species are vastly different.  Our hotel complex (five separate hotels/motels/campgrounds in one) is an oasis in the middle of nowhere.  And it is the only thing in the middle of nowhere.  It is its own city with its very own police department, fire department, hospital, grocery store, and post office.  But being the only civilization, they have quite a monopoly on the market and prices at times made me cringe.

Proof we were here.
  I did give in and purchase a bag of chicken potato chips that Chris talked about earlier.

For dinner last night we had a traditional Aussie feast with skewers of beef, crocodile, emu, and kangaroo.  Having never had any of those, other than beef of course, it was quite the experiment.  You receive you plate full of raw meat, and proceed to a giant array of grills where you grill your own food on the barbie, as the locals call it.  For those of you who have never tasted these creatures… crocodile tastes like a fishy chicken, ’roo tastes just like beef, and emu tastes like emu… whatever that tastes like.  In addition to the skewers of meat that you prepare, you can choose from more than a dozen different sides, including corn on the cob, baked potatoes, pasta salad, fruit, and fresh bread.

Proof we were here.

Dinner last night was augmented by some excellent, albeit different, live entertainment.  Everyone has seen those one-man acts with a man playing a guitar and a harmonica.  I’ll bet you haven’t seen someone play the guitar and didgeridoo at the same time.  Trust me, James Taylor with an aboriginal twist really sounds cool.

After dinner we walked back to our room and along the way glanced skyward.  I haven’t seen so many stars since I was in central Vermont with no lights within 20 miles.  The famous Southern Cross (which is a central feature of the Australian national flag) really is easy to find, and is the primary navigational aid for those in the southern hemisphere.  Similar to the Big Dipper pointing toward Polaris, the Southern Cross somehow • I don’t know how though • points to the south.  We were also able to see scores of constellations not to mention the Milky Way… all under a very cool but very clear night sky.

Now it is another hour in another airport…the sixth so far on this trip…we leave in an hour for Sydney, the largest city in Australia and arguably the most beautiful city in the nation, with the Sydney Harbor and Bridge, the famous Opera House, the sky tower, and many other sights I’m awaiting to see. 

Until next time,

Sheldon

Chicken flavored potato chips! The…
Chicken flavored potato chips! Th…
Ayers rock about 20 miles off in t…
Ayers rock about 20 miles off in …
Kata Tjuta, aka the Olgas, looming…
Kata Tjuta, aka the Olgas, loomin…
Uluru, aka Ayers Rock, off in the …
Uluru, aka Ayers Rock, off in the…
We didnt see any...but you dont s…
We didn't see any...but you dont …
A road train.  Kinda scary to se…
A "road train." Kinda scary to s…
Beatiful flowers out in the desert…
Beatiful flowers out in the deser…
Another cool flower.  This was in …
Another cool flower. This was in…
Chris at the start of the hike int…
Chris at the start of the hike in…
Uluru as the sun starts setting.
Uluru as the sun starts setting.
Proof we were here.
Proof we were here.
Proof we were here.
Proof we were here.
The wonderful oranges and reds of …
The wonderful oranges and reds of…
The sun has set and the purples an…
The sun has set and the purples a…
Uluru - Kata Tjuta
photo by: Morle