Uluru Think You Are?

We didn’t have very long to recuperate after the travails of the Larapinta Trail. Our good Argentinean friends, Maxi and Joe, had a car booked for the day after we arrived, one of those nauseating Wicked Campers with duff quotes on the side (ours said “Caffeine is the gateway drug” and there was another quote from The Joker with his grimace on the door like we were his henchmen). It had a fold out tent on the roof though, which was ridiculously convenient. We were setting off for Uluru.

People head to Alice Springs especially to go to Uluru as it’s supposedly nearby. It’s 550 km away. Still, in the grand scheme of the Australian Outback, that’s pretty convenient. We stuffed vital supplies into our car (9 bottles of wine and some crisps) and off we went!

Uluru was waiting for us. We were told by some unimpressed Englishmen that to go and see The Rock wasn’t just a waste of time, it would be (to be read in Yorkshire accent) “a waste of your life.” They continued, “just lie down in your garden and look at an ant hill up close. There. You’ve been to Uluru.” Always good to lower your expectations I feel, especially before seeing a famous landmark. But no such dampening was required in this case. Uluru was worth waiting for.

It loomed from the horizon, light swimming across its faceted body in dark tones of red as the surrounding bland desert kow-towed in apparent shock and awe. We set up camp and watched the sunset, almost as if it was succumbing to the rock as well. I’m not a spiritual person at all. At all. But this great hulk in the middle of nowhere seemed to emit something. Like one of the monoliths in 2001: Space Odyssey, except bigger and redder. Up close, it hides waterholes and caves and pockets of trees, which would have made a great meeting spot for the Aboriginals, their cave paintings a reminder of this fact – the heaving tour buses and ring road a reminder as to why they’re not meeting there anymore. Nearby was another chunk of rocks called Kata Tjuta, which looked like Uluru if had been subject to a giant cake slice.

To complement all this geological majesty we got to witness Maxi and Joe bickering like a married couple. They’ve lived together for a while now and have gotten to know each other’s ticks and habits. This allowed for some pretty detailed arguments about who’d forgotten the Maté (Argentine tea that must be drunk out of a leather goblet at absolutely any given opportunity, I’d include rollercoaster rides and funerals based on their reliance on it). It was pretty spectacular.

On the way north towards King’s Canyon Maxi passed a cop car on the side of the road a little too closely. The cop was so flummoxed by this he gave chase, sirens blaring and yelled at us for nearly killing him. “If I wasn’t so angry I’d give you a ticket for dangerous driving!” He screamed hysterically, our blessings truly counted for his squiffy logic. However, cop karma was soon to follow as Maxi, now in co-driver position, dropped his Go-Pro out the window mid-filming as we chucked along at 120km an hour. Screeching to a halt we swivelled round to pick up the gadget only for a truck and trailer to flatten it before our very eyes. It was the only vehicle we’d seen in hours.

Luckily for all, King’s Canyon was another rock-based rumpus, playing like a highlights reel of Northern Territory sights, with waterholes, weird circular mounds of stone, an oasis literally called The Garden of Eden and yes, a bloody great canyon, upon which various backpackers were trying to top trump each other with who could take the most precarious selfie. From all this nature, it was off to the big smoke! Sydney was calling!

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Larapinta Snails

So we’re on holiday! And over half way through it already, which is disconcerting. I thought I better reflect on what we did to kick things off, back in Alice Springs in early September, the juice making and the pizza serving notices handed in, the farewells bidden and the backpacks once again stuffed to bursting. We embarked on the Larapinta Trail – a 230km ribbon of dirt through the West MacDonnell mountain ranges, interspersed with waterholes of varying size and cleanliness. It starts (or ends depending on your direction) in Alice Springs and ends (or starts depending on your direction) at Mount Sonder (1380m). We opted for Mount Sonder to be our starting line and headed towards town, a bit like the homeward leg the hobbits would’ve taken after chucking the ring in Mount Doom, if they didn’t have the convenience of giant cop-out hawks to wing them home (the ultimate life hack).

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The planning for this trek was monumental by our standards. Twelve days worth of food, and therefore 36 separate meals, were individually bagged and tagged, some split into boxes that were deposited further along the trail by a local tour agency to be picked up at a later date. Water tanks and water holes were identified beforehand so we could calculate how much to carry at various junctures, vitally important as at some points we’d be a full two days from the next source of hydration. Boots were borrowed, sleeping bags snagged and the bare minimum of both hot weather clothing (for the day) and cold weather clothing (for the desert nights) were packed away. And we got it a bit wrong. On day 3 we got the map out and realised we’d somehow scheduled to do 14 days hiking in 12. I’m still not sure how we achieved this stunning oversight. But what it boiled down to was, we had to up the pace, which is easier said than done when the temperature in the Red Centre hits 30C+ by 11am at this time of year.

A day that sticks in the memory was Day 8. I wrote in my wee journal that it was an ‘absolute slog.’ We had to cross the Alice Valley, leaving the luxurious waters of Ellery Creek to join another rise of mountains 30km away. We managed 24. The heat was ridiculous. It appeared to sear through your clothes and skin and toast your bones from the inside out. An occasional breeze was greeted like a visit from Santa Claus. We hugged shade when we could but there was no way to cross the valley in one day. The tent went up nearby a towering ghost gum tree, entombed in giant derelict wasp nests, resembling a bulbous skeleton in the late afternoon sun. Catriona collapsed under her sarong while I swore loudly at the flies. Flies bring their own kind of slow-burning insanity. They begin innocuously enough, far below midges or mosquitoes in the inconvenience stakes, but after two to three hours their perennial proximity to your eyes and mouth begin to do something to your soul. There’s no escaping them. They amass on your back undetected and decide en masse to land on your face. You try to play it cool – they’re only flies after all – they live a day or so; pathetic little creatures not worth a single iota of a thought. But you can’t. You can’t cook as they’ll be on your face. You can’t read as they’ll be on your face. You can’t enjoy the sunset because they’ll be on your sodding face. I’m not sure how Aboriginal people lasted 20,000 years in the desert, I was one day short of tying rocks round my ankles and revisiting the depths of Ellery Creek.

I digress.

Minus the flies and the unrelenting heat of Day 8, the Larapinta Trail was one of the most enjoyable endeavours of my life. For instance, Day 9 saw us complete our crossing of the Alice Valley and take a detour up Hugh Gorge to a secluded waterhole in a narrow chasm engulfed in vast rocks and strange foliage. It was like Jurassic Park. There were many spots like this, protected from bushfires by the natural rock formations and the bodies of water, they acted like prehistoric service stations for not just hikers but any manner of birds, lizards and dingoes (we saw two in total, surprisingly well groomed and not too dissimilar to someone’s pet dog, on reflection, they may have just been really lost dogs). There was a young Aussie guy in a tent by the waterhole in question, who offered us local dates just as the sun creaked itself between the sides of the chasm. Other days offered panoramas of valleys that resembled Scottish glens with rocks instead of heather. Places like Razorback Ridge, Birthday Waterhole and the magnificent Brinkley Bluff rewarded us with deserted vistas of colours, from deep greens and browns in the day to gleaming reds and oranges when the sun was low. Walking some ridges, with an ocean of desert on either side, really did give the impression we were marooned on a floating island. In the 12 days we met about 12 people. It certainly wasn’t tourist season and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

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We got ourselves to Stanley Chasm and hitched back to Alice with a generous South African couple as the final 60 km were meant to be flat and more akin to the slog of Day 8. This gave us the allotted time to be proper tourists and visit Uluru and King’s Canyon before our flights to Sydney…