Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Heading Bush

No journey Down Under would be complete without a visit to Uluru, the giant rock in the center of the country. I saved Uluru for the end of my trip because to go in February or early March would have meant facing temperatures over 100 degrees in the shade. Despite everything I’ve done in Oz, it turns out I saved the best for last.

I have been taking a lot of photos on this trip, and getting back to photography has been an unexpected delight. I studied a bit in high school, but dropped it as a hobby for many years. However, the advent of digital photography has changed everything. No film, no fuss, no muss. I can now take as many photos as a memory card will hold, then later use my computer and Photoshop as a digital darkroom.

If you are wondering why there are so many pictures from the Outback, it’s because I decided to treat myself to a new camera. My Canon Powershot 400 was fine for snapshots but didn’t give me the control I wanted. If you notice any improvement, give some credit to the equipment: a Canon Eos 400D Digital SLR with an 18-200mm Sigma lens. I ended up taking over 1000 photos on the ten-day trip through the Outback, and more when I arrived in Alice Springs. I’ve posted 341 on Flickr for all to see. Comments are encouraged.

After three bus tours, I decided to splash out on a 4WD camping expedition with a company called Heading Bush. The brochure describes the trip as an “Outback Experience.” The journey would cover about 3,000 kilometers between Adelaide in South Australia and Alice Springs in the Northern, mostly over dirt tracks. Every night would be spent camping in swags. We were forced to take shelter for two nights in tents –at a campground infested with mosquitoes and during a desert rainstorm – but most nights were spent under the stars. Chalk it up as another “Outback Experience.”

Armed with a new camera, and a fresh haircut (take note, Michael Park), I was ready for the Outback. I was picked up at my Adelaide hostel well before sunrise on March 22 by Simon, veteran guide, Outback mechanic, bush chef, ice coffee devotee, and endearingly eccentric character. Imagine Bruce Dern in crazy mode and you’ve got the picture. Simon was the best guide I had in Australia. He was professional, friendly and knowledgeable. In ten days he was never unable to answer a question I threw at him, and I threw him some pretty obscure questions about flora and fauna, Australian history and the minutiae of geology. His only fault is his cigarette addiction, but even that didn’t get in the way of a good time.

Because we were traveling in a truck, space was limited to ten passengers – two in the front with Simon and eight in the back arranged on two benches facing each other. With the possibility of a cramped and uncomfortable journey, I was relieved to find my fellow passengers were normal sized Europeans, not large and in charge Americans.

Joining me at the hostel was Marcella, a depressive Italian in her mid-40’s with limited English and even more limited interest in life. She checked out mentally and physically after the first day and spent most of the time moping behind black Ray Bans, either in the back of the truck or asleep in the campground. We found out that she didn’t know the tour was a camping expedition before it started. Who signs up for a ten-day trip without reading the brochure? But that was Marcella’s trip and I was determined to enjoy myself regardless of her precarious mental state.

The company improved immediately with Annick and Juliette, friends from Holland who I’d traveled with in Western Australia. By the time we got to Alice Springs on March 31, we’d spent nearly three weeks, 24 hours a day together with only brief moments of annoyance. More twenty-somethings arrived in a Swiss contingent: Sonja and Marion, who met while studying English in Sydney and were a few weeks into a three-month tour of the country. Three lone travelers from Germany, all women, Kirstin, Verena and Antje, joined next. Strangers to each other when they began the trip, they were kind enough to avoid speaking German most of the time. At this point I was getting nervous that I’d be the only man on the trip. But then we picked up another bloke, Dean, a fine fellow from Dublin who, like me, had quit his job (with ExxonMobile – boo!) to travel. I’d love to be surrounded by women for ten days but a guy needs a pal to drink with after long days in the desert.

I will spare you another blow-by-blow account and concentrate instead on a couple of highlights.

To give you a sense of the breadth of the journey, however, here is the itinerary (links point to photos on Flickr):

Day 1

Pick up in Adelaide
Lunch in Port Augusta
Southern Flinders Ranges – Aboriginal Art at the Yourambulla Caves
Bush Camp at a Sheep Station at Arkaba

Day 2

Bushwalk at Wilpena Pound
Overnight at Iga Warta (“Home of the Native Orange”), an Aboriginal Community

Day 3

Morning at Iga Warta – visit to an Ocher Pit
Crazy Desert Artist Outside Lyndehurst
Lunch at Marree on the Old Ghan Line
Mutonia Sculpture Park
Lake Eyre South
Oodnadatta Track
William Creek Hotel
Bush Camp outside William Creek

Day 4

Lake Cadibarrawarricanna (“stars twinkling on the surface of the water”) – the longest place name in Australia
Dog Fence
Opal Mines at Coober Pedy
Bushcamp in the Painted Desert

Day 5

Painted Desert morning walk
Hookeys Waterhole and the Coolabah tree
Oodnadatta – Pink Roadhouse and an Aboriginal School
Fogarty’s Claypan
Pedrika – Old Ghan Station in ruins
Dalhousie Ruins
Camping at Dalhousie Spring

Day 6

Sunrise at Dalhousie Spring

Milkshakes at the Mt. Dare Hotel
Finke River Road – oldest river in the world
Bloodwood tree
Lambert Centre – the geographical center of Australia
Kulgera Roadhouse
Bushcamp in the rain outside of Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park

Day 7

Curtin Springs – breakfast with a scowl
Camp at Ayers Rock Resort

Day 8

Uluru Base Walk
Uluru Sunset

Day 9

Uluru Sunrise
Bushwalk through the Olgas
Bushcamp outside Kings Canyon

Day 10

Bushwalk through Kings Canyon
Drive to Alice Springs

The star of the tour was Uluru, and Uluru did not disappoint. Anyone who flies to the rock then flies out again is missing half the experience. Here is a giant rock in the center of a vast, empty desert. To add to the strangeness, Uluru is like an iceberg, with only about a sixth of its mass above ground. It is a spectacle no matter how you get there. For me, the jouirney was part of the experience, and without the days spent crossing the desert I wouldn’t appreciate how special this mass of stone really is. It shouldn’t be there, but it is. Also, I took many pictures (too many, you will say once you check out Flickr), and they are pretty, but nothing can compare to standing next to Uluru. Like the Pyramids in Egypt or the Grand Canyon, you have to see it for yourself.

While Uluru is famous and gets all the attention, it was the days we spent far from civilization and the quiet, lonely night under the desert sky that I will remember most. As I mentioned, we were traveling, for most of the trip, on dirt tracks. There is very little traffic and sometimes we would rarely see other vehicles. When camping in the Flinders Ranges and the Painted Desert, there was no around for miles. When we slept in the Painted Desert, we spent the whole evening, all night and all of the next morning without seeing anyone else – just us, the kangaroos, snakes and a million stars in the sky. It was the best night of sleep I’ve had in years.

There are more stories to tell about the Outback and Australia. I’m spending this week in Darwin, on the north coast of Australia, preparing for Bali and Southeast Asia and looking back on the wonderful two months I’ve spent in Oz. I’m not ready to leave.

I bought unlimited Internet access for the week (and paid too much, again), so I’ll be writing short posts about the Outback and my time in Australia, like the story of Dean’s Ear, the Tale of Matt’s Hat, and the battle for the best Potato Chip (crisp, if you must), in Oz.

If there’s anything you want to know, drop me a line. For now, enjoy the pictures (especially you folks who are in them – you made great subjects!). I know there are a lot, but sometimes too much of something is just enough.

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