Outback surprise with Intrepid Travel

Some of my favourite travel memories are from while I was still in the air – I can vividly remember my first glimpse of yellow school buses tearing along an LA Palm tree lined highway, my first birds-eye view of the Coliseum in Rome and my latest ‘wow’ moment was flying in over Uluru. 

I was landing at Ayr’s Rock airport (the airport is still called Ayr’s Rock even though the Rock has returned to its traditional name of Uluru) to begin a four day Red Centre journey with Intrepid Travels. 

We had had clear skies all the way, the pilot announced that the infamous rock would be making her debut appearance to our left, we all leaned and peered…..there she was! For a flirtatious 1 ½ seconds before we descended into thick cloud that had suddenly appeared from nowhere.  

Still, it was unmistakably Uluru – those who have travelled to see some of the world’s wonders know that strange feeling that comes over you when you suddenly marry up years of seeing photos and TV footage with the real thing. It is quite surreal.

I’ll admit, I went on this trip with some trepidation – I pictured running from brown snakes, swatting giant spiders out of my tent and miles and miles of nothing in the Outback. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Day1 - Uluru

Day one was all about Uluru! Walking around it, drinking champagne while the sunset behind it and getting up at crack of dawn on day two to watch the sunrise over it (but not climbing up it – as that is culturally insensitive).

Frist up though was the rock base walk. This took an hour and a half and meant we had travelled about half way around it. The full circumference of the rock is appoximately 7.4km. 

At the start of the walk we saw the first of many signs warning about the dangers of extreme heat and encouraging walkers to complete any excursions by 11am. I soon realised that doing this trip in winter had some great benefits – the lack of searing sun being one of them. 

Each day we were able to complete our treks at a leisurely pace where as in the heat of summer walkers are often up at crack of dawn and racing through to beat the literally lethal sun.

Once the base walk was complete it was onto our purpose built, fully air-conditioned 4WD bus (or as Richard from England kept exclaiming ‘we’re travelling around in a lorry! It’s a real lorry!’ Much to our amusement) to head to the sunset viewing point.

Another slightly surreal moment as we arrive and there must be about two dozen other tour groups all setting up tables with white linen cloths, canapés and champagne in the red, red sand of the dessert.  There is plenty of room for everyone though and there was definitely a ‘cocktail party’ atmosphere in the air as we all quaffed champers and watched the sun turn the rock into more shades of red, purple and pink than we could possibly count.

Champagne bottles empty, canapés gone, time to head to home for the night. Camp each night is in permanent tented sites. With hardwood floors and proper beds in each one it’s definitely at the more ‘luxurious’ end of camping. Meals are prepared by a hostess – and our first night’s dinner was a traditional Aussie Kangaroo burger. Surprisingly tasty.

Dinnertime entertainment was provided by the Spinifex Hopping mice darting in and out of the al-fresco dining area trying to grab dropped crumbs. These mice don’t like anything like a traditional mouse and are actually ridiculously cute, so there may have been more than a bit of encouragement in the crumb dropping department.

Image courtesy of www.intrepidtravels.com.

Day2- Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)

Day two started with a super early rising (although once again, not as early as in the middle of summer when the sun rises an hour earlier – another winter travel bonus) and a trip out to the sunrise viewing spot. 

Once again there were a few other tour groups at the viewing platform but not nearly as many as it would have been mid-summer (third bonus!) Everybody was chattering away and much foot stomping and arm rubbing was going on in an attempt to keep warm and then it started to happen and everyone went quiet. 

If you think watching the sunrise over Uluru would be much like watching the sunset in reverse you would be totally wrong. Last night’s reds and purples were replaced with golds, yellows and blue. It felt like opening night of the biggest musical on Broadway as the entire Outback slowly became illuminated by that universal spotlight called the sun.

Slightly awestruck, we wandered back to the bus and it was off to Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas) to do the Valley of the Winds walk. Our Intrepid tour guide, Jason, was incredibly knowledgeable in all areas. We learned about the indigenous people, the geography and geology and the so called ‘white man’ history of each place - all of it was absolutely fascinating. Plus some great wildlife spotting – my favourite being the Euro – halfway between being a Wallaby and a Kangaroo. 

Jason has been working with Intrepid for many years and has a natural passion for the Aboriginal culture of Australia, which by the end of the trip we all shared.

Day two finished with a giant campfire after dinner and an education process for the Italians on our tour around toasting marshmallows. Not only had they never toasted them before they had never even heard of them! 

Day3 – Watarrka National Park – Kings Canyon

Up early again (getting much easier by this stage) and off to Kings Canyon. This was definitely a group agreed highlight of the trip. Once you get up heart attack hill that is.

The hike starts with a steep ascent, although despite its foreboding name our entire group managed to reach the top within a short twenty minutes  and that was with us taking a photo stop half way up.

Jason’s seemingly never-ending knowledge was on tap again as we slowly circled the canyon learning about the plants – Yipiyipi – the healing plant, the rare cycads that are believed to have arrived on earth with a meteorite, bush tobacco, bush tucker, even bush plums.

Then at the peak of the canyon starfish and sea cucumber fossils that prove that at one stage the middle of the Outback was actually the middle of the ocean.  I can’t recall being that interested in a history and geology lesson…well…ever (sorry Mrs Barclay!)

We then descended into the garden of Eden, a gorgeous palm surrounded rock pool at the base of the canyon before climbing on out again (not nearly as steep getting out as getting in!) and back out to the ‘lorry’.

It was at this stage of the tour that the majority of the group left leaving me and a gorgeous wee Canadian girl called Annie to do the final day together. I asked Jason about this – he said it seems to be that tour operators tend to sell the first three days that have all the ‘big’ red centre attractions and not the fourth day. 

I definitely would recommend staying on for the final day – it’s is taken at a cruisey pace and you get to spend time in the Wallace Rockhole Aboriginal.
Annie and I spent the rest of afternoon exploring Hermannsburg – one of the most famous aboriginal missions before heading off to camp.

Now, it was on this night that I had my first and last incident with some scary wildlife. The fourth major bonus (and probably the biggest one as far as I was concerned) of doing the trip at the start of winter is that all the spiders, scorpions, snakes and so forth are in hibernation.

However one little guy clearly didn’t get the message as I went to go bed and found a rather large spider scuttling around underneath it. I was assured by Jason that he wasn’t dangerous and as long as I treated him with respect he would do the same. For some reason he found the fact that I spent the rest of the night calling the spider ‘sir’ rather amusing. 

Day 4 – Wallace Rockhole and Western MacDonnell Ranges

The morning of our final day was booked in for a trip to the rock hole to learn about Aboriginal culture. Our guide was Ken the local camp owner who has been part of the community for

over 30 years and is married to an Aboriginal woman.

Ken led us to the rock hole – a large water hole for the area - showing us many forms of ancient aboriginal art along the way. Mind blowing to think that the handprints and drawings we were looking at are literally thousands of years old. 

After that we were taken back to camp where we had the opportunity to do our own aboriginal dot painting. The area out the back of the camp shop is set up as a rather rustic and slightly untidy studio yet for me that all added to the realness of it. Having not picked up a paint brush since third form art I became immersed in the story I was forming on my own dot painting and have since proudly handed the said piece of art to my fiancé and told him he needs to treasure it. I don’t think he’s as convinced of its value as I am.

Our trip was drawing to a close; we had two more stops along the way before we hit Alice Springs. One was Standley Chasm (which Annie and I apparently completed in record time, Jason hadn’t even finished his coffee before we were back!) and Simpson’s gap where we went Rock Wallaby spotting – another ridiculously cute Australian animal.

Back in Alice Springs and time for goodbyes. I had come into this trip curious and with no particular expectations, I was leaving as fully-fledged, over the top Outback lover. The Red Centre had surprised me with its beauty, changeability and its multi-layered history –white man interwoven with Aboriginal.  I feel I could go back and visit the same sites and see and hear totally different things all over again. In fact, maybe that’s just what I’ll do.

Trip notes

Nicky travelled courtesy of Intrepid Travel. She undertook the Central Explorer tour.

For more information visit www.intrepidtravel.com.

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