Alice Springs to Adelaide

When I first heard the winds' hollow roar as I approached the summit at Kata Tjuta's Valley of the Winds in the Northern Territory, I was startled. They seemed to come out of nowhere, and I immediately stopped to listen. Which was a good thing, and not just because I was nearing the edge of a cliff. As our guide Derek, or D as he liked to be called, told us, the Pitjantjatjara people who have inhabited Australia's Central Desert for some 22,000 years believe the winds will blow out anything bad in your life. It’s a place to let go of what holds you back and move forward with a sense of possibility and courage. D, as an aboriginal person, told us that coming here to this sacred place, where aboriginal men pass on traditional knowledge and skills to boys who have come of age, has brought him strength in his own life, and he hoped it would help us do the same as we began our journey in the Red Centre. "What has caused your bad karma?" D asked. "What can the spirits do to you to make you a better person?" It's easy on such a late afternoon hike to get lost in thought, as you focus on tricky terrain, hot sun, black flies or whatever is coming your way at that moment. But those winds sort of grab you and make you pay attention. It's a place to stop and take a moment, and a measure of things. To listen to them, and to your own heart.

Day 1:  Kata Tjuta

It was still dark as I packed up quietly, trying not to wake my roommate and secretly hoping my bus would be late in picking me up for my six-day Outback camping and hiking tour to Adelaide. No such luck. The bus pulled into my Alice Springs hostel right on schedule and I scrambled, dumping my coffee and squirting honey on a piece of toast before climbing aboard. It wasn’t a big group -- 10 travelers plus a guide and his companion -- so I spread out across two seats as we made the rounds to pick up the others. Our first stop was the Ayers Rock Resort, where we set up camp and had a delicious lunch of grilled sausages and salad with fresh vinaigrette before heading for Kata Tjuta. The massive rock formation of 36 steep domes means “many heads” in the Pitjantjatjara language and is part of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, a World Heritage site that is both tourist mecca and a place sacred to the Anangu or “people,” as the Pitjantjatjara call themselves. With that in mind, we started the steep ascent to the 7.4 km full circuit Valley of the Winds hike armed with the sunglasses, hats, water and sunscreen that are always important but especially so when temperatures approach 39 degrees, as they did that week, even though it was still spring.  For reasons that couldn’t have made sense even then, I also decided to bring my backpack, which bogged me down some over the course of the 3.5-hour climb. It was a mistake I would not repeat; “leave the pack, lock the bus” became my motto. But on that first afternoon of Outback exploration, I could have cared less about the backpack’s weight or the beating sun. Hell, even the black flies had to REALLY swarm before they started to annoy me. The truth was, I couldn’t believe I’d made it that far -- to the very heart of Australia -- a wilderness that had attained mythical stature in my mind and heart ever since I was a kid and first read, somewhere I can no longer recall, about Ayers Rock, the English name by which Uluru was then widely known.  

As we trekked into the heart of Kata Tjuta, up rock steps and uneven terrain, we approached the lookout as the winds made themselves known, barreling through a V-shaped gap in the rocky hills, and D told us about the place’s power. For aboriginal people, land is intimately tied to life, with customs, rituals, stories, songs and law deriving from Dreamtime creation myths. These stories focus on the heroic exploits of supernatural, half-human, ancestral beings, who created the world as it exists by breaking out of a dark, lifeless earth’s crust and wandering about, hunting, fighting and creating the landscape, air, water, fire, celestial bodies, mountains, birds, fish, plants, animals and people as they went. Then they sank back into the earth. Some turned into trees, rocks or other parts of the landscape, forming sacred sites that are off limits to all but initiated Anangu. Land, then, as the foundation of a complex system of beliefs linking past, present and future, carries spiritual value and must, the Anangu believe, be respected if life is to be harmonious. It’s a way of understanding the world that informs daily existence which, as an outsider and westerner, I found difficult to fully grasp. But sometimes, you have to work at something in order to get it. So I stood there in the Valley of the Winds, listening to D and thinking about my own life’s challenges, the flaws in my temperament, the missteps along the way. I took a few deep breaths, exhaled, and tried to visualize the negative energy flowing out with my breath. Did it work? Who knows. But it felt good, and I suppose that’s a start. Perhaps if you feel better, you ARE better, and things get better from there. In any case, we finished our rigorous, glorious hike and returned to camp to check out the sunset view of Uluru -- which didn’t turn red but was still impressive -- and eat D’s terrific lemon chicken pasta. Then we rolled our swags out in a circle, stuffed them with sleeping bags, and turned in. I wasn’t sure how I’d sleep in open air, under just the sky for cover, and I kept a torch close by in case I had to get up in the night, although deep down I wondered if I’d have the nerve. No matter. I slept soundly. Dawn, and Uluru, awaited.

Day 2 Uluru 

“Mel, it’s getting light out, sunrise has started.” I shifted and poked my head out of the top of my swag to see my tourmate, Allie, standing nearby. I looked around and most of the other swags were empty, as folks had already set out for the viewing spot. I’m not much of a morning person, but you can’t come all the way to the middle of Australia and not get your lazy self up for sunrise. So I pulled on the sweats stuffed at the bottom of my swag, rolled out -- literally --  grabbed the trusty Nikon D-80 that was my constant tour companion, and trudged over to the same place where we’d watched sunset the night before. A crowd had already gathered and -- with uncanny observational abilities -- I actually saw the sun emerge in the sky. (Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Hey, Mel, that’s why they call it sunRISE.”) Mock me if you must, but back home in the frequently cloudy, rainy or snowy northeastern United States, sunrise is basically code for the sky’s getting lighter, so you gotta get outta bed and go to work. There just isn’t much grandeur in it a lot of the time. Oh sure, you know the sun’s up there, SOMEWHERE, but like an aging actress (not that I would know anything about that), it’s not eager to show its face too early in the day. But the desert is something else entirely. Dry, clear and uncluttered, there’s nothing to interfere with dawn-to-dusk sunshine. And sunburn & skin cancer risks notwithstanding, I love that.

But enough of the sun, we had to get to Uluru -- that giant sandstone rock in the middle of Australia that’s been around for a kazillion years and is sacred to the Anangu. Uluru is impressive, although it’s admittedly hard for anything that iconic to live up to the hype. The biggest issue, of course, is whether to climb it. So many travelers want to, even though the Anangu request that people don’t out of respect for its sacredness and for safety reasons. Around 36 people have died on the climb. I’d always assumed I wouldn’t climb, but once I saw the skinny metal guide rail to the top, I have to say it was tempting, if terrifying. First, there’s the bad karma you could usher in by going against the wishes of the site’s traditional owners. I didn’t want to mess with that. Then there’s the height thing. Even though I’m a lifelong skier, I fear certain heights. Namely, the ones that are insanely steep, slippery and on the edge of a giant bare rock, where one false move and … but never mind. It wasn’t an issue that day because the climb was closed due to high winds at the top. I probably wouldn’t have climbed anyway, but I can’t be sure. We settled for the unguided 10k base walk, which is slow-going save for vivid aboriginal dreaming stories posted along the way. Many of the ancestral tales carry moral lessons that I found refreshingly clear-cut. For instance, there’s the lizard Lungkata, who stole the spoils of another’s hunt (an emu, or Kalaya), roasted it, and then lied when the real hunters came along looking for their bird. But they had the last laugh, so to speak, when they built a bonfire and Lungkata, trying to escape, was burned and fell to his death. “Lungkata reminds us what happens to the greedy and dishonest,” the story concluded. Indeed. One surprising thing we noticed about Uluru is how textured the rock is, with pits and ridges that don’t show up in all those famous Uluru-in-the-distance photos. The walk took several hours, and afterwards we met back up with D, who’d declined to accompany us because, as an aboriginal man from a different part of Australia, he was uncomfortable viewing the women’s sacred sites at Uluru. After a brief stop at the aboriginal culture center, we headed out, and I considered how super-famous sites, like Uluru, beckon travelers for years, even decades, until they finally reach them. But the value isn’t just in arriving, of course, but in what you take away. Walking around an ancient place, you immediately connect, at some level, with those who have trod the same ground. Your experiences and origins can be vastly different but, in our common humanity, we are all connected to the places we came from, to our ancestors, to one another. That is, perhaps, the lesson an outsider can draw from this place, from Anangu dreaming. It’s about perspective, about seeing our lives as part of a universe of shifting, interconnected relationships with people and places, a bigger picture that can help us thrive because it helps us place our personal problems into a larger frame of reference, so we avoid self-absorption. It’s easier to escape excess fear, worry and over-analysis when you realize how much of the world is out there. It always has been, and it always will be, so you may as well learn from bad experiences and move forward with a strong mind and body, generous spirit, courageous heart, compassion for others, and respect for the natural world. It’s a perspective I will hang onto when times get hard. And at some point, they will. Back at camp, we relaxed, swam, ate burgers and braced for a very early wake-up call. Was I ready for another night in a swag? Hell yes.

Day 3 Kings Canyon 

Two pieces of good news! I again slept great in my swag, and the homemade English trifle we didn’t eat for dessert last night is breakfast today. The bad news? Our wake up call was 3 a.m. Painful as it was, though, I was grateful to D for waking us, loading the bus, and driving while we slept so we wouldn’t get shut out of Kings Canyon. Temperatures were forecast to reach 40 degrees, and the hikes are closed if it’s too hot because park rangers worry about hikers getting sick from dehydration and heat exhaustion. I crawled out of my swag, rolled it up -- an improvement over the day before, when I was so pokey a kind tourmate (I still don’t know who, but thanks) rolled it for me -- and groggily stumbled to the bus, where I rearranged my sleeping bag as a bed, crawled in, and went back to sleep. We stopped for breakfast on the road -- trifle and coffee do make a nice breakfast -- and pulled into the canyon early enough to start the 500-step ascent to the 6-km Rim Walk. Folks, if there’s anyway, from anywhere, you can get to Kings Canyon, GO. The place’s rugged, red beauty is beyond compare. We crushed eucalyptus leaves to breathe in the scent and took in spectacular scenery as we made our way to the summit before descending into the lush Garden of Eden -- accessed via so many flights of stairs that I began to wonder if I was in some national park remake of Vertigo -- and then climbing back out. Most fun? Going off trail for rock climbing, where it paid to have a great group. Because when your guide wants to move along, but you still want to get to the top of a steep section that takes a bit of navigating, there’s nothing like having a friend who’s already up there step down, extend his hand, and say, “Go for it!” before pulling you up so you don’t miss out. Likewise, when you are all making your way gingerly down from a wall, it’s nice when the first two down hang around to spot the others as they jump. The entire circuit took us about 3.5 hours, and I realized just how thankful I was to D for rousing us so early. It would have been terrible to miss this hike. Plus, by 11:30 a.m., it was HOT, and we were ready to be done. We decided not to spend the night near the canyon, because we didn’t want to burn too much of the next day driving to the opal mining town of Coober Pedy. So we hit the road for Kulgera, a border town. “It’s home to the last pub in the Northern Territory before you cross into South Australia,” D told us. “We can bush camp, and you guys can go to the pub.” You didn’t have to tell us twice. And Kulgera turned out to be the real deal, a true Outback down with a gas pump and a small pub. And that’s it. No, really, that was it. I think there was a “No Parking” sign too. And a palm tree. D whipped up a stir fry on a round wooden table that resembled a giant spool in the midst of a barren camping site, and our entertainment came in the form of some local guys getting into a (verbal) fight with the pub’s bartender. We decided against true bush camping in the scrub across the road because D, having never camped there in weather that hot, couldn’t be sure about snakes. That is, that they wouldn’t come around. Or if they did come around, that they wouldn’t be venomous. Or if they came around AND were venomous, that they wouldn’t bite us. Suffice it to say, the campground sounded peachy. We set our swags in the usual circle but closer, feet out and heads in, so that if anyone’s feet got bitten in the night, we would all be alerted to flee. I mean help. Help and THEN flee. But, mercifully, no creatures of the night fed upon us. And that Outback sky … just WOW. So. Worth. It. 

Day 4  Coober Pedy

You know when you dream about Australia, and you think how wonderful it will be to drive forever, clearing your mind in the vast Outback? Well, trust me, there’s LOTS of time to decompress when you drive from the Northern Territory into South Australia because there is nothing to clutter up your thoughts. As in, not a thing. Not even a blade of grass. There’s dirt. And scrub. And the long, long road, of course; I think we stayed on the Stuart Highway for the most part. We did see an emu and chicks. And an occasional kangaroo. But it’s very empty, and driving in all that emptiness is actually pretty calming. You get used to it. It’s definitely not a place where you’d want to break down. But just rolling along, mile after mile, it’s easy to let your mind wander and consider things as they occur to you. There’s a relaxing, even hypnotic, quality about moving through all that space. And the South Australian Outback seems more desolate than the red desert of the Northern Territory around Uluru. It looks different too. The land isn’t red here, it’s shades of tan and gray, and there aren’t really any trees, just scrub. Still, there’s beauty in the barrenness. And it’s very dry and hot. I read somewhere -- I think on a bathroom sign urging limited water use -- that Australia is the driest continent on earth, and South Australia is the driest state on the continent. I believe it. And nowhere is the dust and heat more apparent than in tiny, unique Coober Pedy, where immigrants from all over the world have settled to seek their fortunes in the opal mines, and people live in underground houses called dugouts as a refuge from all that aforementioned heat (summer temperatures approaching 50 degrees) and dust. These homes are gorgeous, with spacious rooms, modern conveniences and rugged, pale rock walls, if the tour we took at the Umoona Opal Mine and Museum is any indication.  When someone asked the tour guide if the dugouts get flooded when it rains, with water coming in through air shaft openings, she replied, “Well, it doesn’t rain much, does it?” Guess not. The town itself has a surreal, post-apocalyptic look to it, and it’s served as a location for films like the 2000 Vin Diesel sci-fi thriller “Pitch Black.” One of the set pieces from the movie is still in town, which is covered with dirt hills, covered mine shafts and mullock heaps that create an unusual skyline. D warned us to be careful walking around, because it’s easy to “disappear” in a remote mining town with endless underground channels, and people have done just that over the years. Fortunately, we had no troubles. At Umoona, we learned how opals are formed, mined, cut and polished, that it’s their color that makes them valuable, and that Australia produces the vast majority of the world’s opals. Most of that I knew. Remember when I mentioned reading about Australia as a kid and carrying the images with me? Part of that entailed reading about desert opal mines and promptly adopting the opal as my favorite gemstone. Having finally gotten there, the exotic, iridescent opals did not disappoint. After a mine tour and shopping, we noodled for opal slivers outside town, checked out the Painted Desert’s ochre hues, and saw the world’s longest fence: the nearly 3,500-mile Dingo Fence built in the late 19th century to keep dingoes out of southeastern Australia. After all that tramping around in the dirt, I wanted to swim, so D dropped me off at the public pool, where for $6 (AUS) I joined a bunch of local kids and moms in the coldest swimming pool known to man. Trust me, I grew up swimming in upstate New York lakes, and this water was COLD. It almost hurt. I have no idea how they even get water that cold in the hottest place on earth, but I’ve accepted it as one of life’s great mysteries. I swam my laps along the far edge of the pool as kids jumped in, laughing and shouting, around me, and for a moment I felt happily immersed in a bit of real Australia: a slice of small-town life that most tourists don’t see. After D and crew picked me up, it was onto an animal rescue site, where we fed kangaroos and saw an impossibly cute, tiny joey who was being bottle-fed and kept in a cotton bag since being rescued from the pouch of his mother, who was killed on a road. We wrapped up the day with pizza at a local pub, and a sound sleep in our dugout dorm room. My friends played Marco Polo into the night, but the noise didn’t keep me awake. Go figure.

Day 5 

More driving as we headed further south toward Adelaide. We saw the bright white salt flats of Lake Eyre, where the black flies were the worst yet and I was grateful for the netting I draped over my head. Then we stopped for a late breakfast in Pimba, a tiny settlement on the Ghan and Indian Pacific railway lines that’s home to the legendary Spud’s Roadhouse. D set up the propane tank and portable burner, and we scooped hot water for tea and coffee out of a giant pot with tin cups, our usual process. This is the real Outback, I thought, so take a good look. There’s a certain romance to drinking tea as you gaze at that empty land, stretching endlessly in all directions. You imagine yourself as a heroine in an adventure flick, in surroundings that are wild, desolate, peaceful and a little dangerous all at once. After our break, we took off for Port Augusta, where we barbecued at a public park. Most folks ate kangaroo wraps; Allie & I had falafel. I’m not a strict vegetarian, but you can only pet, feed, scratch and photograph so many kangaroos before deciding not to eat them. That’s me, anyhow. We swam too, even though the “beach” was a bit of an oddity, sandwiched between a broken-down jetty that local cops told us to avoid and a highway bridge where kids, somewhat alarmingly, jumped off into the clear salt water below. After chilling out, we hit the road again for our final night at the Stony Creek Bush Camp Caravan Park in Wilmington, SA. D cooked an extravagant dinner of meat pies with gravy and/or pasta marinara with seafood. There was also laser tag, card games, beer and Marco Polo. The tour was ending tomorrow? It seemed impossible. 

Day 6

How am I going to see the rest of Australia without my group? It’s been only six days but we’ve hiked, sweated, cooked, camped, laughed, slept on buses and helped each other out in a zillion ways. (We even had a campsite surgery clinic, where one friend braced another as D lanced the latter’s huge blister and bandaged it so she wouldn’t miss the Uluru walk. That, my friends, is dedication.) It seemed odd to be parting ways. We had one last spectacular hike at Alligator Gorge in the Southern Flinders Ranges, with its dramatic, dark rocky walls and huge trees, many of which had fallen sideways against the walls or across the gorge’s base, creating interesting pathways. The walk took about an hour and then we headed out, stopping for excellent ice cream (licorice flavor!) before arriving in Adelaide -- where eight of us met for dinner that night. I suppose when you share such an excellent and diverse adventure, the ties aren’t immediately broken. And this was, it must be said, a terrifically great group of people. I still think about them, our guides, and the fun we shared at Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon, the opal fields, and the rest. We bonded over stories of our lives back home and plans for our next adventures. And after a lifetime of dreaming, I’d seen the Outback. I can’t say I left it better than I found it, though I managed not to desecrate anything. Or litter. But I’m better for having been there. I’ll remember that endless landscape, the sense of being one person in a vast world encompassing past, present and future. That many problems are not insurmountable. That life must be embraced in all its complexities and contradictions, because that’s where the rewards lie. We have to breathe deeply, let go, move, learn and reach in order to thrive. D told me his mother, toward the end of her life, told him to stay strong, to trust his heart, and himself. “Nobody will ever break your heart,” she’d said. “If someone walks away from you, let that person go. Your heart will always be strong.” Wise words from a faraway place. And yet not so far. The world is vast but ever with us, waiting.