Kakadu to Uluru

Trying to fit in some sunshine (it’s cold in Melbourne at the moment), and a seeing a lot of Australia in a short space of time, I looked online for tours from Darwin to Uluru.  Lost in Australia seemed to be offering the best deal, and even though I was going to be on a minibus rather than in a 4WD truck, I would get to see all of the main attractions en route. The only thing putting me off; the 10 day trip was a combination of three separate tours. I decided to go for it; visas don’t last for ever you know. I was not disappointed.

Day 1

After a few days of soaking up the glorious heat and sunshine in Darwin, the day of the tour had finally arrived. Up far too early, I checked out of the hostel whilst trying not to wake up the rest of my room, and wandered out the door to find the tour bus waiting. We checked in with the guide, and threw our luggage into the trailer before clambering on board the bus. There’s always the dilemma of where to sit; on the single seats, at the back and risk getting travel sick, at the front? I opted for a window seat about three rows back, and ended up with two seats to myself for the whole three days! Bonus! We were the last pick up, so with everyone on board, we started our journey towards Kakadu National Park. Everyone was still asleep until after the coffee stop! 

A bit more awake, Sam (our guide) introduced himself and then we all took it in turns to say a few words on the mic at the front. Who we were, where we were from, what our job is, you know the standard. It’s the same conversation that any traveller has at least once a day, but at least that made speaking into a microphone less daunting! So that we didn’t forget everyone’s name straight away, we were then given some pens to write our names on the windows with. This proved extremely useful when by day three you forget someone’s name and it seems rude to ask.

All 16 of us introduced, we continued on our journey to the first stop of the tour: 'Rockhole Billabong' on the Mary River. The last part of this journey was down a bumpy, unsealed road, but there was no slowing down, as due to the road works (aftermath of the wet season) we were nearly late. So as soon as we arrived, it was straight onto the boat for our croc sightseeing cruise.

The boat cruise lasted for two hours, and we saw a lot of humongous saltwater crocs hanging out on the banks, and a few in the edge of the water. We even saw one freshwater croc (the ones which won’t grab you in a death roll), and some ducks playing with fate by gathering in a large flock next to a big Salty. We also saw lots of different birds that live on the flood plains in the area.

Cruise over, out came lunch. We had to work as a team to chop up the salad and open all of the packets before we tucked in. I know, such hard work right? We ate our fill of bread, salad, meats, and cheese before packing it all away and continuing on our journey into Kakadu National Park.  

Before we arrived, our park tickets were passed down the bus for us to write our names on, and we were told not to lose them. We stopped by the entrance to the park to take a few pictures of the signs, and then continued on to the Biwalli visitor centre. We had half an hour or so to look around, and learn about the Biwalli tribe, the park itself, and some of the Aboriginal ways. Oh and grab a coffee or ice cream if we wanted.

Time up, we made our way to the furthest corner of the park to climb Ubir. Sam told us about the indigenous population and explained some of the aboriginal art before we climbed up to the summit. We also learnt that you can’t use an Aboriginal’s name or picture after they die. The view at the summit was spectacular, and apparently frequented by Crocodile Dundee!

Walk over; we motored on to our campsite to make some dinner. The tents were a permanent fixture, so we didn't have to set up camp! It was an early night all round after a long day! Just as everyone was heading to their tents, Sam walked across to find himself a bed. He returned rather quickly having a mild panic. Turned out he'd stood on a snake and it had struck out at his boot! Luckily it hadn't managed to bite him. Luckily again it hadn't been any of us as we were all in trainers so it would have been game over for the rest of the tour! Needless to say we walked everywhere in the campsite that evening with torches and eyes glued to the floor!

Day 2

Up at 5! We helped ourselves to breakfast (toast and cereal), and coffee, packed up our things and got on the bus. We had a short (ish) drive to our first stop of the day - Gunlom Falls. It was still pretty cold after the temperatures had dropped overnight, but a short hike up the hill to the falls warmed us up. Gunlom is a series of short waterfalls and pools, and most of them are deep enough for a swim. It was quite busy, as the school tour bus had managed to just beat us there, so we went all the way up to the top pool. Most of us braved a swim even though it was mostly in the shade. The pool was really deep in some places, but you could stand up in the first half, which worked out well as we had a couple of non-swimmers. The brave were able to explore around the corner, and clamber over a few more rocks to find the very top of the falls. I was even lucky enough to see a crab in the bottom of one of the rock pools. Apparently a rare sighting as they normally burrow into the sand. Goggles are very useful! Swimming all done, and the beauty of Gunlom absorbed, we hiked back down.

Back on the bus, we drove out of Kakadu and made a lunch stop where Sam cooked us burgers for lunch on the BBQ. We did the team effort of chopping again, and this time washing up too so that it didn’t need doing later. Full of food, there was lots of snoozing on the bus on the way to Litchfield! We made a stop for amazing homemade ice cream at Pine Creek before continuing on to our campsite for the night.

This time we had dome tents to put up, and swags to sleep in inside the tent. It was a nice quiet site, and we all sat around & had a drink and a chat whilst dinner cooked on the BBQ. There was only briefly scary moment when the end of the gas tube lit as well as the hob. Big disaster quickly averted, we ate, chatted some more and went to bed so we'd be fresh for the next day (with no further snake incidents, and not wanting to risk any further snake encounters, Sam slept in his swag on the roof of the bus)!

Day 3

Up early (again), we did a similar drill, sort stuff, get breakfast and board the bus... It was only a short ride down the road to the Cathedral Termite Mounds. It was pretty big, but essentially a tower of chewed up leaves and termite spit. Nice. Across the other side of the road we viewed the magnetic termite mounds. These are the ones which only have thin sides facing the sun for temperature control, so they all face north to south, and are only found in a strip 50kms wide across Australia. Something to do with the type of soil they like.

Oh I nearly forgot - we stopped on the way to take a pic of sunrise. They had been doing a lot of burns in the area to clear the undergrowth before the hot season, and germinate the plants that need fire to seed. This had resulted in a beautiful smoky sunrise.

Termites seen, it was back on the bus to Florence Falls. This time we were early enough to beat the crowds, but also early enough for a chilly swim in the shade! For the few of us that were brave or crazy enough (yes I got in) it was a lovely refreshing morning swim. We had to walk down to this one rather than up, and stopped at the lookout on the way. The pool was right at the bottom of quite a lot of steps, and was nice and big. 

After the hike back up all the steps, we drove on to Wangi falls. This one had a massive lake, one big waterfall, and one small, but warm one. The surrounding area is apparently also inhabited by the more docile freshwater Crocs! Still, the sun had made it out, so everyone braved a swim. Ironically it was colder than the first one! After our swim, we made some lunch, and toasted our wraps on the BBQ (well some of them - the others had too much filing!)

Back on the bus, we trundled on to the last waterfall of the day - Buley Rockhole. This was a series of deep pools, and cascades you could sit in a bit like a natural Jacuzzi. We soaked up the sun, avoided the tiny snake on the rocks over the other side, and did a spot of jumping in :-) Waterfalled out, it was back to the bus for the long trip back to Darwin.

After checking in, and making ourselves clean, it was off out for dinner, and to say goodbye to some of the group.

Day 4

The day started with the long drive down to Katherine, with a couple of stops on the way for supplies and petrol. We had a different tour guide - Kate aka Cyclone, and lots of new people on the bus. Only 9 of the original group were left, so we had a few introductions to do when we arrived at Katherine Gorge. This done, and lunch sorted (including the washing up) we went for a look around the visitor centre. We relaxed there for a while, learnt about the aboriginal owners of the land, the Jawoyn, and had an ice cream. Some people then left for a boat cruise on the river, or a kayaking trip, whilst the rest of us went for a hike up to the lookout. It was a bit warm for a walk up a hill, but the view was stunning.

Next up was a swim in the river (also inhabited by Freshwater Crocs) and a lie in the sun. The river was cold, so you had to warm back up afterwards! You just had to make sure that you weren’t under a tree as the area is home to thousands of Flying Foxes. They’re rather noisy during the day for nocturnal animals!

After a relaxed afternoon, it was back to Katherine to the camp. This site was deserted so we got to use the tents. They had beds, lights, and plug sockets - luxury! Yet somehow this campsite felt more like the outback than the more commercial ones we’d stayed at so far. It had its own Crocodile inhabited Billabong and plenty of trees dotted around. Some people helped to prepare the dinner, others lit the camp fire, and the remainder got to know each other a bit better as we waited for dinner.

Kate made us a meal of chicken carbonara on the BBQ complete with garlic bread (it really is amazing what can be cooked on the barbie). All full once more, it was off for croc spotting in the dark. Armed with torches to check for hazards such as spiders, snakes, annoyed crocs, and low lying branches, we walked over to the billabong. Thankfully there were no scary encounters and we saw some of the baby crocs swimming around in the water - you have to look for their red eyes! Back to camp, we poked the fire, and watched the Agile Wallabies sniff around the tents before bed.

Day 5

Breakfast done, and the bus loaded, we got on the road. First stop: Mataranka Thermal Pools. A beautiful, natural hot spring. After a bob around and some fish spotting, we went for a swim down to the end. It was much bigger than it looked, and crystal clear. We even had to brave swimming under all of the golden orb spiders that were enjoying hanging between the trees in the heat coming from the water.

Swimming back up to where we got in with my face in the water (goggles are definitely the way forwards), I was lucky enough to spot a turtle, and I didn't even notice the spiders!

After a nice hour or so in the water, we got out, and got dressed in a hurry as it was still cold, and got back on the bus. Next stop: Daly Waters Pub for some lunch.

Another group had managed to claim the BBQ first, so we had a look round the pub. Travellers have been leaving something of theirs behind for years. There was everything on display from ID cards to t-shirts, and underwear! We then tried our hand at street bowling. 1 road, 11 pins, a battered bowling ball and competitors from several different countries. I was amazingly bad at it (sorry England)!

After bowling, we cooked up a spot of lunch, and relaxed by the pool out the back for a while. Then it was back on the bus for the trek on south. We made a fuel stop on the way, and got to meet the resident buffalo, and snake. They were both grumpy - the Python because he was cold, so he had to be put back to bed, and the Buffalo seemed friendly... Next thing we knew, he'd found his way out from behind the fence, suddenly got spooked, and charged. We found our way back onto the bus very quickly! As we looked back there was a kind of mini tornado behind the bus, apparently known as a 'Willie Willie'. Guess that was what spooked him.

Back on the bus, out came the pens, and we decorated the windows with lots of Aus themed pictures. Finally, we made it to the cattle ranch, where we were staying for the night, and walked up the hill to watch the sunset.

Next up was a spot of Tabata kindly run by Emma to shake out the cobwebs before dinner. This was followed by a bonfire and chat with some retired Aussie travellers. A nice evening all round, it was off to bed.

Day 6

Guess what? Up early :-) The sunrise over the camp looked even more impressive than last night’s sunset, so I took a quick picture before getting onto the bus.

We made our way south, eventually arriving at Tennant Creek Telegraph Station. The relics of one of the first stations put in to carry messages over from England. The Aussies had the challenge of building a single telephone line the length of Australia to send Morse code messages. Due to the vast distances they needed repeater stations on the way. The different Territory’s raced each other to be the first to finish. Would have been an epic challenge, and very remote living.

After a quick look around, reading some of the information, and taking a few pics, we made our way on to the Devil's Marbles. The first of many different, interesting rock formations found in the middle of the desert. We had a brief guided tour, and then went off to explore, climb, and take some pics. Apparently Cattle Farmers used to like the spot as they could climb up and keep an eye over all of their stock, until the cattle started dying. Nothing too sinister though – they’d gone and eaten a spiky plant that didn’t agree with them. I guess the farmers stopped using the area once they figured it out. There were stunning views from the top of some rocks... Others were very heavy... and some were challenging to push apart...

We arrived back to the bus to find Kate wearing her alien proof headwear, and glasses! On the bus, we created our own 'helmets' on our way to Wycliffe Well - the alien capital of Aus. Where we stopped for lunch, and a look round at all of the articles, artefacts, and alien themed paintings. It's amazing what you find in the outback!

We continued in our journey towards Alice Springs with a stop to jump over the tropic of Capricorn all together, and a group picture, before separating from the group once more.

After a shower at the hostel, it was off out for dinner and dancing at Kate's local haunt. Where we also tried out our skills at limbo, selfies, and the pick the box up off the floor with your teeth game. I did pretty well too until there was only an inch of it left and I fell over face first trying to pick it up! Needless to say I was out... Sadly we said goodbye to some of the group again, as some were doing the more expensive 4x4 Uluru trip, and some had booked with other companies. There’s just no loyalty anymore!

Day 7

A 'free' day to recuperate in Alice.After a late night, we had a lazy morning, and some people did some washing before we wandered into town. It’s a fairly small town, I guess as you’d expect for the middle of the desert. We had a look around some of the art galleries, and shops, and bought some supplies for lunch.

After lunch, we decided to walk up to the lookout - Anzac Hill, and go on a free walking tour of the town. For some reason it seemed like a good idea to run up the hill! The lookout offers views over the whole of the town, and contains the war memorial, hence the name. Random fact: The road up to the top was unsealed until royalty visited in recent years, then volunteers worked together to lay the Bitumen to avoid embarrassment! 

On the tour run by the info centre, we learnt all about the old Gaol, some of the different buildings, the river (currently empty), oh and the protected trees that’ve had buildings built around them. Apparently the Henley-on-Todd Regatta is the only boat race in the world that is cancelled if there’s water in the river! The Todd River is empty most of the time, but when, on occasion, it does rain in the dessert, it floods. We also learnt that Alice Springs is named after a girl who has never been to the town, and that there is actually a large reservoir of water situated underground that gives the town its water supply. Strangely for the desert, it not enough water is used from the reservoir, some of the trees start dying as they are getting too much water.

After our walk, and waiting for some of the girls to go into every tourist shop they could find looking for souvenirs, we made our way back across town to our hostel to unpack and repack so that we didn’t need to take so much luggage on our last segment of the tour.

We cooked up a storm of pasta and veg at the hostel for dinner, as all of our original group were staying there. Joe was abandoning us and doing the next part of the tour with a different company, so we wanted to all eat together. Only a mild logistical nightmare cooking for 10 in a hostel kitchen, but it turned out ok :-)

Day 8

Collected from our hostel in Alice Springs by Kate, we rounded up a few others from across town and hit the road. This trip was to start and finish with a long drive, so we got comfy on the bus and looked forward to the adventures ahead.

First up was Stuart's Well for a quick Camel ride. It was early, looked painful, and I didn't want to smell like a camel for the next three days, so I decided to enjoy watching others on their 2 minute ride as they were led up a track and then run back down. They mostly looked like they enjoyed it!

We continued on for a quick fuel and refreshment stop at Ebenezer Roadhouse - more or less the middle of Australia, and had a look at the floats from the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Our next stop was at the side of the road to collect firewood. “Don’t bring it back unless it’s as thick as your wrist”, and “feel free to break the dead trees apart” were our only instructions, as we disembarked from the bus and set to work. This was quite fun as we swung from the dead trees trying to break them apart, and filled our nearly empty trailer with wood to keep us warm later (we'd all been wise enough to listen to Kate and bring very little luggage with us).

Next up was a quick view of Atila (Mt. Connor) and the Salt lakes left behind by his footsteps as he chased up the country. Mt Connor was formed as Atila sat down to rest, and is the shape of a big U. This is also the Aboriginal symbol for a sitting person. 

We drove onwards to Ayers to Rock resort for some lunch at our campsite, and then we collected the last few passengers from the airport and made our way to the cultural centre. It was very informative, and told us of the aboriginal ways of life, diet, and seasons. It also included an art gallery.

Full of new knowledge, we drove round Uluru to the start of our walk and set out round the base of the rock. The 'red' colour is due to the amount of Iron in the sandstone. So it's essentially a big rusty rock! This is a very sacred place for the Aboriginals so there were certain places where you can't take any pictures, and we only get the kids version of all of the stories because we're not initiated into the tribe.

After our walk, we drove to the other side to view sunset. Every other tour group were doing the same thing, some with dinner, and some with Champers. Instead we had snacks, danced around a bit as the temperature dropped, and were free to concentrate on taking hundreds of pictures as the rock changed colour.

Then it was back to camp for hot showers to warm up before dinner, and to roll out our swags round the fire.

Day 9

Up for sunrise, we all got on the bus at the time we’d been given, only to be told that we were ready earlier than anticipated (normally there’s a few people running late), and the sunrise was at the campsite! We sat in the warmth for a short while before getting off and walking up the hill to watch the sky and Uluru change colour once again. This time with the benefit of Kata Tjuta also in the background. We did a bit of a dance / jump around (again) to keep warm (it dropped to -0.4 overnight)! It was a stunning thing to watch, but really cold. Kate had even suggested that we take our sleeping bags up there with us!

We got back onto the nice warm bus to defrost, and made our way to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) for a hike through the 36 'heads'. It was still a bit chilly as we set out down the rocky tracks, but we soon warmed up and absorbed our stunning surroundings, learnt more about the Aboriginal way of life from Kate, and walked down and up a few giant hills.

It was a beautiful walk, but quite jarring on the ankles! We spread ourselves out in the middle to give ourselves chance to take in our surroundings, regathered for a snack at the summit of the steepest hill, and finished off walking together as a group. We were definitely all weary and ready for lunch afterwards. Thankfully it was only a short drive down the road, and we cooked up a BBQ of burgers and sausages and soaked up the sun and heat before the temperature dropped again whilst watching a rather more sedate camel ride than the first ones. 

We stopped again at the side of the road to collect more firewood, although Kate forgot to remind us that we needed thick bits of wood, and a lot of small ones ended up in the trailer before she realised. Out the wood came! We collected a bit more, selected the best logs from the earlier pile, and re loaded the trailer.

Onwards again, we drove to Kings Creek Station where we were camping for the night, and got the fire going. Dinner was cooked in the fire - bread, and sweet and sour chicken with rice, oh and a birthday cake for Nicole. It didn't quite set in the middle due to the large quantities of chocolate, but fire cooked cake is a pretty impressive feat!

After dinner, and happy birthday sung in several different languages simultaneously, we chatted over the fire before bed.

Day 10

Camp packed up (well except for the boys who managed not to wake up)! We got into the bus for the short drive to Watarrka (Kings Canyon). It was still dark as we left the car park, and the sun started to rise as we climbed up 'heart attack hill'. Sounds worse than it is, and we were at the top in no time.

We continued into the canyon, and absorbed the beauty of the third different rock formation of the trip (fourth if we’re counting the marbles). There are two different stories of how the canyon was formed. One involved two Kangaroos that decided not to walk around, and the other the weathering of the rock. I think I preferred the Aboriginal version! We took in the vast views and fossilised rocks during our 3 hour hike, stopping for a break and a snack in the Garden of Eden – a beautiful clear lake in the bottom of the canyon. Before the equally stunning hike back out to the bus.

After a stop for lunch, we were faced with the long drive back to Alice Springs. We snoozed on the bus, chatted to pass the time, and were rewarded with an excellent view of the Hawk's Tailed Eagle - Australia's largest bird of prey. Well actually we only had a quick glimpse until Kate turned the bus around and we got to see three of them! They had been feasting on a dead calf by the side of the road.

Suitably impressed once again, we continued on our long drive back to Alice Springs, stopping at the centre of Australia once again for refreshments. Quite a few of us had changed our hostel so there was less faff when we got back (we'd left luggage behind), and we got put into rooms mostly together.

After a lovely shower - this was definitely the dustiest tour of the three, and repacking again so that we were all ready for our flights the next day, we went out for dinner for the last time as a group, and wished Kate luck for the Camel Cup tomorrow. Sadly we'd all booked flights for the next day so were unable to go and watch, but hey there's always another year ;-) An amazing tour finished, it was back to cold, windy, drizzly Melbourne for a few more weeks.

So at the start of the tour it was cost VS 4WD. Ok so the 4WD truck would have been cool to get to go off road, but I don’t really feel like I missed out on anything that the tour had to offer. We saw all of the sights, slept under the stars, got a feel for the true outback, and made some amazing friends. It was also putting me off a bit that there were three separate tours, but in the end all this meant was that I met more people, and made more friends. We even saw some of the people from the Darwin to Alice section at some of the sights on the Uluru trip! Group tours are definitely a great way to see Australia. Things are organised for you, you learn a lot on the way, and experience what Australia has to offer. Sign me up for the next one ASAP.

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