Saturday, August 25, 2007

Uluru to Cairns - from rock to reef

The last few days have been a whirlwind - but certainly a spectacular one.

My camera broke the day before my trip to Uluru (Ayres Rock). The poor battered thing, which had already broken twice during this trip, finally gave up after parts Darwin's Mindil Beach decided to escape to more exotic climes.

Luckily, I was able to buy a new one before my trip - I was literally weeping on the man's arm as I handed over the money.

But it was certainly worth it.

On Tuesday, I joined 13 fellow travellers and tour guide Ryan on The Rock Tour - a three day jaunt from Alice Springs.

We had a brilliant group - funny and lovely couple Chris and Carly, hilarious Italian Francesco, teens Carly and well-travelled Jess, Oirish Dave and Michelle, watercolour whizz Esther and German boy Jo and four Japanese whose names we never really caught onto - but who were very lovely too.

Our first stop (after a five hour bus ride) was King's Canyon. Here, we climbed a very steep rock with a gorge on the left and the canyon with cliffs 270m high on the right. The difference? A gorge is formed by a river cutting through the rock over millions of years. A canyon is made when water seeps through cracks in the rock which widen until the roof eventually caves in. Apparently.

Apparently, this also means the Grand Canyon is actually a gorge...

After a hike to the rugged, rocky top, looking at imprints of jellyfish and ripples made in the rock when central Australia was a sea, we descended into a lush ravine called the Garden of Eden.

Here, the brave went for a very quick dip in a very, very cold pool surrounded by the sand-coloured cliffs. Chris went first, I followed, then Carly and Carly. It was refreshing... it took your breath away.

After peering over the edge, we made it back to the van and headed to forage for wood for our campfire.

We set up camp for the night on a 1.1 million acre cattle ranch (size of Holland). Basically, in the middle of nowhere.

Miles from the nearest town, shop, campsite, toilet.

We piled up the logs and lit bark to get the fire going, chopped veggies and cooked chilli in the ashes of the fire. We sat on our rolled up swags and drank beer or goon and huddled closer to the flames as the daytime heat disappeared into the night sky and the temperature plummeted.

Later, we rolled out our swags - canvas bodybags with a flap to pull over your face.

We tucked our shoes underneath so dingoes couldn't grab them and pushed our sleeping bags inside and crawled into them. Ever fearful of bugs, spiders and snakes and with the moon ablaze, I pulled the canvas flap over my face - it felt like being in a coffin.

Sleep was therefore fitful and in the early hours, I woke and pulled the flap off my face. I lay back and looked up at the night sky. The moon had disappeared and billions of stars winked back at me. A blanket. A canopy. Everything you imagine that you can't imagine in a country so clogged with light pollution as Britain.

Just a short time later, our cheeky chappy guide woke us up. The fire was blazing for our toast. It was 5am.

By just after six, we were packed up and ready to hit the road. It was a two-hour drive to pick up more logs for the fire and check into Ayres Rock resort - the only place to camp in the Uluru-Kata-Tjuta national park.

It was our first glimpse of the red rock Uluru. It's hard to describe. Deep red in colour, weathered by rivers of water in rainy periods and rising startlingly and steeply from the flat plains.

Our morning was set aside for visiting Kata-Tjuta, which means 'many heads' and otherwise known as the Olgas.

These huge dome shapes are made up of millions of rocks, cememted together with dirt and time. They are the only things other than Uluru for miles which rise from the semi-arid desert of the red centre.

Aboriginal tales tell that children were playing in the dirt and wanted to take all the stones out. So they threw them over their shoulders - and created Kata-Tjuta. Then they made a mud patty with the dirt - and created Uluru. Better than the mind-blowingly weird geology that some scientists have come up with.

The freezing temperatures of the night had all but disappeared when we arrived - and within minutes of our walk, it was baking hot.

We walked through the Valley of the Winds and up a steep cliff in the centre and sat and looked out. Behind us was a winking face in the rocks - carved out by mysterious erosion and at the centre of an Aboriginal story about a medicene man who lived there who sent a devil dog to Uluru.

After lunch, we visited the cultural centre which included a 'sorry' book with letters from hundreds of people who had taken stones from the rock, or climbed it, and who had returned them. Many had had bad luck ever since...

And then we were driving towards the rock. Listening to 80s power ballads. It towered above us. Rust-red. Flaking like old iron. But all one huge piece of sandstone which sinks at least 7km below the desert plains.

Ryan took us on the Malu walk - showing us places that had been classrooms, a kitchen, a sacred wedding-bell shaped cavern where women had given birth. Shockingly, this had been used for wedding pictures in the 1970s. Now, noone takes pictures as it is too sacred. It takes away from the spirit of the place for the indiginous people.

"And then a big cheeseman came bursting out of the rock..." Err ok Ryan.

We beat a retreat to a spot a few kms from the rock to watch sunset, drink a glass of goon or two (next to a few busloads of people drinking champers and hors d'oeurves) and eat a tasty supper after the other groups had long gone.

Allegedly, the rock turns 21 shades at sunset - but I took about 600 pics and it looks red, very red, bright red, dark red, purple, black, very black to me.

Then it was back to the campsite for more goon, giggles and 80s uplifiting power songs courtesy of Chris.

Hangover or no hangover, it was up at 5am again to see sunrise at Uluru. We cunningly escaped the crowds by returning to the bus sunset viewing place and avoiding the throngs at the sunrise spot. Instead of seeing the colours of the sky as the sun rose behind us, we saw the sun rise to the side of Uluru; first silhouetting it and then slowly lighting it.

We ate breakfast in the dawn light from the back of the trailer and drank hot tea huddling the cups in the frosty morning.

But there was no let up. It was then to the base of Uluru again. This time, we had free time to climb or to walk the circuit around it. Those who climbed had to hold onto a low steel chain to haul themselves up the steep walls. It looked thoroughly dangerous and is highly disrespectful to the Aborginal people.

Sadly, it was the end of our trip. Carly, Chris, Jess, Dave, Michelle and I all left from Uluru airport while the others returned to Alice.

From the airstrip, you can see Uluru and Kata-Tjuta and as you take off, you fly low over the desert. The patterns made by trees and rocks and dried rivers look remarkably like Aboriginal paintings.

And now I'm in tropical Cairns where the tree-covered mountains run towards the clear blue sea. Here, I will work on a dive boat for four days and am allowed to dive for free, eat and sleep for free in return for washing up and a bit of cleaning.

The Rock is a distant memory - but a bloody great memory at that.

Labels: , , , , ,

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Kakadu and busy days in Darwin...

I've been trekking. Not that you'd know from my waistline - which is roughly growing from a muffin-top into a mushroom...

Yes, I braved the wilds and went to Kakadu national park for three days. Sleeping in the bush, hunting for spiders, seeing snakes - I've done it all.

I joined a tour - an expensive but easy option for getting to see and do everything and learn all about the nature and history and so on. And so, in Indiana Jones get up, I took to the road with Kakadu 4wd safaris accompanied by Andy, our tour guide, Young Oli (who came to be known by me as Princess), a Danish couple Louisa and Thomas and a family of five from Somerset.

The tour began with a jumping croc cruise on the Adelaide River. We were huddled intoa 'boat' which was basically a tin can with a few rails around the outside and a small engine on the back...

Almost immediately afer we had left the jetty, we began to see crocs. Crocodiles are much more dangerous than alligators, we were told, and the saltwater variery are particularly deadly. And hungry. And we were literally surrounded by the beasts.

Curious reptiles, at the sound of a splash, they will immediately be over to investigate their next meal. Large ones will happily drag a horse or a buffalo into the murky depths of the river. They would have happily got their mouth around my leg, or arm.

As we dangled small pieces of meat over the edge on a pole, we could hear the massive power of their jaws as they chomped at it - lifting themselves high out of the water to feed.

The largest we saw was Hannibal - a massive croc well over the length of our boat - and around 8m long. He is estimated to be about 80 years old and is as gnarled and fearsome looking as a dragon.

We were so close to them as they swam around us and it was just terrifying. They would tear you apart in seconds.

Then it was off to Kakadu. We stopped at Maguk (Barramundi Gorge), a place where a pretty waterfall ran between stone cliffs and surrounded by jungle. Very beautiful. Andy showed us plants like the milkwood tree which is an antiseptic and which he treated my work-related cuts with and stopped them becoming tropical ulcers.

We swam in the gorge (only freshwater crocs here!) and then headed for Jim Jim billabong where we set up our tents, built a campfire and cooked roast chook and veggies on the fire. Then it was time to go looking for bugs - shining our torches on the ground to see wolf spiders, cane toads and even look for crocs down at the billabong edge before listening to Andy play the didge and hearing a dreamtime Aboriginal story around the fire.

Sleep saw me thrashing around in my sleeping bag escaping the crocs and spiders...

We rose just before sunrise and prepared for a long walk - we had to climb to the top of Jim Jim falls on the Arnhem plateau.

The falls crash over 150m of cliff face into deep plunge pool. It is only accessible during the dry winter season and by the time we arrived, there was not even a trickle fallling down the cliff. However, the 16km walk up steep cliffs, through savannah woodlands, over the rocky plateau and swimming in billabongs and across (what during the wet season is) river beds was well worth the amazing view. We looked down at the top of Jim Jim from above and then climbed down to the top of the falls where we could swim in the freezing and deep pool.

We lay on the rocks where the water pounds in summer and peeked over the edge to the people swimming in the pool far, far below.

Unfortunately, Louisa had sprained her ankle at the start of the walk but soldiered on slowly. By the end of the day she was half-walking, half being carried by Thomas and so it was dark by the time we crossed the riverbed at the base of the falls and made our way back to the car. It was a tough day's walk anyway.

Driving back along the rocky 4x4 track back to camp, we saw an olive python. Througout the day, Andy had shown us bushtucker and how to eat it including large ants with green bums - the green being a citrusy-flavoured acid.

Our third day was spent visiting Yellow water billabong (more crocs), visiting some rock art sites and learning about Aboriginal history and swimming in a billabong - one of the view guarenteed not to have salties in it.

The whole trip was great but Kakadu is massive and we only saw a small part of it. Jim Jim aside, I felt it lacked the grandeur of Karinjini or Kalberri or the grace of Katherine gorge. Most of the drives, we just saw woodlands stretching for miles and the billabongs, while teeming with things for twitchers and even croc-spotters, did sort of look like large ponds.

Kakadu aside, I've been working all the hours I can in Monty's cafe in Darwin centre and at Discovery nightclub and Lost Ark bar. I loved this bar job - chatting to customers, having a laugh with the staff and bands that play, hearin great music and being bought drinks... but it has killed me and meant I've spent little time with the girls.

Sad, because I have now left Darwin. I spent 24 hours on a bus to Alice Springs after a final farewell party on Mindil Beach with Jemma, Jen, Jen, Timmy, Dave, Gary, Tom and so on before partying at the Lost Arc.

Now, I'm off on my own again - and ready for my next adventure. Uluru....

Labels: , , , , , ,