Still in the vast state of Northern Territory, we flew down to Alice Springs in the arid Red Centre and assumed we’d be leaving the flies behind in humid Darwin up on the coast. Wrong. They were worse! I fully believe the statistic that there are 250,000 flies for every Australian.
We drove out into the MacDonnell Range of mountains west of Alice Springs to explore some of the many water holes where birds prevail. We didn’t come across a great variety of species, but some new ones here for us included the western ringneck (a lovely member of the parakeet family), the striking spinifex pigeon (above), perky little zebra finches and a flock of budgies. These water holes usually occur in gaps or tiny shaded canyons, so the water in the pools never really warms up. Signs warn swimmers against getting cramps from the low temperatures.
The countryside here looked very much like Arizona — open spaces, rocky red hills and low, shrubby vegetation. The spinifex plant for which the spinifex pigeon is named looked like an innocent clump of pale grass but had some deceptively wicked spines. I particularly enjoyed the ghost gum tree, a eucalypt with smooth, very white bark.
We also drove out to Palm Valley to see the ancient red cabbage palms, which are rare, long-lived trees that grow slowly and occur nowhere else in the world. The road to Palm Valley was a bone-jarring, thigh-jiggling, whiplash-inducing, boulder-strewn wash that definitely required 4WD. On the drive a dingo trotted past the car, and feral horses and camels — brought by Afghans and Pakistanis many years ago but now established as a large wild population — also made an appearance. The black-footed rock wallaby and the euro (a species of kangaroo) joined the list of wildlife sightings for the day.
We continued on a very long washboard track south and east to explore King’s Canyon. After checking into the King’s Canyon Resort, we stopped in the Thirsty Dingo Bar for a bite to eat and a pint or two. The big screen featured the National Rugby League grand finals pitting North Queensland against Sydney, both underdogs. This was the first rugby match I had ever watched. I don’t claim to understand the finer points of the game, but from what I could tell it’s a bunch of beefy guys with tree-trunk thighs — sans helmets or padding of any sort — getting crunched and pounded into the turf, repeatedly and with very little stopping. By rights each guy should have a broken nose and cracked ribs. The game proceeded at a frenetic, very un-Australian pace. (Sydney won, by the way.)
The next morning we awoke very early, as usual, for a guided hike in King’s Canyon. This, too, looked and felt like Arizona, particularly the lower reaches of the Grand Canyon, Sedona and sections along the Lower Colorado River. Absolutely gorgeous.
We then drove on through countryside of brush-covered red sand dunes until we came to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The park’s signature monolith, Uluru (formerly known as Ayer’s Rock), glowed reddish-purple off in the distance with some merciful cloud cover in mid-afternoon. It may be just a big rock jutting up from the desert floor, but it is a mesmerizing rock. And in the heart of the park, contrasting with the stark Outback surroundings, the Sails in the Desert luxury resort offered extremely comfortable accommodations in the middle of nowhere.
We had a guided drive to nearby Kata Tjutu (also known as The Olgas) scheduled for later that afternoon. These huge, connected domes of red rock are almost more impressive than Uluru. Later we went to an outback barbecue in the desert some distance from Uluru to watch the colors change on the rock as the sun set. A guy played a didgeridoo to lend an oh-so-Outback vibe to the air, and we learned from him that this Australian wind instrument does not hail from the Red Centre but rather from Arnemland (east of Kakadu up north where we had been the week before).
Even more spectacular than Uluru at sunset, however, was Uluru at sunrise. The next morning we hopped on a bus at 5 a.m. for a six-mile walk around the base of the rock. We started out in the dark with the rock off to our right as a hulking shadow and stars twinkling above now that the sky had cleared overnight. As the light improved, warm breezes drifted through the cool air, black silhouettes of the spindly trees began to appear and birds started singing. Slowly, the monolith came to life as dawn arrived.
The rock face is ridged and pockmarked with some enormous caves, some in the shape of faces, a heart, dingo tracks, Frosty the Snowman and other images. Our guide related some of the creation-time stories that the Aborigines believe these caves, furrows and rock formations tell. In short, as fascinating as it is from a distance, Uluru is even more captivating up close. We had almost thought about skipping Uluru as too touristy but found it an essential Aussie experience.
Onward next to Kangaroo Island.