Look at a map of Australia, and you’ll find the town of Alice Springs almost exactly in the center of the continent and at least 1,000 miles from any other large settlement. Remember that 70% of Australia is uninhabitable desert except for Aborigines and certain alien-looking trees, plants, reptiles, small birds and marsupials. There is very little water there. The Aborigines that crisscrossed this land for tens of thousands of years until the beginning of the 19th century were exceptional. They could find water by digging with sticks under certain plants. They found nourishment by sucking nectar from desert flowers and eating grubs, ants, bush tomatoes, and tiny plant seeds they would grind into flour.
The town of Alice Springs was our only foray into this Outback. We went there to see the big red rock. Ayers Rock, now known as Uluru to honor the Aboriginals for whom it is a sacred spot, is, next to the Sydney Opera House, Australia’s most iconic feature. To see Uluru, you must first somehow get to Alice Springs and then drive (or be flown) a further 470 kilometers along a desert highway to the entrance of the park that encloses it. This is not a day trip. The distances are too great, and besides, to view the rock most favorably one should see it at sunset, sunrise or, in our case both.
Uluru is immense, a grooved, loaf-shaped hunk of sandstone whose iron content accounts for its reddish color. It stands alone above the level desert surrounding it. Scientists have calculated that it is the visible ten percent of a much larger rock under the ground.
To reach Uluru Kay and I drove a rented passenger car. We made good time because for much of the way the speed limit is 130 kph and because there are no obstacles to slow down for and virtually no other vehicles on the road. Occasionally, we would encounter what the Aussies call a road train speeding in the opposite direction. Road trains are big rigs consisting of a tractor towing three trailers whose combined length is more than 53 meters. Accustomed as we are to the much shorter 18-wheelers, a road train is an impressive sight.
From Alice Springs we drove straight south for 200 kilometers to a crossing known as Desert Oaks where we made a right turn onto another piece of highway and drove for a further 244 kilometers to reach the Outback Pioneer Hotel.
We found very little along our route other than a couple of roadhouses with toilets and fuel pumps. These desert oases serve light meals and drinks. For us they were also a source of information. In the air-conditioned bar of one located at a point called Curtin Springs we ordered BLT sandwiches and chatted with an elderly woman and with the young Brit who is working at the place for six months. He told us that the minimum wage in Australia is $18.00 per hour and that he is paid $22.00. On top of that he gets room and board at no extra cost. He can save his money and later travel in Southeast Asia for a long time.
The Australian bush around Alice Springs is rightly called the Red Centre. It is compounds of iron that give its soil a reddish hue. As expected, we found this land to be hot and dry. What we didn’t count on, however, were the bush flies. At this time of year they exist in the billions and, stepping out of the car, it took only seconds for them to find us. The females were after the protein that exists in our moisture, and if not prevented, they would enter our ears, nostrils, and mouths. It was essential to wear hats and protective fly screens around our heads any time we were out of doors during daylight hours. Even still, they would buzz around our ears and land on the screens in front of our faces. It’s hard to overstate how unpleasant they are.
An interesting fact about these flies is that they were not always so prevalent. At the Desert Park in Alice Springs we spoke with a guide of Aboriginal ancestry, whose grandmother told him the flies hadn’t existed in any great numbers before the Europeans brought the cattle whose dung is their breeding ground. Two thousand flies can emerge from a single cow pie.
To view the rock close up, we paid $25.00 apiece for a three-day pass to enter the national park surrounding it. We stopped at the Visitors Center to learn geological details about Uluru as well as the Aboriginal myths and beliefs attached to it. The park is well organized to manage the yearly half million international visitors that journey to see this phenomenon.
There is one location for sunset viewing and photography and another on the opposite side of the rock for the sunrise view. Predictably, many come on bus tours. By the time we got to the viewing area at sunrise there were at least six buses in the parking lot with their passengers all around by the dozens, photographing the rock and themselves, mass tourism in action.
Here’s a tip for any of you planning to visit Uluru: Give yourselves an extra day or two. Had we done this, we would have been able to visit some other impressive nearby sites.
The town of Alice Springs is not much to look at. It is located next to the MacDonnell Mountain Range, and the combination of desert and nearby low mountains reminded me at first glance of southern Arizona where I spent so much time in the past. The climate, too, was Arizona-like, dry and hot. One difference, though, is that this desert has no cactus.
Although Alice is not a big town, we found it confusing to navigate. There is no single main street, and the Todd Shopping Mall, when we found it at last, looked no different from the one-and-two-storey buildings surrounding it. Our Ibis Motel looked run-down and none too clean. However, our air-conditioned room was satisfactory, and the staff was pleasant and helpful.
We spent a couple of days in Alice, and had we known what we do now, we could have spent them better. One mistake we made was to drive nearly one hundred kilometers along a two-lane blacktop called the Ross Highway to visit the Trephina Gorge National Park that our guidebook falsely, in our opinion, claimed to have some interesting walks.
Meeting no other vehicles on the drive out, we wondered what exactly the Ross Highway led to. Our curiosity mounted when the road’s two lanes suddenly became one and then ended at a bush camp called the Ross River Resort. It was lunchtime, and the resort promised food. Inside a large building surrounded by a number of cabins painted green and signs promoting helicopter rides we read the bill of fare from a chalkboard on the wall. A tall, friendly, overweight woman took our lunch order. A longish wait gave us time to explore our surroundings. There was a pool table with a worn felt and cues without tips or chalk. Another wall had the pelt of a feral cat nailed to it. Cats are disliked because they prey on the native bird population.
Waiting for our meal, we looked through a binder labeled “Fires” that contained photos of conflagrations in 2011 and 2012 that had threatened the resort. We also read a brief history of the place. It had been a homestead more than one hundred years ago. The person that built it raised horses for sale. After WWI when the market for horses declined, he switched to cattle. The homestead went through different owners. About 1943, one decided to make it a resort for tourists who wanted to experience life in the bush.
Lunch was a seafood plate for me with every item deep-fried. Kay had a hamburger topped with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, beetroot, and pineapple. Everything about the place had a shabby, worn appearance. On a sofa in one corner we spotted a plate containing what looked like a half-eaten sandwich covered with ants. Our lunch eaten, we were glad to be on our way.
Our happiest experience in Alice was the couple of hours spent at the Alice Springs Desert Park. The entry fee was $25.00 apiece and included an audio guide keyed to various stops around the park, a live bird show similar to the one we attended in Sydney, and a couple of guided tours, one through the nocturnal house, the other called Desert Rivers.
The later was led by a ranger named Doug who led us around a section of the park and into a couple of aviaries. He taught us some surprising things: Seventy percent of Australia is desert but not all the same kind. Other than Antarctica, Australia is the driest of Earth’s continents. There used to be far fewer kangaroos in the country than there are today. Modern crops, lawns, etc. provide the nourishment to sustain today’s larger population. Doug introduced us to several varieties of grass, including the painfully sharp-bladed spinifex that we must be alert to avoid.
In the aviaries we saw a variety of beautiful birds unknown to us: the Painted Finch, the Spinifex Pigeon, the Ring-Necked Parrot, and the Australian Turkey.
In a small water hole, we saw the interesting Black-Winged Stilt, a small wading bird with very thin pink legs.
The bird show, held in a small outdoor amphitheater as in Sydney, was fun. We learned that because of the way their wings are constructed, owls fly silently and don’t alert their prey. We watched a black kite catching morsels of food tossed into the air by the presenting guide.
Our third tour was inside the Nocturnal House where we saw a variety of small marsupials, including bandicoots and desert rats. Among the interesting things we learned about snakes is that the venomous ones of Australia have no heat sensors and can’t see well. If we confront one in the bush, the idea is to stand absolutely still and fool the snake into thinking we are some kind of weird tree. Snakes will leave us alone unless startled or threatened. They want to conserve their energy and venom for things they can eat.
The morning of our departure from Alice was the most relaxed time we spent there. For once, we had gotten a good night’s sleep. Our Qantas flight to Brisbane didn’t leave until half past noon so we had plenty of time to repack our cases, get to the airport early, and mentally prepare for our next adventure.