It was hard to believe how fast our 3 days in Sydney had flown by. Now it was time to begin the itinerary our travel agent created for us. Knowing Traci did not have much leave from work at the time and knowing how big Australia is (almost the size of the U.S.), I decided to use a travel agent to help us see some of Australia's highlights. I booked Goway Travel's Classic Australia 12-Day package. I was so impressed with the package they put together for us when we went to South Africa many years ago that I decided to use them for this Australia trip. Now that Traci had completed the Sydney Half Marathon and we had done some sightseeing on our own, it was time for us to make our way to the airport where our Goway Travel itinerary would begin with a flight to Ayers Rock in the heart of the Australian desert known as the Outback or the Red Centre.
We awoke early that morning to rearrange our luggage. We were allowed to check up to two bags per person for free on our international flight but now that we were about to do domestic flights in Australia, we would only be allowed to check one bag not exceeding 50 pounds per person. While packing, I was able to take advantage of the time difference and catch some of the NFL games on ESPN. Although it was Monday morning in Sydney, it was still Sunday afternoon back home in the U.S..
Traci and I took the metro to the airport. The only trick was to make sure we got off at the stop for the domestic terminal and not the international terminal. It was a 3-hour flight on Virgin Australia from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport. Looking out of the airplane window during our flight, I could see the distinctive red sands of the Outback and how desolate the land is. Yet despite how lifeless the land appears, the Aborigine cultures have survived here for more than 60,000 years.
Up until now, I had not even realized that Australia is composed of states. Sydney is located in the state of New South Wales. Ayers Rock is located in the state of Northern Territory. We exited the plane onto the tarmac. Arriving in Ayers Rock was almost like arriving in a different country. The red sand and the desert flora were all around us. We were not allowed to enter the state with any fruits or vegetables. There was a quarantine bin located at the entrance of the airport. Furthermore, there was a time zone difference from Sydney requiring us to set our watches back 30 minutes.
Just about everyone who arrived on our flight was a tourist - international or Australian. The AAT Kings tour company had several motorcoaches waiting to take us passengers to Ayers Rock Resort.
Ayers Rock Resort is so much different from any other resort I have visited because it is located smack dab in the middle of the desert. It consists of a range of accommodations from a tent camp to luxury motel buildings. There is a ring road connecting the various accommodations as well as the Resort Town Square where there are a few restaurants, stores, an IGA grocery store, and other conveniences. There is also a gas station. Our bus driver told us that they do not bother posting the gas prices since there are no other gas stations anywhere near here.
The bus driver traveled the ring road of the resort dropping off passengers at their accommodations. Traci and I were booked at the Outback Pioneer Hotel. It is a collection of one-story buildings. Traci and I were assigned room 106 in the building just across the pathway from the reception building of the Outback Pioneer Hotel.
Now that Traci and I were following the itinerary reserved by our travel agent, the pace of our trip kicked into warp speed. We got checked into our room at 2 PM but only had enough time to drop off our luggage. We needed to be waiting outside the reception building by 2:25 PM for our first tour in the Outback. Furthermore, I needed to get cash from the ATM machine to purchase the required passes ($25 AUD/person) for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and I needed to purchase some bottled water for Traci and me. It was strongly recommended that each person have at least 1.5 liters of water with them for this tour. Common medical emergencies out here for tourists are heat stroke and dehydration. It was not hot enough for us to worry about heat stroke but with a humidity level of less than 5%, water is very important. The tour buses carry a large cooler of filtered water but you will need your own water bottle to fill up.
Traci and I joined the other tourists on the motorcoach for the Uluru Sacred Sites and Sunset Tour. It was not long after entering Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park that we had our cameras/phones out snapping away at one of Australia's most iconic natural wonders - Uluru. I've seen pictures of this huge rock in countless travel brochures. I've even seen it in some of the Outback Steakhouse commercials back home in the U.S.. Uluru was called Ayers Rock for a period of time but the land has been given back to the Aborigines, the original inhabitants of the land. Today the rock is referred to by its Aboriginal name - Uluru.
Uluru is a 1,142-foot sandstone rock. It is almost a 6-mile walk to walk around the base of the formation. It is estimated that 80% of it lies beneath the ground. We were given many other facts about the rock. Actually, when I began planning this trip with our travel agent the previous year, I had asked him to remove this Outback portion from our itinerary. My question was "Why should we travel to the middle of the desert to see a large rock?" His reply was “Why would someone travel to see the Grand Canyon?” He had a good point. Therefore, I decided to keep the Outback portion in our itinerary. I’m glad I did because it allowed us to see the diversity of Australia’s nature and culture.
Our first stop on this tour was at the Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. It is a small museum containing exhibits of tools, artwork, food, and other items of the Anangu community. I skimmed the posted explanations of some of the displays but did not try to read everything. The displays I found the most interesting had to do with how the Anangu were able to find food and water in the desert. They knew where to dig for fat grubs. They knew which tree branches to cut to get a drink of water. It turns out that I did not miss much by just skimming the displays because our bus drivers and guides were very knowledgeable of the culture. They gave us detailed information during our time in the Outback.
Back to the motorcoach we went for our ride around the base of Uluru. Uluru is a sacred place for the Anangu. Because of this, we were told we were not allowed to photograph some of the facades of the rock. One thing that baffled me though was that I thought I had read or seen in a documentary that because Uluru is a sacred place for the Anangu, it should not be climbed; yet, I saw several people climbing it via a chain that had been installed for climbers – granted it is a steep climb just to get to the chain. Our guides highly discouraged climbing it because of safety and environmental reasons. Several people die each year on Uluru. There was only one guide that added cultural reasons to the list of reasons not to climb. Anyway, after October 2019, the park will no longer allow people to climb Uluru.
We made a stop where our guide led us on a short walk to a water hole. The Aborigines used to hunt animals that stopped to take a drink here. The water hole did not look all that impressive while we were there due to the drought which was affecting most of the Australia. This region of the Outback had not had rain in 8 months. This lack of moisture did not seem to affect the annoying flies that buzzed around us and landed on us. They were slightly smaller than the black flies we see on the east coast of the U.S.. Traci and I began referring to them sarcastically as “our little buddies”. I brought mosquito head nets with me but fortunately the flies never bothered us to the point to which we had to wear them like we did during our Greenland trip.
We also stopped to look at a cave that contained Aboriginal petroglyphs (rock drawings). The Aborigines had no written language. No one knows how old these petroglyphs are or if the drawers were trying to convey anything. We could clearly see an image of a dingo (Australian wild dog).
on the grounds of the Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre
Aboriginal petroglyphs in a cave
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
For our final stop of this tour, we were driven to an area where we could watch the effects of the sunset on Uluru. The tour company had set up tables with cheese, crackers, vegetables, cookies, and other snacks. They also served wine, champagne, and soft drinks. We watched the various hues of Uluru while conversing with our fellow travelers. Uluru never did transition to the bright red color I see on postcards and other publications. Nonetheless, we had nice views, nice weather, and good company. There were some people from the local Anangu community selling their artwork. They did not seem to speak much English but apparently, the prices are negotiable. Traci wanted to buy a bookmark containing distinctive Aboriginal patterns. The vendor originally indicated $25 AUD. However, having paid for the park passes earlier, I had very little Australian currency left. I explained we did not have that much money. When Traci and I walked away, an Anangu man who could speak English came after us to tell us that the vendor was willing to drop the price to $10 AUD. Unfortunately, I did not even have that much cash on me at the time. Traci was a little upset that she was not able to make the purchase.
waiting for sunset at Uluru
We were driven back to Ayers Rock Resort after sunset. Some people in our tour group who were doing a 5-night stay at the resort gave Traci and me advice about dinnertime. The resort has restaurants at each of its hotels as well as at its Town Square. These restaurants accommodate a variety of budgets from cook-it-yourself to expensive multi-course meals. Our new friends warned that whichever restaurant we choose, we should get there as soon as possible to beat the rush of hungry tourists coming off tours. In fact, the resort highly recommends making reservations.
The motorcoach traveled the resort ring road dropping off passengers at their accommodations. Traci and I got off at the Desert Gardens Hotel instead of our hotel to try a restaurant about which some of the people in our group raved. We knew it would be pricey but we were willing to pay a little extra to get a good meal after our string of disappointing restaurant choices in Sydney. Unfortunately, the Arnguli Grill & Restaurant was closed for maintenance that night. We ended up walking about 5 minutes or so to find somewhere to eat at the Resort Town Square. We settled on the Gecko's Cafe. The line of hungry customers waiting to be seated extended outside the restaurant. We ended up sharing a pizza after a long wait. We then took the resort shuttle to our hotel.
Our room was clean and comfortable. It was categorized as “economy” but it had a refrigerator, iron, cable TV, free Wi-Fi, and other conveniences you would find in a standard hotel room. Despite the modern conveniences, I was reminded that we were in the wilderness when I open the closet door and saw a can of bug spray. Just then I saw a moth squeeze its way through the small gap between the door of our room and the door frame. At that point, I decided to turn off some of the lights in our room so as not to attract any more insects. Fortunately, that was the only insect I saw but judging by the fact the room has a can of bug spray, I guess things must get pretty interesting in the summer months.
Our stay at the Outback Pioneer Hotel was literally a place for us to lay our head for one night. We had to be waiting outside the lobby at 4:55 AM for our sunrise tour of Uluru (Uluru Sacred Sites and Sunset). As Traci and I were waiting to be picked up for the tour, I noticed a sign in the lobby indicating a 10 AM check-out time. I knew our sunrise tour was not scheduled to return until 10:45 AM. Therefore, I asked the hotel reception if we could have a late check-out. The guy at the reception told me no and that I would be charged $50 if we were not checked out by 11 AM or for a full day if we checked out after 11. Given the tour bus would be arriving any minute, Traci and I did not have time to pack up our things and check out. Darn it!
We were driven by motorcoach to the location of the Uluru sunrise experience. The tour company had set up tables with white tablecloths and lights. Hot beverages and cookies were served on this cold, dark morning. We walked along a path leading to several viewing platforms to wait for the sun to rise over the desert. As was the goal of the sunset viewing we had the previous day, we were hoping to observe the various hues of Uluru. Unfortunately, there were a lot of clouds on the horizon obscuring the sun. Uluru kind of just when from a silhouette to a large brown rock by the time the sun made it over the clouds. One interesting thing I saw that morning was a sign on our viewing platform in the middle of this vast desert indicating free Wi-Fi was available. Then again, I probably should not have been too surprised. Australia seems to have complimentary Wi-Fi wherever you go.
Before heading back to the bus, Traci and I walked some trails in the area that had signs describing the various flora and their uses by the Aborigines. Our tour continued with stops at Kata Tjuta which is a group of very large, odd-shaped rock formations. The name means “many heads”. We also made a stop at Walpa Gorge where we were given time to make a short trek. I was hoping that now that the sun was up, the temperature would rise but this was not the case. It remained chilly and windy. I probably should not have been surprised about the wind. After all, “Walpa” means windy.
We were dropped off back at the Outback Pioneer Hotel at 10:55 AM. This was worrisome for me due to the conversation with the hotel reception at 5 AM that morning about being charged for not checking out by 10 AM. Traci and I hurried back to our room, packed up, and made it to the check-out desk by 11:10 AM. Fortunately, there was a different person at the desk. She took our key, glanced at her computer, and told us we were good to go. No charges! Hallelujah!
Now that that ordeal was over, Traci and I needed to get some lunch and make it back to the hotel before our scheduled pick-up time of 1 PM. We left our luggage with the concierge and decided to make the 15-minute walk to the Resort Town Square instead of waiting for the shuttle. I’m glad we chose to walk. I found the red sand and the rest of the desert scenery striking. It was so different than what I see in my daily life in the U.S..
walking to lunch instead of taking the resort shuttle
Traci and I settled on a small eatery called Kulata Academy Cafe. It was here that I had my first experience with a common Australian menu item – a meat pie. I ordered the chicken meat pie. At home, we would call this a chicken pot pie. What was different about this experience was that the cashier asked me what kind of barbeque sauce I wanted with it. I would have never thought to put barbeque sauce on a chicken pot pie; however, I can tell you that it was delicious! It definitely won’t be the last time I eat a chicken pot pie like this. Continue...