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The trip to Uluru_Kata Tjuta National Park is without question the highlight of every Outback tour. You don't really know what to expect and your feelings about the whole thing are quite mixed - especially after you've been told all the stories about people who've died out there, last case of death only one week ago. Above all, after having seen Uluru on at least a dozen of pictures, I was wondering what it would be like to finally see 'The Rock' with my very own eyes.
I was picked up too early in the morning by a small tour bus - a 500km ride still lying ahead of our travel group. Our guide Dan was probably the best thing that could have happened to us - he managed to organise the tour informative, casual and funny at the same time (funny mainly because of his Aussie slang, his most frequently said sentence being: 'Oook guys, how many spare seats have we got left in the back? 3? Beauuuutiful. Tooo easy.') He constantly reminded us of the importance of sufficient water supply: at least 1l/h to avoid dehydration which is the most common cause of death in the Outback.
After only 15 min out of town we lost radio reception, from then on solely relying on our IPods. We stopped the first time at 9am at an isolated service station - and couldn't believe how hot it already was. The heat is not the only problem out there - in addition you have to struggle with millions of flies buzzing around your head, making a protection net under your hat indispensable. By the time we reached Ayers Rock in the early afternoon, the heat had raised to a temperature of about 40 degrees.
After having visited the Aboriginal Cultural Centre we started the 9km base walk around Uluru. Unfortunately, the rock is significantly less impressive regarded from a close distance, resembling very much an..ordinary albeit massive rock! I thought more than once that this walk was slowly but surely going to kill me, and while I was experiencing this rather unpleasant feeling I kept asking myself why I had actually paid money to walk around a big rock with innumerous flies when it's unbearably hot. After 10 min, the only thing I had in mind was a nice and cold shower. It is pretty hard as well to keep drinking when you're actually not thirsty, should you feel so you're already dehydrated.
However, the feeling when eventually realising you have completed this walk rather compensates for all agonies suffered... A by the way very interesting part of the tour was when Dan informed us about the different explanations for Uluru's existence and appearance, one being the geological one and the other the traditional interpretation of the Aborigines. I most liked their explanation for the many holes on the East side of the rock: according to their legend, two angry birds had thrown spears at a lazy lizard which had stolen their prey, leaving holes in the rock each time they failed to hit the greedy reptile.
What followed then was a truly awesome evening. Watching Uluru changing colours during sunset from a glowing red to a deep purple is simply sensational. I really hadn't expected that much from Uluru - it just IS a rock after all - but despite of the fact that you know about its geological origin, you're still very much tempted to believe in a miracle. Flat desert as far as the eye can see - and then suddenly this massive monolith - it really is breathtaking. (A very nice side effect is that you shortly forget about all the tourists around you) Luckily, we stayed for another 2h after the sun had gone down and enjoyed the sudden silence (we were the only group left) and Uluru illuminated by the unclouded starry sky of the Outback, drinking cold beer and savouring Thai food which Dan had prepared. Can it get any better? Yes. The shower I had back at the camp site was the best I've ever had. Later on, we formed a circle with our swags, and after a short glimpse of the amazing sky I fell asleep.
It was still dark when Dan woke us up the next morning as we didn't want to miss out on the sunrise over Uluru. It really was ridiculous, but suddenly a few people started a quarrel with each other, discussing which spot would be best for the perfect sunrise. Is it better to have the sun in the back so you can watch the reverse change of colour, or more beautiful to see the sun rising behind the rock? In order to make a compromise, Dan drove us to both sides of the rock, with the fabulous result that we saw neither of them properly. After a quick breakfast we made our way to the Olgas where I decided (still dunno why) to do the long 7km walk through the Valley of Winds. Concerning the heat, the flies, the warm water we had to drink ('Ok guys, make sure you top up your water bottles each time you pass a drinking station..' yeah yeah heard this all before) and my craving for a shower, everything was pretty much the same. The landscape was obviously different though and much more rewarding as well. The Aboriginal name for 'The Olgas', 'Kata Tjuta', means 'many heads', and that's exactly what the rocks look like. Everything was more challenging than at the day before, but walking between those 'heads' and passing the 'Valley of Winds' was a fantastic experience.
On our way to Kings Canyon in the late afternoon we spotted two wild camels grazing at the side of the road. It is so hard to believe, but over one million wild camels live in the Australian Outback! In fact, it is the only country in which camels still run wild! They're amazing creatures. Once again we stayed at a campsite, sleeping in swags around a campfire and for those who wanted to try, freshly grilled Kangaroo tail was on offer (I wish this was a joke, I still don't get how people can actually eat this).
When we arrived at Kings Canyon at 7.30 the next morning, it was already 28.5 degrees in the shade (Dan's comment: 'Fantastic! I've never done this walk when it was this cool!') Yeah, sure, toooo easy. This time I decided to choose the shorter option and relaxed most of the time at a water hole in the Kings Canyon Valley with one part of the group, while the other one tried to climb that huge rock formation. Next (warm) shower opportunity: the hostel back in Alice Springs!
To top our trip off, we all met cleaned up for dinner and drinks at 'The Rock Bar' back in town (our gathering eventually turned into a big party as it was St Patrick's Day). What was lying behind us were 3 awesome, memorable but exhausting days. Did we have a good time? Yeeaaaaah. Thumbs up! Tooo easy.
Although I spent 3 days in Alice Springs - I'm still not quite sure if I like this place or not. I can remember moments when I thought: 'this is the most horrible place you've ever been to, get out of here as soon as you can.' These were in particular when I felt hot, when only warm or hot water was running out of the tap, when I felt hot again, when the bathroom was full of cockroaches and when I felt extremely hot. It was only on my second day, standing on top of Anzac Hill and watching one of the most beautiful sunsets I had ever seen, that I slowly began to understand why 28.000 people had chosen to live in Alice Springs.
Alice Springs is located in the very heart of Australia (1500 km away from the next bigger town!) and surrounded by a very beautiful mountain range (with the West MacDonnel Ranges being the most famous one). From a bird's eye view, the city (especially by night) looks absolutely gorgeous. This impression however changes rapidly as soon as you step down on the street. There is hardly anything to do and see in Alice Springs, and wasn't it for its unique location and proximity to Uluru- no one would voluntarily go there. (Most of the shops close at 5 or 6 by the way.) Someone told me that Alice Springs is the seventh most dangerous city in the world. I have no idea if it's true or not, but it definitely is impossible to walk by yourself as soon as it's gone dark. I didn't want to believe it at the beginning, but the reason are all the Aboriginal people hanging around on the streets and in shopping malls. They are extremely aggressive, permanently shouting at each other and probably very drunk as well, always on the verge of picking a fight. I needed no further convincing after a small group of them had tried to hit me and two other people with stones from behind a bush. I have no intention of making generalisations, I am pretty sure that the Aborigines in cities differ very much from those in smaller communities, but in Alice Springs we made a lot of really bad experiences. It is extremely hard to get in touch with them and consequently almost impossible to express your appreciation of their culture.
The last thing I want to suggest is I didn't enjoy my time - far from it!! I stayed at a really cool and freaky hostel with a pool and could catch up with two people from Adelaide, namely my Dutch friend and Nina from Munich with whom I had such a fun first evening (and delicious Pad Thai). We also went to the Royal Flying Doctor Museum together where we - rather unsuccessfully - tried to safely touch down a huge machine carrying a wounded patient (all on a simulator of course!). We had actually planned to do a bike tour around the city as well, but after a terribly hot 15 min ride to the Telegraph Station outside town we already had to take a one hour break in the shade. Our first destination back in town: the beer garden. (Thanks for the great (and very funny!!) time in Alice, it would have been so much more boring without you.)
After all, it's the same with Alice Springs as with any other place in the world: in the end it depends on the people you're with (and maybe on the quality of the Thai food as well).
Adelaide - Alice Springs via Coober Pedy (1693 km)
Opinions differ strongly as far as Coober Pedy is concerned. I met people who were totally amazed by this place - and others who couldn't wait to escape (I'm somewhere in between). A very simple way to make sure you will enjoy your stay, won't suffer from depression and keep good memories of it is to not extend it to more than one day (and one night).
To give some little information: Coober Pedy is a small town (estimated 3500 residents) in the Northern Outback of South Australia and a common overnight stay for many people travelling from Adelaide to Alice Springs and vice versa. This is however not the main reason why Coober Pedy is visited by loads of tourists each year. Within Australia and overseas it is famous for two very unique features: due to the extreme temperatures out there (0-50 degrees), more than 70% of all homes and accomodation in general are located underground (up to 10m deep). Although we had been informed about our 'underground accomodation' in advance, we were still marvelling at the amount of stairs we had to climb down until we finally reached our dorm. Next surprise: it had no door and resembled very much a cave. The stony walls however reduced the temperature significantly and I never heard anyone complaining about missing doors! Secondly, Coober Pedy is known for Opal. Around 75% of the nationwide production are mined in and around the little town and the main road therefore mainly consists of Opal shops. (The name Coober Pedy is by the way the English spelling for an originally Aboriginal word (kupa piti), roughly meaning 'white man digging in a hole'.)
I arrived very, very early in Coober Pedy (again after an overnight ride), together with a few other people from Germany an Belgium. We were kindly picked up by the receptionist of our hostel who managed to sell all of us a tour 'around the town and region' before we could finally go to bed. How else were we supposed to get around??
The tour was guided by an elderly, very experienced local who has spent all his life in Coober Pedy (which is a miracle by itself). The most bizarre places we visited were an underground Catacomb Church, the golf course (which looked like everything else to me) and the cemetery. We were told that many locals had picked up the habit of going there regularly in order to have a drink with their deceased mates and family members (which perfectly explained the many beer bottles on the graves). An amazing place as well was 'Crocodile Harry's Nest', the home of a man who had spent most of his life hunting for crocodiles (and women) and who had lived in Coober Pedy during the last years of his life. Every nook and cranny of his cave home is still crammed with the most unbelievable stuff he had collected by himself or which had been left by visitors and tourists.
After a less than 10 min drive out of town we found ourselves in the complete middle of nowhere, surrounded by either nothing or mining fields (where we were not allowed to leave the bus because of the many mining holes you could accidentally fall into). The so-called Breakaways however form a fantastic landscape out there and the gleaming colours of the rocks were simply beautiful. A few kilometres further on and we were standing in front of the 'Mars field', an endless range of bleak desert where films like the 'Red Planet' had been shot. We also passed the 'dog fence' (with a length of 5320 km the longest in the world) which was built to keep Dingos away from livestock.
Exhausted after a long and hot day, our small travel group was sitting together in the courtyard of our hostel, drinking cold beer and looking at the starry sky. In this moment I arrived at the following conclusion: Yes, it is definitely possible to enjoy your stay in Coober Pedy. Just keep in mind: one day is enough.
View the pics to get a visual impression of this unique place!
Melbourne - Adelaide (728 km)
(I had already finished this text about one week ago but somehow couldn't access the site to actually blog it, so sorry about the delay. Really glad it finally works!!)
I'm glad I can say my second bus journey was more enjoyable than the previous one - mainly because I was asleep the whole time. It was an overnight trip and I had to catch up loads of sleep from the weekend in Melbourne, and by the time I woke up again half of the passengers had already left the bus. The first thing I noticed when I stepped out of the bus station at 7 o'clock in the morning was the extremely warm air. Ok, seems to be nice weather here I thought - and it turned out I was quite right. To be more accurate, the temperature never dropped below 35-40 degrees during the day since I arrived. EVERYTHING here is HOT. It's quite a funny experience to apply your deodorant and almost burn yourself as a result. The strange thing is it doesn't really cool down at night, and I reckon I was never sweating at 3 o'clock in the morning before. Although the heat is tiring and you're constantly trying to avoid every unnecessary movement - I don't mind at all!! I guess I'm glad to finally experience real Australian summer since the never-ending rain in Sydney was more a demonstration of life in Northern England.
Actually, quite a few people in Melbourne had tried to prevent me from coming here ("You're going to Adelaide?? What a stupid thing to do! There's nothing else to see than churches!!" Good work I didn't listen to them. I can't really say it's the best city I've ever seen, but I feel as if it's the first really typical Australian place I visit. Sydney is American. Melbourne is European. And Adelaide is Adelaide, a nice and quiet town, isolated from the rest of the world and yeah...full of churches!! After 10 pm you're most likely the only person on the street (in the city centre!), wondering where the hell everyone is and I found myself more than once standing in front of closed shop doors. There are some nice buildings and lovely spots in the city though, I really love the riverside and the beautiful beach at Glenelg (crystal clear water which is perfect for a swim), but the main reason I'm still here are all the wonderful people I met. Sunny's Backpackers, the hostel I'm staying at, is definitely the best one I've ever been to. (As you can see, I'm more than happy to make some advertising for the place here: If you ever happen to stay in Adelaide - this is your place to go. You shouldn't mind bed bugs and cockroaches though..Seriously, it might be one of the roughest backpacker's in town, but it's for sure that you'll have a whale of a time!! In addition: breakfast, Internet and coffee are for free. That might sound banal, but it means paradise for a backpacker.) Besides, it's probably the only Backpacker's in Australia where you can actually find Australian people!! Anyway, people here are incredibly friendly, just want to hang out and have a good time and the staff is really laid back as well. It's hard to describe the atmosphere here, it's a little bit like a family, but to cut a long story short: I find it very hard to leave. Yesterday I actually put off my stay for the third time! I'm afraid I'm meanwhile quite a known person at transport ticket offices and hostel receptions all over the country as they had to cancel and rebook my bookings and reservations for several times. I had even checked in at the bus station yesterday and all my luggage was already stored when I suddenly thought : Hey, what are actually doing here? You don't wanna leave yet!! Ten minutes later I was out on the street again with a new ticket in my hand. A frequent question I've been asked at the hostel for the last three days goes consequently like: "What? Didn't you want to leave today??" Aaah, yes...
A person I really don't want to forget to mention is John, a very competent, friendly and in particular extremely patient guy who runs the hostel and the included travel booking office. He gave me loads of useful advice concerning my stay in Adelaide and my future travelling and even let me borrow his bike for a trip out of the city. Thanks so much again John, that was excellent and you're my hero.
I used the bike for a ride along the Torrens river to Glenelg at the sea. As it was still boiling hot in the early evening I decided to take the tram back into the city - or that was at least the idea before I made my encounter with the Australian legislation. I hopped on the tram and saw the ticket inspector approaching me, and he went like: "What a wonderful bike you got there!" (???) "And what a pity it's not allowed on that tram!" Oh yeah, I love Australian humour. He followed me outside and said: "You might wanna catch the train from Goodwood, they'll definitely allow your bike on there." Okay, so I decided to act on this wise man's advice and checked out Goodwood on my map - only to find out that it was like the second closest station to the city. He was such a funny man. When I was back on the saddle with a really sore bum, sweating under the helmet (which I was obliged to wear in order to avoid a 180$ (!) fine), I experienced one of those very, very rare moments when I wished I was back in Europe where no one gives a damn about bikes on trams!!
One of the other things I did during my time here was a tour to the Barossa Valley which is the most famous wine-growing district in Australia. We visited four different wineries (three of them in the morning!) and tasted loads of delicious local wine from there - very careful though as it was another extremely hot day.
Besides I spent half a day on a sailing boat watching dolphins and we could even swim next to them. They're pretty hard to spot but we managed to see them a couple of times playing underwater.
Quite interesting as well was one afternoon at the South Australian Museum - and I'm sure the Aboriginal art exhibition there is excellent - but to be honest, the main reason for going there was definitely the fact that it was fully air-conditioned.
Last but not least I want to say THANK YOU to all of you guys from Sunny's, I had this more than amazing time in Adelaide because of you. I'll never forget singing Beatles songs with totally random people walking by or the 'Fridge Climbing' in the kitchen, that was so hilarious. The last night and day at the Murray River in Wellington were the best finish ever. Guess there's only one thing left to say: Good times mates, good times.
Sydney - Melbourne (881km)
The first day of my big travel around Australia was actually not very encouraging. Okay, knowing you're going to spend the next 13 h squeezed in a way too tiny bus seat is not a fact likely to lift your spirits anyway, but realising it would be with a bunch of very annoying German people sitting all around me can make the whole thing become sort of a nightmare. Well, the best thing you can do is to smile friendly, look out of the window while listening to music and - in an emergency - deny your nationality and pretend to be Dutch. Another option is of course to enjoy the beautiful landscape outside...but yeah, there's a catch. The countryside along the road from Sydney to Melbourne is not exactly known for its diversity. The only things that vary are the road signs, patiently reminding drivers and their passengers of wearing seat belts ("Please mind your seat belt", "DO it or DIE" (uh..ok, yeah, that's also a way of getting the message across..)). In addition to that my limbs were aching all over, not because of my huge backpack or the uncomfortable seats, but because I had picked up a very nasty cold from one of the driving fridges (=air conditioned buses) in Sydney. Why are Australians so obsessed with air conditioning? They don't seem to care whether it's actually hot outside or not! I regularly lose my voice because of that. Well, at least our bus driver was determined to make our journey as comfortable as possible, mainly by torturing us with a one and a half hour promotion video about the amazing outback of Queensland. Since we had started our trip in New South Wales and were heading to Victoria, his reason for doing so will forever stay his secret. My personal assumption is he got paid.
Now, after having been in Melbourne for 5 days, I can tell for sure that this city was definitely worth every single second I spent in that bloody bus!!
It really is a fantastic place and much more different from Sydney than I expected. As everyone says, it is just more European (or less American, it sometimes even reminds me of my hometown..!), which can definitely be regarded as a bonus. In my opinion it lacks however the natural beauty (which is perfectly embodied by Sydney) and there might also not be these totally overwhelming or stunning spots comparable with the Harbour Bridge or the Opera House. (Yeah, the river is nice and so are all the parks, but after reading my travel guide I had expected a little bit more of them..). But still, there is something special about Melbourne, in particular a very cultural and inspirational air. I probably liked Fitzroy most, the creative and artistic heart of the city. It is crammed with so many beautiful and individual stores, shops, cafes, restaurants etc. that you could spend the whole day and all your money there (I'd use it for the fantastic vintage stuff they got). Luckily, my hostel was located in the heart of Fitzroy so I had the chance to check out some nice venues as well as catching a few really good live bands and a brilliant theatre piece during my time there. (And I was also lucky to spend a couple of nights at a friend's place - thank you Francine!!) Anyway, feel free to check out some of the pics I took during my walk through the city (including Fitzroy, Swanston St, Yarra River, parks etc...), during the day tour along the Great Ocean Road (which was absolutely fantastic!!!.., including Bell's Beach, Apollo Bay, 12 Apostels, London Bridge, Otway Rainforest National Park, Koalas and pics from the Helicopter flight) and of course the ones from the day at the beach in St Kilda!
Oh, a few comments on the weather. If you prefer it stable, don't go to Melbourne. You can spend the whole day there taking your jacket on and off - or you simply accept that you're either sweating or freezing in this city!
So, hope it will be nice and sunny in Adelaide which is my next destination. How I get there? By bus of course!!