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Big Trip Blog Bigtripblog is a multimedia travel experience capturing the adventures of Kevin and Valerie during their one year trip around the world.

Exploring the Red Center with Intrepid

AUSTRALIA | Tuesday, 24 July 2007 | Views [2143]

Val: One of the sponsors of the World Nomads Ambassador Van is Intrepid Travel, and we were lucky enough to score a free five day adventure from them around the iconic Uluru (Ayer's Rock) and other natural gems of central Australia.

First, we met up with our guide and group at the Desert Palms Hotel in Alice Springs. We hadn't even started but were already pumped about having a sweet hotel room for free, especially after spending 35 straight nights sleeping in a van! Right away it was clear our guide Jason was going to make it a great trip. His knowledge and expertise about the land, the Aboriginal people of Central Australia, the plants, and animals is extensive, with a sense of humor to boot.

We spent most of the first day making the 500km journey south straight to Uluru. On the Big Trip we've seen a couple of other famous world icons (the Great Pyramids and the Taj Mahal to name a couple) and each time it's exhilarating. As we approached, I was hooked. I couldn't take my eyes off of it! After lunch and a rest Jason guided us around and told us some Aboriginal beliefs about the area, including the idea that Uluru was created by a couple of boys splashing around in some water and kicking up mud until a mound of it grew and grew and grew. An interesting theory, for sure! We did about a 6km loop walk around the entire thing, noting how the surface isn't smooth at all close up. It's full of caves, ridges, cracks and scars, each with an ancient story to tell.

The local Anangu people have a joint management of the park with the Australian government, which seems to benefit both groups fairly well. The people can preserve their culture, history, and close relationship with the land, while the parks service uses this knowledge to better protect it. You can climb up Uluru if you want to, and lots of people do, but the Anangu strongly disapprove of it. It's been an important men's ceremonial site for thousands of years, and they also feel responsible when people die or get hurt on the climb. There are signs everywhere requesting people not to climb it out of respect, and I find it sad to see so many tourists ignoring the message.

After the base hike we drove to a good sunset viewing spot while sipping champagne and munching on snacks. It was cloudy so the rock didn't glow brightly like in all the postcards, but it was a good time to have a few and get to know the group a little better. Half of the 14 people were from Belgium (a family traveling together), and the rest were from New Zealand, the US, Japan, Israel, and Australia. Everyone was so great to hang out with, and made the next four days a blast.

After a delicious kangaroo pasta dinner at the campsite it was time to roll out our swags around the fire. A swag is a canvas covering with a mattress at the bottom just big enough for one person, and you put your sleeping bag inside of it. It's kind of an Australian thing I guess, and feels secure like a tent but it lets you poke your head outside to watch the milky way and shooting stars, which you can't beat. It managed to keep out the cold, despite the freezing temperatures every night. We woke up at 5:30 in order to see Uluru at sunrise, which was a little more impressive than sunset.

It turned out, as great as Uluru was, the next days' sights and hikes were even better, even though they're not as famous. On day two we explored the equally ancient, red, and bizarre Kata Tjuta near Uluru, winding through the mountains on the lovely Valley of the Winds 7.4km hike. Kata Tjuta means "many heads" because it's made up of 36 domes scattered around, which are even taller than Uluru.

After a rewarding hike, it was time for the heavy duty 4WD truck/bus we'd been traveling in to work its magic. Jason drove us through some winding, rugged terrain for about an hour and a half to our bush campsite, which has no facilities except for a shovel to bury it with, if you know what I mean.

It felt like the Australia you imagine if you've never actually been there. Kangaroos hopping off in the distance and big open skies over uninviting prickly and gnarled plants and dead wood. And of course plenty of that rusty red sand and dirt. That night the stars were fantastic and after a big steak dinner played a drinking game around the fire.

On day three we bounced through the bush some more and at one point got stuck in the sand, but were quickly on the move again once all the guys got out and pushed. We eventually reached the glorious King's Canyon (Watarrka National Park). We hiked 6km that afternoon, starting with a long and steep staircase nicknamed "heart attack hill." After surviving the climb (it really wasn't that bad), we meandered along the beautiful rim, taking in exceptional views.

Since we'd bushcamped the previous night before, we were informed after the hike we'd get a good shower at our new campsite. When we arrived, Jason showed us our shower in a small, 3-sided shack with a fire-powered water heater outside. We were a bit nervous about the water being freezing, but Jason assured us as long as someone got the fire going strong it'd be alright. Rick and Jos from the Belgian family jumped to the task, as we had learned they always did when it came to doing any kind of hard work (particularly involving fire). Anytime Jason needed someone to lift something heavy, Kevin would get up to help and find Rick and Jos literally running to do it, it was so funny. Anyway, they did an awesome job and the shower was amazing, it was even hard not to burn yourself!

The next morning on the way to our next destination, Jason pulled over to hunt for some witchetty grubs, an Aboriginal delicacy. They burrow in the roots of a certain tree, and once you hack away at the right one, you pull out the wiggling grub, bite it's head off, and take a big bite. Sounds tasty, right? We found one, and because it was young it needed to be cooked over a little fire. Then we passed it around and each took a bite. Everyone agreed it tastes just like scrambled eggs. I wouldn't eat it everyday for breakfast, though. Ick.

The next stop was Hermannsburg, which despite its name is an Aboriginal settlement. We were treated to some galloping wild horses before turning on to the paved road, which was pretty exciting. Most communities and lands require a permit for non-Aboriginal people to visit, but here we were allowed to lunch at a picnic table, go to the shop, and drive down the main road. When we got out we noticed several stray dogs and trash scattered around, a big difference from most places we'd been so far in Australia. Despite the signs of low income levels, the houses, school, shop, and clinic seemed to be in good condition. The town had also been given huge solar-powered generators, saving them loads of money that would have been spent on diesel.

From Hermannsburg we drove on a 4WD track to the Palm Valley of the Finke Gorge. Apparently the river there is the oldest water course in the world, which is a humbling thought. The last 4km ceased to be a road, but a series of boulders that took 30 minutes to maneuver through. It felt like we were in a tank being able to plow over such ridiculous terrain. The late afternoon light was perfect for the stunning stoney valley, which was indeed full of palm trees as well as ghost gums. We rested at a lookout point in time to see a dingo in the distance trotting around a water hole. We bushcamped not far from the gorge for our final night outside.

On our final day we explored the breathtaking West MacDonnell Ranges, hitting up the dramatically scenic Ormiston Gorge and Glen Helen Gorge. At Ormiston, we were able to spot some rock wallabies basking in the sun.

It was just a couple of hours drive back to Alice Springs, where later that night we all met up for dinner and drinks to reflect and say goodbye. I can't say enough great things about the tour, and it's hard to believe it was all free (for us, at least!). We couldn't have found all of those places on our own, and it wouldn't have been half as enriching without a knowledgeable guide and really fun group of people. One of the neat aspects of it was that we all had to pitch in. Cooking, cleaning, and setting up camp made it feel like we were really roughing it in the Outback. If everything had been taken care of while we just sat around, it would have been more comfortable but so boring. The five day experience was one of the major highlights of not only Australia, but the entire Big Trip. Thank you so much, Intrepid and World Nomads!

Tags: adventures, ambassador van

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