Aussie Entry 17

Wow, so much has been going on over the past week that I thought, “Hey, I’ll go ahead and write a journal entry about it!”  Then I realised that I never even finished up with my whole holiday story.  Not that it really matters since most people I know don’t even read those long entries – not to mention click on the hundreds of links posted throughout.  Already Megan’s mum thinks that I’m missing out on the glamour and excitement of doing homework, so I’ll try to keep this one shorter (yeah, like that’s going to happen) and without as many hyperlinks.  I trust everyone’s already seen my Uluru pictures, anyway ::cough::.  Right, and I’ll step off my mountain now and take you back to the beginning of the month when Megan and I took a plane out into the middle of Australia to see a big rock – literally.
 

Uluru Safari: Day 1
This morning, I was actually ready on time to get to the airport early.  This second time around wasn’t bad at all, but it freaks me out a little that I will be only going to that airport one more time (at least for the next few years).  We took Qantas, which meant longer lines than Virgin Blue, but it went pretty fast.  I ended up with an aisle seat, and Megan had the middle.  I’m always a little irked when I don’t get a window seat, so since we had time, I went back through the line to see if I could be re-seated.  Thankfully, the attendant had no problem with it, and Megan and I ended up having three seats to ourselves.  Speaking of seating (I’m already going on a tangent), I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but after talking to her travel agent, Megan was able to secure a seat on both of my flights from Perth to Sydney and Sydney to Los Angeles at the end of November.  Her itinerary originally had her scheduled to fly out a few days earlier (during exams), so she luckily moved it up to correspond with mine.  Now, international flights on Qantas arrange seating on the purchase date, so I’ve always known that I’d have a window seat in row 50.  When Megan booked, she asked for a seat near mine, and there was one available in the same row of three, aisle.  If you follow that, it means that someone was booked on (or requested) a middle seat on the aircraft.  That’s a little moronic for a 14-hour flight, but whatever.

When we boarded the aircraft, it figured that my window seat was over the wing.  However, strangely enough, this non-Boeing aircraft had the wings above the windows, meaning that just a big jet engine was in my way.  I preferred that to a big wing, though.  Our flight path took us directly over Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and I was seated on the side of the plane able to check out the latter.  The pilot even tipped the airplane so that we could get a better sight of it.  Awesome!  The same thing happened on the way home (including the routing and tipping), but this time I requested a seat to see Uluru.  So I got the chance to see the best of both worlds – from the air!

We touched down an hour later in Alice Springs (a good 6-hour drive from the rocks).  It’s not much more than a tourist town, but it was cool in its own respect.  We were dropped off at the Melanka Motel, which, according to the link I posted in my itinerary, included a refrigerator, air conditioning, mini bar, phone, TV, in-room movies, pool and spa, and a bunch more.  Of course, when we got there, we were directed to a small building down the street – Melanka Backpacker’s Hostel.  So, you can cut out a bunch of those accommodations that I originally thought we would have, but it still wasn’t that bad.  In fact, I thought it was pretty darn good!  There was air conditioning (which only worked after 6 at night, and at small intervals in-between), a refrigerator (small, dormitory-style, but still a fridge), and even a sink with a mirror.  As with most hostels, we shared a bathroom with the whole floor, but the showers in the place were great!  I’ve never seen a showerhead that sprayed so much water at such pressure.  Megan on the other hand was very disappointed, to say the least.  She pointed out that the floors were made of dingy brick, the ceiling was falling apart onto the beds, the bathrooms had hardly any light (which turned off automatically after a short amount of time), and the sheets on the beds had stains.  I guess I didn’t see the big deal – what can you expect for $15 a night?

Megan wanted to get out of the place, so we took a stroll around town, but I regrettably left my camera in the room.  I suppose it’s about equal to the avenue at White Marsh (for those who get the reference), but I still like pictures of new places I’ve been.  We had a bite to eat at some tavern down the street before coming back to Melanka.  Megan curled up in her sleeping bag, preventing any bit of her body from touching the contaminated bed.  I didn’t have any problems with the place myself (that surprises some people, doesn’t it?), so I slept soundly in my bed, under the discoloured hostel blankets.
 

Uluru Safari: Day 2
Megan and I woke early the next morning.  As she predicted, quite a bit of the ceiling flaked off onto our beds, so hopefully there wasn’t any asbestos in it.  We headed over to the “good” Melanka to check in with Adventure Tours.  Now, we had booked two other trips with this tour company in Cairns and both times the guides were over a half hour late, which meant that we were playing catch-up all day with no free time on our hands.  It just wasn’t the best experience.  This time, as predictable as Adventure Tours is, our guide was late.  She was a 23-year old blonde sheila named Kirsten who blamed her tardiness on the fact that she had other people to pick up before us.  Anyway, we started our trip south and stopped at a camel farm, where we had the option of taking a very short ride around a pen for an additional price.  Since you can do the same thing back home, we decided to skip that option.  Instead, I wandered over to a “tame” dingo.  Now, if you aren’t familiar with dingos, they are basically very wild and dangerous dogs in the Aussie outback.  So, the chance to get up close with a tame one (and take its picture!) was a cool benefit.  I walked over to the guy and snapped a few pictures, but I didn’t care for any of them, so I squatted down to his level to get an eye-level shot of him.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have my camera around my neck, so the dog took notice of my dangling camera strap.  In an instant he jumped at me and caught the strap in his jaws.  He may have only been playing around, but having a dingo growling at me and pulling my camera with his sharp teeth was enough to make me just a tad nervous.  Even still, I was not about to let my camera fall into the paws of an Aussie dog – my warranty had just run out a couple months ago on the bloody thing!  Eventually, I pulled my camera and the dog to the end of his leash before he finally let go.  And that, my friends, is my heroic story.

Right, as we continued our adventure down the road, suddenly an alarm started sounding from the front of the bus.  Utterly and completely at a loss at what to do, Kirsten pulled to the side of the road, turned off the bus, and waited a minute.  She tried turning the bus on again, but the beeping alarm continued.  She demanded that the back emergency door be shut, which of course, it already was.  So, she pulled out the bus maintenance manual and proceeded to read it to figure out what was going on.  Having no idea what to do and already running behind schedule, she handed the manual to a member of our group and asked him to figure out the problem.  In the meantime she decided to continue down the road, with the loud beeping continuing the whole way.  Between the beeps, she made a call to another Adventure Tours guide for help.  After about ten minutes of beeping, she pulled off to the side of the road again to fiddle with some gadgets, but nothing worked.  Eventually, the guide she called on the radio showed up.  He jumped into our bus and fixed the problem in seconds.  I only threw in that story as a foreshadowing of how Kristen’s amazing maintenance and driving skills would come into play later.

Still running behind, we stopped at a bottle shop where we picked up the compulsory alcohol to last us the next couple nights.  Then, we headed to the Olgas, which was the result of an itinerary change.  Amongst my group (which was primarily in their 20’s) was an old couple, who were probably in their 70’s.  Obviously, their travel agent booked them on the wrong tour since we would be doing some strenuous hiking at Uluru and King’s Canyon.  To compensate, we headed off to the Valley of the Winds hike (the easiest of Uluru and the Canyon) first.  Of course, since we started late, we got to the Olgas late, forcing us to take a different, much shorter and less spectacular hike.  Megan, who had been here twice before was the most disappointed, knowing what we were missing out on.

Afterwards, we headed out to the Ayers Rock sunset viewing with at least 50 other busloads of people.  We picked a relatively uncrowded lookout spot and watched the rock change colours as the last rays of sunlight streaked across the sky.  We got to have glasses – or rather cheap plastic mugs – of campaign.  Whoo-hoo!

We got back to camp, which was more of a resort campground.  There were huge permanent tents set up with a fire pit and a huge outdoor room covered in mosquito netting to keep the buggers out.  It was quite a difference camping in the outback here compared to Karijini.  Anyway, we had some snags for dinner amongst heaps of other food.  None of which was thanks to Kirsten, by the way, who for some strange reason always found an excuse not to cook or do work.  This time, she needed to “refuel the bus.”  After about a half hour, she returned to a huge barbeque dinner.  Everyone headed off to bed early – after all, wakeup call was at 4 in the morning to catch sunrise at Ayers Rock.
 

Uluru Safari: Day 3
I felt like I had hardly gotten a wink of sleep when Kirsten came around the tents to wake everyone up.  I grabbed some continental breakfast and waited, and waited, and waited until Kirsten was ready to leave.  Dawn was already breaking as we got into the bus to make the half hour ride to the rock.  On the drive, we were told we had three options – first was to walk the entire base of the rock without seeing the sunrise; second was to climb the rock after seeing the sunrise; third was to walk around half the rock after seeing the sunrise.  I was in the third group that chose the last.  To drop off the “full walk” people, Kristen thought it would be a good idea to turn the entire bus (plus trailer) around in the middle of the narrow road that runs around the rock.  I suppose that rear-view and side mirrors aren’t necessary for Australian Tours guides because she sure as heck didn’t check them when she attempted the U-turn.  Once our bus was completely perpendicular to the road, my side of the bus had a clear view of another huge tour bus slamming on its breaks to avoid hitting us.  Thankfully, he missed us by a couple metres.  Since the sunrise is a popular attraction at Uluru, there was a whole line of tour buses behind him that followed suit in the sudden stop.  With horns blaring, Kirsten decided not to do anything except say “can’t he get around me?”  I guess she forgot that she was driving a long bus with trailer, which was taking up all lanes of traffic, plus the shoulders.  So, Kirsten worked the bus back and forth until she was freed from the perpendicular position and on our way again.  Of course, a third of our group still had to be dropped off, so less than a minute later she slows to a crawl and pulls into a ditch on the other side of the road.  As the group departed, all she could say was “Hmm, was he behind me the whole time?”  To which our group yelled out, “Yes!!”  She shrugged her shoulders and continued onto the sunset viewing area, which is basically a long stretch of road alongside the rock.

Once we had driven past the buckets of buses that were up early to get good spots, we came across an area of the road with just a few people scattered on it.  Kirsten decided to put her parking skills to the test and pulled her bus to the side of the road, directly in front of a line of armature and professional photographers.  Although most just rolled their eyes and moved, one bloke became extremely livid.  He banged his fist on our bus, demanding that we move forward, out of the way of his camera, which he claimed was set up hours beforehand to take time-lapse photos of the sunrise against the rock.  Kirsten didn’t want to listen and shut down the bus, to which the man replied “You lazy sacks of sod!  Get the heck out of my way!”  (I cleaned up his language a bit for you.)  Still unwilling to budge, the photographer jumped into Kirsten’s seat and turned the key, screaming that she move.  Of course, by now the beauty of the sunrise on the rock was disturbed and everyone’s attention had focused on us.  Not wanting to get run over or miss the sunrise, Megan and I walked away from the bus and to the other side of the road to take our pictures.

After the whole sunrise ordeal was finished, we hopped back on the bus and Kirsten drove us to the rock climbing area for those who wished to partake.  I suppose it’s too much work for tour guides to turn their heads, too, because as the other third of the bus was disembarking, Kirsten thought she might move it forward a few more metres, almost running over a couple of our group members.  Megan and I just held on tight for the final drop-off location.  I think everyone was glad to be out of that bus.

The rest of the day was very nice.  Megan and I walked around half of the mammoth rock, which was awesome.  I’m sure if you check out my pictures, you will just see a bunch of boulders and shapes in a big, red, rocky hill, but I tell you, it was pretty cool.  Not cool enough for me to go again (after all, it is just a rock), but it’s definitely something you should see if you come to Australia.

A few hours later, everyone met up at the scary bus (or is it the scary Kirsten?).  Kirsten told us between puffs of her cigarette that we would be making another little hike to another part of the huge rock.  She took us around to the different areas and rattled off a bunch of facts.  I have to admit that Adventure Tour guides do know a lot of stuff, but it sounds like they are reading from an encyclopaedia.  I could learn just as much from the plaques along the way or from brochures handed out by the park.  Other than that, I don’t think I can say anything good about Adventure Tours.  Now, don’t get the impression that I didn’t have a good time at Uluru, because I did.  The sights are incredible and something you can experience once in a lifetime.  I think we could have been better off with different tour guides – say Paul or John from Australian Adventure Travel (definitely a different company).

We eventually headed off to our next destination – King’s Canyon.  Or, at least we made our way to the outskirts of it for another camp site.  On the way there, we stopped by a roadhouse that offered helicopter tours.  Without hesitation, half of our bus squealed in delight of being able to ride in the skies – if even for the five minute tour they offered.  I have to admit that I was a little nervous of the whole ordeal.  You always hear horror stories about tour helicopters crashing into the Grand Canyon in Arizona or volcanoes in Hawaii.  And this was with a rinky-dinky roadhouse that happened to own a small helicopter without doors.  Even still, as most of our bus lined up to take the tour, I swallowed my fears and convinced Megan to join me in a flight.  I am so glad that I did!  Even for five minutes, it was one of the most incredible rides I have ever had!  Now, airplanes are cool and everything, but since you are in a large room with tiny portholes, it’s hard to believe that you are really flying.  In a helicopter (especially this one without doors), you can look out huge windows, as you feel yourself swaying in the wind.  It’s really surreal and awesome.  Plus, with the noise-cancelling headphones, you don’t even hear the engine.

Once everyone’s adrenalin returned to normal levels, we were on our way to our final camping site.  Along the way, we stopped to get some firewood (same as North West Trip – just walking into the outback for wood).  Without any specific instructions on what kind of wood to get she just sent us into the bush to “look for mulga branches.”  After about five to ten minutes, everyone returned to the bus, ready to load the wood onto the top of our trailer.  Unsurprisingly, Kirsten hadn’t returned with any wood yet.  So, our group took it upon ourselves to load up the wood we gathered and tie it down.  Just as we were finishing up, Kirsten returned from the bush with a couple twigs.  She noticed what we had done and said “You tied it down already?  Did you check the wood?”  She climbed up onto the trailer and untied the pile, inserting her branches into the bunch of logs.  Then, without a word, she started chucking off a bunch of the stuff (almost hitting our group as she did).  When asked what was wrong with the wood, she replied that it was either “too fresh” or “not mulga and will burn too fast.”  As far as I know, some wood is better than no wood, and once a fire is hot enough, anything, including fresher logs, will burn.  Nonetheless, she continued to empty at least half of the wood we gathered, making our efforts seem worthless.  Again, without another word about it, she climbed back into the bus.  She asked if everyone was on board, to which we replied “How many people should be on board?”  Her answer was, “I don’t know.  I didn’t count.”  Then, she started the bus and drove away.  Maybe it’s just me, but I think that if you are in charge of a large group, you should at least know how many people are with you – especially if you are sending them out alone.  Oh, well, huh?

We eventually got to camp, which was actually another series of permanent camp sites owned by Adventure Tours; our spot was a site adjacent to another group.  We emptied our trailer, picked our tents, and cooked a huge campfire dinner.  Since most of our wood was chucked earlier in the day, we ran out pretty quickly (unlike our adjoining neighbours).  As everyone was getting ready for bed, Megan convinced me to sleep outside by the dwindling fire in a swag.  We each grabbed one from a tin shed and laid them out by the fire pit, along with a couple others.  A swag is basically a big, soft, durable mattress inside of a thick, insulated cover.  You slip a full sleeping bag into the thing and zip it up.  It covers your entire body, including a flap that goes over your head.  It’s a good thing, too because it got mighty cold at night in the middle of the desert.  Good thing I wasn’t there in winter, when Megan was there last!
 

Uluru Safari: Day 4
Yikes, I think I’ve written far too much again.  Hopefully you have read this far and found it at least a tad bit interesting.  I’ll hurry it along.  On day four in central Australia, we were once again woken up around 4am.  I wanted to get some brekkie before everyone else, so I hurriedly rolled up my sleeping bag and swag.  I grabbed some cereal and walked over to the fire pit where some people had stirred up some hot coals to keep warm.  About a half hour later, we were seated on the bus, about to head off to Kings Canyon for some early morning (before the heat of the afternoon) hiking.  It was at this point that I realised that in my haste, I had left my new inflatable pillow inside of my swag.  Drat!  I bought the thing just before the North West Trip at K-Mart, and the thing couldn’t have been more useful and comfortable.  It was too late to get Kirsten to wait another half hour to go through the swags, so I just decided to suck it up and let someone else have a free pillow.

We got to Kings Canyon quite early in the day, which was a good thing because we had a very vertical mountain to climb.  You can check out some of my pictures on Webshots if you are so inclined to see what was there.  All I can say is that it definitely was a great way to wrap up our trip.  The place was absolutely unbelievable.  Well, I know it seems that I’m dwelling on the bad points in this journal, but I can assure you that the experiences I had more than made up for the incompetent Adventure Tours staff.  It’s just that the bad is interesting and the good is indescribable.  To be fair, Kirsten did explain a lot about the plants and rock formations at Kings Canyon, but that’s just one decent day out of three.  Blah.

After an unforgettable climb up and around the canyon, we piled onto our bus for the long ride home.  We were promised free pizza at the Melanka bar, which prompted some people to make up some Melanka songs – “It’s an outback pub in the middle of the scrub.”  I slept for some of the trip home, unlike Megan who clenched her teeth together every time we passed another vehicle.  We didn’t die and we had a great time, so it’s all good.

Back at Melanka, we were able to get some much-needed showers before heading out to the pub for pizza and piss.  Around midnight, I stumbled back to my room and fell asleep.  I don’t remember too much else.  Oh, right… I forgot that parents read this… Umm, I stumbled back because of muscle pain from hikes – certainly not from intoxication.
 

Uluru Safari: Day 5
Today, we woke up early to catch a shuttle to the Alice Springs airport.  Megan and I made it back to Perth by the afternoon, so we were still able to catch a bus back to Murdoch without having to pay for a taxi.  Thus, our trip had come to a completion.  Overall, it was a very awesome trip.  Of course, much has happened since then, including US President Bush coming to Australia for a full 21 hours before being booed out.  I think this is enough writing for this entry, though, so perhaps those stories are for another time, or another entry.  Cheers, everyone (and thanks for reading, or at least skimming, this whole thing)!

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Author:Ryan
Date: Saturday, 25. October 2003 10:00
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Australia

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