6. Outback wonderlands and a very slow southern descent

Despite all odds and the improbability of ever reaching Alice Springs, Jenny chugged into the heart of Australia heaving a hot, heavy engine and two exhausted backpackers. Matty maintained a close and constant eye on the oil level, splurging on new cans at every available fuel station. Every half hour would beckon a stopover and a thorough inspection of every nook and cranny that burned beneath her bonnet. She continued to blaze through five litres of oil a day much to our perplexity and blinding frustration.

But much to our relief, we had arrived. As expected, Alice is a Wonderland. Sizzling with a perpetual heat, it stands as a thriving outback town in the heart of Australia’s arid desert, rich in history and stunning landscapes, renowned for its traditional arts, natural surroundings and inviting walking trails. It entices us all with the safety and comfort of civilisation. Like an oasis in a desert, Alice Springs is synonymous with sanctuary; the air that blows there is merely the expelled sighs of relief that every traveller heaves as they realise they’ve survived the outback drive. It is quite a triumph – a victory worth celebrating. Relieved to find a place to rest for a while, even Jenny had a smoother spring in her step (to excuse the pun).

Conscious of time restraints and our urgent need to reach Adelaide before our friends left for the UK (read about that in the first post here), Alice was only a short stay. Yet the evening passed on an indulgent $90 feast at an elegant hotel (to celebrate the completion of half our journey and the fact we were still alive). After camping at a questionable caravan park surrounded by those whom Matty irrationally labelled as ‘obvious murderers’, we sped on to a National Desert Park and roamed around, marvelling at the preservation of wildlife and Alice’s natural delights. It comprised of a two-hour boardwalk in which we immersed ourselves in the vibrant allure of exotic aviaries, spacious grassy kangaroo enclosures, nocturnal nature houses and frisky emu pens. We then stumbled upon a tranquil lake, untouched and quiet like a scenic oasis.

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We said our goodbyes to Alice Springs later that afternoon and plunged ahead into the dazzling Western sun towards Uluru (Ayers Rock). We unfortunately missed the sunset when we arrived four hours later so we set our alarms for an early rise to drive from the Ayers Rock Resort to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park which took around forty minutes; nothing in Australia lives ‘around the corner’. The accommodation around Uluru is fairly limited so most travellers choose to stay at the resort, as free camping anywhere near the national site is prohibited. It’s a capacious campsite though with attractive hotel rooms if you intend to stay long or willing to splurge a bit more. Hotel Jennifer was a comfortable alternative for us (we often favoured sleeping on the large double mattress in the back as opposed to hotel rooms; she could always guarantee a cosy, comfortable and cost-free night!)

Bright and early the next morning, we were staggered to find we had to purchase tickets to visit Uluru. Tickets were priced $25 each to even catch a close glimpse of this iconic landmark and at 6.30am, parting with fifty bucks was not the most refreshing wakeup call. We agreed how disappointing it is that something so natural cannot be left to observe and appreciate without burning holes in our pockets.

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The issue of money however filtered out of our minds the instant we laid eyes upon the outstanding, natural icon that is Uluru. As the grand landmark neared ever closer, we couldn’t resist hitting play on Elton John’s Circle of Life to really capture the moment; I was half expecting a pride of lions and a warthog to emerge from behind the Rock; there is a very African feel about this part of Australia. With every inch closer to Uluru, the sheer scale of it became increasingly apparent. The enormity is bewitching causing you to feel quite small and powerless against the omnipotent force of nature.

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Uluru has a strong connection to Aboriginal history in which tribes would live and hunt around the rock. It now remains a very spiritual and sacred place after ownership was passed back to Aboriginal communities in October 1985. It was a privilege to immerse ourselves in the history and spiritual culture of Australia. It was fascinating to learn through archaeological research that habitation at Uluru may date back 30,000 years.

We ploughed further and explored the next national treasure known as Kata Tjuna, another sacred site that rests in the same national park as Uluru. Kata Tjuna boasts a rather spectacular group of domed rock formations discovered by Ernest Giles in 1872 which he named the Olgas after Queen Olga of Wattemberg. He would have sighted Uluru had it not been for the treacherous, salty marshes of Lake Amadeus 50km north that blocked his path, forcing him to return to Alice Springs. It was subsequently discovered by Englishman William Christie Gosse in 1873 who became the first European to climb Uluru after trekking three months from Alice.

There are a number of walking opportunities for the avid hiker/keen stroller around the Uluru-Kata Tjuta national park. We wandered the short track to the Mutitjulu waterhole at Uluru and then challenged ourselves to a three hour trek around the formations of Kata Tjuta known as the Valley of the Winds. It was breath-taking (literally – you need to be physically fit to do that walk) and a real insight to learn about the rich history behind both sacred sites. I am still desperate to understand how both Uluru and Kata Tjuta came to be but a bit like Stonehenge, it will forever remain a mystery with shadows that reveal only folktales and legends rather than scientific fact.

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Rock and roll to the Waterhole

Time was of the essence. Our journey to Adelaide was proving slower than we anticipated. We were eager to reach South Australia before our friends flew to England in a matter of a few days. After a long drive back towards the Stuart Highway, we eventually turned right and continued our journey along the impossibly straight road to Adelaide. South we trundled, draining oil and hope but certain the Land Rover would triumph. After all, despite her challenges, Jenny had never failed us. After all, she was the most enduring, resilient car that had ever rocked the Australian roads.

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