Days 338-339: Australia’s Red Center

Brittany was feeling better after spending a night in agony from what we believed was food poisoning or the flu. She still wasn’t 100%, but at least she wasn’t throwing up any longer. I walked to the bathroom in the cold desert air as the sun was rising. Once we packed up the car, Brittany and I drove over to the campsite and paid for car-camping. We didn’t want to be in a tent that night. Instead, we planned to sleep in the back of my Subaru Outback. 

We were near Uluru in Australia’s “red center.” We went to the visitor center to see what our options were for exploring the area. Looking through a booklet, we noticed that camel tours were offered, and we instantly wanted to go on the sunset tour. The lady at the tour desk said they were sold out for most of the tours. There weren’t as many tours going on because the camels just finished the races and were resting. Thankfully, after the woman called someone at the stables, they could get us on a sunset tour that evening. 

Once we booked the tour, we drove to Uluru (Ayers Rock) about 30 minutes away. Uluru is a sacred rock to the Aboriginal people. The government used to allow people to climb to the top using some cable handrails, but it was recently banned to honor aboriginal people’s wishes. We could technically still climb the rock because it was legal for the next few months, but the aboriginal people asked that it not be climbed, so we chose not to climb it. Instead, we decided to walk the path around the massive rock. 

When I was house-sitting in Adelaide, the homeowner told me that he climbed to the top of Uluru decades ago, and even though he is an atheist, he felt something compelling on the top. He described it as a spiritual energy that was very much alive. 

A gravel and dirt path led us around the entire rock, which provided a great way to see the whole thing. It was a total of ten kilometers (six miles). 

The little black flies came out in droves! Thankfully, I bought a fly net that covered my face when we were in Coober Pedy. Brittany tried to buy a face-net at the visitor center, but they were sold out there (and everywhere). They told us that the drought was causing one of the worst seasons of black flies that they’d ever seen. 

The flies were aggressive and were not shy about going in our mouths, ears, nose, and even eyelids. As soon as we got out of the car, the flies surrounded us. I put the net around my head while my baseball hat helped to keep the netting off my face. It was a little annoying, disrupting my vision, but the alternative was worse. The flies even sat on top of the mesh in front of my face. They were in search of any sort of moisture. 

Brittany and I started walking, which helped a little with keeping the flies out of our mouths. As soon as we stopped walking, the flies attacked. They covered our shirts, shorts, hats, and backpacks. Hundreds of them surrounded us. The buzzing sound kept freaking me out. I will never forget how extreme the flies were because I have never come close to experiencing anything like that before. 

After walking three-quarters of the path, we tried to stop at a bench to eat our sandwiches, but the flies were relentless. We kept walking while we ate, in an attempt to keep the flies out of our mouths and off our sandwiches.

The walk around Uluru was incredibly beautiful! The sky was a bright blue, the rock and ground were bright red, and the trees were green. The cracks and fissures in the foundation were an art form. 

There are animals and insects in the area, but the vast majority are nocturnal, so that they can escape the heat during the day. The posted signs warned of hiking in the heat and ensuring we had enough water. It was hot outside, causing us to sweat. It was the end of May and it was still hot outside. I can only imagine how hot it is during their summer months. 

Some parts of the path took us closer to the rock, where we could see aboriginal drawings in cave-like settings. One sign read, “For many generations, Anangu elders taught nyiinka (bush boys) in this cave how to travel in this country and survive. Generations of grandfathers painted these pictures, like a teacher uses a school blackboard, to teach nyiinka how to track and hunt kuka (food animals). Nyiinka would then be taken into the bush to learn about country – where the waterholes are, where to find the animals, where to source materials for their tools and weapons.” 

Brittany and I continued walking around the path. We came across a part of the rock that looked like a wave in the ocean.

As we rounded the last section of the rock, we saw a “thorny devil.” It is a lizard with spikes all over it. It walked like a robot, and we were fascinated by it. A local man picked it up and showed it to us in closer detail. 

Once we finished our walk around Uluru, we drove back to our campsite and found a spot to park the car in the large, dirt lot. We parked close to a tree for some shade, and other than some R.V.’s, it was mostly empty. It was Sunday night, and the camel races were over, so many people had left.

A bus picked us up and took us on a quick ride to where they keep the camels. Once we arrived, 24 people waited for the sunset tour on camels. The tour guides instructed us to put the heavier person on the back of the camel. The camels came out in a line and were tied together with a rope. There were around 12 camels, and they were much taller than I expected. 

Brittany and I were placed at the beginning, just behind the tour guide. All of the camels sat down, so we could climb on the saddles. The guides started in the back of the line because there had to be a specific order when they stood up one-by-one, or they’d all suddenly stand up at once. When it was our turn, I climbed on first and sat in the back saddle. Next, Brittany climbed up and sat in front of me. The guide warned us that it would feel like we were in a catapult because when the camel gets up, he raises one set of legs first. I held on, and it was indeed like a catapult.

Our camel’s name was Bergadere. The camel behind us was named Conner. The guide warned us that Connor loved kisses. Sure enough, Connor got as close as he could and begged me for kisses and for me to pet him. After having french-kissed a baby kangaroo, I knew I did not want a kiss from a giant camel tongue. But he was too cute to resist, so I pet him as much as I could. It was hard to turn and pat his head, but he made it easier by rubbing his head on my leg.

Our camel train headed off into the desert, and it was everything I could have hoped for. The landscape was incredible, with the red dirt glistening in the sun. We had views of Uluru in the distance as we traversed through the nearby areas. 

The tour guide, Laura, was close to us, so we got to know her a bit. She was in her 20s, had blonde hair, and was wearing a cowboy hat and a long-sleeve red shirt. She was from Germany and had been in Australia for 18 months. Her boyfriend was Australian, and she was trying to get residency through him. 

Laura told us that the flies aren’t typically as bad as they were. Usually, they’re all over the place for one to two days a month, and then it’s just a few here and there. That year, the lack of water caused them to be worse than she’d ever seen. At least 30 flies were resting on each of our legs at all times.

Connor got close to me for some love every time we stopped. During the whole tour, he was chomping on food. Camels regurgitate their food so they can chew it again before swallowing it. They do this over and over, and they chew like a cow. 

It was great being close to Laura because she told us about the camels. They can live for 50 years and live longest when they’re in captivity because they’re well-cared for. The company that she worked with had 40 camels, and only four of them were females. The males were all castrated. They have mostly males because they can carry more weight and it’s safer to travel around the desert with them. If they go trekking with a female camel, a wild male camel might try to mate with her. The camels can become dangerous if this happens. Laura explained that with so many male camels around, the wild camels wouldn’t try to get to the females. 

Australia has half a million wild camels. They were brought to the country in the 1840s from India and Afghanistan to help in discovering the vast deserts in the west and center of Australia. They were great modes of transportation until the motorized vehicle came along. Once that happened, the camels were released into the wild, creating a big problem because they’re not native to the landscape. When the population grew to over one million in the early 2000s, the government created a program to reduce the feral population. 

Once the sun was almost gone, we paused to take it all in. Red, orange, and yellow colors bounced off the clouds and lit up the red desert. It was one of the most peaceful things I’ve ever witnessed. 

By the time we returned with the camels, it was dark outside. The tour company provided wine and snacks before we got back on the bus.

Then they dropped us off at the entrance to the campsite. Brittany cooked dinner while I set up our mattress pads and sleeping bags in the back of the car. We put all of our luggage in the two front seats so that we could lower the two back seats. Brittany had a thin, inflatable backpacking mattress pad, which was perfect. 

When I bought some camping gear, I didn’t want to spend a lot of money because I already had backpacking equipment back in the U.S., and I wasn’t sure how much car-camping I was going to do in Australia. The thin inflatable mattresses for backpacking are over $100. Instead, I bought a cheaper one. I blew it up, but it was like an oval. There was no way that I could lay on it without rolling over. I let some air out, but then my mid-section fell to the bottom while the air lifted my legs and chest. The padding inside was minimal, so I needed the air. We figured it must be broken. Brittany cracked up when I laid on it because I just rolled over. I had to balance myself on the side of the car. 

Brittany used her stove to cook rice, cheese squares, and veggies. It was delicious, and I was grateful to have her cooking skills. Once we finished dinner in the dark, I walked ten minutes to the shared showers.

Even though it was sweltering during the day, it dropped to 42 °F (7 °C) at night. We cracked the windows for some air, and thankfully, the flies disappeared once the sun went down. I had a horrible time sleeping that night because of my crappy mattress pad. My hips and knees were throbbing. I couldn’t get any relief because I couldn’t stretch my legs. I am too tall. I tried my best, but all I could do was raise my legs against the back windshield to get a mild stretch.

The next morning, Brittany tried to cook eggs, but her stove would not warm up. It was frigid outside, and we wanted a warm breakfast. She did the best she could but would have to take her stove apart later and see if she could repair it.

We drove to Kata-Tjuta mountain, which was about an hour away. We threw our backpacks on and started hiking. The trail was mostly empty, giving us the place to ourselves. The path that went around and into the valley was seven and a half kilometers (four and a half miles).

The trail was a lot more inclined than the hike the day prior. Brittany still wasn’t feeling 100%, so we took it slowly. The landscape was even more beautiful than Uluru. Bright red rock, blue sky, and green trees surrounded us. We climbed into a valley of the two massive rock mountains, and it was extremely windy. The shade was cold, but it warmed up after a while in the sun.

Once we reached the top of a canyon, we sat down and ate chips and salsa. We also carried some bottles of Bundaberg lemon-lime drink, which was refreshing. My knees needed a break from all of the climbing.

The views were incredible! We sat between two giant rock mountains. Below us was a valley filled with plant life. We could see the area for miles. Beyond the valley, there were more rock mountains in the distance.

It was peaceful and worth the climb. The canyon echoed with our voices. I understood why it was called the Valley of the Winds. The flies were manageable because it was early and cold outside. Once we were back at the car, they started to come out.

On our climb down, I told Brittany that my knees were in a lot of pain from arthritis. Brittany and I used to run together, but she had completed many marathons, ultra-marathons, and long-distance races that involved climbing mountains. I told Brittany that my body is not designed to do ultramarathons. I’ve only run half marathons (13 miles), and that is the max that my body will allow. Brittany was insistent that anybody could run long distances if they train. She’s worked hard training for years, and it’s not easy of her either, but she pushes through. My decades’ worth of severe arthritis disagreed.

When we finished the hike, we drove back to the cafe near the hotels to get some coffee and figure out where we were going. I was exhausted and wasn’t sure if I could make the five-hour drive to Alice Springs. Brittany agreed to drive the first half so I could rest. I booked an Airbnb in Alice Springs, and we started the journey. 

The speed limit in the Northern Territory is 130 KPH (80 MPH). The highway was a two-lane road, making it scary when cars passed going the opposite direction. Thankfully, there still weren’t many cars around.

I ended up not sleeping on the drive because Brittany and I talked. We somehow got into a conversation about how to answer the question, “Where are you from?” When people would ask us that, I always said, “The U.S.” and Brittany always said, “New Zealand.” I didn’t understand why she answered with New Zealand. She had only lived there for nine months. 

From Brittany’s point of view, she had permanent residency and planned to apply for citizenship in a few years. She also planned to renounce her U.S. citizenship. She lived in New Zealand and flew from there before coming to Australia, so to her, it made sense that the answer was New Zealand. 

From my perspective, I felt that most people were asking where she has spent most of her life. She spent 36 years in the U.S. and less than a year in New Zealand. It was inevitable that people would notice her American accent and be confused. The follow up was always, “You don’t sound like you’re from New Zealand.” I felt that she should tell people that she is from the U.S., but living in New Zealand. It was a privilege to get permanent residency so quickly because her husband works in a job that is in high demand in New Zealand.

I don’t know why I was frustrated with this. Brittany is free to answer that question however she likes. Maybe I wasn’t used to being with someone nonstop for days. I was used to being alone. While I loved learning about New Zealand (and plan to visit one day), I was getting tired of hearing how wonderful the government is and how much better they are than the U.S. Maybe I was feeling defensive about my country. 

Brittany told me about how the New Zealand government provides healthcare for citizens and even tourists if they are injured. Over several days, I heard about the culture in New Zealand, the government, and the Prime Minister. All the while, hearing about how Brittany didn’t like the U.S. very much any longer. Maybe I’m a skeptic, but I didn’t believe that New Zealand was a utopia, even if it seemed like a pretty great place. 

A couple of months later, I saw a story on the news about a woman in Ireland who was head-hunted for an I.T. job. The government issued a visa for herself, her husband, and two of her children. Her skills were in high demand. However, one of the children has Down’s Syndrome, so the government denied entry to that child because she would “put a burden on their system.” The woman was on the news saying she isn’t going to immigrate to New Zealand because she’d have to leave a child behind. Even though their tax contribution in one month would cover the cost of extra help at school for an entire year, the New Zealand government wouldn’t budge on their immigration decision. Maybe it wasn’t such a paradise, after all.

Don’t get me wrong; I was ecstatic to have Brittany along with me. I just wasn’t used to having companionship nonstop for more than a week. We disagreed on many topics, but we never fought. We had a lot of drive-time to talk, and I felt we had good discussions. Having a friend along who knew how to camp, hike, and cook was an asset. Not to mention how many times she made me laugh and taught me something new. I just had to get used to having company. I had been traveling solo for more than a year, so it was a new experience for me.  

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Published by Christy

I quit my corporate job and sold my house in Los Angeles so I can travel and write. I grew up in St. Louis, MO and moved to the Los Angeles area after college. I worked in the business world for 15 years. Follow along to see pictures and hear stories of people I've met along my journey so far - driving to Alaska.

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