The giant red rock of Uluru stands over a thousand feet high and six miles around and rises above the empty Australian desert. The formation has been used by Aboriginal Australians for religous rituals for thousands of years and is now the third major stop on the country’s tourist track.
To visit Uluru we flew into Alice Springs, a city of 30,000 in the geographic center of the country. Rather than driving the three hundred miles to Uluru we decided to be a bit adventerous and join a multi-day expedition, aptly named the “Rock Tour”.
At 6 AM the next morning we were on our way in a 20 seat bus with a trailer laden with cooking and camping equipment. Our driver, “Bruce Lee”, did triple duty as our tour guide and cook. Most of the group had recently finished college with a few just out of high school. They were an interesting bunch and we shuffled seats during the long drive and heard their stories.
The outback felt like a different country after seeing the city life of Sydney, the wetlands around Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef. While Australia is about the same size of the US, it has only one-fifteenth of the population with large areas of uninhabitable land. We drove along a single two lane road for miles with nothing to see but bushes and a few trees in all directions. Every few hours or so there would be a lone gas station with a convenience store and lodging.
Our first stop was a hike through King’s Canyon. This probably would have been more impressive had we not seen the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago.
Afterward we were tasked with gathering wood for the fire. Here’s where having a bunch of energetic college kids pays off.
Then we made it to our spartan campground featuring a campfire and an open shelter but no water or bathrooms. Each of us was given a sleeping bag and a padded, waterproof canvas roll called a swag. The swag had not much room to move once I got in and closed the top; I felt like I was in a coffin. But as the temperature dropped it was warm and far preferable to sleeping under the stars. We had been warned that there were field mice in the area and sure enough I awoke a few times during the night to hear them scampering around. I correctly surmised that Sarah did not hear the little guys because I wasn’t awoken to her shriek. Over breakfast, however, the others on the tour confirmed they heard them as well.
That day we made it to Uluru. Aboriginals have posted signs all over asking visitors not to climb it but people are allowed to climb it anyway.
We did not climb, nor did we take pictures where we were requested not to. Certain areas of the rock were sacred with viewing only allowed by women so I along with all the other males in our group respectfully looked away.
We drove a few miles into a deserted parking lot to eat and view Uluru over Sunset. As the sun went down a dozen other (much nicer) tour busses pulled in and people milled about taking pictures.
That night’s camp site was much better maintained, featuring a well lit bathroom with showers. Bruce Lee had us up early the following morning where returned to the same lot to watch the sunrise. This time the crowds did not join us. Then we were dropped off by the rock to complete the walk around. It took us a few hours and the view did not change much from different angles but it tired us out for the long drive back to Alice Springs.
The Great Barrier Reef is the largest coral reef in the world, stretching over 1500 miles off the coast of Northeastern Australia. Typically this is the second stop on the Australian tourist track although a surprising number of the Australians we met had never visited. Sarah and I arrived in the gateway city of Cairns and opted to explore the reef by booking a 2 day, 1 night snorkeling trip aboard the Kangaroo Express: a 25 meter catamaran with 16 cabins, a kitchen with a cook to prepare meals, and several decks spread over three levels.
A large ship filled with families with small children and older, less adventurous tourists took us on the hour long journey out to a floating pontoon from where we were able to dock with the KE. We were assigned to our small but comfortable cabin, given our snorkeling equipment, told about the local coral formations, and were given free reign to to hit the water. Along with Sarah and I there were 4 other snorkelers in addition to several scuba divers. Most were around our age and we had fun hanging out with them when we weren’t in the water.
Before jumping off the ship we had to sign out with a deckhand with a clipboard and then sign in when we returned from our session. This, apparently, was a final safety check to make sure everyone made it back on the boat, unlike an American couple who were abandoned by their ship in 1998 while diving; their equipment eventually washed up but their bodies were never found.
The water was a bit rough at first and Sarah opted for a flotation device. I had to get used to swimming with snorkeling and fins – but after a few minutes getting comfortable not using my arms and breathing underwater, it became natural and I was able to see what we had come out for.
Although I had heard everyone rave about the reef, nothing really had prepared me for my first encounter. I felt like I was swimming in the worlds largest aquarium. Schools of small fish of all colors surrounded me, sea turtles were paddling close by, and once in a while a lone giant fish two feet long would come by nonchalantly. The coral was bright and colorful and the water was clear and warm.
I had bought a waterproof case for my camera the day before and went to town in taking pictures and videos.
After an hour in the water, everyone would be called back and the ship would move to a different location. The KE would dock at a different area of the reef where we were would be given another overview of the coral and then allowed to get back in. This repeated several times over the day and again starting the next morning at 6 AM.
I snorkeled every session while others opted to socialize or sunbathe on the deck. My perseverance was rewarded when I was the only person to see this white tipped reef shark. I managed to keep up with him for a while before he swam off in the distance.
Of the several videos and few hundred pictures I posted the best ones here.
Our last week in the US passed in a blur. Sarah and I arrived in Las Vegas from the Grand Canyon, and not being able to find a compromise between seeing Carrot Top or Cirque du Soleil, we opted to forgo a show and join our friends Josh and Tweeny in celebrating their wedding anniversary. We ate the best meal we’ve had in a while (and probably will have for a while) at the top of the Mandarin Hotel before hitting the tables where we ended up flat after an evening playing blackjack, roulette, and craps. Bumper to bumper traffic made our last day of driving painful but we eventually arrived at my parent’s house in LA, completing the US portion of our trip (despite some of you doubting my car would make it!). A flurry of last minute trip preparations ensued before we flew down to Sydney three nights later.
We crosssed the international date line during the 13 hour flight and arrived on Friday morning after leaving on Wednesday night. Having arrived with a one way ticket, I was a bit nervous that the immigration officer would question our travel motivations but he stamped us in without a word and we were on our way.
Now I normally don’t show up in a foreign country without having read several relevant books and having assembled a jam packed itinerary to avoid wasting precious vacation days. This time, however, we emerged from the airport without plans, clutching our Rough Guide to Australia handbook and the phone numbers of two of our Australian friends: Emma and Roger. Sarah and I had spent four days hiking the Inca Trail in Peru with Emma last October, and I had met Roger three years ago when he was visiting New York during his own trip around the world.
Neither of us really knew what to expect. Men dressed like Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin and maybe wild kangaroos? Sydney couldn’t have been more different as it resembled New York with its diversity, people out at all times of the day and night, and public transportation facilitating travel between all neighborhoods.
We had a blast spending two days in the college neighborhood of Newtown exploring the cafes and bakeries. Emma hosted us for two nights in Coogee Beach and took us on a cliff walk to the hip Bondi Beach where we ate dinner at a restaurant overlooking the sunset and surfers trying to catch one more wave before it became pitch black. We spent an additional two nights with Roger and his mom at her amazing apartment with views of the harbor.
During our week Sarah and I explored all the different neighborhoods, walked across the Sydney Harbor bridge, into the Sydney Opera House, and through the Botanical Gardens. Roger and his mom took us out to their favorite hangouts showing us that even on a Wednesday following the long Easter weekend the locals partied hard into the night. We ate Indian, Turkish, Thai, and Malaysian food. We actually found a Sri Lankan restaurant but it was closed for the holiday. We had Aussie meal of meat pies and even tried the local delicacy known as Vegemite which I didn’t mind but Sarah described as having the “consistency of peanut butter with the taste of sardines”.
Rain thwarted our first two attempts to hit the beach but finally on our last day the clouds parted, a rainbow appeared and Roger, Sarah, and I took the ferry out to Manly beach where lifeguards were on duty and the water was warm.
Then before we knew it our time in Sydney was up. Its hard to conceive that we first thought we were spending too much time there. We contined our Australian trip the following morning by flying the 1500 miles north to Cairns.