Firstly, thank you all for your birthday messages. I had the best day out in the desert, but wish you guys could have been with us. Anyway, we have something more exciting to celebrate now....
After a quick flight from Adelaide we arrived in the centre of Oz. Alice Springs is a small town in the middle of the desert which doesn't seem to offer much more then a place to utilise as a stepping stone into and out of the wilderness. The town is pleasant enough during the day - it's extremely hot of course- but it takes on a different personality at night. It's not a place where you would walk around after dark, especially alone.
When we arrived it was raining cats and dogs (or possums and dingoes) which was unexpected, but we got to our hostel - Alice's Secret - and were pleasantly surprised. We had a twin room which was one of four identical huts at the end of the garden. There was a pool, hammocks, free BBQ and a cosy tv room. However the other available accommodation was the most impressive. You can stay in a kitted out garden shed, old school bus or caravan. Pretty quirky.
The next day we were booked on the Rock Tour, which is a three day bus trip around some of the most impressive sights in the outback. It started off with a 6 hour drive to Kings Canyon. We set off at 5am. The journey wasn't too bad as our tour guide Mark was a funny guy with impossible amounts of energy, and he played great music. He's a Brit, but has been living out here for 9 months and does this three day tour twice a week. Crazy. On that leg of the journey we were all forced to go to the front of the bus and introduce ourselves over the microphone and answer some questions. It did break up the monotony of hundreds of kilometres of the same scenery. When you first see the dusty, rusty landscape it is different enough to capture your attention, but after 3hrs it feels like someone has just been cutting and pasting the same patch thousands of times over (a bit like the background when scooby and shaggy are running from the ghost/monster/mummy).
Kings Canyon was fascinating from start to finish. You begin by scaling 'Heart Attack Hill' which has claimed many victims in the past. It was a tough start to a 3.5hr hike and was made worse for me as I had to carry 6 litres of water (we only had one sensible rucksack so I had to carry both of our required 3 litres). Poor me. The views throughout are impossible to verbalise, but it is unquestionably the best landscape that I have seen in any walk. The wildlife was great too. We saw several lizards, birds of prey and many creepy crawlies. The best of these was when we stopped at a rain pool down on the opposite side of the canyon. We had a dip to cool ourselves from the 40c relentless heat and it worked a treat. Mark spotted a snake on a ledge at the far end of the pool and identified it as a Western Brown Snake - the second most deadly in Oz apparently. A few of the guys and girls decided to get out at this point, leaving around 8 of us staring at the snake which was struggling up the ledge. I asked Mark if they could swim, and he said "they can, but they prefer not to as they are vulnerable to attack from predators". Relieved at this we stayed and watched until the snake gave up climbing and decided to give swimming a go, coming straight at us. I have never swam so fast in my life. We had people screaming, thrashing around and scrambling up the slippery angled rocks serving as exits to the pool. That snake didn't just swim - he glided through the water with improbable ease. It was pretty scary. Luckily he changed course and slid out about 2 metres from were we were standing and lay still for a while before heading back to his ledge. I reckon he did it for a laugh. We were miles from the nearest road and even further to the nearest town, so if any one had been bitten they wouldn't be receiving any anti-venom for hours. I wouldn't fancy their chances.
After the hike we drove to camp which was a good 3hrs. By camp I mean bush. We had no facilities, no tent and no electricity. On the way we stopped to collect firewood from dead trees. We were told to rip any trees down that were beyond their best and load them onto the bus. The boys used the wood to start a fire while the girls chopped veg. We had chilli con carne, curried veg and beer around the campfire. We slept in swag bags which are water proof sleeping bags with a thin mattress inside. No shelter from the elements, the bugs or the numerous poisonous desert dwellers. We were literally sleeping under the stars. Steph had trouble sleeping- for obvious reasons - and she says she saw several shooting stars throughout the night. She had never seen one before so that's another first.
The next day (my birthday) we were woken at 5am and driven to Kata Tjuta - a range of rocky domes that rise from nowhere out of the desert. We did another hike here, for around 3hrs, and the views were incredible. It was a great way to start my birthday, but it was nearly ruined by the persistent efforts of the hordes of fly that buzz and crawl into nostrils, eyes and ears.
It is hard to describe how frustrating a 3hr walk in 40c heat can get when you have a constant escort of 3 or 4 of the critters ensuring no moment is entirely serene or peaceful. You find yourself pleading with them for a moments peace. Isn't that one of the signs of madness? Nonetheless, the place was beautiful and we managed to enjoy it regardless of the flying zombies.
After lunch we headed for the cultural centre at the base of Uluru. We caught a few glimpses of the behemoth of red rock on the way in and it is obvious why it is a must-see. At the cultural centre you can learn about why the aborigines consider it sacred and how they would prefer people to behave in and around the site. With all of this to mull over we took the small trip down to a section of the base that takes around 2hrs on a guided tour. Mark took us around, showing us sites of significance and telling some aboriginal stories regarding how certain aspects of the rock were formed. Usually famous sites look smaller in real life than they do on tv or in photographs. Uluru is the opposite. It is absolutely enormous. My neck ached by the end of the tour from craning my neck to look at this, that and the other. Along with the natural beauty, desert oasis and cave art, the wildlife was abundant too. My birthday was getting better!
Along the way we were shown the railings that were put into the rock so that tourists can climb to the top. The aborigines don't climb it themselves and they would prefer it if nobody did. For this reason Steph and I had decided not to climb it before we even came to the site, but some people still ignore this and scale the face. Fortunately the climb was closed on that day due to the heat. It was around 42c but it felt hotter. Mark told us that a guy had attempted to climb it a few weeks earlier in Crocs (those rubbery clogs) in similar conditions and got stuck halfway up when his inappropriate footwear melted to his feet. He had to be airlifted to hospital. Idiot.
Later we went back to camp (this time with toilets, showers and a swimming pool), freshened ourselves up and went back out to a sunset viewing point over Uluru. We all watched the rock change from colour to colour. Bright red, burgundy, chocolate brown and finally black. Mark cooked stirfry from the back of the bus and let us enjoy the spectacle. It was stunning. So I took Steph aside - away from the rest of the group - and got down on one knee. She thought I was joking until I pulled out the ring and asked her to marry me. She cried a little and said yes. Yay!!!!
We went back to the group and told them the news and they all congratulated us. We celebrated by buying an original painting from a local aborigine. He was sat at the sunset viewing point, and took some time to explain what the meaning of the piece was.
Later we went back to camp for more celebrations. Steph had arranged for Mark to bring out 25 muffins with candles on. Unfortunately the candles had melted into a single block of wax in the heat of the bus. He managed to salvage a solitary candle which Steph and I blew out and cut a muffin together. It was pretty funny and everybody was really nice.
We were woken the next day at 4.30 (not good when I went to bed at 1.30) and headed back to the viewing point to see sunrise. Again, this was stunning but the bugs were out in their masses. We had breakfast in front of Uluru and then packed up to do the full base walk - a 2.5hr flat stroll. By this time we were all pretty tired but the walk took it out of us.
On the 6hr journey back to Alice Springs we stopped off at a farm where Steph and I rode a camel called Mirindi. She wasn't very happy with me sitting on her back for obvious reasons, but once she got going she was quick! This farm bred racing camels and have won all of the top awards (whatever they are). It was a quirky way to finish our 'awesome' trip.
When we got back to check-in at our hostel Steph flashed her engagement ring at Roscoe at reception and he upgraded us to the campervan with aircon. Absolute luxury after 2 nights with nothing but a sleeping bag.
That night we met up with the group from the tour for a meal and drinks and went back for a long sleep.
Next stop: Cairns. We have met a nice couple from London who we'll be getting a room with so it should be fun!