The Red Centre: Climbing big red rocks, sleeping under the stars, and saying goodbye to Australia

This week has been a different one to all my other experiences in Oz and all the other climates so far – after all, the desert, especially right in the middle where I was, is vastly different from the coast. The Red Centre, part of the huge Northern Territory, is semi-arid desert – so it does rain occasionally, but not much. The air is super dry, so that I never needed to use a hand dryer or towel after washing my hands – they would dry in a few seconds on their own. It gets blisteringly hot during the day and cooler, sometimes quite chilly, at night. The ground is all red dust, but amazingly has some bushes and trees growing in it – and this is because the underground water table is shallow enough that roots can reach it.

I did a three-day, two-night tour with a van of 23 other people and a guide, and we saw the three major attractions in the area: Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon. In between a lot of hiking and driving, we camped and made our own meals. It was a tiring few days, but I saw a lot of beautiful spots.

On Sunday, I woke up at 5am to catch the van at 6am – there were five of us riding down to Uluru with our guide from the town of Alice Springs, the bigger town that I flew into. Not long into the drive, we stopped at a camel farm and rode camels! I was worried they would be unhappy and not want to be ridden (like an experience I had in Greece riding a donkey that kept getting whipped and kicked when it was exhausted), but actually, they didn’t seem to mind it. Maybe because it was first thing in the morning, but the camel wrangler (who was from California and had been working there a couple months) said that the one I rode liked working the most. His name was Markie, and he would bite at you if you tried to pet him, but he was very affectionate with his camel guy. So adorable. It wasn’t a very long ride, but we did trot at one point, which was fun. Ever pictured a camel trotting?! They basically seem like horses with humps. There was also a pet dingo at the farm, which I loved – he was super sweet and tame, with soft fur and liked getting belly rubs, so of course I obliged. There were also a bunch of emus there.

 

We then drove the whole rest of the morning before we got to the Uluru airport to pick up the other people on the tour. We had lunch, and that evening, we went for a walk around Uluru. Now, if you’ve never heard of Uluru, it’s basically a really really big red rock in the middle of a mostly flat desert. It’s kind of an icon of Australia – you may have seen pictures of it, though it’s not as famous as the Sydney Opera House or the kangaroo. And I’ve heard a lot of people say Uluru was really cool and amazing to see, but it is one of those things you can’t be sure about until you actually see it in person. But yeah, I was impressed. It’s the most beautiful reddish color, just overwhelmingly big from far away (1,142 ft tall and 5.8 miles around), but once you get closer, you can see all these rippling, smooth curves and textures, and it changes as you go around it. Definitely a sight to see. But, it was pretty hot in the sun that afternoon, and the view doesn’t change very quickly as you’re walking around it, so it wasn’t all thrills. Also, there were a ton of flies that in the dry heat are drawn to any moisture they can find, and that includes your eyes, nose, mouth, and any sweat they can find on your self. A hostel roommate in Perth had warned me about this, so I bought a fly net that goes over your face and wore that for the hike. I looked ridiculous, of course (and for this reason many people didn’t wear one) but I would rather look ridiculous than have flies up my nose any day.

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One of the cool things about Uluru is that it’s sacred to the local indigenous people, the Anangu. They ask that you don’t take pictures in certain spots near the rock and that you don’t climb it. Of course people will still take pictures wherever (our group was careful about this, though), but the most upsetting thing to me is that people still climb the rock, disrespecting the Anangu’s wishes. This is still allowed because the Australian National Parks Service leased it from their people in the 80s for 99 years, and part of the agreement was that people would still be allowed to climb it. So we saw a railing on one slope of the rock, and dozens of people walking up it. But it just seems wrong and disrespectful! I’m sure they leased it because they need the money. There are signs everywhere asking people to not climb it. I guess some people just don’t care – sad!

That evening, we watched the sunset at Uluru, along with champagne, crackers, and dips. I don’t really like champagne due to the carbonation, but it was free and I was kind of peer pressured into it, so I just got half a glass and waited until it went a little flat and gulped it down. Celebration!! The sunset itself was beautiful, but we were at that particular spot because it lit up the big rock in an extra brilliant red. Really a great evening.

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That night, I slept outside for the first time in something called a swag. In the States, I think they’re called bed rolls, but they don’t seem very common because Americans are freaked out by bugs, so I’d never even heard of this way of camping without a tent. Aussies and Kiwis use swags all the time, unfazed by creepy crawlies apparently. They are basically a protective bag that you put your sleeping bag into and sleep inside, and you can put a flap over your face, too. You zip it up and nothing can get in, it’s very warm, and you stay dry if it rains. There’s a bit of a cushioned mat to sleep on, too – but you’re still sleeping pretty directly on the ground, so it’s not the most comfortable thing ever. The moon was out and pretty bright, so we could only see the brightest stars, but it was still pretty cool. I heard groups of dingoes howling at each other from distances, sounding like wolves, and bats making little beep-clicking noises overhead, echo-locating their way across the night sky. I did sleep most of the night, but because of the uncomfortableness and weird noises and general unusual sleeping situation, though, I woke up a lot.

The next morning, we got up at 5am (again) to see the sunrise at Uluru. This time, it was from a distance, but you could see far across the flat desert to the familiar rock silhouette. There were a few clouds in the sky, creating beautiful, colorful patterns that kept changing as the sun got closer to the horizon and then peeked over it. It was actually very chilly in the morning, I would guess maybe 50-55 F, and I had no warmer clothes than shorts and a t-shirt, but I didn’t think about it when I was gazing at the sunset.

 

We then hiked Kata Djuta nearby, a series of big red rocks with a place called Valley of the Winds in the middle. So beautiful! This was a hike that varied a lot more than Uluru – lots of different shapes of the rocks, and when you got to the top of this big hill in the valley, it was a breathtaking view. Unlike Uluru, we weren’t asked to not climb anything or not take photos, so we climbed and photographed to our heart’s content, and it was beautiful. We then stopped a final time at Uluru and walked on the other side of the rock, where we hadn’t been the previous day, to see the watering hole. It’s pretty surprising that there’s a permanent pool of water there in the desert, but it’s not very big, and it’s sustained by the bit of rain they get that flows from the rock down, as well as the water tables underneath the ground.

That afternoon, we drove down to our second campsite, near Kings Canyon. On the way, I saw a few wild horses trotting along. This was a surreal sight, because they just looked like your average horses, but they were in the desert! And then when we got to our campsite, there were four wild horses grazing casually nearby. It shocked our guide; he said he’d only ever seen one wild horse before, and now he’d just seen a whole bunch. That night, our campfire was pretty, and we roasted marshmallows. Now, this was my second experience roasting marshmallows in Oz, the first one being in Tasmania, and I enjoy watching adults do this for the first time (since everyone else was from Europe or Asia). We had to use actual sticks, no luxurious roasting sticks, and everyone kept getting these short sticks and nearly getting burned trying to roast their marshmallow. I helped them find long sticks and tried to get them to not burn the marshmallows. And I enthusiastically explained how Americans do it better, because we have bigger, yummier marshmallows and chocolate and graham crackers, see, they’re s’mores… It’s a hard concept to explain, but I’m pretty sure I got some converts who want to try s’mores when they’re in the states. Apparently you can only find graham crackers there; they don’t exist in Europe or Australia. Weird. At least I managed to get a s’mores substitute in Tasmania using digestive biscuits (a type of British cookie!)

On the final day, we got up at 5am again, surprise, surprise! So that makes three days and two nights of watching the sun rise and set. I’m pretty sure that’s a first for me. This time, when I was going to roll up my swag (seriously the best name for a bed roll), there was a large, furry, dark gray spider bigger than the palm of your hand crawling across it. Our guide Dale was nearby, so I calmly pointed to it and said, “I think there’s a spider on my swag.” And he got it off for me. I didn’t scream, or jump, or anything. It wasn’t crawling directly on me, but it nearly did – I think it was just so early, I just didn’t have the energy to react at that point. Dale kept commenting that day on how amazing it was that I didn’t scream. He thought it was a wolf spider, which isn’t dangerous to humans, thankfully, though of course they bite (as most things do in Oz). The group was horrified and mesmerized by my story. I’m not sure if it’s good or not that I was the only one who had a large spider encounter.

That morning, went straight to Kings Canyon for our hike, to get most of it completed before we started baking in the dry heat of the midday sun. This was my favorite hike of the trip, and probably one of my favorite hikes ever. Not many flies here, so I didn’t have to wear the dorky fly net, not too hot in the early morning, and a golden light was cast on all the beauty of the canyon. We hiked up “Heart Attack Hill” first, a steep climb to the top of the canyon, but we got stuck behind a big group of kids and weren’t going as fast, so it actually wasn’t too bad. For my fitness level (which at this point is decent since I’ve been doing a fair amount of hiking and other activities the last couple months), it was perfect – a bit challenging at times, but I never really got tired during the 3.5 hour hike. We stopped often to take pictures and absorb the amazing views, which changed around every corner. Textured red rocks, flat, cracked rocks, dramatic cliffs where the canyon dropped off, a little Garden of Eden oasis with ferns and ponds at the bottom of the canyon, the Lost City, which looks like alien huts as far as the eye can see at the top… Just beautiful. A perfect hike. Maybe I should get up early more often! In three days, before 8am each day I managed to ride a camel and pet a dingo, hike a series of big red rocks, and hike to the top of a canyon. Not bad. But getting out of bed is always the hardest part! Oh, and I saw a wild dingo, which was exciting! I’ve now seen most of the famous Aussie animals. Although dingoes aren’t native, of course…

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That afternoon, a few of us bid our farewells to the group and rode back up to Alice Springs. There were some cool people on the trip that I’ll probably stay in touch with. I stayed another day in the town, but there’s not a ton to do there so I mostly just chilled and recovered from the outback. And so ends that trip! Today, I arrived once again in the funky, interesting city of Melbourne for a final few days before I catch my flight out.

I say goodbye to Australia in less than three days. It’s been such a crazy and amazing two months (as I arrived in Sydney two months ago today) that it seems like it’s been longer than that, I’ve done so much, but the time has gone quickly at the same time. This was by far the biggest, longest trip I’ve ever taken, and it wasn’t even planned more than a couple weeks ahead at a time.

  • Spent time in five out of the country’s six states and one of the territories, four of the capital cities, lots of other towns and villages, six distinct climates, and seven different rainforests
  • Taken planes, trains, buses, trams, cars, boats, and walked many thousands of kilometers
  • Slept in 18 different places (seriously, I just counted!): hostels, cabins, an apartment, a boat, and outside under the stars
  • Gazed at countless mountains, lakes, bays, bridges and works of art
  • Got excited to see wild kangaroos, koalas, wallabies, pademelons, butterflies, lizards, a snake, spiders, loads of different birds of all kinds, tropical fish, sharks, platypi, dolphins, sea and fresh water turtles, emus, a frog, baby crocodiles, toads, crabs, giant clams, stingrays, a dingo, horses, possums, and quokkas!
  • Was less excited to see as many jellyfish as I did
  • Snorkeled, scuba dove, sailed, surfed, sandboarded, and slept in a swag for the first time (which are all S verbs for some reason)
  • Met a lot of different people from around the world, especially Europe but also Asia, Africa, and North America – mostly travelers like me, and made a few new friends I know I will meet up with and travel with again someday

Overall, it’s been amazing. I’ve learned that solo travel can be a really social thing, and that sometimes it’s fun to hang out with strangers, and that you can save a lot of money by sacrificing a bit of privacy, but you may gain a bunch of other positive things in that process. I realised that Australia is a direct cross between the UK and US, and that culturally I feel completely comfortable here so that I mostly don’t feel like I’m in a foreign country. I have had a fair amount of awful moments, “ok I’m ready to leave soon” moments when things go wrong (phone screen smashed, my cat having issues back in Indiana, bed bugs, exhaustion and sunburn from surfing, getting stuck with annoying people, heat, difficulty sleeping, etc), but those haven’t lasted long, or I figure out how to adapt or fix the situation, and soon I’m moving on and experiencing some other amazing place.

Next, I’ll be headed to Hawaii for some birthday celebrating before heading to Portland for job and apartment searching. I’m trying not to stress too much until then and enjoy most of my time left on this great adventure!

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Perth: sandboarding, quokkas, and discovering my favorite city yet!

The first day I was here, I immediately fell in love with the city of Perth, Western Australia. It surprised me, because I haven’t heard a lot of gushing about the city. Part of it is that most people who travel the east coast don’t make it over here. And the other part is that if they do come here, they may not spend a lot of time here, because it’s just a stop on the way to somewhere else. But after spending a week here, I better understand why I love it so much: a beautiful Mediterranean climate (average humidity, perfect temperature this time of year, mostly sunny days), lots of well-groomed parks, delicious markets, public art, fantastic selection of international cuisine, friendly people, and a lot of people who are doing well financially, so the city is growing and their taxes are making everything look new and nice. And I took a couple of day trips to see the amazing scenery outside the city, too! The perfect autumn temperatures (20-25 C, 70s F) have really helped. The heat and humidity of tropical Queensland, where I’d spent the last few weeks, is just not my favorite climate.

My first day in Perth, Saturday, I chatted in the morning with my hostel roommate, a friendly German girl (because of course she was German as so many travelers here are), and she gave me a ticket she had for a hop-on-hop-off bus pass: it included two days, and she had already done the tour the day before. I was happy to use it! I wasn’t planning on doing this bus tour to save money, but they’re often a great way to get a quick overview of some of a city’s highlights. So I spent the afternoon listening to the bus commentary about Perth, including a brief stop at King’s Park and Botanical Gardens. Walking around this big, gorgeous park overlooking the beautiful skyline and Swan River, that’s the moment I fell in love. And it was even raining on and off all day! But it stopped raining long enough for me to enjoy a walk in that lovely park. I vowed to go back and spend more time there (which I did a few days later). That evening, I got my groceries to eat most meals at my hostel for the week, a major cost-saving tactic that’s worked out really well.

 

Sunday was another amazing day. Upon recommendation from my hostel roommate, I took easy train ride to Fremantle, an older suburb right on the ocean. I wanted to make sure to go on the weekend because there was a weekend market, which I absolutely loved! Lots of crafty type things to look at made by locals, but the best part was the food. Lots of veg options. I settled on a vegetarian paella, because I’ve had a hard time finding veg paella for years, as it’s traditionally made with meat and seafood, and peach iced tea made with Aussie bush plants and garnished with fresh fruit. Yum!

 

While stuffing my face, a girl named Shelby joined me at my table, and I struck up a conversation with her (somehow this sort of thing has just been happening lately, even though generally I am not a small-talk-chat kind of person, but I have my moments). She turned out to be from a small town not very far from Portland, Oregon, and a fellow vegetarian, and it was easy to talk to her about traveling and food and random things. For instance, she recommended Couchsurfing (an online community where people open their homes to travelers for free), which is something I’ve long thought about trying but not met anyone who’d done it. We both like the same heavenly ice cream place in Portland, Salt & Straw. And so I ended up spending the afternoon with her – we wandered around town for a while, I caught my first glimpse of the Indian Ocean (I’ve now seen all three major oceans!!), and then we met up with a cool Aussie guy she’d recently made friends with. We had drinks and played cribbage at the pub, which I loved because I’ve not gotten anyone to play cribbage with me in years! So really a great afternoon. I’ve been amazed at how easy it’s been for my introvert solo traveler self to make new friends, though I’ve learned that they will be mostly temporary, it’s still fun to hang out with cool people for a while.

Monday made three awesome days in a row. I joined a day tour to the Pinnacles, a bunch of rocks a couple hours up the coast from the city. On the way there, we stopped at Yenchep National Park, where we saw tons of kangaroos, some koalas (which are not native to this area, they brought them here and stuck them in some trees, haha), and lots of birds, and ate some delicious cheese and local bush tucker (food from the bush) jams. I sat in the front of the big van (which I think holds up to 20 people, though there were only 13 that day). The front seat generally affords the best views, but on this day it rained most of the day, and the landscape wasn’t the most beautiful with the low clouds. But, I did chat away the 4-5 hours of driving with the tour guide, Richard, the owner of the small tour company, who was a very cool dude. He actually asked me to sit up front, as I was the last one on and no one else wanted to sit up there, so he’d have someone to chat with. And he basically asked me all about my life, to the point where he knows all about my brother’s eagle scout badges and how I dislike cows. And I got his recommendations on things to do in Perth, including getting the very earliest ferry to Rottnest Island before many people get there.

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The Pinnacles, a ton of rock formations in bright yellow sand, and rain

Because it was raining at the Pinnacles (I’m sure they’re more pretty when you’re not being poured on with lots of wind as well), my favorite part of the day ended up being sandboarding. It thankfully stopped raining a few minutes after we arrived at the sand dunes, and even though the sand was wet, he had excellent custom-made boards that still worked perfectly. My very first time sandboarding ever, I waxed the board and went super fast on the way down the dune, and it was such a rush! I squealed and ran back up and rode down several more times, and managed to get second place in a race we all had. So, sandboarding is a thing I want to do more. Also, before we headed home, Richard treated us all to a drink at the pub to make up for how crappy the rain was! That is for sure going above and beyond a typical tour guide. I decided he’s my favorite guide I’ve had this whole trip. There may be a theme of affection in Perth. All in all, a fantastic day. I think I even prefer all the rain to the blistering, sunny heat (40+ C, 100+ F) that would often be at the Pinnacles in the summer.

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Sandboarding!

Tuesday, I went on a free walking tour around the central part of the city, then did a bunch of walking on my own along the river and through King’s Park and its treetop walk. I enjoyed all this in pleasantly overcast weather until a steady downpour began. Ah well, still another day in the great city of Perth.

Wednesday was another absolute highlight of my week, though. I went to Rottnest Island! I was so excited, I didn’t have any trouble getting up at the crazy hour of 5am and leaving by 6. I caught the train to Fremantle to catch the first ferry at 7:30am, at Richard’s recommendation. And I was on a rented bike on the island shortly after 8am for a glorious day of riding with a lot of leisurely stops. My main reason for wanting to go to Rottnest was to meet quokkas, which are only found here, and which I think are the cutest marsupial (take that, koalas). When I did a big international scavenger hunt last summer, our team name was even the Quirky Quokkas. I was a bit worried I wouldn’t see any, because my friend Maja had visited during a crazy heat wave and only saw one on the whole island. So I was pleasantly surprised when, within ten minutes of setting off, I met my first one, and it hopped right up to me! They are the cutest, friendliest, gentlest little wild animals ever. Over the course of the day, I probably met at least twenty. Every time one caught sight of me, it would hop right up like a kangaroo, sometimes quickly and excitedly, and sometimes there would be a whole group, maybe a family, of 5-6 of them. I know they came over looking for food, because a lot of people feed them, but you’re not supposed to: they only eat leaves, mainly of the low, needled melaleuca tree, so human food is hard on their stomach and usually will make them sick. So, I didn’t feed them. Or pick them up, that would probably stress them out (I’ve seen pictures of people who picked them up, which bugs me – they’re wild and probably aren’t a fan). But they were so unafraid, they didn’t mind me petting them, just a brief stroke on a couple of extra friendly quokkas (and I was careful to wash my hands soon after), and a few of them even licked me a little, probably liking the salty taste of human skin, like a cat. It was just sweet and adorable.

In addition to the quokkas, I discovered what most people go to Rottnest for: the gorgeous beaches, bays, and rocky cliffs. Amazing scenery! At first, the sky was overcast, but soon it cleared up, and the bright blue sky was reflected in the clear, shallow coastal water. I would ride along, see a sign for another bay, stop, and enjoy it for a bit, wading in the chilled water, hanging out on a rock for a bit and enjoying the view. In several spots, I had the bay completely to myself, and I sometimes thought about going for a skinny dip (something on my bucket list, and something that Richard suggested as a possibility as well, as there wouldn’t be many people around), but there were a few people and they could show up at any minute. And the water was cold. There were more people than usual due to the fact that it’s the middle of school holidays right now – basically Perth’s autumn break – so there were a lot of local families staying in cottages on the island and doing snorkeling and other outings. My city guide the previous day, a volunteer, had even warned against going to Rottnest this week because it was so busy. But I think Perth people have a different view of what’s busy… I just came from the east coast, which is swarming with crowds of tourists even though it’s traditionally a shoulder season. So, compared to what I’m used to, Rottnest was super quiet. And I loved it!

Rottnest Island (named by Dutch explorers after the quokkas, who thought they looked like big rats) doesn’t allow outside vehicles, so it’s mostly bike riders, a few walkers or joggers, and the occasional tour/shuttle bus or ranger truck. But for the most part, it was a quiet ride all the way around the island, about 30-35 kms in all (21-22 miles or so). I also saw a lot of lizards and birds, but they were more shy than the quokkas. And a colony of New Zealand Fur seals, floating adorably on their backs near one spot next to the cliffs. Toward the end of my 6 hours of riding, I got a bit hot and tired (there are a lot of hills!) but before that, I really enjoyed the reward of diving down a hill after the climb up, speeding along the empty, scenic roads with the wind in my hair. I did a lot of smiling. Best bike ride of my life! I spent the last couple of hours on the island in the settlement, a village that included ice cream and cheerful visitors in swimsuits. And then enjoyed a beautiful ferry ride as the sun set, all the way back to Perth.

Yesterday and today, I’ve done a lot of walking around the city, one of my favorite things to do. I strolled around most of the central parks and gardens, browsed bookshops (tempted to buy 12 travel books, as usual), checked out the public art, took advantage of the free bus system a couple times, and visited the Art Gallery of Western Australia. Tonight, I went to a nearby street food market with a Belgian named Lucie, a hostel roommate. They have this amazing market every week with dozens of different stalls, wildly varying food from all around the world! I treated myself to bean and cheese papusas with a tomato, chili, cabbage sauce, and a locally made jam doughnut flavored ice cream bar. SO DELICIOUS, my mouth is watering again just thinking about the papusas especially.

Tomorrow, I’ll be flying to Alice Springs, Northern Territory, right in the middle of the country, in the Outback. That will be a different experience, for sure – hopefully a good one!