Tag Archives: Kings Canyon

The Road to Alice

Google maps will not plot a route from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs. There is no direct road unless you have a four-wheel drive vehicle and want to go 40 mph (64kph) over corrugated surfaces for six hours.  The only place to see along the way is an Aboriginal community called Hermannsburg, population 600.  It’s the birthplace of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal painter, Albert Namatjira.  This is the monument to him; I was okay with not stopping to see it.

We took an indirect but smooth route.  In five and a half hours, there were no towns and no landmarks, only sand and spinifex and a few scrubby trees in a landscape that varied from flat to undulating.

This is a photo from an Australian Broadcasting Company promo for the “Secret Sex Life of Spinifex.”  That must be fascinating.  I’ll be sure to watch it someday.

There was no Internet.  The Canadian guy, who was sitting diagonally from me, finished his novel after an hour and I could feel him eyeing my New Yorker magazine. I felt his pain.  I had another issue in my backpack and I handed it over.  Heidi snoozed while I read a very long article about Rudy Giuliani.  Yawn.  I read one of my Somerset Maugham short stories and tore it out of the 800-page book to lighten my load. Four more hours.  I took out my souvenir kangaroo-themed notepad and jotted some notes to jog my memory for blog posts later.  Usually I can kill time by making lists.  To-do lists, to-buy lists, people-to-call lists; but I couldn’t summon the energy.

It may sound excruciating, but this was one of the highlights of the trip for me.  How often are you cut off from outside communications, and from anything to do except read or write—and even those are challenging due to the slight vibration of the bus, and because I felt brain dead as the bus soared monotonously through the desert like a plane flying over the Pacific.

“Brain dead” sounds bad.  I like to think of it as my computer being shut down—for the first time in months or maybe years.  For a few hours I had nothing to say, do, or think.  This ennui somehow felt good and right and overdue.

After four hours we reached the one human-built place to stop, Eldunda Roadhouse, which bills itself as the “Centre of the Centre.”

It was a Wild West place, and I don’t mean in a Disneyworld kind of way.  This was the real thing—a barely-stocked grocery with uninteresting souvenir t-shirts that looked like they’d been there since 1972 and a petrol station peopled with Wicked Campers, whatever that meant.

There was a bar.  I would have loved to have a cold beer because it was a million degrees outside, but there wouldn’t be a bathroom until Alice.  There was a barefoot group of Aboriginals roaming around, hollering at each other in Pitjantjara.  Were they loaded, or just bantering, in high spirits?

There was a motel; I’m sure it was worth whatever it cost if you were in danger of nodding off behind the wheel.

Of course there was an Emu farm.

As in most other places that advertised free wifi, I couldn’t connect to it by the time we had to leave.  Was it a slow connection, or my iphone?  Heidi let me connect to her hotspot so I could see how many people had liked my photos on Facebook.  So important.  When we first arrived I noticed my sense of desperation to connect.  Now it had decreased to a mild curiosity, and I was okay as we drove off into the desert again and the connection vaporized.

Meg pulled into Alice and began dropping us off at our accommodations, which ranged from luxury hotels (for the British Aussie family) to a backpackers hostel (for the German girls and Swiss couple) to a three-star motel (for Heidi and me).  We had only spent one full day and two nights together, but it felt like a week.  Nonetheless, there were no lingering farewells as we tumbled out of the bus to seek hot showers, AC, and clean white sheets.

Pests, Animal and Human

Up before dawn, I held my bowl of muesli while blearily reading the camp rules.  I liked this one: “Be aware, the fire is always hot.”

The rest of the group was watching a gecko hunt a moth.

“It’s like mini Nat Geo,” said the British Aussie guy.

“Go, go, go!” came anguished cries from the German student teachers as they rooted for the moth.  The gecko had failed to nab it but had damaged its wing, and stalked it as it hobbled away.

The German wife shrieked as a very large beetle crawled onto the table; the Chinese father unceremoniously whacked a plate on top of it.

Megan stepped into the chow hall and gave us the day’s drill.

“We’ve got a short drive to King’s Canyon, a three-hour hike, then a very long drive to Alice,” she outlined.  “The hike has 500 steps.  Do Not Go near the ledges!  Are you listening to me?

“Don’t be that person who backs up to the edge of the cliff to get a selfie and ends up a mangled pulp at the bottom!  If you go closer than two metres to the edge, I will send you back to the bus. If ya think 500 steps is too much, there’s a couple other walks that aren’t as bad, so come talk to me,” she finished.

I sidled over to her.  “Tell me about the other hikes.”  She probably assumed I wasn’t fit enough for the 500-step hike, but the truth was I wanted to hike alone.  I wanted to see wildlife, and hiking with a dozen people who were talking would scare it away.  I wanted to “hear” silence, so rare in our lives.  I just wanted to be off by myself for a couple hours.  I felt a bit guilty—I always feel like a weirdo for wanting to be alone.  But when we were on the bus and I told Heidi, she said in her easygoing way, “Aw, Annie, it’s your vacation, just do what you want to do!”

And so I did.  The alternate hike had “only” 367 steps, so I still got a good workout.  The track, as Aussies call a trail, was rugged.  Once I was at the summit it was still a matter of stepping up and down and around boulders and jumping across gaps in the rock.  It took concentration. It was beautiful.

There were no other humans for an hour.  I paused near a cliff to listen.  Eagles soared on the updrafts.  The wind whistled quietly. I turned. A wallaby appeared, made three boing, boing, boing leaps, then was gone.

When you see them, you can’t help using the word boing.

A wallaby!  This was my first sighting of a jumper. I later learned from interpretive signage that it had been a Euro, and that there are lots of wallaby species: Swamp wallaby, rock wallaby, red-necked wallaby, hare wallaby, agile wallaby, black-footed wallaby, etc.  Mine hadn’t even been a wallaby, but a wallaroo, which are larger than wallabies and smaller than kangaroos.

I sat on a rock and ate the granola bar Meg had doled out.  Why was there a warning that it contained lupin?  Lupin—as in the wildflower that grows in northern Minnesota?

The “easy hike” took two hours, and after descending I followed a flat path that stretched up the middle of the canyon to fill time before the group returned.

The valley was green and lush. I was taken aback by a sign asking people in that very polite Australian way to not vandalize the trees.

Who vandalizes trees in a national park?

Suddenly I heard a loud whirring noise, and looked up to see a drone.

“Who flies a drone in a national park?” I asked a family standing nearby.  “How annoying!”

“It’s ours!” returned the father proudly, while his daughter stomped on a line of leaf-cutter ants.  I hoped the drone didn’t have a camera, and that my comments wouldn’t go viral on YouTube.  No, wait—I hoped they would.

I realized this was the first time I’d felt irritated with my fellow humans in a week.  Normally, I am irritated with them almost every day. Is it just me?

Steaming and Swagging

The Aboriginal story was one of the most intriguing things to me about Australia.  Maybe it was because I didn’t feel like it was told very well, but only hinted at.  I’m sure there are loads of books on the subject.  Our friend Dean, who we would stay with the following week, teaches at an Aboriginal school.  I looked forward to learning more from him but for now it was a lot of, “There’s a dreamtime story about that but we can’t tell you what it is because you’re not Aboriginal and it’s sacred.”

There may have also been a factor of Aboriginals losing their culture by being forcefully removed from it.  This was one of the similarities between Australia’s Aboriginals and Native Americans.

“I went to a powwow in Wisconsin a few years ago,” I told Heidi, “and when I asked my Native American in-law what a certain dance signified, she didn’t know.”  Was that because the meaning had been lost to time, or because she personally just didn’t happen to know, or something else?  It felt like a sensitive subject and I didn’t want to ask a follow up question for fear of implying she was ignorant about her own traditions.  But a lot of natives and maybe Aboriginals are not well versed in their culture, because in both countries children were taken away from their families and forbidden to speak their language or practice their traditions.

Heck, I don’t speak any Czech or German and I know nothing about those cultures except as it relates to the World Wars.

I sure wasn’t going to ask of the Aboriginals, “Are your people plagued by alcoholism, diabetes, and domestic violence, like Native Americans?”

Our next destination was Kings Canyon, where we would hike the next day.  It was a four-hour drive from Ularu, halfway between nowhere and the back of beyond.  The road and the hours unrolled, flat and monotonous; I sat up front in hopes of seeing a kangaroo but no dice.

After our one toilet break, which was a fetid, smelly “long drop” toilet, I sat in back with Heidi and tried not to drink any more water.  My Restless Legs Syndrome started to torment me, as it sometimes does on long flights or drives.  Heidi had caught a signal on her phone that morning and I had piggybacked via her hotspot but now there was nothing.  Heidi leaned over on the window and slept while I wiggled and kicked my legs.

If I could just get up and walk around … I got my wish, as Meg pulled over and put us to work collecting firewood on the side of the road.

“Man, it’s roasting out today,” she remarked as she watched us load parched wood into the back of the bus.  “No wonder we haven’t seen any roos.  You know they don’t sweat, so they literally bake to death if they move around too much in the heat.”

That seemed like a very counterproductive natural adaptation for an Australian animal.

Back on the bus, we entered the Kings Canyon Resort.

“Ooh, this looks nice,” said Heidi.

“I wonder if there’s a pool?” I said excitedly.

Then we passed a sign that said Campground and Meg announced, we’ve got another 20-minute drive over some pretty rough … argh!”  The bus lurched sideways, then rocked to the other side, and I was grateful I didn’t have sciatica on this bone-crunching trail.

I just looked up George Gill; he was the editor of a Navy journal.  Interesting choice for a desert campground.

The site was beautiful.

Katie was there with a burrito bar for us.  After wolfing it up we built a bonfire.

Megan gave a swag demo. Swag = an outback bedroll.

“Just make sure there’s nothing in it before ya get innit,” she advised.  “Like a snake or a spider.  And if you wake up and there’s a dingo staring down at you, don’t panic.  They’re more afraid of you than you are of them.”

Yeah, right.  I’ve heard that before, about bears.  I would miss the star gazing, which was bound to be awe inspiring, but I would wake up with my face intact, in the tent.