It’s hard to believe that it’s been two years since my one and only trip to Australia. But time and budget can both be overwhelming at times, and for those reasons Australia just got pushed to the back-burner in favor of closer destinations. That doesn’t mean we haven’t thought about it; especially since both my partner and I fell in love with the country and even seriously considered moving to Melbourne. (It’s still something we may do at some point) Next year we will once again visit Australia; the tickets have been booked and there’s no turning back now. As I plan our trip I can’t help but think back to that magical journey two years ago and what it meant to us as a couple, particularly our exploits in the Northern Territory, Australia’s Outback otherwise known as the Red Centre. Granted it’s with a touch of rose colored glassed that I reflect, but even so it’s hard to deny that these five moments were amongst my favorite and combined made our adventures in the Outback very special.
1. The 4×4 – I actually won the trip down to Australia through a competition sponsored by Northern Territory Tourism and part of that prize was a campervan with which we were to explore the massive Red Center. Normally a luxury traveler, I was instantly thrust out of my comfort zone when I got behind the wheel of the small Britz camper, ready to cross the hundreds of miles of desert down to Uluru. If I could get out of the parking lot. Driving stick shift, on the wrong side in the Northern Territory was a lot to tackle at once and my partner will attest to how scary the first few miles were. Luckily, the 1,200 kilometers that we drove over five days were across such desolate terrain that it was rare to see more than a few cars in a day. I’ll discuss the importance of the drive later in this post, but I just had to recognize the 4×4 itself for being our best friend over those few days. She may not have been pretty and at times we didn’t get along, but she became an important part of the trip and I can’t imagine having experienced it in any other way.
2. Kings Canyon at dawn – I didn’t like Kings Canyon. Wait, scratch that. I didn’t like the HIKE at Kings Canyon. It was hard, boring and came with few rewards. But the one moment that made me happy for the predawn wake-up call and the strenuous (and boring) hike was as I stood and watched the sun creep up over the horizon and bask the canyon walls in yellow light. It was then that I first understood the true, unadulterated beauty of the Outback and why it attracts so many from both within Australia and around the world. It’s beauty on a scale that is hard for the human mind to fully comprehend. The Red Centre is vast, at times cruel but almost always pretty in a hardscrabble way. It has an allure that no city or resort can match; it is travel joy at the most base of emotional levels. So thank you Kings Canyon for that moment of Zen, even if I’m still dubious about stopping to visit.
3. The drive – The 4×4 enabled the drive, but it was the spiritual act of enduring those 1,200 kilometers myself that was the most rewarding. The drive wasn’t easy and at times downright difficult. Hours of driving along corrugated roads that threatened to extract my fillings and gingerly traversing sand swept roads put me on edge. But after a while I also reached an inner peace as the hours ticked by and my partner slept peacefully next to me. The Northern Territory is massive and I saw only a small slice of it, but what I did see will stay with me forever. To drive around the various sights for which the region is so famous is a remarkable privilege and elevates the experience to much more than just a drive. The process of navigating the Red Centre yourself IS the experience, it’s the promise that Australia offers to all visitors. The promise of adventure, exhilaration and the chance to do and see things you never thought possible; that’s the beauty of this country.
4. Spiritual journey at Uluru – Who doesn’t recognize Uluru when they see it, even if the name may at first leave them confused. Formally known as Ayer’s Rock, this massive rock is one of the most recognizable tourist destinations in the world. I remember seeing it in the 1987 made for TV movie “The Facts of Life Down Under,” but of course it has captivated imaginations long before Cloris Leachman visited. Given the immense popularity, I assumed that the actual experience of being there would be less than impressive. And while it is indeed an incredibly popular tourist destination and the process is a bit mechanized, the magic of visiting is no less real. My ‘a-ha’ moment occurred on a special walking tour led by a member of the indigenous Anangu or Pitjantjatjara people. Hearing stories told in his native language of the Dreamtime was mesmerizing in a way that can only be understood through firsthand experience. The capstone moment was watching the sun set, igniting the massive rock into a ball of fire. I understood why so many people made the trek out to the middle of nowhere just to see it, it really is that amazing.
5. Kangaroos in the mist – One thing that terrified me as I drove through the Northern Territory was the wildlife. It wasn’t the poisonous animals that worried me per se, although there are a lot of them, it was accidentally hitting something as I drove along those 1,200 kilometers. Most people don’t realize that there are more than 1 million wild camels roaming around the Red Centre; it’s actually a major issue. They originally arrived during the construction of the railroads through the barren Northern Territory, the perfect worker for the harsh extremes. And of course they never left. We saw several walking around, just minding their own business but ultimately I wasn’t too worried that one would suddenly jump out in front of the car. But kangaroos will. That’s also the reason why it is strongly recommended that you don’t drive at night because the chances of hitting something, most likely a kangaroo, are high. So it was with trepidation that we left our hotel at Uluru before the break of dawn to make the long drive back to Alice Springs. It was our only choice as we had a flight that we couldn’t miss later that day. I drove slowly, glancing in every direction for any sign of movement. Then, suddenly I saw it. Ripples in the thick desert grasses alongside the road, unusually thick that year thanks to a prior season rain. Then like dolphins alongside a boat, four kangaroos on either side of the van were running in time with us, their heads bobbing up and down as they hopped along. It was a beautiful moment that at once freaked me out (I really didn’t want to hit one) and left me entranced. I slowed down the car to a stop and as I did so the kangaroos convened in the middle of the road, glanced around and then bounded off once again into the great unknown. I was unprepared so I have no photos of this pristine moment, but it is a beautiful memory that in one image encapsulates everything that is great about the Outback.
So there you go, the five moments that mean the most to me from my time exploring the Outback. Perhaps it’s best that I waited a while before writing this, it ensures that these memories will stand the test of time and aren’t just left over wanderlust from a great trip. That’s ultimately the great thing about traveling in Australia, it’s not a flash in a pan kind of adventure, it is an experience that imprints itself on one’s travel soul.