Friday, October 11th, 2019 – Marla, SA to Sails in the Desert, Yulara, NT – near Uluru
Distance travelled – 564 kilometres
Unusually, but perhaps because we now felt more relaxed about the Nullarbor, we slept until eight in the morning. However, Lucie was so well-coordinated and rehearsed that it did not matter at all and we left, as usual, before nine. The roadhouse breakfast was not tempting, there was no bacon, for a start, so we left without eating one. This was probably a slight mistake. We later found that it is better to eat food where you find it and not to expect it to be better somewhere else. For information, the standard roadhouse evening meal is either schnitzel, fish and chips or ham. We had not yet tried breakfast at a roadhouse or motel but, particularly in the former, it would probably be a limited choice.
We soon crossed into our third State, the Northern Territories. As well as petrol, we bought sandwiches at the first roadhouse along the way, which was the only tempting alternative to its breakfast. This was at the rather eccentric Kulgera Roadhouse. It was, in any case, really our lunch, because it was quite a long way from Marla and we had already halted once for a stretching stop.
The next halt was the roadhouse at Ghan where we finally stopped heading north on the A87 Stuart Highway and made the turn west onto State Route 4, known as the Lasseter Highway. As a significant junction, it was very busy indeed. As always, I refilled the Harley and whilst Lucie went to pay, I rode it about 10 metres into the shade. My helmet was on the backrest and, immediately, a policeman appeared and began to harangue me for not wearing my helmet ! I expect he was bored, at least he did not give me a ticket.
The sun was bright and it was getting very hot indeed – so warm in fact that we were almost reluctant to move on. Staying in the shade suddenly seemed more pleasant. But, away we went, we still had a long way to go.
As we headed along Route 4 it became, if that was possible, even hotter. The road shimmered towards the horizon that was slightly hazy in the heat. Shade was virtually non-existent, so when I spotted what appeared to be a roadhouse, at Mount Ebenezer, I pulled in although we had only gone about 60 kilometres.
Sadly, the roadhouse seemed to be abandoned and, indeed it was. There was a strange and sad story attached to that fact that Lucie’s enquiring mind felt compelled to discover. I will relate it later.
Despite the murderous heat, as soon as we were slightly cooler we moved off again to cover the next 100 kilometres to the next roadhouse at Curtin Springs. In the middle distance, to our left, which was nominally south, a large reddish-brown outcrop of rock appeared. For a few seconds my hot brain entertained the notion that this might actually be the fabled Uluru. The visibility was good – but, surely, not that good. Then common sense, of course, coupled with a voice in my earphone soon made me realise my error. What we could see was, in fact, another monolith, called Mount Conner. Some people we met later, at Uluru, told us that, over time, quite a large number of travellers have come all the way up from the south, spied and photographed Mount Conner and then turned around and gone back in the belief they HAD seen Uluru. It was impressive but, believe me, compared to the real thing, it is almost like a pebble.
When we got to Curtin Springs, I bought my new favourite drink, iced coffee. This was strong, cold and I worried slightly I might be becoming slightly addicted to the startling amounts of caffeine it obviously contained ! Still, anything to keep me awake was welcome, there was not much beside the road to stimulate me. I realised that I was suffering a little from travel fatigue.
We filled up with petrol, as we did every time the opportunity arose and I noted an even higher price. On a personal basis, I can easily accept that, I need it, it is there and someone has had to transport it from God knows where. There were the, by now, customary notices about not taking it out on the obliging staff posted prominently at the cash desk. The Harley, which I have hardly mentioned yet, was fairly economical and we seemed to easily make it between available pumps, but you can never be too careful. To run out of fuel can be and all too often is, to risk death in the blazing sun. Three tourists died, not very far away from where we then were, only a few days later when that happened. On a slightly lighter note, there was a toilet block beside the pumps at Curtin Springs. The two sections were labelled “BLOKES” and “SHIELAS”. Only two words to paint and one was spelled wrongly. Ah well !
There was also a bunch of Harley riders, some of them couples, staying at the roadhouse campsite. They were all about my age, Lucie is a sweet, much younger, little thing. Unusually though, for a Harley group, they seemed disinclined to be very sociable although I did manage to find out that they were Germans.
A large gauge indicated that the temperature had climbed to 37 ° C, in the shade. Lucie has a fleece named Yunus (after a tenant who ran away without paying and left us all his belongings) which she always wears under her jacket. She decided it could finally go into the saddlebag. I was in an old, fabric windbreaker, I did not even take my jacket to Australia. I only ever travel in a thin shirt underneath, so there was little I could do, For the sake of safety as the roads were still littered with mangled kangaroos, our outer coverings had to remain on. I did swap my gauntlets for my fingerless gloves. That allowed a slight airflow up my sleeves, but did not really help much. Even going a little faster, to speed the airflow did not really help, because the air was so warm. For the final 85 kilometres, we cooked gently as we rolled along.
Suddenly, in the distance, came our first sight of the rock that had drawn us halfway across of the world. Ayer’s Rock or Uluru. In fact, it is much more impressive in life than it is in the photos, because approached from afar, it can be seen that it really is one single, huge stone. It is the largest monolith in the entire world and a sacred site for the Aboriginal peoples. I use the plural deliberately as they are a collection of many separate and distinct tribes primarily based around ancient family units.
Here in the north, which was, in reality the north of the centre, we had often seen “aborigines“. Sadly, the vast majority had been sitting listlessly around doing nothing and a lot of them, as I mentioned before, were clearly drunk. I explained to Lucie that, due to Australia’s physical isolation, when settlement began they were at the level of the Stone Age. I do not suppose our own ancient civilisations evolved very much in only 250 years so most of them were still there. It is also a sad fact that, until fairly recently, there was very little integration. Many tribes in the interior still live the old way but the ones that do not live with their tribe appear perplexed and unable to cope with our society. Some have integrated and we had seen a few driving pickups. These often seem to be mainly trying to help and safeguard the remainder by patrolling their actions.
The whole rock, including the park in which it stands, belongs (or was returned) to the Ananga tribe. They have lived in the area for over 30,000 years. They were pushed out by the growth of tourism in the 1940s, and, so as not to harm tourist activity, they were eventually displaced still further away by the Australian government. Unsurprisingly, they did not like this and after a long campaign they had the area given back to them with great fanfare in 1985. The first thing the tribe did was to immediately lease it back to the Australian Park Authority and so now the entire park is managed jointly by the Ananga and the Park Authority. At least that is the fairy tale with a nice ending for the tourists. The fact is that the Ananga remain angry that they are still crowded with tourists. At the time we arrived, after years of agitation, it was about to be forbidden to climb on the rock. We thought it had already happened, but we found, by pure chance, that it was still allowed.
One final thing about the Aboriginals, which apparently, for political correctness, I should really call “First Nations People” and their land ownership. The trend is towards “pastoral territory“, which, if I understood correctly, is actually land leased exclusively for cattle breeding, farming and closely related activities. In order not to make it too easy, sometimes it is “Crown“, that is State, land and at other times it is land belonging to the First Nations People. In the second case, it is both the State and the tribe to which it belongs that decide on the lease. I guess that is quite a mess.
We finally came to Yulara township and easily found the Sails in the Desert Hotel. It was well signposted but it also stuck out quite a bit. It was certainly the most luxurious accommodation in the whole town. We do not generally go so mad but, when we had begun our serious planning about half a year previously, it had been the only place there where we could make any reservation.
It was so huge that Lucie initially could not find the reception. She was eventually escorted there by the manager of the souvenir shop. Lucie loves the Australians. She was delighted that, even in that snobbish environment, they put away what she calls their “starch” and laughed when she said we had arrived on a Harley-Davidson.
The Sails is a seriously big hotel. It is open plan, criss-crossed by shrub fringed paths and only two storey, so as not to impede sight lines. It occupies a huge area. We rode around to the side, so as to be nearer our room and we still had to drag our bags about 500 metres. Our room was stunningly luxurious by any standard, let alone compared to our previous night’s cabin in Marla and we really appreciated the sophisticated air-conditioning.
In the coolness of our room I wasted no time in having a shave where I could properly see myself in the mirror and we both took a shower. Refreshed and re-civilised we put on light clothing and rode off to watch the sunset over the rock. We were not the only ones with the same idea and we had to queue, for a while, at the entrance to the park in order to buy a three day ticket. We rode in and soon found what is obviously THE place to take pictures of the sunset – and stopped there. There was quite a crowd of people, some with their ‘phones, some with very complicated photographic equipment. There was almost a party atmosphere. One guy was good enough to take a few pictures of us (including one of us with our Christmas hats on, for our Christmas card !) so we did not need to take a selfie !
The colour of the monolith, in the last rays of sunshine, was simply dazzling. A competing array of reds and browns that constantly shifted as the sun slowly slipped towards the horizon.
Photos taken, we then got onto the Harley and rode all the way around the rock. Our basic plan was to get up early on the following morning and hike all of the way round the base. As I probably keep saying, up close, the sheer immensity of the rock is simply mind blowing. That would have been quite a hike. As we circled, it was still hard to believe that this was one, single, piece of stone. It does have a few cracks and fissures, here and there, that were black then, in the fading light, but it is a single piece. We checked ! We went around the whole rock, basically scoping out the terrain for the following day and then we set off on the way back to the hotel. Night fell very quickly and, for the first time, we rode after sunset. It was pitch black before we arrived home. Under normal circumstances, riding in the dark is quite dangerous because of the animals (see my previous notes on dead kangaroos), but in the circus of the long string of cars leaving the party, it was unlikely any animal would cross the road by mistake. We stopped in a shop to buy water and something to eat on the following day’s hike. There we met our “photographer” again, this time with his wife. It turned out that they were Swiss and were planning to move on to New Zealand after Australia. Our travel plans amazed them. We were fast becoming used to the fact that when we told people where we had already been and what we intended to do, they would assume we must be spending a whole year in Australia.
When we found out that the bar/restaurant beside the pool in the hotel was not as exorbitant as we would have expected, we ate at home, so to speak. It was a little bit on the “nouvelle cuisine” side, in terms of portion size, but beautifully cooked and extremely tasty. After all the heat we were not exactly starving so it was enough for us. What the heat had done was to make us very thirsty. We drank a litre of water before dinner and another litre with dinner. It would probably get worse. There was a sign, hung at the entrance to the park, stating that the following day there would be dangerously high temperatures, possibly over 40 ° C. For that reason, we set our alarm clock for 5.00 am. so that, long before 6:00 a.m. we could be starting our hike. The biggest heat was supposedly around two in the afternoon and it was our intention to be having an air-conditioned siesta by then.
Lucie seized the chance to catch up on our washing. It was still so warm outside that most of it dried in a matter of seconds.
Lucie writes a daily journal of our travels, in Czech, for her family back home. It seems they follow our adventures avidly. I was curious to see how she would describe the difference between our accommodation in Marla, the day before, which was really spartan and that day’s luxury. Almost disappointingly, it translated as “We definitely skipped a few levels.”