One of the most memorable things about my trip to Australia was being woken up by dingoes.
They howled with the dawn light! After a freezing cold night in the outback the howling sounded terrible. It was the way a wolf howls. You can imagine them out there in the bush, stretching with the new day and announcing their presence to the world. Our guide says they are harmless and just hang around the campsite. But it is a most unnerving sound when you are struggling to wake up after a hard night under the stars.
I wouldn't have missed my tour out of Alice Springs to Uluru, Kings Canyon, and The Olgas for the world. I truly got a sense of the vast scale and harshness of the Northern Territory. The Red Centre of the continent is what can only be described as historically rich and scenically spectacular, and harbours the kind of landscapes that you came to especially to Australia to see. It also is one of the harshest, most forbidding places on the planet. Summer temperatures regularly reach 45 degrees C and don't drop down to 30 degrees C at night. This is a place where water is scarce, the plant and animal life hardy, and the people as tough and unbending as the landscape around them. There is a sense of real wilderness out here, real hardship. Water is precious and as valuable as the opals that come from the red ground. Where mistakes in this wilderness can lead to death and the sight of another human being is as rare and as welcome as you can get.
Alice Springs is in the centre of the driest continent on earth.
Before setting off, we got a lecture on how to look after oneself in the desert. The first thing is water. It was drummed into us that we must drink 2 litres of water an hour. Dehydration is a real problem, especially in the 35 degree C baking heat. There was an incident the week before with a Japanese tourist not taking any water up with her when climbing Ayers Rock. She had to be brought down by helicopter. We were also told to wear strong sunblock and a hat. The sun is a real menace, and it goes some way to keeping the flies off. Also strong boots - there are snakes out there amongst the spinifex
Travel between Alice Springs and Ayers Rock
Let's get one thing straight: Ayers Rock/Uluru is over 400 miles from Alice Springs.
It's a long way. The prospect of flying in, seeing "the rock", and flying out again within a short space of time is an unrealistic one. It can be done. Emu Tours famously do a tour that gets you to "the Rock" and back to Alice in a day. This, of course, means 8 hours on the road and only an hour and a half at the monolith. Alternatively, you can fly direct from any major Australian city into Ayers Rock airport (which also has direct flights from Tokyo and Osaka). You can combine this with a stay at the Yulara resort (see below) for luxury in sight of "the rock" itself. But this is generally for tourists who are quite happy to pay for high prices.
The majority of tourists either use Alice as a base or join one of the 2- to 5-day tours, which stretch out into the outback taking in Kata Tijuca and Kings Canyon. It is possible to do this with a degree of luxury, but you must remember you are in the heart of the hardest, driest continent on earth. Relief in air-conditioning and protection from the flies isn't always an option. And what better way of getting close to the Australian outback than taking a camping trip. They are usually taken by knowledgeable guides who know all the history, botany, and legends of the aboriginal lands surrounding sacred Uluru, and the experience of sleeping in the desert under the stars is one which will stay with you for a long time.
Camping in the Outback
I picked WayOutBack tours (www.wayoutback.com.au). This had the reputation for small parties of tourists and the advantage of using 4-wheel-drive vehicles to get to places where other tourists can't. My tour was for 2 nights/3 days and cost A$388 (£200). We travelled hundreds of kilometres each day and slept at campsites. There were no frills and we were expected to pitch in, from doing the washing up to rustling spare wood from the roadside for the campfire each night. Our guide, Carolyn, was excellent, a fountain of knowledge about the local area. She would brook no nonsense - each one of us had a duty to perform, whether it was get the fire started, unpack the "swag bags," or put the "billycan" on the fire. Our "swag bags" were arranged around the fire, and we fitted sleeping bags inside these. Most useful, as the temperature plummeted to 0 degrees C at night.
The Yulara Resort
Of course, it doesn't have to be done as penny-pinching as a budget camping tour. Tour companies offer luxury accommodation at TheYulara resort, which stands in the shadow of the famous Ayers Rock. Uluru will hove into view as you drive along the Lassetter Highway, and this resort has won awards for its consideration for the environment. Not one of the ochre-coloured buildings is above gum tree height, and most of the hotels are disguised and spread over 30 acres. The cheapest beds are in the hostel for $50, and it rises to $1350 a night for Longitude 131,whose super-luxury tents are hidden amongst the dunes.
Buses do run from Alice Springs direct to the resort. And all accommodation should really be booked in advance via Ayers Rock Resort, which is based in Sydney (firstname.lastname@example.org). The central part of the resort is Shopping Square, a sort of terracotta area with sail awnings to keep off the sun. It's a good place for practicalities, such as digital camera batteries, camping utilities and a supermarket. The restaurants, however, are uniformly expensive. Although I can recommend Geckos, which had wood-fired pizzas for about $15.
Kings Creek Station Campground
I feel I have to mention this because to me this exemplified the Dead Red Heart of Australia. Kings Creek Station was our last camping stop before heading back to "Alice." It was a working station about 30 miles from Kings Canyon (Watarrka NP) and the nearest cheap accommodation. I have to say that, with the exception of the Pantanal in Brazil, this is the remotest place I have ever stayed in. First of all, it is a working camel station. There are so many wild camels in the area that they round them up using helicopters and shunt them off to the city to be sold overseas. Though some I suspect don't get that far, camel burgers are available at the restaurant.
You can experience the work firsthand with helicopter flights over the outback and quad-biking (www.kingscreekstation.com.au).You can hire their cabins for about $55 a night, which includes breakfast. We were using their campsite to "swag" down for the night, which was situated in a sandy clearing with views of the George Gill range. There was a table, barbecue, washbasin, and campfire. A little way off was an open-air shower that needed to be kept going with a wood burner. It was open to the elements - all I can say is, I hope there weren't any camels watching...