The dromedary camel stood in the middle of the red sand track and wouldn't let us pass. It was only 20 feet in front of us and the track was too narrow to drive around the grazing creature. The four-wheel-drive growled nearby until the camel, spooked, headed off into the bush in a lumbering comical gait. There it blended in with the red earth, gum trees and spinifex.
One of the highlights of the trip to Australia is the four wheel tour to Ayers Rock/The Olgas. This was spread over three days involving sleeping in the open for 2 nights and many, many hours travelling over bumpy desert roads. And of course the advantage of the four-wheel-drive is that you can get off the tarmack onto remote tracks. These petrol guzzling vehicles really do visit the inaccessible corners and you have a better chance of spotting wildlife from the bumpy trail. These are not for everyone, you spend a lot of time travelling. You get used to the bumping after a while. Your backside gets use to moving up and down of its own accord. But the rewards and sense of adventure you get are indescribable.
Our route was very impressive. Imagine the routes spreading out from Alice Springs as a giant rectangle hundreds of miles across. In the top right hand corner is "the Alice" itself, heading south on a tarmacked road is the roadhouse of Erldunda - which makes up the southeast corner of the rectangle. The real attraction of Ayers Rock/The Olgas is in the southwest corner along the Lassetter highway, and Kings Canyon is in the northwest. A shortcut of a hundred miles is possible to Kings Canyon/Watarrka on the sandy track of the Luritja road. And to get back to Alice is another 200 miles along a newly carved sand track of the Ernest Giles Road. This is pretty tough terrain and our driver, Carolyn, could often be spotted wrestling with the steering wheel as if she was battling with a ships wheel at sea. But all the time she kept us on track and on schedule whilst pointing out the natural wonders of this part of the Northern Territory.
The first stop on the first day was the Erldunda roadhouse smack in the middle of aboriginal territory. It is almost 200 miles south of Alice where the Stuart Highway turns west into the Lassetter Highway. It was a corrugated iron-roofed building, surrounded by sand and many road stops have captive animals to entrance the tourists. This one had a huge paper mache echidna and frilled lizard kept behind wire netting. But it was mainly a place for travellers to replenish water supplies, eat, and relieve themselves in the toilets helpfully labelled "blokes" and "sheilas." There are also beds for $50 a night.
But as you move around you realise that this seems to be a transit point for those arriving/leaving for the aboriginal lands. Behind the cafeteria was a gallery showcasing aboriginal art. About 20 pictures lined one wall showing the artist and what tribe they belonged too. I was stunned on the sheer amount of aboriginal tribes - almost like a continent made of many nations. For sale were authentic didgeridoos, boomerangs and paintings on canvas. I bought one for $20 which showed a "snake god" and the woman who served me took the time to explain to me the legend behind it.
Curtain Springs Roadhouse
Blink and you will drive past Curtain Springs. It stands on a slight buff cliff overlooking the immensity of the Outback east of Yulara. The flat terrain is broken by Mount Connor which is like a miniature Uluru in its own national park and is often mistaken by overeager tourists for the monolith itself. Curtain Springs lies on the Lassetter Highway about 80 miles east of Ayers Rock, the dirt track of the Luritja Highway stretches north from here. This track cuts 4 hours off the route from Uluru to Kings Canyon but can only be traversed by 4 wheel drive vehicles.
Overlooking the highway is a sandy buff which is a good photo opportunity for Mount Connor and about fifty miles to the northwest is Lake Amadeus. This is a massive salt lake in the middle of the territory covered by light salty crust. It made its name in Australian history as early pioneers trying to cross would lose their horses to the soft mud underneath once the crust cracked under their weight.
Hazards of a different kind were at the roadhouse. Most of it is built on stilts overlooking the buff allowing the building of a "drop toilet." The only other place that these exists is sub-Saharan Africa and you need a strong stomach. Instead of chemicals to destroy the waste they have maggots. And woe betide anyone who looks straight down into the "drop." Ten feet below was a pile of refuse literally blue with crawling things.
The Luritja Highway
Directly north from Curtain Springs is the remote Luritja Highway. This is simply a dirt track that bumps and rolls through the spinifex to the Ernest Giles road near Kings Canyon and can only be traversed by four-wheel-drive vehicles. The advantage of this is that while you can spot goannas and hawks from the tarmacked major highways from the dirt track you can get up really close to the big game of the Australian Outback - the red kangaroos, the emus and herds of feral camels.
I'll not deny the going is tough. First consideration is the hea—it was the Australian early spring but the temperature inside the four-wheel-drive reached 35ºC. You were constantly drinking water. Emus were the first animal we saw but they were far in the distance. The muscular shape of a red kangaroo was spotted bounding away through the bush but after an hour we turned a corner and there were a family of dromedary camels blocking the track.
They moved off but a few minutes later we encountered an even bigger herd of twenty individuals including very cute white furred baby. I was stunned by the size of the dominant male, he must have been 12 feet high at the shoulder and spent his time herding the females together. We followed them for 20 minutes until they reached a drinking hole where we went off track to get as close as possible. I couldn't believe the size they had grown to in the Outback. They were introduced by Afghan stevedores in the 19th century, as they found they were ideally suited to the harsh climate.
The Ernest Giles Highway
I let out a sigh of relief when we left the Luritja and clambered back onto the tarmack on the way to Kings Canyon. When we left it on day 3 we had another option. To get back to Alice we could either drive back the way we came via Curtain Springs and Erldunda or cut across country on a newly made track (it was so new they were still smoothing it) which cuts 4 hours off the journey and takes us 50 miles from Alice.
The Ernest Giles track starts 100 miles east of Kings Canyon. Ernest Giles was a 19th-century explorer who was famous for losing his horses due to dehydration. The first 50 miles of this track is smooth so our four-wheel-drive could get up a bit of speed. But soon that ended and we were back to bumpy sand track. At one point we saw dog tracks in the sand and discovered a mother and pup trotting down the track. With pointy ears and showing no fear we slowed the four wheel drive down beside them. Whether they were wild or belonged to a nearby aborigine tribe I don't know. But they pulled at my heartstrings, I hated the thought of them fending for themselves in the "never never"
We stopped for a rest on a dry riverbed. This river was bone dry, wide and covered in yellow sand. We enjoyed the solitude and sense of space - until the flies found us. We must have been the only moisture for miles around and they buzzed around my eyes and mouth. We also noticed the remains of a fire and used tinnies strewn around. Aborigines had obviously used the riverbed as a camp recently - our driver said for a people who go on so much about respecting the land, they don't always do it themselves...