By Stef Schwalb
As born and bred New Yorker, the extent of my experience with nature could be considered solely influenced by trips to Central Park and the sight of unusually large and most likely genetically altered rats on a subway track. However, that all changed this past August when I traveled to Central Australia for the final week of my Aussie adventure. Before I left I had an idea of the landscape I was to encounter – but only through some episodes I had caught of The Crocodile Hunter, which was pale by comparison to the real thing. Several friends had also remarked about how I might want to keep my usually clumsy antics under control as well, considering they had seen a special show on “Animal Planet” detailing the world’s most deadly animals – a great majority of which (yes, you guessed it!) inhabited the place I was planning to visit. Never one to take a challenge lightly, I decided to head to the Outback anyway via a more luxurious route (meaning: no camping out under the stars) – but it was the Outback nonetheless.
Simply awe-some. The hotel we booked for visiting Ayer’s Rock was Sails in the Desert. It offers exceptional views of the exquisite landmass and luxurious accommodations that feature an Aboriginal flavor to them. Many of the activities we had planned were booked by the hotel staff, who were extremely helpful. After a few days of early awakenings and massive amounts of hiking, it was wonderful to bask in the sun by the beautiful pool before we headed back to Sydney. The hotel featured a fabulous restaurant and piano bar in addition for nightly entertainment.
Sounds of Silence – Left Me Speechless
On our first night in the Outback, we spent an amazing four hours at an incredible dining event called the Sounds of Silence. Guests of this experience arrive at a spot in the middle of desert – in between Ayer’s Rock and the Olgas – to the enjoy canapés and champagne as they watch the sun go down over these amazing natural formations, complete with a didgeridoo playing traditional tunes as the background music. Once the sun goes down and all of your snapshots are secured, you indulge in a five-star dining delight that offers specials from the Outback – like crocodile, kangaroo, and barramundi – as well as amazing wines and dessert delicacies. Once the meal is complete, the heated lamp your table is situated under is turned off so you can vividly experience a star tour by a local astronomer. The night we went, the skies were so clear and it was humbling to see the Southern Cross and hear numerous legends and stories about various constellations. It was truly inspiring and completely breathtaking.
Rock of Ages
One of our days was spent getting up at the crack of dawn to watch the sun rise over Ayer’s Rock. “Uluru,” as it known to the Aboriginals, is the world’s largest monolith and considered one of the great wonders of the world. It is said to have been in existence since 500 million years ago, as part of the ocean floor at the center of Australia. Photos can barely do it justice for it is so immense and awesome in color that your eyes have a hard time believing what they are seeing. In the morning, as the sun shines over it, Uluru appeared an orangey red color; as the day winds down, it was more of a purplish blue. The walk around it and up to the summit (for those who dare!) is magnificent. I have never seen sights such as this. The sacredness of this area to the Aboriginals, gives it an almost tangible mystical quality.
A Truly Grand Canyon
One of our largest outdoor excursions consisted of a trip to King’s Canyon for a 31/2-hour hike to the rim. King’s Canyon is located on the Mereenie loop, which consists of some roads that run together in between Ayer’s Rock and Alice Springs (another destination I will experience next time!). When we got to King’s Canyon, we were served breakfast before heading off to our adventure. I grabbed a quick camel ride for $10 – something I always wanted to do, and which was quite the hysterical sight for my friend Kate – before we headed out to hike. The sights were stunning and we were really high up, which thankfully due to the Bridge Climb in Sydney, my fear of heights didn’t make me hesitate. If you want to see what the environment in this part of the country is like – without really roughing it – this type of activity is ideal. You learn fascinating facts about plant and animal life, as well as what it would take to survive out there if you had to.
The final natural wonder we hiked was the Olgas, known to the Aboriginals as Kata Tjuta. These weathered red domes are gigantic in size and scope when you are standing right in front of them (see photo below!). The climb we did was not as exhausting as King’s Canyon, but it was equally invigorating. The funny thing is that as you make your way through these formations you have the chance to see some extraordinarily beautiful flowers on trees. Apparently though, they are lovely, they are dangerous to the touch, should you get too close. I tried my best not to touch anything and instead just take in the sights and sounds, which were quite different from the streets of NYC.
The weather is as wild in the Outback as the animals you find there. In the early morning hours, the temperature could be around 40 or 50 degrees Fahrenheit. During the day, it might hit 80 or 90. In the evening? Sometimes down to 30. Dressing in layers is the key here. Drinking an excessive amount of water and applying a great deal of sunscreen is mandatory as well. You don’t know how quickly you can dehydrate on a hike, and I learned that the hard way. You also don’t realize how strong the sun really is since there is no shelter between you and it when you are walking in the middle of any area. We booked our hotel and assorted activities through Voyages Resorts and Hotels (www.voyages.com.au), which we found to be a great success. To visit Ayer’s Rock and the Olgas, you just need to purchase a national park pass, which ran around $40 AUS.
Spending time in the Outback was the most relaxing and reinvigorating part of my Aussie adventure. I saw so many things that inspired me and took in some amazing sights, sounds, and smells I will not soon forget. I recommend this type of excursion to anyone looking for something completely off-beat for a vacation adventure. It is definitely once in a lifetime experience.