Saturday, September 3, 2011

Camping in the Outback

We awoke well before the crack of dawn in Alice Springs and got picked up by the tour that we scheduled.  We headed out on a 3 day tour of the Red Centre.  The Red Centre is the name for the middle part of the country because of the red colour of the dirt, which we could see from the plane as we flew in:

And up close it looks even redder:

The Red Centre is the outback – very outback really.  It’s about as far away from civilization as you can get in Australia – and that’s very far.  There are no men and no women in the outback.  There are no ladies and no gentlemen.  In the outback… there are only sheilas and blokes.

This is the stereotypical Australia – the Australia that most Americans probably imagine.  The outback is known for its brutal dryness and unforgiving heat.  Due to its remoteness, the Red Centre is not a cheap place to travel.  As it is far away from everything, everything costs more money.  There are long distances between everything so gas is expensive.  Water is scarce – driving the price of hotels and restaurants and such up, up, up.  So, how do you manage to have the most economically unpleasant vacation in the desert?  Take a tour.  A camping tour.  That’s right, I went camping in the outback!  This is sooo not me.  What was I thinking?

We boarded a bus full of 20 people – mostly backpackers.  I felt a bit out of place at first – mainly because I’m a city-dwelling professional and backpackers are one small step above homeless people – I kept expecting them to ask me for change.  But they never did, and I slowly eased into my surroundings… until the camping part at least.  Our first night’s campground wasn’t as hospitable as I was hoping.  There were no toilets.  There were no showers.  There were no sinks.  I didn’t drink much the first night because I didn’t really feel like walking out into the bush to pee in the pitch black.  There was pretty much nothing there.  Except mice.  Lots of mice.  They were bush hopping mice and they ran around our campsite and scavenged on any crumbs they could find from our dinner.  At night, they snuck onto the bus and ate their way through plastic wrappers to find muesli (granola) bars and Kit Kats inside.  Seriously.  Kei had a Kit Kat in her purse and the mice got into her purse, ate through the plastic, and devoured most of her chocolate goodness.  Ewwwwww!!!

Note that we didn’t have tents – we were sleeping in swags on the ground.  Swags are like big sleeping bags that they use in the outback.  You put your actual sleeping bag inside and it actually keeps you quite warm at night.  Warm and cozy?  Yes.  Able to sleep?  No.  There’s still no tent to keep the critters out, so there were reports that people could feel mice running on top of their swags.  Luckily I didn’t, but the mice would make little mouse noises and that kept me up.  Is there a Hilton somewhere out here?

Did I mention it was raining?  And nearly freezing?  Well, it was, and it was.  In one of the driest places on Earth, it managed to rain all four days that we were there.  All four days!  It kept the temperature down during the day so we didn’t have to feel the excessive desert heat, but it was actually quite cold at night.  Oh, and it was wet.  Sleeping outside in the rain is not fun.  Luckily there was a little cover at the first campground.  Our second campground was a fancy campground that had actual amenities – like toilets, sinks, showers, and kitchen areas.  And the bathrooms were actually fairly clean which was surprising to me.  But really, at that point, I wasn’t going to be too picky.  At night, Kei and I placed our canvas swags and sleeping bags in one of the covered kitchen areas.  It was hard concrete, but I hadn’t slept the previous night so I passed out quickly anyway.  Notice our swags are wet from the rain.

We kept warm by the fire before turning in for the night.

And we managed to guzzle down a few beers each.  Alcohol helps to ease the pain of camping (as long as there are toilets nearby).

I had heard horror stories about flies in the Northern Territory – how they just cover you when you are hiking.  But the rain kept the flies away, so I suppose that’s a good thing.  A bad thing was the mud.  Red dirt + water = red mud.  And the red mud got all over everything.  My only thought was “I seriously hope sells and ships New Balance to Australia.”

And that photo was taken on Day 1 of the trip.  By the end, there was no salvaging them.  They went in the rubbish bin upon our return to Sydney.

The rain was very unseasonal – it was apparently the wettest it has been since the 1950’s.  Though I don’t know how accurate that is as I overheard that in one of the convenience stores we stopped in along the way (there’s a petrol station and convenience store about every 5 hours or so maybe?)  Despite the normally unbearable conditions, flora and fauna thrive in the Red Centre.  While wildlife generally stay away from the more popular tourist places, I was able to snap a shot of one big kangaroo:

And I got a ton of pictures of these crazy mohawk birds:

The eucalypt trees here are verging on white – like something from another planet:

But when they dry out, which is often, the same species turns black.  One touch of the bark and it looks like you’ve dipped your hand into a bag of coal.

The weather put a damper on some of our travel plans.  The stars are supposed to be clearly visible in the middle of nowhere – but we didn’t really see any because of the clouds.  There was neither sunrise nor sunset over Ayers Rock, and our big Sounds of Silence Dinner – where they take you out into the desert, provide with you a buffet of Aussie food and all-you-can-drink beer and wine, and have an astronomer tell you all about the stars – was cancelled.  Four days of rain and four nights of rain.  And as we walked out onto the tarmac and boarded the plane to fly back to Sydney… the clouds parted and the sun came out.

Fuck that.


  1. that was so amusing! I was almost ready to go to bed after checking facebook and you kept me up reading...well written Phil

  2. I totally love this essay. I still read your blog, even if I don't comment. Well done, sir. If you're ever state-side, we should have more dessert together. There's cool places to get said dessert in St. Louis. :-)

  3. The set of photos are pretty impressive and would definitely encourage some to visit this amazing place. This is really great blog for outback tour lovers as I am one of them. I can’t express in words how beautifully you have put this experience of yours.