Sunday, 3 July 2011

The Uluru Saga


noun /ˈsägə/ 
sagas, plural

A long, involved story, account, or series of incidents

- the saga of visiting Uluru

On the second weekend in June Australia celebrates the Queen's Birthday with a day off work. With no disrespect to her Majesty, we have done a lot of Royal following recently (Willankate wedding mania was big in Melbourne), so we rather ignored the meaning on the holiday and instead took the opportunity to visit a place that you just can't get to on a normal 2-day weekend - Uluru. At 2,316 kilometers from Melbourne, it would take 26 hours to drive to this iconic Australian tourist destination. Of course nobody really does this, and instead we hopped on a 2 hour flight to Alice Springs, followed by a short 45 minute second flight to Ayres Rock. This still took the best part of a day, which is why Uluru is a place that you really need a 3 day weekend to cover.

After the excitement of Hamilton Island just two weeks previously, I'll be honest and admit that Tom and I would really rather have been going back to the Queensland sun than heading into the centre of the continent to watch the sun rise on a rock at 6am with zero degree temperatures. Not to be ungrateful for this opportunity however, I packed a suitcase full of warm clothes, walking boots and my camera tripod, and slapped a smile on my face. It was a bit of a fake smile though, because two days earlier I'd had an unfortunately-timed wisdom tooth extraction that had left me in quite a bit of pain.

Uluru from the air

Ayres Rock airport has to have one of the smallest terminals in existance. There is a baggage carousel, but when you land here and you and your 40 or so fellow passengers go to collect their bags, it's a pretty speedy affair. This also means it's pretty obvious when everyone else has collected their bag and boarded the transfer bus and you're still waiting. And the baggage carousel has stopped. And the security staff appear to be packing up. Yes, it was a true 'oh shit' moment when we realised that my suitcase had not arrived...

In at first what seemed like quite an amusing incident, it soon dawned on me that this might actually be rather inconvient. "Don't worry Madam", said the Qantas representative, "we'll have your bags with you in 24 hours." Great, I thought, wonderful customer service.... but hang on, we are only going to be here for 24 hours, so I'm going to receive my warm clothes after we've braved the zero degree temperatutes, my tripod after the photographic sunset opportunity, and my walking boots after I've tarnished my brand new white converse trainers with the distinctive rich red earth which characterises the Northern Territory like nothing else. Hmmm... The Qantas woman was still talking to me I then realised, she was handing me a 'survival kit'. Could it be, a handy all-in-one Qantas branded warm jacket with built in tripod and walking shoes?????! No, some grey PJs and a toothbrush.

White shoes + red earth = dirty trainers

Unamused, I boarded the transfer bus to join Tom, and here commenced probably the most ill-fated trip we've had to date. Unfortunately for Tom I struggled to get over the disappointment of the lost baggage, in particular because I'd packed significant rations of pureed and soft foods - which was all I could eat with my dental situation. He did his best to console me - lending me his t-shirts and socks as extra layers, and turning a blind eye to the extortionate amount of money I spent in the Ayres Rock IGA on replacing essential items.

I justified this expense on the grounds that the rest of the trip was quite a good deal - our hotel was on a 2 for 1 offer which included bus transfers - a steal in my eyes! Until we got to check in - they asked if we'd like to purchase the 2 day Uluru Express bus ticket, priced at a conservatively extortionate $180 per person. No thanks, I thought, we've got bus transfers included in our accomodation price.... or so I thought. Unfortunately this only involved the resort shuttle bus which goes from one hotel to another, and not to the rock itself. Now why anyone would want to use a shuttle bus to get to a hotel that they aren't staying in, I don't know. Anyway, out came $180 x 2 and the Ayres Rock Resort thanked Qantas for at least not losing my credit card en route.

What proceeded in the next 24 hours was really a rather wonderful introduction to the Northern Territory, and Uluru delivered everything that I had hoped for from a large sandstone rock formation, plus a little bit of extra sparkle. Arriving by air allows you to appreciate the dominance of Uluru in an otherwise flat lanscape, and walking up close confirms it's monstrous proportions. It emits a radiance that no other inanimate object can, and the way that the rock face glows in the reflection of the sunset is enough to warm even the coldest of people. Who don't have enough layers on. Because Qantas lost their bl**dy bags!

Straight out of the camera.. no Photoshop. It really is this bright at sunset!

During our trip we watched two sunsets, one sunrise, did a walk around one side of the rock, and also visited a second nearly rock formation called Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). One of our expected highlights was the Uluru Aboriginal Cultural Centre, however it was somewhat misrepresented by it's name as we didn't meet a single Aboringee there. Disappointing.

As a souvenir of our trip which was now drawing to a close, we purchased a wooden carved lizard (now named Lenny) from the Cultural Centre. It was a rather awkward shape for bringing home, but the staff in the shop wrapped it up well in bubble wrap and bright orange 'FRAGILE' tape. One for the hand luggage, along with the oversized tube we were already lugging around containing our obligatory purchase of Aborginal art. Tom and I were delighted to find a piece of art that we liked during a 2-hour visit (and thats enough time folks!) to Alice Springs, not just because it would be a new addition to our apartment, but because it meant we would never have to set foot in another Aboriginal art gallery ever again! We have been in Australia for nearly two years now and I estimate we've spent at least 3 days of our lives that we will never get back looking for the 'perfect' piece of art. Now we have it, and we carried everywhere so that Qantas would never be able to lose it. Tom also did some serious bargaining (inspried by Jedi Jim from the Apprentice) - to the point where I was quite proud of the discount but also quite glad we don't have to see that shopkeeper again!

The night before we left, my suitcase arrived at our hotel and I was delighted to be reunited with everything that I had packed as 'essential' but clearly managed without. Our adventure was over and the next day it was time to fly back to Melbourne. Little did we know however, that 10 days previously a Chilean volcano had started to erupt, sending plumes of ash high into the sky ready to drift into Australian skies... we woke up to find that our flight to Melbourne was cancelled, and immediately panicked that we may be forced to spend longer than the desired maximum of 2 hours in Alice Springs. We convinced the hotel to give us a private transfer to the airport, certain that this would mean first place in the check in queue and first dibs on alternative travel arrangements. We had forgotten that this the airport with only one desk and only one baggage carousel however, and despite arriving first, the terminal building wasn't even open! After 30 minutes of standing in the freezing cold, the transfer bus arrived carrying everyone else... BUT we were still first in the queue! Then my phone rang and it was Qantas. "Your flight has been cancelled Madam." Yes I know that. "However we'd like to fly you to Perth instead." Really? Perth?! That's 1,656km in the wrong direction. Aren't airlines supposed to be good at navigation?! After much deliberation we ended up on a flight to Adelaide. A reasonable compromise we thought, and with Adelaide only a 9 hour drive from Melbourne we could at least foresee a way to get home. Whlist we waited to board the plane, we called every car hire company in South Australia and finally secured what felt like the only car available for the one-way trip home, at a pricey $365.

The flight to Adelaide was uneventful, apart from bizarrely seeing the shopkeeper from the Aboriginal Art shop (you know, the guy I never wanted to see again because we bargained so hard his children will probably have to go without Christmas this year). He recognised us, probably because I was still clutching the cardboard tube containing the artwork. Awkward. He probably looked at Lenny the Lizard all wrapped up and wondered if we'd ripped someone else off too.

After some thinking time on the plane we realised $365 on hire car (plus hotel + petrol) was going to make for a costly, long and tiring drive home, and that maybe we would rather stump up and pay for a flight the next day, as Melbourne was now clear of ash. Qantas had seats for $200 each, so we jumped at it, but not before I'd told the Customer Service guy our back story. I included the part about the lost luggage, and 5 minutes later we had two boarding passes for FREE, courtesy of Qantas! Amazing.

We booked a hotel for the night, assured by the girl on the accomodation desk that this hotel must be nice because it is where her boss stays when he's in town. Of course it is love, because its in the RED LIGHT DISTRICT (which we discovered on arrival). Anyway, one night in a crap hotel didn't bother us. We had never intended to come back to Adelaide, and our lasting memory of our one and only previous visit was being 'dumped' by besties Richard and Tamara. We made a pilgrimage to the bar where they told us they were leaving Melbourne, wiped away a tear or two (joke), and then headed to the Adelaide Musuem for 20 minutes before it closed. In this 20 minutes I learnt more about Aboriginal history than in 20 waking hours at Uluru. Thanks RADelaide.

The next day we were up and ready to go, only to turn on the news to find that we had a friend in town - the ash cloud! Now clear of Melbourne, the ash had drifted over South Australia overnight and Qantas had cancelled all flights up to 10am. Our flight was at 10.30am, so hopefully we'd be ok. We went to the airport and camped out at the gate with all our gear, including bubble-wrapped Lenny and the art. Along came the crew, bags got loaded, meals were on board, even a TV crew showed up to film the monimentous occasion that would be our flight departing. And then it was cancelled! Tom took custody of the bags whilst I RAN to the customer service desk to repeat again the re-booking process. After what felt like ages, during which I was interviewed for Channel Ten news, I finally got to the front and the representative advised me to leave the airport and call Qantas customer services later in day. There was no way I was leaving that desk without being re-booked though, and 5 mins later we were booked on a flight the next day and checked into a beachside hotel with meals, accomodation and transport all paid for by Qantas. We then proceeded to have a rather lovely day by the beach in the sunshine, and with our trip extended by 2 nights, all of a sudden I was glad for a suitcase full of unworn clothing.

We finally made it home 45 hours later than planned. Thank you Qantas, for an eventful weekend that turned into nearly a week. I still had toothache at the end, but we'd seen Uluru, bought two fantastic souvenirs, taken 5 separate flights and had the unexpected bonus of making our first Australian TV appearance. Now that's something you just can't do in a 2-day weekend.

Tourists climbing the rock, which we didn't do because it's considered disrespectful

Tom at Kata Tjuta

Me doing what I'm often doing

Happy in RADelaide after an unplanned diversion