When I was a kid of 8 or 9 I had a calendar of the World’s Top Tourist Destinations and each month had a photo of what were listed as the most desirable places to visit. Before this trip to Australia I had visited all but 3 of them and with two of them in Australia I should be able to knock most of them off of the list. If my memory serves correctly, they were:
Big Ben & Parliament in London
The Eifel Tower in Paris
The Great Wall of China
Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City in Beijing, China
Times Square in New York, USA
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, California, USA
The Kremlin in Moscow, Russia
Machu Picchu in Peru
The Terra Cotta Warriors in Xi’an, China
San Marcos Plaza, Venice, Italy
The Coliseum, Rome, Italy
Ayer’s Rock (Uluru), Alice Springs, Australia
Sydney Opera House, Sydney, Australia
The harbor at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
There was a photo for each month of the year and one on the front and back covers for a total of 14 “must see” tourist destinations. I’ve been to 11 of them and was about to strike number 12 from my list.
Located conveniently in the dead center of Australia, Alice Springs serves as the hub for travelers en route to Alice Springs – known by its Aboriginal name Uluru – pronounced ooo-la-roo. Unless you really had some business in Alice Springs, I can’t imagine a reason why you would go there aside from wanting to see that huge rock. And that’s what Ayer’s Rock is; it’s a huge rock sticking up out of the ground in the middle of the desert. I wondered if the trip would be worth it, I mean really, it’s a rock. But, there is a certain amount of obsession with finishing this list, I have been sitting on it for a few decades; it would be a shame to fly all the way to Australia and not make the effort to see it – whether it’s a rock or not.
A one-way flight from Perth to Alice Springs was about $375 (Australian, about $400 US). The flight’s final destination was Darwin and the Alice Springs stop was the mid-way point in the flight. I learned later that the flight to Darwin is only $200 and If you book a flight to Darwin and just get off at Alice Springs you save $175 each way. Thanks Qantas for (again) shafting your customers.
Walking to the plane I saw that we’d be flying in a Boeing 717 – do they still make those! I don’t think so but it seems they’re still flying. Didn’t this used to be the McDonnell Douglas DC-9? Geez, I remember they were flying these in the 1970’s – amazing how long a plane can stay up with good maintenance. The flight to Alice Springs from Perth is about 3 hours and as we began our descent I thought that we had a real rookie of a co-pilot as he chased the throttle all the way down to the runway. On the return flight it was much of the same – power up, power down, nose up, nose down – and I surmised that the pilots were flying the approach manually rather than using the auto pilot. I’m not sure if that was for practice or if the 717 doesn’t have an auto pilot that will shoot the approach. Either way, it was a bit unnerving for the pilot to take the aircraft from 30% throttle to 70% and then back to 30% while on short final; it sounded like the plane would crash at any minute.
The Alice Springs Airport isn’t much, maybe 10 gates, a gift shop and restaurant. The landscape was definitely desert or at least a semi-arid plain with abundant Eucalyptus trees. I caught the shuttle to my hotel and while it was only about 2 miles around the toll was a whopping $19. A taxi would have cost a staggering $35. Yes, Australia is very expensive. I was dropped at Alice’s Secret, a little hostel with a swimming pool, hot showers and laundry facilities. A private room (without bath) ran $50 a night. I quickly booked my tour to see Uluru and found that I’d be dropping $350 for the privilege of seeing the big red rock. As the hostel proprietor called around he found that most of the tours were booked out; on his last call he found one seat available. I barely made it. It would have been very painful to have flown in just to miss it. I was also surprised to find out that Ayer’s Rock isn’t even near Alice Springs: it is located about 500km (300 miles) away. The trip was a 4 day, 3 night return and I would be picked up the next morning at 6am. I had better get to bed early tonight!
After I checked in I saw a man who looked downright bored; I inquired if he had dinner yet and he said that he hadn’t and I invited him to walk in to town with me. He is from France and traveling alone and we chatted a bit about our travels as we made our way over the bridge that spans the dried river bed. Below we could see Aboriginals foraging around for – well, for what I’m not sure. As we walked to town I noticed quite a few Aboriginals who appeared to be homeless, or what I’d consider homeless. For them, maybe that is just the way they live. However, quite a few of them appeared to be intoxicated and/or a bit crazy and were yelling at each other, talking to no one or otherwise acting loopy. Aside from the Aboriginal steward on my Qantas flight, my only experience with Aboriginals has been with those who appear to be homeless. We shall see…
My new French friend and I settled on Pizza and stopped at the local Italian joint. It seemed quite popular and after we ordered it seemed like every family in town came in to pick up a takeaway pizza or else pull up to a table and order a lasagna special. We started chatting with a local couple who told us that our pizza would take quite a while as Friday nights were always busy. Sure enough, we waited 1 hour and 20 minutes before it arrived. In the meantime we sipped on $4 beers and I wondered if the long pizza delay was designed to slow people down so that they’ll buy beer. The local man asked me how long I’d been in Alice Springs and I told him that it had only been two hours, he quickly replied, “Oh, so you’ve seen the whole town then!” True enough, a ten minute walk and you’ve seen the whole town. By 20:30 the streets seemed begin clearing of people and vehicle traffic. I shot a photo of the pizza joint – it was the busiest place in town on Friday night.
We made our way back to our hostel and found that a birthday party was underway. Two of the semi-permanent residents there were celebrating their birthdays and we were invited for a beer and a pickup game of Uno. We joined in and begin getting to know some of the other travelers. We had some visitors from Japan, the UK, New Zealand, Germany and of course France. The semi-permanent residents were working in Alice Springs and paid a reduced monthly rate for lodging. They explained that there was a labor shortage in Australia and despite the high prices even an entry level job made enough salary to not only survive here but to save some $ as well. One of the young adults was working as a lifeguard and was getting paid $20 per hour (that’s about $22 US).
A few beers and some whisky shots later and I was ready for bed – I did have to get up in 8 or 9 hours. I was surprised when the group invited me to go to The Rock nightclub for a drink. Against my better judgment I went and found that the after-hours party in Alice Springs didn’t really pick up until about 2300. The Rock was quite lively with patrons – but none of them locals; this place catered to the traveler crowd. I had a great time but stayed out waaaay longer than I should have – a mistake that I’d pay for the next morning.
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