Road trains, roadhouses and road kill punctuate an otherwise desolate plane for 1300km from Port Augusta to the resort village on the outskirts of Uluru. It’s a strange and eerie wasteland either side of the two lane highway so straight it puts you in a dangerously meditative state after half an hour behind the wheel.

 

But seeing as though not much can go wrong on a long, straight, flat road, I got to do quite a bit of driving, keeping BOB at a steady 90kmph for hour long shifts, perfecting my ‘Ra-spect…fellow travelling person’ wave to an hourly trickle of Wicked campervans and Grey Nomads until the sweat pool between the Aldi sheepskin cover and my back became unbearable, and we pulled into a layover to stretch our legs and regulate our body temperatures with something cold from the fridge. Thank god for the fridge – it is without a doubt the best thing in the car.

 

From the south of SA to the north of SA we also played a variation of ‘Pimp my Ride’ where Joe asked me daily which of the following three things I would add to BOB (1) Air Conditioning (2) Better Suspension (3) Foxtel (with ALL the channels). My resounding answer for the first few days had been (d) a sink to do the washing up in (what a gripping life I lead), but after hours of bleating sunlight and hot rubber slow cooking us I began to do the business case for the $5-6000 Air Con install.

 

The Stuart Hwy itself is the main drag linking infamous 4WD journeys the Oodnadatta, Birdsville and XXXX tracks, out to and around Lake Eyre and the never never. We’d wanted to take a detour on the Oodnadatta track to see Lake Eyre, full of water for only the second time this century, but when we arrived in Coober Pedy some old codger in an underground bar (literally, they build underground to escape the heat) said the tracks were closed and we’d be risking a $2000 per wheel fine if someone had to rescue a bogged BOB. Booo, we’d have to keep going straight.

Coober Pedy itself was a pretty depressing little shanty town famous for Opal mines and being the only round dot on the map north of Port Augusta. The only saving grace was the enormous Mexicana Parmesana from Big Johns and playing buck hunter in the eerie underground bar. 

 

The first stop at the Marla roadhouse the next day I saw a woman with a beard, I kid you not, and that was about the most exciting and horrifying thing that happened for the rest of the day, until we finally crossed the NT border and reached the turnoff to Uluru. A brisk 300km driveway and we were at the resort village, having passed a decoy rock about 150km down the road (Joe was convinced, but I know a monolith when I see one).

 

Luckily our curiousity had a reviving effect as we drove closer, arching and squinting for a first glimpse of Ayers Rock, anxious for it to be worth the hype and detour. Then a crest in the road and there it was; solitary and monumental against the skyline and the red desert plane, rising up from and dominating the landscape like a postcard of itself, spectacular in the changing light of the early evening. Relieved that this wasn’t going to be another tacky overpriced tourist trap, we made for the campground – complete with swimming pool – luxury!

 

I’d been dubious of coming here for a long time for a number of reasons. Firstly, it goes without saying it’s never occurred to me to ‘tour’ Australia seeing as though I’m (a) young; (b) Australian and; (c) can afford to go elsewhere, so going anywhere in Oz, let alone to the middle has not rated high on my short term travel agenda, evidently the volume of grey nomads on the road seem to reinforce the notion that purchasing a caravan and slowly towing it around Australia at a speed of 40kmph is a great way to spend your nineties.

 

Secondly, and more to the point, my Micky Mouse degree in “Social Inquiry”, focussed a lot on Australian history; politics, environmental and social issues, particularly how these had affected indigenous people and their culture – displacement, genocide, self determination, native title etc, and three years of delving into all that stuff left me feeling a bit disconnected with the Australian past, and where it had left us today. Somehow as a result of this, I’d imagined it would be difficult to come to a place like Uluru as a tourist and just marvel at its beauty without feeling incredibly sad and uncomfortable to be there – because it’s such an iconic symbol of Aboriginal culture – and yet its one of the only preserved pillars of that culture which mainstream Australia respect and recognise. Worst still, whilst its isolation is one of its drawcards, it also means that most Australians won’t actually get the chance to go there and understand its meaning; forever stereotyping it as a place only for international tourists and baby-eating dingoes.

 

So, there we were, and I was pleased to find that the massive resort was disguised amongst the landscape; no garish flashing lights or green gardens misplaced on the desert landscape. We were told to do the walk around the base of the rock early (eg, pre-8am), before they turned the heat up, as the 10km round trip took a few hours, and despite being flat was punishing in the heat of the day. So in typical Labrador fashion, we got up at the crack of 8 and were there by 10.30 (despite realising that we’d gained an hour and a half when we crossed the border from SA).

 

Joe had really wanted to do the climb to the summit, but it was closed (as it is 99% of the time during summer) due to high winds. In my ‘nanny-state’ way I was secretly chuffed about this because (a) it’s a sacred site and offence to its people to trample all over it and (b) I didn’t want to have to follow Joe up the gruelling steep climb. So we had to be contented with the walk around the rock – massive effort considering its all one big unit. The different colours, shadows, peaks and textures as you walk around it are really spectacular, even through the constant barrage of blowflies and sweat. We were the only amateurs on the track that day, as the buses bring in the clever punters for sunrise before heading back to their air-conditioned lairs.

 

We nearly made it to sunrise the next day (6.29am is too early when you have to pack up a rooftent). This time of the day was brilliant and cast a completely new view on the rock as the light opened up over it.

 

We sped back to the base of the climb to see if it was open; it wasn’t; but whilst we were having our breakfast with the rock in front of us, out of nowhere bolted a rogue Chinese climber, through the safety fence, scrambling up the rock climb like an amateur contestant on Gladiator after the first whistle. Upward and upward he went in his blue parachute shorts, getting further and further from the potential grips of the authorities. But as if that wasn’t enough excitement for one day (we listen to a lot of AM radio so bear with me here), as the crowds gathered, a German dude was limbering up too - much more stupidly conspicuous than the first guy – for his rush for glory. A crocodile hunter-esk tour guide with a ponytail nearly rugby tackled him as he tried to jump the fence (I think he WAS on Gladiator) and gave him a barrage of abuse to the amusement of the gathering crowd. With the warning of a ranger on the way (yes, this is Australia, so someone had notified the authorities) the German bolted out on the desert path to escape the $300 fine. The guy on the rock already wasn’t so lucky when the ranger showed up with his megaphone and muscle, to whisk him off the rock, into the Hilux and down to the station. There’s an awkward car ride; I definitely would have feigned no-understand-english too!

 

Later that day we drove the 250km to the Kings Canyon resort, another famous national park in that region, ‘just around the corner’. We did the walk early the next day to escape the heat of the day. The walk itself takes you up at least four hundred thousand stone steps to the rim of the canyon where you can walk and climb along from one side to the other for about 6km. Where Uluru had had a striking but preserved beauty to it, this was so much more curious and fun, purely because you could wander around the crevasses and gorges and sand mines wherever you wanted, and the walk itself had a bit more to it; challenging, impressive views out across the canyon and the surrounding planes.

 

SO our quick three day bolt to the red centre was over, and we were, oh so sadly, on the road to nowhere, back to South Australia, back to some form of sea and civilisation.

 

One of things that struck me about the journey was how many backpackers there were working in the roadhouses – 6 days shifts in the middle of nowhere, in the searing heat, with nothing to do but work, talk to truckies and watch TV in their room. Hows that for an Australian experience!