Kulgera is little more than a hotel whose claim to fame is "the first and last pub in the Northern Territory." It is a surprisingly pretty place with a rocky backdrop of red hills. In the campground the next morning, a Saturday, Karen and I spent most of our pre-departure time talking with Keith and Elaine, our neighbours from the night before.
They had travelled south from Hervey Bay through New South Wales, then up through the centre. Much like us, they were bound for Ayer's Rock, then Darwin and down the west coast. They were travelling with another couple, Harry and Edna, who were towing a caravan and were parked at a powered site a little way off. We told Keith and Elaine of our intention to leave our bikes at Erldunda, and to hopefully get a lift to Ayer's Rock. Erldunda is the next roadhouse north, where the sealed road to the Rock turns off from the Stuart Highway. Once at Ayer's rock, we planned to hitch-hike out to the Olga's, and then to King's Canyon, and finally back to Erldunda to pick up our bikes again and continue north.
"We could give you a lift to the Rock," Keith said.
"No, thanks," I replied. "We've promised ourselves we would ride the entire way across the continent under our own power. If we leave with you today, we would miss the seventy five kilometres from here to Erldunda."
"But we're not leaving here today. We will be leaving tomorrow morning. If you are riding to Erldunda today, we could pick you up on our way through tomorrow."
"No offence," I said, looking around at the town, "but why would you want to spend a day here?"
"We are Seventh Day Adventists," Keith said. "Today is our Sabbath, which means no work, no travel, and a day of rest and reading the Bible. We will continue our journey tomorrow."
The offer was heaven sent, and too good to refuse, so Karen and I agreed to meet them at eleven o'clock the next day. A south-easterly breeze strengthened and moved around to the north-east soon after we began cycling, and we slogged into the headwind for four difficult hours. After arriving in Erldunda we arranged the storage of our bikes and spare gear with the caravan park managers, and set up in the camping area.
Roadsign south of Erldunda
We spoke to a guy on his way back from the Rock, who informed us that entry into the national park would cost each of us ten dollars for a ticket which was valid for five days. He had made the trip in from Erldunda and back in a day, and offered to sell us his tickets, which still had four days left to run on them, for half price. We snapped them up. Later, in the ladies amenities block, Karen struck up a conversation with a couple of women who had also been out to Ayer's Rock for the day. They were happy to part with their tickets for nothing! We planned to donate the extra tickets to Keith and Elaine in appreciation of their help.
The following morning, Keith and Elaine arrived in their Hi-Ace van, along with Harry and Edna with their caravan and bright red Ford. For a while it appeared Karen and I would be riding to the Rock, as the Hi-Ace had a leaking fuel pump and might need to be repaired in Alice Springs. Keith told us that Harry would give us a lift if necessary, but after a quick call to the mechanic in Yulara who assured us that he could fix the problem, we were all off to Uluru.
Ayer's Rock is the white man's name for Uluru, which is also the name of the national park. Yulara is the resort complex outside the boundary of the park. As there is no camping allowed within the park, the resort has a monopoly on tourist accommodation. The eighteen dollars we paid for a tent site was the most expensive piece of real estate we had ever hired for a night, but the grassed site was superb and the facilities were good, so we were not too perturbed. The powered and non-powered areas are separated as well, so Keith and Elaine dropped us at the camp ground and joined Harry and Edna at the van sites.
After climbing up to a lookout for a sunset viewing, where we were rewarded with a great sunset but no real change in the colours of the Rock itself, Karen and I adjourned to the supermarket for some shopping. The range and prices of goods were better than expected, but we had difficulty locating some methylated spirits for our stove. Eventually I noticed a small sign on a shelf which directed us to make inquiries at the check-out. Metho was indeed available, but only after a management inspection. I don't know what they were looking for, but apparently we passed the test as we were allowed to buy one bottle. We later found out that the gas barbecues at the camping area were free, so we really did not need the metho anyhow.
The barbecue area was an excellent meeting place. We spoke to a variety of couples and other travellers, and Karen managed to obtain a promise of two more entry tickets for the next morning. A couple of dingoes made the rounds of the campground. We heard their distant howls all through the night. Because of the Azaria Chamberlain tragedy, Ayer's rock will always be associated with dingoes. We found their presence both amusing and disturbing. We also found it amazing that there we were in the campground at Ayer's rock, with dingoes disdainfully patrolling the grounds, and we had been brought to this location, just as Azaria had been, by a Seventh Day Adventist minister and his wife!
I was reading the book "Azaria" at the time, an early work published prior to Lindy Chamberlain's eventual exoneration. For the record, I do not believe that Michael or Lindy were guilty of murder. And although it is capable of it, I think the dingo is innocent too.
The next morning we rose before dawn for a walk to the central lookout, but clouds which had produced a couple of light showers overnight spoiled the show. We would eventually attempt six sunrise or sunset viewings, with the only visible change in the colour of the Rock being from red when it was daylight to invisible after dark. Keith and Elaine were also at the lookout, and offered to take us with them to the Olga's later in the morning.
Karen collected the extra entry tickets after breakfast and delivered them to Harry and Edna. Keith and Elaine were off getting the fuel pump fixed. By mid-morning, after the pump had been replaced, all six of us drove out to the Aboriginal Cultural Centre for an hour or so. One of my diary entries for the day states - "nice centre, shame about the culture". A "living" display had two aboriginal ladies demonstrating an art technique involving the scorching of patterns into wood. The wood was dressed timber - obviously purchased from a building supplies or hardware store. The instrument which was heated in the fire and applied to this wood to make the scorch marks was made from a length of wire which looked suspiciously like a straightened coat hanger. Next to the fire were the discarded remains of lunch, in the form of two aluminium trays and a couple of plastic forks. Was this Aboriginal culture?
We continued on to the Olga's. Keith and Elaine are both in their sixties, and in good shape, whereas Harry and Edna are older and have more difficulty with the more strenuous walks. In fact, Harry is a bit of a bionic man, having received a couple of new knees and a heart bypass or two. While Harry and Edna did a short walk at the Olga's, the rest of us did the longer walk through the formations, completing the circuit in a comfortable two and a half hours.
One of the formations in the Olgas
Back at Yulara, Karen and I bought food for a barbecue dinner, and tried to buy a bottle of inexpensive wine, only to discover that at Yulara there is no such thing. Twelve dollars for a bottle of house white at one of the bistros made us tea-totallers for the night. The next morning we again met up with Keith and Elaine at the sunrise viewing, and we were invited back to the van for a breakfast of granola, wholemeal bread, prunes, jam and fruit juice. The Seventh Day Adventist religion has guidelines for every human activity, and considers that a healthy body and a healthy mind go hand in hand. Vegetarianism, while not compulsory, is encouraged. Their beliefs, however, made it very difficult for Karen and I to return their hospitality. We could not invite them to our barbecues, nor could we have them over to share a bottle of wine. We could not even offer them a cup of coffee or tea. I do not know whether their diet is the sole cause of their good health and fitness, but it certainly was not doing Keith and Elaine any harm.
After breakfast, Karen and I were again invited to spend the day with Keith and Elaine, with a climb of the Rock and a base walk scheduled. While Harry and Edna looked on with shaking heads, Keith, Elaine, Karen and I climbed up to the start of the chain. I have nothing but admiration for anyone who has climbed the Rock. It is steep, dangerous and scary. I would not have attempted the climb without the chain. The local aboriginal men accomplished the task as part of their manhood tests and ceremonies for thousands of years before the chain was installed, and it is a valid test. Without the chain, one slip would inevitably result in death.
At the top of the chain on Ayer's Rock
We left Keith and Elaine to climb the rock at their own pace. Pretty soon we were at the top, despite taking photographs of almost everything. The Rock is a remarkable and fascinating place - one of the most amazing places we visited on our trip.
On top of Ayer's Rock with the Olgas in the background
After the climb we met Keith and Elaine back at the van. They had climbed to the top of the chain - the hardest part - but had not gone all the way to the top. I was standing next to the van, listening to Karen talking to Keith when my eyes were drawn to a rather attractive woman in a white halter top. As she walked away from the car she had just vacated, I noticed that she seemed very familiar to me. I realised why when her husband got out of the car. It was Ian, one of my best friends, and the good looking sheila was his wife Pauline! They had made a spur of the moment decision a week before to have a quick holiday in the Red Centre, not having any idea that Karen and I would be there. Meeting them at the base of Ayer's Rock was uncanny.
Ian had a mobile phone with him, and had been amazed to find that telephone coverage had been extended to the Rock. He decided to surprise Pauline's sister-in-law, a good friend of ours back in Sydney, with a phone call.
"Hi Janine. It's Ian, and guess where I am? Right at the base of Ayer's Rock!"
"Are Karen and Brett with you?" she asked instantly, which stunned all of us and effectively killed the surprise.
The walk around the base of Ayer's Rock
After Pauline and Ian left to make the climb, Keith, Elaine, Karen and myself set out on the base walk. Three hours, and at least one roll of film later, we had completed the circuit. As we drove back to the resort, Keith said we should come with them the next day to King's Canyon, and that we could stay with him and Elaine all the way back to Erldunda if we liked. We liked.
Karen reading the plaques to "the fallen" below the climb
Pauline and Ian had set up camp right next door by the time we arrived back from the Rock, and we spent an excellent evening of catching up with each other's news, and sharing a six pack and a wine cask. We still owe Ian and Pauline for that, a lot of money too because the local grog rules stated that a six pack cost eighteen dollars, three dollars a can! And only one six-pack was allowed to each customer. If you wanted to buy a carton of two dozen cans, you would need seventy two dollars and three friends! At those prices, it is no wonder the resort hides the metho!
The following day we bade goodbye to Pauline and Ian, as Keith, Elaine, Karen and myself set off on the three hundred kilometre journey to King's Canyon. The four of us did a small walk up the creek along the floor of the canyon soon after arriving, along with Harry and Edna who seemed to manage quite easily. We were all a bit naughty that night, stopping at the parking area of nearby Kathleen Creek, which had toilets and free gas barbecues, but which also displayed signs which seemed to suggest that camping might be prohibited. We must have had God on our side, however, because we were not punished for our little indiscretion, apart from a couple of drops of rain overnight. Karen and I realised that we had now been rained on at Woomera, Coober Pedy, Ayer's Rock and King's Canyon - surely a record!
Harry and Edna set off for Erldunda the next morning, with the rest of us returning to King's Canyon to walk the clifftop circuit. While most people normally take about two to three hours to complete this walk, we managed to accomplish the task in four, mainly due to Keith's penchant for talking to everyone he meets. Karen and I could not complain, because if he was not such a social animal, he might not have spoken to us in the first place, and God knows what we would have done then!
The main walk at King's Canyon climbs up onto the range, and follows the cliffline along to the end of the canyon, where a waterfall, dry when we were there, drops from an area in the upper valley known as the Garden of Eden. One large rock pool above the waterfall still held a large amount of water, despite the dry creek. The non-believer in me found the situation interesting when Keith, Elaine, Karen and myself, shared an apple in the Garden of Eden. Although I was keeping a sharp watch at the time, I did not see any serpents.
We travelled back to Erldunda later the same day, meeting up with Harry and Edna in the caravan park. In the morning when we said our goodbyes to everyone, we felt sure we would be seeing them again. Alice Springs was only two days away, and Karen and I would be travelling both east and west from there, as would our four new friends. And as it turned out, we not only met them in the Alice, but also at Ellery Creek and Ormiston Gorge and then back at Ellery Creek again.
On the last occasion at Ellery Creek, everyone chipped in with some food and some cooking for a lovely dinner in Harry and Edna's caravan, almost like a last supper. After dinner, relaxed, sated and mellow, all six of us were in the caravan enjoying some after dinner conversation. A variety of travel issues had been discussed, and we had progressed to the topic of airport metal detectors.
"Harry sets them off every time he walks through one," said Edna.
"Really?" Karen asked. "How come?"
"He's got these huge metal screws in his legs, because of his bad knees," Edna explained, "and they always set off the alarms."
Harry nodded. "About this big," he said, holding up two fingers about twenty centimetres apart.
"And really expensive, they were," Edna continued. "They were made out of titanium."
"How much did they cost?" asked Karen.
"One hundred and twenty five dollars each! Can you imagine it? One hundred and twenty five dollars for a screw!"
"We've got a place in Sydney called King's Cross," said Karen. "You can get a screw there for a lot less than one hundred and twenty five dollars!"
There was a sudden hush in the caravan. I looked at Karen, she looked at me. I probably had my mouth open in disbelief. After a few seconds, a couple of the others began to chuckle. Soon everyone was laughing, but probably more in embarrassment than in appreciation of fine humour. It is possible, even likely, that the others were laughing to make Karen and me feel more comfortable, because they really are very nice people. To this day, I do not know what prompted Karen to make her comment, especially given the company we were in. It was the kind of comment that a normal person would probably not think of, and if they did, they would certainly not say it. I thought of it, but did not have the temerity to follow through. Karen just went right ahead and said it.
I was very proud of her.