It was sunset, and we were somewhere in the desert; standing on a low sand hill, sipping excellent wine from expensive glass.
Way out in the distance sat Uluru, the giant icon of Central Australia. As we watched, ‘The Rock’ (as Aussies love to call it) faded from its bright, daytime orangey-red to a dark, smoky grey. Just as if an unseen caretaker was slowly turning down a dimmer switch.
From behind us came aromas of the much-anticipated barbeque. Kangaroo, crocodile, emu and several styles of beef were on the menu tonight. No, this wasn’t your average 4WD-getaway campsite. We had joined a tour group from nearby Yalara Village to experience the famous ‘Sound of Silence’ dinner. A nightly event held under a canopy of a zillion stars.
Helen and I are always cautious about ‘tours’. They can be great if you manage to join a happy, easy-going group. They can be a real pain if you are unlucky enough to find yourself among a bunch of wowsers, or people whose attitude makes you wonder why they even left home.
In a shallow valley of sand were seven tables, each set out for ten people. As usual, my brain started to run some calculations – a sad legacy from my accounting days. $139 a head x 70 people x 7 nights a week x 52 weeks a year equals (believe it or not) around 3.5 million bucks. That’s (seemingly) a lot of loot for providing two buses, a handful of staff and enough food and wine for the dinner. So you can imagine my surprise when I was told that, in the peak tourist period, the Sound of Silence people often run these dinners in up to four different desert locations. Every night!
We were lucky. By chance, we sat next to a couple from the USA. He had been a senior executive with Kentucky Fried Chicken, and in their retirement they were keen to see as much of the world as possible. Like most Americans we have met, they were friendly and unassuming. And the conversation flowed easily when we found they owned a Jeep Cherokee; ’for getting out in the woods’.
The couple told us that they had been on a tour to Uluru and out to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), but had yet to see the town. We explained to them that their hotel was in ‘the town’ and that, apart from the (mostly) grab-it-n-go shops around a fairly dismal mall, the main shopping centre was in Alice Springs - at least four hours drive away.
They were too polite to say so, but we eventually realized that the Americans were a little disappointed with what they had seen. We could understand how they felt. They had flown halfway around the world, had not been booked into the best hotel, and had been shown a large rock that, due to an unusually rainy season, appeared to be surrounded by hundreds of square miles of lush, green vegetation.
For many Aussies - particularly the indigenous - Uluru is the spiritual heart of Australia. Even people who spend their whole lives on the continent’s coast, and would never travel to the centre, often have some sort of romantic deference to the place. Some tourists from the USA find the attachment hard to understand. For, by comparison to some of the rock-vistas in North America, Uluru is almost a pebble.
We realized this about twenty years ago, when we took a helicopter ride through the Grand Canyon. After the heart in mouth bit - when the chopper passes over the rim and the air currents coming up the mile-high canyon wall buffet it around - it is hard to not be completely gob-smacked by the immensity of the canyon. And that’s just for the small section you can see at any one time.
For the non-believers, here are some basic measurements of Uluru and the Grand Canyon.
|Max. height/depth||348metres/1142 feet||1829 metres/600 feet|
|Max. length||3.6km/2.2 miles||446km/277 miles|
Back home, we realized that the conversation with the Kentucky couple had inspired us to think about making America’s desert country the destination for our next trip. We got on the internet and within a few weeks had organized the flights, accommodation. The rental firm we chose didn't have Cherokees so we had to settle for a Chevy Blazer to get us around the lesser-used mountain roads.
Log on to any of the big US car rental firms, and you get the impression that the rental rates are reasonable. However, once you add on all the insurance packages (and, for peace of mind, you need to have them all) the daily rental ends up being quite expensive. Once the other charges were added, our two-week contract added up to almost USD1300.
When we arrived in Los Angeles, and caught the rental company’s courtesy bus out to the pick-up office, we were confident things would run smoothly. Especially when the rental clerk told me, “That’s fine Mr. Barker, just go through that door and you’ll see the SUVs. You just take anyone you want.”
Wow! I thought. We can have our choice of vehicle, and pick the brightest color for the photos.