The phrases “I don’t do bugs” and “the Outback” really do not go in the same sentence.
But can you really come to Australia and not see the Outback?
Even me, who is terrified of the tiniest bugs, had to experience it. AND I even camped! I know. You’re proud.
I chose to do a two night, three day guided tour in Australia’s Red Center with Adventure Tours. The Rock to Rock tour was to take us on hikes through the desert, sunset champagne overlooking the sacred Uluru and a true camping experience.
I’ve never been camping before. I did sleep on the Great Wall of China in a sleeping bag but I would hardly call that camping. In the Outback, I was camping!
Day 1 with Adventure Tours:
Our group of 20 was picked up by our guide, Dave around 1 p.m. on day 1 of our trip. The first day was spent driving 3 hours to our first camping location in King’s Canyon.
For the trip, Adventure Tours advised us to pack a small overnight bag with clothes for the trip. You are only allowed to bring 15 kilograms of luggage with you in total and we were told via email this would be strictly enforced. I was sort of freaking out when Dave pulled up. My backpack was 12 kgs and I wasn’t sure how heavy my smaller bag carrying my camera equipment and overnight clothes for the trip was. I moved to the back of the group to assess the situation before handing over my stuff.
No one even blinked an eye at my amount of luggage! There was a small trailer attached to the van and we all threw our luggage we didn’t need into it to be picked up at the end. I freaked out for nothing!
Adventure Tours also requires you have travel insurance for the trip. Whenever I travel overseas, I always purchase insurance through World Nomads. I had to provide my insurance information via email before the trip and was told I would have to show proof once my guide arrived.
I never had to show proof. There was a lot of stuff Adventure Tours had me worry about ahead of time that never actually happened!
What I should have wasted my time worrying about was the camping!
The particular outback trip I booked is a “do it yourself” style camping trip. It’s Adventure Tours’ cheapest option for Red Center camping trips and you really do everything yourself. About an hours drive into the trip, Dave pulled over to the side of the road and told us it was time to collect our firewood for that night. He instructed us on how to pull large branches off dead trees. Because it’s summertime in Australia, we wouldn’t need much. Just a bit for a bonfire before bed.
THIS was me trying to collect firewood…
Yeah, not exactly a great start to the trip! Fortunately, I was with 19 other people who were a little more qualified.
Once we arrived at our camp site, it was time to cook our dinner. Dave told us he would not be helping whatsoever! He drove us there and it was time for him to sit back, crack a beer and watch us prepare his food.
There wasn’t really any direction as to what to make for dinner. We all started to look through the ingredients Dave brought and determined we could make a chicken stir fry.
Oh, did I also mention that only about 4 of us spoke English as our first language? Everyone spoke a decent amount of English but trying to cook with 20 people who speak German, Korean, Japanese, Spanish, Hungarian and English is really friggin’ hard! But also kind of amazing? It was cool to see everyone work together and combine their own cooking techniques.
For sleeping, we had two choices. There were small, permanent tents with little cots in them or we could sleep in a swag.
“What the heck is a swag,” you ask? It’s a waterproof canvas sleeping bag/bed contraption with a foam mattress attached. You put your sleeping bag, pillow and belongings inside the swag to keep them safe and dry during the night.
Sadly, only three people in our group decided to sleep in a swag! And after the bonfire we had, I don’t blame them.
While we were sitting around the bonfire, we saw two snakes, two scorpions and a red back spider which are highly venomous! There were a crap ton of creepy crawlers hanging around our campsite. Not to mention that whole, “A dingo ate my baby,” thing is real! Dingos are an actual concern in the Outback.
Dave promised we would be safe. But my American friend Leylah and I told him we would only sleep in a swag if we could sleep RIGHT next to him. I made the other guy sleep on the other side of me to keep the dingos away.
I got MAYBE 2 hours of sleep that night. That’s being incredibly generous. First of all, I was picturing snakes slithering up into my swag and biting me all night long. Every noise I was convinced was a dingo. Not to mention the Hungarian guy sleeping next to me hit me in the face with his pillow in the middle of the night! I woke up screaming, “Dingo!” and Leylah was convinced I was getting eaten. I’m honestly still not sure why he hit me in the face with his pillow but it happened.
At 4:30 a.m. when the moon had disappeared and our alarm was about to go off, I looked up and saw the most stars I’ve ever seen in my life. There was a crystal clear view of the Milky Way and even Sagittarius, my star sign! For the first time in my life, I saw a shooting star. And not just one, but THREE! I completely understand why people sleep in swags when camping in the Outback.
Day 2 with Adventure Tours:
Day 2 started bright and early with cereal and coffee before hitting the road at 5 a.m. It is HOT in the Red Center. Like 95 degrees by 10 a.m. hot! So we started our day early to guarantee we would finish our hike before the heat set in.
Our first hike of the day was the King’s Canyon rim walk, a 6 km hike (3.7 miles) through some of the most unique terrain I’ve ever seen.
The first 5 minutes of the rim walk is called Heart Attack Hill and after seeing the defibrillator at the top and feeling the burn in my quads, I understand why. It’s basically a vertical staircase. But it actually felt really nice to get a bit of exercise in after eating and drinking my way through the Australian coast the previous two weeks.
After Heart Attack Hill, the walk was very enjoyable. It was mostly flat except for a few manmade staircases thrown in. The rocks were at times a bit slippery but it was otherwise easy.
The Garden of Eden, a small pool in the middle of the canyon, was a highlight of the hike!
We were told to bring 3 liters of water each which I found to be too much. First of all, it’s incredibly heavy! And second of all, if I drank that much water, I was going to have to pee. A lot! I only drank 1.5 liters during the hike and I was not happy that I was carrying not only my 3 liters but Leylah’s as well! We did share the backpack on and off though. That’s what good travel friends are for!
We finished the hike around 9 a.m. and you could really feel the heat setting in. On particularly hot days, the park rangers close the hikes at 11 a.m. to avoid injury.
After our hike, we started the 3 hour drive back to Uluru. While it is a pretty drive, after about an hour or so, the red sand starts to blend and most people fell asleep.
Our afternoon activity was more hiking! This time it was at Kata Tjuta, a group of large rock formations about 20 miles from Uluru. The sandstone domes are reportedly 500 million years old and they cover an area of more than 12 miles.
There are several hikes you can do around Kata Tjuta but we did the Valley of the Winds walk to the Karu lookout. The walk is a little over a mile and takes about an hour round trip. It’s a fairly easy walk. The ground is a little uneven but the majority of the walk is flat. But doing it in the middle of the afternoon when the sun is beating down and temperatures are in the 90s makes for a very difficult hike!
Honestly, I would’ve been fine to skip this hike. Kata Tjuta is beautiful to look at from afar but this walk wasn’t particularly impressive compared to King’s Canyon.
After our walk through Kata Tjuta, we traveled to our sunset viewing spot. Watching the sunset over Uluru is one of the most famous activities to do in the Outback. The rock changes colors as the sun sets making for once in a lifetime views.
Dave brought out champagne, cheese and dips for us to enjoy while we watched the sun set.
Unfortunately, I had terrible weather almost the entire time I was in Australia and it followed me to Uluru! There was quite a bit of cloud cover that night so we didn’t get to see all of the amazing colors but it was still beautiful. And who doesn’t love a champagne toast with a view!?
For dinner that night we had a traditional Aussie barbecue! Yes, I said, “Throw another shrimp on the barbie” way too many times and yes, I drove the Australians in our group nuts.
I tried kangaroo for the first (and last) time. I didn’t want to eat it but the Australians convinced me with the whole, “When in Australia” excuse. It was pretty tough meat and I’ll never eat it again. But I guess it’s good that I at least tried it?
By the time the barbecue was over, it was time for our second night in the swags! A lot more people joined us. There was a total of about 10 of us sleeping under the stars! It rained in the middle of the night and I almost went into one of the tents. But everyone else just zipped up their swags and continued sleeping so I did the same. It was actually not bad at all! We didn’t get wet in the swags and the rain didn’t bother me (much) while I was sleeping. It was a true Outback experience!
Day 3 with Adventure Tours
The last day with Adventure Tours started bright and early at 4 a.m. Our first activity of the day was doing a 10 KILOMETER walk around Uluru. For my fellow Americans, that’s more than 6 miles! It took us roughly 3.5 hours to do the walk so we had to start early before the sun was at its hottest.
Watching the sunrise while we walked was worth the early alarm!
Despite being a 100% flat walk around Uluru, it was rough. After not sleeping well in our swags for two nights and hiking all day prior, we were exhausted. There also wasn’t a ton of food on our tour so that on top of the tiredness made for some cranky tourists. I started referring to the trip as “Fat Camp Australia.”
Toward the end of the walk I asked our guide, “What did we do to deserve this torture!?”
“You paid for it!” he responded.
Touche sir. Touche.
A lot of people asked me if I climbed Uluru during my time in the Outback. I DID NOT. The indigenous people of Australia consider the rock to be sacred and it is offensive to them to climb it. While you are currently allowed to climb it, the government is closing it next year to respect the indigenous people. You can see in the photo below that years of climbing the rock has ruined its stunning red color.
After our three hour walk around the rock, we had about an hour at the cultural center to learn more about the history of Uluru. Then it was off to the airport for most of our group except for myself and one other couple who did one last night in Ayers Rock on our own.
There is only one resort in Uluru. It has multiple levels of accommodations from camping to hostels to luxury hotels. At $38 AUD a night, the hostel I stayed at was the most expensive of any I’d been to in Australia. It was also the dirtiest! But after sleeping in a swag with the creepy crawlies, I was just happy to have a roof over my head and some air conditioning!
I spent my final night in Uluru going to the Field of Light art installation. Created by Bruce Munro, the Field of Light is 50,000 changing lightbulbs just beyond the base of the rock.
There are many ways to view the exhibit from a luxurious dinner overlooking it to a camel ride around it. I chose the cheapest option which was simply the entrance fee to walk through it. For $39, I got round trip transportation from my hostel to the installation as well as an hour and 15 minutes to spend inside the exhibit.
The Field of Light is absolutely breathtaking to the naked eye but it’s impossible to photograph! I took a few photos but spent most of my time just taking it in and enjoying the quiet that comes with being in the middle of the Outback. Only about 30-40 people were in the massive installation at the same time as me so I really got to enjoy it quietly.
I spent my last day in Ayers Rock souvenir shopping in the very small resort town before my 11 a.m. flight to Melbourne. Side note! The resort gives you free round trip transportation to the airport.
Overall, I was incredibly happy with my Outback experience with Adventure Tours. Even though Dave, our guide, was a little scatterbrained, he was very knowledgeable about Uluru and its history as well as the indigenous people. I also didn’t mind that we had to collect our own firewood and make our own meals. It was a great first camping experience! Our group was small and got along really well despite a multitude of languages. It really couldn’t have been better! I would 100% recommend Adventure Tours’ Rock to Rock tour if you’re on a budget.
OK, maybe I could have gone without as many creepy crawlies. I am a city girl after all!