For Michel and Graham it was a very early start to the day with the alarm going off at 5:00 a.m. By 6:30 all the bags were packed, the bill had been paid (with a 1.5\% service fee for using any credit card - something that is becoming quite common in hotels and restaurants.) and M and G waited for the shuttle to take them to the airport. Unfortunately, the bus had gone to the wrong hotel and as it would not be arriving for a while they struck a deal with a taxi driver and took that as their mode of transportation.
Even though there were some check-in staff at the service counters, check-in and everything else had to be done using one of the electronic booths; including confirming and changing seats and weighing and tagging the checked bags. Both checked bags were slightly over the limit so a small fee had to be paid. Again this was supposed to be done at the booths after the bags had disappeared on the conveyer belt. If you wonder what would happen if you didn't pay the excess fee, you would be stopped at the gate and no payment meant no flight!
It was a Qantas flight to Alice Springs and the in-flight service was great, even a hot breakfast was provided. As the flight was not full it was possible to get room to stretch out a little. The flight left a little late but was on-time for touchdown in Alice Springs.
The weather was cool and showery as Melbourne was left behind but warm, sunny and cloudless skies welcomed the travelers. Even though arrival at the Alice Springs Crowne Plaza hotel was quite early, just after 11:00 a.m. , it was possible to check-in to the room and explore options for the afternoon.
A short walk to the centre of the town past by some normally dry river beds. Since Alice Springs has been having quite a bit of rain for the past months, there was water in them there river beds. In fact, the red of the desert had been transformed into a lush green landscape - a green desert according to the residents. Following lunch at a local pub, a popular choice for the locals, it was time to walk to another, well-known local pub, "Bojangles". This pub which doubles as a night spot for the late crowd, resembled an American Wild West saloon with the traditional swinging doors. At Bojangles they waited for a bus to take them to the Desert Park on the south side of town.
Audio headsets were provided for a very informative walk through the park. The examples of different desert vegetation as well as various bird and reptile enclosures gave a real sense and feel of the desert. In the park were some native animals including M and G's first kangaroo sighting.
The afternoon in the park concluded with a bird of prey exhibit. It was amazing how the birds came in on cue. Even though it was the afternoon, an owl flew in and perched in the rafters of the open air auditorium.
Since Michel was paying, the choice for dinner was Hunamans, an Indian and Thai restaurant at the Crown Plaza Hotel. This restaurant came highly recommended and Michel persuaded Graham to venture forth. Yes Graham agreed to try it!! The food was very good and even Graham enjoyed it. Have his eating options been expanded!!
Chad and Dino spent their day in the Mornington Peninsular about an hour outside Melbourne. The trip there went through the town of Rosebud and other small towns and villages. The drive to Mornington Peninsular was like a small version of the Great Ocean Road. Later that day Dino found it strange to hear Italians' with a rich Australian accent.
Day 16 - March 26:
For Michel and Graham it was another 5:00 a.m. alarm call! This time the reason was to catch the tour bus from Alice Springs to Yulara, the resort of hotels near Uluru (Ayers Rock). The 500 KM drive would take just under 6 hours and involved two right turns, The countryside was quite flat with very long and perfectly straight sections. Just like the Canadian Prairies.
To break up the long drive, there were stops at a Camel Farm, Mount Ebenezer (not named for Scrooge but Ebenezer Flint a telegraph pioneer), and the "Central Australian Bus Terminal" for those making a connection to Kings Canyon.
This is the Bus Terminal and Transfer Point
Once some had left the coach for their transfer, the drive past by Mount Connor (not to be confused with Ayres Rock). As the drive got close to the destination they got a first glimpse of Uluru.
At 12:30 p.m. the bus trip was over and time to check-in at the Outback Pioneer Lodge. Many reviews of the hotels in Yulara were not good, so it was known before the trip that the room was going to be expensive, even for something very basic. To get a small two bed room rather than a dormitory type room cost $300.00 for one night!
This outside view for Room 103!
After a brief lunch, it was another bus ride to Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. The afternoon tour included a guided Mala Walk, visits to the Cultural Centre, the Mutitjulu Waterhole, the Kantju Gorge, and a look at some aboriginal drawings in one of the caves, and a chance to look at Manuka arts and crafts. It was time for one of the highlights of the downunder trip and, with a glass of wine in hand, M and G watched the sunset over Ayers Rock. What fantastic changing colours.
Once this truly memorable sunset had ended, it was on to an Aussie BBQ of kangaroo, beef, chicken and sausage, also in Uluru National Park. A pricey event but it was great to eat under the stars. The final event was an evening star orientation tour. There were many more stars than one sees in the northern night sky and the southern view of the Milky Way was very special.
M and G got back to the Lodge at 9:30 p.m. somewhat tired after a long and remarkable day.
For Chad and Dino, March 19th was spent exploring some more of downtown Melbourne, including several of the alleyways and narrow lanes. To see the culinary side of the Victoria Market a return trip was made. Here there were plenty of meats, cheeses, fish and other stalls to satisfy all desires. C and D. spent their last night in Melbourne out on the town partying till late into the night.
Day 17 - March 27:
Two consecutive early starts were enough for Michel but the energizer bunny was in for one more. Yes Graham was up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the bus for the Ayers Rock at Sunrise Tour. This time with a cup of tea in hand, Graham saw Uluru at sunrise. For some this was more special than the sunset the previous night.
One the sun was high in the sky, the tour bus traveled to western section of the National Park to see the the 36 domes of Kata Tjuta.
Camels were introduced into Australia around 1860 and there are now over 600,000 roaming wild. Near Kata Tjuta the first wild camels were seen.
The visit to Kata Tjuta included a very interesting walk through the Walpa Gorge.
Once back at the hotel, it was time to check-out, walk to the resort center, have lunch, and then wait for the bus to the airport for the flight to Cairns. Not only were the checked bags a little over the weight limit but one carry-on of 14 kg is not the same a two at 7 kg. Luckily, the check-in clerk was very helpful and provided an couple of extra bags to split the contents of the "offending" bag. This helped avoid an excess baggage charge of $150.00!
Would Chad and Dino get there - yes a little early!
The type of rental car that had been ordered was not available and a larger one had to be taken. With the problems with the size of the first large van, it was decided to keep it for Port Douglas and to exchange it for a smaller one later in the week during the drive from Port Douglas to Townsville.
With Ottawa's fantastic four re-connected it was on to Port Douglas, about an hour north of Cairns. A small problem occurred about half-way to Port Douglas when the group was pulled over by the police. Although Dr. Chaos was in the car he was not driving!. Apparently there was a large speed limit sign everyone missed. After a friendly warning to the visitors the journey continued.
At about 9:00 p.m. the trip was over and we checked-in at the Port Douglas Queenslander - a very nice two bedroom apartment with all "mod cons".