Horse Racing at Alice Springs, Saturday 23rd April 2016

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When I decided to take the job in Australia there was one trip that I wanted to do more than any other and that was to visit Uluru, or Ayers Rock as it’s more commonly known among English folks of my generation.

A little bit of research suggested that the best way to do it was by way of a road trip from Alice Springs and so that’s what we did, taking a flight there from Darwin to save fifteen hundred kilometres of driving each way and then making the journey from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock and back in a camper van over a five day period.

There’s not a great deal goes on at Alice Springs. If I mention that, horse racing aside, the highlights of our time there were visits to museums celebrating the School of the Air and the Postal Service respectively, you’d probably conclude and quite rightly in my opinion, that Alice Springs is fine for a night or two whilst on the way to somewhere else.

We picked up the camper van with the intention of driving the five hundred kilometres to Ayers Rock in one day. However, a later than planned start meant that I wasn’t sure that we’d be there before dark. With that in mind we called it a day at the Curtin Springs Campground, about an hour and a half short of our original plan.

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It was a good decision. The campground had electric hook ups so that we could crank the air-conditioning up and an outdoor restaurant with a couple of small dogs that we could discreetly feed with sausages.

Best of all we had a view in the distance of the ‘fake Ayers Rock’, Mount Conner. To my untrained eye it didn’t look any different from its more famous rival. Perhaps it’s all about marketing.

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Next morning we drove the remaining one hundred and forty kilometres to Ayers Rock, arriving at around 9am. It was already busy with coachloads of tourists listening to their guides telling them about rock art, whilst others were taking the path to the top.

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The traditional owners, the Anangu people, don’t approve of visitors walking on the rock and request that visitors don’t do it. It looked quite steep to us and so we were happy to comply with their wishes, choosing instead to take the eleven kilometre trail that went around it.

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A small part of the walk was in the shade but our late start meant that most of it was in the sun. It was ok, as rocks go, but if I’m honest a bit on the dull side. The flies were a nuisance too. We’d bought head nets but who wants to walk around with a net on your head?

Jen’s net came attached to her hat which she thought made it ideal for a wedding.

The next morning we called in at Ayers Rock to catch the sunrise, or at least we would have done if we’d managed to arrive three or four minutes earlier. We then drove on to Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas as it was previously known.

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This was a much more interesting place and we walked the Valley of the Winds trail. It was as windy at times as its name would suggest and there were more flies than at Ayers Rock but we had our nets so it wasn’t a big deal. The scenery though was fantastic, like nothing I’d seen anywhere else.

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The Valley of the Winds is a circular, eight kilometre walk with a steepish descent, then a climb up to the sort of place that would have worked well for holding up Simba in the Lion King. Or at least it would have done if Australia had lions.

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It was less busy than Ayers Rock and that’s another reason why I preferred it. The park authorities only let you walk if it’s below a certain temperature so it’s definitely worth setting off early.

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The next day we drove to King’s Canyon. I suppose what we should have done was just set off once we’d finished our Olgas hike. There’s not a lot to do in these places once you’ve finished walking and if you are keen, like me, to be somewhere with air-conditioning then you might as well be driving rather than just sitting about in the camper van.

The campsite at King’s Canyon is notorious for dingoes and we were fortunate enough to spot some wandering around. We barbecued some sausages that evening in the hope of tempting them in but it didn’t happen. I reckon I could have trained them to sit up and beg if I’d had some of Blackwell’s finest.

Despite the scenery at the Olgas, King’s Canyon turned out to be the best walk of the trip. We did the route around the rim that has an initial steep ascent but then takes you around both sides of the canyon before making a gradual decent into the valley.

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A lot of the rocks reminded me of those in Africa as we’d seen similar on the various farms that we’d stayed at in Gauteng or Mpumalanga, although not many of those places had as impressive a canyon.

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The rim walk was about seven kilometres from start to finish and then we extended our hike by adding in a couple more kilometres along the less strenuous valley walk inside the canyon.

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I’d learned my lesson the previous day and despite having a campsite booking for two nights we made better use of our time by driving back to Alice Springs that afternoon. It meant that we didn’t have to rush the next day to get the camper van back before the office shut and it also freed enough time to be able to go to the races.

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I suspect the race meetings at Pioneer Park are the highlights of life in Alice Springs. After all, there’s only so many times that you can spend your weekends at the Postal Museum.

Everyone seemed much more dressed up than I’d have expected them to be, or at least they were much more dressed up than we were. Mind you, that’s not unusual, even in Darwin. Maybe Jen should have worn her fly-net hat.

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A quick scan through the race card showed that most of the horses were trained in Alice Springs. That’s not surprising I suppose, as it’s a couple of days drive minimum to anywhere of note. It means that the same horses will run against each other throughout the season though.

As with a lot of country courses there was a decent backdrop. I like that. Hexham is probably my favourite UK racecourse and it’s as much for the scenery as anything else.

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As in Darwin, there were proper bookmakers. I like that too. It’s always good to be able to shop around for the best price rather than having to take the tote return.

If I remember rightly we had one winner, although once we’d taken the ten dollar admission, the racecard, the pie and chips and ice creams into account we were probably down on the day.

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That day at the races brought the Ayers Rock road trip to an end. It brought the Australian adventure to an end too. My job had finished a month or so earlier and after spending some time seeing the places that we hadn’t yet gotten around to it was time to fly back to the UK to catch the climax of the Boro’s promotion campaign.

There were some great places to visit in Australia; Sydney and Brisbane were good, whilst I’m pleased we made it to Litchfield, Kakadu and managed the outback trip. We’ve watched dingoes, koalas and kangaroos in the wild and seen enough spiders to fill a bath. The Darwin climate wasn’t for me though and I feel as if I spent most of the seven months that we were there in an air-conditioned bubble.

My next job is in Malaysia where it looks to be a few degrees cooler than Darwin. I’ll settle for that.

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