Met some nice new friends from Tennessee, Germany, Switzerland, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Hope to keep in touch with them! Our “vessel” the Coral Princess accommodates 50 passengers, but it was half-full with 23. We were also lucky to have four other young adults, near Erin’s age: the Tennesee family had their two sons, one friend and a fiancé with them. The Swiss couple Franz and Marianne live just a few minutes from Villars sur Ollon, where I skated for two summers in the 70s. They were both pilots and avid hikers, had hiked Kilamanjaro. All the passengers were very congenial. It was also interesting to hear the different places where people had traveled: African safaris and such. Fiona, the Australian travel writer knew Susan, the travel writer from Melbourne who we met at Uluru.
This was a great one-day activity, recommended by our driver who brought us from the Cairns Airport to the Shangri-La. The cable car gives you a spectacular view of the height of the rainforest, which is 190 million years old. There are two transfer points along the way. At the first stop, a park ranger gave us a guided nature walk. He told us about the basket ferns that grow high in the trees and sometimes weigh 500 lbs, making the tree fall over. He told us the age of a giant fig tree, let us feel the velvety back of a species of ginger leaf and showed a benign looking poisonous plant. We saw another parasitic tree that starts in a high branch of another tree, then throws down roots, wraps itself around the host and even neighboring trees and may eventually smother the host. It was one big competition for light in the forest, where only 2% of the light reaches the ground. The second transfer point offered a view of a waterfall. Then, we arrived at Kuranda, a fun little village with many boutiques and cafes and also a butterfly farm. We saw some bright neon blue butterflies and some neon green birds in the forest. Some trees looked like giant white poinsettias (they weren’t, and I’ll have to research what they are.).
We did a little shopping and had a yummy lunch, and then came back down the cable cars for a 3:30 pickup and ride to the cruise ship terminal for 4pm boarding.
Wake up call at 4am; check out and depart on a large tour bus at 5am for the three hour drive to Kings Canyon. Stopped for breakfast at a roadside camp – very bare bones. Paid $50 for three plates of eggs, bacon (like ham), two pieces of dry toast and coffee. Bought the 1.5 liters of water per person we needed for our 6 km hike of the Rim. The guide interviewed each of us to see if we were fit for the strenuous hike up “cardiac hill,” the first 500 steps in stone. Yes, she said a woman had a heart attack there just three days ago and had to be taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital, which was a three hour drive away. We were all surprised both by how strenuous the hike was, as the terrain all rock up and down, stepping wide across crevices and at a very fast pace; the guide was always saying hurry up. When you take photos, you have to stop and snap them fast (no way can you walk and take photos at the same time, as you would trip in an instant). The scenery was amazing, in the same league with the Grand Canyon. Charlie commented that it was too bad you had to keep looking at your feet and where you were stepping, because the scenery is incredible, and there was no time to stop for more than a few seconds. Then Charlie punctuated his thought, saying, “Oh well!” which made me laugh. Erin and Charlie took turns carrying the backpack with the three water bottles, which we really needed. It was warm and we worked hard and got very thirsty very often. Good news was the load got lighter as the journey progressed. I had my heavy DSLR camera around my neck and in one hand and small Canon in the other hand, and I struggled to balance as we scaled down rocks that offered ledges too narrow to place your foot down in any way but sideways. Our quads got a major workout. At one point we crossed some wooden bridges and descended into the canyon to the Garden of Eden where there is an oasis of cool water. You could swim, if you could get in and out in a matter of three minutes! We saw many dead trees and opportunistic plants. Snakes inhabit the canyon, but we didn’t see them, only lizards, ants and flies. Charlie and I wore our fly nets, and Erin applied lots of the cream. The hike was EXHAUSTING, and we all thought we would be very sore later. (By some Easter miracle, we were fine.)
For the Uluru sunset, Cheryl made the choice to set up our champagne and snack at a private shelter. We were exhausted from hiking in the heat and having started our day at 4 am, and I had taken so many photos in the past two days, I admitted to being “all pictured out.” Charlie and Erin raised their glasses in a toast and we all had a laugh. Do you know why the shelter was private? Because from that vantage point, you couldn’t take a good photo of Uluru: it was in shadow, and of course the sunset was brilliantly bright. Hundreds of tourists were huddled like outback flies at a superior vantage point. It was okay. I was ready to put the camera down and enjoy several glasses of Australian bubbly. Excellent day, excellent guide. As Courtney would say, “Epic.” We were all very thankful.
Cheryl told us many of the Aboriginal legends that have been passed down for years: stories with morals about not lying or stealing with terrible fates befalling the unfortunate folks who made bad choices. Of course, there are signs in the rocks (like a huge skull shape on the side of Uluru) that tie into the fables. We learned just one Aboriginal word, “mullah-mullah,” which means “looks pretty but doesn’t do anything useful.” The English settlers would ask the natives their names for various new plants they found, and this one purple flower was called a “mullah-mullah.” Story made good material for inside jokes.
Some caves like the private one where the men meet were strictly off limits to photography due to Aboriginal requirements. Cheryl asked that we delete any such photos from the camera if we inadvertently shot them. The Aboriginals also don’t want people to climb their rock; they feel it is horribly disrespectful. When the tourist rules were negotiated, the white people would not agree to a complete ban, and left one area open for climbing. We observed many of these tourists obsessed with climbing making a line up the hot rock along a handrail, but personally I think the government should have banned climbing completely. Mainly, I think I think the wishes of the Aboriginals should be respected, but also climbing this steep and hot rock in the hot summer is very dangerous. Forty people have died on the rock and scores more have died after climbing from heart attacks. The Aboriginals also don’t like to be photographed, so we kept that courtesy in mind, too.
Cheryl of SEIT Tours picked us up again at 4:30pm (2:30am EDT!) for day hikes around the base of Uluru. It was a glorious sunny, warm day. Again Cheryl took a wonderful family photo of us with the big red Uluru rising from the plain behind us. Talk about a small world, Cheryl had checked my website over the lunch break and commented on the Normandy cemetery photo! She also shared with us her own beautiful photographs of Uluru. We drove to the base of the monolith and began the Mala Walk around the base, stopping to see naturally eroded caves, some with Aboriginal paintings. Uluru is sandstone but also rich with iron, and a lightening rod during a thunderstorm. Again, the scale is enormous, and I recommend a personal visit to anyone who loved seeing the Grand Canyon. It is the same sort of wonder. As we approached water holes, you could feel the air get cooler. Walking around every bend revealed another striking view – perfectly suiting the style of my own photography, as I am attracted to naturally occurring abstract shapes and blocks of color. The blue sky was brilliant against the orange rock, and I commented that these colors, on opposite sides of the color wheel are stunningly beautiful juxtaposed like this.