We joke amongst ourselves that this place is like the Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. It’s true! Believe me. I’m not the only one who has several times hung up the guiding shoes to pursue other adventures, and yet every year I return and see the same faces pull up alongside me on the highway: “I knew you’d be back”.
And I’m happy to be back! Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing things out there in the world. Last week I returned from 10 months leading people through the steamy jungles, mountains, beaches and wild fiestas of South America. Another year I left to visit some of the world’s most extravagant festivals. Or for unforgettable ski fields. And yet after all this, hearing my name called for a desert run from Adelaide to Alice Springs with Groovy Grape – it still brings a smile to my face. Seriously, I get tingles.
Let me tell you why.
The Australian outback has its own feel, its own scent, its own vibe. It’s not just that red dirt against famous blue sky, or the strange vegetation and creatures that manage to survive here. It’s not just the sense of space or the lightshow of stars on a clear night. It’s not just those occasional storms that seem to come from nowhere and turn the landscape an unbelievably lush green. It’s not just those mesmerising rocks or the magical sunsets. There’s something else. Something intangible that makes the place special. Maybe because it’s an ancient land, home to one of the oldest cultures in the world. Maybe it’s just the ultimate fresh air. But when I get there, I am always buzzing and I know my passengers feel it too.
And there’s more than the red centre. It’s the journey to get there. I’m all about the journey. Particularly when it takes me through a place like Flinders Ranges on Day One. Rugged rocks, the smell of gumtrees and the sound of kookaburra laughs just make me happy. And what else makes me happy? What can make a great journey better? Great people. I’ll admit, Day One can be the most nerve-racking time as a guide… what will my group be like? Will they be Awesome? Could they be terrible? Will they be the Best Group Ever? Maybe I’m lucky, I seem to get a lot of Best Group Evers. I just think fun people book on this tour. Anyone who is ready to get right into the centre of Australia and spend a few nights sleeping outside in a Swag is usually pretty cool.
On Day Two I always tell my passengers they should be really excited to see some salt. People look like they don’t believe me. Huh! Wait ‘til you see this salt. Some of the most beautiful salt you’ll ever see. When Lake Hart comes into view - people start to agree. And I love where we stay for the night - “underground town” Coober Pedy, the world’s opal mecca. Yes It’s weird. It’s wonderful. People ask me how anyone can possibly live in such a strange place, but I understand it. Most people are drawn here on mining ventures and the opals are… seductive. Rainbows caught in rock. So it’s like digging for rainbows. I reckon it’s the closest thing to old-school treasure hunting! It does take a special type to live here, there are some interesting characters about town - and some very charming kangaroos, too. I always have a good time in Coober Pedy, particularly if the group have enough energy to visit a genuine “underground” bar before bed.
The biggest drive is day 3, but even then we can have a lot of fun. It’s an early start, but I’ve seen some of the best sunrises of my life along the road. Usually the group are pretty excited and there is plenty of energy on board by the afternoon. I actually had a particularly great group once and when I asked them what their favourite part of the tour was, they said “All the time we spent on the bus!” I thought they were joking, but we spent so much time laughing on the long drives, I think it was true.
When we make it to the centre, Bam! Bam! Bam! So much amazing. Finally I get to introduce people to the joys of swags. Sleeping outside in the desert is seriously one of the best experiences. Some people are scared at first, but most love it by the end. Drift off to sleep to the howl of dingoes - How Aussie it that? Just get some sleep because Watarrka (Kings Canyon) rim walk is next morning. People aren’t always smiling about starting up “heart attack hill”, but it’s not too far to the top and once you make it, the smile won’t fade for hours. It just gets more and more beautiful. People might feel “wowed out” by the end, but the day is not even done. Somewhere along the next drive, Australia’s main Posterboy will come into view on the horizon. Uluru. “The Rock” itself. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve been here - I can’t keep my eyes off of Uluru. I’ve seen it red, I’ve seen it blue, I’ve seen it purple, silver, brown. Doesn’t matter to me if there’s sun or cloud or rain, there is always something special about that rock. Cross the fingers for a sunset (or even better, a storm - some of my best trips have been the wettest!).
Of course, Uluru is only one of the big Wows in the national park. We still have my personal favourite - Kata Tjuta to visit the next day. The view from Karingana lookout halfway through the Valley of the Winds walk is one of my favourite on the planet. I also enjoy digging around in the dirt and trying to explain 900 million years of geology.
I hope always to give people a chance to walk around Uluru on their own. This happens on the last morning (northbound) and I think it’s a very personal experience. For me, close-up details on Uluru, the shapes and patterns and the general feeling of the place (The Tjukurpa. What’s that? Oh you’ll learn) are more important than any sunrise or sunset (although I’d never miss one!) I like to hear everyone’s impressions afterwards. Some people come back from the walk to tell me they felt “the heart of the earth” and say they’ve seen faces, whales, lions, all sorts of crazy patterns made up from the natural cracks and curves. Other people just see a rock. It’s very individual!
People might be ready for a good sleep by the time we get to Alice Springs, but this will have to wait. We get together for a farwell dinner - people become like family in six days and we need a proper goodbye. In my experience, this generally also involves many cold beers and dancing! Alice Springs may seem small and odd (it is small and odd) but it has a very funky side to it and I always enjoy being there. It’s the people that make it. I mean, who ends up living right in the middle of Australia? Interesting people – that’s who! Everyone up there has a tale to tell and I recommend to take some time sitting outside one of the pubs chatting to whoever joins the table. It’s a proper good Aussie outback experience for sure. That’s what I love about this whole trip – I feel like the “Real Australia”.
So now I’ve been writing this and I can’t wait to get back :) I hope if you are reading and thinking about doing a tour that you come join me (or any of the guides) for the journey. It’s a seriously fun time and I always hope it’s a highlight of people’s stay in Australia.