The Field of Light will stay lit

Months ago when I visited Uluru in Central Australia I posted a story about the sculptural installation known as the Field of Light. I explained this remarkable land-covering spectacle would be removed early this year. I urged people to come and experience this. Well – stop press news!  The exhibition is being extended until 31 December 2020.

So give yourself a break, a much needed holiday. Travel to Uluru and while you stay somewhere in the Ayers Rock Resort complex, make sure you dedicate one dark evening to exploring this Field of Light.

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Day of departure

Sunday.  D Day. Departure day. As the day dawned I began to feel bereft yet I was still in that extraordinary environment. I had no time to revisit Uluru or Kata Tjuta but there was time to revisit the town centre and the cultural outlets nearby, this time with feet less sore (my visit there would be early in the day) before travelling to the Connellan airport and flying home to Hobart.

When my luggage was packed and stored at the hotel’s reception, I boarded the town shuttle bus and headed off to the Town Centre, with Betty expecting to take a later bus because her flight to Cairns was leaving later in the afternoon.

Methodically I worked my way through all the clothing and souvenir shops admiring the quality of the products and the creativity shown with many. I spent some time in the IGA supermarket and left with a prepared salad that I could eat for lunch. Then I ordered breakfast at the Kulata Academy Café .  At Kulata, trainees of the Ayers Rock Resort’s National Indigenous Training Academy take the first step in their hospitality career. Here, trainees learn a range of skills in a supported environment to help prepare them for exciting careers in the hospitality industry. The Kulata Academy Café menu included a wide range of fresh sandwiches along with salads, coffee or tea with an array of cakes and pastries, and breakfast classics like fresh yogurt, smoothies and fruit options.  The traffic flow within the café and the management flow for making an order, paying and receiving an order were most professional – and fast and accurate.  Very impressive. ‘The resort displays an impressive commitment to training indigenous employees who now make up 36% of the workforce, and who also lead free cultural activities each day, including at the Wintjiri art gallery, and the Mani-Mani theatre, where local stories are told through song and dance.’ (Amelia Lester, The Age Good Weekend, mid 2017).

Passing the Mani-Mani theatre  (too early in the day for it to be open) I walked through laneways to the Wintjiri Art Gallery adjacent to the Desert Sands Hotel.  Contemporary art and craft are for sale. In addition, a large space to one side has been established as a museum.  Drawings showing the underlying geological shape of the area, were displayed here.20170903_094342.jpgI exhausted the possibilities in and around the Town Centre and bussed back to my hotel.

Dinner in town

Still Saturday. Initially Betty and I expected to dine in each of the three hotels for comparisons and a broad experience, however on our last night we were ready for something casual and comparatively simple.  In particular, we loved the whimsical name of one outlet in the town centre; Ayers Wok Noodle Bar.Ayers Wok shop.JPGWe knew there were a range of cafes and restaurants in the town centre so we decided to take the bus and walk around the town centre until we found our fancy.  The noodle bar was our final choice.

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Ayers Wok’s take away menu was attractive and popular, but I also wanted to drink a glass of red wine something which they did not provide. I approached the Gecko’s Café/Restaurant next door to ask whether it would be possible to sit at their outside tables, eat the Wok food and drink their wine.  ‘Yes we are connected businesses’, was the easy response.  Our dinner that night was incredibly pleasant sitting in the mild evening air, and watching people moving around the town centre. A wonderful conclusion to a magnificent day.

Deep into Walpa Gorge

Thrilling. Walking up and up into a narrowing Gorge with immensely high walls getting closer and closer.  The wind pushing and pulling all the while.  Cold winds.  Beanie and thick winter jacket winds. The sun was striking strong out on the flat lands but its rays were yet to infiltrate the Gorge.  Looking back and westwards to the flat lands, I was surprised by the intensity of the contrast between light and dark. You would have noticed that aspect in the video at the end of the last blog post. And yet all was visible as I walked.

Gradually the wide stony track narrowed, descended then wound over a small creek and up and around through vegetation and onwards (in the following photos, the widening gap at the end of the Gorge provides some indication of distance travelled).   20170902_081746.jpg

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20170902_081423.jpgGradually I lost sight of my bus companions and driver, although other tourists were wandering along. This allowed me to enjoy looking at the local plants.       20170902_080526.jpg

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20170902_080234.jpgOver a few boardwalks finally I reached the viewing platform at the end of the walk allowed me to hold on (against the ruffling of the wind) and experience the end of the rocky Gorge.  I looked up and the sunlight was beginning to hit the top of the Gorge walls.  The sun line lowered as I began the trek out of the Gorge.    20170902_081426.jpg

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20170902_083549.jpgAs I retraced my steps, the driver caught up with me and relayed some of the information he had shared with others. Since I had one-on-one time with him I was able to ask the questions important to me.  Then, as we crossed an exposed part of the rocky track, I was blown violently into the driver on the lower side of the hill – thankful he was in the right place to halt my movement. Completely lost my balance and grabbed the air and the ground without falling. The strength of the eddies and gusts were most surprising.

The scale of each gorge amazed me. The vastness of the land impressed me. 20170902_074726.jpg

20170902_083553.jpgThis was a simple 2.6 km return walk, and an easy walk but certainly not suitable for those with mobility or balance problems.  Documents suggest the walk takes an hour. I believe we were there for longer – savouring the moments, feeling the environment.  Just being.

Then we were travelling back to the Ayers Rock Resort past the red earth.20170902_092013.jpg

20170902_092014.jpgWith a driver who continued to surprise.  I was the only obviously Australian on the bus; the others seemed to be tourists from Asian countries.  Had we heard of Banjo Patterson, the driver asked.  I responded with a yes but the rest were silent and looked blankly seemingly unaware they were being spoken to. Unperturbed, the driver explained the significance of Banjo and then began to recite his poetry.  Starting with The Man from Snowy River followed by Clancy of the Overflow, he continued on to The Road to Gundagai before concluding with Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.  I have a vague feeling The Geebung Polo Club might also have had an airing that day. The driver’s pacing and intonation was excellent, and I was impressed with his memory and delivery. My fellow bus travellers persisted with searching their mobiles for god knows what.  Seemingly it was a cultural expression too weird, too unexpected, and too foreign. For me it was an additional element in a package of accidental experiences; one that layered riches onto my visit.

Thank goodness for comforts

My feet were so sore I felt like crawling, but mind over matter is the way forward and so, at the Mutitjulu/Kuniya carpark, I climbed onto the bus without a grimace but with a sigh of pleasure.  We shuttled back to the Ayers Rock Resort. I resolved to get off at the first hotel, have one or more well-deserved sparkling wines, and suss it out as a potential place for dinner one evening.

I staggered off the bus at the Sails in the Desert Hotel, the most expensive of the three hotels in this little tourist town.  I made it through an airy foyer with glass cases containing beautiful objects (none of which I had the energy to look at, regrettably) and collapsed into a comfortable chair in a light atrium. A waitress, travelling the world from France, kept me supplied with drinks while I logged into the WiFi and checked myself back into the electronic world. Apart from the fact I never wanted to stand on my feet again, I was chuffed. So profoundly happy.  So excited about the things I had seen and experienced during the day.

I took a much larger volume of photos than appear in this blog, and there were people I met and other situations which have not made it into the blog (if I included everything, then it could be Christmas next year before this series of blog posts are complete). It is sufficient to say my walk around Uluru was a remarkably rich experience mostly because of the landscape and the way the changing light affected it, and for its associated aboriginal histories.

As I sat in the hotel I could see that I carried the dust as evidence of the walk – and even though I travelled back to Hobart in these boots that wonderful desert soil stayed attached. The photos show my greenish coloured leather boots as a shade of brown but it was red dust that coloured them.  Images in earlier blogposts show the red soil –I will add another below to remind you. IMG_0537

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20170831_091452.jpg  Before leaving the Sails in the Desert Hotel I visited the restaurant and realised Betty and I could expect an excellent meal. However while we planned to eat there one evening, the range of eating options across the Ayers Rock Resort township meant we were attracted to other places and we never made it.

Once the bus shuttled me back to the Outback Pioneer Hotel,  Betty and I prepared for dinner at our Hotel’s restaurant, the Bough Restaurant.  On offer – ‘For dinner, share in the spirit of outback Australia and enjoy a roast of the day served alongside a delicious buffet. Buffet selections offer international flavours that include vegetarian options, with a great selection of desserts to complete your meal.’ Unfortunately, dinner requires guests to be locked into a one-price deal so if you only planned to have a soup for example, this wasn’t possible unless you paid the full price.  At that stage of our experience in the Ayers Rock Resort township, the fact that a hospitality training school (the National Indigenous Training Academy)for indigenous peoples from all over Australia was stationed in the complex and their students had work experience in various venues across town, was not registering with us.  If we had known then we would have been more accommodating when we found offering a tip wasn’t straightforward, and when the bill for our evening meal was entered onto our room account incorrectly – all of which was solved later.

With the achievement of having walked around Uluru in mind, and fascinated by all of Betty’s local discoveries during the day, the excellent meal made me drowsy quickly.  Our first full day in this region was over. Bed beckoned and I was soon unconscious.

Sunrise over Uluru

Thursday – Was it 4.45 am when I awoke and dressed warmly (was it 2 degrees outside?), loaded my backpack with food and water and clothing for sunny times, and left Betty sleeping? After paying for my three day Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s Pass, I caught the shuttle Hop On-Hope Off bus (at 5.30 am in pitch blackness) – with Uluru my ultimate destination.20171026_084443.jpg

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Hoponhopoffbus map.JPGUluru bus shuttle.JPGAt the official entrance to the National Park sits a drive-through small building where car travellers buy their Parks Passes. As a bus load, we were instructed to hold our Pass up to the window, and then the bus drove very slowly through while the Park’s entry-station staff member stared then nodded their approval to proceed. I loved the efficiency of this process but it did make me smile; and every time I entered the Park the process was repeated.  I had entered officially onto Anangu land with its Anangu law.

The sky began to lighten gently as we travelled towards a viewing platform at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku  (about 35 minutes away from the Ayers Rock Resort),  to watch the sun rise over Uluru.  I was not particularly interested in the drama of a sunrise, rather I was keen to start walking around the rock. However, no shuttle buses drop passengers close to the rock until around 8am so I was locked into the sunrise viewing after which the bus’s first stop at the rock would be the Mutitjulu Waterhole.

When the bus reached the carpark at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku, we were situated about 4 kms away from Uluru and passengers were alerted not to walk through the grasses in that direction – the distance was greater than it looked.

20170831_064100.jpgTalinguru Nyakunytjaku has a viewing platform and a number of walks.  A long wide track led to the platform and people from tours and other buses sped uphill eager to see the sun rise. As usual I dallied. I talked with the driver. I walked up the track (almost a freeway!)  slowly and read all the interpretation panels.  Being alone – everyone had raced ahead –  allowed me to feel the morning. To get a sense of where I was.20170831_064202.jpg

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20170831_064241.jpgGradually the light brightened.20170831_064250.jpg

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20170831_064742.jpgNote Kata Tjuta on the horizon to the left of Uluru in the last photographs.

Eventually I reached the many layered extensive viewing platform.  At one end people stood three deep facing east to take photos directly into the sun. I thought that was foolish and stood waiting for the light to change on Uluru.20170831_064927.jpg

20170831_065000.jpgAnd then I decided to begin the walk back and see the changes across the landscape between me and Uluru rather than being distracted by hyper people.20170831_065549.jpg

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20170831_070251.jpgA while later we boarded the bus and set off for the Kuniya carpark near the Mutitjulu waterhole.  It was during these minutes on the road that I became conscious that Uluru is not a smooth ‘loaf of bread’ (my mind had expected it to be more or less smooth and it took a while for me to face the truth), a fact that was reinforced time and again as I walked around it later.20170831_072809.jpg

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Off to dinner- not just any dinner

Uluru airport.JPGThe airport shuttle bus dropped us at our accommodation, the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge after driving around the Ayers Rock Resort circuit with the driver noting key spots for our information – other hotels, cafes and restaurants, the Town Square, staff quarters, walking tracks, the caravan and camping park (where 300 or so Stuck on the Middle With You’s women lodged themselves) vantage points to watch sunrises and sunsets on Uluru, and much more. 20171026_084610.jpgAt reception we bought our bus passes to transport us to and from Uluru and Kata Tjuta (me a 3 day pass and Betty a 2 day pass). 20171026_084506.jpgWe wandered around our Hotel complex and found shops, bars, restaurants, laundries, kitchens, a swimming pool, and more.  We stayed in the Hotel while the Lodge buildings seemed to be designed for low priced accommodation suitable for backpacker type guests who chose not to camp.

At 5.30 pm packed with all our warm gear, Betty and I joined our pre-booked coach for sunset over Uluru, dinner in the desert, a talk about the stars, and the experience of the Field of Lights sculptural installation.20171026_084546.jpgAs the sun was setting the landscape coloured richly.20170830_175221.jpgI noticed thousands of tall trees with a narrow shaft of vegetation.20170830_175402.jpgIn subsequent days I learnt that these trees grow in this way until their tap root reaches water very deep down, and then they give themselves permission to grow out as well as up. In this way they grow to look like what we might think of as a typical rounded bush tree top shape.

I do not seem to have photos of the sunset over Uluru (perhaps the endless sparkling wine in my glass and the delightful canapes kept both hands full) but I do have shots of the sun setting near Kata Tjuta.20170830_182911.jpg

20170830_182920.jpg When a dusky light covered the land and my camera was not facing the too bright light of the sunset, Uluru stood out prominently.20170830_182954.jpgWe walked along a red dirt track until we reached a cluster of round tables with crisp white fabric cloths.  At random, we were grouped into eight people and directed towards a table.  The wine and bush tucker inspired food flowed for hours. As did the laughter.  We were so fortunate to sit at a table with entertaining people who were loving the experience. Portable heaters kept the air warm around us. And millions of stars sparkled above us. An astronomy expert, a Star Talker, with an excellent conversational style introduced us to configurations in the heavens, and we all looked up in wonder (that is if my experience is a general one, often wondering whether we were looking at the right thing – the many glasses of sparkling wine made distinguishing the stars in the sparkling night sky challenging). But that part of the night was another vital ingredient in a mix that was endlessly entertaining.

Finally it was time to leave the dinner table and my congenial companions for the Field of Lights, in an area larger than two MCG grounds. Over the hours we had seen, in the distance, part of the landscape colouring with light. Now it was time to experience this extraordinary installation up close. Bruce Munro is the artist and he shows some of his work here.

The Ayers Rock Resort website says ‘The exhibition, aptly named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’ in the local Pitjantjara language is Munro’s largest work to date, with more than 50,000 slender stems crowned with radiant frosted-glass spheres over an area the size of seven football fields.’ Please go to this website and look at the photos – as you can see below my camera was most inadequate for night shots of the Field of Light.

20170830_213146.jpgThe artist Bruce Munro has said ‘I saw in my mind a landscape of illuminated stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, quietly wait until darkness falls, under a blazing blanket of southern stars, to bloom with gentle rhythms of light.’ The look of this site-specific light installation was spectacular. The scale of the installation was larger than I imagined.  The colours varied and blinked. And there were multiple pathways through these slender lit stems so that, as I walked (we were free to self-guide our way), I became immersed in that strange landscape. I felt like ‘picking these flowers’ – that is how it seemed to me. Another Northern Territory website presents a colourful view of the lights. Hypnotic. Dazzling.  A big idea for a big space. A world of visual magic.  This installation was due to be dismantled earlier this year but by popular demand it’s life in the central Australian desert has been extended to March 2018.

From our morning in Ross River dust and rustication, to experiencing an aerial view of the big land,  to the sophistication of a technological marvel at the end of the day in pristine night air, I was moved through extremes of thought and emotion. It was a big day of rich encounters. I hardly recall getting on the bus, travelling back to the Hotel and falling into bed after 5 hours of endless delights. But I know I did, because the next day involved me in new monumental  episodes.

Between airports

We were lucky. As we parked the car at Alice Springs airport after the agreed return time, the man who had hired the car to us and helped to get it started days before, just happened to be in the carpark.  We fell about him offering profuse apologies.  No extra charges were added to our account!

The Alice Springs Airport is delightfully airy even while you look out at a searingly dry heated landscape. Rich colours and patterns made this airport interesting to look at.   Wikipedia provides factual information here.

Our destination was Connellan Airport which services the Ayers Rock Resort (Yulara) and access to Uluru (including Mititjulu) and Kata Tjuta.Alice and Yulara and Mititjulu.JPGWe were lucky in our flight choice.  Very few passengers had booked on the Qantas Link plane so every guest had a spare seat next to them if they chose, and a window seat from which to see Uluru and Kata Tjuta and the wide land beneath.  The attendants were relaxed and comfortable to chat (or not depending on need ) because they had time on their hands and no unruly passengers to divert their attention.  The views were expansive. Grand. More salting lakes. 20170830_141048.jpg

20170830_141350.jpgAnd then.  My heart missed a beat. From the haze that monumental ‘loaf of bread’ took shape. I was on my way to Uluru (previously known as Ayers Rock).  It would be days before I understood the geology of its existence as a high prominence in an otherwise flat land.20170830_142255.jpgDirectly below, the way the vegetation dotted the land indicated to me that some aboriginal paintings are simply a realistic depiction of the randomness and the clustering and the odd open spaces between.  They are not stylised symbolic depictions.  They can be true representations.20170830_142327.jpgPhew! Another highlight.  Another grand vision.  There on the horizon sat the aged Kata Tjuta (previously known as The Olgas). I felt I stopped breathing.  Here I was in a machine only recently invented in the bigger scheme of things, flying above one of the oldest surfaces on earth. I found all the ideas difficult to put together.20170830_142459.jpgThe closer we flew to the ground the redder the earth seemed. We landed at Connellan Airport and red roads and red soil brightly packed itself across the landscape.  I realised that when aboriginal painters use this red colour as a base, they are creating a realistic depiction of the landscape.  It seems I am a ‘doubting Thomas’ who has to see to believe, to understand, and to know.

Outside the airport under the shade of a long overhang, an air-conditioned hotel shuttle bus waited for us.  The driver was an excellent source of information about the Ayers Rock Resort/Yulara complex and all its services.  I can see clearly that people who drive themselves here cannot know what we learnt, and therefore will not know how to get the best out of the Resort and the access to Uluru and Kata Tjuta.  I am so pleased that Betty and I decided not to hire a car.  Half a world of relevant and useful information would have passed us by and we would not even have realised our ignorance.

Between the airport and the resort complex, Uluru was visible.  Betty and I took over the front four seats and marvelled at unforgettable views of the landscape. 20170830_144957.jpg

20170830_145102.jpg  Kata Tjuta was barely visible from within the bus but it was out there, poking up from the horizon.20170830_145125.jpgI was in awe of the big sky.  An expanse of azure. Then I spotted the moon.  Stunning.20170830_145159.jpgToday we had travelled 600 or so kilometres from one environment to a new location.  Central Australia is a huge space.Uluru - map of resort.JPG

Leaving Ross River Resort

Tuesday – Betty and I were booked for another 12 hour excursion; this time into and around Alice Springs for cultural and social history, and general tourism sites.  But we were too tired from Monday’s trip to the West MacDonnell Ranges. We turned over and went back to sleep.  Eventually we spent the day meandering around the Ross River Resort, reading, chatting, beginning to repack our gear and generally enjoying a laziness along with others.

Wednesday – The day of departure from the Stuck in the Middle With You’s event.20171026_084213.jpgWe had a hire car to return, a Qantas Link plane to catch, an arrival at the Connellan Airport  that services the Ayers Rock Resort/Yulara, a sighting of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and a dinner amidst a Field of Lights to encounter. After packing, I walked around taking my last photos of the Ross River Resort.

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20170830_081148.jpgWe had been Stuck in the Middle … with a diverse group of women for almost five days.  I am immensely grateful for the initiative of the organisers. Without their planning I would never have visited this extraordinarily beautiful part of the world.  I would never have scheduled so much time in such a place.  Only with that length of time did I have the mental and physical space to ‘feel’ the land and begin to appreciate its scope, age, diversity and spectacle. It was here that I learnt that dust, red dust was simply a part of central Australian life.  Over time, it became part of me and I grew to love the fact that in a small way the land was reclaiming me.

Now it was time to leave. We donated our excess water bladders and food to other women and then Betty was driving and we were on our way westwards to Alice Springs. Leaving the East MacDonnell Ranges.20170830_082854.jpgOn arrival in Alice Springs we decided to find the Araluen Arts Centre which, back in 1988, I had visited when organising the education program for a nationally touring exhibition for the Bicentennial celebrations: The Face of Australia. These days this Centre is part of a much larger complex and we explored some of it.

Once we parked the car, my attention was attracted to brilliant examples of flowering Sturt’s Desert Pea.  An aboriginal woman passed me while I was taking photographs and told me stories about these flowers in terms of indigenous culture – alas, I have forgotten those stories (this makes me realise I don’t  live in a culture of oral stories).20170830_094556.jpgA website explaining the symbolism of Australian native plants, provides information about the attached indigenous understanding here: ‘An archetypal story of doomed love, a young couple elope against the wishes of their kin (she is already betrothed to another), leaving the woman’s tribe to live with the man’s people far away. The woman eventually bears a child, a son whom the couple love dearly. The woman has a gift for channelling the songs of the spirits, and would often sing their words. One day they warn of impending danger and also of immortality for their son. The woman warns her husband but he is too complacent, disregarding the message as foolishness. Shortly afterwards, in the dark of night, the woman’s former betrothed sneaks upon them and he and his men slaughter them all – man, woman and child. Their blood stains the soil and the boy’s body is transformed into the first Sturt’s Desert Pea – his immortal life is begun. A season later, the man returns to gloat over the bones and finds instead the flowers growing abundantly. The Great Spirit, in retribution, sends down a bolt of lightning, killing him instantly and transforming his body into a rock, which is shattered into millions of pieces. The tears of the grief-stricken song spirits dry and turn to salt, causing the salinity of the lakes in that region. This flower symbolises pain and endings, perhaps representing a loss of enthusiasm or something ending in your life, if encountered. Yet this loss in the Dreaming results in something beautiful – the Sturt’s Desert Pea! The flower appears as if it has a black eye in its heart. When something is black it normally denotes something very negative or even evil, however we can choose to regard this part of the flower as that part of us which can see through any pain and suffering to view the immortality or unchanging aspects of our spirituality. The solace Sturt’s Desert Pea can bring is that there is a higher purpose behind every tragedy in life, and if something appears wrong, then the laws of karma will certainly even things out in the long run!’20170830_094549.jpgInitially, we entered the performance theatre building of the Araluen Centre with its large foyer hung with fascinating and very attractive works of art (none of this was built when I last visited). Adjacent to this was an extensive private art gallery selling all manner of artworks produced in the region, plus a public gallery space displaying some of the permanent collection.  The website shows lots of colourful images to give you the feeling of the place – look here.    A map of the Araluen Cultural Precinct can be examined here.   We looked in on other buildings at craft exhibitions.

I found the item marked number 10 on the map to be the most interesting. It was an 18 metre long outdoor sculpture formed in the nature of a giant caterpillar by artist Dan Murphy working with local indigenous participants (remember Emily and Jessie Gaps contained paintings of the sacred caterpillars – Yeperenye).  As you walked through, the sound of voices explaining certain aspects and singing could be heard.  In addition, various interpretation panels could be read.  With the dazzling light coming through at all sorts of angles I found it was impossible to photograph.  One online image will give you an idea of what I saw – note there is more than one image so use the forward arrows to see all the photos.

Before heading off to the airport, we sat comfortably out of the heating sun in Yaye’s café within the Araluen precinct and enjoyed a cuppa. We felt so relaxed that we didn’t have the energy to look at all the offerings in the precinct – opportunities such as The Central Australian Aviation Museum, the Museum of Central Australia, the Strehlow Research Centre, the Kookaburra Memorial and the Big Sister Hill (a sacred site).

Lazily back on the road again, we were drifting down the Stuart Highway when suddenly we jumped with urgency –we would be late returning our hire car.  It is a 20 minute drive from Alice Springs to the airport – we left around 11.45 am and the car needed to be returned at midday. Of course, we fretted about the possibility of additional charges but there was nothing to do except continue onwards.