Few travel experiences have left me as mentally drained as this, and I wasn’t even driving.
Let me start off by saying that Australia’s Uluru (AKA Ayer’s Rock) is phenomenal.
Yes it is basically just a huge lump of rock but it really does have something magical about it. Which makes visiting it worth the long drive from Alice Springs. We arrived at Uluru early in the afternoon and spent the first part of the day exploring the visitor centre. We then proceeded to sneer at the hordes of disrespectful and selfish tourists who climbed Uluru, the equivalent of clambering up The Kaaba in Mecca, before taking a fly-plagued walk around the whole of the rock itself.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today.
The sunset at Uluru is magnificent
The monolith stands out there alone in the desert, embracing the spectrum from orange through red to purple, as the sun sets. This is a sight that countless people experience every day. The viewing platforms and car park are testament to this as they were rammed full of admirers who scuttled into waiting cars and coaches as soon as the colours of the inselberg ceased in their daily progression.
The overwhelming majority of these vehicles crawled north only a few miles before ducking into the large Yulara resort complex serving Uluru. We, however, had opted to drive all the way back to Alice Springs in our rented yellow Hyundai Getz nicknamed ‘Hiro’. 450km in the rapidly fading day. This turned out to be a mistake.
An incredibly tense drive
With the moon only flashing us a slim crescent the available light for our road trip came from our headlights alone. Being a small car this wasn’t a particularly massive amount of illumination. The narrow band of light from the car could only bathe a few metres ahead of us, even on full beam. Beyond those milky edges we saw only the rare outline of shrubbery or twisted metal. We didn’t heed those signs.
As soon as night truly embraced the highway it took on a completely different character. The black on either side of the tarmac was all the deeper from looking into the patch of light in front, but we gradually came to notice the occasional silhouette on the verges. The kangaroos of the Northern Territory had awoken.
Before this trip I had never realised that roos were partly nocturnal animals but this makes a lot of sense when you stop to think about how hot it gets in the daytime. Right now they were stirred to life and seemingly very anxious to cross the Lasseter Highway. More and more of them peppered the sides of the road like chubby squat telegraph poles. Kangaroo eyes lack the tapetum lucidum – that reflective layer present in cats and other creatures which makes their eyes glow when facing light sources – so all you can see ahead of you are sinister grey shapes flanking the cone of milky grey that is the road surface under headlights.
And then the inevitable happened.
No more than 30m in front of us a kangaroo hopped into the middle of our lane and stopped to look at us, undecided on whether to cross all the way. Martyn hit the brakes and then the horn in quick succession. Unfortunately the roo bounced out of our path at the exact moment he hit the horn. This freaked the poor thing into bouncing back in front of us and into danger. I was sitting in the front passenger seat and saw the collision up close. It clipped our front left bumper and scraped along the left wing of Hiro with an almighty bang. If it had not been bouncing low and to the left its sheer height and weight would have taken it through the windscreen and into my face and chest.
We sat silently in the car for what felt like ages but what must have only been a couple of seconds. After checking that everyone was okay we got out and looked back towards Uluru. With LED flashlights and what turned out to be quite a lot of starlight we walked back up the road to see what had become of the roo.
It was lying completely still at first but then the thick tail started to slap the road surface as if it was coming back into consciousness. The power and the potential fatality of any kangaroo attack on a human is well documented and I have no idea what we were hoping to achieve by checking on it. We didn’t have the tools to finish it off and we certainly didn’t have the ability to fight back if it did decide to come at us for a bit of revenge. We retreated back to Hiro and set off up the Lasseter in silence once more, our eyes fixed fearfully on the never-ending parade of kangaroos, all of which now lurked with menace.
Martyn was pretty shaken up and we had to stop again a few miles up the road for a breather. The stars were absolutely beautiful (but not so much as when we saw the whole Milky Way whilst sailing off the Whitsunday Islands) but it was hard to enjoy them by this point. Kristina swapped into the passenger seat and took over roo-spotting duties but that didn’t stop me glaring through the windscreen for the next few hours as well.
The final 300 or so kilometres passed quietly but agonisingly. And much more slowly. Our eyes were peeled on each verge and constantly in fear of these twitchy idiots accompanying us all the way. A brightly-lit road train barged past us at massive speed and we wished for the brute strength and sanctuary the high driver’s cab provided. By the time we reached Alice Springs I was mentally exhausted, my eyes shutting themselves as soon as the Stuart Highway gained lamps. Martyn drove all the way back and must have been wrecked inside with the sheer concentration needed.
But we did make it back in one piece. Our utter hole of a hostel was of little comfort to us but we all collapsed to bed pretty damned quickly.
I often wonder whether we fatally injured that roo but I also thank my lucky stars that such a wonderful day at Uluru didn’t end with my being smooshed to paste.
The moral of the story has to be this – If you’re going to see the amazing sunset at Uluru then seriously consider staying the night around there. Don’t take the risk of the drive home to Alice Springs, especially if you’re in a vehicle that won’t be able to protect you adequately.
We were very lucky.
You may not be.