Getting to Know Alice
|Your Chariot Awaits: A Wayoutback Desert Safari trucks at sunrise (Leanne Mitchell)|
You see it in every major tourist destination: the phalanx of tour buses. In the Alice it's no different, and they're all heading to the same place: Uluru, King's Canyon, and Kata Tjuta. Chances are, you're in Alice Springs to see those three iconic Outback landmarks, too. To do so you've got one of two options: rent a 4x4, get a good map, and brave it yourself, or go with an outfitted tour. Those attracted to the former will likely never sway from the DIY motto, even though going with someone who knows those spotsand how to avoid the camera-wielding hordesis an added advantage. For the latter, don't feel like you've damned yourself to following the red umbrella from parking lot to overlook to restaurant. There is an alternative, and it's called Wayoutback Desert Safaris.
At first I admit I was skeptical. But when I saw the size of the safari truck when it pulled up at around five o'clock outside the Malanka backpackers on Todd Street, I knew that not all tour operators were created equal. Most buses around the Alice had been massive, Greyhound-sized trans-continental jobs with bathrooms in the back and no prayer of handling anything other than paved roads. The middle ground4x4 trucks whose size reminded me of the "special" school busoffered off-road abilities, but group numbers still hovered over at least two dozen. But our truck was small by comparison, and that was just fine with me.
My photographer and I tossed our bags into the trailer and climbed into the back of the 4x4. Twenty minutes later, we were sitting in the back of the truck with six other women (four Aussies, a Brit, an Austrian). Another womana Germansat shotgun next to our guide, a Sydneysider named Jason (or Jaaaays, as the Aussie affectionately called him), and soon Alice Springs faded in our rear-view mirror as we bounced our way toward Uluru National Park.
Wayoutback offers three- and five-day tours of Uluru, Kings Canyon, Kata Tjuta, Palm Valley, and the West MacDonnell Ranges in groups that never exceed 13 people and one guide. Getting out into the real Australian Outback is the guiding principle of Wayoutback, and it's more than mere PR-speak. The vehicles are air-conditioned, equipped with four-wheel-drive, and leave the larger tour buses quite literally in the red-toned dust. Our first night out, after meandering through King's Canyon, was spent in a remote bush camp, complete with a hot-water shower, a running "bush toilet," dinner cooked on the fire, and a night spent in sleeping bag-lined swags underneath a star-filled sky.
With such a small size, you do run the reality-TV risk of ending up with a few psychos in your crew. But, considering that the same type of people are attracted to the same type of experiences (luxury hounds hang with other first-class aficionados, while the rugged set buy each other schooners of beer at the local dive), your chances of being in a good group are strong. We had only one point of contention during our three-day safari, when the German, armed with a new Canon digital camera, vehemently insisted that we hit the traditional (read: crowded) spot for watching the sun set on Uluru, rather than Jason's less-typical, less-crowded alternative. But that was a minor upset in an otherwise perfect outing, and the modest size of our crew, combined with our guide's knowledge of the main attractions, let us change the itinerary on a whim and allowed us to sidestep a huge crew of Japanese tourists when we reached Kata Tjuta. By our second night under the stars, we were in the best of spirits, cooking dinner, making apple-filled damper (bush bread), sharing swigs of duty-free Maker's Mark, and exchanging more embarrassing tales than ever worth repeating.
What happens in the bush
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication