On holiday with Bear Grylls*

by Monday, September 17, 2018

Guest Traveller Ngaire Keane’s outback holiday, from Adelaide, South Australia, to the arid ‘red centre’ of Australia’s Northern Territory, started when she picked up the campervan. It was supposed to be a beast of a vehicle: roof stage, room for three, massive tent. Her uncle (or second Dad) took one look at it and nixed the idea immediately. Safety first! So, instead, she drove away in a sedate, white, sensible van – no tent or roof stage, but still a mini kitchen and bed, which she figured was all they needed. Fancy hitching a ride to the Red Centre with a couple of adventurers? Let’s get on the road… 

The first day of driving is a long haul from Adelaide to Coober Pedy. My friend arrives at 7:30am and we start packing her things into the van. She’s spent $270 on groceries for 6 days of camping! She’s also purchased some brand new Jamie Oliver knives (not necessary, the van has a knife). And it is with these knives, in her need to pack the van at a frenetic pace, that she stabs herself in the thigh. Blood streaming down her leg, she carries on.

*It appears I’m on holiday with Bear Grylls.

We get to Port Augusta and have a brief stop at the chemist to consider the thigh wound, but my friend is a nurse and decides soldiering on is the best path so that is what we do. After hours of non-stop driving and plenty of salt bush, wind mills and red sand to look at, we make it to Coober Pedy just at dusk. Not a single kangaroo jumped out at us to threaten our lives. We set up in the overflow area of the camping ground, unpack our table, chairs, esky and beers and prepare to live like kings. We’re in bed by about 10pm!

Good news: not a single kangaroo jumped out at them. Photo by Carles Rabada on Unsplash.

The morning starts with a delightful hot shower (another not to be seen for 5 days), and then it’s destination: Uluru [Ayers Rock]. There were brief petrol stops, but it’s just drive, drive, drive. And more scrub to look at. My friend warns me that the first big rock we’ll see won’t be Uluru. And when Mount Conner comes into view, I still get excited and have to ask “Is that it?” even though I know it isn’t, ’cause I know what Uluru looks like, and that isn’t it, but… excitement!

Flat-topped Mt Conner, or Attila, is often mistaken for Uluru. Photo: freeaussiestock.com

We get to the Ayers Rock Campsite and discover they are completely full. We are going to have to ‘free camp’ somewhere. Perfect! Exactly what I was secretly hoping for. Breaking all the rules of the hire of the van, we locate an off-road spot about 22 kilometres from Uluru that a number of seasoned campers are also at. We drive on in, in our pristine little van, passing mini tent cities, me egging my friend to go further, she resisting, and then, BAM, we are bogged. But for no more than five minutes because some professional campers are on our rear before you know it, wanting to get past us, so they have no option but to help us! I’m loving this! My friend isn’t. As the Dad is assessing the situation, his son is sitting atop of their four-wheel drive yelling “You need the tracks, Dad?”. He must have yelled it seven times before it was confirmed; yes, the tracks were needed. Out come some hardy plastic ‘tracks’, we reverse over them and everyone is saved. Best fun ever! He lets us know we are really in four-wheel drive territory. All I’m thinking about is where can I buy some of those tracks.

We set ourselves up and, after a few beers, decide we’ll explore what’s ‘up the hill’ to see if that improves our sunset view. Twenty minutes later, after gaining a number of prickles, we reach the rise of the hill to see the dying sunset. But holy schmoly, what’s that there behind us in all its amazing glory? Only Uluru! So spectacular, but in fading light, so no photographs can capture it. On our eventual return for the night, we realise we’ve left behind the van keys on the esky (of the unlocked van anyway) complete with our purses and valuables. I laugh at how good life is at that moment.

Uluru! So spectacular, but in fading light, so no photographs can capture it – hence the stock photo by Holger Link on Unsplash.

We set the alarm for a sunrise viewing of Uluru and despite it being cold it is completely and utterly worth it. Later, we leave our little home to visit Uluru for a few hours. A partial walk around and it’s just time to take in the enormity, the beauty, the spirituality and just feel bloody lucky for being there. Then we leave and repeat yesterday’s actions: get bogged; get help; end up in exactly the same spot as the night before. We are surrounded by hard-core campers: they have generators, privacy tents, kitchens, and marquees. We have a fire pit and some solar fluoro lights. Couldn’t be happier.

The following day we abandon our plans for Alice Springs and head to King’s Canyon instead. We return to a proper campground and already I’m missing being surrounded by natural beauty. It’s busy and we’re squished amongst many cars and vans, yet I still get to see a wild dingo only 10 metres from me late in the night. Again, life feels very carefree.

Looking down from King’s Canyon. Image: freeaussiestock.com

We visited the canyon for a short walk the next day before starting the journey back via Marla and then Quorn, my travelling partner’s childhood home. So much time spent on the road and so much more I wished I’d seen: The Olgas (Kata Tjuṯa), circumnavigating Uluru, exploring more of the Canyon and Alice Springs. But this is a great taste test for what I can one day come back and visit again.

Ngaire’s Top Five Tips for visiting the Red Centre:

1. Give yourself plenty of time. Six days just isn’t enough!
2. Buy a netted hat to keep the flies away.
3. In winter, it gets very cold at night so take some thermals.
4. If you want to go off-track, make sure you are prepared (i.e. pack a shovel or tracks).
5. Buy solar lights from Bunnings that you can charge on the dashboard as you drive.


Main image: Philippe Wuyts on Unsplash