Our Ayers Rock adventure begins in Canberra. Sleepy businessmen and public servants clutching folders of briefing documents, setting up laptops with a lounge cup of autoespresso, staring at the political news on the television.
In my khaki cargo pants, I stand out. My travelling costume, I’ve swapped my everyday white shirt and dark tie for a red check shirt and scuffed brown shoes. My wide belt, Velcro and plastic, is designed to go through metal detectors without a beep, but if I wanted to, I could hang water bottles, machetes and utility pouches from its sturdy web. I’ve got my broad-brimmed slouch hat with me, and I’m dressed for the outback.
My wife is dressed less dramatically. As ever.
Our commuter plane arrives and is turned around efficiently by a crew of yellow jacket ground staff, whipping luggage trains and power carts around with the ease of children playing chasey.
First and Final Call for Qantas flight 1462 to Sydney, the loudspeaker cheerfully announces, and we’re off, my wife pausing tolerantly as I fuss and focus with my new toy camera.
I capture the propeller blades spinning into power, hauling us around past the cabyard, down the taxiway past the sleek jets, bullet-shaped and saucily decorated.
The pilot lets it go and we race down the runway and into the air, climbing above offices, roads, suburbs and dwindling paddocks full of drowsing kangaroos.
I love this part. The world turns into a map, Google Earth made real, and I have to be hauled back in through the window to face breakfast, which turns out to be cooling coffee and a tiny plastic banana loaf, lost in a box big enough for a dozen.
It’s only a half hour flight, but there’s plenty to see as we loop around Sydney. The western suburbs stretch out, punctuated by industrial parks full of warehouses and trucks, railway lines with commuter trains shuttling back and forth, schools and green ovals, here and there a mall surrounded by asphalt carparks filling with a morning tide of shoppers.
We bank and glide in, the city, harbour bridge and opera house dark shapes against the glare. Four cruise ships are scattered around the docks, including P&O’s Arcadia, whose chief purser keeps a well illustrated blog
of the Grand Voyage, mandatory daily read for me, prospective passengers, and ex-cruisers in England whose mournful comments are blanketed in snow.
We land briskly on the main runway, our landing roll a fraction of the longhaul jets nosed into the international terminal. I gaze out, trying to spot the bright new Airbus A380 superjumbo, and suddenly there it is, a puff of smoke from its multitude of tyres as it arrives from Los Angeles.
We shop in the terminal, searching for a broad sunhat for my wife and clip-on shades for me. Browsing too enthusiastically in one shop, I spill a pack of cards over the shop floor. “You’re the third person this morning to do that,” the attendant smiles reassuringly, before finding a strip of tape to seal the box shut.
Our flight to Ayers Rock waits at a gate, when we tire of shopping. The seats in the gate lounge are filled with travelers from all over the world, Japanese tourists with touch screen cameras, chunky Americans with hefty digital SLRs, and tall Europeans flipping through guidebooks, all anxious for the outback.
There’s another wait after boarding, captain blaming luggage arriving late from international flights. The baggage handlers are flat out in the cavernous luggage decks of that Airbus, hauling down the sober black nylon bags of efficient American tourists, Dallas to Ayers Rock in three hops.
At last our jet is whipping down the runway to the north, quick left turn taking us over the Blue Mountains covered in trees leaning over sandstone cliffs.
Farmland and forests up past the ridges, and as we fly steadily west, shades of pink begin to appear in the green fields below. Pink and then red and finally there is nothing but ochre.
Lake Eyre is on the flightpath, a great flat expanse slowly filling with water from the floods up north. The landscape below is delicate swirls, dottings of trees, pastel colours and endlessly fascinating.
Our snack for the flight is a sandwich sealed in plastic. Ham, cheese and lettuce, with an ingredients list in small type that stretches on and on for dozens of lines of things you never thought you’d find in a simple sanger.
Scraps cleared away, we’re angling down to our destination. I’ve selected a seat on the left side of the plane, in response to a tip on the Qantas Insider website
where to sit for the views of Ayers Rock on approach.
Not disappointed. Some fine shots out the window. The Japanese lady in the aisle seat hands over her camera – a lovely little thing with a touch-screen back – for some shots and she smiles and bobs her head when I hand it back.
And then we are down, rolling along the single runway, making a turn on the hammerhead, quick out, grab the bags and hop on the free resort bus. Gone are Canberra’s suits and button-down collars. Here are broad hats, casual shirts, tanned arms and relaxed faces. The bus driver swings behind the wheel, closes the door and we’re off into the ochre landscape.
“Please fasten your seat belts, ladies and gentlemen, and when we go around this bend, you’ll see Ayers Rock ahead of you.”
QF1462 VH-QOI Q400
Boarding: 0745 (Gate 14 – ramp)
Takeoff: 0802 (to North)
Gate: 0850 (16)
QF728 VH-VXR “Shepparton”
Sydney-Ayers Rock 20.2.9
Boarding: 0930 (Gate 9)
Takeoff: 1024 (34L to North)
Descent: 1125 (NT time)