You may have heard Australia’s unofficial anthem, Waltzing Matilda. In it, “a jolly swagman camps by a billabong, under the shade of a coolibah tree.” But to fully understand the lyrics, you need to know the lingo.
A swag is a traditional Australian sleeping bag. They are rolled up and carried on your back during the day. These days, they are sturdy things made of canvas, and some even have a bit of padding on one side to act as a mattress. A swagman therefore, is a traveller or worker who is camping out in one of these swags. A billabong is a waterhole and coolibah is a type of eucalyptus. Matilda is the nickname the men gave their swags.
Now imagine camping out in the vast Outback of Australia, where there’s no light pollution, sleeping underneath millions of stars in the shadow of Uluru (Ayers Rock). Sounds amazing, right?
I was on a six-day group tour from Adelaide to Alice Springs, and even though the campsites usually provided permanent tents, the weather was nice and all of us opted to sleep in swags. And we continued to do so every night.
In a big city you tend to forget how many stars there are, but out there in the Outback you can appreciate how vast the sky is. While the Outback continues to be treacherous terrain, sleeping around a (safe) campfire at night in the middle of nowhere does have a romantic charm to it.
We’d arrived at Uluru just before sunset, and made our way to the designated “Sunset Viewing Area” in the National Park, still several kilometres away from the Rock itself. Seeing Ayers Rock change colour from a vibrant orange to deep purple and dark brown as the sun sets is an amazing sight.
Back at the camp, we rolled out the swags on the red ground and lit a fire because believe it or not, nights can get cold, even after hot days. We sat around the fire on our swags, with cold drinks in hand, and listened to our guide tell us stories of the Outback, of the Aboriginal tribes that inhabited this land and why the Rock, some 20km away but still visible, is sacred to them.
Australia’s Outback hold many dangerous creatures, including some of the deadliest spiders. You, therefore, have to meticulously check the swag and shake it out before you get in and zip it up around you, and do same to your boots the next morning. Depending on where you plan to “waltz Matilda”, you might be able to hear dingoes or kangaroos in the distance. It all has a feeling of adventure and exploring to it, feeling like a stockman on an overnight drove or one of the famous lost explorers of Australia.
The next morning we were up at 4am to get to Uluru for sunrise. Like the spectacle at sunset the night before, the colour changes on the rock are magnificent. As soon as the sun was high enough, we set out on the Uluru Base Walk, a 10km circuit around the entire base of Uluru. Out of respect for Aboriginal beliefs, we did not climb onto the Rock.
On photos, Uluru looks somewhat oval and a lot smoother than it actually is. There are many nooks and niches, some of which are out of bounds but others can be entered and feature rock art.
Ayers Rock always looks so isolated on the photos, but there is plenty of fauna and flora around, including acacia trees and wallabies. It is also not as dry as you might imagine, as waterholes abound (some of them like the Mutitjulu Waterhole are sacred and are still used by the Anangu people as part of their cultural landscape today. The walk is level and wheelchair accessible, plus there is a water tank to refill your bottle at the halfway point (I managed to walk straight past it…).
Once we had completed the Base Walk, our guide took us on the short Mala Walk to Kantju Gorge to learn more about the Mala people and the National Park.
As it was still early enough to be out in the sun, we opted to walk a further 2km to the Cultural Centre, along the Liru Walk and we got there just before the midday sun and heat could strike us down. We all hat cowboy hats, but it was getting hotter and hotter and heat stroke is an ever-present danger out there.
The Cultural Centre is highly informative and run by members of the Anangu people, the traditional owners of Uluru. Through shows, art and exhibitions, they offer a glimpse at unique, Aboriginal culture and the stories they can tell about Uluru.
We decided to have lunch and experience the traditional Anangu welcome ceremony to wait until the sun was lower in the sky again before making our way back from the Cultural Centre to Uluru, where we had parked the van. Unfortunately, we did not have time to participate in a Maruku Arts’ Dot Painting workshop.
Filled with all these ancient stories about the land we were travelling through, about how Aborigines master the harsh conditions and how the legends still prevail in their culture, we all decided to camp out in our swags again that night and experience the Outback with a new perspective.
That night, at Kings Canyon, a dingo stole my pillow. But that’s another story.