We spent a full day 40 km west of Uluru, at Kata Tjuta, which means “many heads” in the local language.
The busy path took us up to the Karingana Lookout. And it came as no surprise that it was windy, as the walk is called The Valley of the Winds.
Here most of the tour parties headed back, whilst we continued on for a few more kilometres, along the stony path, through the gap, into a huge circular valley bordered by many of the 36 ancient chestnut-coloured rock domes.
The air was filled with the aroma of lemon, mint and hay, tiny blue and red flowers were just coming out, and colourful birds sang in the gum trees. Underfoot, giant ants and the occasional beetle, and of course the persistent flies which are so much more tenacious than their European cousins.
At Kata Tjuta you are surrounded by the red rocks, enclosed within their warm and generous faces, whilst at Uluru you are on the edge, always outside.
It was a fitting place to leave the National Park.
Tourists on a lightening tour only get to see the sunset from the designated “viewing areas”; a lot of expensive cameras lined up to replicate the iconic, but overseen, postcard view.
Above is the wonderful view we enjoyed, but we felt distant from Uluru here. With our extended stay, we also had the opportunity to be close to the rock at sunset, away from the masses, on the Mala Walk and at the Kanju Gorge waterhole.
As the sun dipped, the birds sang, the rock radiated a red glow, with shadows lengthening, and crevasses falling into darkness.
All too soon, Uluru became brown and uninteresting. However, ten minutes later, as if by magic, the Rock gleams again – reflecting the deepening orange sky to the west.
Reaching out, we could touch this afterglow.
If you plan to do this The red glowonly lasts a few minutes so plan in advance where you want to be. We found the official viewing area’s views partly obscured by bushes and trees. And as we say above, it’s brilliant close-up to the rock too.
We decided to head 300km west to Kings Canyon first, Roger wanted it to be the warm up act to Uluru (Ayers Rock). And it was a pretty good opener.
Here there’s really only one thing to do, but you need to be pretty fit. The 6km Kings Canyon Rim Walk took us through breathtaking scenery with incredible views. The rocks at the top looked like beehives, with others reflecting the rippled subterranean surface they once had been. The edge of the canyon was almost sheer, whilst wooden steps take you down into the magical Garden of Eden at the canyon’s bottom.
This whole area was only opened up to tourism in the 1960s when one local rancher, Jim Cotterill, cut the first road through.
The perfect day trip out of Sydney is 30km north to Palm Beach, and we were delighted when Liz said she would take us there. She was an enthusiastic guide with lots of local knowledge.
Palm Beach is a unique mushroom shaped isthmus, with the dramatic Barrenjoey Lighthouse at the end. The well-off live out here in their wooden houses surrounded by pine forests and deep-blue water.
From West Head Lookout in Ku-ring-gai Chase National Park we got a wonderful view across to the isthmus. Then after lunch by the waterfront at Church Point, we climbed up the steep track to the lighthouse.
We’ve spent 48 hours in the almost prehistoric wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park, camping for two nights at the Jumbo Rocks campsite.
The mesmerising Joshua trees are not really trees, but a species of yucca. They can grow up to 40 feet tall at the rate of an inch a year and live for hundreds of years. They seemed very characterful, each with a unique outline. We were too late for the blooming of their magnificent cream-coloured flowers, however, we had other flowers to enjoy…
Plant-wise we walked amongst Mojave yucca, pinyon pines, scrub oaks, creosotes, and jojoba. We glimpsed desert spiny lizards, jackrabbits, cactus wrens and American kestrels.
Our time here was a real highlight of our tour through the national parks of SE California.
At Stovepipe Wells we were told it was a cool day in Death Valley – by cool, only 106 degrees fahrenheit.
Death Valley is the hottest and driest place in the United States. A temperature of 134 degrees fahrenheit, the highest ever recorded in the world, occurred here, and annual rainfall is only two inches.
It’s the uncompromising severity of the desert, and the almost surreal landscapes that brings tourists here. Sand dunes, white salt flats, contoured rock badlands, and copper canyon walls.
Anthropologists estimate that roaming humans first settled in the valley roughly 10,000 years ago. But it was a group of gold rush pioneers, who barely survived the trek across the area, who named the spot Death Valley.
Previously one of the most isolated stretches of coast in America, this mythical area was opened up to tourists in 1937 with the completion of Highway 1.
We drove from Carmel down to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park. Highlight was a beach walk at Garrapata State Park, often rated as the best beach in the area.
If you plan to do this Check before you head off for any closures on Highway 1. Right now bridge rebuilding in the north and a massive mud-slide in the south have closed much of the Big Sur area to traffic. And these problems are predicted to get worse with climate change bringing wetter winters.
This was our third crater lake of the gap year (the other two were in Ecuador) and by far the best. And how lucky we were to see Oregon’s jewel on such a clear day with snow reflected in the deep blue water.
Formed around 7,700 years ago by the collapse of volcano Mount Manama, it was an amazing sight calling out for the panoramic feature on our ipad. With a depth of 594m, the six miles across lake is the deepest in the United States – in the world, it ranks ninth.
Unmissable; Hilary puts it into her top-ten experiences of the gap year so far.
Named after Queen Victoria’s daughter, Lake Louise is a stunning sight within Banff National Park. Mount Victoria (3,469m) with its glacier, provides the backdrop at the lake’s end.
It would be a wonderful place to go hiking in the summer, but right now the lake is frozen and most of the trails closed.
But we were able to walk 3km round the edge. 95% of the visitors don’t get beyond the first half km, so the rest of the route was one of total silence (as only thick snow can provide) and, with the sun now out, superb views.
We trekked as far as a waterfall – frozen in its journey down the rock cliff; some brave souls actually do ice climbing up this. Beyond here there is a danger of avalanches so we turned back.
We drove west on Highway 1, but didn’t get very far.
By the time we reached charming Canmore it was snowing hard. With low mist and hardly any mountains in view, there was little point heading further up the valley to Jasper.
Until the views get clearer, we’ll settle down for some well earned rest-time and do a few “winter” wonderland treks.
It’s the third time on this gap year we’ve walked on snow (the others were Mounts Etna and Cotopaxi) and what a contrast to the hot (38+ degrees) beaches of Costa Rica or the cities of Texas. As our travels approach six months, we are appreciating the importance of diverse and ever-changing experiences.