We were out of the hotel by 5am. The rental car had to be returned to Thrifty’s Outback Pioneer office at Ayers Rock by 10am – or pay a further half day’s rental.
It was still dark, so we were cautious as we joined the Stuart Highway. Just as well. We had been on the road for less than 20 minutes, when a kangaroo bounced out of the brush and across the road directly in front of us! Now we knew we were in Australia!
We made good time and arrived at Ayers Rock a little after 9am. Our shuttle was due to leave for the airport at 12.30pm, so we killed time uploading our digital photos onto the computer. We got fed again on the plane, which played havoc with Brigid’s “points”. But she managed to avoid the temptations of cheese and wine. Out of the plane window there was nothing to see from 28,000 ft – just a vast expanse of red-coloured desert, and a few salt lakes. Brigid wasn’t complaining, the flights into and out of Ayers Rock were aboard a BAE 146, her favourite aircraft: tiny and producing a variety of such strange engine noises that most pilots warn passengers early in the flight!
This flight, however, we had a special treat in store. Much to our surprise, the chief stewardess asked us if we would like to visit the flight deck! As neither of us had ever seen the flight deck of any plane (and, frankly, since September 11th, never expected to), we jumped at the chance. Brigid stooped nervously in the doorway of the cramped cockpit, as John chatted to the pilot – apparently oblivious of the banks of important-looking switches millimetres from his head. As he turned to exit, Brigid placed her hand on his head, forcing him to duck. As he uttered some exclamation of surprise, the co-pilot looked at the bank of switches marked ‘Engine Fire’. “Did you notice those switches were set to ‘off’?”, he asked the pilot … hastily flicking them ‘on’!
Mercifully there were no engine fires, or other excitements, and we touched down safely at 3.15pm. As we prepared to leave the aircraft, a member of the cabin crew warned us to dispose of any food items “… or the beagle will get you!” This caused a certain amount of amusement amongst the passengers. No one thought she was serious. But lo! As we arrived in the baggage hall, a cute little beagle wearing a smart red coat, bearing the words “Quarantine Service”, mingled with the crowd, sniffing all our hand baggage. As he came to something that smelled of food (even if it had been recently removed), he would simply sit down and let his handler search the suspect bag. In a way we were quite disappointed for him that all he found was one apple!
We picked up our Britz van (identical in most respects to the one we had in New Zealand), and set off to the supermarket at Midland to stock the larder.
By now we were feeling the strain of our long day, so we had a quick bite to eat at the Texas-themed (“yee-haw!”) Lone Star restaurant, and checked into the Central campsite.