Despite the best preparations, some vacations are terrible. These misbegotten journeys become the ones remembered for all the wrong reasons. In Australia, my son, daughter and I discovered how a four-day camping trip could morph into family legend, an experience funny now, but not then.
The outback delivered the landscape of our dreams. Uluru’s red dome as well as the national park’s sun-struck mounds shimmered in the semi-desert, a place alive with thumping kangaroos and wallabies. But our disgruntled guide/bus driver, we’ll dub him “Grumpy,” and his flimflam firm soured the experience.
On the several hours drive to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (formerly Ayers Rock -Mount Olga National Park), instead of providing details on the region, Grumpy mostly complained about being fired from another “much-better” job. I stopped asking for area information when my son Matt, then a college student, pointed out that except for us, everyone else on the bus was either drunk or sleeping off a bender.
Misdirected, we had latched onto a no-frills college outing. Our companions, however, weren’t the issue. Once they sobered up after dinner and we got to know them over a round of S’mores-making that Matt initiated, we liked the group.
Not a camping family, we will forgo hot showers and comfy mattresses in order to experience extraordinary scenery. My travel colleague who recommended this outing assured us that bedding down in the dirt was the only way to experience the park.
Not really. Our first campsite turned out to be adjacent to a hotel parking lot. After ascertaining that the lodging lacked vacancies, we lined up for the sleeping bags we rented. Never rent these. The bags rated a double-F for “filthy” and “flimsy.” The food, we hoped, would, at least, cheer us up. Forget-about-it. Although hungry, we picked at the lukewarm “mystery meat” served on questionably clean plates.
Since we hardly slept, awakening well before dawn to experience sunrise at Uluru, the iconic red monolith in Australia’s heartland, proved easy. In those days, most visitors climbed the sacred rock. When I opted to walk the perimeter, Grumpy called me a “wimp.”
Matt and Alissa, 11 years-old at the time, returned from their ascent, triumphant, but slightly traumatized. Grumpy forgot to warn us of the strong summit winds. A gust blew so fiercely that Matt grabbed Alissa moments before she would have been blown off the rock face.
Did we mention it was nearly winter in Australia? Our stateside guru pronounced the weather “a bit nippy, but not cold.” When hiking, “nippy” proved fine, even exhilarating as we trekked into the semi-desert and scrubland, keeping watch for ‘roos and reptiles. At night, though, “nippy” solidified into “freezing,” especially at our second campsite deep in the park’s interior. Alissa and I shared a tent while Matt had his own.
By wearing most of the clothes we packed, we managed to use the dirty sleeping bags only to cover our feet. The college kids, hiking through Australia, had wisely brought their own gear. And anyway, there’s a certain body-warming, medicinal quality to beer.
In the wee morning hours when the dingos started howling and Matt’s feet froze, he asked Alissa to bunk with him so they’d have two sleeping bags and more body heat. That left me alone, listening to the dog-like yowls punctuated by my stomach grumbles. Unfortunately, we had devoured the last of the snacks we packed the day before.
Hungry, cold and really tired, Matt, the next morning, gave the call to abandon camp. After much urging and a big tip, Grumpy found a flight to our next stop, the Great Barrier Reef. The plane, however, had only one available seat. It made sense for Matt to take it. The next day Alissa and I joined him.
After showers and a tasty dinner, we giggled about Grumpy, the college kids, the horrible food, the stained sleeping bags and the dingos. We still get anxious thinking about the gale that nearly delivered Alissa to the Land of Oz.
Our Australia trip took place years ago. The Great Barrier Reef, Melbourne and Sydney delighted us. But ever since the outback, when our vacation plans start to go awry, we issue our family rallying cry: remember the dingos. And we laugh.