TOUR REVIEW: Opals and Outback, by Topdeck

I travelled on this tour from December 24, 2015 – January 7, 2016. 

Wild places fascinate me. I am drawn to the rough and craggy and challenging destinations; mountains, deserts and forests make me feel alive. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the ocean or modern cities or quaint villages, because I do. But these places don’t spark the same feeling in my heart.

When planning my trip to Australia, visiting the Outback was always the central experience. In fact, seeing Uluru was the true heart of my adventure; I built my itinerary around this.

With only five weeks in Australia and A LOT of ground to cover, I earmarked a full two weeks for the Outback. I felt the best way to achieve a thorough Outback experience was to go with an organized tour, but I was also a bit apprehensive about this; I’d never been on a tour longer than a day or two. With this in mind I started researching my options, and landed at Topdeck’s Opals and Outback offering. I found the tour description a little vague but it covered the main places I wanted to visit and was within my budget, so I went with it. I would highly recommend this tour to anyone looking for a great Outback experience, and I offer my own overview of the tour below (I wish I’d found something similar when doing my research…it would have assuaged my worries).

THE ALTERNATIVES

I considered a tour by G Adventures that is almost exactly the same as this, but given that it was more expensive by a few hundred dollars, and the age range is wider for G Adventures, Topdeck was the clear winner for me. While there are definitely cheaper options available that cover this route (Groovy Grape offers some pretty affordable choices), the ones I looked into involved a lot more camping; personally I wanted some comfort for this trip given that it would be two weeks through harsh sun and dry climate. Regardless, I think it’s worthwhile to take a tour through the Outback versus going solo (e.g. renting a vehicle) because it’s very empty country and you don’t have phone signal for large portions of the route should something happen to your vehicle or you need assistance. I also appreciated being able to take a nap when I wanted, and getting to know my travel group during our many hours on the road. Because Topdeck caters to 18-30 somethings, everyone was around the same age as me (I’m 28), and it was fun getting to know people from around the world, plus the Australians on the tour.

TOUR ITINERARY:

Day 1: Adelaide to Parachilna

Our assembly point was the Adelaide YHA, and I saw that some of the people I’d see around at the hostel would be my fellow travel mates. Our first stop was at the Seven Hill Winery in the Clare Valley, where donning reindeer antlers (our tour started on Christmas eve), we started drinking wine at 11:00 a.m., as part of our wine tasting experience. Seven Hill is actually the oldest winery in the Clare Valley, established in 1851. We learned some of the history of the winery, but mainly we sampled their offerings and most of us left with a bottle or two for the night and Christmas dinner the next day. We bypassed Parachilna and went straight to Quorn, which was supposed to be our stop for Day 2. I think our guide said Parachilna was closed or there was a hot weather alert — I don’t recall. Prior to arriving in Quorn we all stocked up on some beverages for our Christmas celebration, and then joined the town’s locals for a street party. I also reunited with some friends I’d made on my Great Ocean Road tour! This tour was off to an excellent start and I was happy to get to know my travel mates better.

Day 2: Parachilna to Quorn

Christmas day! Our wonderful guide Shorty dressed up as Santa Claus, and as we walked into the dining room for breakfast, we could each pick up a gift from the miniature tree he’d set up. I think this gesture helped us all feel a little less homesick and was sincerely appreciated.

It was an early start to the day as we head out for a hike to Dutchman’s Stern at sunrise in the Flinders Ranges. The hike was quite beautiful and we were so excited to see wild kangaroos hopping along the way. The view from the top was lovely and there was a great feeling of accomplishment among the team.

This day did not resemble the tour itinerary at all, but it was a good day nevertheless. We were supposed to visit Wilpena Pound, a natural amphitheatre, then head to rock art site Arkaroo Rock, and finally to  Kanyaka Station, an abandoned sheep and cattle farm. I’m not sure if I missed much with these experiences…I’ll never know. Instead, after we completed our hike, we drove back to Quorn for a little nap before our Christmas lunch (it was 38 degrees at 9:30 a.m….no one was in the mood for anything too taxing). After lunch we played with a boomerang in an empty parking lot and my roommate Vinnie and I both did some laundry, taking advantage of the hot weather to dry our clothing in record time.

I can’t say that this was the most exciting Christmas I’ve ever spent — hanging around in what felt like a ghost town (everything was closed for the day and we saw no other people) in the middle of nowhere, but it’s one of those experiences that brings a smile to my face. It was just so random! And my boomerang skills were surprisingly not bad.

I will admit, there was a lot of day drinking on Day 2 of the tour, and we had a festive Christmas dinner, exchanging gifts in a gift swap and bonding in earnest. A group of strangers became a travelling family.

Day 3: Quorn to Coober Pedy

We hit the road once again, stopping off at Lake Hart, a salt lake, for a photo opp. Then we continued onward to Coober Pedy, the world’s opal mining capital, for a tour of a local mine and to learn about more about these precious stones. Afterwards we stopped off at a gift shop/kangaroo orphanage, which was an interesting combo (it really just felt like a guy built a mini petting zoo in his backyard to encourage tourists to come through and check out his shop). It certainly smelled like a petting zoo. There isn’t much to Coober Pedy, so I suppose I can’t blame him. After dinner at a local pizza joint, a few of us explored the area around our bunk house before settling in for the night.

Many people live underground at Coober Pedy to stay cool in the intense heat, and we did too. Our bunk house was dug into a hill and it made for very comfortable sleep. Overall I was impressed with  our accommodations throughout the course of the trip. Sure, we were often in bunk beds and shared rooms, but the places were clean, comfortable and well-maintained.

Day 4: Coober Pedy to Alice Springs

After another early start to catch sunrise at The Breakaways, we hit the road for a long drive. You’re on the road a lot for this tour, but it’s part of the Outback experience…just bring a neck pillow and some snacks on the bus and you should be fine.

Apparently this was the part of the trip where we crossed the “Mad Max landscape of the Moon Plain” and the world’s longest dingo fence — but these features were not pointed out on the drive. I was a little bit disappointed given that these items were marked on the trip itinerary, but I took this time as an opportunity to nap and look out the window, as our guide pointed out brumbies (wild horses), emus and wedge-tailed eagles.

When we rolled into Alice Springs we took a walk through town for lunch and then head back to the hotel (pool), where we met some new travel mates. Some of these individuals would be joining us for four days in the red centre, while others would come along on the remainder of the trip up to Darwin; Alice Springs was the final stop for some members of our original group.

Notably, we found a movie theatre in Alice Springs, and that night I head into town with two friends to catch the new Star Wars flick. It was pretty cool to be watching Star Wars in the middle of the Outback — I felt like I was truly in a galaxy far, far away!

Though I’d heard that Alice Springs could be a bit of a rough town (and saw police patrolling earlier in the day), we had no issues walking around at night. The town was very quiet, which was rather eerie, but we stuck to main streets and well-lit areas.

Day 5: Alice Springs to Uluru

This was the day I was waiting for — the day I’d see Uluru. We started this special day with a visit to a camel farm, which was not really a farm so much as a tourist stop where you could ride a camel around a little course for a few bucks if you so desired. And then the journey to Yulara (the resort town from which you visit Uluru) began. We caught a few glimpses of Uluru along the way, which stoked my excitement for the evening even more.

With a few hours to kill before our sunset viewing of Uluru, many of us swam and sunbathed at the resort pool, taking a lovely break from the desert heat. The Aussie ‘barbecue’ dinner we were promised turned out to be quite different from my expectations. Apparently barbecuing in Australia just means cooking meat on a flat top, not over a bonfire or grill, as we’re used to in North America. I suppose this makes sense given their issues with bush fires. Anyways, after dinner and looking rather dapper, we boarded our bus for the short drive into Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, with the red rock in our eyes.

Our lovely guides (now two, as our group doubled in size for our red centre adventure), set up a table of sparkling wine and cheese and we were all quite merry as we watched the sun set along with the other tour groups (each set up at their own viewing point). We had a perfect day and beautiful weather –I could not have asked for better. More on my Uluru experience (and more photos) here.

Day 6: Uluru (three ways)

Another VERY early start as we sleepily boarded our bus to re-enter the national park for a sunrise viewing of Uluru. I’m glad I got to experience both the sunrise and sunset, because the colours and experiences are different. If I had to choose one though, I’d say sunset is more brilliant; sunrise is a softer show of colour on the rock. Plus I’m not a morning person.

After a quick breakfast we got even closer to Uluru with our base walk. It was pretty amazing to see what appeared to be a smooth monolith from afar, was actually a craggy surface speckled with caves and teeming with plant and wildlife, up close. It was also fascinating to learn some Aboriginal mythology about Uluru, and to learn about its geology from our guide. Uluru is just as impressive up close as it is from afar. And thankfully I had an amazing group; no one disrespected Uluru or the Anangu people by trying to climb it.

Because it was growing hotter by the minute, many of us opted for only half of the base walk, and head to a nearby museum which offered shade and cold drinks. Then, back to Yulara, where I went into the town square for a free talk on the weapons of the Aboriginal people of this area (I did not know that boomerangs were a hunting weapon, and there are some that can take out a full-grown kangaroo!).

I ended off my Uluru day with a helicopter ride, for a spectacular final view (this was my first time in a helicopter and it was pretty damn cool!). You can get a good deal with Professional Helicopter Services on a 15 minute flight if you book through Topdeck, and really, I think that’s all you need. From up high, I saw that Uluru is truly the red heart of a vast, empty land. I also saw Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) from afar. A note that you can only view one side of Uluru from the air and you’re not actually allowed to fly over it. There is an Aboriginal community on the other side and this is done to respect the community and their privacy.


Day 7: Uluru to Kings Canyon

Another pre-dawn start to beat the hot weather (we woke up at 3:30 a.m.). Today’s hike was at Kata Tjuta to walk through the ‘Valley of the Winds’ during sunrise — and then back on the road for lunch at a road house (you’ll get to experience many of these through the Outback, and some, like Erldunda, more than once if you do this circuit). The road houses all have their charm and character (some more than others) and some have pretty decent food, considering you’re in the Outback. Be prepared to pay $6 for a snack-sized bag of Doritos and $5/popsicle. Food don’t come cheap out here.

Our final stop for the day was at Kings Creek Station — we’d be camping out under the stars in Aussie ‘swags’ this night (bedrolls). As we arrived with many hours to kill before dinner, we took our booze to the pool and had a poolside party (poolside, because the water was an ominous shade of green and only a few of us were brave enough to take a dip). (I did not swim here.)

This Aussie barbecue and the camping experience was pretty epic, I must say. We had a clear night and the stars were INCREDIBLE. Unfortunately due to the hot weather at the time, there was a total fire ban and we couldn’t light a campfire for s’mores and a sing-a-long, so we just drank some more. One of my industrious travel mates brought a portable bluetooth speaker, and we all took turns playing our favourite tunes.

Some other fun stuff: I saw a wild dingo and he followed me to the washroom when I walked over there in the middle of the night. I also saw a rather large black spider in the washroom sink. Walking back to our campsite with my little flashlight in the dark, a dingo on the loose and knowledge of large black spiders lurking about definitely freaked me out, but I lived to tell the tale (obviously). Swags are not my favourite type of sleeping arrangement, but it was cool to try (I get claustrophobic).


Day 8: Kings Canyon to Alice Springs

Yes, another early start, and this time for what turned out to be my favourite hike in Oz: the Kings Canyon Rim Walk. You feel like you’re stepping into another world on this hike, or perhaps back in time. The canyon is beautiful, and you do see ‘The Lost City’ in the eroded dome shapes created by the rocks. The waterhole, called the ‘Garden of Eden’ is a peaceful spot for a rest, and I was glad we had such an early start…tourists were just heading in as we were heading out — it was nice to have the canyon to ourselves, and this was a calculated move by our guides.

Speaking of my guides, I must commend them for being so great with the photo opps (really with everything) throughout the trip — they not only helped us capture the experience as we visited the attractions, they also took requests (I had to get a picture of a kangaroo road sign).

This day just happened to be New Year’s Eve, so after the hike we went back ‘home’ to Alice Springs to get ready for a big night on the town! I wasn’t really sure what to expect from NYE in Alice, but I was happy to be ringing in the 2016 with my new friends.

The night completely surpassed my expectations. We partied it up at Lasseters Casino — and everyone in the town was there — tourists and locals alike. Cover was free, the place was packed, people were friendly, the DJ was awesome, the booze was cheap, there were fire works at midnight — EPIC. I left around 3:00 a.m. because the place started to get a little too crowded for my liking, and I noticed the police presence increasing. Alice is a small place. I had the same cab driver three times.

Alice Springs is also an interesting and at times, uncomfortable place. While I had heard there were tensions between the Aboriginal population and the white Australian population of Alice, I didn’t witness anything of this nature. However, during my few days in Alice, I often felt I was walking through a town where two societies lived in segregation. I was happy to see people together at the NYE party, but groups didn’t mix. This made me sad.

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Day 9: Alice Springs

This was a free day. Of course everyone slept in and then we wandered around to find our first lunch for 2016. We’d said goodbye to many of our friends the previous night as the tour group reconfigured for the journey to the Top End, so our number was once again reduced.

Later in the afternoon many of us got together to watch The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert which could not have been a more perfect movie choice. Though I’d seen (and loved) the musical in Toronto many years ago, I’d never watched the film. It was very cool to see many of places we’d travelled through in the film, and we all had a good laugh given that we spent the previous night partying at the Lasseters Casino in Alice Springs, the final destination of the main characters in the movie.

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Day 10: Alice Springs to Tennant Creek

At this point I’d seen all of the major things I wanted to see, and was just going with the flow! The early mornings were also over.

On this day we made a stop at an old telegraph station. What I recall most distinctly is that the public washroom (which was in pretty rough shape) was still stocked with soap and toilet paper. Australia really is a special place. I’ve never been to a land where toilets are so available and accessible and always have toilet paper.

Next, we stopped off at Karlu Karlu, aka the Devil’s Marbles — a grouping of large round boulders in the middle of nowhere that make for great photo opps! One of my travel mates made a joke that really describes our Outback experience: “What did you see?” “A whole bunch of rocks. Seriously, a whole bunch of rocks.”

It’s true.

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Day 11: Tennant Creek to Katherine

Ok Day 11 — we stopped by a kitchsy pub (Daly Waters), I had a barramundi sandwich, we drank much beer and we took our sweet time because the place we were supposed to go swimming (Mataranka) was closed due to the possibility of crocs in the area. CROCODILES. THE KIND THAT WILL KILL YOU.

Yes, kind of disappointing, because the photos on Google look pretty sweet BUT we hung out by the pool and snacked away instead, safe and sound. Our guide remembered our favourites and did his best to make up for the change in schedule, which was much appreciated by all. Hey, Doritos and pool time? I will not say no to that.

We rounded out the day with some lawn bowling at the local country club, which was more fun (and more competitive) than I thought it would be. The bartender was lovely here. We sang S Club 7 and Venga Boys songs on the bus home, but this might have been unique to my (AWESOME) tour group.

Day 12 – Day 15: Katherine, Kakadu, Darwin

This is partly laziness, but also these last few days were so laid back, they’re kind of a blur in my mind. We took a couple of boat cruises looking for crocs and learning about the wildlife and Aboriginal history of the Katherine River and Kakadu. Kakadu was particularly impressive and gorgeous, and we did see some crocs! The bird watching opportunities were also ample. But the heat and the flies…oh boy. My popsicle budget went through the roof!

We also enjoyed some great swimming excursions at Edith Falls and the Buley Rockholes in Litchfield National Park (would’ve been nice to swim at Florence Falls too, but alas!) and we also had ample swimming time in Katherine, with a pool in our resort. Actually most of the places we stayed throughout the trip had a pool!

We did our final hike as well — 46 degrees at Ubirr! I have never sweat like that in my entire life and I’m pretty sure this brown girl went red. The heat was NUTS! We all peeled off our clothes and sat lounging in the air conditioned bus, guzzling water when we got back down. Props to our guide for remaining chipper while we all asked “how much longer” on the way down!

Throw in some giant termite mounds and copious amounts of beer (it was bloody hot and humid up in the Top End) — and this about summarizes the remainder of the trip! Everyone was relaxed and we were all quite chummy at this point, having spent so much time together; many of us felt genuinely sad at the thought of parting — always a sign of a successful trip, in my opinion! We had our final night together in Darwin, and it was an excellent night.

A few memorable mentions — the food is pretty good at Rum Jungle Tavern, bar hopping at road houses is fun, and if you can roll into Darwin on ladies night YOU ARE IN FOR A TREAT! GO TO MONSOONS (a.k.a. MANSOONS).

FINAL THOUGHTS

Topdeck’s ‘Opals and Outback’ tour packs A LOT into the first half of the trip which makes the easygoing pace of the second half all the more welcome. I don’t think I would’ve liked the reverse option (Darwin to Adelaide) as much…I would have ended on an exhausted note, rather than a relaxed one.

I wasn’t always sure what to expect on this tour (I blame the Aussie slang in the trip itinerary), and at first I was surprised by how much free time we had — but by the end I was happy for it. Looking back, it was those free hours we had each day — wandering around Quorn, playing with a boomerang, figuring out where to go for lunch, lounging by the pool, grocery shopping, etc. that really helped bond my tour group.

If there is one thing I would change about the tour, it would be to have more contact with Aboriginal communities and people through the Outback. By this I do not mean exploitative photo opportunities or anything of this sort (quite the opposite) — I would have liked to learn about Australia’s indigenous culture and history directly from Australia’s indigenous people. The only time I saw Aboriginal people in real life (they’re all over magnets and postcards and souvenirs) was in Alice Springs, a little bit in Yulara, and our cruise guide on the Katherine River (Nitmiluk National Park). While the tour (and Australia) does a lot to market the unique and fascinating culture of the Aboriginal people, I felt like they were hidden from view; it’s not clear to me if they are purposefully excluded from the tourism industry (overt or systemic discrimination) or if this is a thoughtful choice by the communities to preserve their culture and not be involved in its commercialization (or maybe some combination of these things).

I must give immense credit to my tour guide, Shorty Dwyer, for making the Outback portion of my time in Australia such an interesting and fun holiday (you can tell he is someone who loves what he does, is passionate about the Outback and Australian culture, and wants to ensure people have fun, get to know each other, and make great memories). I believe it takes real emotional intelligence and a deft touch to bring people together and create a sense of family, and this was definitely achieved on the tour in a short space of time; I don’t think it was by chance. Shorty is also a great Santa if you’re in the Outback during Christmas time, is a very safe driver, has excellent musical taste (thank goodness because we spent a lot of time on the bus together) and is a VERY talented photographer. You should check out his beautiful shots of the Outback on his Instagram account.

The trip also would not have been what it was without my fellow travel mates. We started off as complete strangers but ended the trip as friends and I am so incredibly grateful for this. Meeting new people and forging lasting friendships is one of my favourite parts of travel.

To summarize — I would absolutely recommend the Opals and Outback tour by Topdeck. If you don’t have two full weeks to commit though, the Adelaide to Alice Springs leg is the option I’d go for (including the red centre tour). And if you’re REALLY in a crunch, the four-day option around the red centre is the highlight reel. The tour may not be exactly as described in the online itinerary (which Topdeck notes), but rest assured that your guide will do their utmost to ensure you have a rich experience during the trip — whether it’s waking the gang up extra early for a meditative (and crowd-free walk) at a canyon or remembering ‘sweet chili Philly’ is your (new) favourite dip for chips and crackers.

RATING: Worth every penny.

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2 thoughts on “TOUR REVIEW: Opals and Outback, by Topdeck

  1. Pingback: Five weeks in Australia | LANGUAGE of the PEOPLE

  2. Pingback: Uluru | LANGUAGE of the PEOPLE

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