Uluru. It’s a landmark in many ways – instantly recognizable on a postcard, a sign of relations between the Australian government and the Aboriginal people, and a fascinating relic to geologists. But when you get close to it, and see the immense stone towering above you, none of that matters, and you find yourself just looking. Uluru (once and also known as Ayer’s Rock) stands alone in the desert. The domes of Kata Tjuta are within sight, but they cannot and do not compare. After that, it’s desert and scrub as far as you can see. The closest large town is Alice Springs, a mere 280 miles away. If you’ve ever been tempted to drive six hours each way to see a really big rock, well, here’s your chance.
I joined a three day, two night tour group to visit Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Kings Canyon. It was a fun time – the group was good people, our tour guide was informative and took care of everything, and we saw some amazing sights. It was three days of getting up at 5am, which I can’t say is my favorite thing in the world. But in this case, I can definitely say it was worth it. The sights at sunrise were phenomenal, and we would finish our hiking by noon when it was just starting to get really hot. Seeing people disembark from their tour bus as we were getting back on ours was satisfying, in a way. We also had good weather, the nights were comfortable for camping, and of course no rain. Rainfall in this region is scarce, averaging around 300 mm per year. That’s a single foot of rain. In other words…it’s dry.
Day 1, we were picked up in Alice Springs at our various locations, and immediately all went back to sleep on the bus. Or tried to, anyway, as the vibrations from the road made it incredibly uncomfortable. Staying awake did have one positive note – an absolutely gorgeous sunrise out the window. After six hours, a few rest stops, and one false positive (there’s a location about 90 minutes before Uluru where you see a rock formation very similar although much smaller, the locals call it Fooluru), we arrived in Yulara, which is the village closest to Uluru. Blink and you’ll miss it. Heck, keep your eyes open, you still might miss it. A stop there while we picked up some new folks from the local airport (yep! expensive to fly into, however) and then we headed over to the Cultural Centre. It’s a nice building, with lots of interesting information about the local culture and Uluru’s importance to the Aboriginals. We stayed there a bit longer than I would have liked, and I got my first introduction to the local wildlife, i.e. flies. Oh. My. God. I have never experienced hatred of another living creature like I did for those flies. I had even bought a fly net to go with my hat, and while it kept them from landing directly on my face, I still couldn’t handle it. Ugh. The first day was the worst, I think because it was the only day we were out in the afternoon. Other days, they didn’t come out until later in the morning when it warmed up.
We finally got back in the bus and headed over to start walking around Uluru. It’s hard to describe it; to say “it’s a really big rock” is completely accurate, and yet unfair. The enormity (350 meters high, 6 mile circumference) doesn’t mean much until you’re up close. Then, it’s overwhelming. We walked around…half?…of Uluru. It doesn’t really change much in different areas, but you can see some different rock formations. It’s incredibly easy to understand how it assumed cultural importance to the Aboriginals – the way different areas appear to look like pictures, and the coincidence of natural formations that made for perfect resource gathering, make it clear why they stayed. Also, it’s really the only thing in the area, so giving directions is incredibly simple. “When you see the very big rock, head towards it. No, really. There’s just the one.”
We headed over to the aptly named Sunset Viewing Area, where there were only two or three dozen tour groups waiting with champagne and cookies. Seemed like a great plan, so we joined right in! After waiting around for a bit, the sun starting heading down (as did the flies, thankfully) and we all starting clicking away on the cameras. While the sunset was beautiful, and Uluru did turn its famous shade of red (not that it has anything to be embarrassed about), these aren’t my favorite pictures. Maybe because it’s the most common view? Either way, still nice. We then headed out to our campsite, had some dinner, and laid out the swags (sleeping bag inside a mattress thing). Another photographer and I headed over to a lookout point to do some night photography, which was pretty fun. I don’t think this will ever be my main interest, but it is fun to do occasionally. After getting some good shots, we headed back to camp. I have to admit, sleeping out under the stars in the Australian outback is not something I ever imagined I’d be doing, but it’s pretty cool to have done. At one point I woke up wondering who had turned on the lights, only to realize that it was the moon! Oops.
Got woken up at 5am (bah) and desperately poured coffee. I won points with our guide for eagerly going for the Vegemite he had available. We drove over to the Sunrise Viewing Area (whoever came up with these names was right on the money) and took our pictures as the sun came up. I got some great pictures, some of which are on this page. Really happy with how they turned out. Then, despite all of us begging the tour guide to head back to camp for more sleep, he laughed and drove us over to Kata Tjuta. These are rock formations that formed in a similar way to Uluru, but in a different direction. (Short version – leftover mountains from a really long time ago that extend to a ridiculous degree down) We hiked around for a few hours, stopping at different places for little lessons on geology and native flora and fauna. Good times. Eventually we ended up back at the carpark, and headed back to camp for lunch on the barbie (actually, it was burritos. Except they didn’t have rice, so tacos?). Then back in the bus for…another four hour drive. Ugh. It’s pretty countryside, but after an hour it all looks the same. We arrived at our second campsite near Kings Canyon and got set up for the evening. Bonfire!! I had to explain to someone what s’mores are, which makes me sad. Dinner was steak on the barbie, both beef and kangaroo. This is actually the second time I’ve eaten kangaroo, it tastes like gamey beef. We also had grilled kangaroo tail, which is exactly what it sounds like. Tastes remarkably like pulled pork. Some good campfire times and another night under the stars.
ANOTHER 5am wakeup. We head to Kings Canyon, where the hike starts on a section nicknamed Heart Attack Hill. There’s good reason for that. By the time we make it to the top, the sun has risen, it’s very pretty, and I don’t care because I want nothing more than to lie down for an hour. Or throw our guide off the trail, after he RAN past several of us. We spend the next several hours walking around the ‘top’ of the canyon walls, more lessons in local biology, and the like. At one point we stop in the area known as the Garden of Eden, which is awfully nice. Other tour groups began catching up to us, so we moved on. Eventually find ourselves at the bottom, leading back to the carpark. We head back to our campsite to pack up and have lunch. Burgers are grilling when all of a sudden, a cow pokes his head in the kitchen area and begins sniffing around. It was a bit awkward…I mean, are you supposed to apologize for eating relatives? Many, many jokes, most of them in very poor taste, were made while the guide basically shoved the cow outside. Ah well. Clean up and back on the bus for the six hour drive back to Alice Springs. Looking at the route on a map just makes me glad I wasn’t trying to drive it myself, because the distances are a bit sobering. We arrive back in Alice Springs and all say farewell. I have never in my life been so happy to find a hot shower and a real mattress. I even ordered room service for what might be the first time in my life. Bliss.
If you ever find yourself in Australia, I think it’s worth the effort to get to Uluru and the surrounding area. It may not have a lot to do with modern Australian culture, but it gives you an incredible feel for the continent and an appreciation of the efforts that were involved in settling and exploring so long ago. Plus, it’s just incredibly scenic and enjoyable to explore.