I’ve talked about it on the funding page, I’ve referenced it in other posts, and I’ve put up a few photos of it already, but I haven’t actually told you what it was like to stand in front of Uluru. Break out the travel cliches, folks, because it was wonderful. It was breathtaking. It is now in my Top 5 Encounters with Rock Formations.
Uluru (pronounced OOH-luh-roo or ooh-luh-ROO) is the local aboriginal name for the largest monolith in the world. It’s like an island in the middle of the desert, in that we see some of it above the ground, but most of the rock is under the earth’s surface, spreading for miles in all directions.
All the pictures show a massive rock rising above miles of flat desert land. I was surprised to find, on the five-hour drive from Alice Springs to the national park, that the whole area wasn’t flat. Much of the drive was spent gazing at the MacDonnell mountain ranges, and rolling hills of arid land covered in spiky spinifex.
Rather than drive myself or fly directly to the national park, I took a three-day, two-night tour from Alice Springs. I booked through Wayoutback Tours, but when no one else signed up for the same day, they unceremoniously switched me to an Adventure Tours group without advance notice. It worked out, but I was annoyed to discover that this tour switched the itinerary of the one I’d thought I was signing up for, so now Uluru would be last rather than first. I’d waited how many years to see it, and now I had to wait even longer?
Happily, there’s more to see out there, and my group of 16 saw a lot of it. First, we drove to Kings Canyon, which, being reddish and canyon-like, did remind me a bit of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. But here, you drive up to the bottom of the canyon, and most people walk up to the rim and then back down again. Considering the ascent is affectionately nicknamed “Heart Attack Hill,” I opted not to do that.
Instead, I joined the woman in our group who had a broken ankle, and we went on the river walk. Sandi had had her crutches for several days at that point, so she was adept at navigating the uneven terrain. The walk took us through the riverbed, which had been dry almost as long as the last rainfall here, nearly five months previous. We picked our way through the loose rock, past other tourists who complimented Sandi on her toughness, until we reached the viewing platform. It was a beautiful view, and I liked the different perspective we got from down there.
That night we set up camp and cooked spag bog–spaghetti bolognese, but you have to shorten everything in Australia. We played a round of “I see the moon in the spoon,” which is one of those aggravating games with one simple rule that only one person knows at first and everyone else has to figure it out, and inevitably there’s someone who never does get it but the person teaching the game won’t spill the secret and it gets a bit uncomfortable as everyone else just wants to finish the damn thing already.
After our guide, Rachael, explained that we would likely see dingoes but not to worry, you can just tell them to shoo (!!!), we rolled out our swags and settled down for the night. They are very proud of their swags in the Northern Territory. They’re basically canvas sleeping bags, with a thin cushion sewed to the inside (and they’re referred to in “Waltzing Matilda”). You can put a sleeping bag inside it for warmth, then put your shoes just above your head, then pull up the edge of the swag to cover the shoes so the dingoes won’t steal them. Don’t leave anything out at night, or it will be gone in the morning. With visions of thieving dingoes darting through my head, and the eerie howling of real dingoes ringing in my ears, I fell asleep under the southern stars.
The next day, we broke camp early and headed to the national park that contains Uluru and Kata Tjuta (also known as The Olgas). Kata Tjuta was probably formed in the same kind of avalanche Uluru was, but the two formations look quite different. We went on a walk to the Valley of the Winds, which is as much statement of fact as it is poetic name. Luckily, none of us was blown off the trail, although it did look touch-and-go there for a bit.
That evening we joined the hundreds of other tourists at a designated sunset spot and got our first glimpse of Uluru. We didn’t get the stunning colors that the postcards show, because of cloud cover, but it still looked beautiful. And when we turned around, the backlit Kata Tjuta was a sight to see, too.
On our final morning, we got up at 5am (maybe 4:30? some time humans are not meant to be conscious for, anyway) and drove to the same spot to see the sunrise. There’s a separate sunrise spot that all the other tour buses went to, but Rachael assured us that because of the cloud cover, this would be better, and we might get dramatic color lighting up the clouds around the rock. This didn’t end up happening, and we had a fairly dark sunrise. But still. Oh man.
Finally, we went to the visitors’ center, which was created by the local Anangu people and tells various stories associated with the rock. (Anangu is the name the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people have agreed on to refer to both groups, and together they are official caretakers of the area, in tandem with the Australian government.) I’d thought it was just one creation myth that made the place sacred, but actually there are many stories of gods and ancestors interacting on and around Uluru. Also, the Anangu people have lived in its nooks and crannies for thousands of years, so it’s a home as well as a sacred place. No wonder it’s an insult for visitors to climb it!
Thousands of people do climb Uluru every year, despite the outright pleas from the visitors’ center not to. The Australian government could ban the practice, of course, but a lot of tourism dollars come from the wealthy thrill-seekers who fly in, climb, see a sunset, and fly out again. So it remains legal, and there are guidelines on how to do it safely, and people keep tramping all over it. Three guesses how I feel about it.
I overheard an exchange between a British guy and his new American girlfriend in my group. Him: “C’mon, climb it with me, it’ll be fun.” Her: “I know, I want to, I just feel bad, like we’re walking all over their culture.” Him: “I see where you’re coming from, but it’s just a massive rock.” British arrogance and American faux-cultural guilt in action.
Anyway, the climb was canceled for weather conditions, so no one climbed it the day I was there. Instead, our whole group followed Rachael on a short walk to various caves to see paintings and evidence of kitchen use. At the visitors’ center, we’d read about the plants found in the area, and the careful attention to seasons that allowed the Anangu to harvest food in such a punishing climate. Here, we got to see where they prepared that food for meals. We peered at the paintings–which were practice for showing directions while on the hunt–and in the kitchen we were allowed to run our fingers over the places in the rock used for grinding plants and putting together meals.
It was here, as I got close enough to this dreamed-about place to actually touch it and feel the ancient rock beneath my fingers, that my camera broke.
I was pretty calm about it, considering that it was hugely upsetting to me that my pricy camera had died and that it had done so on such a big day for photos. (For the record, no, I didn’t drop it or anything; it’s a known issue with the Canon S-100, in which the lens gets stuck on the open position and nothing but sending it back to the factory will fix it.)
After our cultural walk, the group split up so people could do the 10K walk around the base at their own pace. I hitched a ride with Rachael and Sandi to a little after the halfway point, then walked the rest of it on my own while they went to the gift shop.
A lot of the base walk isn’t allowed to be photographed, as it turns out. Areas that have special significance to the Anangu people are marked off with signs, and if a ranger catches you photographing there, the fines are steep. So okay, even if my camera hadn’t died a quick and treacherous death, I wouldn’t be able to capture about half my walk on film anyway. I gave myself over to the walk and enjoyed the first moments to myself I’d had in three days.
I ran into plenty of other tourists, but for long stretches it was just the natural surroundings and me. From far away, Uluru looks, well, monolithic, a large brown rock that changes color as the sun’s angle changes. But up close, it’s much more interesting. It’s an orangish-brown color, and it’s pockmarked all over with little holes caused by erosion and the occasional waterfall. The waterfalls leave long black streaks behind them, like they’re the lines and Uluru colored outside them.
Uluru doesn’t go straight up (it’s much too old for that). Instead, it slopes and meanders up into the sky. Much of the rock looks like it’s shedding, or like someone’s chipping away at it with a paint scraper. I’m guessing that’s the forces of wind and rain at work.
Despite the camera fiasco and walking around on two nights’ fitful sleep, I felt a deep calm walking next to Uluru. What a relief, that this place I’d had such high hopes for, easily met them. What an honor, to be walking on ground cared for by people whose ancestors first arrived here 40,000 years ago. What a joy, to gaze out at the landscape and understand what a beacon Uluru was.
As we piled into the van and began the drive back to Alice Springs, the clouds that had been gathering for days finally opened, and the five-month dry spell broke. We didn’t see a big thunderstorm or waterfalls running down the sides of Uluru, but we saw the orangish-brown rock darken, and the plants around the base shaking in the wind, and everyone stopped what they were doing and looked up at the sky in delight, and for just a moment, it was as it had ever been.