Waltzing Matilda: Uluru and the Centre

Monday 24th February
It had been a particularly bad nights sleep because at some point someone had decided to turn off the air conditioning so even without a sheet and top it was far to hot and stuffy. I was already awake when my alarm went off so getting out of bed I tried not to wake anyone as I got ready. The task wasn’t made that easy because someone had opted to sleep on the floor. Eventually I was done and as I left Erec said goodbye before Katie and the others started calling out goodbye Little Koala.

I checked out and went to get the free breakfast before I realised I had no appetite at 5.45am. There was a mass crowd of backpackers waiting outside the hostel for their transport to the “Red Centre”. It was a bit shock for me to see so many people as I’d spent nearly a month in the places that are less visited. If this was the low season I can’t imagine how busy the high season must become.

We travelled about an hour before we came to our first toilet stop where we could also get breakfast. Whilst the activity didn’t necessarily appeal to me, this was one of the more interesting stops because it was a camel farm where there was an option to ride a camel. I remember hearing that Australia has the largest wild camel population in the world even though they are not indigenous to the country however I’m still yet to see one in the outback.

We continued for another hour to our final toilet stop before hitting the Lasseter Highway and travelling another 2-3 hours to Kings Canyon. The weather outside was cold and cloudy however the vents to my air conditioning were still open so it freezing. I have also had a saying on this ‘Walkabout’. “A wise man pees when he can, a fool pees when he has to”. Sadly on this occasion I was very much a fool and as every crucial minute ticked by and the road became bumpy I became increasingly desperate to get to the camp.

We finally arrived and as it appeared a storm was approaching and because we were the only tour, our guide had made a decision to upgrade us so we wouldn’t have to sleep in the Swags. Instead we were sleeping in ‘tents’ similar to those in Kakadu and Lichfield though slightly more basic. We prepared lunch just as it started to rain and I was glad I’d packed my poncho just in case.

Thankfully it had actually stopped raining when we reached the start of our 6km walk around the rim of Kings Canyon. It was still cloudy but there were a few patches of blue sky and we were probably lucky that the rain had cooled the temperature which had been estimated to reach 35 degrees Celsius.

We had been told the start of the walk was tough and that it would be easy after that and there is no exaggerating just how steep the walk up “Heart Attack Hill” was. I thought I’d finally got over feeling aches and pains from walking and whilst we had a few stops on the way up I was quite relieved when I was told we only had one short section to go.

Whilst it was still cloudy it didn’t detract from how spectacular the gorge looked. The walk around the rim was mostly flat and because we were going at a leisurely pace it was easy to appreciate the interesting rock formations including a series of Rock Domes. During the course of the walk we also saw one of the Aboriginal Ocre mines and could still make out some of the different colours that had been obtained from the rock. In fact it is likely the Ocre used in the paint at Uluru had came from Kings Canyon. We also visited The Garden of Eden where a small oasis was helping to populate a mini ecosystem separate from the other wise dray landscape.

Our guide Mark provided some interesting information about how the  canyon may have been formed and the difference between a gorge and a canyon. Kings Canyon has no exit so it is a canyon whilst technically the Grand Canyon is a gorge because a river flows through it. He explained to us how some of the rock formations were caused by erosion whilst how others were originally sand dunes that had become permanent because the spinefex root system had caused the sand to congeal hold.

We called in to the bar on our way to the campsite to get some takeaway alcohol if we wanted it. I’ve not drunk much on the trip because I’d rathger spend the money on an experience but it’s always nice to have a social drink. We all however decided to have 2 dry nights when I was quoted $32 for 6 pack, up to $100 for a crate and even $12 for one can of Bundaberg and coke

At the campsite we had dinner and I mostly chatted to Emilie and Cecile from Denmark and Amber from Halifax. The group contained 23 people so it was hard to remember every name however at least it meant there were different people to speak to. One of the things I have liked about some of the recent tours is the fact we’ve had to help to prepare food which I feel helps to to break the ice a bit and gets everyone working together. Mark explained we had to be up by 4.30am so we could get to Uluru early to complete a walk and because it had already been a long day we went to bed by 21.00.

As we were getting ready Mark and I heard some screaming coming from one of the rooms and on investigation discovered a few spiders, including what turned out was a Huntsman, had taken up residence. I was sharing with a guy from from South Korea and we undertook a thorough search of the cabin before going to sleep.

Tuesday 25th February
I woke up 4.30am and bleary eyed headed straight to breakfast before getting ready to leave. There was only one seat left when I got on the bus, right at the back next to Silva, and whilst it was lower than the other seats I was so tired I didn’t care. Mark kept the music off and turned the lights out and I think we all slept as we travelled across to Yulara, Ayres Rock Resort.

Mark explained Yulara was the 5 largest settlement in Northern Territory with a population of around 2000 people and that it is totally self sufficient as they even produce their own power and water. The town was built in 1983 in preparation for the 1985 handover of Uluru and Kata Tjuta back to the local Aboriginals. The handover also meant the two places are now referred to by their original titles and not the names Lasseter to them by English explorers. The area was heritage listed 1987 for its unique wildlife and landscape and then again in 1994 for its cultural significance when it was acknowledged the site had been continually occupied by local tribes for nearly 30,000 years.

The weather outside the bus was even worse than the day before at Kings Canyon and it looked very wet and cloudy. I had expected it to be dry and if anything for it to be to hot so this was not the weather I had prepared or indeed hoped for. I couldn’t believe we’d driven so far in 2 days and that we were still under cloud cover. I have to admit I slightly concerned that my first sighting of Uluru would be of the famous rock shrouded in mist but it wasn’t. Everyone has seen it and I knew what to expect having seen pictures of it on postcards, calendars and everything else for 3 months but seeing it for the first time still took my breath away. It was just so impressive how it seemed to grow so high from the otherwise flat ground.

We started off at the cultural centre and I tried to absorb as much as I could about the 3 main Aboriginal stories each of which provided a fasinating interpretation of the rocks different geographical features. There was also a very interesting video which included footage of the different dream time stories. And a reenactment of the first interaction between white explorers and local tribes.

Fortunately whilst it was still cloudy, it wasn’t raining when we undertook our 1km Mala walk to see some of the famous rock art and cave paintings. Some of the oldest and most sacred are now closed to visitors to protect them. This is because one of the most sacred cave paintings was vandalised whilst others were damaged in the early days of tourism when they were covered in water to make the patterns stand out for black and white cameras.

The ones we saw however were still very interesting and the patterns could clearly be made out. The symbols were more basic than I’d seen in Kakadu where some had been surprisingly detailed. Mark explained this was because food resource at Uluru was more scarce than at Kakadu so tribes would have less time to spend in the area before moving on. He showed us a number of the more common symbols used including Kangaroo footprints which represented Kangaroos and the symbol for a waterhole.

Whilst we were told about the rocks cultural significance we also learnt about some of the scientific reasons behind the interesting geographical features of the rock. During the walk we also saw a Bloodwood Tree which has many different uses in the Aboriginal society including bush medicine We didn’t however see any of the native wildlife such as the Marsupial Mole however as these are nocturnal this wasn’t really a surprise.

After finishing the walk we made a short drive to the lookout where many of the famous ‘postcard’ pictures are probably taken. Obviously Uluru has a number of different moods depending on the weather and for us it looked quite bold as it tried to provide some colour to an otherwise bleak looking horizon. There were patches of blue sky behind us as we took our pictured and as it still wasn’t lunch time I continued to cling to some hope we might still get to see some type of a sunset.

We headed back to the camp where I was put in charge of cooking the chicken burgers on the barbeque. I say cooking, they were actually pre-cooked so there was no danger of me killing the group but I took my responsibility very seriously as I tried to ensure each was golden and crispy. After lunch we headed back to the national park to do a 5km walk around the base.

The base of Uluru is approximately 10 km so we were doing about half however this was the section that allows tourists to get closest to the rock. The other half of the walk passed a number of sacred areas tourists are not allowed to enter including the smaller rock Taputji so the path has to divert away from the rock. The sky was starting to clear in one direction so I decided to walk maybe 1km towards Taputji Which allowed me to get a picture of the rock with a bit of blue sky behind.

I made my way to the start of the walk the others had already taken and because they were out of sight I had the path to myself. Whilst I was walking quite quickly to ensure I wasn’t late it was quite nice to be alone and I think it helped me to appreciate the geographical and cultural features even more. At about the half way stage I caught up with some of those who were walking a bit slower and this was good because by then it was nice to have some company. Uluru is an amazing rock and there are many slightly different features however I think there comes a time when if you aren’t a geologist you become overloaded and overwhelmed by the information.

We all met in the carpark and we drove back to the camp. A few of us decided to go for a swim however after getting changed I got lost and couldn’t find the right path. In my defence there were no signs and the campsite all looked exactly the same. I could hear screams of laughter and lots of splashing so knew I was close but the shrubs meant I couldn’t see the path. Eventually backtracked found the path and reached the pool as most of the girls were leaving.

I entered the pool very slowly because it was quite cold but then the guy I’d been sharing a room with started spraying me with water from a hose which was warm. A couple from the Netherlands soon joined us and then two people from another tour. After leaving the pool, having a shower and getting ready for dinner a group of us played some card games. Dinner was a proper outback barbeque featuring Kangaroo steaks and camel sausages, the latter of which were surprisingly nice.

Despite the bleak start to the day we were very lucky and the patch of blue sky had slowly expanded. Whilst there was still heavy cloud around it wasn’t in an area that would affect the sunset. As we made our way up to the lookout our guide Mark realised it was a particularly good one so we ran the last section.

On reaching the top I exclaimed I wasn’t sure where to look. The sun was setting behind Kata Tjuta so the mountain range had created a lovely silhouette whereas as the sun was shining on to Uluru that also looked spectacular especially as there were some small wisps of cloud. You know it’s a good sunset when your guide who does the trip twice a week brings out their phone. We all felt very lucky because for most of the day we’d expected the cloud to prevent us seeing anything.

We were all slightly buzzing when we returned back to the campsite for some fruit salad which Mark had lovingly prepared from a tin before again knowing we had an early start to see the sunrise we prepared for bed. The stars were out and it appeared any chance of a second night of storms had evaporated so Amber asked if she and a few others could sleep in a swag. I wasn’t going to miss out on this as I’d really enjoyed my past experiences with the exception of the night I got eaten by mosquitoes in Ceduna. Not everyone can say that slept under the stars within range of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

I don’t know when I’d last seen a shooting star, I don’t think I did when I was in Wadi Rum or even Egypt so it’s been a very long time. That’s assuming I had even seen one. Amber saw one quite quickly however I was distracted and missed it. I carried on staring in to the sky and eventually thought I saw one though realised it was probably a bird. Just as I could feel my eyes getting heavy, a small bright light that lasted perhaps a second disappeared from left to right. The milky way also looked fantastic and I definitely need to remember my mini tripod next time I’m in a swag.

Wednesday 26th February
My night in the swag had been comfortable, I hadn’t been eaten by dingo and no spiders or snakes had tried to snuggle up to me. In fact I felt very cosy and I found it a huge struggle to get out of my sleeping bag but knowing I was about to see a sunrise over the world’s most famous rock I got myself in gear.

We made our way to the lookout and the scene already looked quite fantastic the sky split in to 3 colours, orange, light blue and dark blue, Uluru nicely centred with Venus and a crescent moon directly overhead. The Olga’s were still in the dark and we waited as the dark sky slowly turned to light though the sun remained hidden. Eventually it began to make appearance and as is always the way despite all the waiting it all ended rather quickly. Spectacular is a word it probably seems I’ve overused but this had been and not a bad way to the start the day.

The rising of the sun had caused thousands of flies to descend on us and despite having a fly net I’d left it on the bus. After soaking up the atmosphere we made a quick escape back to the bus to start our 6km walk around the Olga’s. Despite it still being early it was already hot and much more like the weather I had expected.

The walk was very nice, not to strenuous and without a steep continuous hill like at Kings Canyon. Mark provided some information about how the rocks were formed and explained that it was a slightly different process to that which took place at Uluru. We made our way to the top lookout which was fairly windy due to its narrow channel but the views were wonderful. Kata Tjuta is a series of 36 Domed Rock Formations with different summits and the highest is Mount Olga which is taller than Uluru. Climbing to the lookout it was possible to appreciate just how big the rocks are, especially as the surrounding landscape leading all the way to the horizon is so flat. I felt quite small.

Before heading back to the camp. Mark had promised that if it was sunny we’d return to the Uluru lookout we’d been to the day before so we could get a proper postcard picture. The view was much more what I had expected but in hindsight I was almost glad the weather had started so badly because it made me appreciate the view in front of me even more.

After lunch we returned back to the camp and after eating lunch set out back across the highway to Alice Springs. Every one associates Alice with Uluru however a 5 hour drive separates the two and by the time we checked back in to the Haven we’d travelled 1600 km in 3 days.

I asked to be in the same room as I had been a few nights before so I could catch up with Erec and when I entered the room Finja who had checked in before me was there as well. Soon the guy I’d shared the tent with joined us, then Marianne from the Darwin to Alice tour and It was nice to see so many familiar faces. Slightly more bizarrely as I stood in reception I heard my name and looking up saw Nina from my Perth to Exmouth trip.

A few of us had arranged to have a few drinks at a local bar recommended to us and after we’d sorted our own separate meals we made our way in to town. Sadly Finja and Emilie couldn’t join us as their bags had been invaded by little red ants when they’d put them in storage so couldn’t join us. Marianne and the Canadian couple were also unable to join us as they were going for a post tour dinner with their group.

There was still a good group of us though and we had quite a bit of fun as we enjoyed a couple of drinks. It wasn’t as lively as we had expected but there was a live acoustic guitarist who was quite good and played some well known songs. Towards the end our group was gatecrashed by a group living locally and we decided to make a move as nearly everyone either had an early flight or an early tour. The Red Centre had been pretty special and my only regret is we hadn’t got a big group photo but 3 days just hadn’t been long enough for 24 people to bond properly

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