Anangu say don't climb - 50% of visitors say shove it
Though there are plenty of tours to the Red Centre that take in Uluru (aka Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta (aka the Olgas), and King's Canyon, none of them offer the flexibility to just stop and take photos wherever and whenever you like. So I signed up for the joy of driving a hire car 1,600km in 4 days, in an area where petrol prices are a good 30% higher than any decent-sized city (and where the petrol has been doctored in an attempt to combat petrol-sniffing in the Aboriginal communities). But if I was only going to be in this part of the world once, it deserved to be done right.
The drive from Alice to the Yulara Resort (the purpose-built complex near Uluru that's the only accommodation option) was monotonous, the miles of scrubby desert remarkable only for the eye-catching red of the earth. The airwaves remained silent on AM and FM, from one end of the dial to the other, so "Remix Heaven 2006" was my sole musical companion, a situation that gradually became less and less appealing once I realised it only contained about 5 tracks that could bear repeated listening. [As I was coming back in
to Alice at the end of the trip, I was pleased when one of my periodic scans of the FM range finally produced something - which turned out to be a station playing the entirety of ... "Remix Heaven 2006".]
Yulara Resort contains several accommodation options, and the quality of the dorms had definitely been dragged upwards by the presence of more expensive accommodation nearby. At $41, the dorm beds were the priciest I'd yet seen, and were close to being the smallest too. However they were clean, had glacial aircon, and the shared ablution facilities were top notch. Throw in access to a large swimming pool, multi-barbecue cooking area, and bar, and the price started to look almost reasonable. My dorm-mates for the first night were a near-retirement Kiwi couple and their travelling companion, though I was on my own for night number 2.
I arrived at Yulara just in time to check in before needing to head off to Uluru itself to view the sunset. This turned out to be something of a circus, with literally hundreds of people lined up with their camp chairs and cold beers, waiting for the sun to go down. Adding
to the intimacy of the proceedings was the presence of enough flies for every nostril, mouth, and ear canal of the assembled spectators.
Despite these distractions, the rock itself was no disappointment. On the approach road from Yulara I'd seen its bulk dominating the surrounding plain, with no other appreciable highland for 40km in any direction. Drawing closer, the detail on its surface became clearer - not a uniformly smooth surface, but also pock-marked and weathered in places, dotted with trees, and showing the stained run-offs where brief and spectacular waterfalls flow after rain. Its redness in the setting sun was as I'd seen it in countless photos, but I hadn't realised there was so much character in its shadows and undulating curves.
Back at Yulara, I fell into conversation with a Belgian guy who was also travelling solo. His next stop was going to be Melbourne, where he intended taking a course in what he described as "alternative medicine', but which turned out to be about how to help poor countries by channelling positive thought energy to them. I might have been inclined to think something had been lost in translation but i) his English was excellent,
and ii) he subsequently told me that Uluru had a brain. The only interesting fact that I could offer in return was that wanka-wanka means yellow (ochre) in one of the Aboriginal Western Desert languages, but he seemed less impressed by that than I was.
The following morning naturally required an early alarm call in order to catch sunrise at Uluru. Though it was still dark as the first cars were let in to the park at 5:40AM, you could sense Uluru hulking to the south, the absence of stars low on the horizon in that direction giving it away. The sunrise viewing area was a little too close to the rock - I don't have a useless camera yet I couldn't fit the whole thing into shot. There seemed to be even more fellow-tourists than there had been for sunset but I can't say the changing light really did much for me - I was more pleased at seeing a different side of the rock (i.e. almost the opposite side from the previous evening), in particular the physical manifestation of the brain of which my Belgian chum had been speaking.
The local Anangu people request that you
don't climb Uluru, as the climb route, to them, is a sacred one taken by Anangu men arriving at the rock. It's worth nothing that when Uluru and its surrounding national park was returned to the Anangu in 1985, one of the conditions was that the park would immediately be leased back to the Department of Environment and Heritage, who run it under joint management with the Anangu. Another condition was that visitors should be allowed to climb the rock - no doubt imposed by the government for fear that tourist numbers would drop if climbing was not an option. So even though there are sites around the base of Uluru where it's illegal to enter or take photos, the Anangu simply ask that you don't climb. It's estimated that 50% of the visitors to Uluru attempt the climb, with 1 a year dying, so that plea seems to fall on many deaf ears.
With the physical torture of climbing a steep rock for 1 hour in a blazing sun and 30+C temperatures conveniently bypassed for reasons of cultural respect, I opted for the full base walk - a 13km jaunt from the Cultural Centre, round Uluru, and back
again. This was by far the best experience I had in the Red Centre, as I spent most of the walk on my own with just my personal fan club of orifice-hunting flies for company. Uluru is so massive that you can not comprehend its scale from up close (I think only flying over it could do that), but conversely you can witness its more granular features - the caves, pockets of plant life, and waterholes (the presence of the latter being another reason for the sacredness of the rock to the Anangu). A buffetting wind kept me cool (though didn't rid me of my insect companions) - even at ~8AM the temperature was soaring, and after 3 hours of trudging I was glad to see my starting point hove into view again.
My final interaction with Uluru was actually from the Kata Tjuta viewing areas in the evening and following morning. I found the silhouette against the sunrise to be more picturesque than the sunrise from the "correct" side had been. It's a stunning natural wonder - even better, there's another 5 or 6km of it below ground, a monolithic iceberg on a grand scale, beached on a
sea of red sand.
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