In the Centre of the Red


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Oceania » Australia » Northern Territory » Uluru
June 28th 2018
Published: July 25th 2018
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Right in the middle.

Kata Tjuta and Uluru are southwest of Alice Springs.

Uluru at SunsetUluru at SunsetUluru at Sunset

It glows for a while when the sun goes down. Pretty amazing.
Uluru is 450 km north of Alice Springs. It's close to the bottom of the Northern Territory of Australia, and it is in the near dead center of the country. Harmonie and I signed up to take a three day tour of the area. We would start with Uluru, spend the night camping, head to nearby Kata-Tjuja, camp again, then see Kings Canyon in the south, returning to Alice Springs afterward.

Our tour bus picked us up from the Hostel at five in the morning. The bus was a pretty simple design, with bench seating, like a school-bus. It was hitched to a trailer loaded up with sleeping bags and swags we would need later. There were already a half dozen other campers sitting inside, bundled up from the night cold and looking as drowsy like me. As we drove around Alice picking up the rest of the crew I was relieved that the bus had a half decent heater, I was already feeling more comfortable than in the at the hostel. Still feeling tired, I leaned my head against the window and nodded off to sleep.

We were awoken 20 km north of Alice to the sound of
Walking around UluruWalking around UluruWalking around Uluru

The different faces all look very different from one another.
The Lion Kings opening song (The Circle of Life). It was sunrise you see, and our tour guide was adding a sense of majesty with some choice music of his own. I was not the only one startled awake by the sudden chorus of Zulu singers, but I was happy to be woken to see the sight. The country is as flat as where I grew up, and the sunrise reminded me of one back home if you just replaced the hundreds of miles of snow with hundreds of miles of rust colored desert. A few miles on we saw an Australian Red Kangaroo hopping along the highway at full speed. That's the first time we had seen a Red, and they weren't usually around this time of year, so Daymo says.

Daymo, Our tour guide, deserves further attention. In Australia I have met many Australian people, but our guide Daymo is by far the most Australian person we've met. When I first saw him he seemed like a cross between the three main Australian stereotypes seen on TV. Part Crocodile Dundee, part Road Warrior, and part Steve Irwin, This tatted up, metalhead, former paratrooper outdoors man adventurer guided
Camp Fire foodCamp Fire foodCamp Fire food

That guy with the headlamp is Dayno, the most Australian guy ever. Check him out at- https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCS2XPlcegCVMs9FduwrBHEg
us, taught us about the outback, drove the bus, made us dinner, showed respect for the native people, and showed deep knowledge of all the sites we visited. He also had a fun sense of humor and an enthusiasm throughout. We felt lucky to have him. And yes he does have a youtube channel and yes, he teases highly venomous snakes on it for fun. We would be with him for the next three days.

We picked up some temporary travelers from the nearby airport, some people coming for a one night stay, before we entered the park. We started with a visit to the Uluru Cultural Center, a nearby facility ran by the Aṉangu people, the local aboriginal community and caretakers of the site. Like Canada, Australia has a colonial history. The indigenous people of Australia were marginalized by the colonial government established by the English. The land was appropriated from the people who had lived there for thousands of years beforehand. The Aṉangu people lived in the area surrounding Uluru. It was central to who they were. They lost control of the land and the settlers renamed the site Ayers Rock in the name of the Chief
Kata TjutaKata TjutaKata Tjuta

That's how it looks from Uluru, some 25 km away.
Secretary of South Australia at the time. Following years of legal battle to reestablish land rights of the indigenous people, control of the site was returned to the Aṉangu people in 1985. They have been taking care ever since.

The Center contained a wealth of knowledge about Uluru, the unique animals and plants around the base, and the the history and religion of the local people. The building style was influenced by Aṉangu architecture, with lots of organic surfaces made with the earth. It was a busy place. We were in Australian winter, and that's the busiest season for the park. It averages 38 degrees in the summer, so cooler weather is a plus for tourists. It was still 25 degrees in the day while we were here, so it was a beautiful day by our standards. There were a few dozen visitors with us in the park, as well as one of the many Australian student groups out for a hike. Due to the customs of the local people the Cultural Center does not allow any photography, and there are certain areas along the Uluru walking trail that they prohibit pictures as well. Our guide was educated on
Second CampsiteSecond CampsiteSecond Campsite

Notice our sick wheels? It's more comfortable than it looks.
Aboriginal customs and he did a great job articulating the importance of respect for the site. Any photos we post were taken from the appropriate locations. After we refilled our canteens we loaded back into the bus and made tracks for the starting point of our hike.

Seeing Uluru is a mind boggling experience. I don't think a photo can really capture the feeling of it. Here you are, in the middle of a gargantuan desert. The landscape for thousands of square miles can best be described as windswept. What few rolling hills they have here never come much higher than a few dozen feet, and then there is Uluru, sitting out here in the middle of nowhere, towering over the surrounding land like some baffling sign from God. It stands 1142 feet high, its outer circumference is 9.2 km. It is made of one solid piece of Sandstone and scientist do not know how deep down it extends. Contrasted with the countryside, Uluru is an incredible sight to behold.

Our hike around the circumference was just under 10km, Our guide gave us 2 hours to make it around, so we set off at a brisk pace. The
Predawn at Kings CanyonPredawn at Kings CanyonPredawn at Kings Canyon

Took this on the top of the canyon, minutes before sunrise.
site is a tourist heavy location, and our group was not the only business operating in the area. I counted at least a dozen different tours making their way around the grounds. Tour groups hiking up the side of Uluru, and packs of tourist riding Segways single file down the path. Despite that, it never felt crowded. There were other people nearby, but the path was long enough that you could get separated if you wanted to. Harmonie and I were on our own for the majority of our hike, but the people we did encounter were quick with a g'day. There were sites where hikers could refill their water, which is good because the area is otherwise dry as a bone. There was evidence of recent fire around sections of the path. We wondered if it was the remains of one of the controlled fire set by the caretakers. The trees around here were used to these conditions apparently, some of the trees appeared more lush than their unburned neighbors.

Uluru's terrain changes radically as you walk around it. Some area are dominated by rolling red domes of sandstone, other areas are jagged from rock slides. Lying everywhere
The Garden of EdenThe Garden of EdenThe Garden of Eden

The spring at Kings Canyon. It was still so early, we sat in silence for ten minutes. Very beautiful.
around the circumference there are pillars of stone that had been sheered off from the main body. Many pieces dwarf a large house, but you could only realize the scale when you stood right next to the chunk. The perspective plays tricks on your mind. Dark vertical lines have been etched into the surface of the stone by millennia of rainfall. The water always takes the same path. The darkness comes from the algae that blooms to feed on the occasional rainfall, then dies soon after. When you see how deep these gorges are cut and compare that to how rarely it rains on Uluru it truly is a hard perspective to think about, how dwarfed we are by time.

We did not climb the side of Uluru. Since the rock was discovered by the colonials people have been free to go up one of the sides. The Aṉangu have always protested this, but the site had been an attraction for professional climbers for years. A metal railing was installed on the path up to make the hour long hike easier for visitors. We felt like it was more important to respect the wishes of the locals than do
Burned out treeBurned out treeBurned out tree

I don't know, I think it looks okay?
the tourist thing and get a selfie on top of a sacred religious site. The opportunity to climb Uluru is coming to an end in 2019, when the path will be closed.

After our hike we met up with Daymo. He took us on a guided tour along a section of the wall. The different sections have specific functions to the Aṉangu culture. We saw remains of aboriginal art painted on a cave. The drawings were located at an area for children to learn from the elders. There were sections for men and sections for women to congregate and go about their business.They lived like this for thousands of years. Following the talk we drove a few miles to a lookout the park had set up for people to watch Uluru during the sunset. The parking lot was packed with tour buses. Tables had been set up in the sand, where waiters were pouring glasses of champagne for the onlookers. As the sun goes down the light leaves Uluru last, causing the sandstone to glow a vibrant red for a minute or so. It's not hard to imagine why people would see this site as sacred.

Daymo whipped up some dinner for us on the propane stove found in the trailer. It was a long day, with constant physical exertion, so by this time I was ready for dinner. Chicken and vegetables in a creamy sauce. A little salty, but extremely satisfying. I went back for seconds. Our guide surprised us with a bit of champagne of our own. The glint in his eye made me wonder if he had brought it himself, or if he hadn't acquired to some of the loose bottles floating around from the other tours. Oh well, they wouldn't miss it. It wasn't the best champagne, but in the circumstances it was delicious.

Our campsite was nearby, where we were going to sleep under the stars. The infrastructure at Australian camp sites and road stops has been excellent so far. There were showers available to us on both nights. This campsite was being used by a few other tours, and the place was dotted with bonfires around which various groups were circled. We slept in something called a "Swag". Now these might be common to some of you, but I had never heard about such a thing before now. A Swag is basically a large canvas sack with a thin cushion built in. You put your sleeping bag inside it and get all bundled up. Supposedly they are pretty good at retaining heat at night. We set up our swags around the fire. It was still early, not much past 9, when people started turning in for sleep. Understandably, considering the hours of walking we had done along with the early wake up call. Believe it or not I was warmer in the Swag than I was in the hostel. It wasn't a perfect sleep, the mattress did little to keep my bony frame from digging into the earth, and the moon was shining like a spotlight above us, but I did manage to go down for a few hours. At least I think I did. Anyway, It wasn't long before our rest was interrupted by our tour guide acting as our alarm clock. He had his boom box turned up and was playing the soundtrack to the film "Good Morning Vietnam". It opens with Robin Williams shouting the titular phrase at the top of his lungs. I awoke with a jolt, and reflexively rolling up my sleeping bag in a quarter woken haze. Maybe I was hazy from the cascade of emotions that sweep over me when I hear that mans voice, or maybe it was the remnants of the champagne, but we were halfway through breakfast at Uluru before I realized I had rolled my phone into the swag by accident. As he fished it out from the piles of rolled up bags our tour guide informed me that I wasn't the first.

After breakfast we made tracks for the site of today's tour. The nearby area called Kata Tjuta. Only 25 km from Uluru stands a site almost as bizarre as Uluru itself. 36 gigantic sandstone domes rise out of the sand in an area 29 km squared. This is another sacred site for the local population, and much of it's ceremonies are still unknown to outsiders. This hike would take us across the interior of the mounds, into the center of a collection of domes, and out to a great lookout. Today's hike was more engaging than yesterdays. The course around Uluru is level the whole way, at Kata-Tuja the course is more uneven. It takes you up and around the outside of a few large mound, then through a forest grove between the piles, then over some rubble and up a steep hill, then reverse it all to come back. The wind was more of a factor as well. The thin gaps in the rock create wind tunnels along the way. The path is well worn and felt safe throughout, but Daymo did mention that more than a few hikers have been blown off the path in the past.

Along the way our guide stopped and gave us an archeological explanation for the formations of Kata-Tjuta and Uluru 500 million years ago. it was great to get some background of the area, especially since most of what I was thinking at time I was there was something along the lines of "Where the hell did this come from? How did it happen?" I won't go into the details, Wikipedia articles are available, but I will tell you that Uluru is actually sitting sideways from it's original position, having been flipped 90 degrees during a seismic event 400 million years ago. That's one of the reasons it has such distinct vertical lines on it. Daymo used yesterday's tour to talk about the history and customs surrounding the sites, and today he went into the science. We were lucky to have a guide who seemed equally interested and knowledgeable in both subjects.

There were a few large school groups on our route, as usual. School groups in Australia can be easily identified by their gray or navy uniforms. In the case of the younger groups they all wear adorable sun hats as well. It seems that schools go for a lot of outings with their classes, we've seen large groups at many of the museums and galleries we've been to, as well as the Melbourne zoo. These were mostly junior-high aged kids. Kata-Tjuta was a solid hike,and the area is as strange and picturesque as Uluru. Red everywhere, but a surprising amount of vegetation as well. In the areas where plant life grows in the desert it is very thick. Between the mounds were thick groves of trees with different breeds of birds zipping back and forth nonstop. Some of the climbing was on the steep side of the rock and you have to be careful going up and down, but I was happy to have a bit more engaging exercise today. The air is extremely clear feeling out here and it feels good to get the blood pumping, by the time we reached the main lookout I was feeling ready for a rest. There were other tour groups from different companies at the lookout, and we got to chatting with a few other members. So far all the people we've run into out here have been supremely friendly and laid back. One of the other tour guides even shared his cookies with us.

By the time we got back to the bus it was mid afternoon and we had to make tracks. We were headed five hours back towards Alice for our last night of camping before our final day, when we would be exploring Kings Canyon. Daymo made us another camp dinner, as well as a pretty tasty dessert that was like a loaf of campfire bread stuffed with a jar of peanut butter and jelly. Super satisfying. Later that night our guide busted out his bull whip for a little fun. He snapped the whip in a half dozen different ways, told us stories of bush people he had learned from, and offered us the chance to try to crack the whip. It's an intimidating piece of equipment, half of Daymo's cracks were still ringing in my ears, but I am happy to report I got it to crack after a few tried.

Our sleeping setup was similar to our previous, but I had learned a few lessons from last night. I took all my excess clothing from out my bag and tossed it under the swag mattress, giving me some more cushion, then I tossed my travel blanket on top the sleeping bag for further insulation. This time it was bang on and I slept like a baby. I woke up at one point after the moon had set. The entire milky way is visible out here. I had lived in cities for the last decade and I always missed the night sky, to me this view was worth the cost of a ticket.

We woke up two hours before dawn, to the same soundtrack from yesterday. People in the camp seemed like they were in livelier spirits this morning. After two days of close proximity relationships were starting to form in the group. We had around 10 other campers with us. Two Spaniards, a New Zealander, 4 Australian students on holiday, and three Germans (One named Merlin!). We helped make breakfast and pack up the camp. Dayno's plan was for us to go to Kings Canyon,a nearby national park, climb to the top of the canyon wall and watch the sun rise. It was the longest and most intense hike of the trip, but by this point I was feeling fully prepared for the trek. Now, we don't have any pictures from the morning, because they would have just been blurry and useless, but we arrived at the canyon in total darkness. We had to wait until there was at least some small light in the sky, but once we could see a step or two in front of us we started to climb.

Kings Canyon reminded me immediately of Zion National Park in the USA. Not as grand in scale, but still very impressive. 100 foot walls surround a natural spring full of plants and animals. Dayno called it the Garden of Eden walk. But to get there we had to start by climbing a steep path up to the top of the wall, then hike a few km across the top till we could reach the path down to the water. The climb was the hardest part, and it was right at the start, but after that was over we were all wide awake and energized for the rest of the day. Dayno took us to a good lookout and we watched the sunrise yet again. Then we walked across the upper canyon wall then down into the greenery. Wherever there is water there is life, and the shelter of the canyon provides a further level of protection for the species living in the area. We saw the natural spring that comes from the heart of the canyon. It was very quiet and still. They used to let people swim in it, but they found the chemicals from our sunblock was having detrimental effects on the ecosystem, so the practice has been curtailed. We then climbed back to the top of the canyon and returned along the opposite side that we started at.

After the hike we made our way back to Alice Springs and the end of our tour.. We were going to be spending the next week living in Alice with a local who houses backpackers in town. In exchange for room and board we would take care of her dog and do some yard work for her. She would be picking us up that night from the city. Before that we swung by our Hostel to pick up our stored baggage, then we met our tour group at the bar. We didn't have much time, but we were able to down a few pints with the gang. As far as a first outing goes we have set a pretty high watermark with this one. We got to learn about some really incredible places and saw some things we will remember forever. Thanks Dayno, we had a great time.

Next, we're back in the city for a work away before we continue out east towards Brisbane.

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