Monoliths in the desert

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November 7th 2006
Published: January 1st 2007
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Morning SunMorning SunMorning Sun

A tree silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky at King's Canyon.
The campsite at Kings Canyon is an oasis in the middle of the immense desolate heart of Australia - all mod cons many hundreds of miles from anywhere. The Watarrka National Park, which encompasses the canyon, covers the western end of the George Gill Ranges which rise up out of the flat desert. The Canyon is a touch over 300 kilometres by road from Uluru (half that as the crow flies), but on an Australian scale this is but a tiny detour.

Here the tiny Kings Creek, nothing but a dry bed for much of the year, has cut a passage through the ranges, creating a spectacular canyon over a hundred metres deep in places. The highlight of a visit to the canyon is the Rim Walk, a 6 kilometre loop which runs around the canyon’s sheer walls, and which we intend to walk the day after our arrival. National Parks advises visitors wishing to follow this track to start the walk as early as possible in the day. At this time of year, temperatures can climb well above 40 degrees Celsius and do so as early as 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning. The walk, graded “strenuous”, can
Geologist's dreamGeologist's dreamGeologist's dream

Spectacular rock formations at King's Canyon.
take anything from 3 to 6 hours, so we aim to get to the start of the track at about 6am to complete the walk while it is still cool - we haven’t been on a “long” walk yet so are not sure if the times given by Parks are for obese people or lithe athletes. Alarm set for 5am then - aren’t we supposed to be on holiday ?

The camp is quite busy - there are many of Smoggie’s identical siblings here, in addition to the huge ultra-equipped touring buses favoured by some Australian retirees who choose to spend their twilight years driving around the country wherever the wind takes them. Grey nomads, they call them here. Quite an attractive alternative to the old folks’ home, I suppose. After an early dinner eaten indoors to avoid the swarms of flies that plague this part of Australia, we retire in preparation for our early start the next morning.

The watch beeps. It is completely dark and the camp is utterly quiet - surprising, since I thought many of the people around us had come here specifically to walk the rim track. After all, there isn’t a whole

The rocks that form King's Canyon have been subject to erosion over hundreds of thousands of years, resulting in outlandish shapes at every turn.
lot more to do here…Strange, indeed. We get ready quietly and drive out of the camp - sunrise seems suspiciously far away and we really are the only people awake. What’s going on ? A bit perplexed we drive the ten or so kilometres to the entrance to the canyon. We were aiming to be here for 6am and we’re on time, but it’s definitely too dark to begin the walk, which starts up a very steep and rough flight of steps hewn directly into the canyon wall. We decide to wait a half hour or so until the sky finally begins to lighten and we hear the sound of the first bus coming up the road.

The first section of the track, which takes walkers high above the course of the creek, is indeed quite arduous, even in the cool of morning. It immediately becomes obvious why walkers are strongly discouraged from starting the walk any later than mid-morning ! At the sky lightened further the massive cliffs and rock formations around us began to change colour, metamorphosing into a symphony of reds, pinks, ochres and oranges against the pale but gradually intensifying blue of the cloudless sky.
Wind and Water...Wind and Water...Wind and Water...

...have gouged the rock into spectacular overhangs and caverns.
The tops of the cliffs on either side of the canyon are anything but flat and bare - mazes of huge, weathered rock domes crown the cliffs, overhangs - threatening to collapse without warning - jut out into the void of the canyon, where the cliffs have been whitewashed by the caustic droppings of countless birds of prey. The setting is truly remarkable. Halfway through the walk a deep gorge gouges through the cliffs, ending in a small rock pool surrounded by giant cycads - I had to look up to check for pterodactyls…By the time we began our decent, the temperature had really soared - by then the temperature and absence of shade had become real hazards. Dehydration and head exhaustion are big killers in Australia, with foreign tourists frequent victims of the harsh and utterly unforgiving desert climate. Nonetheless, some hardy souls were gamely setting off up the steps even as we returned to the campervan. A little further along the road towards Uluru was another walk, this one very short, to Kathleen Springs, a quiet pool full of water and teeming with life despite the surroundings. Long a place of great significance to the local Aboriginal tribe,
Complementary coloursComplementary coloursComplementary colours

The azure blue of the sky and the deep oranges and reds of the canyon make for a stunning contrast.
the walk took us past some fascinating artifacts, including the remains of corrals and pens used many years ago, to herd cattle using the watering hole, by Aboriginal cowboys working for European landowners. Days long gone when Aboriginal Australians, now marginalised on the very fringes of society - as we were later to discover in an uncomfortable way - played a significant part in the economy of the area.

After a quick lunch in the crushing midday heat - half of the time spent trying to keep flies off our food - we drove the 300 kilometres to Uluru, down the Luritja Road before turning West down the remainder of the Lassiter Highway.

Uluru. How many photos have we seen of the mysterious rock, rising as if out of nowhere from the red soil ? I wonder how the sight of Uluru, in the rock so to speak, will compare… It is not until we have practically arrived at the settlement of Yulara some twenty kilometres north of the Rock that it finally comes into view - our first impression is that the rock is not at all the shape we thought it was. For reasons that become
High above the canyonHigh above the canyonHigh above the canyon

Scrubby vegetation on the cliffs which tower above the deep gorge of King's Canyon.
clear once we get very close to the rock the following day, many - if not most - photographs of Uluru show the rock from the same angle, from which it looks more or less rectangular with a flat top. Uluru is in fact very irregularly shaped, with slopes and smooth bulges as well as steep cliffs and precipitous overhangs. Before we can get close to the rock though, we get installed in our campsite. Yulara isn’t a town as such - it’s an entirely artificial creation, a collection of expensive hotels, very expensive hotels, expensive restaurants, very expensive restaurants, and for us plebs a campsite and a supermarket. Yulara sprang up out of nowhere twenty years ago when visitor numbers began to outgrow the previous collection of accommodation, much nearer the rock to the south. The place now bills itself as the “Ayers Rock Resort” - which is a barely disguised way of saying that it has a stranglehold on all visitors to the rock. It you don’t want to stay there, there ain’t anywhere else so tough. Not an awfully pleasant concept in my view, but there isn’t a whole lot we can do about it. Having said
Hotting upHotting upHotting up

As we walk along the top of the canyon, the temperature steadily rises. And it's only eight in the morning !
that, the campsite is very pleasant and has good facilities - and is home to a veritable flotilla of campervans.

The following morning we are woken up long before dawn by the sound of slamming doors and revving engines. By the time we are awake enough to get up and look out of the campervan windows, we find that the campsite is nearly deserted. Most of the campervans have vanished…it looks like everyone’s trying to make it to the rock for sunrise. Not wishing to take part in such an ovine (and asinine ?) procession, we take our time, have breakfast, and set off to the rock after the sun has peeped over the horizon. Just like at Angkor, you have to purchase a pass to visit Uluru and neighbouring rock formations, and present it at a checkpoint every time you drive in. It is purely by chance that I find out that Kata Tjuta, a giant formation thirty kilometres west of Uluru, is inaccessible after 11am on days when temperatures are predicted to rise above 36 degrees - better keep that in mind as we intend to walk the 7.5km Valley of the Winds track in Kata Tjuta.
Where are the animals ?Where are the animals ?Where are the animals ?

In the harsh heat of the day, hardly a living creature in sight. At night though, the wallabies and numbats come out to play...
That willrequire an early start…

We spend the early part of the morning, when temperatures are just about bearable, following the track that circumnavigates Uluru. It’s a spectacular three hour walk that, in the morning light, shows Uluru at its best. Each turn shows a new facet of the rock - bizarre honeycomb patterns eroded into steep cliff faces, deep overhangs decorated with centuries-old Aboriginal paintings, concealed water holes at the foot of the rock. Most impressive in the early morning light are the colours - bold contrasts between the oranges, reds and ochres of the rock and the brilliant, unbroken blue of the sky.

Uluru is a place of deep spiritual, cultural and historical significance to the local Aboriginal group, the Anangu. Many of their colourful myths and legends - referred to by the Aborigines themselves as dreamtime - are closely linked to many of Uluru’s geological features. A deep fissure in the rock becomes a bandicoot’s pouch, the honeycomb pattern the place where a hunter’s lance struck the rock. The Anangu are particularly sensitive about some parts of Uluru’s perimeter - so sensitive that no photography, commercial or otherwise, is allowed. This is why overall shots
Adaptations...Adaptations...Adaptations... a harsh climate. The plants which grow up here on the cliff tops have to cope with the searing desert heat and sporadic rainfall.
of Uluru tend to all look the same. Angles which display other faces of the rock often include these sensitive areas that cannot be photographed. For similar reasons, tourists are requested by local Aboriginal communities not to climb the rock, although it is, strictly speaking, allowed. It is an extremely tough climb - one that I would never even consider attempting even if the site were strictly secular - and has claimed the lives of many visitors. Heart attacks at the summit, trips, heatstroke and heavy winds - many lethal pitfalls await the unprepared or foolhardy climber. On the day of our walk a group of visitors were crowded around the start of the walk, which begins with a 45 degree incline - they were frustrated in their attempts to climb, however, due to high winds at the summit. Apparently most of Uluru’s climbers are Japanese - which I don’t find surprising at all…

By the time we come to the end of the walk, temperatures have soared well into the high thirties and visitor numbers have dropped to almost nothing. In the stark, harsh light of midday, Uluru seems to radiate heat, towering in the washed-out sky. It’s
Looking south from King's CanyonLooking south from King's CanyonLooking south from King's Canyon

Uluru is some 150 kilometres in the distance. A mere stone's throw...
too hot to stay outdoors now, and it won’t be bearable again until late afternoon. The previous day, Alex and I decided that Uluru was the place to splash out and have a helicopter ride to appreciate this extraordinary monolith from the air. A couple of companies operating out of Ayers Rock Airport (well you didn’t expect Japanese tourists to take the bus, did you ?) offer helicopter and fixed-wing flights over Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

The flight is booked for 1pm, when we will be picked up from the entrance to the camping ground. We dutifully turn up at the arranged place at five to one - twenty minutes later we are still waiting. I go in to the reception to check that we haven’t made a mistake, where the guy at the desk tells me we’re being picked up at one. “But it’s past one”, I insist stubbornly. Well, no - actually it turns out to be only 12.30. Welcome to the rather slippery concept of time in Australia. Not only does Australia have three time zones, including rather confusing half-hour time differences, but some states observe daylight saving in summer while others do not. To make
Weathered sandstoneWeathered sandstoneWeathered sandstone

Stunningly eroded sandstone domes adorn the tops of the canyon cliffs.
things even crazier, Western Australia observes daylight saving but it starts on a different date from the rest of the country. Thus, depending on the time of year and where you are in Australia, you could be 8, 8.5, 9, 9.5, or 10 hours ahead of UK time ! When Alex and I crossed the border in South Australia we had moved our watches back by 30 minutes, and then a few days later adjusted them for daylight saving (moving the clocks forwards while at home they were moving back). However the Northern Territory, despite being in the same half-hour time zone as South Australia, doesn’t observe daylight saving so we should have moved our watches back another hour…Which is why it really did seem very dark when we got up to visit King’s Canyon…If all this seems hopelessly confusing then I’ve got the point across !

The guy who comes to pick us up is Ash, who also quickly introduces himself as “our pilot for the day” - he’s so Australian you could get his nationality at a hundred paces. He drives us out of Yulara to Connellan Airport, just a few miles out. The minibus drives through
Powerful rootsPowerful rootsPowerful roots

That have somehow managed to burrow through the sandstone.
the security gates right onto the tarmac area where a couple of helicopters are waiting. I’m not a chopper-nerd so I’ve no idea what kind of helicopter it was, but it had a huge bubble-shaped cockpit allowing for near-360-degree views. After a pre-flight check Ash strapped us in, before proceeding to plug his iPod into the headphone system - he spent most of flight with his hands not on the helicopter’s control sticks but rather fiddled with the iPod ! Neither of us had been in a helicopter, and the sensation was very novel indeed - not one of the utmost stability, I must say ! The flight took us over Yulara up to Uluru, which we circled for a few minutes, giving us an absolutely unparalleled view. In fact, the Rock looked practically unrecognisable from this new angle. It was a lot of fun.

The following morning we got up at the crack of dawn (the real one this time) and drove the 50 kilometres or so to Kata Tjuta. This rock formation, also known as the Olgas, towers in the distance west of Uluru. “Kata Tjuta” means “many heads” in the local Pitjantjajara language, and this is
Winding CreekWinding CreekWinding Creek

In this photo you can see how the winding creek has cut a meandering canyon through the sandstone.
exactly what Kata Tjuta looks like: a collection of enormous smooth domes, the highest of which reaches an amazing 545 metres (from the ground - the summit is 1,066 metres above sea level) .Uluru, which is geologically speaking a sandstone monolith, Kata Tjuta is made up of a mixture of granite and basalt, igneous rocks with entirely different origins from sedimentary limestone. Geologists are at a bit of a loss to explain Kata Tjuta’s formation, a fact which only adds to the place’s mysterious atmosphere. This place has great significance to the Anangu, too, but the creation stories involving these formations are kept secret and cannot be revealed to anybody outside the Anangu community - local Aboriginal groups takes this extremely seriously and various ceremonies still take place here.

The Valley of the Winds loop track takes us around a very small part of Kata Tjuta - here, too, the rocks glow red in the early morning sunshine. The huge, towering domes with their steep, smooth surfaces are stunning - apart from the sound of the wind rushing through the narrow gaps that separate the domes, it is a place of absolute silence and deeply impressive. The track is
Garden of EdenGarden of EdenGarden of Eden

The peaceful rock pool that awaits the visitor halfway through the Canyon Rim Walk.
strenuous in parts, passing as it does over smooth granite boulders and steep inclines. The flies here are something to be reckoned with, too. Just as at Uluru, vast numbers of small black flies populate Kata Tjuta - particularly annoying ones as that. Their favourite game is to land on your eyelids as you blink or just at the corner of your mouth - vigorous swatting helps keep them at bay but is actually even more exhausting than the walk itself ! Here too the temperatures are soaring as we finish the walk, but we brave the leaden heat to follow another shorter track a little further round the formation, where the Walpa Gorge cuts deeply between two neighbouring boulders. Here the heat reflects off the steep sides of the gorge, turning the valley into an oven.

Driving back to Yulara, we spend some of the afternoon in the campervan, near comatose in the 40 degree heat. In the evening, as the heat abates, we drive back towards Uluru to do the “sunset thing”. A special parking area a kilometre or so off Uluru’s western face is the place - apparently - to watch the sun set. And despite

King's Canyon's sandstone domes.
the cliché, it really is spectacular: we set up our little camping chairs and uncork a nice bottle of Viognier we picked up in McLaren Vale. As the sun edges closer to the western horizon Uluru undergoes a chameleon-like transformation from a harsh brown to crimson red and finally purple in the dying rays of the sun. Unfortunately the clouds that evening are not sufficient to give us a spectacular sunset, but Uluru’s extraordinary colour changes are more than enough to keep us transfixed.

On our last day, we pop into the Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre, full of fascinating displays regarding Uluru’s spiritual significance and the complex and colourful creation stories that the Anangu have woven over the ages, stories intricately connected with the physical features of the landscape around them. It beggars belief that anybody could even survive in the harsh and deadly environment of central Australia, let alone weave such a detailed mythology in the absence of any writing system. The local Aboriginal groups play an important part in the management of the National Park: the land that constitutes the National Park was returned to the Anangu only recently, perhaps as atonement for
Wise old tree...Wise old tree...Wise old tree...

The gnarled remains of a tree atop the canyon.
the inhuman treatment that they have received since European settlers burst into their lands.

Additional photos below
Photos: 32, Displayed: 32


Honeycombed UluruHoneycombed Uluru
Honeycombed Uluru

An interesting pattern of erosion on Uluru's flank.
Molten rock ?Molten rock ?
Molten rock ?

I thought this part of Uluru looked like the rock had melted and poured down...
Myths and legendsMyths and legends
Myths and legends

Here the side of Uluru gapes open like a huge mouth. Easy to see how the Anangu have developed creation myths based on the Rock's stunning formations.
Layers of timeLayers of time
Layers of time

This small overhang on Uluru's flank is decorated with numerous Aboriginal finger paintings. Some many hundreds of years old, some recent.
The chameleonThe chameleon
The chameleon

In the harsh, unforgiving light of the desert noon, Uluru turns a shade of dark brown.

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