Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Alice to Uluru

Another early start at 4:30am for a 5am checkout and a 5:15am bus. This was going to be a long day and a long trip 6 days down to Adelaide stopping at Uluru (Ayers Rock) on the way. Initially everyone on the bus was a bit sleepy but soon woke up with a few games of cards and seat swapping. This was easily one of the friendliest buses I was on. On most buses you get groups and cliques that hang around together and while friendly tend not to mix all the time. This one was different, at least so it seemed to to me. Everyone mixed and chatted, chipped in to help with any work and seemed to enjoy themselves.

After a long morning drive our first stop was Kings Canyon. By now the sun was at full strength and temperatures soared. 45C in the shade and 62C in the sun. This was almost off the scale on the warning notice board and meant that most of us opted for the shorter walk to a lookout and then along the canyon floor where there was something resembling shade. After the walk we headed to Kings Canyon Resort where we had a welcome swim in the pool and then drove to Uluru in time to see sunset at the rock.

When the sun set we headed to our camp site. Each tour bus was allocated a place which had a canteen hut, a BBQ, several sleeping huts and a stack of swags. The huts were way too warm to sleep in and the chance to sleep outdoors in a swag was too good to turn down. A swag is a camping mattress with a canvas sleeping bad around it. To sleep you roll it out on the ground put your own sleeping bag inside it and go to sleep under the stars. Which most of us did.

The next morning our tour guide woke us (again at 4:30am) by playing the Good Morning Vietnam soundtrack. Hearing Robin Williams screaming into a microphone got us all out of bed quickly. It was still dark and we went to a nearby lookout to watch the sunrise behind Uluru. The view was quite spectacular with the sun rising up behind the left hand side of the monolith. Afterwards we headed over to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) which are close to Uluru but don't get nearly as much media attention. We did a 7km walk through the rock formations finishing at 9:30am. Next we were still energetic and headed over to Uluru. By now it was quite hot so the guide drove us to the half way point in the official walk at the far side of the monolith and we walked 4 ½ kms around the base to the normal start of the walk.

The usual start of the walk is also the place where people start a climb up Uluru. I had not yet decided if I would climb Uluru. I figured I would see what the aborigines themselved did around Uluru. If they treated it with respect and like the sacred site they believe it to be then I would respect their wishes and not climb it. If the treated it like an amusement arcade and a money making machine then I would consider climbing the rock. As it turned out the aborigines not only treated Uluru with respect, they kept information and visitor center miles away where it would not interfere with the impact and surroundings of the rock. I decided I would not have climbed, but in the end the option was not available, the temperature had already risen above the safety limit so the climb was closed.

Staring across an empty desert Uluru is quite stunning. Rising out of the desert the huge red rock seems strangely at home. I know some people talk about it being alien, like something that had landed there, but to me it looked right. It was as if the surrounding desert had been designed to be a suitable resting place for the monolith. Up close it was huge, towering over us but strangely slightly less impressive. Up close it felt more part of the real world. I think only when you can see it all in one go can you really appreciate it.

The walk around the first half of the base took 1 ½ hours in blistering heat. I actually felt a little woozy afterwards but the guide picked us up and drove us back to the camp site where we had showers and swam in the pool after which I felt fine. At 3:15pm the temperature had started to drop so we returned to the national park. First of all we went to the Uluru visitor center some distance from the rock and built to blend in. The center is small but well designed and blends in with the surroundings. It also had a good selection of Aborigine art and crafts. Photography is not allowed in accordance with Aborigine belief.

We then returned to the rock to complete our walk, another 5K. As we walked I stopped, a lot, to take photographs which meant I kept falling behind. Unfortunately this meant I was walking quite fast to catch up and since I was wearing a pair of trainers for the first time in a couple of weeks I ended up with blisters which didn't cause much trouble at the time but would cause some problems later in my travels. At one stage we came to a water hole where according to tradition we had to say “Kooka Kooka” as we were breathing in. This is supposed to tell the guardian spirit that we were only visiting to pay our respects, or so our guide told us. After finishing the walk we headed back to the camp site for dinner and another night sleeping in swags under the stars.

Uluru was the number one item on my things to see list for my Australia trip. I have to say it didn't disappoint. It's not just the rock itself it is the whole surroundings and the beauty of the place. If I ever get the chance to return to Australia I will try to go to see it again despite the massive distances involved.

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