We Got Lucky Again

Wed. 1st May 2019

A lucky girl (and a big rock)As the purpose of this trip is essentially to remove Australia from our (ever growing) ‘must travel to’ list, Uluru had to be on our list of places to see. Alice Springs is the closest jumping off point, but in Australia everything is relative, and “closest” still means 550km away. Again, with more time we could have had an overnight at Uluru but an extra night there means one night less somewhere else, so we are resigned to doing it as a day trip – 6am pickup and midnight drop-off and 5hrs on a coach each way. (The directions though are pretty simple – turn right about 15mins out of town and then turn right again 2hrs later and keep going until you see it!)

Emus at Erldunda stationThe first positive sign is that pick-up happens on time and before we know it, the coach is full and we’re off. As the sun rises, we see that there are still some clouds in the sky and we’re treated to some lovely oranges and pinks. But that is all behind us and on the other side of the coach so there’s no way to take pictures. We can also see that the ground is still damp from yesterday’s rain (the first since November) and there are even patches of low-lying mist. Will there be water at Uluru? Will we be able to see anything through mist and rain?

Not Uluru but Fooluru (aka Mt Connor)As promised, we stop after a couple of hours at a service station at the Erldunda cattle ranch for breakfast – actually a pretty fair cooked buffet and we start to feel a bit more human. Erldunda is one of only 7 cattle stations that we drive through on our way down. These cattle ranches are huge with the largest (Curtin Springs) being over 1m acres in size. Whilst the road is nominally fenced off from the cattle lands it is ineffective and Gav, our driver, explains that there is always a risk of meeting cattle or wildlife on the road (e.g. camels though not indigenous have proliferated and will just walk through a fence without noticing it). After a longer while, Gav tells us there is a prize for the first person to spot Uluru in the distance and later on we spot a lump on the horizon. Whilst it looks vaguely like Uluru it is in fact Mt Connor – also known as Fooluru (think about it) as prior to the sealed road, it was a 2 day trek from Alice to Uluru and folk would see this in the distance, think they’d arrived, take their photographs and head back. Ooops!

The domes of Kata TjutaEventually, the unmistakable Uluru hoves into view and we learn (from Gav) that it is the world’s largest monolith (single rock). Whilst it is only 348m high it extends below ground for around 6km and it is some 9km around its circumference. Uluru though is not our first stop as we are first heading for Kata Tjuta (or The Olgas as they used to be called). These dome shaped rock formations form part of the Yulara National Park that was handed back to the Aboriginal people in 1985. Unlike Uluru, which is formed of sandstone, the 36 domes that comprise Kata Tjuta are formed of a conglomerate. As we walk along the shorter of the two paths open for tourists, we see that the rock is like a concrete mix with fist sized lumps of stone all bound together. Our Gorge walk is only 1.3km each way, and whilst 45min sounded like plenty of time as we stop and gawp at the rock formations glowing bright orange in the strong sunshine it is easy to get distracted. This is especially so when we find some puddles of water and start to look for the perfect reflection photo.

Looking down the canyon at Kata TjutaVegetation around the steep sides of Uluru

At the Cultural Centre, as well as the obligatory chance to buy local artwork – though, to be fair, there were artists in action and I quite liked some of the pieces all done in the distinctive aboriginal ‘dot’ style – there were displays talking more about the history and culture of the local people. The most striking thing I (re)learned is that locals do not have a written language and so do not have a written history. Their culture and history are passed down aurally from generation to generation. Children start learning these ‘creation stories’ (which often contain morals and lessons as well as legend) when they are young and as they grow older they are told more complex versions. For example, our next stop is a walk to the Mutitjulu waterhole at the base of Uluru. The creation story here is that it was formed by a fight between Kuniya (a python/woman) and Liru (a poisonous snake/man) after defeating Liru, Kuniya went to live (forever) in the waterhole. We know that the story is true because of the undulations in one side of the mountain (as she slithered down) and the two gouges on the other side (where she hit him twice to kill him).

Artwork on the cave wallHmm. Though, I have to confess that of more relevance to us was that there actually was water in the waterhole and, given that the sun was directly behind it, how could we get a photograph of it? Not really possible, so you’ll just have to take our word for it. For these walks, Gav has gone off to get some sleep and has been replaced by Trev (Aussie naming!) who continues to tell us more stories. As we pass by some caves with rock paintings he points out some of the shapes – and explains that they are less visible than they used to be because tour guides used to spray water on the paintings to make the colours more visible. People sometimes…!

What is hard to understand about this sign?Our second walk around Uluru is the Mala walk (named after an indigenous hare-wallaby on the verge of extinction). This walk along the north-west side of Uluru takes us past some caves – separate caves for men and women – and a couple of sensitive sites where we can’t take photos. All the while, we are looking at the big hunk of rock rising straight up from the sand and trying to find a way to convey the sheer size of it. The walk takes us to the base of the chain that you can use to climb Uluru. All through the day, we have seen signs asking us not to climb and reminding us that a) it is dangerous (35 people have died) and b) this is a sacred site for the native people. There is a huge sign at the bottom that cannot possibly be missed that restates all of this. And yet there is a procession of ant-like people pulling themselves up the rock using the chain. Why would you do this?? We’re glad that the chain will be removed on Oct. 26th and the climb permanently closed.

The rock lights up as the sun sets......and then the sun sets and the scene changesFinally, we’d been promised a glass of bubbly and an Aussie BBQ whilst we watched ‘the breathtaking Uluru sunset’. Of course we were sceptical. Very glad to see sunset at Uluru but expecting a thimble-full of lukewarm fizz and a burnt sausage, in a viewing area packed to the rafters with the occasional glimpse of the rock. Once again, Emu over-delivered. There was plenty of space at the viewing area with the rock in front of us and the setting sun shining directly on it. The fizz was cold and plentiful and the BBQ generous and supplemented with a big selection of salads. The shadows crept across the grass getting ever closer to the rock which glowed in ever more vivid colours. Then all of a sudden the rock itself was in shadow as if a light had been switched off. The setting sun was the 10-minute warning that we needed to get back on the bus for the long trip back (with Gav once again behind the wheel).

So, despite the early start and long drive; despite the mist on the way down; despite being slightly rushed in a couple of places, this all worked out incredibly well for us. Emu Travel looked after us well and we got to see Uluru and Kata Tjuta up close and we learned a little more about aboriginal culture and we got some of the iconic photos. Better yet, because of yesterday’s rain it was warm but not hot here and we saw sights and got photos that the majority of visitors here just don’t get. I think we just got lucky again.

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