The Yulara resort owns all the accommodations around Uluru and they range from pitching your own tent in the campground to a luxury condo at the “Sails in the Desert” ($595 a night). In the middle of the resort is a small shopping complex with gift shops, an astronomically overpriced café, a post office, and a grocery store. The prices at the grocery store were above average for Australia, but acceptable when you considered how far away you were from civilization.
Our accommodations for this stay were the most affordable indoor accommodation at $150 a night. It was a cute little camping cabin with a kitchenette and covered patio area. This was an awesome way to stay comfortable at a relatively reasonable price. I had purchased the cabin instead of a tent because it was air conditioned, but as it turned out, we needed the tin roof more than the A/C. No sooner had we checked in and gotten settled when it started absolutely pissing down rain.
Uluru can sometimes go six years without a single drop of rain and on that day alone there was over an inch in a span of a few hours. Seeing the rock getting rained on is something that fewer than 1% of all guests get to see. I had to smile in disbelief as inclimate as this weather was, it was so rare out here that I had to enjoy it.
That evening we walked up to the lookout and watched the sunset over Uluru. You really can’t understand it’s size until you are standing in front of it just like you can’t understand how remote it is until you’ve flown 3 hours to get to the middle of nowhere.
The next day I was up before the sun, grabbed my camera and tri-pod and ran up to the lookout. This would be my first attempt at some time-lapse photography. And though it was rather cloudy, the result was okay. I then picked up our rental car and Karla and we made our way to Kata Tjuta.
Kata Tjuta is a large rock outcropping about 40 KMs west of Uluru. We spent most of the morning walking around the tall domes and admiring the scenery. It was a remarkably cool day considering that it had just been over 100 two weeks ago, and the light breeze whipping through the valley cooled us off as we hiked. There were plants and wildflowers everywhere in bloom and we overheard a tour guide saying that some of these plants hadn’t been in bloom in over a hundred years. This would later be confirmed by another tour guide we spoke with who had been in the area for 15 straight years and said that it had never been like this before, and the last time it was even close was over a decade ago.
The geologic composition of Kata Tjuta is very different from that of Uluru. Even though they are very close to each other geographically. While Uluru is the largest single rock formation on earth, Katu Tjuta is a set of domes made of compressed aggregate rocks in a solid red matrix.
All you rock junkies can take a look at the pictures and see what I mean. On our way back to the cabin for lunch we saw a wild camel walking through the bush. I can’t say that I have ever seen a camel in real life. Perhaps I’ve seen one in a zoo somewhere but I can’t remember when. And that’s nothing compared to seeing one in the wild. I pulled the car over and the camel looked at me and posed for a few pictures as it walked past us beside the road. This was definitely one of the day’s highlights. That evening we drove into the park again and got a front-row seat for the sunset over Uluru. We collected another time-lapse video as we watched the sun go down together.
The next morning the sky was clear blue and cloudless. I couldn’t resist the chance at taking another time-lapse video. After that and drinking some coffee we drove into the park and attended the daily free tour along the Mala trail.
Our guide was a park ranger and he was very knowledgeable in all things native to the area including the flora, fauna, geology, as well as the indigenous people and beliefs. He made a point to reiterate that the Anangu people ask you to please not climb the rock. It is a sacred place to them and they do not want you climbing it. In addition, they feel ultimately responsible if you injure or kill yourself on the climb and they ask that you respect their requests.
Even this request doesn’t stop hundreds of people (mostly Japanese and the rest probably Americans) from making the trek to the top. Why it is ingrained into our culture that when you see something tall, you have to be on top if it, is beyond me. But Karla and I obviously did not make the journey. The Anangu people have a very efficient way of lifestyle. Everything they do is dictated by the way that they were taught. It is called the dreaming in their language, but it’s commonly translated to the word “law” so that it can be properly understood. The law focuses on sustainability, efficiency, heritage, and how to live your life. It has existed unchanged for thousands and thousands of years. In one of the caves was a wall of paintings where Anangu men learned the ways of manhood such as how to hunt and track animals, how to build and transport fires, how to read the land, travel and find water, and how to pass down these teachings to the future generations. The paintings on the walls had been examined by scientists and found to be some 16,000 years old.
The wall was used like a permanent blackboard and paintings were placed on top of each other year after year. The rocks used as seats in front of the wall were worn smooth from generation after generation sitting on the same spot. It blew my mind to be sitting in a 16,000 year-old classroom. We continued around the base of the rock to the women’s training area. The fact that our guide was a male meant that he couldn’t tell us the specifics of what was taught here because he himself didn’t know. But I assume it had to do with learning how to be a woman: how to collect berries and seeds, how to make the tools for carrying these collected items, how to make natural medicines, how to marry correctly and provide for children, etc. The tour went on around the corner to the Northern water hole.
This was one of the most sacred places for the native peoples because water itself was the giver of life in this arid climate. The evaporation rate out here was seven times greater than anywhere else in Australia, so I can understand why this spot was of such importance to them. The law of living had strict rules on how to approach the watering hole, how to care for it, and how to draw water from it so as to not disturb the natural cycle for other animals that lived along side the people. I thought that all this was a great thing to learn and keep in mind while living our lives today. These people were living sustainable lives in one of the harshest conditions I could imagine outside of the Sahara or Death Valley. And they had been doing so for thousands of years before the Egyptians even thought of erecting a pyramid! I thought back to the indigenous man on the escalator in Sydney. I think I understood a little better why aborigines have such a hard time dealing with western culture. To them we live our lives completely out of balance. And what’s worse, we pride ourselves on that imbalance and consider it preferable to living a life that’s sustainable. It’s been found in some inner cities that some children today cannot even identify the fact that an apple grows on a tree, a tomato on a vine, and a carrot in the ground. I’m not saying that these kids imagine a carrot tree, they just don’t give the topic any thought at all. Tomato’s come…well they come from a super market. And before that they come from some distant tomato farm. This entire journey was very thought provoking and I have never contemplated life so much during a single 2-hour span as I did during this walking tour. (Except possibly while watching Koyanisquatsi, but I digress.)
After our tour we drove around the rock to the cultural center and read more about the indigenous way of life. One of the things that I found interesting was the fact that they cover up the pictures of deceased people. The aborigines do not show images or say the names of people who have recently passed on, because they are in the past. To see an image of someone who is no longer here would bring up great sadness and that has no place in their culture. This was also part of the healing process for the people that are still alive. Over in the corner by the guest book was a book labeled the “the sorry book” in here were literally hundreds of letters from around the world who had taken rocks or sand and then for whatever reason, returned them to the park at their own expense. I was surprised to find that many of these letters included passages talking about bad luck or ill health that had been experienced by the person and was part of the reason why they were returning the rocks to their home. I made a mental note to make sure that we dump all the little bits out of our shoes out before flying to Cairns.
That evening we decided to reward ourselves and go out to eat, even if it was blatant price-gouging. We walked next door to the Ayers Rock Pioneer Lodge where they have a cook-it-yourself Barbecue. We got a chance to sample some authentic outback meats, Kangaroo and Croc! As well as a couple beef sausages just in case. The croc was a white meat with a mild taste and not too firm, but more chewy than flaky like fish. The Kangaroo was good, it reminded me of deer venison back home. I could tell that the skewer we got had meat from two different roo's because some of the pieces were delicious and others had a rather gamey aftertaste. I helped myself to the NT Draught, and a Pure Blond Draught, and a VB. You will know how much I had when I explain this: On the way home we saw a spider so big that it had a shadow! This thing must have been the size of a half-dollar and hairy to boot. But with all the liquid courage I consumed, instead of running away shuddering I actually got right up to it and checked out just how hideous and hairy it was. It was plenty of both.
In the morning we checked out of our hotel and waited most of the morning for our shuttle bus to take us to the airport. We went over to the Outback Pioneer Lodge and had a satisfying (though expensive) steak sandwich while we read our books in the shade. I tried to get a beer with lunch but was denied. I needed to prove that I was a visitor (and not an indigenous person apparently) in order to be served alcohol. This was all in an effort to prevent aborigines, especially underage ones, from coming in contact with too much alcohol. So in order to protect the population and conform with their alcohol license, you had to display your key every time you purchased alcohol. They didn’t care if you were as white as the falling snow, or had been there for weeks getting tanked and they knew you by name. No key = No beer. I walked to the reception and confirmed my age and identity to receive a temporary day pass and got my beer with lunch. It seemed an awful lot of effort just so I could pay too much for a moderate tasting beer.
Our bus came and took us to the airport, and we said goodbye to the Red Center of Australia. We were bound for Cairns (pronounced 'cans’ but I’ll get to that later) and scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. When we landed and exited the plane, my shirt instantly stuck to my back in the humidity. It had been a long while since I’d felt this kind of heat and I had forgotten how it made you feel like you constantly had a midget sitting on your chest.
We arrived at the airport with plenty of time to spare and it's a good thing because our flight had been moved up a half-hour. The people at the airport were very accommodating with this change and it blew my mind how quickly we got through security. As we walked towards our gate I actually stopped in my tracks and looked at Karla wide-eyed saying, "I still have my shoes on." "What are you blathering about?" she replied. “My shoes.” I didn't even have to take off my shoes to go through security. I was instantly thrown back to a time when air travel was simpler: the pre-9/11 days when you could walk right up to the gate. I would then be further astonished when we got on the flight without showing an ID to ANYONE. We agreed that this is how air travel should be. The majority of the three-hour flight, I stared out the window at a solid bank of clouds covering the area below. As we descended for landing, I wondered how this could be possible at the driest spot in Australia. Just our luck, Uluru was experiencing a very wet month and looked more like a botanical garden then a desert.