Uluru National Park (Ayers Rock)
Whenever I thought of Australia throughout the decades of my life I alway thought of the iconic Ayers Rock, though now more appropriately named Uluru, the aboriginal name. Having made two trips previously to Australia I had yet to date visit this “island mountain” and was eagerly anticipating a holiday there with son Nick, Miriam, and grandson Luke during this visit.
We set off for the airport early on Saturday morning, September16th. After leaving the car at the off-airport car park and negotiating the bus to the terminal with our two large suitcases stuffed with an array of camping equipment and clothing, we breezed tough security, Australian style. Yes, there are scanners and carry on restrictions but it seems so much more sensible to me to not have to bag all your liquids, take off your shoes etc. etc. I certainly did not feel any less safe.
The views from above during our 3 hour Qantas flight to Alice Springs from Brisbane were amazing. The rugged desert and arid bushland with its striation of gray, pink to red, tan to yellow — sports an infinite array of colors in its planes, river beds and parallel sand ridges and dunes. It stretches for thousands of kilometers and appears mostly uninhabited. Another amazing occurrence was we were actually served a hot sandwich on this domestic flight-a lot more hospitable airline than our US domestic lines for sure.
Upon our arrival in Alice Springs, we hurriedly acquired our hire car and sought food and propane for out drive to Uluru which we had anticipated being a 4-5 hour travel through the bushland with relatively few guesthouse and gas stops. The 500 kilometers drive though Australian bushland might be described as flat, featureless, open shrubby country with very few trees, sparse flora and fauna. The largest concern was to get to Ayers Rock campground before dark due to the danger of feral camels and kangaroos roaming the desert and being a potential road hazard after dark. Additionally it is no easy task setting camp in the dark.
It was a long and somewhat tedious drive given the sameness of so much of the bushland but also I found it quite interesting as this is new territory for me and definitely different from the deserts of the southwest US. I kept looking for those camels and kangaroos. There were no remarkable encounters and we saw nary a kangaroo or camel along the way. The brightest spot was a rest stop at the Eridunda Desert Oaks Roadhouse with its pen of emu’s and much needed toilets. The few roadhouses along the way usually have a motel and caravan park but it did not seem very enticing to me to be staying in the hot sunny bushland/desert.
Camping in Australia has been a new experience for me. The only camping around Uluru is Ayers Rock Campground and though there are reservable sites with electric for campers, many tent campers, as we were, opt for a site on one of the designated “lawns.” Being accustomed to more privacy and site boundaries in US parks and National Forest Campsites it seemed a bit odd to be setting up our tents in a large open area – a “lawn” with several other families doing likewise – and often quite close together. They also have communal “barbies” to cook on which have a gas heated 18 “griddle” type surface. We managed to get set up and things squared away by nightfall and were able to cook under a lighted picnic shelter. I definitely like the “barbie” and lighted shelter amenities. As we began to think about settling in to our tents Nick was hollering at us to look up in the sky. A huge streak of orange burning light was streaming across the sky and appeared to be something shattering and burning up. We surmised it to be a meteor but Nick found an article a couple of days later identifying it as space junk and it was most likely the third stage of a Soyuz rocket re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.These are usually programmed to burn over the oceans and rarely burn up over land. Even knowing that it still was quite special and spectacular to have seen. AND surprisingly our lawn was quite subdued and I slept cozy in the mid-40 degree temperature.
After a round of hot oatmeal and hot coffee for breakfast to quell the chilly temps we were off to Uluru for a day of hiking. Over the last couple of decades the aboriginal origins and culture have been recognized and honored and the Uluru National Park is co-managed by both the indigenous groups and the Australian government though ownership was turned over to the original aboriginal owners in 1985. As a result much of he land has been returned to its historical origins of being sacred and park guest are asked to honor that. Uluru rock is considered one of the sites and though many visitors come her just to climb the rock, tourists are requested not to do so. We did not hesitate to honor that request though I had originally anticipated the climb. This national park is leased to the Australian government for 99 years so the climb remains open. Even with that request about 30% of the visitors still climb it which I find sad. If the percentage of climbers fall to 20% , the climb will be closed, fully honoring the aboriginal wishes.The challenge then became to walk the base of the rock which is a 10K hike, We had taken a guided walk on the Mali trail which was extremely interesting and informative, seeing the cave drawings, water holes and sacred sites, and the separate caves for the men and women being just a few of the micro stories of the indigenous people..
The Mali walk put us close to noon, the hottest and sunniest part off the day to circumvent this massive monolith. We headed out and the four of us fell into a relatively consistent hiking order with Nick and Luke out ahead. Luke,10 years, is an awesome hiker and has great endurance. I was not to far behind as I love to keep a brisk pace but don’t have the stride length at 5’1” to match Nick’s stride. Miriam was the caboose as she loves to hike at a slower more relaxed pace and tends to spot more of nature than perhaps I do pushing on faster It was a relatively flat, minimally shaded adventure but I did find the traverse a significant way to try and be in touch with the spirit and souls of the aboriginal people who tread this land currently and historically. Up close the rock has many significant features that would not be seen without walking the circumference. It was inspiring to observe the sacred sites of the aboriginal inhabitants and hear the dreaming and historical Dreamtime stories or the ancestors including the origin of Uluru. “Dreaming is a complex network of knowledge, beliefs and practices belonging to their community, to families and to individuals. It is seen as powerful living force that must be maintained and cared for, it is considered their duty to respect and look after the earth and pass these ancient traditions on for all of time.” (www.the recenter.com.au)
One of the suggested experience to have at Uluru is to observe the Rock at sunset and sunrise to see the effect of the sky, clouds, and shadows on the appearance of Uluru. So after our hike of three hours and 50 minutes, we headed back to camp for a cool down swim in the Ayers Rock Resort very cold swimming pool. As it is a holiday for schools here in Australia, we encountered numerous groups of high schoolers on organized camping and sight-seeing trips. in the various parks we visited. It seemed like at least a couple busloads of young people all decided to descend on the pool at the same time. Needless to say, a quick cool off and then back to the campsite was the agenda I chose rather than fight for space in the swimming pool. We devoured a quick dinner and headed back to the park for sunset.
It is about a 20K drive from Yulara which is basically Ayers Rock Resort and Campground so we were not of a mindset to drive it too often. The rub was that it was almost impossible to rent a car with more of mileage allotment of 100KM per day and since the estimated round trip driving distance was going to be about 1500km without counting day trips we were somewhat budget conscious at 25 cents per km extra. We had given brief consideration of renting a 4WD vehicle and traveling the Red Center Way but they were very expensive and had similar mileage parameter. However being able to drive the section of the road that is still dirt and requires a 4WD permit cuts a considerable amount off the mileage. But when talking to a couple of individuals who described accidents and totaling a car when the hit a patch of bull dust (It occurs when the driving track becomes wet and after drying breaks into a very fine dust and can flip a vehicle) we saw it differently. A bit of initial lamenting quickly shifted to a confirmation that we had made the right choice given lack of experience in 4WD.
Given this particular day and sunset we were quite underwhelmed by the impact of the setting sun as it was difficult to discern any significant color changes , but nevertheless glad to have come. It was back to camp afterwards and getting organized for an early wake up. We were going to go to Uluru for sunrise with Uluru silhouetted against the pre-dawn sky, dawn and rising sun and then on o Kata Tjuta National Park for another day of hiking in the Red Center.
Sunrise was quite awe inspiring we opted to be on the road in the darkness so as to have the full impact of the dawn and the palette of colors before the sun peaks over the horizon. This was a very satisfying and soul nourishing time. I had a deep feeling of tranquility as i watched the transformation of colors in this red center desert with the iconic rock of Uluru as the centerpiece and reflecting on its spiritual significance to the aboriginal peoples inhabiting this area