Saturday, September 5, 2015

Uluru – the red heart of Australia

And now for a blog entry about our last trip in Australia, to a place that is most likely my favorite of all of our travels in the country….

You’ve seen the image, that iconic one of Australia … a big red rock. You think to yourself, yea, must be nice to see it … not sure I want to spend more than one night there – because after all once you’ve seen the rock, what else is there to do in the middle of all that nothingness. 

That’s what I thought originally. But then we decided we wanted to do a camel ride out into the desert and we wanted to see the ‘other’ rock formation (originally called the Olgas and now referred to by its true name: Kata-Tjuta) and the hotel does a deal on 3 nights that makes it almost dumb to stay 2 nights, so we booked 3 nights

We flew up to Alice Springs since the flights worked better for us than the ones into Uluru. Qantas sort of owns the Alice runs and Virgin Australia does the non-stop to Uluru from Melbourne.  We were intrigued by the idea of seeing Alice (locals refer to it as “the Alice”) and we definitely wanted to do the drive to Uluru. We had read about Kings Canyon and decided to spend the first night in the area ‘glamping’, which is basically evocative of camping in that you are out in the bush and have a tent over your head, but the commonalities end there. There is a real floor, a king sized bed, air conditioning, electricity and even doors. We had a large separate bathroom (robes are provided so you can walk the few steps between your sleeping room and the bathroom) with a huge tub, big shower and very nice amenities. It sort of hurt to think of filling that tub out in the middle of the desert – so we took showers.

Glamping - morning light

  We stayed at the Kings Canyon Wilderness Resort (do those two words really go together?), which includes dinner and breakfast in their package. Dinner is a grand affair, set out under the stars with tables near a large open pit fire. The temps drop quite radically in the desert, so a wrap is definitely necessary and the flames and warmth from the fire are very welcome. We shared the table with a lovely family from Belgium, and in good European fashion all of them (parents, two sons in early 20s, and in-laws) were of course fluent in English and also spoke Flemish and French.  I’m not normally one who enjoys sharing a table on vacation since I relish time with my husband, but this family was so delightful, well traveled and well educated, it was a pleasure to chat with them. The food was quite good (and I'm a harsh critic) with a first course of risotto al funghi, and a couple of choices for the main course, which is good since I don’t eat meat. The desert is what the chef called a date cake with caramel sauce, served with a frozen vanilla cream. Really delicious and enjoyable in spite of the fact we were quite full by the time dessert arrived.

Camel on Kings Canyon station
All in all I highly recommend this resort, although we were less than overwhelmed with the Canyon itself. Most people hike the rim which is about a 3 hour hike, but since we were eager to get to Uluru, we opted to hike just into the canyon which is only about an hour. Perhaps the rim hike is the way to go, since I would not recommend the Canyon hike. It was pretty and the sight of the red cliffs above us were picturesque, but if you are short on time you may want to make other choices.
Red cliffs of Kings Canyon

  We got to Uluru in the early afternoon and were eager to check in and get over to the Park to buy our passes and secure our spot at the sunset viewing area.  Of the four hotel choices (all owned by the same resort company) we chose Sails in the Desert, which is the top of their line. We had been told to be prepared to pay for a five-star resort but stay in a facility that we would think of more like a motel, but the resort must have sunk some money into the place since it was certainly very nice. Rather on the expensive side, but they do have a captive audience since your alternative is to drive 4 hours if you want to stay someplace else. We were thankful that they had phone signal and wifi,  since we had lost signal about 5 minutes outside of Alice and had not seen it since.

Checking the official time for sunset, which they have posted at the front desk when you check in, we jumped in the car and drove the 15 minutes to the park entrance. The minimum they sell is a 3 day pass, so there’s yet another reason to spend at least 3 nights in the area.   

All the postcards and travel guide images that you have seen of Uluru do not prepare you for its jaw dropping majesty when you come upon it.  You drive a bit in the park before you get your first view of it, and then suddenly it is there. Amazingly powerful. The sun was already low on the horizon, creating crevasses and nuances in the rock, and the best word that comes to mind is majestic. I completely understand why it is a sacred place. Believed to be about 700 million years old the rock has a power and presence that has to be experienced to be understood. We leapt out of the car to take our first shots of it, and nothing could have compelled us not to stop immediately and (try to) capture its beauty. But knowing that the magic hour was nearing we got back in and made our way to the sunset viewing area

First sight

Now think Burning Man, or some other large populous event. Cars everywhere, many of them camper vans, people sitting on top of their vans, others with chairs on the dirt by the edge of the parking lot, some with barbeques set up. It was truly a ‘scene’. All the bus tours have to go to a different viewing area (thankfully) and I understand that gets jammed as well. We fortunately found a spot to park that was mostly legitimate, and hurried over to find a place to watch the show.

And what a show it was. Like a huge glowing mass rising up out of the flat of the desert, Uluru lights up bright red when the sun hits a certain angle. The sand is red there naturally, and Uluru is sandstone, thus when combined with setting light create a stunning combination. 

Red light
The many different colors of Uluru depending on time of day

The next morning we hiked around the base of Uluru. It is about 6 miles and it took us close to 4 hours because my husband is a photographer and I think he stopped to shoot photos as often as he put one foot in front of the other. Because of its scale, it is hard to capture any single image of Uluru that conveys what it is really like.  We of course have a hundred images. The landscape changes depending on which side of the rock you are on, and we even shared the path briefly with a dingo. He appeared very serious and on a mission - and he had no interest in us. Because there were two of us and we are bigger than him, he trotted right by and worked hard to avoid eye contact.

A photo with husband to show scale of the rock
Up close Uluru is full of crevasses
Even though we were there in the winter, which is considered peak season since you avoid the heat and there are far fewer flies (yes, in the bush you will definitely want a hat with a fly screen on it) we could walk for an hour at a time without running into a single person. At times the silence was complete - no bird call, no sound of wind in the trees, no human. Just the rock, the sky and the vast empty land  around you. On several occasions during the course of those 4 hours I tried to see and feel the the place from the eyes of an indigenous person and imagine what it feels like for them  to have this land be their home; to walk comfortably on bare feet across this very terrain, secure in the knowledge that the land would provide for them, that they are supported by the other members of their clan, as well as the strength of the sacred stories of how everything came to be. But I am too far removed from that life for me to imagine it with any semblance of truth, and I would fall back to the sound of my Nikes crunching on the path, the warmth of my husband's hand in mine, and the simple joy of being able to share in this experience for a just short while.