A giant, red rock in the middle of a desolate desert.
I can’t say that it provoked a huge amount of excitement in me.
Sure, it’s kinda cool, but Tasmania, Cairns, the Whitsundays, Lord Howe Island and the Daintree Rainforest were of much more interest to me.
They are green.
They aren’t dusty.
You see, I have never really been that into the desert landscape, and that’s pretty much what surrounds this gigantic monolith.
But, because my brother Robbie got a job as a tour guide out there, I thought it was a good a time as any to go and see this giant rock that everyone gets so excited about.
Robbie works for The Rock Tour, a backpacker oriented trip that starts and finishes in Alice Springs and takes in Kings Canyon, Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) over three days. It involves sleeping under the stars in swags (canvas sleeping sacks), lots of hiking, long days, early starts and hours of driving. It was a lot cheaper than I thought it would be, one of the cheapest Outback tours you can do, and I even got a small family member discount.
So along with the free accommodation before and after the trip (on a mattress on the floor of Robbie’s apartment); I had myself a relatively cheap holiday.
Well, cheap for Australia.
I arrived in Alice Springs on a gloriously sunny Saturday morning after a three hour flight from Sydney. I am planning to write a post about the three days I spent in Alice Springs, but what I will say now is that it surprised me, in a good way.
The Rock tour started early the next morning. At 5.30am (urgh) we met across the road from Robbie’s flat at Toddy’s Backpackers, where most of the people on the tour were staying.
It was still dark when we set off. The sun rose slowly in a spectacular light show of reds and oranges as we were driving the five hours to our first destination: Kings Canyon.
The first long drive of the trip was a good chance to get to know everyone and Robbie got the group, one by one, to come up to the front and answer questions about themselves on a microphone. The majority of the group were foreign students studying in Sydney along with the normal mix of backpackers from around the world and one token Australian.
After the introductions, we were told some stories about the people who have shaped the history of the Australian Outback.
One of the people that we were told about was Harold Bell Lasseter. Back in the early 20th Century, Lasseter made claims of discovering a vast gold reef in a remote area of the Outback. After trying many times without success, Lasseter finally received private funding to mount an expedition to go in search of the gold in 1930.
The expedition suffered a string of bad luck including a plane crash, trucks being unsuitable for the terrain and an increasingly vague and difficult Lasseter.
They finally reached the spot that Lasseter said the gold would be, and it wasn’t there.
He was quick to change his story, claiming the reef was 150 miles further south. The rest of the Expedition was fed up at this point and accused him of being a charlatan. They left him to it.
Lasseter ended up starving to death after his camels ran away, despite the offer of food and water by the local aboriginal people. He refused to eat the bush tucker that they offered him as he thought they were trying to poison him.
So Lasseter’s fabled reef is Australia’s own El Dorado. Some people still think it is out there somewhere.
We passed dusty red earth, long wheat coloured grass waving in the wind and dead trees with sun blackened trunks. I was surprised how many trees there were.
The lower part of the Northern Territory which encompasses Alice Springs, Kata Tjuta, Uluru and Kings Canyon is actually classed as semi-arid, rather than desert as there is a high water table and higher rainfall here, which supports plant life unlike the red sand deserts in other parts of Central Australia.
Kings Canyon is simply spectacular.
Impressive red sandstone cliffs drop steeply to the rock strewn canyon floor. We hiked the rim trail, with the first part of the hike including a struggle up ‘Heart attack Hill’ – a rather steep set of switchbacks that had to be tackled in order to reach the canyon rim.
It was a hot, tiring walk and I couldn’t imagine doing it in the heat of summer, when it would be 20 degrees hotter. A few people have died of heart attacks and heat exhaustion upon climbing the hill, hence the name.
The hike was very scenic with the beautiful rich colours of the canyon contrasting beautifully against the brilliant blue sky. It gave me the shivers looking over the edge of the rim; impossibly high above the canyon bottom.
One section of the hike is known as the Garden of Eden and is lush with greenery. A natural spring fed waterhole is surrounded by trees and ferns, creating an oasis in the red rock landscape.
Robbie guided us on the two hour walk and pointed out things along the way such as the poisonous rock mint, which some of local aborigines would use to hunt. They would use it to poison the water in the water holes that animals would drink at, then kill them in their weakened state. Doing this was against Aboriginal Lore and there were punishments if you were caught.
One of the punishments was embedding a poisonous wood spear tip in the leg of the offender. That sounds bad enough but the worst punishment was being temporarily blinding by the sap of the Ipi Ipi plant, then being led into the desert and being left there with no provisions and no sight to fend for themselves. In most cases they would perish but if they somehow managed to survive and make it back to their tribe, it was the will of Tjukurpa and the punishment was over.
Tjukurpa is the word that the local Anangu aboriginal people use to describe the force which unites Anangu with each other and with the landscape. The main principle of Tjukurpa is that people and the earth are one and the importance of living harmoniously together.
The Ipi Ipi plant also has a less sinister use; it is fantastic at healing cuts and sores as it works as a protective covering, once dry, that aids in speeding up the healing process.
Robbie also pointed out the Ghost gum tree. Similar looking to a regular gum tree but with a white coating on the bark which acts as a sunscreen, protecting the tree from the harsh desert sun. The Ghost gum also has the ability to cut off nutrients to its branches when food is scarce; sacrificing it’s smaller branches to save the whole tree. These dead branches are a dark brown colour and only drop off when the tree is ready to grow new branches again.
After our Kings Canyon hike we stopped to collect fire wood on the side of the road then drove an hour to our basic Bush camp where we would be spending the night in swags under the starry night sky.
Robbie cooked dinner in a Dutch oven and a giant wok over the hot coals of the fire including some amazing damper bread. He also cooked an Anangu specialty, Kangaroo tail, for people to try. I didn’t try it myself but I was told that it tastes like fatty lamb.
Everyone had drinks and ate dinner around the warmth of the fire, getting to know each other better, before rugging up in our sleeping bags and swags for the evening.
There were so many stars.
The first thing I saw when I woke up in the morning was a small dingo running away from the campsite. Apparently there are a lot of them around but they are scared of people (unlike the pests on Fraser Island) and aren’t dangerous.
We packed up and ate breakfast in the dark before hitting the road to get an early start for our drive to Kata Tjuta.
Kata Tjuta is a group of 36 domed rock formations, 30km from Uluru and part of Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park. Like Uluru, it is believed that the domes of Kata Tjuta were in fact one rock that has weathered and split over time, but still joined below ground. If Kata Tjuta is considered to be one rock, then it would be a lot larger than Uluru, which claims to be the largest rock in the world (this is a disputed title with Mt Augustus in Western Australia).
We did the 7km Valley of the Winds walk which loops around the striking sandstone rock formations, along a path lined with scrubby trees and terracotta coloured sand. A Kangaroo hopped past us as we wound our way along the rocky path. Between two of the giant rock mounds, we rose up a switch-backed path to a stunning viewpoint over the surrounding scenery and the wide open spaces.
There is definitely a sense of freedom that permeates your senses in the outback.
My brother prefers Kata Tjuta to Uluru and I can see why. The rock formations are unusual and very picturesque.
Back in the bus, we drove to the Uluru Cultural Centre where we had a sandwich lunch in one of the rest areas by the car park.
I had my first glimpse of Uluru as we were driving there and a small jolt of excitement coursed through me. I didn’t expect to be so spellbound but I think that, like Machu Picchu and the Eiffel Tower, Uluru is such an iconic sight, and I was transfixed despite myself.
The Uluru Cultural Centre was fascinating. I watched a film that showed a re-enactment of the first contact that the native aboriginal people, the Anangu, had with the white man. There was also a sorry book, where people had taken rocks or sand from around Uluru and suffered misfortune afterwards because of it. A lot of the ‘souvenirs’ were returned along with letters apologising for taking it and detailing the bad luck that had befallen them. I saw a similar book at the Petrified Forest in Arizona.
I signed a book stating that I was not going to climb Uluru with my reasoning that it was disrespectful to the Anangu.
Despite being told by their tour guides, exhibitions at the Cultural Centre and pretty much every guidebook, some people still feel the need to ignore the cultural significance that Uluru has to the Anangu and climb it anyway.
Believe me, if it wasn’t disrespectful to their culture, I would be up there for sure, but I wouldn’t want people to come to my country and disrespect my culture and I wasn’t about to do that to them. I think they have had a hard enough time already and the least I can do is to not climb one of their sacred sites.
It is actually also very damaging to the natural environment as there are no toilet or rubbish facilities at the top so if anyone does their business or drops their rubbish once they are up there, the refuse will end up running down the side of Uluru into water holes, contaminating them and risking the harm of the wildlife that drinks from there. The continuous footsteps of people walking the same path over the last 50 years, has also damaged the rock face. You see Uluru isn’t actually red, it is an off white colour. The red colour that we see is actually just surface rust from iron particles in the rock. The rock is worn down to the original colour where people have been walking on it.
The best way to truly appreciate this wondrous rock is to walk around it and marvel at the brilliant colour and sheer size of the thing, as well as the deep valleys, awesome caves and random trees growing out of it. I found it continuously captivating; it looked different from every angle and afforded endless opportunities for beautiful photos.
Robbie guided us on the short Mala Walk, following partly around the base of Uluru, and told us some of the Anangu stories about the creation time.
There isn’t a lot known about what Uluru and Kata Tjuta means to the Anangu. They are actually quite secretive about their culture and have only shared a few vague stories to people outside of their tribe. Some of the caves that we were shown had aboriginal rock art. The Anangu would paint over old art continuously so it is hard to date it.
My favourite part of the walk was the shaded waterhole surrounded by a grove of trees. It was very peaceful and I sat there for a while; soaking up the silence.
Our dinner for the second night was at a viewpoint over Uluru where we watched the spectacular sunset over the massive monolith.
As the sun set and the sky blazed purple and orange, Uluru was lit up a glowing red; like a hot ember surrounded by psychedelic fire.
A sight I will always remember.
After the sunset there was a buzz of energy coursing through the group. We drove back to our campsite and a group of us walked to a nearby viewing platform to get a good view of the stars. The milky-way struck a bright pathway across the night sky and we saw thousands of stars. I am always in awe when I see a sky like that.
Unlike our first night, our second night was freezing and rather uncomfortable. Winter is definitely a nice time to visit the red centre with temperatures not rising much above 20 °C in the day time. But at night it can drop down to 0 °C. I’m pretty sure it was hovering around there on our second night.
I don’t think I slept more than an hour or two.
We were roused by Robbie at 5.45am to drive to the viewpoint over Uluru that we had been to the night before; this time to watch the sunrise.
It was so, so cold.
The sunrise was not as spectacular as the sunset the night before but it was still probably one of the most scenic breakfasts I have had in my travels. Not a bad way to start the day although I didn’t get any feeling back in my toes until well after the sun rose.
Our last chance to experience the wonder of Uluru before heading back to Alice Springs was to do the two hour Base walk. I was amazed at how much it looks like a mountain range with its many valleys and caves. Up close you forget that it is one big rock as there are so many grooves and angles that you don’t notice when viewing it from further away.
We saw some more caves with rock art and sacred sites where we weren’t allowed to take any photos. There are men’s sites and women’s sites with men not even being allowed to look in the direction of the women’s sacred site, let alone visit it, and vice versa. This is only within their own culture though and we were told that they don’t mind men and women of other cultures seeing the sacred sites.
After the walk I felt reluctant to leave Uluru. It is a profound place that exudes a powerful aura. It is almost as if you can feel the millions of years of history enveloping this ancient site.
It was a long drive back to Alice and everyone was exhausted. I struggled to keep my eyes open and snoozed on and off before we got to our lunch stop at Mount Ebenezer.
One of our last stops on the tour was at a Camel farm where you can ride racing camels.
Camels were brought to the Outback in the 19th Century as they are well suited to the harsh desert climate. They were used as the primary source of transport before the railway and roads were built. There are over 200,000 wild camels in the Outback now and only a few that are still used by humans – mainly for tourism.
I rode a camel when I was in Egypt a couple of years back and found it quite scary so I wasn’t keen to do it again. Wandering around the Camel farm while the others had their rides, I patted a sweet baby camel and some gorgeous wallabies.
After a quick stop for our last group photo by the Welcome to Alice Springs sign, we were dropped back at Toddy’s; back to where we started almost three days earlier.
It felt so good to have a shower although all my clothes were still covered in a thin layer of red dust. After freshening up, we met up as a group one last time at the Rock bar in town for dinner and drinks. One last goodbye to the awesome people that had shared this special experience with me.
Overall it was a full on trip with basic accommodation, long days, early starts as well as being physically exhausting.
But despite this, I loved it.
Although it wasn’t a trip that I had always dreamed of doing, I am so glad that I did do it. It gave me a greater appreciation of my current adopted country and I learnt so much more about Australia’s native people and their unique culture.
Sometimes the places that you haven’t given much thought to end up surprising you the most.