A part of me always feels at home in the desert. The red rocks, the vast blue skies, the smell of sage and the brutal heat remind me of so many of my childhood hours spent in just such a locale. There’s something about that combination that makes me breathe a little deeper, my heart seem a bit calmer and my soul feel more whole. I’d also read a few books about the area and the beliefs of the aboriginal people regarding the rock and it’s nearly ‘supernatural’ powers and was excited to witness this magical place for myself. Our first glimpses were out the airplane window, and they were enough to ensure that all the expense (this short jaunt was costing almost as much as the rest of our trip combined) was going to be worth it.
We flew into Ayers Rock airport which is a short drive from the resort, the only speck of civilization for miles. The town of Alice Springs is 280 miles away and there’s not much else but wilderness in this area of the outback. It’s easy to imagine what it must have been like for early explorers, how it has remained so remote for so long, and why it captures the imagination the way it does. There are a few different accommodation options within the resort from camping to 5-star luxury. It’s all overpriced but as it’s the only option you’re kind of stuck. We went for the middle of the road and were more than happy with everything. There are multiple restaurants, souvenir shops, even a grocery store, post office and hair salon all on the property and a shuttle runs most hours of the day taking you just about anywhere you want to go (though it’s only about a 15-minute walk from end to end.) We spent the bulk of that first afternoon getting acquainted with our surroundings, wandering some of the nature trails to overlooks of the rocks, indulging in iced chocolates to combat the heat and verifying all of our tours for the next day. I capped off the day with an ironically delicious kangaroo burger and an early night to bed in preparation for the busy day ahead of us.
Sunday morning we started off at about 4:30 for a sunrise tour. There were millions of stars out and a cool desert breeze as we loaded into a 4WD vehicle for a drive out into the blackness and unknown. After a short hike up a hill we were served a breakfast of damper bread drizzled with honey, hot herbal tea, and a bacon, egg sandwich as we shivered, chatted with our neighbors and waited for the sun to rise.
Most sunrises are rather anti-climactic. The sky just gradually lightens and then it’s morning. There are rarely vivid colors or breathtaking views. This was the exception. The sky did lighten gradually and we were able to make out more and more of our surroundings but we were also treated to a sky colored scarlet, navy, pumpkin, and gold as the sun nudged its way over the horizon line. The area around us was primarily flat. Even in the deserts of home there are mountains and canyons and elevation changes in the distance. Here there is almost nothing. The rise we were on was one of the few ‘high’ points, the barely discernable shadow of Uluru far off in the distance was the other. The black outlines of trees and shrubs showed against the changing sky but Uluru itself seemed to change with the sky. First it was a shadow and then it shifted from gray to blue to purple. And as we loaded back into the van and drove up to it we saw it shift again from purple to brown to rust. Even closer and you could make out all the scars and pits and shadows that are lost at a distance. Like the pyramids in Egypt, it looks deceptively smooth from far away but up close it’s an entirely different story.
Our tour guide shared countless stories from the aboriginal history regarding the rock; how it came to be, the life lessons one should learn from it and some of the natural history as well as we drove and walked around the base. I wish I could remember them all or could have found a book with all the stories in it as they were simply fascinating. There were similarities to some of the Native American beliefs and ways of life that resonated with things I knew or had heard before yet most stood on their own and provided interesting insight into a people who have been widely acknowledged as the longest/oldest established culture in the world.
There is a recent effort to give back and make amends to the aboriginal people for all the misdeeds done them throughout history. There have been public apologies and days of remembrance but most significantly, I think, is the approach made in respect to Uluru. It’s regarded as a sacred site, similar to a temple or synagogue in western culture. Only men are permitted to visit and only when there is a tribal gathering or specific need. In 1985 the area ownership was handed back to the aboriginal tribe in the area with the agreement that they would lease it to the National Parks Agency and it would be jointly managed. One of the stipulations of the agreement was that tourists would no longer be able to climb it. Obviously it’s not a perfect system, people continue to climb up (and die on) the rock. But great efforts are being made to honor the aboriginal beliefs and restore ecological balance to the area.
I would have loved to have done more but we had to head back to the hotel for a little lunch and relaxation before setting off on our sunset tour starting at 3 pm.
More to come!