The desert is a cold place in winter. Bitter cold at night. But the upside of visiting such an iconic place in winter is that the sun doesn’t rise too early in the morning, and the sun sets just before you are thinking of dinner, so the sightseeing fits in with a reasonably relaxing trip.
Even before we landed at Ayers Rock Airport the journey was spectacular. I never really understood or appreciated those contemporary indigenous paintings mostly made of dots of paint until I saw the centre of Australia from the air, nor did I really think too much why it as called the “Red Centre”. As I looked out of the plane the vivid red of the terrain was pockmarked with vast patterns of desert oaks and other vegetation, and the indigenous paintings suddently made perfect sense.
The view of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) as we descended into the airport was breathtaking. Uluru glowed orange-red in the midday sun whilst the bulbous peaks of Kata Tjuta dominated the skyline to the west. As we were ferried to the resort by coach, we caught our first glimpse of the monolith from ground level not far away.
After checking in and a casual (but ridiculously expensive) lunch we were picked up for the afternoon trip to Uluru. As we entered the National Park everybody’ eyes were on the rock. The closer we got, the more mesmerising it became. But first we spent a really interesting hour in the cultural centre, learning about the local indigenous people and their tjukurpa. Our guide took us to the Mutitjulu Waterhole which used to be the point where people climbed the rock. He pointed out impossibly ancient rock art, and told the creation story of the Kuniya Python Woman. It was a great introduction to the local history and myths, and a beautifully peaceful spot. The guide then took us right around the base of Uluru by coach, pointing out to us where we should not take photos at sacred sites of secret men’s and women’s business, and telling more stories and legends about the various rock formations.
About half an hour before sunset we found ourselves at the viewing point, plastic glass of wine in hand, gazing at the changing colours of Uluru before us. It wasn’t exactly a timeless moment, as there were about a hundred others doing exactly the same thing, including a busload of roaring youngsters right beside us. But it was fun. We spent an hour or so watching the rock change colour almost imperceptibly, moment by moment. It was pretty amazing.
It was one of those times when you picture yourself as if seen from a satellite, zooming in on your position on the planet, and you consider your good fortune to live the life you live.
Early (very early, around 6am) next morning, we were checking out of the hotel before heading to the sunrise viewing place (a different vantage point to the sunset one, obviously) to watch the sun rise over Uluru. It was pitch black and close to freezing as we lined up for coffee and biscuits at the urn, and then we sat on our camping stools as the light slowly grew from behind us. This experience was a lot more subtle in terms of colour (and noise – I guess everybody was still half asleep) but both of us felt it was a lot more spiritual or peaceful somehow. Now and again I remembered to look behind us as the actual sunrise itself was also beautiful, as well as its impact on the rock.
Later in the morning we drove the 45km or so out west to Kata Tjuta, and hiked the Valley of the Winds. Kata Tjuta is actually significantly more sacred to the local indigenous people than Uluru, and is the site for secret men’s business. Apparently some of the elder women will actually shield their eyes from the sight of Kata Tjuta if they happen to catch a glimpse of it in the distance. The sacred places are absolutely off limits, but the official hike route was spectacular.
With not a minute to spare on our red-hot itinerary, we barely had enough time to get lunch back at the hotel before we were whisked off on yet another mammoth coach ride, this time east and then north, to King’s Canyon. It is about 300km away, along fairly decent but empty highways. At one point I dropped off to sleep but when I stirred Orlando pointed out to me a spectacular red plateau mountain receding into the distance. We had driven right past this mountain without anybody mentioning it at all (the drivers were usually good at pointing out anything of interest). We were amazed that such a prominent feature went without mention – was this a secret mountain that dare not speak its name?
Later we found out that it was Mount Conner, at 300m high standing only 48m lower than Uluru itself, and often mistaken for it by travellers approaching Uluru by road. And the reason nobody mentioned it on our way past was that we were running very late and the driver didn’t have time to stop for photos as we were trying to reach our destination before nightfall. Luckily we were able to stop and marvel at this beautiful feature on our way back the next day.
Just before sunset we stopped at the magnificant King’s Canyon, and watched the sunset change the colours of the rocks just as vividly as at Uluru, as we strolled along the gentle gorge walk on the bottom of the canyon itself. The next morning we were to attempt the four-hour rim walk, and many of the other participants decided to give it a miss as the steep cliffs rose all around us. We put our name down as definites, and dined that evening on roast camel and fresh tiger prawns (in the desert – how extravagant) before yet another early night.
Next morning we stood at the bottom of the gorge yet again, this time in darkness and wrapped in many layers to beat the bitter cold. We climbed the steep rock as the sun rose, with just enough light to allow us to climb safely. Although many of the others had dropped out, our party included an 82-year-old couple who took their time and barely broke a sweat as they kept up with the rest of us. Impressive. The views, as ever, were awe-inspiring as our elevation rose and the sun did its thing, bathing everything in red and gold.
It took almost four hours to walk the full length of the rim, taking in King’s Canyon itself, and the isolated Garden of Eden where tropical cyclade plants still thrive in the desert because of the water trapped by the impermeable stone (to the left is a view of King’s Canyon looking back from the top end). Everywhere were incredible natural features, like perfectly laminated stone layers, trees literally growing out of bare rock, and petrified ripples frozen in the rock, a reminder of the shifting sands this whole area used to be.
This is the view back towards the Garden of Eden, which lies at right angles to King’s Canyon itself. This was taken from the same spot as the photo above. Although it was winter, the temperature got up towards 20C at it warmest, and I even got a little sunburnt on my nose. I had started off well-protected but the chilly morning had set my nose running and I must have wiped all the sunscreen off by the time the sun got high!
On the homeward leg of the hike, we passed by the Lost City, a series of weathered buttresses of rock which look like the ruins of an ancient city. Although Orlando and I thought they were more like a scene from a Star Wars movie. Back at the coach, we stretched our aching legs before heading back to check out once again, and take in a spot of lunch before the never-ending trip back to Ayers Rock Resort.
Back at the hotel we had missed our coach transfer to the highlight of our evenings, the Sounds of Silence dinner. The porter took us at break-neck speed up into the isolated sand-dunes, the desert sand rising behind us on the dirt tracks. We made it with about fifteen minutes to spare before sunset.
There on top of a sand dune, we sipped chilled bubbly out of proper crystal this time, surrounded not by the hoi-polloi but by a more refined crowd, popping tiny canapes into our mouths as the sun set one more spectacular time on Uluru. We met up with a couple, Peter from Melbourne and his partner Janice from Newcastle, and chatted to them as darkness fell and the bitter cold returned.
When the sun was set we took our seats for a candle-lit Australian desert banquet. We dined on barramundi, crocodile, kangaroo and other offerings, all marinated and seasoned with native berries and spices such as lemon myrtle, pepper berries and wattle seed. Then, as we finished eating, one of the staff recited a short poem and then all the candles were blown out. We held our breaths as the complete silence and total darkness became all-encompassing, and the magnificence of the Milky Way was spread out above us. Breathtaking. The resident astronomer pointed out all the constellations to us and told stories handed down through generations of the local indigenous people. We gazed skywards, spellbound by his booming voice and his myths and legends. Afterwards he directed us to a number of powerful telescopes set up around us. We queued up to be shown Alpha Centauri (which we could clearly see is actually twin suns) and many other wonders.
My personal favourite was bending down to one telescope and being presented with a magnificent picture of Saturn with its rings clearly visible. I could not believe I was seeing this with my own two eyes. This was the icing on the cake for me – the perfect end to such a visually stunning weekend in the Red Centre.
I can count a number of amazing things on this trip – sunrise and sunset at Uluru, the hike at King’s Canyon and of course stargazing at the Sounds of Silence dinner. I reckon I can count this as four amazing things in one experience!