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We didn’t see very much on our coach trip through the desert as we slept for most of the time but we arrived at Uluru around five in the morning before the hoardes of other tourists began to arrive. We were just in time to watch the sun rise over the rock which was a magical experience as it seems to change colour visibly throughout the day from a dark silhouette through blues and oranges to a sandy reddish hue in the full light of day.
The desert is bewitching at that time of the morning anyway, as the pink and orange sunlight creeps over the sandy wilderness, peeking softly between the ancient gumtrees. In the presence of something as ancient, alien and understatedly spectacular as Uluru the experience borders on spiritual.
Uluru is what the local Pitjantjatjara people call Ayers Rock. Surprisingly this word has no specific meaning in their language, but it is also used as a local family name by the Traditional Owners of Uluru.
It was first seen by white settlers on 19 July 1873, when surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named it Ayers Rock in honour of the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. Since then, both names have been used, although Ayers Rock was the name used by most people up until 1993 when it became known officially as Ayers Rock/Uluru in order to highlight its cultural significance to both aboriginal Australians and those of European descent or “Blackfellas and Whitefellas” as they are known in the area. This dual naming was then reversed to Uluru/Ayers rock, presumably in recognition of the fact that the Blackfellas had been in the area for approximately 30,000 years longer than the Whitefellas had.
There are many myths legends and stories connected with the rock, and these are each connected to specific sacred sites in the area. Most are connected to the dreaming, the aboriginal belief system which explains the formation of the landscape through the ancestors, the spiritual fathers of all the animals of the bush. According to the aboriginal owners of Uluru;
The world was once a featureless place. None of the places we know existed until creator beings, in the forms of people, plants and animals, traveled widely across the land. Then, in a process of creation and destruction, they formed the landscape as we know it today. Aṉangu land is still inhabited by the spirits of dozens of these ancestral creator beings which are referred to as Tjukuritja or Waparitja.
There are a number of differing accounts given, by outsiders, of Aboriginal ancestral stories for the origins of Uluru and its many cracks and fissures. One such account, taken from Robert Layton’s (1989) Uluru: An Aboriginal history of Ayers Rock, reads as follows:
Uluru was built up during the creation period by two boys who played in the mud after rain. When they had finished their game they travelled south to Wiputa … Fighting together, the two boys made their way to the table topped Mount Conner, on top of which their bodies are preserved as boulders. (Page 5)
There are tales of serpent beings who waged many wars around Uluru, scarring the rock in various places which are still told today. Others tell of two tribes of ancestral spirits who were invited to a feast, but were distracted by the beautiful Sleepy Lizard Women and did not show up. I am all for signing up to any religion that has beautiful Sleepy Lizard Women to be honest.
In response, the angry hosts sang evil into a mud sculpture that came to life in the form of a dingo. There was then a great battle, which ended in the deaths of the leaders of both tribes and in sorrow, the earth itself rose up in grief at the bloodshed, becoming Uluru.
It is sometimes reported that those who take rocks from Uluru will be cursed and suffer sickness and bad luck. There have been many cases recorded where people who removed rocks attempted to mail them back to various agencies to remove the curse.
The rock is littered with sacred places, each with its own dreaming story attached to it and the aboriginal guides do not like you to take photographs of them so as a result I have few pictures of the rock. Many people choose to ignore this which I personally believe shows a tremendous lack of respect for the people who have looked after it for so many thousands of years. Even more so those that climb it. It astonishes me that people even consider climbing it and personally I think that the practice should be stopped altogether. Several controversial incidents in 2010, including a striptease, golfing and nudity on top of Uluru, have led to renewed calls for banning the climb.
When we had been around the rock and the accompanying visitor centre, we headed out to Kata Tjuta, another sandstone formation nearby. This was almost like a gorge, raised above the desert floor and had its own associated dreaming stories such as marks on the walls where the spears of great ancestral hunters had struck them in the dreamtime.
A number of other dreamtime legends surround the great snake king Wanambi who is said to live on the summit of Mount Olga and only comes down during the dry season although the majority of mythology surrounding the site is not disclosed to outsiders as it is still actively used by the local aboriginal people in ceremonies.
The day we spent in Uluru Kata Tjuta national park was one of the most memorable of the whole trip. The atmosphere is difficult to describe, even with such large crowds visiting it. Uluru seems almost to transcend all that surrounds it, ignoring the hoards that visit it every day. It is easy to see how this became a spiritual place to the Pitjantjatjara people. Although not religious people ourselves, Faye and I still agree that this was as close as we have come to a truly spiritual experience.
Famous for being the remotest town on the planet and not a lot else, Alice Springs was somewhere we had both wanted to go from the start. This was at least in part attributable to the fact that we thought Uluru (the aboriginal name for Ayers Rock) was nearby. If by nearby you mean five hours drive then yes, I suppose it is. The problem is that in a vast country like Australia, things on the map look a lot closer together than they really are as we discovered upon our arrival in Perth, planning to drive what looked like a short distance up the coast in an afternoon before discovering that in fact it was a couple of days drive to or destination at the very least. Although now used to this effect we still fell into the same trap with Alice Springs and Uluru because there is absolutely nothing else in the centre. This gives the illusion that the only two things in the middle of the continent must be somehow near to one another.
The Arrernte Aboriginal people have been in the Alice Springs area for thousands of years and to them it is known as Mparntwe. Archaeological evidence suggests that the area was first colonised by humans around 30,000 years ago. This can be approximated through carbon dating of rock art found in the area.
There are numerous sites of traditional importance to the local aboriginal people in and around Alice Springs, these include Anthwerrke (Emily Gap), Akeyulerre (Billy Goat Hill),, Atnelkentyarliweke (Anzac Hill), Alhekulyele (Mt Gillen) and Ntaripe (Heavitree Gap).
Heavitree Gap is where we chose to stay when we arrived in Alice Springs. We pulled up in the campsite having wound our way through the surprisingly modern stretch of the Stuart Highway passing Repco, the auto spares chain and Hungry Jacks (Australian Burger King)! We had chosen to stay here as our lonely planet guide suggested it was good value for money and had a swimming pool. A really nice swimming pool as it turned out.
I jumped out and paid up for a few nights stay then returned to the van.
“I’ve got a present for you.” I said, handing Faye a bag of pellets.
“Cattle feed?!” she looked at me quizzically.
“Try Wallaby feed.” I smiled.
She jumped out of the van and ran to the rocky slopes behind the pool and that was pretty much the last I saw of her for the next few days. She spent so much money on bags of wallaby pellets that eventually she was securing bulk discounts from the reception. She also began to refer to herself as “Big Red, Queen of the Kangaroos and Wallabies and Shit”. I would come and get her for meals where I would usually find her reeling off facts to other tourists as if she had been there for years.
After about a week, we were able to get out and explore the town while the campsite waited for a delivery of wallaby feed.The town itself is remarkable only because it is so normal and yet so isolated. It could be any medium sized town in the world with a little high street and larger shops out on the edge of town. Overlooked by the MacDonnell Ranges and intersected by the usually dry Todd River, Alice still manages to retain its ‘frontier town’ feel, but this is juxtaposed with a degree of normality that borders on weird.
We explored a couple of the local attractions, the reptile centre and the desert park. The reptile centre comes highly recommended and did not disappoint us.It had a selection of many of Australias fascinating reptiles from deadly King Brown snakes to the enormous Perentie Lizard.
Our personal favourite was the prehistoric looking Frill Necked Lizard. One of the experts in the reptile centre got one out and allowed it to run around on the floor for a few minutes as he told us about its habitat, diet and so on.
In spite of the fact that it looks positively badass, this guy runs like a Thunderbird puppet. Any credibility he has built up among his desert home boys is instantly negated when he makes off walking with an uncoordinated mince reminiscent of Boy George on crack.
The other great attraction, as I mentioned earlier, is the desert park. This constitutes various areas demonstrating different desert habitats and terrain, with enclosures of native birds and animals.
The desert park sounds boring but I can assure you it really isn’t and in fact I would go so far as to say that it is the stand out attraction of Alice Springs. (Assuming you don’t think that Uluru is near Alice like we did. I reiterate, it is not.)
And so after a few days spent relaxing in Alice Springs, dodging what seemed to be a biblical plague of grasshoppers and stick insects and between our sightseeing and Fayes wallaby feeding, we booked a trip to Uluru. We went for the early morning trip which left at midnight and arrived at around five o’clock in the morning. It was a long drive, but it was worth it.