Tuesday – Thursday, November 8 – 10, 2011: Uluru, Australia (Part 2)
Following the early morning sunrise at Uluru (Ayers Rock), we had a few hours remaining before the sun turned intense and the temperatures began to rise, so we jumped in our rental car and headed over to our first walk of the day at the base of Uluru.
The Kuniya Walk gave us our first up close and personal interaction with Ayers Rock. In order to view Uluru at sunrise and sunset, you park in viewing areas miles away from the site, just to be far enough away for you to be able to see the entire place and to allow your camera to fit the entire thing into a single view frame. Once you leave the viewing areas, however, a two lane highway wraps itself around the massive sandstone formation, permitting a number of stops and walks that permit you to walk right up to and around the sandstone monolith.
Our first stop at Kuniya was a short and simple walk that takes you on level flat ground from a nearby carpark up to the base of the rock and to one of the sacred sites of the Anangu people, the Mutitjulu Waterhole, one of the only places that carries fresh drinking water year round at the intensely hot and desolate site. As we arrived to the carpark, it was now just before 7am, and the sun was already moving into position and we could feel the temperature rise.
As we walked along the path, there was a number of signs providing information to visitors about the importance of the bush plants and features of Uluru in support of the generations of Anangu people that lived in this area. We learned about coming of age rites for the boys and girls as they transitioned into men and women, learning the customs of hunting, cooking, gathering food, and seeking shelter as well as the intricate stories of the oral culture of the people.
As we turned a corner, in a sizeable crevice in the rockface, we could see into a small overhang that had been in existence for hundreds of years, and there, we found dozens of hand printed cave paintings in varying colors. As the Anangu and many Aboriginal cultures had only an oral tradition, the cave paintings provided additional information about these fascinating and amazing people.
Moving closer to the waterhole, we could here singing and chanting in the distance, and we came to find out that some distance away, the Anangu people were gathering to participate in a tribal conversation that involved a number of their traditional customs and ceremonies. Though we were not allowed to see any of this activity, the echoes of the music and the singing filled the area as we continued to walk the path towards Mutitjulu, adding a soundtrack of native song to our trip.
As we continued to move into one tiny corner of Uluru, the walls continued to rise up around us to nearly 1000 feet in height and we found this area quite sheltered and shaded from the hot and intense sun. As we completed the last several meters of the walk, we arrived at a small clearing with a boardwalk and a seating area. Here, the Mutitjulu Waterhole stood, a pond not much larger than a high school swimming pool, but so vitally important to the people, not only for water, but also as a source of animals that also come here to drink, providing critical food supplies.
The silence of this place made it almost magical and the Anangu strongly believe that the spirits of ancestors and the spirits occupy these sacred places as a way to support the people and to also provide them with important teachings and lessons on the ways of their people. Hearing the singing and chanting off in the distance and having this place to ourselves, we found that the silence provided an amazing sense of calm and relaxation. It was a great start to our day.
A few minutes later, a tour group arrived and we elected to let the other 50 people enjoy their time at Mutitjulu as we began to backtrack our steps back towards the car park. It wasn’t a long walk and we were back at our rental car within 30 minutes. From here, we headed east and counterclockwise around Uluru and arrived at our next stop about 15 minutes later.
The Mala Carpark was the starting point for a daily tour offered by the local park rangers at 8am every day. A few minutes after 8am, our tour guide arrived and she proceeded to take us on a 90 minute walking tour that provided us with another unique vantage point of Uluru as well as additional information about the local Anangu people, their history, and sacred sites here at Ayers Rock. We learned about the different bush plants and foods used by the people as well as a number of sites that historically were used by men, women, and children to not only raise their families, but also serve as communal kitchens, teaching places, and hunting sites.
During this walk, we also learned a lot about the contemporary Anangu peoples. Although they own the life long rights to this land and the significant portion of the profits from the National Park, the actual community of Anangu people is now located nearly 300kms from Uluru. It is a closed community, meaning that outsiders are not permitted, as the people are extremely focused on maintaining the traditional customs and teachings to be passed along from generation to generation. They utilize the profits from the park to support medical centers, education, and long term protection of the parkland, native plants and trees, and other environmental and conservation programs, and they continue to battle the uphill battle that native peoples in Australia face, much in the same way as in the United States. Enslaved, slaughtered, and persecuted, the Anangu are struggling to regain their hold on the land that is so important and dear to their history and culture while avoiding the pitfalls of dealing with a society that has built so many roadblocks that stand in their way.
Following the Mala Walk with our park ranger, we headed to the Uluru Cultural Centre. Here, in air conditioned comfort, a number of exhibits provide a wide range of information and background on the peoples of this area. Along with the information, there are also a number of art galleries showing the incredibly intricate and beautiful dot painting of the Aboriginal peoples on display.
By now, it was nearly 11am and the sun pushed the temperature above the 100 degree mark, sending us back to our motel, our air conditioned room, and to rest as most of the other visitors to Uluru were doing as well. We caught up on email, naps, and had lunch as we would be heading out later in the afternoon to see the Kata Tjuta and the sunset at Uluru.
Around 4pm, we got back into the rental car (a really nice thing to have as bus transportation to all of the sights is provided by the resort with a significant price tag for each and every trip), and made the 45 minute drive out to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas). Kata Tjuta is a similar sandstone set of rock formations, though smaller, more spread out, and consistenting of 37 separate “mounds” whereas Uluru is made of three (yes, 3) massive segments. Arriving to Kata Tjuta, the sight was just as amazing, and we drove up to one of the walk-in entry points known as Walpa Gorge.
Walpa Gorge is a short hike, only about a kilometer in each direction, but with temperatures still above 100 and a howling desert wind, it felt a bit more like a blast furnance. We took a number of precautions, had plenty of water with us, and protected ourselves from the sun as we slowly made our way for the 20 minute walk into the gorge. We were a bit surprised along the way to find a fair amount of green trees and shrubs in the area. We came to learn that this was the wettest Uluru and Kata Tjuta have been in over 100 years and that the greenery is a new aspect to the landscape, one that many visitors and the Anangu people have never seen. It was a unique perspective of the area and one can only speculate about if global climate change might have something to do with it…
40 minutes into and out of the gorge was more than enough for us, and we elected to take the scenic drive around the Kata Tjuta in our air-conditioned car back to the main road and slowly worked our way back towards Yulara, making a stop shortly before sunset at the viewing area for Uluru.
Seeing Ayers Rock from a different angle and perspective, it looks change completely at every turn and the sunset provides a new range of colors and glows to the rock. We spent the next half hour or so watching the sunset with dozens of other people while grabbing tons of pictures.
From here, we headed back to the resort complex to meet our new friends from Germany for dinner at the Outback Pioneer BBQ. This unique eating venue provides patrons with a huge butcher/deli case of fresh, raw meat, along with 18 sizzling hot BBQs to cook your selections on, self-service style. The four of us grabbed drinks and then selected a variety of different meats for our main course. We selected the outback special, which included crocodile and kangaroo skewers, emu, buffalo, and beef sausage. Once we grabbed our drinks, we headed over to the BBQs and we cooked up our meals. Along with all of the meat, the restaurant also provided a generous selection of corn on the cob, and side dishes. Once everything was prepared (they provided instructions — example: crocodile skewers need 7-10 mins to cook, while kangaroo needed only 5-6 minutes), we headed out into the cooler night air and sat at a wooden picnic table to enjoy the feast. We enjoyed conversation and shared in each other’s stories for a few hours as the local band played. It was a great evening, though everyone was thoroughly wiped out by 9:30pm. We bid our new friends goodbye as we would be leaving the next morning and we all headed our separate ways, grabbing as many hours of sleep as possible as the next sunrise would be here before we all knew it.
The next morning, we headed back out to the same sunrise viewing area for Uluru and found it to be much more relaxing today. We knew where to park, where to stand and watch the sunrise, and how to avoid the crowds, so it made for a much more enjoyable experience. From here, we headed back into the complex and completed a quick laundry run and then it was time to check out of The Lost Camel.
Before we made our way over to the airport, we had about a half hour to spare, so we decided that another fun adventure could be worked into the plans. We headed over towards the entrance of the resort complex and here was the Uluru Camel Tour company. At sunrise and sunset, they take small groups out to view Uluru on camelback, but in between, casual arrivals like ourselves could grab a short ride on the camels and get much of the same experience in a fraction of the time.
We met our cameleer (seriously, that is what he is called here), and he took us on a short ride around the complex. Once we were finished, we got to pet and meet Lazy Daisy and some of the other camels as well as learn about camel racing, which is still a thriving sport in some nations. Also on the property were some baby camels, so we get to see them and watch them being fed. It was a nice stop as we headed out and soon we were headed to the airport and getting ready for our next stop.
Ayers Rock Airport is so small that the rental car was returned, we were checked in, and had passed security in under 5 minutes. A couple hours later, we had boarded our Qantas flight and were headed to Cairns to see Cape Tribulation, Kuranda Railway, the Tjupakai Aboriginal people, and snorkel The Great Barrier Reef!