Tuesday – Thursday, November 8 – 10, 2011: Uluru, Australia (Part 1)
Throwing ourselves out of bed at 4am hurt a bit, but it was more than worth it as we were headed to the airport this morning to take the necessary two flights to Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the southwest corner of the Northern Territories. The massive stone monolith would be our home base for the next three days as we viewed this amazing natural phenomenon as often as possible, along with visits to the nearby Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) about 45 minutes away.
As we were in Melbourne, we were already 1200 miles from Uluru, but just to make things more fun, there are no direct flights from here, so our first flight of the day was a quick jump to Sydney, another 700kms in the wrong direction, but got us to one of three cities with service to the isolated Ayers Rock Airport at Yulara. The flights were really painless and everything was on-time, so it really wasn’t much of an incovenience.
As we boarded our aircraft for Ayers Rock, it was clear that the other 100 passengers onboard our Virgin Australia flight were all going to the same place. To say that Uluru is isolated is a bit of an understatement. Sitting in the southwestern corner of the Northern Territories with nothing but hundreds of miles of Australian Outback in every direction, it has a population of around 1000 people and Alice Springs, the nearest major city (population of 25,000) is 300+ miles away. Yet as our plane was a few minutes from landing we were afforded a nice view of Uluru and there in the middle of the desert was an sprawling oasis of buildings, complexes, and the little town of Yulara, ready to welcome the constant stream of tourist visitors to the site.
The small but adequate airport had one gate, one baggage claim carousel, check-in counters, a waiting area, and a few rental car and tour company counters. We made the 30 foot walk from the arrival gate to the Hertz counter and picked up our rental car for the trip. From here, we took a 5 mile drive along the highway into Yulara and arrived at the Ayers Rock Resort complex.
The Resort Complex is a very small city made up of a variety of accommodation options, restaurants, a small shopping center with one small grocery store, a few boutiques, a post office, and one gas station (you pay whatever they charge). The resort had an accommodation option for every price range from a campground with tents and pull through RV sites, to a hostel with dorm beds for the backpackers, a country lodge, a motel, a hotel, and a super luxury all-suite property that was so expensive, we didn’t even bother to find it while we were there. We found a deal that made the motel just slightly cheaper than the country lodge (though still a serious dent on the wallet, but when would be back here?), so we spent our days at Uluru in the Lost Camel Motel, a clean, well cared for terra cota colored two story motel with contemporary styling and most importantly a clean, comfortable bed and well working air conditioning.
We quickly found out that Uluru had two “shifts”, a morning shift, which runs around 4:30am until 10am, and the evening shift, which runs from about 4:30pm until 10pm at night. The morning shift is designed for visitors wanting to take morning tours, sunrise viewing out at Uluru (a 20 minute drive away) or at Kata Tjuta (45 minute drive away) and any hiking you would like to accomplish. All of these activities should be completed before the blazing sun kicks in and sends the cooler 70-80 degree temperatures of the early morning above the century mark. The evening shift permits sunset viewing at either location, a late afternoon tour or short hike, dinner, and stargazing before collapsing into bed. In between, most folks spend their time in the pool or in their air-conditioned rooms sleeping.
After getting checked into our room, we walked over to the grocery store (a 2 minute walk, which thankfully was much less than the 15-20 minutes some people had from other properties in the Resort complex in the blazing sun) and picked up breakfast and lunch options that we could eat while out and about sightseeing. In addition, we got our passes for that evening’s Sound of Silence dinner which would be our first of many activities we packed into our short time here.
At 6:15pm, a large bus arrived at the front door of our motel lobby and we joined about 80 other people (there were two buses) as we drove about 10 minutes away from the resort, down a red dirt road, and arrived at a small pathway outlined by some simple wooden posts and a length of chain to differentiate this stretch of walkway from the thousands of square miles of desert extending in every direction. We walked about 2 minutes up and over a small hill and arrived at a small clearing where a small staff of waiters has begun to hand out glasses of champange, and canapes began to be served. Wooden benches were set up in a circular shape and folks enjoyed the amazing scenery, with Uluru off in the distance to the south, Kata Tjuta off in the distance to the west, and the sounds of the Didgeridoo played by a local Aussie as the sun began to slowly begin a color explosion as sunset started in the Australian Outback.
We spent nearly an hour out in this simple clearing as the staff served us and a makeshift bar served cool drinks, beer, wine, and more champagne. The didgeridoo player performed several musical pieces and then proceeded to introduce and share the history of the instrument as it is a part of many aboriginal cultures (though it is not an instrument used by the Anangu peoples of Uluru, ironically). There were a number of high clouds that just added to the color and light show of the dramatic sunset as it slowly slipped below the horizon behind Kata Tjuta and we along the crowd enjoyed the first part of our evening immensely. As our host announced that it was time to move to the dining area, we headed down another path for about 3 more minutes, around a bend, and into our “dining area”, a patch of desert transformed into a beautiful open-air restaurant of about 12 large round tables, white tablecloths, candles, and with nothing but the heavens above and the desert around us slowly disappearing into the darkness.
Our host began to seat each of us at different tables, and placed us at a great table of younger people. 6 of our tablemates were recent newlyweds from Japan and our final 2 tablemates were a couple from Germany. Even with the language barrier of our friends from Japan, we got along really well and had a blast! The couple from Germany were fluent in English and worked for the European Space Agency (Read: International Space Station) and were on holiday, so we immediately hit it off sharing stories of our respective travels through Australia.
Dinner was buffet style and all you could consume and drink, so along with an amazing selection of food, the soft drinks, beer, and wine flowed all evening long. The buffet was a wide variety of Australian favorites with a flair for the exotic, including Crocodile Caesar Salad, Kangaroo, Baramundi (Australian freshwater fish), Chicken Sausages, and more. It was an amazing meal under the stars.
Just when we thought the evening couldn’t get any better, our host announced that the thrid and final component of the evening would soon begin. A local astronomer and Aboriginal story guide would be sharing the stories of the local peoples and introducing us to some of the unique stars and constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. All of the candles were put out and the Sounds of Silence began.
The only sounds from this moment on was the cooling breeze of the desert as it came through our dining venue. As we were enveloped by the pitch black darkness of this beautiful place, a bright beam of light suddenly shone into the sky and our star guide began to share three stories of the Anangu peoples, their creation stories, and introduce us to the stars of the desert night sky. Following his presentation, which lasted a little more than 30 minutes, we were invited to view the Moon and Jupiter through telescopes brought out and setup for us. We each took our turns at the telescopes and then slowly made our way back to our waiting coaches for the return trip home. It was a night not to forget and an amazing introduction to Uluru.
On the short trip home, we made plans with our tablemates from Germany to meet up the following evening for dinner and hopped out of our bus, walked back to our room, and got as much sleep as we could because the alarms would be going off at 4:45am for sunrise viewing at Uluru.
Apparently, we needed a bit more sleep because we figured out a way to sleep through two separate alarms we set to wake us up. Somehow, Darin’s internal clock figured something was wrong and he shot out of bed in a panic at 5:10am. The mad rush was on to throw clothes on and get on the road for the 20 minute drive to the sunrise viewing area for a 5:55am sunrise. Somehow, we pulled it off with minutes to spare and along with a couple hundred other people (who were spread out over a 1/4 – 1/2 mile area, so it wasn’t too chaotic or crowded) were treated to first light and the sunrise at Uluru.
Over the course of the next 45 minutes, the massive 1000 foot high sandstone formation, nearly 6 miles around shone in varying hues of gray, brick red, and bright orange as the sun began to rise. Even at 6am, it was already 65-70 degrees, so everyone was comfortable and we just watched this amazing landmark come alive in the morning sun. Many people have asked us if Uluru is worth the extra time, plane flights, and the isolation and we can honestly say… it is.
In the next installment, more of Uluru and Kata Tjuta by day and an Australian Outback BBQ!