Before dawn we check out of our room and wait outside for our bus to pick us up. It's not one of the fancy big buses. It's smaller and only seats 22 people. Comfortable enough, but still looks rugged. Perfect.
We are flying down the lonely stretch of highway toward Yulara, the town nearest to Uluru. I'm trying to take pictures of the scenery at 110kph.
Our guides, Matt and Tom.
Think for a minute what you think a typical Australian hunk looks like. What kind of accent does he have? What color eyes? How long is his beard? That's Matt. What's different about him is that he has a degree in finance and worked in a high rise office for 6 years. He didn't like it and then decided to travel the world. For the next EIGHT YEARS. He went to 80 different countries. He's now decided to stay in Australia and lead tour groups through this rugged outback. He's really a fun and interesting guy to talk to. And we never got to talking about all the places he's visited.
Tom is the other guide. He knows where we're going.
And this really is about as complicated as the roads get.
The horizontal road is the Lasseter highway, named for guy who claimed to have found a dry creek bed full of gold. He brought people out to mine it. Couldn't find it again. He was able to convince another group to go a second time to try to locate it. Still couldn't find it. Not sure why it was named after him, but Tom guesses that later when the Gold Rush actually hit in Australia, they were using the same path to travel to where the gold finally was found.
We got to stop at a service station for 15 minutes and we enjoyed the emu while we waited.
We stopped again at a Mount Ebenezer Roadhouse, a small cafe/pool hall/art gallery. The most important thing they had there was a toilet. But I bought a postcard and enjoyed the gallery. The outside looked like a place in a book I had read with Henry called Hello from Nowhere.
The sand is SO RED. Redder than this picture.
That is not a smudge on the picture. That is a fly photo bombing my shot.
Flies are extremely numerous and persistent.
Finally, we made it to Uluru. Our first stop was the Cultural Center. It opened in 1995 to educate the people who come about the aboriginal people and why they consider Uluru so special. They never want to place restrictions on people climbing Uluru, they want everything to be your choice. So they take time to educate you. (Sounds like "teach them correct principles, and let them govern themselves.") The guide is not permitted to go with us inside, as the aboriginal people want you to experience it for yourself. They request that you not photograph anything. They want you to stop, listen to the land, the insects, the wind, and experience it first hand. I can see the wisdom in that. If photography were permitted, people would be snapping pictures of the plaques instead of reading them. They'd be taking selfies of themselves in front of the scenery, instead of letting themselves just noticing the scenery.
Inside there are explanations of their culture and practices. There are videos to show their way of life. It is obvious they know a great deal about the land and the animals and how to keep it healthy.
They follow a law, called Tjukurpa, which explains the relationship of plants, people, animals, and creation. As I learned some of the stories, it seemed similar to the stories of Greek and Roman mythology that explained events or landmarks in nature. The difference is these aboriginals still teach these stories.
I wrote down this quote from inside. "Government law is written on paper. Anangu law is carried in our heads and souls. It's in our minds, our ears, our hearts. From our mouths it comes out straight and pure. It was given by our grandmothers and grandfathers to carry."
Pitjantjatjara ("pigeon JAR jara") is the language of the Anangu people. In it there is no word for "why." Everyone has to just figure things out by observation. The young men hide in the bushes and watch the men hunt. They follow the elders to learn how to find food, or "bush tucker." For instance, The men will wait for kangaroo to visit the waterhole. They will wait until the kangaroo get their water before they attack. They only take one kangaroo. The last one. This is intentional so that the other kangaroo don't see what happened and learn never to visit the waterhole again.
More words I found in various places:
Ngura: place where we live
Kata tjuta: many heads
Liru: venomous snake
You may recognize this song, "Beds are Burning," by Midnight Oil. It's all about the struggle for the aboriginals to be allowed to remain on their land that the Australians had taken from them.
So we finally get to go see Uluru, up close, and--now--even more personal.
It is 2 miles across, 1 mile wide. It takes 6 miles to walk around it. But today was too hot (36°C/97°F) so some areas of the base were closed off for safety.
Uluru is a sacred place to the Anangu (AN a new) people. The perimeter is marked with signs in certain areas that request you not take pictures to respect the sacredness of the site.
We had no problem complying with that.
Tom told about some of the trees that survive out here. One is called a Dead Finish Tree. It is so hardy that it is the last tree to die without water.
Another is the Desert Bloodwood. The sap is blood red. The roots store water is larger cavities so they can be dug up in the event your canteen is empty. The Grey Moth lays their larvae on the bark of this tree and it looks like a large burl on the surface. This burl is called a Desert Coconut because you can pull it off and eat the larvae, which reportedly taste like coconut. I think if you're so desperate for water and food in this outback, your sense of taste is skewed.
Cave paintings that teach stories
We settled in for dinner at the sunset viewing point. I only took off my fly net long enough for the picture. The flies are constantly trying to land on your face. And what keeps their population so high is feeding on dung. So, you don't really want them on your face.
We made a time-lapse video of the sunset.
It's our least favorite of the three we made. So don't miss the others below.
We headed back to our campsite. After a brief lesson in handling dingos and wild dogs, Tom told us how to deter snakes from entering our site by carving a deep snake ring with a shovel around our sleeping area. We took turns making a deep trench around our entire area and settled down inside our swags. If you google it, almost every image will show you something more like a tent that would actually seal you away from deadly animals. But these swags were just canvas pockets that our sleeping bags fit into. I can't figure out what extra protection they offer except for a large "monster flap" that I think is mostly a false sense of security. It's called a monster flap because when small children are afraid they cover their faces, hoping that if they can't see the monster, the monster can't see them. Tom said, if we hear plodding sounds next to our swag, don't open the monster flap or we might see a dingo hovering over our faces. It was too hot to cover up anyway. I doused myself with bug spray, put a big rock next to my head to throw at the dingos, and watched the Milky Way, hoping no snakes would try to keep warm in my bag.
Here is our campsite and snake ring. I slept under the ghost gum tree.
We tried again the next morning for a stunning sunrise. It was okay.
But seriously, don't miss the sunset over Kata Tjuta further down.
Today we were headed to Kata Tjuta about 50 km further down the road from Uluru. You can see them both from Yulara at the same time.
There are 36 domes of Kata Tjuta, hence the name "many heads."
It spreads over 20 kilometers, or 12 miles.
Kata Tjuta is a men's site so adult aboriginal women are not allowed to go there at all. It is too sacred for even "children" like us to go see all of it, but the aboriginals have opened up just two hikes that we are allowed to walk through. It was my favorite place of everything we've seen.
Tom took time to explain how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed. There were two "smaller" basins within the large Amadeus basin. A land event (earthquake) formed a huge mountain in front of them that was twice the size of Everest. But it was so high nothing grew on it to hold it in place. So it eroded and filled the two basins with it's rubble. One filled with rocks and the other with sand. Over time and pressure, the two basins of rubble hardened into conglomerate rock and sandstone (respectively). Another land event pushed one up at 15 degrees, and after many years of erosion, formed Kata Tjuta. The second was pushed up at 90 degrees and Uluru was born. It extends 6k under the surface of earth.
Our tour group.
In the cultural center we saw examples of the food the aboriginals would find to eat. One was Honey Ants. The ants store sweet nectar in their abdomens. Some ants in the colony are designated storers, and the other ants feed them so much that they literally can't move because they are so big. They just hang out and the other ants come...extract it from them...somehow. Must be awkward. The aboriginals just eat the ant. Sick.
I actually found some on our hike at Kata Tjuta, but I had fallen behind the group (taking too many pictures) and didn't take a moment to make sure my picture was in focus. Ugh. So here is a picture I googled:
We headed back to our campsite for lunch. It was ham, lettuce, beetroot, canned corn and more cheese than I ever allow myself to have wrapped in a store-bought tortillas (oh the sacrifice!).
It was time for Leo and I to say goodbye to the tour. Our flight was leaving from Uluru, the rest of the group were headed back to Alice Springs and would see Kings Canyon along the way.
Our tour group had people from all over the world. No Australians.We met people from Canada, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Spain, France, and New Zealand.
With Matt and Tom, our guides. They do this twice a week!
Leo and I were staying a night in Yulara before our flight out the next day. We had nothing planned for the afternoon. Swim, shop, rest. But something kept nagging at me.
We stopped for dinner at the store. Found a frozen kangaroo tail in the freezer section.
It still had the hair on it.
Heading out to get a view of the sunset. Tonight was going to be stunning.
I had been hoping to have a chance to run the base of Uluru. I run 6 miles every Saturday. I knew I could do this one. But we couldn't get out to Uluru without hiring a bus at a cost of $70AU per person. I had missed the chance to rent a car to get myself there. I fretted about it all afternoon. Leo was my rallying supporter and insisted I do it. I finally decided to just bite the bullet, accept defeat on the money, and go. It meant getting up at 4:30, taking a sunrise tour to a viewing spot, and waiting until the tour arrived at Uluru. I'd have ONLY one hour to complete the run so that I could make it back in time to catch our flight.
We hung around the lodge area a bit. Surprisingly there are a lot of people coming around to eat at the restaurant, listen to the local band, share a beer. We listened to local artist Dave Cook (not THAT Dave Cook) perform "Solid Rock," another popular tune from the 1980s about the aboriginal people and their struggle for their land.
Sunrise looked amazing.
I was waiting my turn to be dropped off by the bus to run around the base of Uluru.
Just before I left to rejoin the bus and head to the base to run.
As the bus made the drive toward Uluru, I started making a playlist of songs to listen to. I made a list to keep my mind busy. But when I stepped off the bus and started to put in my earbuds, I realized that if I just listened to music, this run would be just like all my others, just in a different place. I remembered the request of the Anangu people, to listen to the plants, the insects, the wind. I decided to listen to The Rock. I put away my headphones and began. It would take too long to describe my experience here. But it was something I'll always remember and I am glad I listened to the land and let myself experience it firsthand. The Anangu people are wise.
I actually got lost. I know it sounds impossible, but I started in the one place where someone could take a wrong turn. I went into a dead end path. That meant lost time and I didn't have any extra. I had to make that 8:00 bus. So I had to find another group with a guide to give me instruction. Seriously, it's a CIRCLE around a huge rock you can't miss. It was humbling.
This guy was important. He knew I wanted to run and that I needed to make it back for the 8:00 bus. He even loaded me with cookies as fuel for my run. He set me at ease that he wouldn't leave me, so my mind was free to enjoy the run. He couldn't understand why I wanted to take his picture. But he was very important to me having the experience I did.
I got back in time to take a shower and wander the gift shop one last time. The only thing free in Yulara is the shuttle to and from the airport. It was big and comfortable. Almost as big as the airport. This is where we waiting to load the plane.
Another good trip. We're getting good at this.