My wife, Bonny, and I are standing at the approved sunset viewpoint for Ayers Rock. This is supposed to be a magical time of day here in central Australia. But the clouds are fairly thick and we aren’t expecting much magic. We even contemplate leaving and driving back to our hotel. However, about ten minutes before sunset the rock starts changing color, just as if the management of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta (kah-tah choor-tar) National Park had clicked a switch.
Ayers Rock changes from a dull red to yellow in stages. We and the other observers start snapping pictures. At its brightest it’s an almost blinding yellow. Then it becomes a brilliant gold color before it turns violet and then gray as the sun sets. No wonder the Aborigines view Ayers Rock (which they call Uluru) as a spiritual place.
The Aborigines have leased the land on which Ayers Rock sits to the Australian government for 99 years, but they help to manage the park. They prefer that people do not climb the rock because the climb follows the trail their ancestral Dreamtime Mala men took when they first came to Uluru. We honor this, but many people do climb the rock on the steep and exposed trail, holding onto a chain. The climb has similarities to climbing the backside of Half Dome in Yosemite National Park and Gothics in Adirondack State Park in New York State, both of which I have done. I don’t feel the need to add Uluru to the list.
Ayers Rock is made of sandstone and was formed in an inland sea and thrust up 1,141 feet above ground by geologic forces. It’s about six miles around and two-thirds of it is probably underground. Most people who take an extended trip to Australia visit Ayers Rock, even though its location in the Outback makes it difficult to get to.
Yesterday, we flew Qantas Airlines from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, a short hop through the Outback that kept us from having to rent a car. A shuttle bus took us to the Ayers Rock Resort where we are staying at the Outback Pioneer Hotel, the least expensive alternative with private bathrooms.
On our first evening we enjoy the Sounds of Silence dinner, an outside feast that is a short bus ride into the red desert from the resort. We can see both Ayers Rock and the other red rock formation, The Olgas. We eat dinner by candlelight, sampling crocodile, kangaroo, emu and barramundi (fish), and drink champagne and wine. A man whose grandfather was an Aboriginal plays the didgeridoo, a large pipe-like instrument.
After dinner the candles are put out and we look at the stars, made somewhat hazy by high clouds. An astronomer points out the Southern Cross, visible only in the Southern Hemisphere, one of whose stars is Alpha Centauri, the closest star to the earth other than the sun. Alpha Centauri is actually a triple star and we can see two of the three through a telescope set up with a motor drive (to allow for the earth’s rotation).
The next morning we rent a car from Thrifty and drive into the park. We drive to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) and hike the Valley of the Winds Walk, 7.4 kilometers. We wear fly netting over our heads. It is very good at keeping out the pesky flies, which would otherwise penetrate all of our bodily orifices. The trail is rugged, winding up and down between the huge red rocks, but the views are magnificent. Kata Tjuta is composed of many small rocks, some granite, glued together by enormous pressures. The tallest rock, Mt. Olga, is 1,790 feet above ground. The total scenic effect is much more varied than that of the monolithic Uluru.
On the morning after we photographed Ayers Rock at sunset, we arrive at the rock before sunrise in our tour van for a walk around the base. Clouds obscure the sun and the walk starts out at a brisk pace in a strong wind. The plant life is green, the tall grass is brown and the trail is red, as is the rock. There are sacred areas at different points along the walk, some for men but more for women. Tourists are forbidden from taking pictures of them or climbing on them. Our guide tells us myths of the native people, involving Uluru, illustrated by cracks and other formations on the face of the rock.
The trail around Uluru is flat and easy and about nine kilometers long. The day warms up to a pleasant temperature. We see some pictographs that will be off limits soon (this is May 2005) due to the danger of falling rock. We also see tourists climbing Uluru, against the wishes of the natives.
On the morning we are leaving Ayers Rock (on a flight to Sydney) we walk along one of the red sand tracks to the camel farm. We spot two dingoes following us, closely enough to give us a start. They look like yellow dogs. When we turn to face them they run away. There are a number of one-hump camels at the farm, used for carting tourists around. They come all the way down to their knees to let people on and off. We would rather walk.
We walk around some more and take a last look at Uluru and Kata Tjuta from a viewpoint, glad that we made this beautiful and sacred spot a stopover on our trip.