First, you have to remember that Australia is BIG, roughly 2,400 miles wide. Flying from the east to west coast is like flying from New York to LA. Then you have to wrap your mind around the emptiness, because within 10 minutes of our flight taking off from Townsville, virtually every sign of civilization disappeared. So did every sign of water. The interior of Australia is a vast red desert, and we were bound for the heart of it, the iconic red rock Uluru. Our flight arrived early, and before landing, the pilot treated us to some skillful scenic loops around Uluru and its neighboring rock formation, Kata Tjuta. The whole plane burst into applause.
That Eric and I were aboard at all was a stroke of good luck. Back in September, we had inquired at a local travel agency about trips to Uluru, but the flights via Darwin or Brisbane were so expensive and complicated that we declined. Then the resourceful travel agency owner partnered with a charter airline that flies personnel out to the mines during the week. Their planes sat empty on weekends, however—let’s make a deal! Though it meant a whirlwind trip, Friday to Sunday, we and 98 others leapt at the chance. I believe we were the only non-Aussies in the group, and as soon as our fellow travelers heard our accents, they welcomed us as only Aussies can do.
The community at Uluru, called Yulara, consists of an Aboriginal settlement, an airport, and a resort complex with a half dozen hotels, a campground, and a small Town Square of shops, cafes and a grocery store. At this time last year, the complex would have bustled with tourists and upwards of 1,500 resident employees. This year, although Covid-19 in Australia is well under control, only one hotel and the campground were open, and the staff was down to 300. Tour groups like ours will help business return, but meanwhile we selfishly appreciated the absence of crowds.
Because Uluru is mind-blowing. You can see it from atop a sand dune at the resort, a strange, monumental presence on the horizon 12 miles away. What must the Aboriginal people have thought the first time they walked toward it, watching it grow larger and larger until it loomed over them? Were they jaw-dropped in awe, or did they talk and gesticulate in excitement? Were they apprehensive, silently taking it in? We, of course, knew what was coming long before we ever arrived in Oz, and we reveled in the sight. The sky was overcast that first night, and in a few minutes of light mist, a stab of rainbow transpired. Alone on the dune, we watched until Uluru in the east and Kata Tjuta to the west disappeared into the darkness.
The next morning, we piled out of bed at 4:00 a.m. for the sunrise bus tour. It’s hard to resist taking endless pictures, because the color and mood of the rock shifts with each change of the light. Sometimes it’s somber, other times it blazes as if on fire. You think, I’ve come so far to see this. I don’t want to miss anything because I’ll never be here again. Then you pocket the camera and listen to the Aboriginal lore related by the guide as you hike through an impossibly dry landscape, past towering, textured red rock. The Aboriginal people saw stories in Uluru’s clefts and contours and used the stories to convey moral lessons—Don’t lie, Don’t steal—to their children. They recorded their culture on its cave walls in black, white and ochre art. They must have rejoiced when a rainfall filled a temporary waterhole. In a rare event the week before our visit, over an inch fell, and a pool remained at Uluru.
Back on the bus, we traveled to Kata Tjuta. At 9:00 a.m., the heat was already building. Though not yet summer, daytime temperatures here lift nonchalantly into the high 90s; the week after our return, they hit 110. But it was the dryness we found harder to take. Despite constant rehydration, my lips quickly chapped, Eric kept sneezing, and red dust took up permanent residence in our nasal passages. Life can’t survive without water, and during the entire weekend we saw not a single dingo or kangaroo, only one small lizard, and eight species of birds–alas, no lifers. There were flies, however, and though they are small and don’t bite, a hat net saves the bother of constantly waving them off your face.
At Kata Tjuta we hiked a mile into the Valley of the Winds, a wide cleft between the rocks through which the wind rushes at speeds that will set your hat flying. Eric was already up on the geology. Uluru and Kata Tjuta began to form 550 million years ago when rain falling on the mountain range to the west washed rock and sand down the slopes into huge fan shapes—one sandstone, one conglomerate rock—on the plains. Fifty million years later, an inland sea covered the fans and hardened them into rocks. After another hundred million years, the sea disappeared, and tectonic action tilted the fans. The sandstone fan tilted 90 degrees and became Uluru. The conglomerate fan tipped slightly and became Kata Tjuta. But what you see of 2,800’-high Uluru and 3,500’-high Kata Tjuta is only the tip of the iceberg. These massive formations extend nearly four miles underground.
Back at the resort at noon, everyone headed for the pool or a nap. Later, Eric and I ventured out for one of the resort’s free programs, a lesson on how to play the didgeridoo. Mastering the didgeridoo takes years and involves a technique called “circular breathing.” We admired the musician’s skill, and when he called for volunteers to try it, I was ready to shoot my hand into the air. But before I could do so, he added “Men only.” It seems some Aboriginal tribes consider the didgeridoo strictly men’s business. Sorry, women, no playing for you. I might have been less disappointed and less livid had the signage for the program forewarned of this prohibition, but I kept my mouth zipped and applauded Eric and the four other men who had a go. Later research confirmed that some tribes prohibit women from even touching a didgeridoo lest they become infertile, a view shared by an Aboriginal Ph.D. and noted culture expert who feared for the fertility of his daughter. Okay, I try to respect other cultures, but I don’t respect stupidity.
That night, atop a hill, we sipped champagne, munched canapes, and gazed over the Field of Light, an art installation of 50,000 swaying lights covering the equivalent of four football fields. The solar-powered spheres are connected by optical fiber threads, and they collect and store sunlight throughout the day. Then, with Uluru in the background, they come on at sunset and create shifting patterns of shimmering color. When it’s dark you descend the hill and follow a wandering path among the lights. A magical end to a very full day.
On our last morning, we woke again at 4:00 a.m. for a sunrise camel ride. It was great! Our line of camels was ready to go when we arrived at the farm, and guides Bert and Pascal helped us to mount. Male camels weigh up to 1,300 pounds, stand 6.5’ tall at the shoulders, and can carry half their weight safely. They rise via an abrupt rocking motion, rear legs first, and the trick is to lean back as they pitch forward to avoid being thrown headfirst out of the saddle. One camel at a time, we managed it and set off, Pascal riding at the head, Bert walking halfway along the line to monitor. Camels prefer a leisurely pace of about 4km, nibbling the vegetation as they go, and during the 90-minute ride the guides regaled us with camel facts and tales.
Since horses couldn’t survive in the Outback, camels were introduced to Oz in the mid-1800s from India and the Middle East for inland exploration and transportation. They carried everything from farming tools, furniture and household goods to telegraph poles. The loads had to be balanced; one camel famously carried a boxed pianola on one side and kegs of water on the other. More than a half million wild camels roam Australia today, and since they can become pests, the government allows periodic, controversial culls. Bert said the reputation of camels being smelly and bad-tempered is unfair. It’s only when people try to raise them as pets that they become spoiled. Our camels had no objectionable odor at all, and except for a bit of curious nosing, they behaved well. After viewing Uluru at sunrise perched on their backs, we ambled back to the farm for hot damper (campfire bread) dripping with butter and golden syrup.
We managed to squeeze in two last programs before departing at noon for the airport. On a native plant walk, the guide explained how to capture an emu by drugging a waterhole with a narcotic plant and clubbing the tipsy animal, who presumably died happy. At a talk on Aboriginal weapons, the speaker explained how different types of boomerangs and spears are used to hunt different animals, then wryly added that Aboriginals today hunt with a gun and a car or motorcycle. At present, the Anangu people own Uluru and Kata Tjuta and lease the land to the Australian governments. Our bus tour guide said the Anangu welcome respectful visitors, not only to provide jobs and income but because it helps keep their culture alive. I feel for that, especially after seeing a willowy Aboriginal teenager wearing short-shorts, black fishnet stockings, ankle boots and a Kurt Cobain t-shirt in the resort grocery store. I don’t blame her—she’s a 21st-century girl—but how do you put the two together?
One final impression we took away from Uluru: the sensation of silence. Though Eric occasionally checked email on the phone, we never turned on the TV in our room or listened to a radio. A landscape like this doesn’t need a soundtrack. At the end of October 2019, the decision was made to close Uluru to climbers, a bucket-list goal for tens of thousands of visitors over the years. Aside from the danger—37 have died and many more have been injured—a path was being worn in the stone. Most of all, this is a place where human ego doesn’t belong. It is sacred. Take it in through your senses, carry it away in your heart.