Ayer’s Rock, Uluru, Australia’s Red Center, the Outback: as a child, these places conjured up images of enigmatic landscapes, harsh living conditions, lost Aboriginal culture and dangerous wild animals! In fact, my picturization of Australia as a whole rested almost solely on these cliches, and thus motivated my insistance on visiting this area, despite it being far out of our way, and expensive!
We flew from Cairns (where we had relunctantly returned our little van the previous day), to Ayer’s Rock airport (Yulara). The view from the plane in itself was worth the ride! The sky was clear so we could see far across Australia’s nothingness: reddish-brown expanses distorted by the hands of geology and time, criss-crossed by sparse rivers and empty roads. A few coal mines here and there, reaching deep into the loins of Earth. A vast salt pan.
It turns out there is one cheap way to visit Ayer’s Rock: rent the smallest car possible, drive, eat, and sleep in it (with some degree of discomfort), and stay the least time possible! We were ambitious too: we would take this opportunity to visit King’s Canyon, another beautiful sight, good for hiking, 300 km away.
We landed around lunchtime and hopped onto the ‘airport hotel bus’, under false pretences (it’s only free for hotel guests!). This took us into the ‘town’ of Yulara where we picked up our rental car, had a quick bite to eat and stocked up on food to keep us alive for 4 days. The food would be minimal as we had no way of cooking anything, having not found any gas bottles compatible with our camping burner, and having no means of keeping the food cold.
To keep up with the tight itinerary, we headed straight to Kata-Tjuta (the Olga’s) for some late-afternoon bush-walking.
This group of monoliths is located 40 km from Ayer’s Rock, within Uluru National Park. They are just as impressive, but look different: the rock-face is made of a rougher aggregate of red sand and gravel, and many round boulders have dropped off from it, laying haphazardly in the surrounding bush, leaving behind a grid of holes like gruyere cheese. One of these crevaces looked suspiciously like a female sexual organ!
The walk to the few viewpoints, water-holes and the circuit around the bigger monoliths took us about 2 hours and were very enjoyable. The scenery did not disappoint: fine red sand, pretty flowers hidden in the tall grass and dry bush, and birds and butterflies fluttering about.
That evening we drove to an ‘unofficial’ camping spot off the side of the road west from Yulara (a turn-off to the right about 8km from the airport only sign-posted by a rubber tire), which had been recommended to us by the ‘helicopter doctors’ we met on the Hinchinbrook trek. We drove into one of the last free spots, just in time for a beautiful sunset viewed from the top of a sand dune overlooking Ayer’s Rock.
Fortunately, neither ‘setting up camp’ nor making dinner took too long: we feasted on a tuna, corn, tomato and gherkin salad on the back seat, before settling into the front seats for the night. This choice of uncomfortable sleeping arrangement was mainly motivated by our unwillingness to face the desert night’s notoriously freezing temperatures, sleeping outside in the tent! The one advantage to having a clear windscreen as a roof: we slept, litteraly, under the stars, and the Milky Way was particularly bright tonight.
We would get an early start the following morning, Renaud being up at dawn to watch another beautiful display of colour and light at sunrise. Today we would be doing the famous 10 km walk around Ayer’s Rock. I couldn’t wait to get up close to this wonder of Nature.
The park’s Visitor Center was not especially informative, mainly recounting old Aboriginal legends of how the Rock was created, and the events that ensued since, between mythical god-like animals and ancestral beings. We were hoping for a geological explanation too! From what we have understood Ayer’s Rock is just the tip of the iceberg of a giant sandstone layer that lies beneath ground, and possibly even connects with the Olga’s. It is the biggest Rock in the world, composed only of sand fused-together millions of years ago by geological pressures. But still today, science has difficulty explaining precisely how it formed, and why it is so unique in the world, which only adds to its enigmatic, almost ‘meta-physical’ aura.
We started to walk from a less crowded side, circling around the rock slowly to take in its huge scale and appreciate the few rays of sun gradually piercing through the grooves etched into the edges of its otherwise perfectly-smooth dome. It was an easy, flat, peaceful walk. The Rock was surprisingly not a perfect oval, the photos we see are misleading. We noticed the black algea deposits which line the grooves, widening towards the bottom, spilling into shaded water-holes.
Here a small continuous trickle of water flows, as the Rock naturally collects condensation from the cold air in the morning. We tried to imagine what it must look like during a rain-storm, great waterfalls gushing from its flat top. A few Aboriginal rock paintings depict their respect and gratitude for these precious, sparse, sources of water.
We had already decided not to climb to the top. For the local Aborigines, the Rock is a sacred landmark, a testiment to the divine, and so, it is strongly recommended to show respect by admiring it humbly, from the bottom. Also the trail to the top is often closed for safety or climatic reasons (and today was no exception). Towards the end of the loop, we noticed more and more strange natural features, carved into the rock face: a man-height cave that looks like a tidal wave, and another ‘gruyere grid’ in the shape of a human skull.
We ended the day with another photogenic look-out over the Rock and the Olgas.
We proceeded to tonight’s rest area, in the same direction as last night, but further along the road. We were trying to get a lead on our long drive to King’s Canyon tomorrow. It is ill-advised to drive at dusk or night-time in these parts, as startled animals are a major cause of road accidents. This camp stop was perfect anyway: overlooking Mt Connor to one side, and a large salt pan to the other, we enjoyed yet another spectacular sunset from the top of a sand dune.
We also met an interesting Indian family, living in Sydney. They were contagiously positive, open and friendly. Following their initiative, we participated in a short meditation practise together, and did find ourselves more relaxed and inspired by our surroundings afterwards.
Tonight we went to sleep with full bellies, mashed potatoes was on the menu for dinner! We had kept a packet of ‘just add water’ mash leftover from the Hinchinbrook trek, and had managed to cook it earlier in the day using our camping pot and the gas barbecues provided in the picnic area next to the park’s Visitor Center. The mash was even still warm from the heat of the day spent in the car!
Our first visit the following morning was located right next to the rest area. We crossed the road, walking 5 minutes through red sand and bush to access the impressive salt lake hidden behind the dune. Coupled with the view over flat-topped Mt Connor, this lanscape looked alot like the Death Valley in California, US.
The salt pan was still muddy in parts and the white salt blended with the red earth created a pretty orange hue around the edges of the lake. A lonely island stood in the middle. We finally got our pristine salt-lake experience: no people or bad weather to spoil it this time!
We moved on to our next destination: King’s Canyon National Park. We arrived in early afternoon. After a memorably expensive fuel top-up, and noodles for lunch (more leftovers from the trek and use of the picnic-area barbecues), we did a short walk to Kathleen Springs water-hole, which was dry.
We continued to the park Visitor Center, arriving just in time for an informative talk outdoors, by a park ranger, on the history, conservation efforts, land management struggles, and fauna and flora in the area. He also talked about the natural cycle of bush-fires and vegetation regrowth, explaining how humans can positively or negatively influence their outcomes. He also introduced us to the indigenous animals: dingos, and, by order of size, kangaroos, euros and wallabies, and a whole plethora of small mammals (rabbits, marsupials and rats). It is especially interesting that many man-introduced mammals, left to their own devices, have now become wild again and even pests: ferril cats, horses (called ‘brumbies’, we had spotted some while driving) and yes, camels! Wild dogs also breed with dingos creating a mixed-race prone to diseases and ill-equipped for life in the wild. They are scrawny and have thin multi-coloured coats (which can even be black). The only way to tell them appart from a dingo is that they bark and dingos howl. We spotted a few dingos at a picnic area the following day.
That night we treated ourselves to a pricy paid campsite, also because there was no alternative. After enjoying, yet another, beautiful sunset, we worsened our financial situation at the camp’s restaurant, not resisting the call of a cold beer and barbecue buffet!
We made up for this the following morning when Renaud ‘found’ an abandoned gas bottle which we could use with our cooker, for our following meals. Renaud slept in the tent that night, as temperatures had become more bearable, and the confined sleeping arrangement in the car, quite the opposite!
We left early the following morning, to beat the heat. We had a long hike ahead, from the base of the Canyon, to the rim, around it and across the the other side, and down again.
The photos speak for themselves. Clear views on the green valley below, giant boulders balancing precariously over perfectly mirror-flat cliff faces. Geology has left quite a unique print on this area.
We enjoyed a cool break at a water-hole inside the canyon, which provides sustenance to a whole eco-system aptly-named the Garden of Eden. This place was teeming with life: throughout the walk, as well as the spectacular views, we admired small plants, flowers, lizards, birds and butterflies. Our favourite bird has to be the ‘punk’ pigeon, also known as spinifex.
We completed the walk in early afternoon, and after lunch, resumed our long drive back to Yulara. We stopped at another free campsite on the way, with another sand-dune treating us to a beautiful view and sunset.
The following morning was all business: packing up our stuff, making breakfast and lunch out of leftovers, staving away the flies, cleaning the car, and driving back to the airport. We hardly had time to appreciate these pink cockatoos gathered around the water tap at our campside that morning.
We returned the car with a little relief: looking forward to taking a shower, eating a hot meal and sleeping in a real bed at our hostel tonight in Sydney. The flight there offered a bird’s-eye view on Ayer’s Rock, the different angle showcasing its odd shape. Visiting these remote, enigmatic, natural features had been a highlight of our time in Australia.
We left relunctantly, but full of expectation as we were demoted back to backpacker status, and would soon be changing world regions again, heading for Indonesia.