November 18: In order to travel from Alice Springs to Uluru, I had the choice of renting a car (~$500) or paying for a tour bus to drive me there. I opted for the latter. At 7 am Saturday morning (Nov. 12), I boarded the AAT Kings bus and was driven 5.5 hours (463 km = 287 mi) southwest-ish on the Stuart and Lasseter highways to Ayer’s Rock Resort. Our driver, Colin, gave some interesting narration along the way, and we made a few stops to stretch our legs. We also watched two videos about Australia’s desert area. The evidence of a fluctuating tourism industry was apparent; there were only 12 people on the bus. In one report (Centralian Advocate, November 11, 2011), ~298,000 tourists visited the Red Centre in 2010 compared with ~394,000 in 2001. This decrease has been attributed to a variety of issues: the downturn in the international economy, one airline (Qantas) servicing Alice Springs, and a mis-directed Northern Territory Tourism Commission campaign. Still, it was nice to not have to fight the crowds.
As we drove, I noticed how green everything is! Even though this area is a desert, there is a good aquifer below the ground and ancient water trails are still followed; this is how the Aborigines moved from waterhole to waterhole, never staying long enough to dry it up. The suppy of water is also apparent because the River Red Gum trees (a type of eucalyptus) grow heartily along the dry Todd River (for example). They soak up water at a rate of 1000 liters/day with their extensive root system.
One of our stops was Stuarts Well Roadhouse, where we stretched our legs and could take a camel ride, if we wanted. (I didn’t.) The center of Australia is home to the largest wild herd of single-humped camels in the world. There are over 1 million of them, brought over in the late 1800s to transport explorers and settlers across the country. The camels are somewhat of a nuisance now, eating down trees and shrubs (kangaroos and other native animals just nibble on them). While I was there, a culling occurred, which was the source of a lot of conversation due to reports that some of the animals suffered.
At noon, we arrived at Ayer’s Rock Resort, tourism’s answer to moving visitors away from the sacred sites of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (aka Ayer’s Rock and The Olgas, respectively). Prior to the mid-1980s, people arrived at the airstrip at the base of Uluru and camped in a nearby campground (where the dingo ate the baby). In 1985 the traditional land owners, the Anangu, were granted ownership of the National Park in which Uluru and Kata Tjuta are contained under an agreement to lease it back to the Federal Government on a 99-year lease, and the resort area at Yalaru was created. The park has since been listed as a World Heritage site in 1987 and again in 1994. Many of the areas of the park have strong cultural and spritual meaning to the Anangu and so are off limits; in some places, photography is strictly forbidden. The Anangu have their own explanations (not presented publicly at all) for when and how these large rocks formed, and they forbid any kind of radioactive dating. However, geologists have been able to describe their formations as folding and tilting of compressed rock that was slowly worn away over ~500 million years. Both Uluru and Kata Tjuta are the tips of massive rocks that extend below the ground for up to 6 km (=3.75 mi)!
While at Yalaru, I stayed at The Lost Camel, an okay hotel, with a much-better pool area than bug-control policy. My room was quiet and mostly cool. An easy walk took me to the central shopping area, which contained a few restaurants, several shops, a grocery store, a post office, and a tour bookings office. In an effort to support the local economy and culture, I booked an Aboriginal Uluru tour, but it was cancelled due to “company business”, and I had to find alternatives. My first tour, then, was scheduled for Saturday evening and included a drive to and a walk around Kata Tjuta, followed by a sunset viewing at Uluru. THICK clouds didn’t make me optimistic that I would snap the iconic Rock picture, but I was still happy to be there.
The next day, 1.5 hours before sunrise, I woke up to pouring rain. I had low expectations for my sunrise viewing. I was pleasantly surprised, however, to find the Moon hanging low in the west, giving of just enough light to see Uluru in shadow.
Our AAT King tourguide took us on a base walk around Uluru and shared with us many “children’s stories” about Uluru and the Anangu culture. It can take an Anangu leader up to 40 years to learn the stories and lore that explain and govern Anangu life – even the children’s stories were intricate. However, on the Mala and Mutitjula walka, we learned the story of their creation and about the laws that govern “women’s business” and “men’s business”. In particular, the story of Kuniya and Liru explains how men shouldn’t second-guess the actions and knowledge of a woman!
The clouds cleared out the rest of the day, promising a nice sunset and a clear night sky, so I made my way to Imalung Lookout, in the center of the resort area, to watch the stars come out. I was gratified to see a clear sky and the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, my first view of these nearby galaxies since I’ve been in Australia! I was also treated to a glorious view of Mercury and Venus hanging out over distant Kata Tjuta.
Two brothers joined me for my awesome viewing experience. I don’t know how else to describe it, except to say that I was very much looking forward to coming to Australia simply to see the southern night sky! I was … whelmed. Jupiter was brilliant, as were the many stars in the Milky Way galaxy, hanging low over the northwest. I even saw the Zodiacal Light, sunlight reflected by tiny dust particles orbiting in our Solar System. Orion was upside down, as were Taurus, the Pleiades, and Canis Major, something I’m still not getting used to down here! I picked out Pavo the Peacock and Triangulum Australe, the Southern Triangle, but my eyes kept returning to the clouds, wisps in the south, about 30 degrees above the horizon. The brothers said that if I hadn’t told them what they were, they would have thought they were atmospheric clouds. I continue to be amazed at what I saw… finally!
Okay, this is getting to be long, so I’ll wrap it up… Monday was mostly cloudy again (but it didn’t rain), and the sky cleared up just enough to give me a “sucker hole” in time for my Sounds of Silence dinner, a white-tablecloth dinner of kangaroo, barramundi, lamb, and other delectables under the Aussie sky. The people at my table were fantastic (representing four countries), and I thank all of them for making the evening quite memorable! We didn’t know each other before we all sat down, but we talked and laughed, toasted to Nature, and really enjoyed the evening together, topped by a stunning sunset.
The narrator for the astronomy part of the dinner was a young guy who’s getting his Master’s at Swinburne Uni. He was quite entertaining but the observing didn’t last long enough. 🙁 We had just enough time for a quick look at Jupiter through the telescope and then the buses took us back to the resort.
All told, even with the lousy weather, I am grateful I had the opportunity to take this trip, to venture to Uluru and to see the things I did. The Aborigine connection to the land is strong and we have no way to know about all of their experiences and traditions, but there is definitely a certain vibe around the place – you just have to step back long enough to allow yourself to feel it. For someone who’s always go-go-go, that was a bit difficult for me, but in the end, I was able to take a moment and just appreciate being there.
Map of Australia, showing sizes of the states and territories
More on the formation of Uluru and Kata Tjuta
More on Anangu Tjukurpa (culture)
Aerial View of Uluru
Aerial View of Uluru (my picture)
The many moods of Uluru
Montage of some photos from the basewalk around Uluru
Montage of some photos of Kata Tjuta
Aerial View of Kata Tjuta
Other pictures of Uluru and Kata Tjuta
Video: Views of Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Ayers Rock Resort
Video: Didgeridoo at the Sounds of Silence Dinner
Thanks to Sam Lorkin at Escape Travel for coordinating the logistics of this trip.