We’re part of a backpacker tour headed to Uluru, what was once known as Ayer’s Rock – the rock that sits almost in the dead centre of Australia.
We’ve been driving for 5 hours, and have seen three things: red earth, dead trees, and road. On and on and on – the landscape is a permanent loop of three ingredients.
I’m beside myself with excitement when I spot something new:
“Did you see that tire?”, I say to Rose, as if I’ve just laid eyes on an ancient artifact.
“OMG. A beer bottle! You see it?”. I repeat this maybe once an hour – and Rose, when she’s not sleeping which is where I normally find her, replies:
“You could bury someone out here and they’d never be found”.
I look at her slowly, slightly concerned. “UM. Do you want to talk about something? Here. I’ll start things off: I think you may be reading too many serial killer crime novels”.
She smiles, and looks out the window at the horizon. Two minutes later, she’s pointing:
“There it is!”.
It’s an amazing sight, I think made more remarkable from the absence of everything around it. Out of miles of red earth, as flat as a frying pan, a huge massive blob rises, sitting there looking like a football (the American version) designed for giants.
The thing is: while of course everyone is busy clicking away with their cameras, the images can’t convey the transition in the landscape from nothing to a huge something. There’s no signs or hints there’s a rock coming, then Ta-da. Where the hell did this thing come from?
As we approach, we also learn it’s not alone. An adjacent rock formation is equally amazing to see: called Kata Juta – it sits a few kilometres away from Uluru, and has the appearance of a series of spaceships.
Our tour is a three day deal, where we’ll walk around both Kata Juta, Uluru, and another outcropping called King’s Canyon. Both nights we’ll sleep under the stars in the outback version of a sleeping bag – a Swag – basically a canvas body bag that holds a sleeping bag.
On our first night out under the stars, our tour guide, seeing that our entire group had no idea what they were doing, decided to have some fun for himself. As we all laid out our Swags, people began asking, if there were snakes and dingos around. After hearing some howls in the distance, one question was answered, which then left snakes.
Our guide then explained, if each one of us took a stick and drew a line around our Swag, we’d create an uneven piece of dirt, which a snake would notice and retreat from. Everyone looked at each other, wondering if it was a load – some even openly critical: “Should we chant as we do it?”.
Yet, for all the criticism, the amazing part was that everyone did it, even as they complained they didn’t think it was accurate – no one wanted to take anything for granted.
Once everyone had drawn lines around their Swags, our guide went for the icing: “If you’re really worried about it, you could sprinkle salt around your Swag to also keep scorpions away”.
Immediately, in one fell swoop, the entire group traded in their critical faculties for a salt container, and poured it around their Swag. To an outside observer, each person’s sleeping spot now looked like a shrine or the site of a voodoo ritual with a body bag surrounded by a halo of markings in the earth and a moat of salt.
It wasn’t until the next morning that we realized we were a punchline. After we kicked away our salt lines after breakfast, to preserve the joke for future tours, we headed to King’s Canyon – a red rock outcropping that reminded me of images I’d seen of the Western US (Arkansas, Nevada). The views were phenomenal:
We were out for three hours, and it was ultimately an exercise in taking home poster photographs. You could more or less point your camera in any direction and come up with an amazing piece of earth or odd formation:
After touring the Canyon, we headed to the first of the two main events the next day, bright and early to beat the sun: Kata Juta. Immediately, as we approached, I couldn’t believe the scale of it:
It’s so big that I found sitting between these huge formations, while walking across red earth, felt like we were in our own Mars landscape – with the one exception of a blue sky that was so deeply blue and rich, it almost seemed like a Pantone colour.
But, the big draw, even though it’s not the same size as Kata Juta is of course Uluru. And, it didn’t disappoint. Up close, I thought it was even more impressive. We set out and walked around it’s base, which, to give you an idea of its size, is 10km.
And, side after side revealed something unique, including various spots where you can see Aborigine cave drawings, and other sacred spots where they continue to hold rituals today.
Interestingly, it’s not merely the name change of the rock back to its Aboriginal name that is the only instance where cultures seem to be crossing, and in some ways creating tension. On paper, Uluru is Aboriginal land, and they’ve leased it to the Australian government for 99 years, allowing tourists to see it.
However, as part of this deal, the Australian government also allows people to climb the rock, while Aboriginal groups oppose it – and have huge signs at the entrance to the climb, asking people to reconsider and respect the spot as being sacred ground. Yet, tour group after group bypass the sign and wander up – which is no small feat, since the pitch is really steep. Apparently 37 people have died climbing it – but it continues, despite this and despite Aboriginal opposition. (note the guy below wearing “Just Do It” shirt at the entrance to the climb, who’s holding his back, seemingly reconsidering Nike’s advice)
It’s a weird scenario – since the Australian government is saying it’s okay. The more conscientious tour organizers side with the Aborigines and don’t encourage their groups to climb up, even though it’s sanctioned as being okay by the caretakers of it (Aus Gov’t).
In any case, Uluru itself was amazing to see, and while I’d initially said going out that, I’m sure I’d never go back – I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t mind seeing it again.
And that brings us back to our furry friends. On our first night in a hostel in Alice Springs, we heard something about a wallabie feeding area. We wandered over, and it turned out – there was an area where wild wallabies, come down at dusk off the mountain, looking for food. It was really cool – they lined the hills and bounded down, one after the other and in unison, allowing us to feed them.
Later that night, we walked back and spotted some kangaroo bouncing around the edge as well.
That soon brought an end to our red earth and rock experience – next we were headed to a land of asphalt, glass towers and symphony orchestras. While Canada boasts a hockey player of the same name who’s made an impact on the international stage, Australia’s city attracts people from around the world, which after a few days there, was easy to see why.
Next stop Sydney.