Sunday, July 31, 2016
We were in for another long day today. We watched the Uluru sunset yesterday, and today’s itinerary called for a sunrise viewing of Kata Tjuta.Our guide picked us up at 6:15 AM and we were off. We shared the van with a family from England and one from Australia. Our guide was an attractive, engaging young lady from Germany named Hannah. I am beginning to wonder if they have any Australian guides in Australia. Yesterday we had Toulouse from France, and this was our second German guide of the trip. Thankfully Hannah was sweet, unlike the Opera House Nazi we met earlier in Sydney.
Enough sweeping generalizations about foreigners and complaining about perfectly nice people!
Kata Tjuta is about 33 miles west of Uluru, so we had a little drive ahead of us. Most of us were pretty quiet during the predawn ride. Perhaps our companions had a rough night as we had the night before.
Kata Tjuta is a series of 36 rock domes rising out of the desert floor. The aboriginal name translates as “many heads.” In fact, the Pitjantjatjara people only have three words for numbers: one (kutju), two (kutjara) and many (tjuta). That sure would make their math class easier.
Kata Tjuta got their “whitefella” name from explorer Ernest Giles, who first saw them in 1872. He wanted to name them after his benefactor and trip sponsor, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, but the Baron owed a favor to Queen Olga of Wurttemberg because she had given the baron his title the year before. The domes became the Olgas. Incidentally, Giles always said that he saw Uluru before William Gosse, but Gosse beat him to naming it Ayers Rock.
All of Kata Tjuta is a sacred men’s site. It is said to be the home of the snake king Wanambi. It is so sacred that women cannot go there, and even today aboriginal women will turn their heads while riding in a car to avoid looking at it. It is still used for Anangu rituals to this day, though what goes on there is a mystery to us outsiders. Our guide claimed that the men’s business and women’s business, though segregated, are considered equal in importance in aboriginal society. I asked her if she was aware of a women’s sacred site as large and imposing as Kata Tjuta, and she was not. She wasn’t aware of any site that men had to avoid looking at while driving by in the car either. I’m not sure I buy the separate but equal theory.
We arrived at the lookout and trudged up a gentle hill to our vantage point. We were not alone. There were probably 75 other tourists from various tour groups vying for position to watch the sunrise. We are old pros and threw elbows with the best of them. I shoved my big camera lens between the selfie sticks and got my shots. From our vantage point, Kata Tjuta was close, but we could also see Uluru.
Uluru looms at sunrise.
My intrepid travelers.
Kata Tjuta glows with the first light of the sun.
Uluru says, “Look at me!”
It only took a few minutes for the brilliant reds and oranges to fade, and we were left with the early morning sun. Our guide rounded us up, and we headed back down to the van. It was a short ride to a rest area with picnic tables and a bathroom. Our guide fixed us a delightful breakfast in the bush. She made hot raisin bread with butter, milk and cereal, tea, hot chocolate and–most important for me–coffee!
A word about the bathrooms: our guide described them as “long drop toilets” and warned us not to lose our iPhones. They reminded me of many of the old-style privies you used to find in parks all over Arkansas and Texas. (You still do in remote areas like Albert Pike.) It was just a bank of toilets sitting over a gaping hole that stretched down, down, down into the darkness. The smell was rank, and I could hear the steady, low buzz of flies. We were told that the flies in Uluru are very oppressive in their summer (our winter), but we did not have much trouble with them. I think they are all hiding out in the bottom of that outhouse waiting for hot weather. We did our business and got out of there!
The desert is in bloom, and delicate beautiful flowers are everywhere.
The Australian family asked Greg to help them take a photo of them with one of their cell phones. Genene and I were resting quietly on the benches nearby, watching the impending disaster. Greg and technology do not get along. After a time, we heard laughter. After several tries, Greg had managed to cut the Aussie’s heads off in each photo. They should have paid attention to who was carrying the big camera on her hip. Finally they saw the error of their ways and motioned for me to come over. I quickly rescued Greg from their mockery and got the shot for them. In return, they took this nice family photo of us.
After breakfast, we took a walk into Walpa Gorge, named for the wind (walpa) that whistles between the rocks. Hannah explained some of the geology to us and pointed out various plants that are used as tools, food and medicine by aboriginal people. Of particular interest to me is their use of spinifex grass. They take the grass and beat it on the ground until the resin comes out as a fine powder. The powder can be heated and will form a sticky blob, something akin to super glue. When cool, it hardens and will adhere anything. Heat it up again, and it gets sticky. Aboriginal people used this resin to make spears and daggers: ingenious! I wonder how they ever discovered that.
Walking into Walpa Gorge.
It has been very wet this year, and grasses pop up from the red earth.
It was very difficult to capture the colors in these photos because the gorge was either bathed in sunlight or hidden in dark shadows. I did my best.
We strolled back out of Walpa Gorge, talking with our traveling companions as we went. We learned that the English family is doing our trip in reverse. They are headed to the Barrier Reef tomorrow. We warned them to stay away from the marine biologist!
As we crossed the final footbridge with only a couple hundred yards left before getting to the car park, a kangaroo appeared as if on cue. He was a little hard to spot against the red rock, and I wished I had my 500 mm lens. He showed out for us, and I think I captured him pretty well with my 300.
It was the perfect end to our morning tour. We had seen Australia’s iconic animal bounding in front of us, wild and free.
We had time to wash up in our room before lunch and shed our cold weather gear. I am amazed by the extremes of this desert. In the morning, you need to “rug up” with coat, hat and gloves. By midmorning you want to get shed of all that, and by afternoon you need to be in shorts and a t-shirt.
This next shot is from our room, and you can just barely see Uluru peeping up over the trees. What I really like in this shot is all of the desert oaks. I wish I could tell my dad about them. He was a forester and loved trees. I can’t tell him, so I’ll tell you. Virtually all the trees in this shot are desert oaks. The name is misleading, for the tree is a kind of pine. Notice how all of the smaller trees are skinny and scraggly. When young, this tree conserves its energy. It stays skinny and small, using all its energy to send its tap root down, down, down. Once the tap root gets down about 80 feet to the water table, the tree can get a big drink and spread out its limbs. See how the canopy on the older tree is spread out. Daddy would have loved to hear about that.
We had lunch in the town square at the Gecko Cafe. I had the “outback” pizza with smoked kangaroo, emu, and other “regular” pizza ingredients, along with another Jack of Spades porter. Greg had a kangaroo burger, and the meat was lean and delicious, something between beef and venison. Genene stuck with the pork loin sliders and a nice, cold Coke.
Can you see the kangaroo and emu?
You should definitely be able to see the kangaroo in this shot.
We strolled around the very small town square and watched two aboriginal girls painting. The artwork was beautiful. Many of the paintings use an intricate pattern of dots, and Kuniya and Lira make appearances in many of the works. I wanted so much to take the girls’ photos, but photography was prohibited and I respected their wishes. I am not sure how to describe them without sounding condescending or patronizing. They have very distinctive, beautiful facial features unlike any person I have seen before and a look in their eyes that seems almost untamed. It was like looking backwards to a time when people’s needs were simpler and more basic. They probably pulled out their iPhones after I left.
The stroll back to our hotel took less than 10 minutes. The noonday sun was hot and our bellies were full. We had another sunset tour scheduled, so we were happy to have the chance for a nap and a break from the action. We went to our room, cranked up the air conditioning, pulled closed the shades, and watched our eyelids for a while.
At 4:00 PM we left again for a very special event. We were taking a camel ride to dinner! Amy the cameleer from Uluru Camel Farms picked us up from our hotel. She was tall, blonde and beautiful. She wore shorts and cowboy boots, much like a saucy Texas girl might. She had a cowboy hat with a feather sticking out, and her iPhone stuck out of her back pocket. She makes her living with Uluru Camel Tours and loves her camels as we would love a horse or a dog.
We got to the farm, had a brief safety briefing, and went out to meet our caravan.
The camels all have names. I was assigned to ride Jill, and Greg and Genene shared a ride aboard Diesel. Diesel made a noise like Chewbacca the entire time he was sitting down. Amy says it is because he wants us to hurry up and get going. The camels get up with their back legs first, and it was a little scary because it is a long way up (though not as far up as the elephants we rode last summer). We held on for dear life as they climbed to their feet. Amy made them get up one at a time, with the camel at the rear rising first. Amy explained that if she stands the camel at the front up first, every single one of the camels will rise at the same time, which is not a good idea with all of us greenhorns around.
Camels are not native to Australia but were imported from Afghanistan, India and Arabia in the 1840s to help with exploration, colonization and settlement of Australia. They were used to help haul supplies and people and were instrumental in construction of the overland telegraph through the desert. The heart of Australia is brutal, and these animals are much better suited to this country than the traditional European mount, the horse, whose sharp hooves get stuck in the sands. The camel has a soft, flat foot. They were born for the desert.
The camels did their jobs well, but with the introduction of the car, they became obsolete. The cameleers turned them loose into the countryside, where they have thrived in the wild. In fact, the feral camels are a problem, as most introduced species are. They eat too much of the vegetation, competing with the native species, and they drink watering holes dry, causing problems for farmers and aboriginal people. They also damage fences, water tanks, pumps and pipes. Their exact numbers are unknown but may be as many as a million. The Australian government does participate in culling operations to keep their numbers in check. Uluru Camel Farms captures a few of them every year for their use.
The camels we rode all started their lives in the wild. It takes the cameleer only about three to six months to train a wild camel. Amy claims that they are as smart as a 7-year-old child and can easily learn. They do not respond well to brute force or fear tactics and must be trained with care and love.
Diesel makes his Chewbacca noise.
Greg mounts first with Amy’s help, and Genene will ride in front of him. I am going to ride Jill, the camel in front of Diesel.
Amy talked non-stop about her camels. They are her babies, and she is passionate about their welfare and keeping. She reminds me of every real horse person I have ever known–wonderful, heart-of-gold, crazy.
In this next photo, you can see Diesel’s pierced nose. You can’t use a bit on a camel as you would a horse because they are ruminants, like cows. They regurgitate a cud all day, and a bit would interfere with that. You can also see the breakaway string attached to the rope. If another camel in the line jerks away, the breakaway rope snaps, and thus prevents damage to the camel’s nose. Diesel actually popped his breakaway rope once during our tour. Luckily Amy happened to be on the ground nearby when this happened, although I don’t think it would have mattered much. He didn’t run. He just put his head down and started eating.
The caravan has a particular order. The lead camel is, of course, a leader and is ridden by the cameleer. She or he is the most trusted camel of the group. The next most trusted camels are at the rear of the caravan. The camels right behind the lead camel are like the kids that the teacher seats at the front of the classroom. They are the cheeky ones you need to keep your eye on. I was on Jill, right behind the lead camel, and Diesel was right behind me.
We arrived at our dinner destination and got the champagne welcome. This is my kind of caravan.
Amy sat her lead camel down and got off. One by one, she came to us and assisted with our “camel down” and dismounts. I said goodbye to cheeky Jill.
Greg says goodbye to Diesel.
We walked up a short trail to our sunset vantage point, where we drank champagne, ate canapés and watched the sun go down on Uluru. The group at the top of the hill was much larger than just our caravan. Many people arrived to the dinner by bus. How boring!
We were treated to an aboriginal dance. I must confess that we all found it a bit underwhelming. For one thing, the men were wearing what looked like Adidas running shorts under their costumes. That took away from the “wild” effect considerably, and there was no possibility of me getting a “peekaboo” under the fringe. For another, and I am not sure how to say this, I wondered how authentic the dance was. Two of the three dancers looked as white as I am. I realize that to even give voice to this is perilous: in America, we have spirited debates about what constitutes being African-American, and the issue is thorny. Greg says that his mother claims to be part Native American, and he always says in reply, “Your grandfather was once scared by an Indian, and that’s as close as you came to being Indian.”
I think his grandfather was once scared by an aborigine.
We watched the dance respectfully. I took my shots. But…I really wish I could show you those girls we saw in the town square earlier today. They were not in any costume, but they looked more “real” to me.
The sunset was spectacular.
We sat down at our table, set under the open stars, and met our dinner companions, all Australian except for us. They wanted to know about Hillary and Donald, of course. It was a fascinating crew. There was a retired miner, a rural health nurse, some city folks from Sydney. Our conversation was lively and easy. They wanted us to tell them about America, and we tried to be good ambassadors. They wanted to know if we are gun owners. (We are.) We wanted to know if they had seen the road trains in the outback. (Sure! Many times. Scary as hell. They will blow you off the road!) One of the ladies from Sydney made me feel so proud. She gave us a little pep talk. She said, “So many people in your country think that American isn’t great any more. That is not how we see you. America is still great. It never stopped being great. We look to you for how a free people should act. Your economy drives the world economy. You are still great.” I wanted to stand up and sing “God bless America” by the time she finished pumping us up. I sincerely hope she is right.
Our dinner was wonderful. It was billed as a three course, bush tucker inspired buffet and it delivered. We loaded our plates ate it all–chicken, beef, kangaroo, emu. Wattle seeds were used in several of the dishes, and every third item had the modifier “bush”: bush tomato, bush yam, bush onion. It was all delightful. As we ate, a man played a didgeridoo, and that was a truly awesome sound. I really felt as if I was in Australia as I listened to its low drone. Our Australian tablemates seemed unimpressed and did not stop talking. The most interesting thing about the didgeridoo is how the musician uses circular breathing to maintain a constant drone. I have never been able to figure out how to breathe like that in years of playing the clarinet, but apparently it involves using air that it stored in puffed cheeks while inhaling through the nose. Our musician had it down to an art, and the didgeridoo hummed constantly.
After dinner, we sipped on port and coffee, and our astronomy guide came out to give a lecture. He was a New Zealander (Kiwi) with the most powerful laser pointer I have ever seen. He could actually point a beam of light up and it seemed to extend all the way to the stars. He got in one joke about how they couldn’t find any Australian astronomers because they were all in the pub. As he lectured, we all noticed how disruptive the people at the table next to us were being. The entire table was filled with rowdy, drunk Italians. They were cackling, talking at the tops of their voices, and being very disrespectful. People at other tables made the “shhh” noise several times, but they continued to laugh boisterously. (I was so thankful that it was not a table of Americans.) The Kiwi continued his lecture for a minute or two, stopped, and said, “Italians…shut up!” The entire audience clapped with approval. I guess the Italians had some shame because they quieted down after that and made no more trouble.
We had no trouble finding the Milky Way smeared in a wide swath across the sky. The night sky was cloudless, and there was virtually no light pollution. The Kiwi was able to show us the Southern Cross, some signs of the zodiac, and even a distant galaxy. At the conclusion of his lecture, we were dismissed to make our way to our last treat: a walk through the Field of Light.
The Field of Light is an art installation by British artist Bruce Munro. He is known for producing large-scale immersive light-based art installations. His work has been shown museums in London and New York, but this is art on a really grand scale. The work uses 50,000 stems covering an area equal to seven football fields. The entire installation is solar-powered, and all the materials are reusable and will be recycled for other installations. The artwork uses over 236 miles of optical fiber. Enough facts and figures: Let’s walk through it.
This next photo just might be my favorite of the night. As we walked through the field, I looked up and found the Southern Cross. Standing there without benefit of a tripod or even anything to steady myself, I pointed my camera at the sky and got a freehand shot of it!
To give you an idea of scale, in this last shot, you can see the silhouettes of a group of people on the right side of the frame. There were a lot of lights.
Buses were waiting for us at the far end of the art installation to take us back to the resort. The day was long, but it was fascinating. I found myself wishing we had more time at Uluru and Kata Tjuta. I would like to simply sit and look at the red rocks for a few days to see if I could gain some enlightenment.
Alas, it is not to be. We get back on the plane tomorrow. We are heading to Kangaroo Island for a few days of relaxation. I think we have earned it!