Saturday, July 30, 2016
Our day started at the butt-crack of dawn. Our driver was to pick us up at 5:15 AM, so we had to have our bags packed and ready for the porter at 4:45. I never sleep too well on “transfer” days. I am worried that I will oversleep, worried that I will miss the plane, worried that the driver won’t be on time, and so on. I slept some, stared at the clock some and waited for the alarm.
We got up at 4:15, splashed water on our faces, brushed our teeth, and zipped up the bags. Thala Beach Resort packed a boxed breakfast for us to take away, and it kept the wolf away. Thankfully there was no Vegemite in it!
Our driver arrived promptly and drove us back down the winding road to Cairns. In Arkansas and Texas, you drive slowly in the predawn hours out of fear of hitting a deer. In Australia, the danger is running into a kangaroo. We did not come close to hitting any, but we saw a few poor, unfortunate dead ones on the shoulder of the road. Like many of our drivers, this fellow asked about our upcoming election. Australians are following the US election with a great deal of interest, perhaps with more interest than we Americans. They seem to regard it as something of a soap opera or entertainment. What will Trump say next? Will the Russians crack Hillary’s email server? Stay tuned for another episode of “As the US Burns.”
Our flight left on time at 7:30 AM, and we were in the air for about three hours. There is a 30 minute time zone change between Cairns and Uluru so we set our watches back a half hour. We will lose it again later when we get back to Sydney!
The airport at Uluru was very small, and we walked across the tarmac to the terminal. Signs instructed us to throw away whatever produce we were bringing in. There is a lot of concern about spreading fruit flies throughout Australia. I didn’t have time to put that last breakfast banana into my belly, so I tossed it into the bin. The baggage claim area was small, and for once our bags came out quickly. A large AAT Kings bus was waiting to take us to our hotel, Desert Gardens. There are half a dozen hotels and resorts in the small township of Yulara, which mostly exists to serve tourists who want to see Uluru. There are only about 1,000 full-time inhabitants, making it the fourth largest city in the Northern Territory, after Darwin, Alice Springs and Katherine. Back in 1963, only 5,462 tourists visited Uluru. Last year, there were 279,794 visitors in the national park. Tourism has definitely found its way to the outback.
We arrived in the late morning to find that our room was not ready yet. We had a tour beginning at 2:00 PM, and the front desk told us that they could probably get us into our room for a quick freshen up before then, even though check-in was not officially guaranteed until 3:00 PM.
We took advantage of some of the down time to do laundry.
We were excited because use of the washers and dryers was free. The front desk even provided us with laundry packets! We met a very nice lady from Melbourne who was retired and making her first visit to Uluru. We teased her about not having seen her country but then had to take it back when she told us she had seen the Grand Canyon in the states, and I had to admit that I had not. She was very jovial, and it was fun to just sit by the washer and pass the time. She taught us a new Australian expression. We told her that we were going on a sunrise tour of Kata Tjuta in the morning, and she told us that we better “rug up!” That means to put on some warm clothes.
After our clothes were done, we wagged our bags full of clean laundry over to the café at the hotel and got some lunch The best part of that was my discovery of the James Squire Jack of Spades Porter. It was very Guinness-like. The rest of the lunch was unremarkable. We did get into our room with a very little time to spare. We had about 40 minutes–just enough time to gather up our backpacks, slather on the sunscreen, shoulder the camera gear and head out. We were off to Uluru.
Our guide arrived promptly in a comfortable van. She was a lovely young French woman from Toulouse, whose name none of us can now remember, so I will call her Toulouse. I must confess an initial bit of disappointment at having a young French lady as our Uluru guide. I guess I was hoping for another Crocodile Dundee type or perhaps an aboriginal person with a boomerang and a didgeridoo. There was another Australian couple in the van, along with a guide trainee. My disappointment quickly waned, for Toulouse was an engaging and enthusiastic guide.
How can you describe Uluru? Facts and figures do not begin to do justice to its looming presence on the red landscape, but here goes: It’s 2 1/4 miles long and 1,141 feet at its tallest point. The huge slab of rock is believed to extend below the ground for another 3 miles. It is an enormous monolith sitting in the middle of nowhere in the desert. It reminds me just a bit of Enchanted Rock in central Texas, only on a much larger, grander, colorful scale. I found this graphic in one of the free tourism books and I think it is illustrative.
The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park expands across more than 327,414 acres of Australian outback. Uluru is a World Heritage listed site. The area holds a deep cultural significance to the indigenous people, the Pitjantjatjara and the Yankuntjatjara, collectively known as the Anangu. They believe that they are the direct descendants of the beings who formed the land and its physical features during the Tjukurpa, sometimes called the Dreamtime or the creation period. Before the Dreamtime, the world was featureless. (I was reminded of Genesis: “And the earth was without form, and void.”) The stars of the creation show are a python, an emu, a blue-tongued lizard and a poisonous snake. They traveled across the land, creating features like Uluru. I don’t think my Western mind is able to comprehend the nature of Dreamtime. Apparently it is a misnomer to even call it “Dreamtime”: it is neither a dream nor a time. Aboriginal people describe themselves as being able to connect to it. Perhaps after a few drinks, I might be able to understand it better.
Uluru was known by the aboriginal people for many thousands of years, but it got its “whitefella” name from explorer William Christie Gosse, who spotted it in 1872 while on a surveying expedition in the outback. He named it Ayers Rock, in honor of the Chief Secretary of South Australia. Gosse just happened to be engaged to Ayers’s daughter. I guess he was trying to impress his in-laws-to-be. Gosse shouldn’t have bothered: while he was out exploring the outback, his girlfriend found another beau and jilted him. I’ll bet he spent a lot of time thinking, “I wish I had named that blasted thing Gosse Rock!”
Uluru sits on land traditionally owned by the Anangu. In fact, at one time the area was what was essentially a reservation for the aboriginal people, who described being “herded” onto the desert land after the arrival of Europeans. In the mid-20th century, the government of Australia realized the significance of the place and the potential for tourism and carved out Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the rest of the desert and declared them a national park. Predictably, they ran the aboriginal people off of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, causing a political outcry that lasted for years. In a high point for aboriginal rights, the government of Australia passed an act to give the Anangu people their land back in 1985. The event is called the “Handback.” Five minutes after the Handback took effect, the traditional owners signed a 99 year lease back to the Australia Parks and Wildlife Service. As a condition of the lease, no scientific studies of Uluru or Kata Tjuta are allowed. Much about the Anangu culture remains unknown, and they still conduct ceremonies on their holy site. Three communities of aboriginal people live in the region, and four indigenous men, four indigenous women and three “Australians” serve on the council that oversees the park. According to Toulouse, everything is going “quite well” with this arrangement.
This one might make the Christmas card:
It was a gorgeous sunny day, and the desert was in full bloom. Toulouse explained that it has been an unusually rainy year, resulting in a bloom that hasn’t been seen in years.
Toulouse drove us all the way around Uluru. She told us that certain parts of Uluru are considered to be so sacred by the Anangu that they request that these areas not even be photographed. In fact, the entire north face of Uluru is sacred ground, so I have no photos of that area. Toulouse stopped and told us the story of Liru and Kuniya:
During the time of creation, the Tjkurpa (Dreamtime), there was a woman python named Kuniya. She was a good snake. She set her eggs at the base of Uluru (and you can see the eggs, large boulders, at the base of the north face) and went out hunting. She had a very bad feeling and so returned to check on her eggs. They were fine, so she went back out. She discovered her young nephew who had been speared and left to die in the outback. Spearing is an aboriginal custom. It is a way of punishing a young man for violating tribal rules. It seems quite harsh, but the tribe is not without mercy. The person who administers the spear to a youth is also responsible for tending the child’s wounds and nursing the youngster back to health. To spear someone and leave him for dead is a violation of aboriginal law. Kuniya was furious about her nephew’s injury and abandonment and went out looking for the culprit. She searched the desert and found Liru, the venomous snake. He was responsible! An epic fight ensued. Kuniya’s first blow with her stick was a glancing one and only scratched Liru. (You can see scratches in Uluru that depict this.) Her next blow to his head resulted in Liru’s demise. You can see a wavy line depicting Kuniya slithering in. You can also see dark spots, the blood of Liru, and the head of dying Liru depicted in the rock. (I had to squint really hard to imagine this.) I respected the wishes of the Anangu and took no photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it. Toulouse explained that these stories have several layers of meaning for the Anangu. First, the young boy learns that misbehavior can earn him a spearing. Another lesson to be learned is that the tribe will (or should) always care for you, even if you have misbehaved. A third message is about the importance of family–the aunt took care of her nephew and battled on his behalf. The final, and perhaps most important message, is this: never mess with a woman! As Toulouse delivered this message, the men in our group nodded thoughtfully. Greg whispered to me that he already knew that one.
Toulouse showed us the sacred men’s sites and sacred women’s sites. Men cannot even cast their eyes toward a woman’s site, and vice versa. As you may imagine, men’s duties and women’s duties were strictly segregated, and the duties of each remain secret to the other. (That is why four aboriginal men and four aboriginal women serve on the council; so that the secret duties and places of each are fairly represented.) Many of the secrets remain unknown to Westerners, but some things are obvious: women gathered plants for food, while men hunted. In the women’s sites, you can see flattened areas of rock where they pounded seed into flour paste. The men’s areas had drawings on the wall that depicted watering holes and information about the land and hunting areas. All of us ladies were joking about our secret women’s business. I joked, “It’s all a secret until the credit card bill comes in.” The men all cackled at that.
Climbing Uluru is not prohibited, but it is frowned upon. As I have already mentioned, Uluru is sacred ground and it is disrespectful to crawl all over it, willy-nilly. Also, the Anangu people as custodians of Uluru feel great responsibility for us, the “guests” they have invited onto their land. They feel great distress if anyone is injured on Uluru, and the climb is strenuous. Many people have had heart attacks or heat stroke while climbing it, and others have fallen to their deaths. The back of the park entry ticket says, “It is requested that you respect the wish of Anangu by not climbing Uluru.” We respected their wishes, but we saw plenty of others who did not. The climbing area is scheduled to be closed by 2020, so if you want to violate Anangu custom, you better hurry up and get your ticket to ride.
This picture gives some perspective on the size of Uluru. You can see people climbing at the base, and you can also see people at the handrail. Follow the rail (the line visible in the center of the photo) up to the top and you can just barely make out a person standing there, a tiny white dot against the sky. That “dot” person is only about 1/3 of the way to the top!
We went inside the caves and overhangs.
In this photo, you can see some of the cave drawings. Aboriginal culture is the most longstanding one on earth, having 50,000 years of continuous existence to its credit. We expected these cave drawings to be thousands of years old, but Toulouse disabused us of that notion. She said that many of the drawings were quite recent. In fact, some of the people in the village can remember when they were painted.
The black streaks down the rock come from the water that runs off when it rains.
The late-day light was different and cast strange shadows on the rocks.
We stepped into this cave, which would have been a place for families to gather. The drawings demonstrate lessons to the children by their parents.
The circular feature is a watering hole.
Kangaroo tracks are depicted below. Can you see how the long foot hops?
Like other aboriginal people, the Anangu do not have a written language. Their traditions are passed along through oral storytelling, cave-painting, and song.
Greg got this next photo with his iPhone set to panorama. I thought it turned out great.
We took a short walk down to one of the largest bodies of water at the base. The rainwater trickles down through the rock and into the pool, making a refuge and watering hole for animals.
We retired to our sunset observation post, along with a few hundred other vans and cars. There was plenty of room to spread out, so we all had our own view. Toulouse poured sparkling wine and set out fresh bread with olive oil and spices. Our tour was finished, so we were just having a grand time relaxing and joking with the other couple, Toulouse and her trainee. We sipped our sparkling wine and traded travel tales. That’s always a favorite pastime. The people you meet on the road can often give you the best ideas about your next destination. Genene got to practice a little French with Toulouse. She told Genene that her accent was quite good: Go Awty!
The lore about Uluru is that the rock changes depending on the time of day and the light. We were absolutely enchanted to discover that this is true. As an amateur photographer, I have already discovered the difference in morning light, mid-day light and evening light, but Uluru puts all of that on a different level. We dipped the bread into the herbs and olive oil, sipped the wine, and watched the show–the same show that humans have been watching for 50,000 years in this spot.
When the last light faded, we piled happily back into our van and headed back to town. We were very tired after the early start and full day of activities, and we were ready for some chow. The town of Yulara has only a few restaurants, and Toulouse suggested that we try one in the town square. She dropped us off and we bade a happy goodbye to our new Australian friends and wandered into the restaurant. We were immediately disappointed because the restaurant was a “cook your own food” place. No one had told us that. Our resident cook, Greg, is normally game to stand at the barbie at any time, but tonight he was not in the mood for that. We are on vacation! We didn’t want to stand in line to buy raw meat and then stand over the hot coals. We wanted to sit on our butts after a long day of travel and touring and be served!
Yulara utilizes a free bus system. The resort buses make a continual loop around, so it should have been easy enough to hop on and go back to the hotel for some grub. We found the bus waiting for us and hopped aboard. It just sat there, and so did we. We were pole-axed. We had been up since before 5 AM. We had ridden an airplane, done laundry, walked around at the base of Uluru, watched the sun go down, and drunk a bunch of cheap sparkling wine. We were DONE. After about 8 minutes, during which Greg, Genene and I simply sat in a mouth-breathing stupor on the bus, all of the riders began to stir around and murmur. One guy finally said what we were all thinking: “Hey, mate, what’s with the bus?!!!” The driver admitted that something wasn’t functioning right and he was waiting for help. Why didn’t he tell us that??! We all hopped off, grumbling. One local fellow told us he would walk us across the trails back to our hotel. (As I mentioned, the resort buses travel around in a big circle around what is basically an enormous median, an island of land criss-crossed with trails, and our new friend was proposing that we walk across the middle of the island.) He reassured us that he had a “torch” (flashlight). Brilliant! Off we went, blindingly following and trusting a stranger we just met on the bus. Anything was better than continuing to sit there starving to death. About four minutes in, as we and other bus-mates all walked with our new friend through the pitch black night on a winding trail in the middle of the desert, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect spot to be relieved of our wallets. It was just a passing thought, and I did not want to telegraph fear to Greg or Genene so we pressed on. Happily, our young Samaritan was totally legit. (Thank goodness there are still good people in the world. Greg admitted later that he had the same bad thought.) Our friend showed us the way to our hotel, and along the way, we got to admire the most beautiful night sky. The Milky Way looked as if it was painted across a jet-black canvas.
We wandered into our hotel dining room, and the maître d’ informed us with a certain haughty air that we could not dine there without reservations. I always hate this kind of brush-off, especially when you can look behind the person and see a dozen empty tables. Then he offered officiously, “Would you like to make reservations for tomorrow night?” Genene and Greg have been watching a lot of Fawlty Towers lately, and the first thing that came into all our heads was, “No, you silly twit!!!” We stifled the urge. Instead Greg and I said in unison, “No, we don’t want reservations tomorrow. We are hungry now.” He gave us an impassive stare, and we trudged away to our rooms. We walked past the dining room windows, counting the empty tables as we went. I resisted the urge to stick my bare buttcheeks up to the window.
Thankfully, there was a room service menu. We got into our robes, washed the red dirt off our bodies, and pounced on the room service tray as soon as it arrived, scarfing down burgers and fries. In retrospect, we would have been better off cooking our meal on the Barbie in town, but then we would have missed the walk-about in the desert, the Milky Way and the silly maître d’. And after all, isn’t that what a vacation is all about–adventure!
We won’t get much rest tomorrow. We are going to watch the sunrise from Kata Tjuta and continue touring the park.