Raging heat, more flies than you ever wish to encounter and camping in a semi-barren wasteland – there are many people I know who would find the Aussie outback the worst place imaginable (and people who don’t know me as well as they think they do who would put me in that category as well). But quite honestly, there are few things more relaxing in this world than lying by the lying embers of a campfire in a swag (think canvas sleeping bag with a tiny mattress inside), drifting off to sleep with an uninterrupted view out to the stars and a soundtrack of cicadas.
If you haven’t guessed already I’m in [READ: was, just a little behind writing] the Aussie Outback, the Red Centre, almost slap bang in the middle of this enormous country, and it’s hot. About 43ºC hot. Sometimes more. And it ‘gets down’ to about 25 at night. There isn’t an if, but or maybe about water bottles and suncream here – it’s the sort of place where you drink about four litres a day and can still feel dehydrated.
So why on earth do so many people come here then? To see one of the natural wonders of the world: Uluru (or Ayres Rock, if you prefer).
This stunning beacon breaks the horizon like a hot knife through butter. The startling ever-extending flatness of the countryside suddenly broken by an enormous mound of orange. But is it a rock? No. In fact it’s layers upon layers of sediment, forced out of the ground at about an 85 degree angle. It may look like one piece at a distance, but up close you see the layers, nearly perpendicular to how they ought normally to lie. And it’s an iceberg as well. Well, not really, but despite raising out of the ground about 863 metres there’s actually another 4 km (yup, FOUR KILOMETRES) hidden below the dirt.
Oh, and it’s not actually orange either. It’s a grey-ish-blue (you know, rock coloured), but painted in layers of iron-rich dust that has been blown over it for centuries. So basically everything I thought I knew about this not-actually-a-rock wasn’t true. Certainly an educational day.
Of course the area – whilst a mere 200 years old to ‘us’ – has been the traditional lands of indigenous people for millennia. There is so much folklore about the area it is unreal, and to think we only know a tiny bit (we have not gone through their culture, where you learn piece by piece over a lifetime), it seems so alien.
The Uluru National Park, whilst leased to the government is technically aboriginal land. And you are very much made aware of that. In fact all the ‘you are welcomes’ seem distinctly hollow – I got the impression that it was with some irritation that there’s a cultural centre at all (it is pretty much a money making scheme, I also feel). And whilst in the grand scheme of things it is a truly petty complaint, the Cultural Centre has such appalling grammar in all its displays, it seems almost intentional. It is, of course, not difficult to see why tensions exist (the stories of interaction through most of Australia’s history is more than pretty horrific), but at the risk of sounding like a terrible human being, between here and Alice Springs, my brief encounters with Aboriginal culture have left me with a less than positive thoughts or impressions.
Of my time in the area around Uluru it was not sunset – as you might expect – that was the most special, but sunrise. OK, so I see very few of these in my regular life, but the early start to get to a
slight hill slight rise in the sand was worth it for what was, quite frankly, one of the most breathtaking views I have ever seen in my life.
The sunrises were special, that’s for sure, but being hundreds of kilometres (literally) from civilisation, the night skies are absolutely incredible. A band of the Milkyway reaching across the sky, the Southern Cross and Polestar clearly visible the night through; I found it easy to understand why people get obsessed with the stars. Perhaps now is a good time to confess that I am an utter idiot. I have a filter on my lips that usually stops the world knowing it, but sometimes that filter fails, and I come out with things like ‘how surprising that all the constellations in the night sky are upside down!’ All a matter of perspective, and perhaps some idiocy as well.
Whilst the natural landscape captures most of the attention, let’s not forget that there are some residents that live out in the wild. It’s a good job that we weren’t there on a wildlife spotting adventure, because all we saw was one feral camel, but we did stop on one roadside farming station that adopts orphan kangaroo joeys and rears them to be released back into the wild. If I could have one, I totally would.
Whilst it may seem like Uluru is the only thing out there, it is indeed not. Kata Tuja and Kings Canyon (why the latter is still known by its English name when the others have resorted to their originals, I have no idea) are both here too, albeit each separated by a large amount of sand and scrubland. Our trip included hiking in both of these – early morning hiking, if you don’t start before 10 am you don’t do it that day because it is simply too hot – and they were both utterly spectacular. Almost more so than their famous friend. Both of these actually are rock, which makes me feel slightly better about my woeful geological knowledge, both formed as the tectonic plates that once met in the centre of Australia collided and pushed each other about (yes, that’s the technical description), both of which now have been weathered by time into something incredible.
The Outback was a lot more fun than I was expecting (especially after my encounter with Alice Springs). It of course helped, having booked it as a tour, that there were a great group of people and a knowledgable driver, but bouncing about dirt roads in Echo, our monster of the ‘4×4’ described in the brochure, and the starkly stunning beauty of the place is pretty hard to be down on. I think perhaps the right phrase is awe-inspiring.