This week I’m traveling half way across the continent (and country) of Australia to Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock) (pronounced oo loo roo) located in the Northern Territory, about the size of Alaska populated by less than 250,000. My journey started early with a walk to Central Station to catch the train to the Sydney Domestic Airport. However, I boarded the wrong train! With the help from a nice lady on the train I got turned around to make my way back to Central Station to catch the correct train to the airport. Fortunately, I had plenty of time so it didn’t turn into a crisis situation. Once at the airport, I lightened my load by leaving one (stuff I didn’t need for the next three days) of my two bags at a storage place in the terminal and then headed to the check-in desk for Virgin Australia. Here’s what I saw when I arrived. After the electronic check in, the cue to drop bags was unbelievably long! Don’t worry, Virgin Australia called out flights that were leaving soon and asked people to move to a new cue. After moving to the new line, I talked with a nice lady who said she flies all the time and hasn’t seen anything like this at the airport, she wasn’t sure what was going on. We talked about where we were going, she told me that she grew up in the Outback, the nearest town was six hours away! Anyway, I dropped my bag, went through security and had adequate time to find my gate.
The plane was full with passengers headed to the Ayers Rock Airport, the closest airport to Uluru. Some folks fly to Alice Springs, a town of about 22,000 with lots of hotels, restaurants, museums and shops. However, it’s a 4.5 hour drive one way by car or bus to Uluru so it’s a long way to ride for a glimpse and a couple of hours at the big rock.
When I planned this excursion back in May, I wondered why the room rates and plane fare was so high, the week before and the week after were much more economical. Well, it wasn’t until I arrived at the Ayers Rock Airport and the Ayres Rock Resort complex near Uluru that I learned the reason. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was closing the Uluru “climb” thirty-four years to the day after a chain was installed to make the climb easier for visitors. The closure came several years after signs were placed asking people not to climb by Park Management on behalf of the Anangu, the Aborigine peoples who consider Uluru sacred. The number of visitors climbing has been dropping for years mostly out of respect for the indigenous people and the recognition that the climb is quite dangerous. The news of closure brought people out of the woodwork to make the climb before it closed and the chains were removed. The prices were high because of good old supply and demand. But I digress! Keep reading for the rest of story.
The only place to stay near Uluru is the Ayres Rock Resort with it’s five hotels, a campground, several restaurants, a grocery store, a post office, a couple of art galleries and some tourist shops. The most economical accommodation for me was the Lost Camel. The room was decent with a small frig, a great shower, and decent air conditioning for the price of over $800 for a three night stay.
Upon checking in, I couldn’t take my eyes off the big screen behind the desk. I want to experience this natural icon as much as I could.
Since my room wasn’t ready, I explored the complex and made my way over to the Town Square to score some lunch and figure out a plan to see the sights. The Ayres Rock travel center is located on the Square so I popped in there for some ideas. I found I needed to either rent a car or purchase passes on the hop-on hop-off bus in order to get close to Uluru, Kata-Tjuta and King’s Canyon, all on my list of things to see and do. Renting a car seemed out of the question so I whipped out my credit card and bought the sunset, sunrise, sunset Kata-Tjuta, and King’s Canyon tickets.
Since it was a very hot afternoon, I decided to take the last bus out of the resort for the sunset. There weren’t many people on the bus so I was able to have a nice chat with the driver, wish I would have caught his name. He gave me a lot of pointers of things to do and what not to do while in the area.
The driver made the full route around the base of Uluru picking up a few passengers before pulling into the sunset viewing area. There were a few buses and some cars in the parking lot but it was by no means full. The driver suggested taking the path leading to the top of the dunes for the best photos. He was right. While waiting for the sun to set, I struck up conversations with some of the other travelers, a couple of young ladies from Germany, a guy from Japan and a couple of photographers. But I was always keeping an eye on the sun and guessing when the best light would shine on the big rock. Below is the progression of my photos that evening. Some were taken with my DSLR Canon 7D II and some with my iPhone 11 Pro.
And behind us, the sun was giving off rays across the red desert.
As we were leaving the viewing area, I noticed this thing sticking out of a thick wooden post. At first I thought it was some plastic toy stuck in the core to keep people away. However, on closer inspection, I discovered it was a living breathing critter. He must have been waiting for us to leave so he could go hunting for dinner.
After the sun set, the bus went directly back to the resort where I had a bit of dinner so I could get some sleep before the early wakeup to observe the sunrise at Uluru. I boarded the bus at 4:50 AM and was surprised to see that it was quite full. Again, we had a really nice bus driver, this time a woman. She told me that she had been in the Outback for the past five years after moving from the urban/suburban areas of eastern Australia. She said that she loves it out here, enjoys her job and has made enough money to buy a house in Alice Springs.
The sunrise viewing area (on the other side of Uluru from the sunset viewing area) parking lot was crammed with buses and cars. The main path led to a viewing platform that rose above the landscape, however it was packed with people jostling for a good spot to see Uluru and shoot photos. So I passed, electing for the area below the platform where there were people but it wasn’t wall to wall and four deep.
While waiting, sometimes the best photo is the one behind you!
Much like the sunset, I took a series of photos as the sun rose over the horizon. It was interesting to note that we quickly ran out of the golden light for photographs, it soon became too harsh.
After re boarding the bus and negotiating the traffic jam in the parking lot, the driver made her stops around the base of Uluru. I decided the night before that I would disembarked at the Mutitjulu Waterhole and walk the base to Mala Carpark, a distance of about a mile. Fortunately, this walk was on the shady side as the temperature was quickly rising.
This photos showed cave writings and pictographs. A lot of these cave drawings have been lost over the years until protected by law and a stout fence. I didn’t meet many people along the way, a couple of runners and a few other hikers.
Here are some of the scenes I saw along the path.
There were a couple of areas along the path to Mala where visitors were asked not to take photographs of cultural sensitive areas which I respected.
One of the heads up I received from friends who had visited Uluru earlier that week was to make sure to purchase a “fly net.” To say it was well worth the $10 AUD is an understatement. The bush flies don’t bite, they are seeking moisture so will fly up your nose, in your ears, any place where a little sweat accumulated. Not a fashion statement just a practical way to keep from going totally berserk while out for a walk!
As I neared the Mala Carpark, I looked up and saw the many “ants” (as they were described by the indigenous peoples) making the climb, one after another. I talked with a woman that said her friends were making the climb and one dropped her sunglasses, asking her friend to look for them as if they would survive the fall!
The Carpark was a zoo with cars and buses parked all over and there was a long line waiting to begin the climb up Uluru even though the signage asked them not to climb.
Uluru rises over 1100 feet above ground level. The first couple of hundred feet are steep without out any handholds to help along. The chain starts further up, one side going up and the other down. I talked with someone that said a few people were taking their babies on the climb. Another story that emerged was that a guy was carrying his 4 year old son who was crying hysterically because he was afraid. I ask you, who does that? Others were totally unprepared, not enough water or improper footwear. I read an article quoting a fellow from Japan who described the climb as terrifying rather than moving or exhilarating!
Here’s short video to show the climb in action.
In my humble opinion, I have to say that I’m disappointed in the people that chose to climb Uluru when the local indigenous people asked them not to. Was it so they can brag to their friends and family that they made the climb before it was closed? This is a sacred site to them, to me climbing it would be like people climbing/standing on the alter at St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City. One of the days leading up to the closure, Park authorities closed the climb due to both high winds and heat (over 100º F), most of the climbers immediately left the park without partaking in any other activities such as hiking or visiting the Cultural Center. In other words, they seemed only interested in the climb not the natural history, culture and environment that surrounds the rock. “That’s all I have to say about that” to quote Forrest Gump.
At the Carpark, I caught the bus over to the Cultural Center to learn more about the indigenous peoples and score some coffee and breakfast. I listened to a talk by one of the park rangers and watched a video about the religious and cultural significance of Uluru and the surrounding lands. They had a nice gift shop with a good selection of appropriate gifts for friends and family.
Later in the morning, I caught the bus back to the resort for a much needed shower, clean clothes, and a little rest before the late afternoon tour to Kata-Tjuta, the subject of next week’s blog.
Until then, happy travels!