Where is the ‘real Australia’? As an Australian it’s a hard one to define. Is it the bogan yelling at me with her unabashed and unfounded knowledge of aircraft refueling while I update my status on the bus? Is it the many different cultures which live together in harmony, for he most part, in the suburb of Sydney? Or is it found in the red earth we walk upon in Central Australia’s beating heart.

As the only Aussie on a three-day tour of Uluru (even the tour guide is British), I think about this a lot. I suppose I’ll just cop out and say it’s the sum of all these parts. Copping out after all, is an Australian tradition.

It’s the crack of dawn and I’m on a mini-bus in Alice Springs, on day one of my tour to the Red Centre’s rock stars. As the sun comes up over the dusty land, we all write our names and nationalities on the window in colorful marker pens. I draw a map of Australia, putting assumptions that I am German to the rest. One girl reveals later, “We all thought you just liked Australia…You’re really from here?”

Yes. I feel somewhat embarrassed that I have never visited the heart of my country.

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Of Mice and men

Myles, our tour guide, or “Mice” as he scrawls on the windscreen, for the foreigners who cannot pronounce his name, runs us trough the ‘big three’ we’re visiting: Kings Canyon, Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) and Uluru. He tells us that after this tour, Uluru might not necessarily be our favourite. It’s the Paul McCartney of the group – the most famous – but possibly not the best.

After several hours of driving, we arrive at our first destination, Kings Canyon, and commence the three-hour walk up Heart Attack Hill. The hill totally lives up to its name and the 20 minute hike nearly kills us all. Each carrying three litres of water in our backpacks, we feel like camels, mine with an extra hump for the oversized camera I am also carrying.

On the way, we learn some bonus American history. Did you know the Grand Canyon isn’t actually a Canyon, but a gorge? Well, King’s is definitely a canyon and it’s impressive. The loose red rocks under our feet, stinging sun and biting horse flies do not detract from the feeling of wonder at its rim.

Myles does a quick Lion King impression, holding a stuffed toy lion in the air from a protruding rock platform. It’s very Disney meets Star Wars around here. We see stripped back gum trees that look post-apocalyptic. Indeed, some we’re told, have sacrificed ‘limbs’ to survive in what seems to be insufferable conditions,

It’s at least 33C° and Myles keeps stopping to tell us about the porous sandstone rock. I make friends with the pale Irish girl and we huddle under the sparse ghost gum trees. Once we hike to the top, the view is spectacular.

Red rocks as far as the eye can see, deep caverns and remnants of waterfalls. We make our way to a cliff where we lie down on our stomachs and peer over the steep drop. It’s too late though, I can’t get “Hakuna Matata” out of my head.

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Pity the Fool-uru

On our way back to base camp, that evening we stop to collect firewood for the night’s bonfire. The guys in the group show off by kicking down trees and sawing away, while the weaker few collect grass. I find some branches that have the fire power of a newspaper, but Myles tells me I should probably leave them behind.

Back on the bus we watch the sunset, witnessing the pink, blue and white hues like faded French flag at one point. As it gets darker I see a large rock in the distance which looks like a massive oil tanker at sea. It’s Uluru! I wonder why our chatty tour guide doesn’t point this out, maybe he’s just so used to it.

Some people are sleeping, some look confused and reach for their cameras. I feel a little bit ripped off that I have seen it prematurely, I wanted the three day tour to be a lead up to the big unveiling of ‘The Rock’.

When we arrive at camp Myles asks if anyone saw Uluru. We exclaim a collective yes!

“No you didn’t”, he grins. “That’s Mount Conner, commonly known as ‘Fool-uru’”. Dammit, even the token Aussie was fooled.

We are sleeping at Curtain Springs, a 416,400 hectares working cattle station owned by the Severin family. We take up a tiny portion of their land and built a fire as we crack open a few beers. We sleep under the stars in swags, our faces exposed tot ge chilly nighttime conditions of the desert in winter. The ‘billion star hotel’ as Myles calls it, lives up to it’s rating, although the shooting stars somewhat marred by the old snoring guy on the tour.

You can’t have it all.

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Valley girls

The next day we’re up early to visit Kata Tjuta, which is a indigenous word meaning ‘many heads’. The huge 36 boulders are actually larger than Uluru at 450 metres high and formed side by side. It’s kind of like a dreamtime Mt Rushmore.

We do the Valley of the Winds walk, which is a refreshing change from yesterday’s ‘death valley’. The earth is redder and there is detail everywhere in the conglomerate rock. It’s another three-hour-walk and along the way we learn more about the era when indigenous people roamed the land. We take a break to sit in a natural amphitheatre, where young boys once displayed their courage and kill slaying kangaroos while their elders watched on. It would have been a like a real-life 3D movie.

It’s finally time to see the Uluru in the flesh. Driving along Lasseter Highway that afternoon, we see the island mountain in the distance. It’s a great vantage spot to stop and take a picture, but that’s not what Myles has in mind. We must first visit the Cultural Centre and learn about the history and cultural significance of Uluru.

Inside we look at indigenous art and watch video footage of the traditional owners of Uluru, the Anangu people, talking about what it means to them and why we should not climb the rock,

One of the most interesting things at the centre is the ’Sorry Book’. This is a book of letters by people who have taken rocks from the Uluru and, in their opinion, received bad luck because of it. One woman blames her husband’s cancer on the photos she took while they were on their honeymoon. Astonishingly, one woman takes credit for the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami because of the rock she took from Uluru three days earlier. Some people simply say sorry for climbing the rock and wished they had known better. It is truly powerful stuff to read.

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Reaching third base

After this we make our way to the base of the rock where we learn even more about why we shouldn’t climb. This time it’s the safety reasons and we’re told the number of deaths (36) attributed to Uluru. Apparently there are many more fatalities, but because they didn’t happen literally on the rock, but later in hospital, the government believes Uluru shouldn’t be held responsible.

Uluru has been leased to the government by the Anangu for 99 years, which makes sense now. According to them, the number of climbers needs to be under 20 percent of the visitors for the climb to be closed. “Our if four more people die, whatever comes first”, says Myles. At this rate it will be closed in a year, as last month it was the first time it was under 20 percent. 

At dusk we head to Sunset Point to join the bus loads of tourists who are there to watch the many changing colours of the rock. It’s a packed scrum of different demographics, the AAT crew are right next to us with their white tablecloths and champagne, while we throw back Tooheys New and two-minute noodles. But we’re all here to see the same thing, all 500 of us Or should I say, see the same thing trough our camera lenses. We watch Uluru go from dusty orange to pink to bright orange, and then dark as the sun goes down completely.

The pink clouds above are a sight to behold.

The next day, after a camp fire, beer bowling and relentless snoring, we awake at 5am in pitch black darkness to make our way back to the sunset spot – this time to see the sun rise over Uluru. This morning we almost have the whole area ourselves, as it turns out there’s a different sunrise spot on the other side. Take this as an insider’s tip: swap sunrise spots for sunset and vice versa. Although there aren’t as many colours at sunrise (maybe they’re on the other side and you shouldn’t listen to my advice) the view is spectacular.

So we’ve seen you at sunset Uluru, and we’ve seen you at sunrise, now we’re seeing you up close. If the former two experiences are like two magical dates, doing the base walk around Uluru is like getting to know the real rock. And let me tell you, she ain’t pretty close up as she is from distance.

What a Monet.

The two-hour, 10 km walk around Uluru shows just how big the rock is. Up close you can truly appreciate her scale, but also her detail. No one tells you how weathered Uluru is, or how eroded –  it almost looks like coral. No one tells you about the black water marks, which look like the stains in an ld bathroom. But this is what makes it so great, the real Uluru.

It’s not the same shape you image either. From distance it’s is more like scoops of ice-cream. A rusty rock road –  perhaps that could be a new Messina flavour.

A Dutch guy on the tour chooses to do the walk barefoot, to feel some sort of connection with the indigenous people. It doesn’t surprise me. Earlier he was the first to put his hand up for a witchetty grub. He’s here to get his money’s worth. He is determined to go the whole way around the rock, even though he is continually wincing in pain from the gravel, thorns and parts of the rock with metal grates.

“I want to do it like the Aborigines”, he says with gritted teeth.

“Well you should do it naked then”, a Canadian guy retorts. I walk off before I can find out if he does. I’ve seen Uluru un-cut, that’s enough real Australian for one day.

Details: The three-day Rock Tour costs $355 (including park fees). Tigerair flies Sydney to Alice Springs. Fares start at $89, one way. therocktour.com.au; tigerair.com