The pilots like to put on a show as they fly towards Connellan Airport. We’ve all been staring blankly out over the dusty nothingness for some time now and while it’s a novelty at first, it starts to get a bit repetitive. All of a sudden the Captain announces that everyone should take a look out of the window if we want to see something cool. Now I’m awake again, I know what’s coming and I can’t help but feel a bubble of excitement start to churn around in my stomach.
As the wing dips slightly, we all see it. You can’t miss it: Ayers Rock, or Uluru, the proper Aboriginal name. Rising up out of the ground, like, a giant, er, rock. Let’s be honest, that’s what it is. Although seeing it from this angle is something else entirely. There is nothing even remotely close to it for kilometres on either side, and even though we are thousands of feet in the air, it is impressively enormous.
The plane lands on a strip of runway in front of a tin-shed-looking building that can only be the airport. I hope. As we trail off and across the tarmac behind the other passengers I realise it must be, since we are all heading in that direction, trailed by more flies than I have ever seen in my life. Luckily, I have been forewarned about this, so I am armed with an industrial can of insect repellent meant for use in tropical zones. I am Australian and hardcore.
After collecting the baggage and identifying which bus we should be on, I begin dousing myself with the Aeroguard. I look up to see the portly bus driver loading our bags and chuckling, “that isn’t going to help you – the flies around here eat Aeroguard for breakfast.”
I smile politely, surely he is exaggerating?
A 20-minute bus ride later and we arrive in Yulara, a self-sufficient mini-town made specifically for tourists visiting Uluru and other local attractions. The area is completely isolated, which is the theme of the outback, but there is accommodation to suit all budgets, from a fancy hotel with a swimming pool to a backpackers with a communal shower block. Of course, we are rocking out at the latter, the Outback Pioneer Lodge.
Everything in Yulara is serviced by a shuttle bus but I’m told the main square is within walking distance across a large bushy plain towards the other side of the town. The best way to explore any new place is by walking, so off we go. As we kick our way through the ankle-deep dry, spiky brush, it dawns on me that snakes are probably pretty common here – suddenly we decide to speed up the exploration expedition.
There is a post office, small grocery store and restaurants surrounding a water feature, and even though reason tells me there are probably thousands of visitors here at any one time, it all seems eerily quiet.
“I bet the action is back at the Outback Lodge in the evenings,” pipes up my travel buddy. We can only hope.
At the crack of dawn we are getting up to watch the sunrise at Uluru, so we grab some breakfast snacks from the supermarket and a large stick to bash our way back through the brush to the safety of the Outback Lodge.
Apparently there is a killer view from a lookout that’s a short walk behind where we are staying. Taking a freshly cracked NT Draught beer and a cardigan just in case, I trudge up a small sandy hill to check it out. There it is again: Uluru. Well and truly commanding the landscape from whichever angle you look at it.
We grab a seat to watch nature put on a show for the crowd that’s gathered. A slight breeze is blowing but the heat coming off the land is still scorching. The bright gold and deep red colours that appear as the sun begins to set are amazing. They reflect off the ground and shine through the bare, jagged branches of the nearby trees. Even though the temperature is more comfortable now, residual heat makes a low shimmer on the ground. I take a swig from my cold brew and stretch out on a bench to take in the view.
Shadows are forming on the big rock in the distance and its earthy red colour transforms through all the colours of the sunset until it’s almost entirely shrouded in darkness, and then suddenly it’s night.
So long Skippy
My mate wasn’t kidding about the action being back at the Lodge. Dinner is a group affair involving shared barbeques, a salad buffet and long wooden picnic benches. The choice at the “butcher” station is kangaroo, emu or boring old beef. I’m feeling adventurous and whisper “sorry Skippy” as he hisses back at me from the hot metal. It’s a bit odd eating one of the stars on Australia’s coat of arms, but I power through – it doesn’t taste bad actually. A little bit tough, and no, not at all like chicken.
Soon enough live music starts and after a few more local beers, everyone is feeling loose. Skippy is barely digested before the one-man entertainment gets everyone up for a rendition of “Give Me A Home Among The Gum Trees,” including hand actions. After a few rounds everyone has the hang of it, they’re even getting creative with their hips for “the old rocking chair” bit. We’re all friends here and if we aren’t, then we will be by the end of this song.
It’s a bit painful to wake up in the pitch black after a night on the tiles. I roll out of bed into the cold air and drag myself out to a waiting bus. There is a tiny bit of comfort looking around at all the bleary-eyed, yawning people joining me this morning.
Luckily when we arrive at the big rock our driver offers hot tea, and I dig out my pre-made cheese sandwich from the depths of my backpack to scoff while we wait for a photo opportunity.
Uluru is looming over us, and from this angle the sun will appear from behind the waiting crowd. As it begins to rise, Uluru starts to change again, this time dusty cool colours appear on its deep ridges. It may be just one rock but Uluru has so many faces to show off. The sun is barely above eye level before that familiar heat starts to creep in.
“We had better get going if we want to make it around before midday,” chirps my fellow explorer. Ah, yes, I’d almost forgotten that I agreed to circumnavigate this thing. Once upon a time it was common to climb to the top of Uluru and maybe take a rock as a souvenir. Now visitors are encouraged to skip that since it has deep spiritual significance to the traditional owners of the land. The Northern Territory postal service regularly receives rocks returned from all over the world by superstitious tourists. Most of the time it isn’t open to climb anyway due to heat, rain or high winds.
Lord of the flies
Just as we are about to begin our nine kilometre trek, someone begins yelling behind us. A man is shouting, “get down” over and over again. About halfway up Uluru a tiny speck is racing towards the top, clearly ignoring the fuming park ranger yelling at him from the bottom. As amusing as this is to watch, he won’t be coming down for a while, so off we go.
The base walk around Uluru is an interesting way to learn about the Aboriginal culture and history of the land. Even though it looks somewhat symmetrical from a distance, no two angles are the same up-close.
The dirt path curves around the massive base, sometimes diverting in towards a uniquely shaped nook or cranny used for native ceremonies. There are certain places that are sacred and it is clearly marked when pictures are not allowed.
As the morning wears on, it gets ridiculously hot and thankfully my backpack consists of three one-litre bottles of water. It seems extreme, but I’m already one down and we haven’t even made it halfway.
The killer flies have returned and are trying to invade every hole on my face, they are as desperate for water as I am.
I remember some comical hats I saw with full-face netting at the gift shop near The Outback Lodge. It isn’t so funny now. I curse myself for not buying one as I wrap my travel-mate’s smelly T-shirt around my face.
By the time we pass the halfway mark, I am having visions of falling to the ground, my airways blocked by flies, scrambling across the red dust before the vultures circling overhead swoop down on me. Those vultures are actually just normal birds but I could still use some shade and a rest.
We trudge on and reach the pickup point in almost three hours. I run Rocky Balboa-style to the finish line and pump my fist in the air. I made it.
Adventure Tours do 3 day tours of Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon.