The Red Centre is a geologist’s wet dream, full of weird, wonderful and very ancient rocks. DAMIAN HALL didn’t know what was more stunning – all the majestic sights or being shouted at by an irate pensioner for climbing on one.
For a variety of, mostly very legitimate, reasons I get insulted quite a bit. So from “face like a smashed pie” to “skinny, rent-a-haircut, Britpop muverf*cker” (nice guy, our Editor), I’ve been called a few things down the years. But I’m certain “stupid ning-nong” is a new one.
At least I assume, by the state of the irate, purple-faced, female pensioner facing me, that it’s an insult. I’m pretty sure her outburst is something to do with the rock I just climbed. It’s strange which rocks get people’s backs up…
On my five-day safari round the Red Centre I saw some incredible sights, usually involving earth-shudderingly spectacular and irresistibly enchanting rock formations.
Arguably the most special memory was watching the sun spring up over Kata Tjuta (also known as The Olgas). Kata Tjuta, as those of you familiar with local Aboriginal dialect will no doubt know, means “many heads”. And indeed, from a distance the remarkable rocks resemble the heads of giants, as if frozen mid-meeting by some Tolkien-esque wizard.
The local aboriginal people, the Anangu, believe the rocks were home to the all-powerful Wanambi snake during Dreamtime (the world’s creation) and the humungous domes total 36 and are thought to be 600 million years old. The highest, Mt Olga, outreaches Uluru and the formation is significantly more sacred than its more famous neighbour.
Steve, our absurdly knowledgeable guide and former geologist, explained the rocks host “men’s business”. The details of men’s business are kept secret, but you imagine they’re something more edifying than the drinking beer, talking footy and scratching of nads that constitutes men’s business for most white fellas nowadays.
We had woken up at 5am to get in prime position and it was well worth it. It felt magical to stand among the sacred domes as the sun flooded oranges and pinks across them. Passing them the next day Steve pointed out how similar they look to Homer Simpson lying down.
MEETING THE KING
Watarrka National Park (or Kings Canyon) is awe-inspiring too. After a knackering 20-minute scramble up the side, we marvelled at another stunning sunrise. We spent the morning there, walking around the canyon’s orange rim and posing for photos on the edges of dramatic drops.
We checked out the Garden Of Eden – a gorgeous rock pool hidden away like a secret oasis. And the Lost City; the longer you stare the more the domes flitter between being ancient ruins, giant beehives, big piles of pancakes, or even large cow pats. Then we saw a deadly king brown snake, slithering speedily along, not too keen on socialising with a band of tourists.
Nights were spent round the campfire, supping coldies, exchanging stories and bad jokes with a host of different nationalities. Then sleeping in permanent bush camps, usually after a long, hard, wondrous gawp at the stars; night skies in the outback are like nothing I’ve seen before; the stars are so much brighter and more plentiful, I feel like demanding a refund when I return to Britain. Some nights we heard dingoes howling in the distance, and midnight toilet trips were interrupted with the visit of hordes of beautiful wild horses. On another night, one half-asleep English woman was startled to bump – almost literally – into a very large bull.
Days were spent driving through the dusty barren redness of postcard Australia, alongside the ancient West MacDonnell Ranges – thought to have once been taller than the Himalayas – and between the Northern Territory’s rock stars. Some believe the great southern land is the oldest land mass in the world and it’s not difficult to imagine it is, such is the ancient, timeless feel of the magical, alluring landscape.
Another day was spent visiting the incredible colours of the Ochre Pits (fantastically coloured chalk used for ceremonial body paintings, medicines and, of course, men’s business), Ormiston Gorge, and the much-pictured Ellery Creek Big Hole, making a splash in the soothing water irresistible. That night we stayed at Wallace Rock Hole Aboriginal Community, home to the Arrernte people. We were taken on a guided walk by Colleen, shown tools, weapons, hand prints on the rocks (a kind of Aboriginal “I woz ere”) and other old carvings. We were also told a poignant story of how the tragic stolen generation affected the community. I was dying to ask Colleen more about men’s business, but Steve had warned us this was the only thing she wouldn’t want to talk about.
Another day took us to the stunning Pine Valley: a beautiful combination of rustic red rocks, calming rock pools and unique – the only red cabbage palms in the world – lush foliage.
Later we stopped off for some bush tucker. I was keen to try some, but when Steve coaxed a witchetty grub out of a bush root, it was just too much. For the authentic experience, they must be eaten raw. And live. Only two of our group had the bottle to dangle the wiggling little creature between their jaws, before biting it in half. For the record, it tasted “a bit like egg”.
And then of course there was Uluru. Because images of the monolith are so ubiquitous, you can feel like you’ve already seen what is arguably the world’s most recognisable natural object. You haven’t. It looks different to every picture I’d seen. Different and better. It feels like meeting a celebrity, and finding them far more interesting and attractive than you had ever hoped.
The 100 million year-old rock is arrestingly majestic and irresistibly enchanting. At one-and-a-half miles long and 348 metres high, it was bigger than I had imagined. On a walk around the base, each new angle cast it in a new form; it became a loaf of sliced bread, a bundle of boulders, a natural pyramid, a row of imposing tractor tyres, a giant slug (Jabba the Hutt anyone?) and countless other things.
Watching Uluru slide through an improbable array of reds, oranges and browns at sunset was sensational. We supped wine and munched on cheese and biscuits as the magnificent spectacle unfolded. Uluru belongs, legally and spiritually, to the Anangu people, who have lived in the region for thousands of years. The rock is inextricably bound to their cultural heritage and they, quite reasonably, would rather you didn’t go trampling all over their sacred things. It doesn’t seem like much to ask.
You can have a wonderful, enriching and memorable time – quite possibly the most memorable time in Australia – at Uluru and leave with your conscience, and someone else’s ancient culture, undisturbed. Yet still, bewilderingly, people feel compelled to climb. I didn’t. But I did climb up the side of the gorgeous Ellery Creek, for a glimpse of what lay beyond, which while very beautiful, is in no way sacred.
It was, however, very slightly dangerous, or at least to one unaccustomed to scrambling up things – grumpy pensioners who say “I wouldn’t have gone to save you if you’d fallen” when no-one would have asked them to, for example. Oddly, she was cross – not just cross, fuming, smoke was coming out of her ears – because I, an experienced climber, had, well, done a bit of climbing.
There was no-one at the bottom of Uluru calling climbers “stupid ning-nongs” or even “you culturally obnoxious prats”. Odd that, I thought. And I laughed. Which didn’t go down too well at all…
The experience: http://www.saharatours.com.au[Sahara Outback Tours] have five-day Red Centre Camping Safaris. For more information, Ph: (08) 8953 0881