03/01/2009 - 03/02/2009 110 °F
We arrived in Alice Springs, stepped off the plane, and immediately were hit by the hot, dry air of the desert. It was broiling outside. I picked up the rental car (making sure it had air conditioning) and we hit the road. We'd be coming back to Alice Springs in a couple days, but we wanted to make Uluru (Ayers Rock) before sunset.
After a quick stop to load up on groceries, we headed down the only highway leaving Alice Springs (the Stuart Highway I mentioned in the previous blog). It is a very straight road as there are really no obstructions to divert its course. The landscape was much different than the other areas of Australia we had visited. Instead of large eucalyptus trees, small bushes and sparse grass covered the horizon. Off in the distance you could see the remains of an old mountain range. The horizon would change very little in the next 5 hours as we continued driving.
As we drove, short ranges of mountains could be seen on either side. These mountains used to be as majestic as the Andes, but after millions of years these mountains have been worn away to just their inner cores. Uluru was formed from the same process, as was also Kata Tjuta. Since there has been no volcanic activity, no new mountain formation, nothing really to replenish the nutrients in the soil, the land is more barren than soil back home. There is very little rainfall in this part of the country, so the plants and animals have adapted to finding water and escaping the sun. Although we hoped to see kangaroos on our drive, the wildlife was nowhere to be seen in the middle of the day (other than the dead kangaroos on the side of the road).
About two hours into the trip, we made the only turn of the journey onto the highway leading to Uluru. Shortly after turning, we saw Uluru in the distance! We were still 120 km away, but it was already visible. We pulled off at a lookout and started taking some pictures.
It wasn't quite as I expected, but that was probably because we were so far away. The first thing we noticed after leaving the car were all the flies. Once again, Australian flies are not scared of being swatted and fearlessly crawl into your eyes, nose, mouth, and ears (while seemingly leaving the rest of your body alone). Parched by the dry air, they seek any form of moisture. Jason had bought a hat with a fly screen, and although at the time we all made fun of him for buying it, we were all jealous that he could view the scenery without worrying about the flies. The excitement of seeing Uluru was overpowered by the urge to escape the flies, so we jumped back in the car and headed on our way.
The road started to curve away from Uluru, seemingly taking us in the opposite direction. After 20 minutes of driving (and protests from the backseat drivers that I had missed a turn on a stretch of road with zero intersections), I pulled off at a gas station to refuel and check the map. We escaped the heat and the flies and went into the outback bar for a cold beer. 3 of the 5 seats were taken, so the 5 of us stood up and looked at the pictures on the walls. Dawn pointed out the picture of Uluru that I had seen plenty of times while researching the trip, and then pointed to a postcard showing the mountain we saw earlier that day. It was labeled Mount Connor. The mountain we had thought was Uluru was actually just a similar rock formation (I'd like to think we weren't the first people to make that mistake). After buying fly screens for our hats, we got back into the car and tore down the road to make the real Uluru by sunset.
After another couple hours on the road we finally reached Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The sun had already started to set and we still had to drive another 20 km to the sunset lookout point (they position the park entrance far enough away so that you can't see The Rock without paying the entrance fee). Shortly after passing through the park gates we caught our first glimpse of Uluru.
We had made it just in time for sunset. We snapped some pictures and took in the awesome view. Apparently sunset and sunrise are the best times to see The Rock because it changes colors as the sun moves. There are a couple moments when the rock glows red just before the sun goes down (the rest of the colors just seemed to be Uluru getting darker as the light decreased with the setting sun). In the pictures where we don't have our hats on, try to imagine the agony of holding still while flies crawl into your nose and ears.
We headed back to our lodge, drank a couple of the local beers, and hit the sack so that we could see Uluru at sunrise in the morning.
The next morning we once again tore down the highway to get into the park before the sun was up. We just barely made it.
The Rock went through the same color transformation before settling into its maroon daytime color. The red color of Uluru actually comes from the iron that composes part of its structure. The iron rusts, causing The Rock to appear red. At Uluru, everything seemed to be red. The red sandy dirt, the rocks, the dust covering the car all had the same reddish tint. As Uluru and the surrouding mountains were worn away by the rain and wind, the red shavings were scattered across the landscape. Other than the cool color, Uluru is also special because it is one solid rock (there are no cracks or seams). Uluru dominants the horizon as it is the only object that doesn't hide from the sun. The Aboriginals used The Rock for many religious ceremonies as well as a gathering place. Portions of Uluru are still closed to tourists (and even members of the opposite sex) because they are sacred. In several areas pictures are not allowed because an Aboriginal may accidentally encounter one of the site intended for the opposite sex.
Once the sun was up, we decided to walk a few of the trails. There is a climb up the mountain, but the local owners do not want tourists climbing on their sacred site (it is also a very challenging climb and over 30 people have died in the ascent). We had discussed whether we would respect the wishes of the locals or go ahead and do the climb anyways. It ended up not mattering because the climb was closed due to strong winds at the summit and a forecasted temperature above 36 degrees celsius. Instead we took advantage of the several trails that surround the base. We read about the Aboriginal stories explaining the various features of the rock, walked to several water holes (since there are no seams in the rock, all the water runs off its side into pools when it rains), and viewed the Aboriginal cave art.
Once the sun rose high enough that it chased away the shade of Uluru, we hopped back in the car to check out the visitor center and then drive an hour further west to see Kata Tjuta (The Olgas).
Kata Tjuta means "many heads", which is an accurate description of the range. It is also the remains of a larger mountain range. The good thing about driving through the desert, you get plenty of time to take in the view before you even get close to what you are viewing.
After arriving at a place to park the car, we made our way into Olga Gorge. The face of the mountain was much different than Uluru. While Uluru was generally composed of smooth walls forming ridges, the Olga Gorge looked like it was made by putting boulders in concrete to form a giant wall. The walls of the gorge went straight up, once again giving us a break from the brutal sun. The floor of the gorge was hard to walk on because the rounded rocks slightly smaller than our feet were cemented in place, never providing a flat surface to walk.
It was about a 90 minute hike to the closed end of the gorge. After a quick break to rest our feet, we turned around and hiked back to the car. We made a quick stop at the Olgas Lookout to take a few more pictures before leaving the park.
After leaving the park, we stopped to refuel at Yulara, the closest town. You had two options when refueling, opal fuel and diesel fuel. Our map made a point to say that opal fuel was a replacement for unleaded gasoline. Worrying that I was about to damage the engine of the rental car, I paused before refueling. After a moment's hesitation, I realized that we were at the only gas station for a hundred square miles, it was opal fuel or nothing. Later I found out that opal fuel was actually developed to combat petrol sniffing. Apparently out in the middle of the desert where there is nothing to do, people actually sniff the vapors of gasoline (which obviously is not very healthy). Opal fuel does not emit the same vapors as gasoline, which prevents sniffers from getting their high. I could not really get much more information about opal fuel, such as whether it performs as well as unleaded or it is was actually made from opals.
With a full tank of opal fuel, we headed back to Alice Springs. Although we were leaving behind one of the most impressive natural wonders of the world, we were also leaving behind one of natures most annoying creations‒the flies.