The big red rock in the sand

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Uluru is massive, I was expecting it to be big but it’s about the size and height of a couple of Wembley stadiums. From the air I expected it to be relatively small but actually it’s just a strange phenomenon at the end of 2 hours of desert.

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Tonight we’re staying in Ayers Rock, a small town with 5 hotels, a town square and a billion flies in residence. It’s hot, but not crazy hot as predicted. Normally it’s anything up to 50 degrees but there were rains(!?) recently so it’s a bearable 35 degrees.

Going on an adventure in the desert requires the right supplies we figure. So we head to the town square for fly nets (a must), a full on bushman’s hat, and lots of sun cream of course.

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That night we were in a 4 person dorm with two German girls who for some reason turned off air con. About 5 minutes later Kelly and I are fully awake sweating buckets. It’s not going to be a good night this way so we break out the polite chat and get it back on. I mean seriously who turns off air con in the desert. Cooled off we sleep.

The pickup at midday was strange but welcoming. Our tour guide from the Rock Tour was Jerome, and as we boarded the little bus he shouted to everyone “This is Andi and Kelly”, and everybody shouts back. Weird when everyone had just been picked up I thought. They hadn’t, as they had been together since 6AM as they had driven from Alice Springs.

It’s a quick 10 minute drive to Uluru and as we set off to walk around the rock Jerome tells us a few aboriginal stories. Uluru is a sacred place where the aboriginal people set a great many stories. Most stories are not known by non-aboriginals as they are handed down from generation to generation and contain life lessons. Life lessons in this harsh climate are meant to deliver knowledge for survival so for example when a story tells of a man who on a journey between Uluru and Kata Tjuta morphs into a Kangeroo, an Emu, and a dingo, the story betrays the knowledge that in the area these animals live, providing a map for hunting.

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Some of these stories can be told to non-aboriginals as they are meant for children so we get those entry-level details. To get to the next set of stories you have to prove you are ready, and if you ask then you are not ready. Meaning it’s very difficult to understand the true history and cultural significance of the area. Also even for aboriginals if they are not in the area in question they will never be told the stories of Uluru, in the same way those from the local area will never learn about the stories from Darwin or Adelaide: they simply don’t need to know the information to survive.

There are two Aboriginal stories for us then: one a snake woman whose nephew is wrongly killed (more on punishments later) and another about a man stealing an emu. Each story explains how the monolith’s rocks, holes, caves and surface scars were created. Along the perimeter are large stretches where photography is not permitted as these are the sacred areas (and for why they are sacred we are not to know).

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It takes about an hour to walk all the way around Uluru, it’s also hot and recommended that we carry 3 litres of water per person. Uluru is captivating close up, unclimbable as the local Aboriginals would feel guilty of something were to happen to a climber (and things have happened to many), rather than for any issues of sacredity.

Once all the way round we are shown rock paintings and water pools that collect during the rains, providing emergency water if needed. The up close and personal side of Uluru seen its time to retire to a distance and marvel at the sunset.

After bartering a couple of beers from our companions we settle down for the view and it’s pretty as a postcard. Once the sun is gone, it’s pitch black and the stars are glittering brightly as I imagine they only could thousands of miles away from a single city light.

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Our beds for the next two nights sounded magical when we booked the tour, but seem slightly ominous now. Called swags, they are basically roller sleeping bags with an extra thick base as a kind of mattress. We all bed down and stare up at the stars above, there is no roof or tent, just the sky. The worry about these swags dissipated as I gazed out at the stars, and promptly passed out from exhaustion.

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4:20AM and we’re up to head back to Uluru for the sunrise. Which is a better view than the sunset given the sun rises behind the actual monolith. I set my camera to a slow exposure and try to find a perch to account for the lack of tripod.

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Today we are heading to Kata Tjuta, the second of three rock formations in the area. Uluru being a monolith, this second one being thousands of boulders to make a mountain range, and the third King’s canyon being layered rocks to form, you guessed it, a canyon.

Kata Tjuta is even more-so shrouded in secrecy and no stories are known by non-aboriginals. Instead we are given a geology lesson throughout the day on what caused these monuments. We take a two-hour ‘short’ walk up one of the larger mountains. Again it’s boiling hot and I’m sweating buckets but loving the scenery. What torture this must be when it’s the normal 50 degrees though.

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Day done we head to camp collecting dead trees (not branches but trees) for firewood as a group activity before we dine on chilli con carne and prosecco (£6 from the local shop). The group chats away, most of us having just done or about to do New Zealand. It’s a pleasant reminder of the fun we had there, but everyone is equally besotted with Oz.

Around our campfire we set up our swags for the night. It was cool, almost cold that night, and the mosquitos were hungry for me. But after a heavy day of trekking I felt nothing as I faded into slumber.

The final destination was King’s Canyon where the name alone of the first part divided the group it to those climbing to the top and those doing a valley walk. Heart attack hill I thought sounded like a challenge, Kelly with gammy knee and allergy to exercise opted for the valley walk. It really was a heart attack inducing feat, deep but short steps forged out of the layered rocks, required high energy climbing that turned another contingent of the group back. 5 or 6 including Jerome made it and once at the top the views were mesmeric.

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We wandered the canyon top however to the soundtrack of a drone. A man in another group was obsessed with filming everything and his drone’s engine cut the air like a swarm of crickets bleating in unison. Jerome found a plant in the canyon and told us about the 4 levels of punishment in aboriginal society. Punishment being those for failure to do ones task properly, and therefore put survival at risk:
1. a spear is driven halfway into the leg muscle. The stabber is then responsible for nursing the victim to health (and back to their responsibilities)
2. A spear is driven all the way through a leg muscle
3. A savage beating
4. Take a plant and rub it in the eyes of the victim. He will go blind for about three days and be let into the bush. Blind and alone in a harsh environment he will likely die, but if not he may return to the tribe.

Lunch on the way to Alice Springs was more of the wraps we had become so accustomed to on Australian tours. This time with the company of (no exaggeration) a million flies. These flies seem to love the corner of my eyes, mouth, ears and getting involved in my food and face. I was almost prepared to go hungry if it wasn’t for the extreme exercise we’d just completed.

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At Alice springs we all meet in a bar for dinner, drinks and to say goodbye. It had been exhausting to see the red centre, but Jerome had educated and pushed us further than I had imagined we would – and I wouldn’t swap it for anything. Saying that I won’t go back again – it’s just a big rock in a desert.

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