The Red Centre
It’s interesting how different an experience people can have at a place. I recently heard someone say their friend described Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) as ‘just a big rock’ and as such they weren’t fussed about going themselves. To say my opinion of Uluru is the total opposite would be an understatement. From the moment I stepped off the airport transfer bus at the Ayers Rock Resort, there was the hint in the air of something special. I cannot put in words the emotions that I have attached to the next few days of my trip. I’m neither religious nor spiritual, but something about this place spoke to me in a manner that I cannot describe. Perhaps it was the immense heat fogging up my perception. Or the mesmerising idyll of the red sandy desert. Or the fact that I saw some things that I’d wanted to for a long time. Or perhaps it was all of it, combined together into a hot desert perfection. Whatever the reason, Australia’s Red Centre is a very special place for me.
A lot of people visiting Uluru do so from Alice Springs, nearly 6hrs away. Without your own transport this means being tied to the constraints of an organised tour. When I found out about the Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara, the nearest accommodation to Uluru, I knew that this was where I was going to stay. Offering a choice of accommodation types, a retail and eatery zone, and ready access to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, it was the perfect base to explore the area. I was on a budget and had booked into the backpacker wing of the Outback Pioneer Lodge. The complementary shuttle from the nearby airfield circled the upmarket resort accommodation first before dropping me off at the lodge. There was a bit of queue to check in, but getting this out the way, I was soon dumping my stuff and getting out to explore. The resort is set up in a large U-shape with a wide wild zone in the middle. The tourism and retail centre was at the far side of this central wilderness zone from my accommodation, but despite the heat and availability of a resort shuttle that regularly loops between the zones, I decided to walk under the blazing sun to the retail area to arrange some excursions, grab a drink at the cafe and visit the supermarket to stock up on food. Reliant on a twice weekly train delivery for supplies, there were quite a few empty sections where stock had run low. This was life in the Outback.
Taking the shuttle bus back to the lodge, I followed a trail leading out the back of the accommodation, up a small hill to a view point where I could see not only across the desert to Uluru but also Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas), the lesser known rock formations in the region. A crowd gathered as the sun lowered, and we watched the changing colours across the famous red rock. The resort is littered with walking trails, several of which lead to natural hillocks offering a sunset and sunrise viewing spot. Aside from the people, I was accompanied by some doves and as the sun lowered, a large colony of ants appeared out of the ground. Aside from a few wisps near the horizon, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, and I watched in silence as the rocks turned from orange to various shades of red, and the sky went through a range of blues. Only once the colour changes faded into darkness did I leave to eat dinner before going on a night time excursion.
My trip to Yulara coincided with a temporary outdoor art exhibit called the Field of Lights. At the time of visiting, it was only due to be there for a few months, but it has since been extended until 2020. Made up of 50,000 lights spread across the equivalent of 7 football fields, the artist Bruce Munro has created a colour-changing light display to be enjoyed in the darkness of the desert night. It has proved very popular and was close to being booked out during my visit. I had had problems making a booking online in advance and as such thought I would have to miss out on it, but I was lucky to be able to grab a last minute ticket the day I arrived, and at the scheduled time on my ticket, I joined several coach loads of people to drive out to the field in the middle of nowhere to go see it. After a briefing from the staff about how best to enjoy it, and when to be back at the bus, I did my best to escape the crowd and take it all in.
Two paths lead through the exhibit – a long path and a short path. I opted for the longer one first and once the crowd of visitors thinned out a little, it was easy to get lost in my own thoughts. Early on into the experience I looked up to see not only an amazing array of stars but I was overwhelmed to see the Milky Way very distinctly sweeping across the sky above my head. I’d never seen the Milky Way before and I was awestruck at how clearly it appeared. I spent the rest of the night torn between the dazzling light display below eye level and the mesmerising astronomic display above me. Following first the long path and then looping back round through the short path, I was last to get back to the bus pick-up area, only to discover our bus was running late. I spent the time staring up at the Milky Way until it was time to board and return to our accommodation where I attempted to sleep in the hot and tiny dorm room.
The next morning I was awoken by my roommates stirring so it seemed like a good idea to get up and watch the sunrise. Donning my clothes and making the short distance to the lookout hillock, I huddled in the chill morning air watching the colour creep back into the sky and the landscape below it. It amazes me how cold the desert night is, considering how hot the desert day is. I’ve read stories of people lost in the desert succumbing to the cold nights despite putting up with the hot arid days. As time passed I was eventually joined by others although less than had ventured out the night before for the sunset.
The hulking outline of Uluru grew clearer and clearer as the sky turned from a deep blue, lightening through to peach and pink ahead of the sun bursting above the horizon. Then the form of Uluru changed once more from a deep red, lightening up to the characteristic orange. In the distance, Kata Tjuta went through the same changes and it was very evident it was going to be another cloudless day. Aside from those other early risers, there were a couple of courting doves strutting around the lookout, and unfamiliar birds flitting around the nearby foliage.
The sun rose quite quickly and there was plenty of light spilling across the landscape by the time I retraced my steps back to my room to get ready for the day. I had pre-purchased a ticket for the Uluru Hop-On, Hop-Off bus service and arranged to be collected for the first day trip into the park. Ready and waiting, I was excited to board and get going, ready to explore up close the behemoth that I’d come all this way to see. Just a short drive from Yulara, we reached the entrance to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, an exposed tourist mecca under the baking Outback sun. This was the day I had waited for for a very long time.