It was following a poor night’s sleep, from a hot and stuffy room and roommates coming in and out in the wee hours of the morning, that I was thrown awake by my alarm. It was still dark outside when I was picked up by Bruce who drove me and a band of other early risers to head back into the Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park. Previously known as the Olgas, Kata Tjuta is a conglomerate of 36 domes made of a mix of granite, basalt and sandstone. Located 25km (15.5miles) to the east of its more famous neighbour Uluru, Kata Tjuta proved itself to be just as worthy of exploring, and once more I was up before dawn to witness yet another staggering sunrise.
There were already colours blending into the sky as we parked up and walked to the lookout spot. It quickly became packed and there was a silent jostling match as people vied for prime position. Like Uluru the day before, the rock mounds of Kata Tjuta went through a colour change as the sun got closer to breaking the horizon, and in the distance, the hulk of Uluru became surrounded by a beautiful purple-peach glow. By the time I realised that the sun was actually broaching the horizon right next to Uluru, it was too late to get anywhere decent to see it and I, like many others, were forced to perch on the fence struts, balancing precariously just to see over the heads and shoulders of those in prime position.
Kata Tjuta itself came into its own once the sun was above the horizon, and it suddenly started to glow red. I really wanted to stay and watch the colours burn more, but we were under strict instructions to be back on the bus within 10mins of sunrise, so that we could get moving. It is always my bug bear of organised tours, being tied to the schedule and crowds that go with them, but without my own transport, I didn’t have much choice in the matter. Another 40mins or so would have been perfect, but we had a hike to do, and our guide wanted to get going so as to beat the crowds that would soon accumulate.
There are two hikes to do in the valleys of Kata Tjuta: the Walpa Gorge walk and the longer Valley of the Winds walk. I would have loved to have done both, but was only given the option of one on the tour, so I naturally went for the longer one. We all set off together, but gradually the group spread out. The Valley of the Winds forms a circuit, and our guide recommended we walk it anti-clockwise, so we all duly took his word. With a time limit to make it back to the bus, I duly became snap happy as I took in the desert flowers and creatures amongst the rocky landscape.
It was a rocky walk in to reach the loop track. There was shadowing in places which hid some of the detail, but those rocks that had sunlight spilling on to them, were clearly as scarred as Uluru was. The Karu lookout on this track is where the route can be closed in hot weather. The track is completely exposed to the elements with little shade the whole way round, so there is a 36oC temperature limit, above which, walking further is prohibited.
Once the loop track was reached after a descent, there were suddenly bushes and vegetation littering the route. Birds were flitting between the branches and flowers were blooming in pockets near the side of the track. The initial section was in sunshine, but after crossing a dried-up stream and gaining altitude, it was in shade all the way to the Karingana lookout, deep within the valley. The sides were steep in this shaded section, and as I got easily distracted by the flora, I was soon left behind by the rest of the group. As I dawdled my way up to the lookout, it soon became clear behind me that the tourists had arrived en masse, a steady stream of people behind me or overtaking me at regular intervals.
It was windy and cold at the lookout, the wind driving up through the channel created by the mounds, and it was easy to see how the walk got its name. I descended down the other side of the lookout, spotting a beetle among some flowers, and continuing to marvel at the fauna here in this harsh environment. In front of me now were more of Kata Tjuta’s mounds, and once on the relative flat, I was exposed to the full power of the rising sun.
Most people had overtaken me now, and I found myself alone for sections of the return leg. Not realising I wasn’t even halfway yet, I continued to dawdle, and spent a lot of time looking backwards, where the best view was. A few people walked the trail clockwise, but the vast majority, like us, had walked it the reverse. With the sun low creating great shadows in the valley, and my constant want to turn around and look behind me, I can’t help but feel it would have been better to walk it clockwise after all.
Behind me, many of the domes were still dark in colour, but the ones nearest me on the trail were bright orange. To my right, spanning a great distance was the flat desert landscape of the Outback: red sand speckled with low-lying vegetation. Away from these rock formations, there was not a landmark in sight, and it was easy to see how you could get lost away from here.
At a water station, I found a flock of zebra finches, a pretty little bird, and afforded them some time to watch them before pushing on. With the sun getting higher, and the temperature pushing up with it, the crowds of walkers had long since dissipated, and suddenly conscious of the time, I quickened my pace to complete the loop and head back out the track to the waiting bus. I made it back within the allotted time, but it was clear that I was the last to arrive and that they’d all been waiting a while for me. But I had paid a lot of attention to the flora and fauna, and was satisfied that I’d done the hike justice.
It was still morning when we returned to the Ayers Rock Resort, and I used my time to wander round the retail precinct, organising another couple of spur-of-the-moment tours, and buying the obligatory fridge magnets that I collect from anywhere I visit. The resort runs some free activities at various times of the day, and a little after noon, I joined the Bush Tucker talk, where one of the staff taught us about edible plants and flowers that were in the vicinity, and how they are used by the Indigenous people of the region. I got to eat some food that had been made out of the local vegetation, and afterwards, with my stomach wanting more, I had lunch at one of the cafes in the square.
From the Town Square, I cut behind the Emu Walk Apartments, one of the many accommodation options in the resort, to visit the Wintjiri Arts & Museum which was one of the free things to do there. I love Indigenous artwork and found many paintings that I loved and would have loved to have bought had I had a house to put them in and money to spare. Aside from the art gallery of local artist’s work, the compact museum gave a fascinating insight into the geology and natural history of the region, as well as a concise history of the local Indigenous groups. For such a small museum and gallery it was very interesting and kept my attention for some time.
Now well into the afternoon and under the blazing hot sun, I went up to the little mound at the back of the complex which offers yet another lookout over to Kata Tjuta. From this location, the view was across a giant field of solar panels that harness the sun’s energy to power the resort. From back at the Town Square, I then cut across the large expanse between the retail centre and the Outback Pioneer lodge where I was staying, via the Imalung lookout. This desert expanse between the sections of the resort was teeming with pretty little flowers, and at the top of the mound I was rewarded with the same view of Uluru that I had been grinning over for the last couple of days. As I walked back to the lodge, a little lizard skittered between the low vegetation.
As the sun started to lower again, I was collected from my accommodation for that evening’s sunset tour. This time I was headed back to Kata Tjuta, and our guide was immensely passionate about it, explaining that it is believed to be the place where Anangu’s creation ancestors first appeared on Earth. As with the day before at Uluru, I lapped up the information about the local people’s culture, this whole area being immensely sacred to the Indigenous people of Australia.
In a scene reminiscent of the sunset sail in Darwin, I was quietly excited to discover there would be unlimited glasses of bubbles and plenty of canapes to accompany the sunset. I made it through 3 glasses whilst watching the spectacular colour changes of Kata Tjuta’s rock. The guide who brought us there proclaimed the sunset here to be far superior to that at Uluru, and whilst there was clearly a bit of bias, I did find that the colours seemed a bit more stark and dramatic this close up. It was less crowded here than the sunrise spot had been and this meant I could move around at leisure as the sun dropped towards and then below the horizon. Nicely warmed by the alcohol, I shut away thoughts of my impending return home and just absorbed the scene in front of me, living in the moment, as I had done with every sunrise and sunset that I had witnessed thus far on my great Australian adventure.
It seemed only right to stop for ice cream at the supermarket on the way home, and now in pitch dark, I again walked back to the lodge across the central expanse of the resort. In the spot of light lit up by my torch, a little mouse ran into the bush in front of me, and above me the stars sparkled on my last night in the Red Centre. The next day I was to fly out from the place that had well and truly taken me under its spell, and that meant just one more sunrise to wake up for…