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Kata Tjuṯa

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…

Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park

Growing up in Scotland, I feel I’ve lived a somewhat sheltered life. Into adulthood, immigration became a hot topic in the years before I emigrated myself, and whilst I always had an awareness of what has and is occurring in other countries around the world, it is only since moving to New Zealand, where not only am I not a native, but my race is not the indigenous one, that I have had my eyes opened a little more to the realities of race relations. Whilst it looks like progress is being made in both Australia and New Zealand with regards to Indigenous rights, there is still a long way to go it would seem, and a lot of dissidence, misunderstanding and prejudice still remain in both countries. I’ve had a side-ways interest in the Indigenous Peoples of Australia for some time, mainly sparked through movies and books over the years. I was interested to see what my experience would be upon visiting the Northern Territory. I’d already been made aware of the lack of recognition by many people within and outwith Australia of the return of naming Ayers Rock to Uluru, being met by blank faces multiple times when I chatted to people about my trip plans. Having visited Fraser Island, now renamed K’Gari, just a few weeks prior, this slow rate of progression was very evident.

So when I got off the Uluru Hop On-Hop Off bus at the Mara car park, excited to be next to this most famous of geological structures, it was with a divided heart that I watched the people climb up the rock face to the summit in front of me. I’d long since heard about the request of the Indigenous landowners not to climb Uluru, and right in front of the track up there is a sign stating this also. However it is not illegal, and so there was a steady pilgrimage of people hauling themselves up with the chain that is still steadfastly bolted into the sacred rock. I was divided because it looked so achievable, and I love summiting mountains, but I was brought up to respect other people’s beliefs, and understanding the significance of this rock, I knew it was not right to climb it. But as multiple tourists turned up to climb including a busload led up by their guide, I did wonder about why these tour companies were allowed to do this, and why they were not promoting the right message. I was waiting for the guided walk to start, and had a bit of time to kill at the base. It was already hot at 10am and there was little shade around. I watched and pondered for some time, distracted only by a large perentie, the largest monitor lizard in Australia.

 

I would highly recommend the guided walk, which follows a small section of the base walk around the bottom of Uluru. The Indigenous guide gave a fascinating insight into the spiritual significance of Uluru to the Indigenous landowners, the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu, as well as covering flora, fauna and geology. I’d already been amazed in Queensland about how knowledgeable the Indigenous Australians are about living off the land and utilising it to its best potential. From understanding the seasons and what to harvest when and how, to navigation and survival in the harsh Outback. The stories can vary from one Indigenous group to another, and within them there are rules and traditions, which can mean some things can only be passed on by women, and some only by men. Others are sacred and cannot be translated. And others still, require trust and understanding to have the privilege of hearing them. To the local Aṉangu, only the chosen few should summit Uluru. As the guide pointed out, if you were asked to wear a head scarf or take off your shoes to visit a church or a mosque, you would do it. So why would you climb Uluru when you were asked not to? To them, it is akin to respecting someone else’s religious beliefs, and I totally agree.

 

I took few photos during the guided walk as I was absorbed in everything the guide told us, but after it was finished, I had a lot of ground to cover in the heat of the day. I planned on walking the base track that circumnavigates the base of Uluru, despite the insane heat. I was slathered in suncream, had the hat on I’d bought in Adelaide, and I had as much water as I could carry. There was no point rushing, and once on my own, because hardly anyone else was crazy enough to hike in the heat, I became snap happy as the shape and pattern of the rock next to me constantly changed. In places there are signs requesting no photographs are taken due to the significance of that part of the structure to the Aṉangu, but large portions can be photographed without disrespect, and I was as much fascinated by the flora and fauna that surrounded the track as I was by Uluru itself. I was just loving the oranges and reds of the rock and the desert.

 

As the track heads east along the northern face of Uluru, there were all sorts of gouges and crevices in the rock face, creating an effect of artwork, the largest of which looked to me like a brain and face. The vegetation surrounding the path was a mix of desert shrubs and flowers and occasionally there were insects and birds flitting amongst them. When I eventually reached a shelter after some time in the full exposure of the sun, I took the opportunity to hide out in the shade for awhile before pushing on.

 

As the track turned south around the eastern end, it passed a no-photo zone before reaching a car park. There were a few people around here, and from this point onwards, I had a bit of company on the track, after having the northern aspect pretty much to myself. Whereas the northern and western aspects had been more about steep verticals, the eastern and southern aspects were more rolling and rounded. It was still steep but the look and feel of this side was quite different and even the nearby vegetation seemed different too. It was possible to see fissures and cracks with rocks breaking apart, and streaks of black through the orange denoted where waterfalls streamed down after rain.

 

After some time, a track split off to cut up to a little pool and nearby was an overhang where some Indigenous rock painting could be seen close up. From here onwards, the track hugged the base of Uluru quite closely, giving a close-up view of the make up of the rock. When I made it back to Mara car park I was dismayed to see a coach load of tourists heading up the track to the summit. I retraced part of the track I’d done with the guide earlier that day in order to photograph a few of the spots we’d stopped at in the morning, before returning to the car park once more, 4hrs after starting the walk.

 

From the nearby toilet block, the Limu walk cut across the desert to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta cultural centre where I had planned on getting back on the bus. I’d originally planned on getting the last day bus back, but after chatting with the driver at the centre, there was space for me to go on the evening bus which included an additional stop on the way back. This meant I had a bit of time to spend at the centre and explore. Aside from the shop which sold me some much desired ice cream, and a few galleries of local artist’s work, there was an interpretation centre giving more insight into the local Indigenous culture and tradition. Ownership of Uluru was taken by the Northern Territories Reserve Board and it was renamed Ayers Rock before the Australian Government later returned it to the Aṉangu on the condition that they lease it back to the Government, resulting in it being co-managed. This lease lasts for 99 years, starting in 1985. The footage of the handover was an interesting video to watch, and it was clear there were mixed emotions about getting ownership back in theory, whilst still not getting it back fully.

 

I got picked up by the very last hop on-hop off bus to join a small band of people to head to a special lookout spot to watch the sunset over Uluru. In an uncomfortable and awkward moment, the bus driver accidentally killed a perentie that was sunbathing on the road. This immediately reminded me of one of the excursions I’d done in the Galapagos Islands when the bus that was taking me to see the endangered bird life, accidentally killed one of the endangered birds. It was yet another reminder of what implications tourism can have on local wildlife. The driver felt really guilty and kept apologising to us for the rest of the way.

There was only one other small coach there when we arrived, but we were warned it would get busy, and sure enough, coach load after coach load began to pull in and unload a crowd of sunset watchers who spread out across the viewing spot, jostling for the perfect place to watch the colours of Uluru change. As with the night before, the sky went through a range of blues and Uluru itself turned from orange to red as the light level faded. After a while, I crossed to the far side of the lookout to view the opposite direction, where the hint of Kata Tjuta just about peaked over the horizon close to where the sun sunk low. The colour palate was beautiful, and despite the crowd around me, it was a magical experience.

 

Back at the Outback Pioneer, I had some laundry to do before dinner, and now in darkness with only the low-level lights marking the pathways, I came out of my dorm room to head towards the main building when suddenly a creature shot out in front of me from near the kitchen disappearing into the darkness. The moment was over as soon as I acknowledged it but I was excited after the failed sightings on K’Gari to add wild dingo to the list of animals spotted on my trip. Taking the shuttle to the main square, I had a delicious dinner at one of the eateries in the resort, seemingly confusing the staff by being a lone diner. Perhaps they don’t get many there, but I personally don’t have a problem eating out on my own. Afterwards, there was a long wait for the shuttle bus back. I was tired and full and didn’t want to walk back, but I got antsy waiting, aware I still had to sort out my laundry before getting to bed. By the time I crawled into my bunk, I was eager for sleep but despite the coolness of the night outside, the dorm room was oppressively hot. I had my stuff all ready to make an early exit, as I had another early rise the next morning. As impressive as Uluru is, there is more to see within the National Park, and I was determined to see as much as I could.

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.

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