Sunday, July 17, 2011

red red heart

Uluru, Kata Tjuta, Kings Canyon

It’s a 461 km [286 mile] journey west of Alice Springs to see Uluru.

For over 10,000 years the rock was known as Uluru. In 1873, William Gosse named it Ayers Rock in honour of the then Chief Secretary of South Australia. 
In 1985 the land around the rock was returned to the Anangu Tjuta people, on condition it be leased back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service [ANPWS] for 99 years. The Anangu Tjuta and the ANPWS are currently joint caretakers, and the name Uluru was quite rightly restored in 1993.

Although Uluru is often described as the world's largest monolith, the largest is actually Mt Augustus in Western Australia. Just the same, from a distance, Uluru certainly looks impressive. With its grey sandstone rusting at the surface, it provides an amazing canvas for displaying each of the colours of the rainbow as the sun rises/sets.

Camping at Uluru

From some time around 1920 onwards, Uluru became a popular tourist attraction of sorts, though not many whitefella people would have seen it back in those days. Cars and trucks were rare, and the roads were little more than bush tracks.
It was also, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. [The geographical centre of Australia, known as Lambert Springs, is about 200 km or 120 miles south of Alice Springs. As Australia has a land mass totalling roughly 7.7 million square kilometres, this is close enough to the middle of nowhere for me!]
In the early years, tin sheds and lean-to's were erected, with visitors tending to camp out at the base of the rock itself. This messy hodge-podge of shacks was ironic, given white Australia's tendency to turn its collective nose up at the humpies and shanties Aboriginal fringe dwellers have been forced to live in for far too many years.
It was in one of the original camping grounds close to the rock that a dingo snatched Azaria, the baby daughter of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, in 1980.
All of the original camping grounds and shacks have since been bulldozed for an area of 20km [12 miles] around the rock, and a new village, Yulara, has been built to accommodate visitors, in either camping grounds or hotel units.

The Yulara resort

If you have ever been to Disney World in Florida you will have some idea of the set up at Yulara. There are themed hotel clusters, with a regular shuttle bus service connecting each. Each cluster has its own selection of eating places, with a range of prices to suit all budgets. There is also a small shopping mall, and a medical centre run by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. [The deli in the mall had the freshest, healthiest lunches we found, and the prices were very good.]
The resort site provides photos of the different eateries, types of accommodation and so on which are available.
 The service at Yulara rates 8 out of 10 - which is pretty high by Australian standards, and a lot better than many European cities. [Disney World gets 11 out of 10 because, lets face it, nobody does service like Disney.]

The bus trip from Alice to Yulara

Several bus companies operate tours to Uluru, Kata Tjuta [for a while known as The Olgas] and Kings Canyon from Yulara each day. Because we booked our holiday by phone and internet from Melbourne, without doing a lot of research first, the whole process was a bit hit and miss - even though the people at the AAT Kings office were endlessly friendly, helpful and patient.

We decided to fly to Alice Springs and spend a day there to recover, then take a 3 day "old fossil's" bus tour to Uluru, Kata Kitju and King's Canyon, then return to Alice and stay another full day before flying home. The Connellan airport is only 6km from Yulara, so it is possible to fly straight to Yulara and choose your bus trips from there.

You don't have to ride a camel to appreciate the stop...
One of the stops along the way from Alice to Yulara was at a camel farm - The Other and I have already taken camel rides before, and this ride around a tiny enclosure was a total rip off [but popular]. 
I felt infinitely safer on a camel than I ever have when seated on a horse, and it's an experience everyone should have. If you have the time, do the camel thing somewhere else. There are heaps of camel tours available all over Australia - there's even one mob an hour from Melbourne who will take you out for the day on a picnic.

Taking photos of Aboriginals

Personally, the very idea seems just plain rude to me. Aboriginals are not freaks, they are people. Traditional Aboriginals do think some white people are rude, but they think it would be rude to say so.

Our bus driver made several requests for people not to take photos of Aboriginals when we stopped for a break at the Mt Ebenezer Station roadhouse. In fact, he stressed that it was also not okay to take wide angle shots of the station cafe and "accidentally" include Aboriginals. Sure enough, the first thing several people did was go straight up and ask some Aboriginals if they could take photos. For some reason the eager photographers believed that broken English is easier to understand if it is shouted.

Mt Ebeneezer Station Roadhouse

The first time we stopped at the station, joy of joys, a four wheel drive arrived at full clip, and out jumped half a dozen Aboriginal men, probably in their late 20s. They leapt forward at every photo opportunity, placing themselves between elders and tourists, and charging $20 a shot. As soon as the bus was loading again, they went on their way. The Other and I roared laughing, to ourselves, imagining these young men studying bus timetables every day so they would know when to head off to work.

There is an art gallery and gift shop within the roadhouse and a postcard costing about $1 might have been much better value than $20, far less offensive and would help the local community. There are plenty of respectful photos, videos and other information about Western Desert people on the internet.

The roadhouse and gallery are owned by and directly benefit the Imanpa people, who also own the Angus Downs station where the roadhouse is located. For many years the station has been a nature reserve, but the community hopes to re-establish cattle operations in the near future.

Yulara itself

Once we got to Yulara we were disappointed we hadn't booked extra nights there, because the grounds, the pools, the weather and the atmosphere were so relaxing. 

The Other and I stayed in the Outback Pioneer Lodge hotel [in 2009], where we had a room in a nice bush setting, complete with bath. The only complaint I could honestly make about the rooms was a very, very faint odour of septic tank, which is probably to be expected in the middle of nowhere. [Chatting with the woman in charge of cleaning staff one day while waiting for a bus, we heard that all rooms are the same - the last job she does each day is go from room to room running water for a few minutes to help clear the air.]

The BBQ bar in this hotel complex was a great place to eat dinner, with prices ranging from $20-$30 Australian: The idea at the BBQ Bar is to choose from a range of meats including ordinary beef sausages, emu, kangaroo steaks and so on, then take your meat to one of the many hot barbecues waiting for you to cook it to your own taste.
I noticed most of the overseas visitors were keen to try kangaroo or emu steaks, but, neither of these being to my own taste, I simply opted for beef sausages as an excuse to sample the large range of salads included in the price. [We don't call sausages "surprise bags" for nothing!]
All of this was in an outdoor area under a large roof, which included a bar so you could complement your meal with some wine or beer if you wished. When you buy alcohol at the bar you are required to provide your room number or other evidence that you are staying at the resort.

Unless you go to nightclubs, most bars in Australia will provide water free of charge if you make a point of asking for "tap water". [Naturally it costs something if the water is bottled]. Lots of people, like me, actually prefer water to alcohol, so no one will think you are cheap if you ask for water. [Well some people might think I'm cheap but they've never bothered to tell me.]
Bars also tend to have good espresso machines, so I rounded off my barbecue evening with a latte. [Unless you are in a major city it's a good idea to ask for a "double shot" of coffee if you want it reasonably strong.]

Having seen the sunset at Uluru on the first night, the last thing we wanted to do was get up the next morning in time for a 5 am bus back to the rock for a sunrise, so we chose to sleep in, instead. This meant we also missed taking one of the walks around the base of the rock.
I guess the reason most tours try to cram everything into 3 days is because a National Parks entry pass is a 3 day pass.

If you are keen to get up for a 5 am bus trip, it is quite easy to book an early morning reminder call from the hotel reception, and it's also possible to order a breakfast. The breakfasts themselves were ridiculously priced, and consisted of foods I would never eat, so, after checking out the breakfast contents and price, consider buying a sandwich or wrap the day before and keeping it to eat the next morning. Alternatively, use one of those packets of cereal you always keep in your luggage for times like this. Just buy some milk or yoghurt at the resort - refrigerators are standard in Australian hotels and motels.

Climbing Uluru

In 1964 a series of hand grips and chains was installed on the rock to help climbers. The bus driver advised people that the chap who installed these was quite short, so tall folks might need to bend a little on the way up.

 Unless you are a seasoned climber, make sure you have a physical check up before attempting the climb. 35 people have died climbing the rock, many from heart attacks.
Four Italians on our tour were devastated the morning they arrived to find the climb was closed due to the risk of climbing in high winds, so make allowances for that possibility if the climb is your primary purpose in visiting, and try to build some flexibility into your plans.

The Anangu Tjuta people hold Uluru to be sacred, and so respectfully request that visitors not make the climb, but the climb is not forbidden. In addition to the sacred nature of the rock, the Anangu also feel personally responsible, and that it is a sorry [grieving] business when someone is hurt climbing Uluru. Traditional Aboriginals don't like to say NO in the outright and forthright way westerners do - and even when they do speak English, it's often not their first language
Do be prepared in case your visit coincides with one of those times when westernised and politicised Aboriginals hang around at the base of the rock, hassling people who plan to climb.

It's unfair to criticise the Anangu Tjuta for charging entry to the National Park if they don't want people to climb Uluru - they don't have sole authority in the Park as it's jointly administered with the ANPWS. Further, most of the money collected is spent on maintenance, highways, providing and cleaning toilets, park rangers, preservation and so on.
I might add that plenty of tourist agencies, airlines and hotels also make a profit from people visiting Uluru. The Red Centre is big business for everyone in Australia. Even the resort is privately owned and operated.

Personally, I only get out of bed in the morning because after a while it's just too tiring to stay there, and the last thing I would want to do is climb a huge and challenging monolith. On the other hand, were I a climber, I would probably try to honour the wishes of the Anangu Tjuta. 

Kata Tjuta [the Olgas]

Kata Tjuta is a local Aboriginal name meaning "many heads", and so is an apt name for the 36 domes that make up this amazing landscape. Mt Olga is the tallest of the domes, and at 1066 metres is 198 metres taller than Uluru.

Kata Tjuta from roadside viewing platform
Deep under the earth, Uluru and Kata Tjuta are both part of one continuous seam of rock.

Nature provides lots of surprises where you least expect to find them
[note some thoughtful person has left a cigarette butt there so you will know how big the  flowers are]
One of the distinct disadvantages of bus trips is that they are required to run to timetables. 

Stage 1 of the Valley of the Winds Walk is only 1.1 kilometres, but I'm not an athlete and had no desire to kill myself trying the distance in the allotted time. 
The Other did it of course, despite being 62 at the time. She has always been a full-tilt hiker and bushwalker, and is extremely fit. I decided to sit and enjoy the surroundings at the base of the walk. The Other managed the course in the allotted time [just] but I would never have been able to keep up with her.

Kings Canyon

The next stage of our trip required a transfer to the Kings Canyon Resort where the rooms were a little more basic, and the resort far smaller than Uluru. The septic tank odour in our room was quite overpowering, and the only way to make our room liveable was to run half a tub full of hot water down the drain and leave the bathroom fan on the whole time we were there. 
Disgusting waste of water, but there was no way I was going to sleep outside.

My first ever siting of Sturt's desert rose in a natural setting

The rose up close

We arrived too late to get sandwiches or something similar from the general store, and found the alternative dinner options obscenely overpriced. Call me mean, but I refuse to pay more than $35 for a piece of steak, and I really don't see the need for any sane but sedentary person to consume a whole pound of meat in one sitting.
We compromised by buying a couple of small, take-away pizzas, and scraped the topping off those. The doughy bases went straight into the bin where they belonged, and about an hour later we had some breakfast cereal

On the other hand, Kings Canyon itself was the highlight of the whole trip.

Part of King's Canyon from the resort viewing platform
the sunset is as spectacular as Uluru's
There are several walks available at Kings Canyon, with two options offered to those on our bus tour. These are described by several Northern Territory websites with the same wording as below:

  • The Canyon Walk (6 km loop Approx. 3-4 hrs duration) This walk begins with a steep climb to the top of the Canyon, then follows the Canyon rim around before descending to the carpark. Approximately half way along the walk is the 'Garden of Eden', a delightful area of cool waterholes and riverine vegetation communities. This walk requires a medium to high level of fitness with some strenuous sections. Extreme care should be taken in the hotter months (Sept - May) when walkers should consider other shorter walks as alternatives during the middle of the day.
The rim walk would be cool if you don't mind heights

This is top left corner of photo above, and in top left of this'n
you can see the walk way across a gap in the rim

  • The Kings Creek Walk (2.6 km return Approx. 1 hour duration) This walk meanders along Kings Creek ending at a lookout point, then returns by the same route. It can be rough underfoot, so sturdy footwear is essential. Information signs on the Aboriginal cultural uses of the area are located at several points along the route. This walk has assisted wheelchair access for approximately half the walk and the remainder is suitable for walkers of all ages.
We took the shorter walk and, although it was a pity not to see the Garden of Eden, we were not disappointed by the Canyon Floor.
The bus driver who took us on the walk had a wealth of information about rocks, plants and Aboriginal practices relevant to the site.

My poor camera skills can't do justice to the rock formations

Potential spear shafts

Twine for attaching spear heads to shafts
Everything is very well signposted with advice about local birds, Aboriginal significances and more.

It's a great, great country.

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