This rock had better be good

25 to 28 September 2019

Coober Pedy to Erldunda, 487km

to Yulara, 251km

If you come to Australia, you have to visit Uluru, right?

Well, it turns out that it’s quite a big country and that famous rock is inconveniently placed a very, very long way from anywhere. But we decided, while we were as near as we’d ever be, we’d go that little bit further to see it for ourselves.

From Coober Pedy we still had about 750km (and a lot of diesel) to go to reach Uluru. We decided to break the journey at one of the Stuart Highway’s roadhouses at Erldunda for the night. There really is nothing along the road but vast sheep and cattle stations, endless landscapes and the very occasional roadhouse. It was a very long way to go to see a red rock and we really hoped it was going to be worth it. Sometimes you have such an image of these iconic places in your mind that seeing them in reality can be a tiny bit disappointing.

For entertainment on the long drive we played a rather limited round of I spy and listened in to the UHF radio traffic between the road train drivers. The scenery changed in increments, sometimes there were trees, sometimes there was nothing. The dust got redder and redder the further north we went.

We stopped at Marla Roadhouse for diesel and coffee and at the border between South Australia and the Northern Territory for the photo opp but other than that we just powered on through.

Erldunda Roadhouse not only has a campsite (where we pitched our tent for one more sleep before Uluru) it also has an emu farm full of rather menacing looking giant birds

and a couple of camels who lived peaceably with a red kangaroo and a white cockerel!

From Erldunda it is still a 250km drive to Yulara, the resort town that houses tourists visiting the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. About halfway along the Lasseter Highway is a towering lump of red rock you would be forgiven for thinking is Uluru. Although flatter on the top, Mount Conner does a worthy impression of its near(ish) neighbour and for a few seconds, to save all the extra miles and filling up with more diesel, we thought about taking its photo and telling everyone it was Uluru.

But we didn’t and we carried on, soon getting our first views of the big rock itself. No photo can ever do justice to the majesty of this place. Despite all the images of it we had in our minds, from first sight, we were captivated by it. Rising out of the flat, surprisingly wooded, desert Uluru hovers, glowing orange, truly in the middle of nowhere.

Uluru is bigger and redder and more magnificent than we had ever imagined and because of that is visible from significant distances away. It is no wonder it has for so long been held as a very sacred place for the land’s traditional owners, the Anangu.

It is not, however, alone in this landscape, in an almost two for the price of one deal, just 20km away is Kata Tjuta, a collection of just as red and equally awe-inspiring domes of rock rising out of the desert floor.

The mighty domes are connected by a series of gorges. One afternoon, we took the short, but hot, hike into the Walpa Gorge, the sheer red walls closing in on us the deeper in we went.

Sunset and sunrise at the rock is the thing to do and having seen the sun set on both Uluru and Kata Tjuta, our last day in the park was reserved for sunrise at Uluru.

Amongst the juvenile oak trees that grow all around, we also got a distant view of the sun rising over Kata Tjuta.

With the sun rising slowly on the rock we really started to understand that Uluru is not as smooth as it might seem. As shadows move across its surface, its contours really come to life.

Climbing Uluru is controversial and, to be honest, we would probably have chosen not to be there in the last few weeks before the Anangu people finally got their way and the climbing route closed for good. The number of white Australians flocking to make the climb up this most sacred of places felt like the ultimate act of colonial entitlement. Having never intended to climb, we visited the Anangus’ interpretation centre and watched the joy of the handback celebrations in 1985 when they regained their rights to their land. It was not difficult to add our names to the I did not climb register but at the same time sad that it has taken another 35 years to close the disrespectful climbing route.

We chose instead to do as the Anangu suggest and walk around its base, to feel its presence and understand just a little of why it has been so important to them for millennia. It is a walk that allows you to get up close and really change your perception of the shape of this enormous rock.

We set off just after sunrise at 7.30am through the trees that grow right up to the base itself and passed its almost empty waterholes.

The sheer cliffs seem almost vertical and are pitted with grooves and holes,

caves and scars. One scar looked like a skull.

We inevitably passed the site of the climb and, although the climb had just been closed for the day due to high winds there were still people making their way down. Disrespect to the Anangu people aside, the climb site is only marginally less sheer than the rest of Uluru and it is no surprise that so many have died from falling or having heart attacks from the exertion of the vertiginous climb. We saw many sliding back down on their backsides. Only a couple of weeks after we were there, a twelve year old girl fell 20 metres from the rock, incredibly surviving with non life threatening injuries.

We’re glad the climb has been shut, not just on health and safety grounds, but because you only have to be near Uluru to understand it is an incredibly special, spiritual place. The climb has left a physical, man made, scar on one face of the rock which will take many, many years to erase. It is like some kind of sad metaphor for the many scars, physical and emotional, caused by white Australia to its indigenous people.

Even without a proper understanding of its significance to the Anangu people, Uluru is a spectacular sight and one you have to see for yourself. It was more than worth the very long, dry journey to see it and we are very glad that we made the effort.

It was, however, a long journey back…

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