Sunday, February 05, 2012

Views of the Red Centre

When you're on a three-week trip-of-a-lifetime to Australia - like ours of last October - there are some things you feel kind of obliged to do. So on the 22nd, we flew from Sydney to Ayer's Rock.

(Note: For convenience, I'll refer to the actual darn great lump of rock in the middle of the Outback as "Uluru", and the modern developments around it - with the airport and the resort/hotel complex - as "Ayer's Rock".)

Actually, in retrospect, it's possible that we were so determined to take in all the big stuff in or around that area that we didn't commit quite enough time to Uluru itself. We only got at all close to it once, briefly, on the last day of the trip. But as the photos should show, we saw it plenty. It does one thing. It sits there, geologically. It's a simple sort of object, but it has presence. It's hard to sum it up beyond that, but there's a reason for its fame.

The other oddity about our trip was that we happened to get there in the wake of quite a bit more precipitation than the Outback usually sees. We didn't catch significant amounts of rain ourselves - although one barbecue dinner got moved indoors - and it was still hot, but there was a bit more cloud and haze disrupting the legendary Outback sunlight, and the pictures may show a bit more green than most that you get from that region. Still, we got plenty of sense of desert.

Anyway, we got an early flight out of Sydney, arrived in the afternoon, checked into our hotel (in the admirably low-profile and appealing resort development), grabbed some lunch, and then got on the coach for our first bit of touring - a trip to Kata Tjuta (also known as Mount Olga to the first European explorer to sight it from a few miles away, and hence casually referred to as "The Olgas" by every visitor who gets closer and realises that it's more plural than singular). This, to save people some Googling, is geologically a sort of twin to Uluru, a few miles away - but where Uluru is resolutely monolithic and resistant to erosion, Kata Tjuta has fractured and broken along vertical lines of stratification. Hence, we got to stroll deep into a red-rock cleft between towering cliffs, then turned around and ambled back. It may not sound like much, but you've got to understand the sheer alien-ness of this scenery.

Oh, and did I mention the heat, too?

Then we got back on the coach to head back to watch the effect of the sunset light on Uluru. First, though, we got to see one (1) feral camel from the coach, and paused for another chance to contemplate Kata Tjuta in the distance. Anyway, the (cloud-filtered) sunset effect was pretty cool.

Then we had the scheduled barbecue that mutated into an indoor buffet - in our own hotel, as it turned out. But it was actually rather good, with a chance to try some weird local crustaceans and so forth.

The next day involved an early start (and, fortunately, a reasonable chance to doze on the coach); we were heading for King's Canyon, which may not look very far on the map, but which is in a noticeably different ecological zone. Around Uluru, the only grass you get is spinifex, and the only thing that eats spinifex is termites. Head north-west, though (a long way round, due to there being a dry lake thing in the way), and you get country that's one notch more verdant; there are even wild horses living in the area, as we saw from the coach and in captivity at King's Creek Station, where we stopped for breakfast.

As we approached King's Canyon, the tour guides began describing options. Basically, one can either take a wlak around the rim of the canyon - mostly unshaded, in scorching heat, though with a chance to see a waterhole at the head of the canyon called the Garden of Eden - or one can wimp out and take a lighter stroll up the floor of the canyon.

We wimped out.

Well, mostly. We did take an option to climb half-way up to the rim for a bit of view and to see how it felt. But it was clear that the guides were seriously trying to dissuade too many people from trying the rim walk who were going to pass out half way and need the attention of a medical helicopter. And did I mention the heat?

We were bemused, though, to see that the party setting off for the full, nigh-dangerous walk seemed to consist largely of assorted Asian tourists who looked less well dressed or equipped for it than we were ourselves. Was this a face thing, I wondered stereotypically? Anyhow, we left them to it after going up and down the partial climb (good for a view, some boasting value in its own right), then headed off with a guide into the canyon floor. Which was, I should say, well worth it; the whole canyon has the feel of an oasis in the Outback desert, mingling eucalyptus trees and other local flora with great fragments of orange rock fallen from the walls. Although the paths have been cleared and smoothed enough to make this a fairly comfortable exercise, there's some definite sense of primal Australia to be had, and an awareness that one is on ... well, not another planet, but definitely the other side of one's own planet.

Then we got back to the coach, and went off to wait for the rim-walkers. Which was where the one drawback in this tour schedule appeared. Our tour had inevitably taken less time than theirs, and the place we ended up waiting was King's Canyon Resort, which doubtless serves the purpose of providing accommodation well enough, but is otherwise a bit uninspiring - there wasn't a huge amount to see or do (unless one was prepared to pay the serious cost of a 'plane flight round the area), and the lunch options were kind of limited. Basically, a couple of hours of high-temperature thumb-twiddling ensued.

Ah well. We eventually got to make the return trip to Ayer's Rock, complete with another comfort stop at Curtin Springs Station (with an emu to admire - hey, proper Aussie wildlife!), and a chance to be confused by Fooluru. (Uh, Mount Conner - a mesa that resembles Ayer's Rock enough from a distance to befuddle careless visitors.)

Which left us back at the hotel complex with the evening to ourselves. So after a bit of a look around, we strolled through the big, magnificently red open central area to the viewpoint in the middle, and watched dusk fall on Uluru and Kata Tjutu in the distance. Then, in due course, we decided to treat ourselves to dinner in one of the swisher restaurants around the place, including a sampling plate with kangaroo and emu meat. I guess it was kind of just as well we'd seen both on the hoof by then.

And then, on the 24th, we had another fairly early start, to go see Uluru by sunrise (slight haze in the sky still notwithstanding). Which trip ended with a coach run round much of the perimeter of the thing, so we got to say a respectful farewell.

And then it was back to the resort for breakfast and checkout, and on to the airport for our flight back to Sydney - with a last view of the scenery from the plane. So I guess we packed a fair bit in there.

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