King’s Canyon to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock).

You wake up early in the outback, mostly because your tour guide insists. We’re up and it’s barely light out. A quick breakfast and we pack up the trailer and get on our way toward our first stop of the day, Kata Tjuta, aka The Olgas. Kata Tjuta is actually taller than Uluru (546m vs. 348m). It’s a striking mass of domed rocks only 35 km west of Uluru. These domed rocks, or boulders, sit shoulder to shoulder and form deep valleys and steep sided gorges. The trail is tricky for me, my knee is really fatigued but I do my best and make it to the first lookout, about a 45 minute hike in. It’s really beautiful but I know I can’t do anymore, I tell Fitzy and as he wasn’t planning on doing the hike either (he never does apparently) he walks back a fair bit of the way with me. I’m slow so I send him a head and plug in my ipod. I’m wandering along, singing aloud, in a valley that’s mostly empty and just taking my time, snapping photos, resting when I need to, it’s really nice. When I make it back to the bus Fitzy is preparing lunch and I offer to help out. We sit chopping stuff and chatting until the others start to trickle back in.

We drive to our new campsite for the night. It’s in Yulara, the Ayer’s Rock Resort, the only place to stay anywhere nearby the Rock. The accommodation here ranges from campsites to a hostel to super-duper high end hotel. There is a pool here for anyone to use as well, so after a quick lunch we all go for a swim. It’s FREEZING! Seriously ice-cold. Hard to believe it could be so cold in such a scorching hot climate but it is and I can only stay in for about 1 minute.

Now that we are clean (yay), we head off towards the Uluru – Kata Tjuta Cultural Center. Here there are displays and exhibits that focus on Aboriginal law, religion and customs, as well as the history and management of the national park. There is an Art Center with paintings, ceramics and a wide selection of boomerangs and didgeridoos and a café where (much to my delight) I can finally get a decent cup of coffee. When we as outsiders are told stories about Aboriginal culture and history we’re told a simplified version. This is all we are allowed as we are considered children in our knowledge and ability to understand.

From the Cultural Center we finally head to Uluru, only a couple kilometers away. From a distance it looks just like I have always seen it in pictures, a big red rock. But as we get closer it seems to grow impossibly in size (it’s actually 3.6 km long and 348 m high). It’s the only feature in a flat landscape and when you stand down below it towers over you. There is something about this rock, something that draws you in and keeps you looking at it. Its undulating features are actually mesmerizing. What I thought of as being a monolith before I saw it becomes endlessly fascinating with its nooks and crannies, caves and rock formations. I can’t do it justice; you’ll just have to go see it for yourself.  Go! Do it!

But for god’s sake don’t climb it! I mean people do, but it’s a question of respect. The Anangu people are the custodians of Uluru and they take responsibility for the safety of visitors. Any injuries or deaths that occur (and they do) are a source of distress and sadness for them. Also much of Uluru is considered sacred to them, traditional rites of passage still take place here, in many areas of the Rock photography is prohibited. I think of it like this: when I go to a mosque I cover my hair and dress appropriately, in any religious place I try to be respectful, even though it’s not my choice of religion. Why should this rock be treated any differently? Finally, Parks Australia has to constantly monitor the climb and close it when the temperature is forecast to reach 36 degrees or higher. So why does it stay open? Because it’s there I guess, and people still want to climb it and the tourism industry believes that visitor numbers would decline significantly, at least initially, if the climb was closed, particularly if tourists thought there wasn’t anything else to do at Uluru. There is a lot of debate on this topic, our guide Fitzy was very vocal with his “no climb” opinion, and none of our group chose to climb. For now people can continue to climb though there is a lot of information out there urging you not to but an agreement has been made that when the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20% then the climb will be shut. Let’s hope that happens soon.

We visit a few spots around the base of Uluru, and see some cave paintings. Fitzy tells us some stories and legends,­ reiterating a lot of what we learned at the Cultural Center but adding his unique take on it. I really can see the impression this place and its culture has made on him. He is extremely passionate about and respectful of the Indigenous culture, traditions and history. It’s really admirable that this typical Australian kid who grew up in Newcastle on the east coast, without being taught anything in school about Aboriginal lifestyle and history, has really tried to educate himself and, in turn, to pass on to us his knowledge and respect and all in a measly 3 days.

Nearing sunset we head to a view point that is close by. It’s essentially a parking lot and there are a lot of other groups there. Some of these groups are like us, campers, but others are being served multi-course dinners and champagne on linen covered tables, POSH! Fitzy makes a meal out of the back of the trailer while the rest of us drink beer and watch as the sun sinks down behind the Rock. A waiter serving the “posh” group takes pity on us and donates a left over bottle of champagne which a few of us end up sharing, yum.

Once it’s dark it’s a short drive back to our campsite at Yulara for the night. There we join forces with another group from the same company. The beer is flowing, a fire burns brightly and things get a little hectic. Slowly people pass out in a big circle around the fire. I find myself sandwiched between snorers, with no other gaps available near the fire I move a few meters away and snuggle down for the night. Tonight I fall asleep with the top of my swag open, I am vulnerable to the creepy crawlies but I can see the stars.