Australia & New Zealand Trip – Uluru
Wednesday, June 3
Having spent several days in the sprawling metropolis that is Sydney, climbing off the plane in Uluru introduced us to the true Australian Outback. Vast expanses of mostly nothing, sporadically dotted with huge sandstone rock formations and lavish tourist accommodations. Uluru, more commonly known as Ayers Rock and recognized by it’s reddish hue is a sacred spot of the Anangu, the local aboriginal people. Along with Kata Tjuta, Uluru is located within the boundaries of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Uluru is open for climbing, should you choose to try, but there are a few conditions to do so. First, it is only open during certain times of the year, and even when it is accessible, it is a hard climb and has taken the lives of several unprepared tourists. Secondly, the aboriginal people do not prohibit climbing the rock, but do ask you not to out of respect for their culture and traditions.
We arrived in the Northern Territory by the early afternoon and after getting situated, our first tour included a tour around the base of the mountain and through the Cultural Center. We were accompanied by a pair of aboriginal guides and an interpreter. We learned much about the myths and stories that accompany the great rock and a little bit about the culture of the people that are so endeared to it. We learned how Uluru has woven itself into the lives and stories of the Anangu people and how it has helped shaped their history.
Thursday, June 4
On Thursday we started the day before sunrise where Uluru is home to an interesting phenomenon. When the sun rises or sets and hits the rock just right, it appears to change color. It goes from the sand-colored rock you see during the day to a vivid red while the sun moves across the sky.
After the sunrise, we headed out on another early-morning tour throughout the bush surrounding Ayers Rock. We were able to enjoy a nice tribal meal with a panoramic view of the rock from the Cultural Center’s breakfast room before heading out with more aboriginal guides who demonstrated skills like making glue and traditional weapons. We also were able to use a Anangu spear-thrower to hunt kangaroo. Not real kangaroos, but a small tree we pretended was one. Hunting as an Anangu is a tough affair.
First off, they hunt kangaroo, which aren’t the easiest animals to catch up with in the first place. Secondly, the method of hunting has a few steps. They first use their spear to wound the animal and they track it as it gets weaker and weaker. When they eventually catch up to the kangaroo, which could take a few miles, they kill it with a swift blow to the back of the head with a club.
There are also certain places of the rock and surrounding area that do not allow photography. These places are often places of gender-linked rituals that certain sexes are not allowed to see. The photography ban is so that the Anangu people don’t inadvertently see images of the locations in the outside world.
Friday, June 5
Our last day at Uluru had only a Sounds of Silence dinner planned for that evening. So in the morning we hitched a ride over to the other famous rock formation about twenty miles away, Kata Tjuta. Uluru is the more famous and is the sacred ground for aboriginal women. Kata Tjuta is the sacred site for the men, and is comprised of not just one giant sandstone formation, but a cluster of about thirty, 36 to be exact. The tours for Kata Tjuta are less structured, so Zachary and I explored what is known as the Passage of the Winds, a passage between two of the mounds that acts as a natural wind tunnel. Hold onto your hats!
Kata Tjuta is still used to this day for spiritual ceremonies, one of which being for public punishment. While the ritual used to occasionally result in death, it no longer does. Australia has employed a dual-naming system for many of their natural landmarks to preserve the sanctity of the aboriginal origins. Much like Uluru has a secondary, English name (Ayers Rock), Kata Tjuta is also known as The Olgas, named for Queen Olga of Württemberg.
After our journey out to Kata Tjuta, Zachary and I headed out for a guided camel tour. The two of us loaded ourselves onto a camel and set off with a convoy of about fifteen other camels for a trek around the Australian Outback. On our camel expedition, we learned the history of Australian camels. Originally brought to the country rather than horses because of their superior tolerance for the harsh terrain found in Central Australia, the camels were ordered to be killed after exploration, but the handlers couldn’t bring themselves to kill their friends and simply set them free in the bush. Which is why Australia has the world’s largest wild camel population in the world. Despite that fact, Zachary and I managed to find only one wild camel in our time there.
Following our camel ride, we returned to our resort and showered up for the Sounds of Silence dinner. We were dropped off in the middle of the bush country and made our way along a path towards a clearing where we enjoyed traditional Australian appetizers while a didgeridoo serenaded us. This was one of the larger events we participated in, with probably close to 100 people taking part in the experience.
After the appetizers we were seated ten to a table. Zachary, Oma and I were to eat dinner with a little old lady originally from England who had recently moved to Australia. Also in our dining party were two Australian couples, probably around their mid-to-late forties. I’ve found that tour guides and travel books can only teach you facts and numbers about a place. If you really want to get to know a region, a country or a people, the best way to do that is to talk with individuals from the place you are visiting. It’s almost impossible to pick a favorite experience from a trip like this, but the Sounds of Silence dinner was definitely up there on my list. Sure, we were able to sample the finest Australian outback cuisine featuring crocodile and kangaroo meat, and we learned a whole lot about the stars and constellations of the Southern Hemisphere. For example, the North Star isn’t visible in the night sky south of the equator. We already knew this, but the German Tourist Conglomerate did not.
We spent over four hours exchanging stories about our experiences and customs with our Australian counterparts. The two Australian couples had children around my and Zachary’s age so we spent awhile comparing the structure of American schooling versus the Australian setup. We compared politics and the impressions we each had of the other’s country, as they had vacationed in California the previous year. We had a laugh at stereotypes that one country has of the other. I learned that Australians assume all Americans smoke marijuana and insisted I teach them every slang term for marijuana I knew.
Oma made a friend too as she and the lady from England compared their German. I also contributed to the conversation, but not much more than schnurrbart. It was well past midnight by the time we made our way back to our resort but I think we all slept well that night, pleased with how our last day at Uluru had ended. The next morning would see us say goodbye to camels, Anangu and the bush and make our way to Cairns, which would be the gateway to some of the best scenery in Australia and the focal point for the Great Barrier Reef!