While visiting one of the most popular tourist attractions in Australia, Graham Reid discovers that finding some private serenity just requires some space and perspective.
Mount Ebenezer, about 200 miles south of Alice Springs in the Australian Outback is just another flat spot on the road with a shop, a petrol station and some Aboriginal woman sitting under a tree.
I slow down, wave, laugh aloud at the absurd name of this remote place then kick the car back up to about 100mph. Once more I gaze out at the vast landscape of red dirt, low scrub and the occasional dead kangaroo that has been bowled by one of the big rigs way out here on the Lassiter Highway.
I haven't seen a car in more than half an hour and am thoroughly enjoying myself: the comic–book blue sky, the 90 degree heat outside when I stop to stretch my legs, the sheer scale of this extraordinary land. Out here is silence, constantly changing geography and plant life, and a sense of infinite space which reaches to the distance mountain range stretching out to somewhere far, far beyond.
I've been driving all day, from tiny Glen Helen far west of Alice Springs. Eventually I will get to Uluru, that remote big red rock which acts like a magnet for tourists. But I'm no hurry, just enjoying the hours which have gone by effortlessly on this shimmering ribbon of highway.
These days Uluru—which attracts around 450,000 visitors annually—is just another sight for many tourists to tick off. The nearby town of Yulara, on the edge of the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park, is a motel/hotel and camping complex with rowdy bars, restaurants, and shops selling souvenirs and Aboriginal art.
Alice Springs gets by on the myth that it is close to Uluru, but in fact it is some 280 miles away, so increasingly tourists are flying in to Connellan Airport at Yulara rather than making the desert drive. But they miss the sheer grandeur of the Outback—and a sense of just how remote Uluru actually is. You can't imagine coming way out here on foot as the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people did, or even on horseback like the European explorer Alan Breaden over a century ago.
"Standing out there in the stark desert, its weather–scarred walls rising sheer and bare to the height of 1100 feet, it seems to dwarf the mind by its presence," Breaden wrote of Uluru. "Yet drop your eyes from it you cannot…you feel as a little thing of no account…. it looks like some deliberate trick of nature, dropped there to guard and sentinel for ever the great western deserts beyond."
To the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, Uluru is a place of legends and is imbued with spiritual meaning: the story of the Mala and their conflict with another group who sent evil creatures against them; the Two Boys who dragged their fingers through mud which hardened and formed the huge ribbings on the southern side; the stories of the python woman and the lizard man …
At the end of the day it is the habit of tourists to go to the designated "sunset viewing spot" a few miles from the big red rock. In the distance Uluru—dominating the flat landscape and constantly changing different shades of red in the light—is as silent as the moon. But the viewing spot is noisy as cameras click and whirr, beer cans are opened, and people gather around portable barbecues.
The noise drives me crazy so I leave and head to mysterious and massive Uluru some 10 minutes drive away. When I get there it is deserted. To my astonishment I have Uluru all to myself, and I sit beneath its precipitous walls which rise almost vertically out of the dirt and are glowing vivid orange in the on–coming sunset. In silence I read the petroglyphs left by unknown hands many hundreds and possibly thousands of years ago.
Uluru impresses upon you a sense of time and permanence: it may have emerged from the 550 million year old sedimentary rock about 65 million years ago, a timeframe we cannot begin to comprehend. In that context even the Aboriginal people who have been here for at least 25,000 years are relatively recent arrivals and it makes mockery of its "discovery" by William Christie Gosse in 1873 who named it Ayers Rock in honour of Sir Henry Ayers, the governor of South Australia.
Not so far away by car is the even higher Kata Tjuta, another impressive formation of 36 separate domes which dominates the landscape some 25 miles west of Uluru. The explorer Arthur Groom wrote in 1948, "the smallest dome could have crowned the world's greatest cathedral and the greatest was a red immensity of rock that would have completely dwarfed the same edifice".
Such religious references are almost inevitable when confronted by the majestic Kata Tjuta and Uluru.
As the light changed around me, the colour of Uluru softened, the outlines of trees against the incline became sharper and then appeared as silhouettes against a wall of bright red. As the desert started to chill I sat alone at this extraordinary geological feature and simply watched the color of the sky, the rock and the few clouds overhead change.
This is where many Aboriginal dreaming tracks cross. The areas is between vast deserts—the Simpson, Great Victoria, Gibson, and Tanami—and Uluru is magnetic and spiritual in its pull.
I take some photographs knowing none could do it justice, then drive back towards Yulara. The road is empty, until I get to the designated viewing spot. From there on I am in a steady stream of tail–lights, people going back to their various hotel rooms in Yulara, each with remarkably similar photos of that beguiling big red rock in the middle of the sun–burned desert.
Graham Reid is an award–winning New Zealand travel writer, music writer and journalist. His book Postcards From Elsewhere won the 2006 Whitcoulls Travel Book of the Year award, and his website www.elsewhere.co.nz features travel stories, photos, rock'n'roll reminiscences, and a weekly music review in which he posts tracks from albums which have gone past radio programmers and other reviewers.
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Australia, New Zealand, and South Pacific travel stories from the archives