DM and MM's Northern Territory 2008 Diary

Day 2 - Uluru

Friday, 15 August, 2008

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We're having a break after a busy morning that began at 05:45 with the alarm getting us up in time for the sunrise. We ate a quick breakfast of Weet-Bix and cold milk from the fridge, then dressed warmly for the pre-dawn chill and headed out.

The sky lightened slowly as we drove out to the national park and the Uluru sunrise viewing area, but the Rock loomed dark against the sky. We reached the viewing area right behind a coachload of tourists. A woman from the national park advised us to park anywhere along the road, either right where the parking area started or further around the corner were good spots. We stopped right there and got out to set up the tripod for some shots in the gloom as the sky continued to brighten, promising another fine, clear day.

Illuminate the foreground
Uluru at sunrise

The area filled up quickly and people were swarming all over the place, jockeying for position along the road for an unobstructed view. At one point I decided to run further up the road in hope of getting a better view, but gave up after discovering that there were trees in the way for a couple of hundred metres - although that didn't deter busloads of tour groups from sitting around with hot drinks watching the Rock. It was really very cold, and my hands were freezing as I kept them out to work with my camera gear. I returned to our original position and snapped away as the sun climbed above the horizon and painted the Rock with light. We saw the campervan group from last night and they waved as they drove off after the sunrise.

We hung around a bit to get some more shots, including some with a very handily positioned kangaroo sign. A group of Italians were playing around, taking lots of photos of their long shadows on the road, so we had a bit of a wait.

A strong candidate for most photographed road sign in Australia
The kangaroo sign

Eventually we left and drove around the the Visitor Centre, where M. got a coffee to warm up and we used the facilities before setting out to the Mala car park and the Uluru Base Walk - the walk 9.4 km around the base of the Rock.

We walked clockwise, taking the northernmost path first so we were in the sun early and would be on the shady side later in the morning when we would be warmer. Up close, the Rock presents an everchanging appearance as you circumnavigate it. We passed a few sacred areas early on, where the local Anangu people have performed ceremonies for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. These areas have large signs warning against trespass and requesting that no photographs be taken of those areas. Another area, not considered sacred, contained an enormous wave-like gouge out of the Rock, the cavity towering about 6 metres overhead as you stood inside it.

Another angle
Another angle of Uluru

The Rock itself was a fine-grained conglomerate with tiny white pebbles like a fish tank gravel, held in an orange-red matrix of coarse sandstone - making a stone known as arkose. Weathered ridges run down it, showing the layers of the strata have been turned sideways. Dark stains mark the location of sluices down the Rock where rainwater spills over the steep sides. In many places great holes show where chunks have fallen out, creating piles of enormous boulders littering the base area. One of these regions of holes forms the distinctive "Brain" formation, seen early on the north side of the Rock on our walk.

Tree and the Brain
The "Brain" formation on Uluru

Up close, the stone looks flaky on the scale of tens of centimetres, with plates of rock spalling off, leaving an uneven, pock-marked surface. In one place a great tongue of rock has separated vertically from the monolith, creating a narrow gap through which the blue sky can be seen - this formation known as the kangaroo tail.

The path was dusty with the dry red dirt. We were soon glad we'd brought our heavy-duty walking boots, as the insides of sandshoes would have been stained red in minutes by the insidious fine dust. The wind was a bit annoying and chilly, but by halfway around the Rock we had warmed up enough to remove our jumpers and retain only light jackets. The only wildlife we saw was birds and small lizards. There were several types of small finch-like birds which were too fast for me to photograph, a few parrots, and a pied butcherbird, which came close enough to us for me to get a few good shots.

Pied Butcherbird
Pied butcherbird

Although flat and easy, the walk was long and a bit tiring in the chilly wind, tempered by a hot, burning sun shining out of a brilliant, cloudless sky. We'd put sunscreen on and wore hats, but by the end of the walk had sustained some minor reddening of our faces by the strong UV light. We had some muesli bars and water at the halfway mark and picked up our water intake for the remainder of the walk.

The shaded side of the Rock wasn't as interesting as the sunlit parts, mainly because it was harder to see contrasted against the bright sky. We walked a bit faster here, wanting to finish the walk and get to the toilets - since the walk took us about 3.5 hours to complete.

Arkose sandstone
Detail of Uluru close up

We ended up at the Mala car park to see that the climbing route up the Rock had been opened - it was closed when we began because of high wind at the summit. We could see strings of people hauling their way up and down the steeply sloped side of the Rock on the chain that is provided for safety. It looked completely insane, with clearly lethal drops on both sides - never mind the fact that the Anangu people are distressed by people climbing the Rock. Some crazy parents were dragging children up - seven or eight years old. I'd hate to think of one of them losing their grip up there.

Uluru Climbers
People climbing Uluru


We've just come in after dinner - more of which later.

Back to the Rock. M. waited on a seat near the start of the climb while I raced to the nearby toilets and then returned to take a final few photos before we drove back to our accommodation at Yulara.

We'd eaten our bread rolls on the walk, so didn't really need anything more for lunch. We walked over to the supermarket to get some more supplies for lunch and trail snacks tomorrow. I also checked in the newsagent for swimming goggles, since the supermarket didn't have any and I could use some for the pool in the hotel. No luck however.

Then we spent a couple of hours resting out of the harsh desert sun in our room. M. read a book while I did some of this diary and kept an eye on the Olympics on TV. I also transferred the morning's photos to the media drive to clear out the camera for more shooting in the evening.

At 16:30 we left Yulara to drive the 50 km out to Kata Tjuta for the sunset viewing. These domed rock outcrops are larger and higher than Uluru, but sectioned into multiple chunks sticking out of the desert soil.

Domes of Kata Tjuta
Kata Tjuta

Almost nobody else was at the sunset viewing area when we arrived and we picked a prime position, unhindered by trees in the foreground. We thought we'd have the whole place to ourselves, but as sunset approached hordes of people descended on the fairly small viewing area. By the time the sun went down around 18:30, people were jostling for position and getting in each other's way as they crowded into the available space.

The play of light on Kata Tjuta was possibly even better than yesterday's sunset at Uluru. It was enhanced further by the full moon rising directly over the mountains as we watched.

Kata Tjuta Sunset
Sunset at Kata Tjuta

After the sun vanished, the people quickly drifted away. Only a few people remained as we were packing up and one turned out to be a park ranger ushering people out before the park closed for the evening. He hovered behind us in his car in the car park until we drove off, and then hovered behind another car that was even slower than us to get out of there.

We drove the long haul back to Yulara, arriving in the dark at just after 19:30. We'd made a booking at Winkiku - the seafood buffet restaurant here at Sails - for 20:00. We wandered over 15 minutes early and got a table to the right side of the entrance, far away from the buffet layout. Although that wasn't bad as the walking probably helped burn off some of the food! The buffet was excellent, with a wide assortment of cold seafood, antipasto items, salads and so forth for starters. There was a mushroom and truffle soup, which I tried towards the end because I hadn't noticed it at the beginning. Then there was a wide selection of hot dishes with barramundi, quail, pork, lamb prepared two different ways, as well as roast joints of beef, lamb, and pork, and a selection of vegetables, potatoes, and rice. Then there was a large selection of cheeses, breads, dried fruits, nuts, and fresh fruits, plus for sweets a hot peach and passionfruit pudding, a yoghurt cake, black forest cake, and two types of cheesecake - cold passionfruit and baked mango.

Winkiku Seafood Buffet
Dinner at Winkiku

I sampled widely but in small portions so as not to get too stuffed. It may have been expensive, but it was good.

Back in the room, we washed away the grime of the day and retired in preparation for another pre-dawn start tomorrow.

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