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We rose again this morning at 05:45 for the long trek back to Kata Tjuta for the sunrise. After another hurried breakfast of Weet-Bix, we set out under the stars on the 50 km drive.
We arrived at the Dune Sunrise Viewing Area for Kata Tjuta, with the sky brightening rapidly ahead of the sun. We were the first people there and walked the short distance from the car park up a sand dune on a metal boardwalk to the viewing area. It was a series of metal platforms with shade roofing and benches for seating. The elevated position gave us not only an excellent view of Kata Tjuta to the north, but also Uluru away on the eastern horizon, with the sun making the sky pink to the north-east.
Our solitude with the desert landscape was short lived, with cars and busloads of people arriving soon after. As the sun climbed into the sky it touched the domed heads of Kata Tjuta with a red glow that crept down the flanks of the rocks, turning them burnt orange as it went. The surrounding desert landscape lit up, presenting a patched carpet of red soil dotted with the grey-green of acacia, melaleuca, eucalyptus, spinifex, and other vegetation. Again I'd have to say Kata Tjuta beats Uluru, this time for sunrise spectacle as well as sunset.
We left the viewing area for the additional drive out to the mountains themselves to begin the challenging Valley of the Winds walk. First stop was the viewing area where we'd watched the sunset last night to use the toilets there - the only ones anywhere near Kata Tjuta. As we approached the parking area, M. suddenly yelled, "A camel!!"
I said, "Where?" and M. had to point out into the bushes directly in front of us - I was scanning the distance on either side of the car but it was only a few metres from us and almost directly in front. It was large and whitish in colour, and was idly grazing on the acacia in the middle of the car park. M. got out her video camera and started filming it as it wandered unconcernedly across the road in front of us. As it sidled off into the shrub, M. said, "One hump, or two?" (It actually had one.) I knew there were lots of feral camels in central Australia, but I never expected to see one in the middle of a major tourist attraction's car park.
Excitement over, we headed the extra few kilometres to the car park for the Valley of the Winds walks. Up close, Kata Tjuta presents a very different look to Uluru. Whereas Uluru is a coarse pebbly sandstone that gives the appearance of a fine-grained conglomerate, Kata Tjuta is clearly a coarsely pebbled conglomerate, with rounded granite pebbles up to loaf-of-bread size and occasionally even larger, held into the sedimentary matrix. Boulders and chunks that have weathered off the main outcrops are irregular and lumpy, rather than the smoothly rounded ones at Uluru. And where pebbles had weathered out of the matrix were gaping rounded holes in the rock, some large enough to put a boot into (M.'s actually got stuck in one on the path at one point).
The walk led up a shallow valley over a gentle scree slope of loose pebbles ranging from tiny to fist-sized to larger, scattered across a solid, irregular base of conglomerate. The going was difficult and strenuously uphill at times, and made even less fun by a strong wind blowing out of the valley.
1500 metres in was the first lookout point, which gave good views of the rock domes on either side and the valley extending east between them. The path continued down another rock slope and along the valley floor. It became abundantly clear why this place was called the Valley of the Winds, but thankfully once we reached the grassy valley floor the wind died down and the walk became flat and very pleasant.
Past the junction of the loop track, we followed the right arm along a dry creek to a point where the path led straight up a bare rock slope, perhaps 30° or 40° gradient. People were ahead of us atop the slope and others clambering up. M. didn't like the prospect and volunteered to stay put while I trekked as far along as the second lookout point another few hundred metres along the valley, winding between looming walls of red conglomerate rock towering above.
I reached the second lookout, which presented a view from a tall saddle point down into the valley beyond and more peaks of Kata Tjuta framed by the rock walls on each side. I took some photos and a tour group arrived up the slope behind me. The guide took some food out for his group, including a bag of choc-chip cookies. But when he opened them and asked who wanted some, nobody responded. He asked again, "Doesn't anyone want a chocolate chip cookie?"
I yelled over from where I was standing on the other side of the narrow valley, "I'd love one!"
The guide said, "Yeah, okay then," and held the bag out towards me. As I started to walk over, he said, "Ten bucks each." Then he laughed and said, "Nah, you can have one." But then as I walked closer, he looked at me and said in a shocked voice, "Wait, is that a Queensland jersey you're wearing?" referring to my maroon Burling jersey.
I said, "No, I wouldn't be caught dead in a Queensland jersey!" which satisfied him - "Okay then, you can have a cookie."
After my cookie, I returned to where M. was waiting. A group of Italians was on top of the rock slope and I asked a couple to take some shots of me with the amazing red stone wall behind me before I climbed down and joined M. again.
We walked back out of the valley of the Winds, having spent nearly 3 hours enjoying the magnificent scenery and concluding that it was indeed the best walk we've seen here (as the Lonely Planet describes it). From there, we drove the short distance to the Walpa Gorge walk, which is an easy walk straight into one of the deep, dark gorges between two of the giant rock domes. It was interesting and worth the hour it took for the return walk, but not as amazing as the Valley of the Winds.
After a quick stop at the toilets, we drove back to Yulara to rest out of the burning midday sun, before our special fancy dinner under the stars tonight.
We've just returned from the amazing Sounds of Silence dinner. This is a dining experience involving being collected from your hotel at around 17:30, driven out to a location atop a sand dune away from Yulara with a view of Uluru and Kata Tjuta, being served champagne and canapes as the sun sets over this magnificent landscape, then being served a buffet dinner of local produce under the stars.
During our afternoon rest I had another swim in the hotel pool to freshen up, and then we prepared for our special dinner. The bus arrived to pick us up with about 30 other guess of our hotel. It drove us out past the lookout we'd walked to on our first day and down a ridged dirt road to a path leading up a sand dune.
At the top was an area where a guy was playing a didgeridoo for ambience, and waiters were serving drinks from a bar. They brought out canapes of crocodile, kangaroo, smoked salmon (for the unadventurous), and vege sushi. We discussed the difference between canapes and hors d'oeuvres and decided we'd have to look it up when we got home. (Apparently canapes are a subset of hors d'oeuvres, being those which are tiny and designed to be consumed in a single mouthful.)
Several people were taking photos of Uluru and I accidentally got my head in someone's shot while moving into position to take one myself. The woman with the camera jokingly admonished me for getting in her shot and I apologised in kind for "ruining" her photo. Later on, M. wanted to get a photo of us together and the same woman was there shooting away with her Canon DSLR, so I suggested she was a good person to ask. She turned out to be ebulliently friendly and insisted we introduce ourselves before taking our picture. Her name was Deb, and she was here in central Australia on a trip for her friend's 50th birthday ("A trip to the middle of the country to celebrate the middle of a century," she said, "The middle for the middle!"), travelling with her husband and a group of friends. We talked a bit and she admired my camera and told us how enthusiastic she was about photography. She'd taken a trip to New Zealand for her own 50th birthday for two weeks and come back with 7000 photos. M. was amazed that anyone could take more photos then me!
Deb agreed to pose for my 100 Strangers project and I gave her a card (and then later a Flickr card when I remembered I had some with me in my jacket pocket). It turned out she was from Busselton in Western Australia, and she insisted on introducing us to her friend Jenni, who is an artist, and getting one of her business cards for us. Then she introduced us to her husband John - who turned out to be the guy we'd seen at our hotel dressed for the evening in a dinner jacket, bow tie, and blue jeans.
We mingled around and the didgeridoo player gave a talk about the lore surrounding the instrument, how to tell a genuine one from a cheap fake, and how to play one. The sun set spectacularly, aided by the wispy cloud cover that had come over during the day - giving us the first interesting sky we've seen so far.
Then we were ushered down the dune to a cleared area of sandy red earth where dining tables seating ten were set up in front of a kitchen and buffet counter with gas heaters and a blazing campfire in one corner. The host instructed us to choose any tables and get to know some of the other diners. We chose a table occupied by a pair of young women, who turned out to be from Brisbane, and a family of four (daughter, parents, and the father's sister) from Maui in Hawaii. They were all very friendly and we had animated discussions of various topics related to our travels and local experiences.
The dinner began with wines and a dinner roll. M. got me a glass each of white and red to try, while Deb held me for more of a chinwag after I gave her my Flickr card. She told me about a bunch of places in W.A. that I had to go see and take photos of.
Back at the dinner table we were served a bowl of spicy pumpkin soup to start the meal off. Very spicy and delicious, but suffering slightly from the icy chill in the air as it was served. Then we took it in turns by table to collect the main course from the buffet. There was a potato and dukka salad, pumpkin and feta salad, crocodile caesar salad, chicken sausages, chili baked barramundi, kangaroo skewers, lamb cutlets, roast potatoes, rice, and more bread rolls. And maybe one or two more other things I didn't try.
After the main course, the host recited a short poem offering us the "Sound of Silence", leading into a quiet moment when all talking ceased and we sat listening to the absolute quiet of the still desert night. Then a woman gave a talk about the stars and constellations we could see - although given that it was a full moon the sky wasn't as spectacular as it could have been.
Dessert followed, during which diners could walk a short way to peer at Jupiter and its Galilean satellites or the detail of the surface of the moon through two small telescopes. The desserts were chocolate brownies, carrot cake, hot berry crumble, bread and butter pudding, and fresh fruit, with port and coffee, tea, or hot chocolate for drinks.
The dinner over, we reboarded the bus for the trip back to our hotel. Before having a shower I decided to take a tripod photo of the hotel pool reflecting the lights of the main building in the darkness. As I retrieved the tripod from the car I noticed a spectacular halo around the moon in the thin cloud cover, so I took some snaps of that too.
Then it was back to the room for a well-earned sleep, without having to get up early tomorrow.
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