The magic of Uluru
Millions of square kilometers of desert flat as the hand. Red soil as far as the eye can see. A cloudless blue sky, a deadly sun. And right in the middle, a huge ocher monolith: Uluru. Along with the Sydney Opera House and the Great Barrier Reef, it is one of the emblems of Australia and I had dreamed of seeing it in person for a very long time. I waited until the very last days of my first year in the country to finally make it happen; I had kind of kept the best for last… Because yes, you can believe what all the tourist guides say: Uluru is truly a magical and unique place!
The first time I saw it was through an airplane window. Well, not counting all the times I had seen it in documentaries, on the cover of my Lonely Planet guide, on postcards, on mugs, or on every type of souvenir imaginable. I was on a flight from Melbourne to Yulara, the tourist village and its tiny airport built near this fabulous monolith. I take this opportunity to give you a tip if you are doing the same route: choose a seat on the left side of the aircraft, far enough from the wings, and you can admire Uluru from the sky, with the silhouettes of the Kata Tjuta mountains in the background. A breathtaking panorama…
It was the very first time I was travelling without my van since arriving in Australia. The end of my year in the country was approaching, and after 11 months and thousands of kilometers behind the wheel, I had to resolve to sell it a few days earlier in Melbourne. To be honest, it had become a wreck: the third gear no longer engaged, the left mirror was torn off, the rear door was blocked… The only person who had agreed to take it back from me was a scrap dealer, but I Still pulled off a good prize, much to my surprise. That’s why I chose to participate in an organized tour to discover Uluru and its surroundings: it’s not in my travel habits and if I had to do it again I would rather try to rent a vehicle to be able to explore the area on my own, but it was the most economical solution.
After landing at Yulara airport, I met the other people who had booked the same tour as me (most of them very young and either as a couple or with friends, which made me the only solo traveler in the group), then our guide made us embark in the large white minibus which was going to be our means of transport for the next three days. Our first destination was an Aboriginal cultural center at the foot of Uluru, where we had not lingered (too bad), before starting to hike on the path that circles around it.
I knew Uluru was a really big rock, but it wasn’t until this hike that I realised just how huge it really was. It dominates the plain from a height of 348m, for a summit altitude of 863m; it measures 2.5 km in length, and it has a perimeter of 9.4 km. But that’s only the visible part… Similar to an iceberg, there is much more below the surface: about seven times more, with a maximum depth of 2.5km! Its estimated weight is around 1.5 billion tons, or 250 times the Pyramid of Giza. A damn big rock indeed…
I quickly found myself at the back of the group, not because I was walking slowly, but because I was constantly stopping to take dozens of photos! However, a few signs indicated that the use of a camera was forbidden in certain places: Uluru is sacred to the local Aborigines (the Pitjantjatjara), and several places at the foot of the rock are still used today for religious rites. For the same reason, the ascent of the summit is considered by the Aborigines as a real sacrilege, because it goes completely against their beliefs. In the event of an accident among the many tourists who selfishly chose to do it without any respect to their traditions (several deaths recorded!), this could even lead them to self-mutilate or scarify themselves… Fortunately the climb was finally prohibited on October 26, 2019. But one of the trendy attractions today is to go around Uluru by… segway. This seems to be so incompatible with its spiritual importance or its natural beauty to me… It is also out of respect that I exclusively use its Aboriginal name, which became (again) the official name in 1993, and not the name Ayers Rock which was given by the first British explorers at the end of the 19th century.
I remained amazed by the landscape I had in front of me during the entire hike. It was a fantastic feeling to observe this natural wonder from so close. Far from being smooth, the rocky surface was constantly changing, evoking a face here, a lung there; its color was sometimes bright red and sometimes ocher depending on the light, with black areas where water drained during occasional heavy thunderstorms. I was also very surprised by the almost lush vegetation and the number of trees all around Uluru, where I expected a much more arid landscape. There was even a rather large natural waterhole at the foot of the southern slope! Positive point also, as the path that goes around it is quite long (10.6 km), I was almost always alone, away from tourist groups, the best possible conditions to appreciate the sight.
About halfway through, a side path led to Kantju Gorge, a fissure in the rock with another small natural pool at its foot. Even now, I struggle to find the words to describe this place. The closer I got, the more I had the impression of physically feeling something special in the air, an almost palpable mystical atmosphere, the mixture between ancient traditions and the strength and beauty of nature. When I arrived at the foot of the rock, the few people who were already there all seemed to experience the same thing as me: the only words exchanged were whispered, and everyone moved as slowly and supplely as possible so as not to make the slightest noise. Even though photos were allowed here, I felt embarrassed to use my camera, and after a few shots I quickly put it away to better appreciate this magical moment. No image could transcribe the special and intense emotion of this moment anyway.
If Uluru is so famous, it is also for a daily natural phenomenon: the sunset. When the last rays of day fall on it, it takes on a flamboyant and almost unreal red hue. A viewing area has been set up where the view is supposed to be the best; but inevitably, that’s where everyone goes… Individual tourists who came with their own vehicle or organized tours, there were dozens of people gathered in this area, waiting for the sun to go down. All groups like ours seemed to have the same ritual: an aperitif buffet with crackers and biscuits, and a plastic flute of champagne. It all seemed very artificial to me and I would have much preferred to live this moment in a more reclusive and contemplative way, but I must admit that this photo of me in front of the rock is still rather cool… Unfortunately, the sight I was looking for had been a little bit spoiled by the clouds that had gradually accumulated at the end of the day. Uluru hadn’t adorned itself with the red light I had hoped to see, but in exchange we were treated to an absolutely magnificent sky in the opposite direction.
We woke up very early the next morning, and for a good reason: the first activity on the agenda for the day was to watch the sunrise over Uluru. There is another dedicated area for that, with a few wooden platforms surrounded by a metal barrier. I think that the crowd was even worse than the day before for the sunset. The platform was crowded, but luckily our group had arrived first and I had a place of choice, leaning on the railing, without having to jostle with dozens of other tourists brandishing their smartphones. If I had been a few rows back, it would probably have completely ruined the experience for me… But at the moment when the first rays of sun began to appear, revealing the silhouette of Uluru, a dark mass contrasting with a rigorously flat horizon line, I completely ignored the dozens of people behind me. The sight was breathtaking. The kind of sight that moves me deeply, to the point of almost bringing me to tears…
The rest of the tour allowed us to discover two other splendid natural sites in the region, first the Kata Tjuta (an Aboriginal name which means “many heads”), a group of 36 monoliths only 25km from Uluru; then the next day Kings Canyon, a rift with impressive sheer cliffs, 350km further north (in other words right next to it compared to the immensity of the Australian desert). Along the way, we also admired another monolith, Mount Conner or the “fake Uluru”. True or invented story, our guide told us about a group of British people who had traveled all the way from Alice Springs, had stopped to take pictures of Mount Conner and then left, convinced that they had seen Uluru… These places were gorgeous, and I loved walking in the Valley of the Winds in the middle of the Kata Tjuta or hiking at dawn in Kings Canyon, but the emotion I felt when I faced Uluru was incomparable.
Coming back from Kings Canyon on the third day, in the late afternoon, our minibus left the main road at a roadhouse (one of these isolated gas stations in the middle of the outback), then after a few bumpy miles on a rugged track, we reached the camp where we would spend our last night: a simple container sheltering a generator to have some electricity and the necessary equipment for the evening, and a vast free space nearby to set up a camp fire and sleep around it. After the intense happiness of finally discovering Uluru, this was my favorite part of this tour; I would never have ventured to do it alone. The night sky was almost unreal. There was no Moon and the Milky Way shone with an extraordinary intensity; it felt like I could touch a distant galaxy just by reaching out my hand. The expression sleeping under the stars had never been so aptly named… There was a small sand dune right next to our camp, the perfect vantage point to admire the surroundings and take some pictures. Apart from the inhabitants of the roadhouse whose lights could be seen not far from where we were, there was no other human being for tens of kilometers around, and this feeling was exhilarating.
And then the next day it was time to leave… Most of the other participants of the tour were leaving by plane from Yulara, while I stayed on board of the minibus for a journey of about 5 hours through the Australian desert to Alice Springs, then later Darwin and back to Europe. It was with a touch of sadness that I saw the silhouette of Uluru disappear in the distance, but also with a deep feeling of satisfaction and incredible memories in my memory.
Good to know before visiting Uluru
The best period to travel to Uluru and more generally to the arid center of Australia is from May to September, from late autumn to early austral spring. Between November and February, in the middle of summer, maximum temperatures easily exceed 35°C, with a record high of 47°C! In winter, the highs are much more bearable and vary between 20 and 25°C. On the other hand, the nights are very cold: it can even (very rarely) freeze! The tour I took part in included the renting of a “swag”, a traditional portable sleeping bag historically used by itinerant sheep shearers; it is a sort of a mix between a mattress and a thick duvet. By adding an extra layer of clothes, I did not feel the cold, even whils sleeping outside with temperatures dropping to only 5°C. Another big advantage of traveling at this time of the year: there are hardly any flies. Believe me, having experienced their incessant buzzing in my eyes, ears and nostrils during a road trip on the west coast of the country in the middle of summer, it can quickly turn into a nightmare!