30 October 2013

Travels in Oz (Uluru/Ayers Rock)

Since first travelling to Australia I’ve always wanted to visit Uluru (Ayers Rock). I often use the expression 'in the middle of no-where', but that's never been more true of anywhere than Uluru. It is almost 500km from the nearest town (Alice Springs) by road and close to the red centre of Australia.

I’ve always known (theoretically) that Australia is a big place, but that's really a huge understatement. Looking out of the plane window and seeing nothing but red earth and scrubby bushes in all directions certainly emphasises the point.  Auckland to Sydney is approximately a 3.5 hour flight and Cairns to Ayers Rock is about the same with a stop at Alice Springs. I won't even think about how long it takes to drive!

If you’ve heard of Alice Springs it’s probably from the book and/or film A Town Like Alice. Our flights only gave us a 45 minute stop there and so we didn’t have time to visit the town. Flying into Alice Springs the plane comes in low over red earth with seemingly nothing else around and then the runway appears – phew!!

For a small place Alice Springs airport has flights to all the major cities in Australia and is a busy hub. It’s the first time in years that I’ve got off a plane and walked across the pan to get to the airport buildings. It reminded me of my first flight ever, which was to Cyprus. My first impressions on coming out from the aircraft were the heat – high 30s searing dry heat - and the feeling of being under an enormous blue dome as the land is so flat.

The flight to Ayers Rock from Alice Springs is about 45 minutes and gave me my first look at the monolith. If you’re interested in facts the rock is about 3.6km long and 1.9km wide, and stands about 348m high with much of its bulk below ground.

One of the interesting things about travelling are the time differences you experience. Auckland is two hours ahead of Sydney, so if you leave early you don’t miss too much of your day in Sydney. Flying from Sydney, New South Wales to Cairns in Queensland we gained another hour. Ayers Rock is in the Northern Territory and here our watches went back half an hour! Interesting.

Ayers Rock is a World Heritage Site and to visit it you stay at one of the hotels in the Yulara Resort. The impression I gained was that everyone was here for a few days and packed as much in as possible before moving onto somewhere else. There are a lot of tours but most involve variations on the theme of visiting Uluru, Kata Tjuta which is a nearby group of large domed rock formations and Kings Canyon.

We played the tourist role and had a sunset dining experience in the desert. Before dining there were drinks and canapés at a look-out area to watch the sunset and view Uluru. The trip is called the Sounds of Silence, but unfortunately with around thirty of so other people there wasn’t a lot of silence, however the sunset was magnificent. The guide told us that Uluru is an arid desert, which I understand means it’s a category based on the amount of rainfall they have – very little, but enough for a variety of bushes and trees. To be honest I had expected no vegetation at all, but there was a surprising amount given the small rainfall.

Even before sunset the full moon was apparent and this was somewhat unfortunate for our stargazing, but it certainly lent its own attraction.
There were a number of tables set up in a dining area and we had a United Nations assortment of dining guests and enjoyed some great conversation and food. After dinner all the lamps were turned off and we had an opportunity for star gazing – as much as the full moon would allow – an interesting talk on the stars we could see, and a short period of silence to enjoy the night sky.

Before our holiday I booked a dawn trip as I’d been told that was the very best time to view the changing colours of the rock. The funny thing is when I booked the trip the fact it happened at dawn (i.e. very early) didn’t really sink in. The reality only became apparent when I set the clock for 3.30am, but it was an experience worth the early start.

It was the only time I needed a light top. The early morning air is refreshingly chilly, but once the sun appears it doesn’t take long to heat up.

During the time we were at Ayers Rock we enjoyed a tour around the hotel gardens where one of the local guides showed us some of the plants that grow in the area and their food and medicinal uses. The various uses of plants, whether their roots, leaves, flowers or seeds is amazing. I shouldn’t have been surprised, after all Aboriginal people have been in Australia for tens of thousands of years and would need all this knowledge to look after themselves, but it certainly made me realise how little I know and how much I rely on civilisation for food and especially medicine.

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