|22/10/2020||Thurs||Newcastle to Sydney|
|23/10/2020||Fri||Sydney to Uluru|
|26/10/2020||Mon||Uluru to Kata Tjuta to Uluru|
|27/10/2020||Tues||Uluru to Sydney to Newcastle|
Thursday 22nd October, 2020
Newcastle to Sydney
After catching the train from Hamilton to Central Station in Sydney we walk up Oxford Street to Jillian and Michael’s apartment in Surry Hills. With Covid still happening, the streets are much quieter than we’ve ever seen before. Apparently lots of people are working from home and lots more have lost their jobs.
At seven o’clock we head up to the Courthouse Hotel for dinner. The lift is tiny so it’s a struggle for Michael to get his wheelchair inside but eventually we’re all in for drinks and dinner. Later we walk around to Tam’s apartment to meet her and Matt. They meet us outside for a long chat then the four of us have more drinks at home.
Friday 23rd October, 2020
Sydney to Uluru
At six thirty Mark and I are up, showered and ready to leave. Walking back to Central Station is exciting as always when we’re off to the airport. Only the Domestic this time as international travel is sadly non-existent. And it’s the reason we’re flying to Ayers Rock instead of Thailand or Bali or anywhere else overseas.
This Ayers Rock trip was booked in August but all flights were suspended after the Indigenous community closed the National Park. A plane load of tourists were virtually spun around and flown back to Brisbane on the 4th August. The Mutitjulu Aboriginal community blockaded the gates to the park as they were rightly worried about the risk to locals from visitors flying in from interstate Covid-19 hotspots.
We’d planned to fly to Brisbane that day and then onto Ayers Rock so we made a quick change of plan and flew to Darwin instead. This ended up being a fantastic trip and now we’re still going to the Rock anyway. Things usually work out.
At Sydney Domestic we’re all stopped by police to be interviewed before getting into the boarding area. Not only do we have to show id and the Northern Territory Border Pass, but we have also have to show our bank statements to prove that we haven’t been in a hotspot in the last fourteen days.
The terminal is weirdly quiet – we wear masks and social distancing is advised – but on the plane we’re all squashed in like sardines! The plane is so full that Mark and I haven’t even got seats next to each other but at least we’re across the aisle. Not a big issue on a three hour flight.
As we approach Uluru, people are cramming the windows to see the Rock below – we only get a glimpse from our aisle seats. But disembarking straight onto the scorching tarmac, we can see it sitting alone and majestic in the distance. Amazing!
So, should we say ‘Ayers Rock’ or ‘Uluru’? Officially, it’s both – actually ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’. It was originally called Ayers Rock by William Gosse who was the first European to set eyes on it in 1873. He named it after the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time – very boring – but then in 1993 the name was changed to Ayers Rock / Uluru, acknowledging the Aboriginal name. Even better, in 2002 the names were switched around to prioritise the Aboriginal name.
Another cool fact is that while the Rock has two names it also has two UNESCO World Heritage Listings. The first was in 1987 for its unique geology then in 1997 for its cultural significance to the Aboriginal people.
We wait in long socially distanced lines in the shade outside the terminal as only a certain number of people can be inside at the one time. Each person has to go through the whole border security process that we’d already done a few hours ago in Sydney. We don’t really care though as there’s a real holiday buzz despite everyone wearing face masks – bizarre!
Two hours later we’re all put on a series of buses headed for Yulara only ten minutes away. Yulara is the only settlement in this area and situated just outside Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Most of the town is made up of Ayers Rock Resort and the rest is where resort staff and tour guides live. It’s also the home of the National Indigenous Training Academy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
Leaving the airport we see the vast semi-arid landscape which we really came to appreciate when we visited Katherine a few months ago. The red dirt is striking against a brilliant blue sky.
Turning into Yulara we drop people off at the Emu Walk Apartments and at the Lost Camel which are both budget accommodation options and where we would normally have stayed until I found an awesome deal on Luxury Escapes. So now we’re in the five-star Sails in the Desert resort, daaaarling! – we never stay anywhere five star! Instead of $600 a night we’re only paying $300 a night. This is still really, really expensive but we do get a buffet breakfast each day plus a Fields of Light tour tonight.
Now we pull into Sails so called because of the soaring white sails that overlap the resort. Inside we walk straight into a gallery and gift shop showcasing Aboriginal art then check in at Reception. All the staff are local people and are sooo friendly and funny. ‘Palya’ they say, which is a greeting in the Pitjantjatjara/Yankunytjatjara language. We’re given the rundown on the resort and all the activities they offer for free.
Our room isn’t ready just yet so we settle into the busy glass-walled bar and restaurant area for prawn nibblies and a glass of champagne each – welcome to Ayers Rock Resort – love it already.
Later we’re shown to our room with a wide balcony facing the pool. The room is big with all the things a five-star resort is supposed to have. After showers and a nap we head back to the reception area for our bus to The Field of Light experience which is part of our package.
On the way we drive around the Resort past the camping ground and the Pioneer Resort which is currently closed to tourists – Covid again – and is being used to house staff. Ten minutes later we pull up at the bottom of a track that leads up to the viewing area. At the top of the dune, Ayers Rock is facing us in the distance with the installation in a broad field below. At this time of day there just appears to be a whitish glow and we’ll have to wait till dark when the 50,000 solar-powered stems light up.
So what is The Field of Light? It’s a light installation created by British artist Bruce Monroe who fell in love with the Red Centre in 1992. He said that he “wanted to create an illuminated field of stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would burst into bloom at dusk with gentle rhythms of light under a blazing blanket of stars”. He developed his idea over a decade then returned to Ayers Rock in 2016 to install it. It was only supposed to stay for a season but it’s still here and has now been extended for another seven years.
Before dark, we’re handed outback canapes and drink sparkling wine and beer. Mark is having a great time drinking my share as well. I just stick with a champagne and orange – hate wine and beer. As darkness falls, the glass spheres slowly come to life in brilliant reds, blues, purples, green and every other colour of the rainbow.
Late we all walk down to immerse ourselves amongst the lights. Pathways wind across the fields which seem much bigger at this level and seem to go on forever. It’s been a surprisingly fabulous experience.
Back on the bus we’re looking forward to drinks and something to eat. Driving back through the desert it’s very dark by now so the resort is like a little glowing oasis. We’re too late to have dinner at Sails so we head over to Town Square where the Gecko Bar is pumping with locals and a few tourists.
We order a pizza and have a fun night with beer and my smuggled in Bacardi. Bed about 9.30pm when the bar closes – early nights in the resort which suits us as well.
Saturday 24th October, 2020
Our plan today is to hang around here this morning then we’re booked on a sunset tour of Uluru starting about two o’clock this afternoon.
In the main dining room we find that our package includes a full breakfast which would cost us $45 each otherwise. It’s usually a buffet style but with COVID we all have to stay seated while the waiters come to our table. We can still eat as much as we like so we both order two meals each. We figure that a huge breakfast will mean we won’t need to buy lunch – pretty expensive here.
The resort also offers free cultural experiences like Bush Food Experience, Bush Yarns, Guided Garden Walks, Didgeridoo Workshop and more. So at 10 o’clock we wander over towards the grassy area near Town Square where the Bush Yarns are about to start at the Circle of Sand. A lovely Aboriginal man called Leon tells us about the weapons that the local people used for hunting, some still do but he says he stopped using them when he was given a rifle – ha ha. We learn a lot which is one of the things we love about travel – like, we thought all Aboriginal people used boomerangs – wrong! Leon also shows us women’s tools and techniques they use to gather bush tucker. We love it all!
Later, we hang out at Town Square and the Mingkiri Arts Gallery where we buy Indigenous crafts for us and for gifts. We’ve really fallen in love with Aboriginal artwork since our visit to Darwin a few months ago.
Now we decide to visit the Camel Farm which is on the other side of Yulara. We wait for the shuttle bus that comes about every half hour. A young Aboriginal woman chats to us at the stop. The small bus winds around the resort mainly dropping off workers at their accommodation near the camping area – we’re the only tourists.
The Uluru Camel Farm is the largest working camel farm in Australia operating five tours per day and home to sixty working camels from the wilds of Australia. We stop to talk to a real camel cowboy then a camel cowgirl who tells us how much she loves the camels and how each one has a very distinct personality, so we wander around the series of large pens where the camels are held to say hello.
But camels aren’t indigenous to Australia and are now considered to be a pest. They were first introduced here in the 1840’s to assist in the exploration of inland Australia. Incredibly, between 1840 and 1907 around 20,000 camels were imported from India! At first they were domestic, but from the 1920s as people started using vehicles and the camels were just abandoned. Once they were released in the open, they became feral and started multiplying out of control. Today there’s about three million of them – Australia actually has the largest wild population of Arabian camels in the world!! More about this later.
We check out the rest of the Farm which has its own Saddlery, where they make and repair their own saddles, the Royal Mail Hotel and Old Tom’s Water Hole. While we wait for the shuttle to take us back to Sails, we buy drinks at the General Store.
At the Resort we head straight for Town Square to have lunch at the Gecko Bar. We sit outside in the shade near the fountain and share an excellent hamburger.
At 2.45pm we wait with a large group outside Sails – getting picked up for our Uluru Sunset Tour with SEIT Tours. This will be a five hour tour of the Rock costing $177 each. Our driver/guide is Barry again who is just as enthusiastic as he was last night. We’re looking forward to learning a lot more today – old farts!
It’s a short ten-minute drive to the UNESCO World Heritage site of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. At the entrance we show our passes although the park fee was included in our package and anyway, the fee has been waved during these COVID times – everything is being done to try to attract tourists.
Of course, we’ve already seen the Rock looming ahead of us – it’s HUUUGE! A giant red blob sitting alone on the flat desert plain. At 348 metres high, 3.6 kilometres long and 1.9 kilometres wide we can’t but be impressed. What’s even more impressive is when Barry tells us that the Rock extends six kilometres below ground – straight down – bloody hell!
After stopping a couple of times to get out of the bus to take photos, we drive around to the eastern side of the Rock, eventually pulling into the Kuniya carpark. From here we follow Barry to the base of Uluru. It’s surprising to see lots of tall trees – River Red Gums – compared to the low lying scrub of the rest of the landscape.
The track leads us to an overhang or small cave where ancient aboriginal art covers the ceiling and the walls. Barry explains what the different drawings mean, like a circle with concentric rings means a water hole and an empty circle means no water.
The paintings were made by the Mala people who were the ancestors of the Anangu people, the traditional owners. Barry tells us about Tjukurpa which is basically everything to do with Anangu spirituality and culture. He says this is not just an abstract idea but lives in the land and the people.
Further on, we reach the Mutitjulu waterhole at the base of the rock. Uluru receives around 300mm of rain on average each year which creates waterfalls and some flowing into Mutitjulu. Looking up, the Rock is extremely beautiful with crevices and soft folds smoothed by wind and rain over millions of years.
More Barry info is that Uluru isn’t made up of red rock but is actually a grey sedimentary rock called arkose sandstone. This is high in iron which rusts when exposed to the air to form the beautiful red colour it’s famous for.
Back in the bus we drive around to the opposite side of the Rock where we start the Mala Walk. This is dotted with lots of traditional cultural sites and we find a cave where the ceiling is black with soot from ancient campfires.
We meet the bus at a carpark which was once the starting off point for climbing Uluru which was officially banned in 2019. We can see the trail which looks scarily steep especially the first section. Google says that ‘an estimated 37 people have died on Uluru since Western tourists began climbing the site in the middle of last century via a track so steep in parts that some scared visitors descend backward or on all fours. Some slipped on wet rock and fell to their deaths.’
The Anangu people always requested that visitors refrain from climbing the rock out of respect for their ancient culture. Aboriginal people have called Uluru home for over 30,000 years so I think they’ve got the right to stop these fuckwits wanting to climb it just for a thrill. Stats say that an average of 135 people a day climbed it – even English royalty like Prince Charles and Princess Diana who climbed it on their 1983 tour.
And you can’t think of Ayers Rock without remembering the terrible story of Azaria and Lindy Chamberlain. Azaria was only two months old when she was taken by a dingo from her parent’s tent in August 1980. Lindy was tried and convicted of murder on 29 October 1982 and sentenced to life imprisonment. In 1986 when a climber fell tragically to his death, a piece of Azaria’s clothing was found near his body. This finding near numerous dingo lairs led to Lindy Chamberlain’s release from prison.
But now, as the sun starts to drop we drive to the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area to watch sunset over Uluru with Kata Tjuta in the distance. Barry sets up tables to serve drinks and nibblies and, as usual, when there’s food to be had, people swarm to grab as much as they can – pretty funny and they’re a really nice crew anyway.
With a glass of champagne each, we pose for photos with the sun setting behind Uluru then chat with some Asian ladies who are having a ball – love Asians.
Back at Sails we run into them in the restaurant and they ask us to sit with them. Lydia and Volet are from Canberra both originally from the Philippines and married to Australian diplomats plus Leta from Bali. We have a few drinks with them and plan to meet for dinner tomorrow night. They’re all hilarious and definitely out for a good time.
Bed about ten o’clock after a wonderful first day.
Sunday 25th October, 2020
At 4.30am we’re up to get ready for our sunrise camel safari. Again we’re picked up outside Sails for the short drive to the Camel Farm. About twenty of us line up next to the camels which are tied together in a long row. John introduces himself as our guide then he and a young female cameleer called Lisa, decide which people will ride which camel – big person, big camel.
Our camel’s name is Khan but Nico is the camel directly behind us and I think she’s fallen in love with Mark. She keeps snuggling up to him and rubbing her face on his back. Leaving the Camel Farm we head out into the desert as the darkness slowly lifts. In the peace and coolness of the morning we ride over the rich red sand dunes while Lisa walks beside us telling us about the flora and fauna along the trail.
On top of a sand dune we stop to watch the sun rising over Uluru and Kata Tjuta which we’ll be exploring tomorrow morning. Before we came to Uluru I thought this camel thing might be a bit touristy but we’re here in the middle of the Australian outback riding a wild camel! Awesome!
After an hour and a half we plod our way back to the Camel Farm where we warm up in the General Store for a breakfast of warm beer baked damper and hot chocolate. A perfect end to a great experience.
Before leaving we all wander over to the baby animal pens where I feed a bottle of milk to a cute black calf and Mark finds a baby camel who loves up to him as well – Mark, ‘The Camel Whisperer’!
Back at Sails it’s still only early and we’re actually in time for breakfast. Today we order pancakes, bacon and eggs plus the usual fruit and croissants they give us anyway.
At eleven o’clock we walk over to the Amphitheatre for the free Bush Tucker Experience. Volet and Lydia are here as well. Leon who we met yesterday when he told us bush yarns is with another Aboriginal man called Joseph and together they explain how the indigenous people hunted, gathered and prepared bush tucker from the local vegetation. Joseph then makes cookies from bush foods and we get to try some he’s ‘made earlier’.
Now we wander over to Town Square with Lydia and Volet where we hang out in the Mingkiri Arts Gallery. We all buy up big. I also find a fly-net at the general store. We’ve seen lots of people wearing these over their hats and thought it was hilarious but I’m up for it for our trip to Kata Tjuta in the morning. Mark says he’ll brave it.
Later we head back to the Arkani Theatre to watch Capturing the Cosmos. This shows the current research being carried out by astronomers in Australia and narrated by Geoffrey Rush – really worth watching.
Lydia and Volet are going to the Guided Garden Walk but Mark and I decide to skip it – need a nanna nap after our early start. And besides Mark is feeling unwell – probably something to do with his diabetes.
By six thirty Mark is still feeling off so I walk down to meet the girls on my own. Luckily they’d remembered to book in at the restaurant as it’s packed already. I don’t know what they do when the whole resort is booked out in pre-COVID times.
Dinner is not overly expensive and the desserts look amazing. We all get stuck into the alcohol except for Leta who, after a near death experience with a motorbike and a truck in Bali last year, is now alcohol free and is into meditation and all that stuff. She was actually running around Uluru on our tour yesterday in bare feet as she wanted to feel ‘at one with the earth’ – ha ha. But she’s no wanker and has us laughing all night. And Lydia and Volet are just as funny making dry comments in their gorgeous Asian accents. I love these girls!!
And being married to diplomats they’ve lived all over the world and travel somewhere big every year as well. They mainly do Europe on expensive trips but they love hearing about all the weird places that Mark and I go to. Could talk with them all night!
Wobbling back to the room, Mark is a bit better so he should be good for the 4.30am alarm to wake us in time for our Kata Tjuta tour.
Monday 26th October, 2020
Uluru to Kata Tjuta to Uluru
Like yesterday we wait in the dark outside Sails where we meet the small group who’ll be going to Kata Tjuta. They’re all friendly but it looks as if one woman might be a bit hyper.
Today our guide is John, a bent little old man decked out in khaki – he’s the real deal and just as passionate as Barry. As we head out of Yalara towards Kata Tjuta, he tells us about the cultural significance of the area to the Aboriginal people. Because this place is so sacred lots of dreamtime stories are told about it. One legend remembers the great snake king, Wanambi, who was thought to live at the top of Mount Olga and whose breath could turn a breeze into a hurricane to punish people who committed evil deeds.
After about half an hour we stop to walk up a track to a viewing area to watch the sun rise over Uluru thirty-five kilometres to the east. The horizon turns to gold then orange before the sun peeps above the horizon. Behind us is Kata Tjuta also known as The Olgas – remembering my old Social Studies days in primary school – so, two names like Uluru/Ayers Rock. The name The Olgas was given by an explorer in 1872 after the Russian Queen Olga but then given a second name Kata Tjuta later in the 1900’s to commemorate its Aboriginal meaning.
Besides the view, we love the Social Distancing sign. Instead of the usual ‘1.5 metres apart’ the Northern Territory version reads ‘2 Sand Goannas’ or ‘2 Digging Sticks’ or ‘4 Carrying Bowls.’ Not too practical because we have no idea about how big these things are but we get the message anyway.
From this distance we can see that Kata Tjuta isn’t one single rock like Uluru, but a collection of large domed rocks. Kata Tjuta means ‘many heads’ in the Aboriginal language which really says it all. There’s actually thirty-six domes with Mount Olga being the highest point at 1,066 metres which is two hundred metres higher than Uluru.
Now we head back down the track and set off to the western side of Kata Tjuta. Here John pulls into a picnic area which is just a couple of basic shelters set amongst dusty red dunes and patches of greenery. He’s really happy that we all jump in to help and he especially loves the chatty lady.
Mark cooks toast on a gas burner and we all make our own coffee and hot chocolate. We need hot drinks because did I say how cold it is! I’ve wrapped myself up in scarves so I look like a mummy. Oh, and how’s the flies! I’m super grateful for my fly net – I think Mark is eyeing it off but too late baby!
After clearing away breakfast, John gives us his geology lecture – love it! He tells us that the rocks are the remains of erosion that began around 500 million years ago. And, like Uluru, they’re just the visible tips of enormous slabs of rock that extend as far as six kilometres into the ground.
But now we’re ready for our walk through Walpa Gorge. The 2.6 kilometre rocky trail follows the natural creek between two of the tallest domes of Kata Tjuṯa. We’re right between the sheer red rugged walls that tower above us. It feels almost prehistoric. The Gorge is a refuge for plants and animals from the hot desert sun and we even come across a small stream, extremely important for native animals and the Aboriginal people as a source of drinking water. The problem is that wild camels often guzzle up and pollute not only this stream but lots of others in the area.
Every now and again John stops to give us more information. He tells us that Walpa means ‘windy’ – no shit! It’s blowing a gale! There’s another walk we could have done through the Valley of the Winds but thank God we gave that one a miss.
As we head back out of the Gorge, we have a spectacular, sweeping view of the desert plains stretching far into the distance towards South Australia. And, despite the cold, the wind and the flies it’s been amazing to experience this special place.
By ten o’clock we’re back at Sails and luckily still in time for breakfast. Again we eat up big and enjoy being spoilt – this five-star thing is a real novelty but really appealing and I just hope we’re not getting soft!!!
After the very cold morning the weather is hot again so we decide to have a swim and hang around the pool for a while. Desert weather is so extreme – cold nights and hot days – and not much rain which means that nearly every day is clear blue skies and just how we love it.
At three o’clock we wander over to the Lawn Stage near the Town Square for a Didgeridoo Workshop. A local man explains how it works and demonstrates how to play it. A few people in the crowd have a go and they’re all hopeless. It’s the circular breathing technique that apparently takes ages to master. Anyway this guy is amazing!
Tonight we meet up with Lydia and Volet again. Leta has left this morning for her home in Brisbane so it’s just the four of us tonight. We meet at 6.30pm in the dining room for a posh dinner especially the beautiful desserts. I’m so impressed I even take photos.
We all have too many drinks with the girls keeping us entertained all night. They’re prolific travellers and Volet is already planning trips for us all to go on together – oh God, not a cruise! We’ll definitely visit Canberra early next year for a weekend to catch up and meet their husbands. We’re already Facebook friends so I can see what a big social life they have as well. Love them!
Tuesday 27th October, 2020
Uluru to Sydney to Newcastle
Today we go home – could really have stayed a few more days but at least we’ve experienced this wonderful place.
After breakfast we meet the girls outside to wait for the bus to the airport. Big hugs and photos before we board on the sweltering tarmac. We see Uluru for the last time as we head home but then actually fly over Lake Eyre, you know that massive dry salt lake in the middle of Australia – lucky!
Land in Sydney then through the eerily deserted Domestic Terminal to catch the train home.