After spending 3 spirited days in the wettest part of Australia (Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef), the group got up early at 4:30am to catch our 6:50am flight to what probably is the driest part of Australia: Uluru.
The 3 hour flight from Cairns to Uluru was uneventful as we landed at AYQ airport at 09:05am local time. However, we happened to get in during a total communications system outage; no wifi or cell signal was coming in and out due to a failed tower (or satellite) which happens here once in a blue moon.
After all, we are in the middle of nowhere — this is Outback country where the closest semblance of civilization is Alice Springs at 500km (or a 5-6 hour drive) away.
While most of the group hopped on the free shuttle service from the airport to Outback Pioneer Resort to freshen up, Bryce, Donna, Taylan and I opted to take an optional 30min helicopter flight from the airport at 10am over Uluru and Kata Tjuta for $210 USD per person.
They can fit at most 3 people at a time (the 4th seat is for the pilot), so we went on 2 separate trips.
Our first approach was that over Uluru:
Uluru has been renowned as a symbol of Australia, famous as its iconic domed monolith rock rising from the middle of a desert 348m above the plain (862.5m above sea level), 5km below the desert plain and measuring 3.6 x 2.4 km at the surface with a circumference of 9.4km. The rock can go through dramatic color changes with its normal sandstone hue changing from blue/violet at sunset to flaming red at sunrise.
Most importantly, Uluru holds special significant to the Anangu Aborigines who considers Uluru their ancestral home filled with stories responsible for their very existence, as well as the space under Uluru containing the very energy source for their dreams.
After 5-10 minutes circling Uluru, we then headed 36km west of Uluru towards Kata Tjuta, a collection of 36 variously-sized rock domes may have once been part of a monolith that surpassed Uluru in size, but then eroded to the several separate rock formations we have today. It too holds special significance for the Anangu Aborigines that live here.
After the helicopter ride, the 4 of us then were picked up by our charming guide Kurt of The Rock Tours, who then reunited us with the rest of the group hanging out at Outback Pioneer. We then drove off towards Kata Tjuta for our obligatory hikes through the Valley of the Wind.
No joke, by the time we began our hike at 2pm, it was 46ºC (aka 110ºF) outside with multiple warning on our park tickets, our park maps, and posted signs that all hiking after 11am would be off-limits if temperatures were above 36ºC.
However, that didn’t deter Kurt from making sure we wouldn’t miss out. Armed with countless litres of water, we set off on our 30-40min hike around Kata Tjuta.
We then recharged back in our air conditioned van for 20-30min before setting off again for our 30min hike towards Walpa Gorge.
By now we were all suffering from what probably felt like first degree burns, so we ended our hikes for the day and recovered at the National Park Culture Centre. Built in 1995 to mark the 10th anniversary of Handover (when the Australian government formally handed Aboriginal land back to its rightful owners, and when Ayers Rock dropped its colonial name to became Uluru), the centre hosts and translates the aboriginal creation stories and articles about the history of the Pitjantjara. There are also shops here where you can buy local art and souvenirs. Photos of the cultural centre are prohibited.
After about an hour at the centre, we then drove to the sunset viewing point where we took as many photos to our heart’s content.
Kurt also cooked us up a delightful meal of noodles and meat as we waited for the sunset.
You’ll know when the sun begins to set as the rock begins to change its color.
After sunset we drove outside the park to Yulara, where we got our swags and sleeping bags to camp outside under the stars for the night.
We then got in our well-deserved sleep, being woken up by Kurt at 4:30am to get our last glimpses of the stars at night and to head out for breakfast as the sun began to rise over Uluru.
It was at this point Kurt realized he dropped some of our backpacks on the way to the sunrise viewing point (doh!), so some of us hopped back in the bus to retrace our steps only to find our bags waiting for us back in the middle of our campgrounds.
What made this experience even more hilarious was that someone’s 11 year old daughter had slept through the whole thing and was still passed out in the back of the bus by the time we got our bags — we had inadvertently kidnapped someone!
We quickly drove back with out bags to the viewing point, returned the daughter to her mother without asking for any ransom (it appeared the mother didn’t even care at all, hahaha), and took whatever photos we could of the last few minutes of sunrise.
Once the sun rose over the horizon, our group began a base walk around Uluru for an hour, split into two 30-40min increments. The surprising part was the amount of greenery and vegetation around Uluru, growing in an area that otherwise has been widely believed to be a totally barren and lifeless desert.
By the rock are various sacred watering holes crucial to the survival of the aboriginal people as well as the local wildlife and flora.
We also visited some of the sacred caves that the aboriginal men and women have used to pass on their knowledge to future generations.
We hiked a bit more around Uluru before Kurt decided it was finally time for our group to head back to the airport and catch our 11am Jet Star flight to Melbourne. Thanks Captain Kurt!
– At time of posting in Uluru, Australia, it was 114.8 °F – Humidity: n/a | Wind Speed: 10km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear, brutally hot