Uluru, or Ayers Rock, as non-Aboriginal Australians call it, sticks out of the near flat of the desert, an uncompromising, awesome structure. It and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) face off over the desert like two ancient stone gods, unmoved and unmoving. To my eyes, the huge edifice of Ayers Rock fails to be shocking or beautiful. It‘ s just big. Even from a distance its presence is inescapable.
Black stripes streak down the rock, the paths of lichen marking the courses of occasional waterfalls. They look like Chinese calligraphy strokes. Over millions of years waterfalls have scooped out terraced basins from the top of the rock to the bottom.
The water lands in waterholes tucked in around the bottom of the rock, only one of which is permanent. Its shady, wet, green presence is a surprising relief from the dry, dusty heat that presses in on us when the sun has risen.
Only two people in our tour group of 18 decide to climb the rock. It is a steep, slippery climb aided by an anchored chain. In our brochures about the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Aboriginal people make a compelling case for not climbing the rock.
It is sacred to them, they say; even they don’t climb it, except for ceremonial occasions. Most of us have decided to respect their wishes, although refusing to climb the rock gives me the feeling of the proverbial stone holding the sea at bay. My gesture feels flat and useless against the tide of tourists who just want to say they’ve done it.
Hordes of them inch their way up the bare rock while hanging onto the chain, although most of them find the climb too precipitous to go far. The rest of us take the 5.6-mile (9 km) walk around the base, where we can inspect the geology and learn the Aboriginal stories that surround the rock. Most of them chronicle an ancient battle between two snakes.
It is easy to see why Uluru was a symbol of worship for an isolated people. Its red sides rise suddenly from the desert with no foothills or undulations. The rock is a buildup of sandstone left over from the erosion of a mountain range millions of years ago. It is only the first stop in our guided camping safari of the Outback.
Most people come to Ayers Rock or Alice Springs and take one- or two-day trips in air-conditioned buses. They snap pictures of the rock, then buy Aboriginal paintings, and perhaps a didgeridoo (a musical instrument made by the Aboriginal people from a long hollow branch that makes a deep drone when blown into) in a shop at their resort.
I signed my husband and me up for a five-day safari because I wanted to do some hiking in the desert. Now that we are away from the busloads at Uluru, onto the unpaved red dirt roads of the Outback, I am continually surprised by the changing landscape. I had expected the Outback to be empty, a flat, red, nearly featureless desert. It isn’t.
Our third day, our guide gets us out of our tents at five in the morning. After we’ve eaten our toast, drunk our tea and emptied the tents, we drive to Kings Canyon.
Nearly 370 miles (600 km) from Alice Springs, Kings Canyon should feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but its deep cliff walls and hidden swimming hole create a world unto its own. The first 330 feet (100 m) are a grueling climb up near-vertical stairs, but the rest of the 4.3 miles (7 km) we meander along the tops of the cliffs.
Halfway through the hike, we peer down into the gorge and see waving foliage marking the entrance to the Garden of Eden swimming hole. After climbing down to it, we dive in. Under the cliff’s rim, protected from the burning sun, plants from 20 to 50 million years ago still grow and thrive.
They are tiny havens of ancient geological history. “It’s like a living fossil,” I say to my husband, as I stroke a cycad palm that’s only four feet (2.1 m) high.
By 11 a.m., when we finish our hike, it is already above 90 F (32 C). The heat is burning, but bone-dry and bearable. Then we get into the van and drive another four hours to our next campsite at Ormiston Gorge, a waterhole encased by pocked cliffs populated by black-footed rock wallabies. As everywhere, the white bark and silvery leaves of the eucalyptus trees provide contrast to the red dirt.
Every day we’ve hiked for at least two hours and driven at least four. I can’t believe how big the Outback is. I’ve never seen anything like this. Hundreds of kilometers from any town, we run across herds of wild camels, donkeys and horses.
The ancient geology of Australia lifts and spreads around us, ghosts of mountains, rainforests, and the sea, all dry now, weathered down to nubby rocks.
By the end of the safari, I am desperate to stay. I can’t bear to leave the openness and the silence for our cool, clean hotel in Alice Springs. During our last hike, a scrambling climb up Standley Chasm, I touch every rock with care, telling myself I’ll be back.
If You Go
Some visitors, Americans, for instance, need visas. Australia provides an instant electronic visa service. Go to www.australianvisas.net and have your passport information ready. It only takes a minute, and your visa is good for a year. U.S. citizens can also contact the Embassy of Australia:
1601 Massachusetts Ave. NW
Washington, D.C. 20036-2273
202-797-3000 or 888-980-8888
Central Australian Tourist Board
Most companies offer anywhere from one- to five-night safaris. We had a great time on a five-day trip with Sahara Tours. For a complete listing of camping safaris, visit www.ntholidays.com, which also includes day trips, half-day trips and guided tours on ATVs and camels.
Sahara Outback Tours
Hop-on, hop-off bus tour in and around Alice Springs: (adult) AUD 52 US$ 38
Half-day tour to Standley Chasm: (adult) AUD 80 US$ 58
Take a sunrise hour or half-hour balloon ride, including a champagne breakfast.
30-minute flight and breakfast: AUD 220 (US$ 161)
60-minute flight and breakfast: AUD 340 (US$ 250)
(Mandatory insurance: AUD 20 or US$ 14)
Non-flying partners can chase the balloon and have breakfast for AUD 60 (US$ 44).
Learn about Aboriginal art and life at the Aboriginal Art & Culture Centre. Visit rare marsupials, poisonous reptiles, kangaroos, emus and predatory birds at the Alice Springs Desert Park. Take a rollicking ride to breakfast or dinner from the Frontier Camel Farm. View an awesome panoramic painting and other works by the famous Dutch painter Henk Guth at the Panorama Guth gallery and museum. Hear traditional stories and watch Aboriginal dances at the Sounds of Starlight Theatre or the Red Centre Dreaming. Stroll around Todd Mall on Sunday to enjoy Alice Springs’s morning craft fair.