Australia’s biggest icon
Two hundred fifty kilometers down a lonely stretch of road, an isolated hunk of sandstone looms in stark contrast to the vast and featureless plains of central Australia.
The remote but world-renowned Uluru is one of the most recognizable and iconic images of Australia. We’ve all seen photos of it a million times, and just about everyone can equate “that big red rock” with Australia. It’s the sort of thing you go see almost more out of obligation than desire: it just doesn’t seem right to travel to Australia and not see The Rock. Thus, we turned off the Stuart Highway along with countless trundling caravans full of traveling retirees for the 500 km out and back detour.
As it turns out, it’s awesome. And big. From the moment it looms on the horizon through the walk up to its base, you find yourself gaping upward and frequently muttering things like, “now that’s a big rock.”
Uluru rises 348 meters (1,148 feet) into the air — more of a mountain than a rock — and you can’t help but wonder how it got there. Unfortunately, the answer to this question is always supremely boring and usually revolves around the solidifying of sand layers and deathly slow wind and water erosion.
The local Anangu people have lived in the area an exceptionally long time and have some creation stories of their own which are infinitely more satisfying. Most of them involve ancestor animals battling and dying gruesomely on or around the rock, leaving scars in the earth behind. Cool. Some of these sites are sacred, and signs ask you not to take pictures on one whole side of the rock.
The Anangu officially own the land and lease the park back to the Australia government. Ownership details aside, it was unclear who exactly was raking in the 12.5 million dollars in park entrance fees ($25 per adult) that Uluru generates per year, but it sort of makes you wish you had a really big rock in your backyard doesn’t it?
A 9.5km trail winds its way around the base of the rock, which is not the bland, featureless oval that we expected, but a jagged spearhead shape with huge gorges, countless insets, caves, boulder outcroppings and odd formations. Two waterholes surrounded by leafy eucalypts sit peacefully, fed by rivulets cascading down the rock whenever it rains. Gazing up from the base, the massive red walls rise high above, until they curve out of sight against the bright blue sky. It was instantly and immensely impressive. Why had we never seen photos of it up close?
About halfway around the rock, we decided to give the rock a name of our own. Uluru, though unique and oddly fitting, seemed too mystical, and its European moniker, Ayers Rock, is unaccountably dull. Clearly, it needed a new western title, a nice, bold, yet affectionate nickname: Big Frank. Perfect. We proceeded to have largely one-sided conversations with the big guy over the next day and a half.
In the late afternoon, we joined the wine-sipping crowd gathering at the sunset viewing area, positioned so the sun blazes directly onto the rock as is dips below the horizon. As the sun sank lower and lower, the rock began to change from a dusty rust color to a warm crimson, until finally it seemed to glow, the moon hanging high above it. Having visited all its points and intricacies up close just a few hours earlier, seeing the whole picture seemed to complete the experience.
About thirty kilometers from Uluru, another enormous rock formation rises high above the arid lanscape. We had never heard of the cluster of giant red domes known as Kata Tjuta (or the Olgas), and they were an excellent side bonus.
Though not as immediately striking as Uluru, Kata Tjuta offers massive canyons and valleys, hemmed in by soaring conglomerate walls. Kata Tjuta is also very important to the Anangu people, so much so in fact that they aren’t able to share any of the creation stories surrounding the formation, and visitors can only see a small fraction of the formation. A large part of Aboriginal cultures seems to be exclusivity; only certain people both within and outside of clans are able to know certain things. But what we could see was amazing.
At the end of our stay, we returned one more time to the sunset viewing area to say goodbye to Big Frank, probably for the last time. It is, after all, a long ways from anything else. Regardless, there is no question that the detour was worth it. The Rock greatly exceeded our expectations and, though it’s always really annoying when people say this: it’s one of those things you just have to see in person. We are happy we did.