You never really think about it but Ayers Rock is three dimensional. What I mean to say is it has more than just the one side we see on postcards all the time. Uluru, as Australians and the aboriginal people call it, is a rough crescent shape when viewed from above. Thought to be the tip of a vast underground mountain, it pokes hundreds of meters out of the sand in an otherwise flat landscape. Its edges twist and curve in unrecognizable shapes the closer you get, each angle more beautiful than the last. I would spend the next three days exploring this formation and taking in the many sides of the Red Center of Australia with my friends Arielle, Marlee, and Maddie.
Having landed the previous day into the one terminal airport (more like cafe and connecting footpath for a tarmac) the four of us were ready to take in the desert sights. We had just finished our makeshift breakfast of chocolate Milo without cereal bowls when the tour company we would be traveling with pulled up in a monster of a camper van. It was jacked but in an endearing way. We boarded and began to meet the others; Alex and Lee, the British couple and five other travelers. Our guides, Iris and Dion, said that we were lucky. Normally, we have more people, a smaller van, and only one guide.
Our first stop was to take pictures of Uluru from the classic postcard shot. Yes, I did take pictures of myself holding up the rock in my two hands, but I swear, I only did it ironically. We next went to the culture center to learn a little more about the indigenous people who were the original owners of these sites and Australia as a whole. To the aboriginal people of the area, Uluru is a sacred place. Because they didn’t have writing, they used the natural features of the rock to tell their dreamtime stories. My favorite story was the one of Inkridi taking revenge on the rival clan of venomous snake men for killing her son. The two killing blows of her digging stick can be seen in the rock itself.
With this knowledge, we headed out to get a closer look of the great monolith. We followed a several kilometer-long trail around its base. None of us climbed the rock out of respect for the aboriginal people although we saw many tourists attempting the slippery slope. On this trail, we saw the beauty that inspired such reverence from the indigenous. The orange of the rock so intense it looked like fire. The blue of the sky in sharp contrast. I was in awe of Uluru in its own right, although Dion did not fail to remind us the gravity of what this place meant to the aboriginal people.
With the setting sun turning the landscape a burning red, we headed back to the first campsite for showers, dinner, and some much-needed sleep. Dinner was cooked in the camp kitchen; a kangaroo bolognaise that I couldn’t wait to try. For having been in Australia for several months already, I still hadn’t eaten kangaroo. It was delicious. It tasted just like beef but with a touch of gaminess. I got seconds for sure.
Full and happy, everyone went to enjoy the warmth of the fire before bed. As “professional” campers, we did not sleep in tents let alone cabins. We had instead what were called swags which are basically these canvas sacs with mattresses in them and a sleeping bag to keep in the warmth. Depending on which one you choose, the quality is variable between them as Lee was quick and loud to point out. That man complains more than anyone I know, and I’m counting myself in that assessment. But it was hilarious all the same and we were all wanting to hear his thoughts on everything that displeased him.
We laid huddled in our swags watching the stars. The milky way spread out from horizon to horizon and we could see the Southern Cross directly above us. I was taught the trick to find south using it, kind of like the Australian equivalent of using the big dipper to find the north star. The last form of entertainment came by way of another group’s guide in a koala hat and his Aussie friend who looked just like Chris Hemsworth (I mean exactly like him) unexpectedly twirling fire for us. I’m serious. You can’t make this stuff up.
The next morning, we all woke at 5:30 to watch the sun rise over Uluru. Even though I generally hate everyone and everything this early in the morning, watching the sunlight set fire to the rock was worth it. Barely.
Shortly after, we drove over to Kata Tjuta, Uluru’s lesser known cousin. It is a rock formation of 36 mounds that dot the landscape which we hiked through for the better part of the morning. We drank deeply from our water bottles. It was so hot out but we barely noticed. Being in the desert, the air is so dry our sweat evaporated almost instantly. Dion was this close to carrying Arielle out when she tripped and banged up her shin on some rocks. Too bad she sucked it up and limped out on her own two feet. That would have been a sight to see.
After a fantastic BBQ for lunch, we passed Fooluru, another outcropping in the area that past travelers came across, took pictures of, and left thinking they found Uluru. We also saw the great salt pans of the area that were blinding in the sunlight. Dion told us of Lewis Lasseter who came here in the 1930s in search of his legendary reef of gold. He continued his search on camel back despite his crew and best friend abandoning him to the desert. He never did find his reef of gold.
Our second campsite was just as quaint as our first and we opted to cook our dinner over the fire. For desert, Dion made camp bread that was warm and moist with a touch of honey. We were obsessed. Who know something made in ashes could be so good.
We go to sleep again in the swags under the stars. It is not so cold tonight and even Lee can go to sleep without complaining. Too bad that means he starts snoring.
Sunday morning came, the last day of our tour, and we woke at 5:00 to catch the sunrise from the rim of Kings Canyon a few miles away. You know it’s going to be an interesting day when the first climb is named Heart Attack Hill. I thought I was going to pass out as I climbed the near vertical steps up to the rim of the canyon. Luckily, I made it up with minimal breaks and took in the sweeping views and sunrise.
We went through the fascinating geology into what is called the Garden of Eden, a sacred pool to the aboriginal people in the middle of the canyon. People crowded the area and chattered to one another. I sat alone and munched thoughtfully on my apple over the reflecting pools. As such places would inspire, I thought about the universe, life, and my place in it. I thought about how if I had been born a different time, a different place my experiences that make up who I am would be completely changed. The beliefs I hold are as transient as the cultures that make up this vast, wonderful world.
I finished my apple and I climbed down the last hill, my legs quivering from the exertion. It was not a hard trail but after my fitness app said I logged over 71 flights of stairs, 6 miles, and over 15 thousand steps.
We boarded our bus one last time and drove to Alice Springs, the end of our three-day tour. I would miss this group, knowing the memories we made would last a lifetime. From exploring Uluru and the Red Center to learning the stories and culture of the aboriginal people, I found in me a new openness for people and life. If this trip has taught me anything it is that there is always more than one side to everything.