Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Twenty Three Hours at UKT NP

South from Kings Canyon, then west towards Uluru. From the folded and faulted rocks of the MacDonnell Ranges, we gradually descended to a typical Central Australian landscape – a flat largely plain covered with long linear red sand dunes. This isn’t barren by any means. The dunes seem to be largely stabilized, based on the abundance of trees and shrubs growing on and between them. The road made gentle cuts as we traversed west. Just enough change in relief to keep me awake while driving. The density of traffic increased for the first time. More passenger cars and tour buses. We passed signs that read” We Drive on the Right in Australia”.

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a high profile tourist destination. Who hasn’t heard of Ayers Rock (Uluru)? Aussies have been braving the trip here since Gosse “discovered” it for Europeans in the 19th century. Aboriginals have of course lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. Anyway, the popularity of the site increased proportional to access. Paved roads appeared in the 1950s, and at some point Yulara was created. This community north of the park is hosts an airport, shopping mall, and all of the nearby accommodation – ranging from campground to five star resort. It’s clearly designed for tourists to fly in, spend a couple days hitting the attractions, and spend a lot of money. There were of course a fair number of travelers like us, who were making a loop from Alice. We also saw almost a dozen vehicles towing boats or carrying surf boards. These were people on long journeys – the nearest water was several hundred kilometers away, the nearest surf at least twice that.

Yulara was surreal. It reminded me of Disney World. It felt insulated from the raw outback we’d been in for the previous days. Everything was nicely laid out and well landscaped. The various accommodations blended into the surroundings. There were lights by all the trails. The campground had lots of grass to sleep on. The generator complex was thoughtfully placed near the campground. So much for a quiet night.

Once swags were rolled out, we headed further south to the Park per se. Uluru came clearly into view. It stunned me, this big blob of grooved red rock. It looked flat at first; my eyes took almost an hour to adjust and see it in relief. But then, there it was – steep sides, weathering stains, lots of large rounded cavities and a gently rounded top. Like Tnorala, I had no problem conceiving that it was a potent Aboriginal spiritual symbol.

We went to the sunset viewing area. This is literally a large parking lot on a prime rise north west of Uluru. It’s the only permitted spot within the park to stop and watch sunset. There’s a separate sunrise spot on the other side. We were an hour early; the lot was already half full. After finding a decent perspective, we waited. The lot filled up with every sort of vehicle and every kind of tourist. I think we were the grubbiest. The people to our left set up a table and had mixed drinks. I smelled either clove cigarettes or pot.

As the sun gradually set; the rock progressively glowed. It was hard to photograph with much color accuracy, but fun to try. It was lovely to watch the contrast on Uluru’s grooves increase, the shadows in its cavities darken. It was hard to both absorb the view and take pictures. I wondered if this view meant anything to the local Aboriginals. Almost dark. We left in a traffic jam of vehicles headed back to Yulara.

Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas, are a series of rounded rock domes similar in scale to Uluru, located about 50 kms to the west. The crowds at Uluru had turned all of us off, so in the morning we headed to Kata Tjuta to hike. Like Uluru, the area has much spiritual significance to the Aboriginals, so much of it is closed to visitors. I’d wanted to come here since reading about Kata Tjuta in my first Lonely Planet Guide to Australia (1985).

No worries. The Valley of the Winds trail looked interesting. It seemed more interesting than Uluru, if nothing If Uluru is a stunning blob of sandstone, then Kata Tjuta is its sensuous companion. Its domes are smaller, and composed of conglomerate. The much coarser grain size of this material gives them a mottled appearance. I tried to control my reflexive urge to identify clast types. I gave up when I reached double digits.

The trail meandered around and between domes. This is the sort of landscape that’s easy for me to get lost in. Not physically lost, but engulfed in looking at what’s around me. Many interesting rocks. What to photograph. Would the light improve? The day started cloudy, but got progressively clearer. Which lens to use (stayed with the mega zoom). Trying to feel the place for itself, not compare it to my other deserts.

We progressed slowly. Louis took initiative and went ahead while Paul and I took pictures. We were passed by tour groups; young guides, young tourists. Why was that German kid carrying a football?

Eventually, it seemed like enough walking. It was time to drive east, begin the run back to Alice. We covered maybe a third of the trail.

Twenty three hours – one sunset, one decent hike. A quick stop at the Aboriginal culture center: too full of tourists to absorb much. A final pause for fuel and a few bananas.

Like the rest of the Central Australia loop, I feel like I’ve largely seen the surface of things. I’d come back to Uluru and Kata Tjuta for sure. It’s possible to walk around the Uluru, that would be interesting. This is probably the best opportunity I’d have to see Aboriginal culture in context. More on this in a future post. Having seen the place once it would be easier to deal with the crowds. Most important would be the time to sit and just look at the rocks. Precious and present observation, so hard to achieve.

I write this in Perth. Paul is gone, off south with his girlfriend et al. Louis is on walkabout iso the Natural History Museum (I hope). We’re packed and ready to head to the Pilbara tomorrow. I’ll write while I’m up there, although the work and remoteness (off the tourist trail, lord be praised) will make posting slower.

Time to escape to Kings Park.

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