Monday, September 13, 2010

Uluru: red dirt, blue sky, check and check!

Uluru, the aboriginal name for Ayer's Rock, that monolith in the center of this vast continent, is a must-see for many visitors from around the world. Indeed, some wouldn't book a two or three week holiday in Australia without making a brief stop at "the rock."

Well, we've been here two and a half years so when Virgin Blue began competing with Qantas on the Sydney/Uluru route, we decided to make the pilgrimage to the red center. Winter is a good time to travel to the Northern Territory because it is unbearably hot there many days of year. Tour companies really play up the beauty of witnessing the sunrise over the rock, but I think the real value lies in exploring the area before the desert reaches oven-like temperatures.

And before I write another word about value, I must mention that a major factor preventing us and many others from visiting Uluru was cost. Sure, we got a reasonable deal on our flights, but everything else at Voyages, the only resort near Uluru, is wildly, almost comically expensive. The regular fee for our room was over $400/night, but we got a "deal" for $230/night. Even this price was too much for what we got: an average room with no insulation. We had to run the fan all night to cancel the noise coming from the Lost Camel.

Visitors are constantly reminded that Voyages is a monopoly. Staff are friendly, but not especially helpful and the food is well below the Australian norm. Aussies are typically spoiled for choice when it comes to fresh produce and seafood, but in the outback, everything but kangaroo jerky undergoes a long, long journey on a truck before reaching your plate. Even the high-end hotel and restaurant, Sails of the Desert, doesn't cook your eggs to order. Like other restaurants at the resort, they offer a really-just-okay buffet breakfast for $33.

The most shocking prices of all, though, are attached to tours. Transportation via a shuttle van to Uluru from the resort and back (24km) costs $42.50 per adult, not including a whopping $25 per adult national park fee. I felt like a broken record when confirming this information with the concierge. "So that's just for one person? - Yes. And it doesn't include a tour guide, it's just transportation? - Yes." Transportation to Kata Tjuta, the other lesser known rock formation that shares the national park with Uluru was an additional $70 per adult. Mickey and I wanted to see both and worked out that renting a car was actually $120 cheaper than taking the bus. Who would have thought?

If you can mentally get past the price of a weekend at the rock, it's easy to enjoy the quiet beauty of the desert. I came for red dirt and blue skies and that's exactly what I got. Indeed, when I look at our Picasa album as a whole, those two colors dominate each photo. On our first night we splurged on the much-hyped Sounds of Silence dinner under the stars. I thought I was being clever booking our spots when the moon was quite new (and thus too dim to interfere with stargazing), but this was Friday the 13th and the universe decided not to cooperate. Clouds covered the sky for the entire evening and we couldn't see anything. The dinner wasn't anything special either, another buffet. Though our friends recommend the experience, at $159 per person, I can't say that I do.

I started that last paragraph with the word 'enjoy' and ended complaining about costs again. Let's see if I can focus on the positives. Walking the perimeter of the rock (9km) with Mickey was delightful, the weather was ideal: sunny but not hot. It took us about two and a half hours at a comfortable pace and we enjoyed watching the landscape and the position of the sun change as we walked anti-clockwise around the rock.

Uluru is famous for standing tall amid a sea of vast nothingness, but that isn't really the whole story. There are gum trees, wildflowers, boulders and roped-off sacred areas to the aboriginal people bordering the rock. Some people elect to climb the rock despite the danger (it's very steep) and a request from the indigenous caretakers/owners that visitors refrain from doing so.

A display in the visitors center and other places in the national park explain this request in kind of a curious way. All the signs seem to say 'we don't climb' in big letters because, I'm told, indigenous language/culture prevents them from telling visitors outright, 'please don't climb.' Apparently, telling others what to do is a no no in aboriginal culture. I'd be interested to learn more about the relationship between these people and the rock that they deem sacred, but much of this knowledge is secret and not shared with outsiders. The fact that Mickey and I didn't see a single aboriginal person while visiting the Northern Territory only added to the mystery.

We enjoyed our most memorable meal that evening at the Outback Pioneer barbecue, a restaurant that sells raw meat and allows you to cook it to your liking on the grills that they maintain. The crocodile skewer was tough and terrible, but the steaks were great. Of course, that evening the stars were out in full force and Mickey used a phone app to point out constellations.

En route to Kata Tjuta on our last day, I spotted a wild camel walking through the desert. I'm loath to admit that this may have been the highlight of the trip for me. How many other places in the world can you see a usually domesticated animal such as the camel wandering free in a landscape far too harsh for most creatures?  The legend goes that the first European explorers of the red center introduced camels when horses just couldn't cut it. Some escaped and still exist in the Northern Territory. This story called to mind the zebras at Hearst Castle immediately for me.

Anyway, we didn't have a lot of time to explore Kata Tjuta, but did enjoy a brief romp through Walpa Gorge and the Valley of the Winds. Mickey and I had a philosophical discussion on why Uluru is the star attraction of the region instead of Kata Tjuta. It's not one big rock, but was formed by the same geological processes that created Uluru. Kata Tjuta consists of 36 domes and hundreds more smaller boulders and resembles a sleeping Homer Simpson of all things when viewed from a distance.

Voyages asks guests to complete a survey about their experience at the resort upon checking out. Why they do this is a mystery, though, because they are a monopoly and thus have little incentive to improve. I imagine the replies going to a central office where a team are employed to laugh at the responses, 'yeah, you would like clean bathrooms, wouldn't you? Ha ha ha!'. Anyway, I dutifully completed this survey and answered one of the last questions about whether I'd recommend the resort to a friend. My answer was a resounding no, yet I would encourage people to see the majestic Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Watching the sunset over the rock was not exactly spiritual, but extraordinarily beautiful. So, if a decent competing hotel pops up, I'd encourage everyone to give it a go.

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