Thursday 1 September 2011

The Rock Tour: part 1

My favourite bit of my Australia trip this summer was my three-day excursion to the Red Centre with the Rock Tour. It was the first thing I found online that I wanted to do: a tour of Uluru, Kata-Tjuta and King's Canyon, with under-the-stars camping for that truly outback experience. I was definitely not disappointed.

It was an eye-watering 6am start from Toddy's backpackers. There were a lot of people waiting to be picked up, but only seven of us were destined for Oggy's bus: myself, a pair of French sisters and a German man with his three teenaged daughters. The bus fairly full, we set off for our first stop: Uluru. Everyone attempted to sleep for the first few hours until we got to the Erdunda rest stop, although Oggy seemed determined to counteract the Zs with lots of loud music.

After the first rest stop, everyone woke up a bit and we all had to go and sit at the front of the bus and introduce ourselves, running through a list of questions, including ideal superpower and first and last kiss. The latter was probably the least answered question. It was a bit awkward because, of 21 people on the bus, only six were native English speakers, the rest being French, German or Japanese; but it didn't seem to matter too much and we rubbed along quite well from that point.

On the way to Uluru we had to stop and collect firewood for the night's campfire and then it was on to the Rock. We stopped first at the Mala walk carpark.

We tutted in disapproval at all the people climbing it, in spite of the signs requesting that people don't. Oggy told us that in order to close the climb, they need all 12 of the National Park board members to vote yes, and the tourism person won't agree, claiming that people won't visit if they can't climb. I think this is a crock, and the research carried out supports my view, but there you go. At least there are fines for people photographing the other sacred sites at the rock, so that's better than nothing.

Realistically, it looks very dangerous to climb anyway. The rope and post (erected by the park's previous owner, at a time when you could still get a permit to shoot Aborigines - not as long ago as you might think) is really low - kind of thigh height - and it's really steep. Coming down must be a mission. Oggy told us a rather grisly story about the last guy to die on the climb, earlier this year. He slipped and then slid down the rock. It's very rough sandstone. He was dressed for summer. I'll leave the rest to your imagination.

We did the Mala walk and then drove round to the other water hole and walked about half of the base. It was really spectacular. I really got my geology geek on looking at the different formations and the way the rock has weathered in different ways. I think I prefer the Aboriginal stories about how they were formed, though. We spent some time at the visitor centre before doing the walks, which filled in a lot of the blanks.

Then, it was time to go and watch the sunset. As we pulled out of the Mala walk carpark, the music seemed to be a little louder than before, and it was Elton John - or was it George Michael? No...just Elton - singing "Don't let the sun go..." Oh, very funny. I caught Oggy's eye in the mirror and shook my head but he just nodded back, smirking. The rest of the bus seemed oblivious and I enjoyed the private joke for a bit before pointing it out to the others. There were some other musical moments: driving round and round the mini roundabout, chasing the other Rock Tour bus, while the Vengaboys blared out and Oggy switched the lights on and off rapidly; various sun-related tunes for the journey to the Uluru sunrise lookout the next morning; and some rather brow-raising obscene stuff at moments when it seemed everyone was just dropping off to sleep. I suppose when you drive 18 hours over three days, you have to get your kicks somewhere.

Anyway. The sunset spot was full of tours, some with barbecues and some with glasses of bubbly. We stayed longer than anyone, and so got to see the full moon rise just to one side of Uluru. It was a really amazing moment, because it rose red and orange to begin with. It was one of those moments that's almost impossible to catch on camera, especially when you are toting around a camera you don't really know how to use properly like I was. I think some moments are best left in memory, though.

I strung all my stills together to make this little movie of the sunset. I was taking pictures at roughly 2 minute intervals, with one significant gap of about 5 minutes when I went to get some food. It was Oggylove Stirfry and I didn't dare let it, go cold.

The thing I liked most about the sunset wasn't exactly the changing colours of the rock, but rather the changing texture. As it was thrown into shadow, the ridges and weathering showed ever more starkly and it was like watching a flower bloom, in a way.

We camped that night at the Uluru campground with the other Rock Tour group, and had a big fire and drank wine. We camped in swags under the stars, which sounds cool but with the full moon it was pretty bright and I made the mistake of going to sleep with my arms outside the swag so I got a bit cold. But since we got up at 5.30am to go back and watch the sunrise, it wasn't really a problem.

After watching the sun come up over breakfast, we scooted off to Kata Tjuta, or "Many Heads". This is a rock formation near Uluru; it's a bit different because it's formed from conglomerate rather than sandstone. I surmise this is because it was formed in the same enormous river, but was closer to the source where the energy of the current was higher. It was proper spectacular, especially against the amazing blue sky.

Most of us wimped out a bit here and took the short walk to the lookout, though a few people hiked all the way around, and in retrospect I kind of wish I had. But I was getting a blister, and although I packed blister plasters I handily left these in my suitcase in Alice Springs. I thought it was probably better to save my energy for the King's Canyon hike the next day.

After stopping on this dirt road for some pictures, we were off towards King's Canyon for our second night of camping.

Click here for part 2.

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