Uluru: Giant red rock forms heart of the Outback
The enormous Uluru has huge spiritual significance for Aborigines and boasts spectacular ochre sunsets. Eleanor Goggin soaks it all up from Alice Springs
My father was in a postal book club and when the books arrived I would always flick through them to see if they were too "grown up" for me. I distinctly remember A Town Called Alice by Nevil Shute arriving and thinking what a peculiar title for a town.
On a recent trip to Alice Springs in the Northern Territory of Australia, right in the heart of the Red Centre, I discovered the reason behind the name. A telegraph line was built there in the 1870s and the construction manager's wife was Alice Todd, hence the name Alice Springs. The river running through the town is also the Todd river. The town built up slowly and it wasn't until the Seventies that the tourism industry took off -- now some 400,000 visitors pass through every year.
It's a compact town and we found it easy to wander around and visit the many Aboriginal art galleries. The MacDonnell mountain ranges provide the backdrop to the town and the traditional owners of Alice Springs, the Arrernte people, have a huge spiritual connection to them. The Royal Flying Doctors have their base there and a visit to the centre is well worth the trip.
Before dinner we went to the outskirts of the town to feed the rock wallabies who live nearby, sweet little creatures who hold your hand while you're feeding them. I had a rather peculiar experience when I tried to take a photo of them. My camera wouldn't work and a message kept appearing "Smile detection on, subject not smiling". I did try but they wouldn't smile. We ate at the Hanuman Restaurant in the Crown Plaza hotel, a fusion of Thai and Indian, where the food was delicious.
The next morning, Brad, from Wayoutback Safaris, arrived to take us on our two-day adventure. Brad was the coolest guy ever and a fellow smoker which endeared him to me even more. A typical Australian, nothing was a bother and his motto was "it's all good, no worries". He took us to the Oak Valley Aboriginal community where we met Craig, an Aboriginal rocker, just back from the AC/DC concert in Sydney, having driven for 28 hours. His ancestors were the Kellys, and given that my grandmother's family were the Kellys of Bantry, I think we might be related. He proudly showed us around his land, explaining his heritage and by the time we were leaving I dared to address him as "cous". He may be living in fear that I'll come back and try to claim some land.
And then it was off to camp, where we gathered wood and built a campfire (well, Brad was the one who actually built it), and the girls prepared the potato bake while the men stood around the barbie sipping beer. Nothing changes. Sparkling wine, steaks and potato bake under a star-filled sky. What more could you want? Brad maybe. We slept under the stars in swags which are, to the uninitiated, a sleeping bag and mattress all in one. I slept like a log, but some of the others had issues with my snoring. I did warn them.
After a hearty hot breakfast cooked by Brad, we motored on towards Ayers Rock and that's when Brad came into his own and became a god. We got a puncture, and though the tyres were huge, Brad stuck a cigarette in his mouth, rolled under the jeep and changed that tyre in less than five minutes. Now both the guys and the girls were in awe.
We stopped off at Kings Canyon, a spectacular sandstone gorge in Watarrka National Park, where we undertook a three and a half hour walk, the first half of which was vertical. Given that I'm no longer young and a smoker, I must admit I did lose the plot a small bit on the vertical stretch. In fact my legs started to turn to jelly, but with the constant exhortations of our hero Brad, I got to the top and Brad and I had a well earned "fag stop". We travelled around the rim of the gorge amid amazing scenery and those, unlike me, who were not afraid of being out of their depth enjoyed a swim in the water hole.
We arrived at Uluru, the Aboriginal name for Ayers Rock in time for the much talked-about sunset and it wasn't a let down. It was spellbinding and what better way to enjoy its ever changing copper, ochre and orange hues than sipping a glass of champagne.
It's a rock very sacred to the Aboriginal people and they don't want people climbing it. It's still permissible to do so, but when the figures wanting to drop below 20 per cent they will ban it all together. Not satisfied with the sunset we got up the next morning to see sunrise which was equally spectacular.
One of my greatest fears is flying, so when the opportunity arose to fly over Ayers Rock in a small plane and I found myself agreeing to do so, I started experiencing the same feeling in the pit of my stomach as I did when I was doing my Leaving Cert. And when I saw the pilot was not over 40, I became a babbling psycho. I sat at the back muttering all the "bad" words I know with my head between my legs, but the others assured me it was fabulous. We stayed at the Sails in the Desert hotel in the Voyages Ayers Rock Resort, a five-star hotel and one of the many options within the resort. The resort also has a backpacker pub, restaurants and shops. On our last night we enjoyed the Sounds of Silence dinner, a veritable feast all beautifully laid out on white tablecloths under the starry sky at Ayers Rock. What better way to finish a fabulous trip. I can't wait to read A Town Called Alice.
For further information on holidays in Australia, visit www.australia.com. The lowest fare from Dublin to Ayers Rock (return) in low season: €969 including all taxes and surcharges. Departures are from April 16 to June 20, 2010. Book by April 30, 2010 www.trailfinders.ie