The views from the aircraft over the Outback are other-worldly. The airline flight attendant was nice enough to put us in empty rows where we each can have a window seat. Red everywhere and scattered low mountains. Salt flats and dry river beds ribbon through the landscape.
This is one of the most severe, remote and environmentally untouched places on the planet – up there with the Sahara, parts of Siberia and probably a few other desert places. It’s often called the red center. The ground has a lot of iron in it, and it rusts causing everything to have a red hue. The Northern Territories host a big chunk of what’s called the Outback, including it’s major city Alice SPrings through which we fly on our way to Uluru.
From the airplane we see a red mound, with no trees or scrub, emerging from the flat desert floor like a bundt cake on a countertop. It glows an orange brick red.
Accomodations at Uluru are very limited. The only place to stay within hundreds of miles is ‘Ayres Rock resort’ an Accor hotel managed set of lodging from luxury to campsite that is expensive and simple but does the job.
There is a little ‘town square’ with a crazy expensive IGA and some stores. Lily reminds us that it feels like the Grand Canyon with it’s ultra expensive hotels and the priciest McDonalds in the USA. She’s right, that’s exactly how this feels – like the Australian Grand Canyon.
At sunset we head out to the viewing point with hundreds of other people to see Uluru really show off it’s best color as the sun drops down over the horizon. The fliers aren’t bad but they can be most of the year. People wear bug nets a lot. I do get swarmed by sandflies and have really itchy bites for the next 24 hours but I’m the only one in the family to be so lucky.
There are more campers than cars here. Tons of Australians have made a long journey from somewhere along the coast. They sit with beers and portable chairs and there are lots of little kids around. The sunset display is only an hour long at most. The sunset itself is almost as amazing as Uluru. The ground is flat everywhere around us except for Kata Tjutu and Uluru. There are no clouds in the sky. It’s a gigantic horizon.
It’s also a gigantic sky. The girls and Amanda and I drive our little white Toyota (all cars in Australia are white. It seems to be a rule) up the highway a few miles toward Darwin where we can escape any light pollution and take a look at the amazing sky.
We’ve never had as good a chance to see the southern sky as this. A cool phone app made it really fun to see the planets and constellations. Mind blower alert: the moon in the southern hemisphere is UPSIDE DOWN. I still can’t handle that concept. We’ve barely been here a few hours and the outback is amazing.
After skygazing we drive to the IGA to purchase some frozen food that we will cook in our Lodge’s microwave for dinner. Yum. The restaurants are so expensive and I get the sense they think vegetarian means you like some veggies with your steak. It’s not great eating, but we are full.
Our 4 bunk beds are not uncomfortable, but they are bunk beds. The hot water is plentiful, the refrigerator works and there is a room heater that works well. Other than that it’s very institutional and spartan. We don’t need more.
In the morning I get us up at 5:30am, with sunrise at Kata-Tjuta my goal. Kata-Tjuta which means ‘many heads’ is also called the Olgas after it’s highest peak, Mount Olga standing 1800 feet above the surrounding plain. Olga refers to Tsar Nicholas I’s daughter who was honored by a German Baron and his explorer friend Earnest Giles. It’s more commonly known by its’ Aboriginal name now, thank god.
It’s packed with people – so much so that Lily stands on my shoulders to get pictures. The teamwork pays off and we get some good ones. Again the sky is amazing, clear of clouds and a flat horizon from end to end of your field of vision.
Kata Tjuta is still cold when we arrive but starts to warm up quickly. We choose the longer loop of 4.5 miles which takes us through several of the 36 domes that make up Kata Tjuta. It’s called the Valley of the WInds walk and is presumably sometimes very windy although it’s not today. It’s not a sealed trail but there are rocky stairs much of the way to ease the trip.
We are all pretty good about sunscreen. They close this trail at 11am if the heat will get up to 96 degrees, which it won’t today by a good 10 degrees.
The landscape is much like the rest of the outback with red soil, tan dry grasses and grey or grey green bushes and trees. The outback on average gets 250 ml of rainfall and has 1200 ml of evaporation. So it stays dry. There is no wet season, just occasional and rare rainfall. It’s been even drier the past two years. Water is pumped up from deep aquifers that stretch across the outback.
This harsh climate is home to only a quarter million people in the entire Northern Territory, more than half of whom live on the northern coast in the capital city of Darwin. Nearly 15% are aboriginal. Yet the Northern territory is so big you could fit two Texas sized states in it and still have room left over. Nothing but Alaska in the US is comparable in size and density.
It’s not a long hike but the loose stones and final climb back up to the parking lot are tiring. We’re quiet on the way back as the sun sets again in another brilliant performance. We try dinner at the little town square but it’s jammed. It takes an hour to get take out noodles which we eat hungrily in the cold.