Uluru, or Ayers Rock as you may know it, was the thing I was most excited about visiting in the whole of Australia. As we approached Ayers Rock resort, which is situated about 10 miles north of the rock itself, you could clearly see it in the distance. From afar it is impossible to grasp the huge size of the rock, which protrudes 348m (1,141ft) above the ground, is 2.2 miles long, and 1.2 miles wide. You start to realise how big it is when you start to drive towards it and it never seems to get any nearer.
After lunch in the resort village we were driven into the national park for the first time in order to visit an Aboriginal Cultural Centre close to the rock's base. Here we read Aboriginal stories about how they believe the rock was created. To put it short they completely reject the geological explanation, instead believing that giant half man/half animal creatures roamed the earth during the Tjupurka (dreamtime), shaping the land as they so desired. Some of these creatures then fought with each other, which to the Aboriginies explains how the caves and crevasses were formed on Uluru. The full versions of the stories are not disclosed to non-Aboriginals, but we got the jist. I found it interesting that even in the seperate Ayers Rock Resort visitor's centre, the Aboriginal explanation was presented as fact and the geological explanation as theory. This is likely down to the sway the Aboriginies have over the National Park's Authority, who presented the land back to the Aboriginal people in 1985 on the condition that they lease it back to the authority for 99 years and keep the rock climb open to visitors. The land is still very sacred to Aboriginies, but unexpectedly I didn't see any in the park itself, even in the cultural centre. In respect to the Aboriginies, the name Ayers Rock was dropped when it was presented back to them, and the only place you ever see the old name used is in the name of the resort village. If you were wondering, Mr Ayer was a man from the South Australian government who funded the expedition of the first white man to see Uluru. The explorer duly named the rock in his benefactor's honour. Of course, huge mythical creatures did not create the rock, but the geological explanation is still intriguing. Simply put, there was once a large mountain range situated west of present day Uluru. Over time the range eroded and the sediment from this was deposited in the flat plains below. An inland sea then engulfed this part of Australia, turning the sediment into rock. When the sea disappeared the rock was completely underground, but over time the weight and pressure caused it to buckle, creating the sight we see today.
After our educational visit to the culture central we were driven 30 miles west to the area's other main rock formation, Kata Tjuta (formerly known as The Olgas). Kata Tjuta covers a larger area than Uluru, and is a series of rounded domes stretching high above the desert plains. After a photo stop, we undertook a short walk up the Walpa Gorge - a crevass between two of the huge rocks. Temperatures reached 37C during our walk, and the flies were once again out in force - fortunately I took my fly net and they didn't annoy me half as much! The spot we walked to was sacred to the Aboriginies, but like much Aboriginal information, white man cannot know its true meaning.
In the evening we spent time in the resort pool and then watched the sunset over Uluru and Kata Tjuta from the hotel viewing mound. Most of us were in bed early due to the fact that we had to be up at 4am the next day in order to witness sunrise over Uluru. Initially I was sceptical about the idea, but when we set off in the bus journey to the sunrise viewing area, I immediately changed my mind. The red sky silhouetting the rock was amazing, and we enjoyed beautiful views as were were driven round to the south side of the rock. There were hordes of tourists there but everyone was silent in amazement as the sun came up. The colour of Uluru changed from blue to orange to red in a short space of time . It really was a magnificent site and moving in a similar manner to seeing Machu Picchu at dawn.
By 5.45am the show was over, and we were driven to the start of the Uluru rock climb. Incredibly, even though there was absolutely no wind, the park rangers had closed the rock due to "strong gusts" at the summit. I checked the weather having got back to the hotel and the strongest gust all day was 13mph at ground level. It really was a joke that it was shut. The Aussie health and safety freaks ought to climb Scafell Pike in early April if they want to experience wind on top of a mountain! A crazy decision. Anyway, I was not too disappointed as we were warned that the climb is nearly always closed. Instead we undertook the 5.9 mile walk around the rock's base. It was nice to start the walk in relative cool (27C) as later that day temperatures hit a staggering 38.2C! Still, the flies were everywhere and I did not have my net. There were plenty of overhangs you could enter, and you could actually touch the rock. The sandstone was so soft it was possible to peel it away with your hands. There were numerous sights you could not photograph because they are sacred to either Aboriginal men or women. Explanations as to why they were sacred were, as ever, not given. It is tragic to think that white man may never find out where the giant emu lady lives.
The walk around the rock seemed to be very slow progress. Even so close to the rock it was still hard to grasp the scale of it as there was nothing to contrast its size with. In some caves we saw some interesting and ancient Aboriginal art which dated back thousands of years. Aboriginal presence around Uluru has been noted for an astonishing 30,000 years. They are the oldest continually surviving culture on earth - some tribes date back 65,000 years! Its a shame western civilisation has been forced upon them so fast as they really haven't adjusted.
We finished the walk at about 9.30am and were ferried back to the resort. I had opted not to undertake any optional activities in the afternoon as they were all so expensive and I spent a fortune on the east coast. Instead I had a lazy day to have a nap and chill by the pool. It wasn't until 6.15pm that we left the resort again, this time to view Uluru at sunset from the opposite side. It had come in quite cloudy by sunset at 7.25pm, but we still saw the changing colour. Our guide and driver laid on champagne and nibbles for us to enjoy, and they kept topping us up with such regularity that most people were drunk by the time we got back on the coach. The night from that point on descended into chaos, with at least 2 people getting bottom half naked in the very busy hotel bar!
This morning we had a relative lie in till 8.30pm before having another fry up breakfast and boarding the bus for 5 hours back to Alice Springs. Remarkably the weather today has been overcast with some rain - the first for a long while here. Disappointingly its forcast to continue tomorrow for our long drive north to Tennant Creek. This evening we are all going to a large steakhouse to mark the departure of a few of the group (6 more people join tomorrow for the last 6 days). I will be sampling delicacies including crocodile, emu, camel and kangaroo, which should be an experience. I'm unsure when I'll next find Internet as we are heading to some pretty remote spots in the next 5 days, but I'll update when possible.