Kata Tjuta

Northern Territory

Pronounced “kata juta” this rock formation is the second main event in the national park.

Kata Tjuta takes up a bigger area, but as it is not one enormous rock, it is not as popular.  There are two walks through the rocks speckled over the landscape.

First up was the more challenging Valley of the Winds walk.  Getting up to the first stopping point, the Karu Lookout wasn’t hard at all (the same grade as the Uluru Base Walk).

However, the next segment was marked as only one grade higher (but felt like more).  No longer was there a clear marked path, but spray painted arrows over rocks heading down a steep hill.  I felt a bit like a billy goat leaping from rock to rock.

The views, especially after scrambling up a tall, sheer-ish rock face, were magnificent.  The land all around for kilometres and kilometres is completely flat and these rocks (plus Uluru!) are the only thing rising out of the landscape.  Simply incredible.

Kata Tjuta, especially the second half of this walk, has more health warnings than Uluru as the walks are more stoney, rugged, and isolated.

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Walpa Gorge walk is easier, and a bit of a respite after the morning at the Valley of the Winds.  But just like all of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, it’s beautiful.

This trail travels right between two long thin rocks separated by erosion.  It had the most standing water and greenery seen in the Outback because of the water concentrated into a small area by the gorge.

Kata Tjuta, like Uluru, is best seen from a bit of a distance to capture the scope and shape of the rock formations.

Uluru can be seen on the horizon from Kata Tjuta looking over the outback scrub land and unusual (read: not as water dependant) plant life.

To me, Uluru is one of the great wonders of the natural world and Kata Tjuta just adds to the amazement.  This outback adventure was spectacular.

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Uluru: Dusk and Dawn

Northern Territory

The Uluru park is open from a bit before sunrise to a bit after sunset and those two events are big draws for the tourists.

Sunset, especially, is a big affair.  There are specially built parking lots for prime sunset viewing with at least 100 car spots.  Other people came way more prepared than we did, with folding chairs, appetisers, and champagne, while we just used a beach towel thrown in the trunk.  People were ruthless in staking out a spot and the whole parking lots and walkway were filled an hour before sunset (hence the snacks/drinks to keep them occupied).

Sunset was at 6:05 pm, but the light started changing around 5:00 and the most brilliant glowing red was at 5:56.

In the progression of pictures below, the first was taken at 3:46 (normal Uluru in the day) and the last was taken at 6:38 (when Uluru is just a looming shadow in the dark).  In between are varying shades of red/brown.  It was amazing to see the way the light changes; sunset at Uluru is labeled a “must-do” for a reason.

If you turned away from the majestic rock, there was the actual sunset (as the sunset viewing for Uluru is set up for Uluru to reflect the changing sunset).  The outback sunset itself was just as glorious.

Sunrise was less cutthroat but just as popular.  Again, there were specific viewing areas, but these were platforms a kilometres hike away from the carpark.

It may have been the pretty heavy cloud cover, but, to me, sunrise wasn’t as stunning.  It didn’t glow on Uluru in the same way.  However, when turned around from the rock, the radiance of the sunset above the clouds was awesome.

 

Uluru

Northern Territory

Uluru/Ayers Rock is a massive sandstone rock formation almost smack-dab in the middle of the country.  It is on Pitjatjanjara Indigenous land and within a national park created to protect it.

Uluru is absolutley enormous, 348 m high, but the part above ground is only a tiny bit of an even larger sandstone mass that continues for kilometres under ground.  The tip that sticks above ground has been turned on its side, as you can tell from the vertical layers of rock (instead of horizontal, as they were formed).

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Uluru is simply a place of natural beauty and it draws hundreds of thousands of visitors per year.  Once inside the national park, there are only a couple roads to take.  The main activity available is hiking.

We chose to do the base walk at Uluru, which follows the circumference of the rock and is 11 km long.

The walk starts in the northwestern corner of the rock on a section of the trail called the Mala Walk.  In the first few minutes of walking, we saw bush plums, Aboriginal cave paintings, and read the myth of the marsupial mole who lives in one of Uluru’s caves.  The wave-like rock structure was naturally formed by erosion, but was used by the Indigenous people as a cover from the heat of day or strong storms.

About half an hour in we reached our first sensitive spot.  These are areas that are sacred to the Pitjatjanjara people.  Normally it involves some type of ceremony or initiation that is passed down from grandparent to grandchild.  The signs posted on either side of the area ask people to not take pictures or video here.  The Indigenous people want to continue to pass information down as a rite of passage and not have it readily viewed all over the world through photographs and video.  We were trying to be as respectful as possible and refrained from taking pictures of these areas, though, unfortunately, not everyone was as courteous as we were.  To see it, you’ll have to go to Uluru yourself!

As we were trekking along around Uluru, we were lapped various times by Segway tours–definitely a quicker way to tour the base, though I didn’t see any reason to rush all the way around.

I had another moment like the one involving the Sydney Opera House.  I’d seen pictures of Uluru and it looks like a huge, smooth red rock.  But up close, there are all kinds of caves, crevices, nooks, and crannies, as well as various shades of colour in the rock.

The first picture in the second row depicts the ‘old people’s cave’ and the black marks on the rock is from fires they burnt–amazing!

Kantju Gorge is an area where there is usually water at Uluru.  These areas are important because during the hot, dry summer, the Indigenous people needed to know where they could find water.  The black line running down the rock is where the water trickles down; the black colour itself comes from algae that grows on the moist rock.

Here, we are rounding the first corner to be on the northeastern side of the rock.  This side is the longest, straightest side and exposed us in the sun in the middle of the day.  The path also winds a bit away from Uluru here, which affords for some great pictures.

It’s amazing all the plants and animals that can survive in such a drastic climate–intense heat in summer days, frost during winter nights, and always a lack of water.

Uluru has a mini Uluru next to it on this side.  A small cluster of rocks that are all sacred to the Pitjatjanjara people, so only glimpses can be seen in some of the pictures below.

Now on the southeastern side of Uluru, we are heading back into the shade of the rock (thankfully!).

We encounter another Segway tour and a small wood that has been recently burned, on purpose or by accident, we don’t really know.

Looking up at the sides of Uluru, you can see where water has slowly been slicing through the rock.  There is another area on this side that is a pretty permanent waterhole.  Plants are much more common and abundant near these waterholes, for obvious reasons.

The southwestern side is still shaded, which is glorious at the tail end of an almost 4 hour hike.

Most of the large crevices or other geological features have myths behind them in how they were created.  Here, where there are many holes from where bits of rock fell out, it’s said they are bits of emu meat that a man stole.  And where there are black streaks are the char marks of him being burned into the rock as punishment.

Finally, the last little stretch to come back around to where we began.

Just in front of the carpark, is the area where people can climb Uluru.  The Indigenous people strongly ask tourists not to climb, so I didn’t (even though I wanted to).  The Indigenous people call the tourists that do climb pinga which means ants.  They really do look like a tiny trail of ants traipsing up the side of the rock…

Something I haven’t mentioned yet (how?) are the flies.  Flies were everywhere and landing on everything.  We had heard of them before (and encountered them to a lesser degree in Melbourne summer), so we came prepared with flynets.  They don’t stop the flies from landing on your face/head, just stop them from touching your skin as they do so.  A fashion choice they are not, but goodness were they life saving.

I love the contrast between the brilliant blue sky and the red rock (and hints of greenery at the base).  Uluru is spectacular.

 

NT Driving and Yulara

Northern Territory

We decided to take the scenic drive from Alice Springs to Uluru, instead of flying.

Outback driving is different than anything else I’ve experienced.  It’s very flat, very straight, very fast, very empty, and very red.

Something else new to me were the road trains.  They’re trucks with multiple containers behind them; the most common number is three containers.  When driving the kilometres and kilometres across the Outback it’s not worth it to have three separate trucks when their could be just one.  They’re a well-known road hazard on Outback roads as it is not easy (or quick) to for them to stop.

Another common Outback driving sight are roadhouses.  They’re only every 100-200 kilometres, so when there is one, you’ve gotta stop.

One of my absolute favourite parts was the red sand–so quintessentially Australian!  And the contrast between the gorgeous blue sky and the red sand is absolutely incredible.

Nearing Yulara, a huge rock comes into view, but it’s not the famed Uluru.  It’s Mt. Connor and it’s commonly mistaken for Uluru by impatient tourists.

Directly across the street (I say street and mean highway) is a tall red sand dune; at the top is a gorgeous view of some of the Lake Amadeus salt flats.

When visiting Uluru, there is really only one place to stay.  The resort about 15 km from the rock–Yulara.  Supposedly, it has beds for 5000 heads and camp grounds for even more.  It is not only a resort, but a town within itself.  With only the permanent residents/employees, it is the 4th largest city in the Northern Territory.

The wildlife in Yulara was fun to see.  Galahs, bilbies, baby emus, and flowers galore!

Being only 15 km from Uluru, the resort has great views of both the rock and Kata Tjuta.  Especially at sunset, the lookouts are the place to be.

Since the resort is so isolated, it has all the amenities like a post office, grocery store, police station, fire station, and many other shops.  It also has museums and cultural exhibits, as well as a local football team, whose mascot is the flies (nothing could be more appropriate!).

The Uluru airport is even more isolated (if that’s possible).  There are only five flights a day out of it: 2 to Sydney, 1 to Melbourne, 1 to Cairns, and 1 to Alice Springs.  Right when the plane takes off, you can see Yulara and Uluru–beautiful from the air.

Alice Springs

Northern Territory

Alice Springs is a 3 hour flight from Melbourne.  It is the gateway to the Outback.  It is the Northern Territory’s second largest city, after Darwin, which is up on the coast and has a rainforest-like climate.  The entire Northern Territory has a smaller population than the county I live in in the US–crazy, right?

This was my first taste of the Outback.  It’s very different from the rest of Australia, but so well known globally that it was awesome to finally be there in real life.

Anzac Hill sits to the north of Alice Springs and looks out over the city.  Yep, that’s it.  That’s the entire Alice Springs.  It’s just a few square blocks and some outlying houses.

Anzac Hill honors the residents of the Northern Territory who have fought to keep Australia’s freedom intact over the past ~120 years.

The Northern Territory flag features the Southern Cross constellation and Sturt’s Desert Rose, the territories floral emblem.  The seven white petals on the flower represent the six Australian states plus the NT.  The ochre colour behind the flower is one of the official territory colours (along with black and white).

Alice Springs is located in a basin between the Macdonnell Ranges.  Looking straight out the highway from the top of Anzac Hill, you can see the gap in the mountains where the road goes through down south towards Uluru.

The main Downtown area centres around Todd Mall, which correlates to the tourist-y area as well.  Lots of shops, many featuring Indigenous items, line the pedestrian-only street.  There are also some historical buildings as Alice Springs was settled as one of the first places in Central Australia.

Alice Springs is well known for their colloquial use of Indigenous language and culture.  In a local bookshop, there was a whole section of Indigenous language books, and not just one Indigenous language, but many.  It is so interesting how many cultural groups can live in one region.

The Todd River is a main feature in Alice Springs.  On maps it is labelled as “Todd River (usually dry).”  It was indeed dry when we were there.  The river bed was basically just sand and is a favourite gathering spot for many of the local Indigenous people.  It is said that the Todd River is either “dry or ten feet high,” so there were a few elevated bridges to be able to cross during those few and far between times.