It was pretty obvious a minivan could not plow through the goopy, sloppy red Outback route to Uluru. Essentially, the roads were open only to the burliest of vehicles. No matter how much the Honda Odyssey believed it was a Mad Maxian four-wheel drive, there was no way we would make it. No way. It was time to find another mode of transportation to take us to the most famous monolith in the world.
Uncharacteristically heavy rains had churned and upturned the soil of Australia’s red center. Water wrecked havoc on the town of Alice Springs, and the Todd River had overtaken some of the city’s streets.
Locals said if you saw the Todd River even flow at all at three times you were a local. Considering the river’s raging water, we definitely were one-third local.
I have never traveled to South America, but upon arriving in Alice, it was exactly what I imagine Columbia looks like — way more Amazon River Basin than Outback. A mist hovered around green foothills, which could prompt even Juan Valdez to scout for coffee beans.
Kurt, the kids and I, along with my parents Ed and Judy, came to Alice because it was the closest town to Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock. It took two days of butt numbing driving through desolate, fly ridden territory to get to Alice Springs. Uluru would not be skipped.
To escape a massive drenching the first day in town, we fled into the local visitors center. The center’s staff told us that tour buses still trekked out daily to Uluru. None of us thought that was ideal version of getting to the spiritual rock, but it was really our only choice.
Ed and Judy were a bit leery about Eddie and Kasey handling an 18-hour day. The kids had been massive troopers during the 10-hour day stints from Adelaide to Coober Pedy and then to Alice. But, really, you can only expect so much from a five and two-year-old. Despite the potential for the kids going ballistic and getting us kicked off the bus, Kurt and I wanted to give it a go.
The following day, excited and a bit apprehensive for the trip, we got up a 6 a.m. headed out to the front of the Stuart Caravan Park, where we were staying, to wait for the Emu Run Tours bus to arrive.
As American author Bill Bryson aptly notes in his hilarious book, In a Sunburned Country, when Australians have a hero or national figure of whom they are proud, they decide to name everything including buildings, towns, roads, fountains, caravan parks, sandwiches, and even drinks after that person. This practice preserves history, but it sure confuses visitors because in many cases, it’s just one guy we’re talking about.
John McDouall Stuart, a tough Scottish explorer, is credited with pushing through the Outback from South Australia to the top end of the North. The Australian Overland Telegraph line and eventually a highway (the Stuart Highway) were set up along the route Stuart charted. Since the Stuart Highway goes right through Alice Springs, you can imagine how many Stuart-named entities exist in and around the town.
Consequently, unbeknownst to us that morning, instead of coming to the Stuart Caravan Park, the Emu Tours bus was headed to the town, Stuart Wells, which was actually 90 kilometers out of the way.
After waiting for one hour and saying some pretty nasty things about Emu Run Tours, we gave up on seeing Uluru for the day. After a call to the office, the two different Stuarts were sorted and the miscommunication resolved. We booked another journey for the next day.
The Day of the Actual Trip to Uluru
It sounded like Uluru had been more of a water park than sacred wonder the previous day according to Dean and Mic, our Emu Run tour leaders,. The Emu Bus had sprayed through water that was up to the bus’s headlights, and waterfalls spilled down the sides of The Rock.
The Outback is a pretty dry place. The semi arid region surrounding Uluru and Alice Springs receives only about 308mm (12 inches) annually. So, clearly, the large area of parched land sucked hard on all that water and the evidence of flooding was virtually gone. However, in several spots large holes with standing water confronted the bus along the way.
After entering Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the bus blazed past Uluru and arrived at Kata Tjuta first.
It definitely felt like we were stepping into The Land of the Lost territory. The only things missing were the Claymation dinosaurs. It would have seemed completely appropriate, however, to spot a T-Rex or Brontosaurus peek out from behind any of the sandstone formations.
Kata Tjuta, which means “many heads” in the local Aboriginal language Pitjantjatjara, make up a huge cluster of domed rocks. Like Uluru, the Pitjantjatjara consider Kata Tjuta sacred, and the creation and preservation of the rocks are part of the Aboriginal Dreamtime. You can feel the spirituality and a sacred presence of Kata Tjuta. The area is stunning and because of the recent rains, electric green sprouts had emerged in several spots.
After boarding the bus again, we finally embarked to Uluru. Soon you see it — the image on so many postcards, calendars, coffee table books, etc. Because it was overcast, the amber glow wasn’t there, but even in dull lighting, Uluru was impressive.
Dean and Mic relayed the Aboriginal Dreamtime mythology explaining the imprints and markings on the rock walls, nooks and crannies. Almost every surface had a story, which was so cool. The legend about two boys building a mud pile and then sliding down, creating a smooth slope along one of the rock’s sides was my favorite. Because Uluru has such varied spots, it makes sense that the Pitjantjatjara created detailed rationale recognizing them.
The texture of Uluru especially stands out. You can anticipate what it will feel like. To the touch, the soft smooth sandstone is comforting, nurturing in a way. Basically, it’s hard to explain Uluru. Here’s a link to some additional photos that show more of the diversity of the sacred rock.
Because it was cloudy, we saw Uluru in a different light and perspective. The evidence of the previous day’s waterfalls still remained as streaks.
All too soon, it was time for the sunset dinner, an activity that every tour offers. It was pretty evident during the day that instead of seeing a sunset we were going to see a set of clouds. The clouds seemed to be apprehensive, however, as if they were tired of working so hard in one of the bakingest places in the world. They even drifted a bit.
“What are our chances of seeing a sunset against Uluru?” I asked Dean.
“About one in a billion chance,” he said, shrugging his shoulders like: “hey, at least we got you here.” I don’t know if he was trying to really dial down our expectations or if he was just oblivious to the clearing in the sky.
Just like it was synchronized to a timer, the sun emerged and did its magic with Uluru. A small glow started and then slowly spread across the sandstone. I can attest to each minute of the sun appearing since I captured it in a series of photos that easily could be assembled into a flipbook or full on motion picture.
I think all the passengers as well as Dean and Mic felt somewhat victorious. It was a rush that didn’t end even when we returned to Alice Springs. We had seen Uluru and were successfully back in our 33 percent hometown.