This is my first non-China entry, but probably not the last. I may even set up a section on this site dedicated to Australia.
Last Friday I returned from a fantastic three-day trip to the Red Centre. No better place to see the "real Australia." Before that my experiences had been limited to the coast of New South Wales and the Blue Mountains near Sydney. This trip was a real eye-opener.
Since I was traveling with my 64-yr old mother, wife, and 2-yr old daughter, we decided to make it a comfortable trip. So we used a local travel agent in Randwick to book a tour package. This included a three-day stay at a serviced apartment in the Ayers Rock Resort, which is located very close to the national park containing Uluru and the nearby rock formation known as Kata Tjuta. It also included several guided tours by the local AAT guide service.
The flight to Uluru, located in the Northern Territory, takes around three hours from Sydney. During the journey, you pass over two thousand kilometers of sparse, desert -like land. Well, not quite desert--this is a semi-arid environment that actually holds a lot of plant life. This was the first big surprise for me. I'd imagined a more arid environment without any trees or shrubs.
The view overlooking Uluru from the air shows how red the soil is in the NT, hence the name "Red Centre". It also shows how many trees and shrubs actually thrive in this environment. Though sparse compared to the coastal regions, the landscape is still dotted with a great variety of plant life.
We arrived on Jan 9 and settled into our apartment. That evening a bus picked us up at the resort and took us on a 10-minute ride to the designated sunset-watching spot, where we watched as Uluru was lit up by the rays of the sinking sun, which was setting in the opposite direction to the Rock. Many other buses and cars had pulled up at this spot, and tour operators had set up small stands offering wine and soft drinks for the hundreds of viewers. I set up my camcorder on a tripod and filmed Uluru as the sun set. Of course the film doesn't do justice to the beauty of the real event, but it does give some impression of the transformation of the face of the rock as the sun sinks below the horizon.
On Jan 10, we awoke at 4 am and caught a 4:30 bus to the sunrise spot. Same deal as the sunset, though people were drinking coffee and tea, not wine. Unfortunately for us, clouds were on the horizon as the sun rose. The bus had to leave the spot at 6:15 to continue its rounds, so we didn't get a chance to see the sun break through the clouds and light up the face of the rock. This was a big disappointment, but we were compensated by getting to see the face of the Rock turn bright orange as the bus made its way around the perimeter of Uluru to the drop-off points.
We were dropped off at the climb point, but chose not to climb, partly out of respect for the aboriginal people who live around the Rock, and who do not like people to climb it, but also because it is a steep and dangerous climb that we could not have done in any case. Not to mention that the climb was closed, but that was a moot point for us.
Instead we walked around the base of the Rock, getting a close look at its features. We walked for about an hour, passing a sacred spot for aboriginal women for which photography was prohibited, and stopped at another tour point. At this point we missed out on a walk to a waterhole, which was disappointing because the tour features cave art.
Needless to say, the Rock is a sacred place for the aboriginal people of Australia, and it is surrounded by stories and traditions. I feel no need to describe these since I did not learn much about them other than what anybody can pick up in a guidebook or website. One thing I did notice was that aboriginal folk were not very conspicuous--in fact we hardly saw any at all. I saw an aboriginal man buying rabbit feed at the supermarket in the Resort, and later we saw a group of aboriginal men and women drinking at a local bar also at the Resort, but other than that almost everything was run and managed by white folk.
That evening my mother and I joined a hundred or so other tourists for the Sounds of Silence dinner. Rated one of the best dining experiences in Australia, this involves being bused to a choice spot between Uluru and Kata Tjuta, where we saw the sunset over Kata Tjuta from the vantage point of a small hill, then enjoyed a buffet dinner at candlelit tables set up just below the hill. The meal included kangaroo steak and crocodile salad.
After desert was served, the lights were turned off and an astronomer gave us a tour of the Australian night sky. Using a flashlight and laser pointer, he pointed out major constellations and other features including the Magellanic Clouds. I was worried that this part of the night might be another disappointment, since during the sunset ominous clouds were scudding across the sky and it was raining over both Uluru and Kata Tjuta (a marvelous sight, which I've captured in my film of the sunset over Kata Tjuta). However, as soon as the sun set the sky cleared and the viewing conditions were excellent. After the astronomer gave his talk, he showed us to a spot near the tables where he'd set up several telescopes and a set of 20X binoculars allowing us to view some objects in greater detail.
The following morning we awoke at 5 am and caught a 5:30 bus to Kata Tjuta, where a guide took us on a 3-hour hike known as the Valley of the Winds. On the way we picked up some other tourists at Uluru, but before that the guide took us to watch the sunrise from the other side of the Rock, where we could see the sun rise over it, not behind it. We agreed that this was a better vantage point and best of all, there was only one other man there, a photographer with his tripod set up to shoot the show.
At Kata Tjuta we hiked into the hills and down a steep valley, passing between two large formations, until we reached a vista overlooking the "heads" of Kata Tjuta standing beyond a deeper valley. Carrying my daughter in a carrier on my back made it a tougher hike than it would have been otherwise, but my 64-yr old mother did just fine. This hike was one of the high points of the trip. Our guide did an excellent job of describing the natural features and their history, as well as the flora and fauna.
Our guide was also knowledgeable in the customs of the aboriginal people and described how they used the Valley of the Winds as a site for initiating boys into adulthood. According to him, when a boy reached the age of 14, his uncle would take him into the valley and lead him thru a series of initiation rites, including piercing his ears, nose, and nipples, and thrusting a spear into his thigh. Then the boy had to spend a few nights in the valley on his own, but only after hearing some ghost stories or the nearest equivalent. Sounds pretty similar to my own experiences in summer camp, minus the spear in the thigh.
That pretty much sums up the trip. On the third day we flew back to Sydney. I returned with a desire to learn more about the aboriginal people of Australia, who are "invisible" here in the sense that you don't see much of them, and you hear very little about them outside of an academic discussion now and then (at least in the circles in which I find myself here in Sydney). I would also like to return to the Red Centre someday with a tent and a rental car. The guided tours were fine for our situation, but they really limit one's options, especially if one is interested in filming or photographing the spectacular scenery or going on an adventure of one's own.