Parting the Ochre Sea

…as in the color of the Outback. Much of yesterday was spent driving a few hundred miles through the Outback, from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, a.k.a. Uluru.  (The accent is on the first letter: “OO-luru”.) Internet access here is spotty so I may not have much online presence for the next couple of days.  However I will at least try to get this blog entry posted.

We were picked up early yesterday morning and drove for hours across red desert.  My earlier description of it as a Martian trackless waste doesn’t hold up particularly well upon ground-level inspection, since much of the landscape is densely populated with various types of desert scrub and an assortment of wizened trees: eucalyptus, coolibah, others.  (Remember the coolibah from Waltzing Matilda?  Once a jolly swagman sat beside a billabong / Under the shade of a coolibah tree…  It’s an unusual looking tree, with a permanent look of having been caught in a wildfire: the bottom half of the trunk is black as though burnt, the color fading to white about six feet off the ground.  The are few leaves, at least at this time of year, adding to the false sense of the tree having been scorched at ground level.

The Outback is wonderfully fragrant as well, redolent of some kind of desert sage.  And so, although the landscape was frying-pan flat for much of the drive, broken only by some distant hills, the rich red color and desert plant life nonetheless made for a beautiful day’s drive.  There was not a cloud in the sky, and the day of course was quite hot and dry.

We made two stops along the way, the first at an odd little snack shop/souvenir stand/hobby farm, the stars of the latter part being camels.  Yes, there are camels in the outback, thousands of them, having originally been imported in the mid-19th as work animals.  The climate is much to their liking, and although we have not seen any in then wild yet, they are not an uncommon site at farms and tourist venues.  At this particular venue you could rent them, for times ranging from a ride around the paddock to all day. No way were we going to pass this up, so we went for ride around the paddock.  (Alas, the kindly elderly gentleman who offered to use my camera to take pictures of us blew it, so I only have photos that I took of other people on camelback.)

Helpful hint: when dismounting a camel, be sure to grip the pommel with your arms straight and locked in front of you.  The camel gets down by collapsing his front legs first in a surprisingly sudden motion, and it is very easy to get thrown forward and off by getting somersaulted over the camel’s head.  You might get a high score from the judges if you stick the landing, but it is more likely that you’d break your neck.

Later in the day, relaxing at our hotel (about which more below), I noticed that my socks were covered in soft fine hair.  Took me a minute to figure out what that was…until I remembered that that’s why they make camel hair paint brushes.

We got to our hotel around 1:30, one of three beautiful single-story desert structures that are designed to blend in with the   landscape. The three hotels — ours is called the Desert Garden — form a small complex about 10 miles from Ayers Rock itself.  We could nonetheless see it from very far away as we approach: it is over 1200′ tall, oval shaped with a perimeter of about 5 1/2 miles at the base, in other words one big frickin’ rock, a huge red sandstone dome rising out of the desert floor.  It actually has a sibling living in the neighborhood, an equally large beast called Kata Tjuka a few miles away.  Both were formed about 200 million years ago from sediment accumulating in depressions at the bottom of what was then a huge lake. The lake dried up, the lakebed eroded away, and voila, the two big guys left jutting out of the landscape.  Kata Tjuka is composed of a conglomerate rocks and thus has a craggier and less uniform structure; Uluru is a smooth sandstone monolith.  It looks like the cocoon that Mothra hatched from.

Needless to say, the rock and surrounding terrain (Warraka canyon) are the sole source of the local economy, and so there are a variety of rock-related tours, excursions, hikes, etc.  Our first of these was last night, at the aptly-named Sounds of Silence dinner, when we were bussed out to the nearby middle of nowhere, to have dinner under the stars, far from any sounds or lights of civilization.  Upon arrival we were serenaded by a Crocodile Dundee-esque didgeridoo player, video of whom I will post later.  After being led to a set of banquet tables in a cleared area in the brush, we were asked to keep silent for a moment.  And what a fascinating moment that was: no traffic sounds, air conditioners, nothing.  Just the wind and the desert sounds: I could hear a few types of insects, some bird calls, and an occasional distant howl (dingo?).  It was pretty remarkable; I would have liked it to go on for a long time, but of course after a few minutes things got underway and people started talking.

The setting was otherworldly: we were in a clearing at the edge of a vast desert plain, with The sun setting behind Kata Tjuka in the distance, with Venus above it.  The full moon was rising over a hill behind us as the sky darkened, and dinner was served: kangaroo tail soup, followed by a buffet that included lamb, barbecued chicken, and of course wild kangaroo cutlets. To answer the obvious question, kangaroo tastes sort of like a cross between beef and pork, slightly sweet and kind of smoky.  It’s good.

The full moon was a decidedly mixed blessing.  It gave a romantic illumination to the setting, and was quite amazingly bright, in the absence of any other lights at all; I could easily read my watch by it, and you could still make out Kata Tjuka well after dark.  But that romantic moonlight pretty much killed the sky.  A local amateur astronomer was on hand to give a nice little talk about the sky, using a laser pointer to identify the southern constellations, and throwing in a mix of astronomy factoids and local lore.  He didn’t have a lot to work with, 80% of the stars being washed out by the glowing moon.  Still, the whole event was wonderful, rather otherworldly and quite the unusual experience.

This morning we awakened seriously, insanely early to see sunrise at Uluru, which was gorgeous.  We had a vantage point quite close to the rock, watching it turn shades of red as the sun rose behind us, at the same time seeing last night’s full moon setting behind Kata Tjuka in the distance.  It was just like in the postcards, just stunning.  You have to be up close to Uluru, and at the right time of day, to appreciate just how red it is, and how many shades at that.

After sunrise we took a couple of short guided walks around different parts of the base, and again we were struck by how varied and subtle the shades of the rock can be.  It is one beautiful monolith.

One thing we did not do was climb it.  There is a waist-high chain running up a route to the top, and it is no picnic: it is a steep, steep climb up that chain, nearly a quarter mile of vertical distance.  They close it when the winds are high or the temperature above 97F, which was the case today, the by sparing us having to make excuses for not doing it.

But the thing is, although the chain is there to assist climbers — and the ascent would be nearly impossible without it — both the park service and the local Aborigines strongly discourage you from doing it.  The park service sites safety and environmental concerns; the Aborigines cultural ones.  And so we heard over and over again, from every driver and every guide, that they really wish we wouldn’t do it but (assuming the path was open, which today it was not) we could go ahead and do it if we really really wanted to.  It is the Aboriginal Jewish Mother Guilt Trip: “Go ahead and climb the mountain if that will make you happy.  I’ll just sit here at the bottom and stick my head in the water hole, and don’t come complaining to me if you fall and break your neck, like happened to your cousin Wallentjaroo.”

The souvenir shops even sell embroidered patches that say — I actually saw this — “I didn’t climb Uluru.”  C’mon guys, if it’s that upsetting then just take out the damn chain.

We’ve got another visit to the rock later today to see the sunset.  And tomorrow morning, just before our departure for Sydney, we will be taking a helicopter ride over the rock and the canyon…major photo op, to be sure.  That should pretty much satisfy all our Uluru tourism requirements.

I may be offline for the next day or two until we reach Sydney.  I am assuming that I’ll be back online there, and if that is the case then I will pick up the thread.

Categories: Australia/New Zealand | 4 Comments

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4 thoughts on “Parting the Ochre Sea

  1. Was the “distant bowl” meant to be a howl? If it wasn’t then I am not sure what a “distant bowl” is. When we were at Ayres Rock & also discouraged from going atop it we were told, “How would you like it if lots of tourists walked around on the roof of your church?”. Frankly, Scarlett, I wouldn’t give a damn.

  2. Larry Manoff

    I have had kangaroo meat at a restaurant in the “exotic wilds” of Warrington, PA. It was listed on the “Daily Specials” part of the menu as “Kangaroo Steak.” As prepared, it tasted like a slightly sweet brisket and was delicious. Another diner at my table, to whom I had given a bite to sample, expressed regret that she had not ordered the kangaroo.

  3. Howard Levitsky

    There’s a restaurant in midtown Manhattan called THE AUSTRALIAN. I have gone twice and both times they were sold out of kangaroo, dammit. But they have very nice lamb roast and pan seared barrimundi filet…

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