Stone Gods of the Australian Outback

(A version of this essay first appeared in Go World Travel.)

Ellery Creek Bighole, a rare permanent watering hole in the Australian Outback

Uluru, or Ayers Rock, as non-Aboriginal Australians call it, sticks out of the near flat of the desert, an uncompromising, awesome structure. It and Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) face off over the desert like two ancient stone gods, unmoved and unmoving. To my eyes, the huge edifice of Ayers Rock fails to be shocking or beautiful. It’s just big. Even from a distance its presence is inescapable.

Black stripes streak down the rock, the paths of lichen marking the courses of occasional waterfalls. They look like Chinese calligraphy strokes. Over millions of years waterfalls have scooped out terraced basins from the top of the rock to the bottom.

The water lands in waterholes tucked in around the bottom of the rock, only one of which is permanent. Its shady, wet, green presence is a surprising relief from the dry, dusty heat that presses in on us when the sun has risen.

Only two people in our tour group of 18 decide to climb the rock. It is a steep, slippery climb aided by an anchored chain. In our brochures about the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, the Aboriginal people make a compelling case for not climbing the rock. It is sacred to them, they say; even they don’t climb it, except for ceremonial occasions. Most of us have decided to respect their wishes, although refusing to climb the rock gives me the feeling of the proverbial stone holding the sea at bay. My gesture feels flat and useless against the tide of tourists who just want to say they’ve done it.

Hordes of them inch their way up the bare rock while hanging onto the chain, although most of them find the climb too precipitous to go far. The rest of us take the 5.6-mile walk around the base, where we can inspect the geology and learn the Aboriginal stories that surround the rock. Most of them chronicle an ancient battle between two snakes.

It is easy to see why Uluru was a symbol of worship for an isolated people. Its red sides rise suddenly from the desert with no foothills or undulations. The rock is a buildup of sandstone left over from the erosion of a mountain range millions of years ago. It is only the first stop in our guided camping safari of the Outback.

Most people come to Ayers Rock or Alice Springs and take one- or two-day trips in air-conditioned buses. They snap pictures of the rock, then buy Aboriginal paintings, and perhaps a didgeridoo in a shop at their resort.

I signed my husband and me up for a five-day safari because I wanted to do some hiking in the desert. Now that we are away from the busloads at Uluru, onto the unpaved red dirt roads of the Outback, I am continually surprised by the changing landscape. I had expected the Outback to be empty, a flat, red, nearly featureless desert. It isn’t.

The green gorge in the middle of the desert: Kings CanyonOur third day, our guide gets us out of our tents at five in the morning. After we’ve eaten our toast, drunk our tea and emptied the tents, we drive to Kings Canyon. Nearly 370 miles from Alice Springs, Kings Canyon should feel like it’s in the middle of nowhere, but its deep cliff walls and hidden swimming hole host a little microcosm of earth science history. The first 330 feet are a grueling climb up near-vertical stairs, but the rest of the 4.3 miles we meander along the tops of the cliffs.

Halfway through the hike, we peer down into the gorge and see waving foliage marking the entrance to the Garden of Eden swimming hole. After climbing down to it, we dive in. Under the cliff’s rim, protected from the burning sun, plants from 20 to 50 million years ago still grow and thrive.

They are tiny havens of ancient geological history, living fossils. I stroke a cycad palm that’s only four feet high.

By 11 a.m., when we finish our hike, it is already above 90 degrees Farenheit. The heat is burning, but bone-dry and bearable. Then we get into the van and drive another four hours to our next campsite at Ormiston Gorge, a waterhole encased by pocked cliffs populated by black-footed rock wallabies. As everywhere, the white bark and silvery leaves of the eucalyptus trees provide contrast to the red dirt.

The Outback at dawn, seen from a hot air baloonEvery day we’ve hiked for at least two hours and driven at least four. I can’t believe how big the Outback is. I’ve never seen anything like this. Hundreds of kilometers from any town, we run across herds of wild camels, donkeys and horses. The ancient geology of Australia lifts and spreads around us, ghosts of mountains, rainforests, and the sea, all dry now, weathered down to nubby rocks.

By the end of the safari, I am desperate to stay. I can’t bear to leave the openness and the silence for our cool, clean hotel in Alice Springs. During our last hike, a scrambling climb up Standley Chasm, I touch every rock with care, telling myself I’ll be back.

Related Perceptive Travel webzine story: Uluru from a Different Angle

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