Wayoutback 3-day tour in Australia Day 1:
Alice Springs, Camel farm, Interpretive base walk of Uluru, The cultural center, Campfire, and stargazing
From Alice Springs to the Uluru
At first, it felt like it was “yet another” empty promise that would never materialize. We were sitting in a café in London and my friends and I were wondering where our next trip would be. I casually said I wanted to see the belly button of the world but never did I think we would follow through. After all, we were lucky enough to pull off a Europe trip to Norway for my graduation celebration. Now we are “grownups” and we have our own busy and crazy schedules and priorities. That’s why now I think how funny it is that everything just came together out of my expectation – we made yet another fun and memorable trip in a month and traveled to West Australia!!! Road trip… camping… hiking… beaching… skydiving… it was super fun. We flew to Perth and spent a few days exploring the most “remote city” in the world (because the nearest city of over 500,000 to Perth is Adelaide, which is over 2,000 km away as the crow flies, and that will be in another story); and then we flew again across the world’s largest limestone bedrock, the treeless Nullarbor Plain, and got ready for our outback adventure!
For this trip, I “took a back seat” in the planning process (maybe not entirely 🙂 ) and my friends researched all the possibilities about traveling in the outback. Eventually, they booked a three-day camping tour called “Wayoutback” for the four of us.
Not so long ago it was more complicated to travel to the Rock, while Alice Springs was the closest town and airport to get to, and then everyone had to sit for another 6-hour to Uluru. In recent years, there are direct flights to the belly button of the earth from Sydney, Melbourne, and Cairns. Unfortunately, still not available from West Australia and so we need to fly via Alice Springs anyway. The tour did pick up a few passengers at the Uluru airport.
The Outback Tour
About the Outback Tour – there are several companies operating Uluru camping tours departing from Alice Springs. The routes are pretty much similar: Two days in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and a hike in the Kings Canyon. The price difference depends on the quality of food and accommodation.
I heard from a friend that some of the tours may not have enough food (or food was bad) for the whole tour and so everything was eaten during the first round, and some of the campsites may not have a hot shower facility during the second night.
Since Uluru is a rural area, and pretty much in the middle of “nowhere”, you may not get to refill any of the supplies for three days so pack wisely (like a travel set of toiletries, sunblock, and energy bars – check out my packing list at the end of this series) and I would recommend selecting a tour in the middle price range for some comfort with good value.
By the way, the tour is a “participation tour”, which means all the “way outbackers” or “emu runners” (depending on the name of the tour :P) should step in and help out during the tour by cleaning up the campsite, make food, and so on; nothing major and it’s a good way to make friends. So, we were picked up at our hotel really early before 6 am in the morning and the guide/driver/cook/first-aider kicked off his long drive.
We had to reach the Uluru campsite by lunch. We had two short breaks at a camel farm and Curtain Springs.
The camel farm is a small pit stop with an art gallery that showcased the history of Australian Camels. The camels were not native as they were imported from Canary Island in the 1840s by a man named Herrick. The purpose of importing camels as these fascinating creatures are excellent helpers in the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line, transportation of food supplies to Alice Springs, cattle stations, mission, and aboriginal communities. Most of the camels were set free in the 1920s when motor vehicles began operating and free-ranging herds of camels were, therefore, established in this semi-desert terrain. Tourists could have a short ride around the tracks for AUD 7, we bought some postcards and looked into the art gallery instead.
Curtain Springs is much closer to Uluru and it’s a gas station for campers to restock and refill. We bought some drinks for our night as well! The interior of the shop was nicely and humorously decorated. Outside, a flat-topped and horseshoe-shaped mountain was in sight. The Attila (Mount Conner) was a 300-meter high mountain that was sometimes misconstrued as the Uluru. Same for me as I was dozing off in the car and when my friend woke me up I gasped when I opened my eyes – and then I soon realize it was not the Uluru. The mountain was actually much larger than Uluru and could be seen from afar on our way to and back to Uluru.
We settled down at our campsite and had a quick lunch before we set off to our base walk of Uluru!
The cultural and geological importance of Uluru
Some call it Uluru, or Ayers Back, or the belly button of the earth. It is mysterious, it is wondrous, it is multi-colored, it is symbolic, it is sacred… it is many things, it is geology amazement and I was getting excited that I was finally here! First, the guide gave us an interpretive base walk and we had an idea about the relationship between aboriginal people and the rock, the native’s way of life, culture, and beliefs evolving around Uluru.
“Surviving” around this largest sandstone rock formation on earth is difficult with the lack of resources and protection. The rock provided these people shelter, shade from the unforgiving sun, food and water source, and a gathering place. For many years (til now) it is a sacred place to the Pitjantjatjara Anangu, the aboriginal people of the area. In fact, the guide has to be trusted by these native people for them to learn about the native people’s culture and then pass them to us. One interesting thing that I learned was the drawings. There are lots of ancient paintings and drawings in the caves and shelters around the rock and it’s fascinating to know about their top-down angle of seeing things. So a U-shaped symbol means a person – imagine, looking top-down when a person was sitting on the floor legs opened… smaller “U”s are children and lots of “U”s is a gathering. Concentric circles mean water – imitate the ripples of water when a stone dropped into the water. More common and obvious symbols such as a vertical “V” means boomerang (of course), and a one-sided line of arrows means emu footsteps.
There are caves around the rocks that provide shelter. A “kitchen cave” is not exactly a cave for the aborigines to boil and cook, but it was an area for the female and young to gather and prepare food while the men were out hunting for food. The more I see, the more I admire their wisdom and stamina to live in such a difficult and dangerous environment. I had a lot of respect.
What you need to know about Uluru
First of all, the Uluru is 348 meters in height, rising from flatlands, and to put it in perspective, it’s taller than the Eiffel Tower! While it may not look like it, it was a standalone, massive, rock in the deserted area.
The walk around the base of the rock takes about three and a half hours! The entire length of the circumference is reaching 9.5 kilometers. However, you do get to see a lot of caves, springs, and, interesting spots during the walk.
Taking a deeper dive, Uluru has a huge mass buried under the desert. The rock that we see today was formed by millions of years of erosion and it extends at least another 2.5 kilometers.
The rock was recognized to be owned by the local Anangu people in 1985. Today, the locals lease the land to the government and work in partnership with Parks Australia. William Gosse was the first expedition from Europe who discovered the rock in 1873, he named it the “Ayers Rock”. The name was changed to Ayers Rock / Uluru, which is the Aboriginal name. Later, to honor the aboriginal name, it is officially put Uluru at the front to become Uluru / Ayers Rock.
Uluru has listed both natural and cultural UNESCO World Heritage Sites. It’s amazing that the cultural significance was recognized because the aboriginal people have lived in this place for at least 30,000 years.
Should we climb Uluru?
There were mixed things that I heard about climbing Uluru. Before I went, I learned that climbing Uluru was not allowed because it’s considered sacred; but then my friend told me it’s actually allowed.
The truth is: You can climb, but you are requested NOT to.
I supposed it is a way to satisfy the needs of the tourists to climb the rock out of pride, achievement, and ownership. The climb was promoted in the 1940s, and I am sure a lot of people would want to do that. Therefore, I was confused about this contradictory situation of native’s traditional law and modern tourist law. Today, the debate continues…
Respect: To the native people, Uluru is sacred. It is a place of great knowledge. Under their traditional law, climbing is not permitted. Therefore, tourists are welcome to walk around the base to discover the rock and it is also important to respect their request not to climb it.
Safety: The climb also depends on the weather condition as it could be extremely hot in the summertime, and it is actually quite dangerous to climb the rock because it is much steeper and higher than you imagine. The rock is a smooth, vertical surface with no shades and no surface to grab hold of. It would be very challenging to climb up the rock. Even if you got up there, there’s nothing to hold on to and one wrong step might cause some serious damage. Tourists might also suffer from heatstroke, dehydration, and dizziness before they come back down.
Besides, the top of Uluru is 348 meters – higher than the Eiffel tower (a 95-story high building). At least 35 people have died while attempting to climb Uluru and many others have been injured.
Environment: There are also significant environmental impacts of climbing Uluru. If you have a close look you can see the path is smooth from millions of footsteps since the 1950s. This erosion is changing the face of Uluru.
In fact, most of the people who visit Uluru today choose not to climb. They choose not to climb for many reasons, including their own fitness, but most people did it out of respect for Anangu. Other reasons people don’t climb are lack of interest, safety concerns, and fear of heights.
For safety, cultural and environmental reasons, the park is working towards closing the climb permanently. So, what do you think about climbing the rock?
(Up next Kata Tjuta Walk! )