August 28, 2015

Outback 3 Uluru: butterflies at sunset

Unquestionably, Uluru should be on your must-see list, or among the hundred things you do before you die. Don't put it off: it's a long way; it'll be too hot or crowded or fly-blown; it's just a big rock. Get on it. I promise you will not be disappointed.

I struggle to describe Uluru. Returning, nearly 20 years after my initial, near-spiritual experience, I was just as impressed, awe-struck, and moved. The first time, as the plane prepared to land, I got butterflies in my tummy at first glance. In 2015, on day 7 of our Outback trip, I couldn't wait to see it again. We'd agreed we would stop and photograph it at first sight. Another walk up a sand dune. I could even get Kata Tjuta in the same frame. The colours, even at a distance, are striking. Imagine what the first European explorers must have thought on seeing these.
We'd been up and away from Erldunda by 7, before sun-up. Our bathroom at the Desert Oaks Motel smelt of cabbage and was cold as a Pole. There was frost on the car. The speed limit was 110 on the Lasseter Highway (see map below) but there was virtually no roadkill, as evidenced by seven Wedge-tailed Eagles sharing breakfast. 
We stopped for breakfast at Mt Connor lookout. Also known as Attila or Artilla, the 984-foot-high inselberg is part of the same large substrate as Kata Tjuta and Uluru, with which it is sometimes confused, despite having scree slopes. Mt Connor's summit is a remnant of a Cretaceous geomorphic surface that has been eroded, like the tops of its monolithic neighbours to the west. (For the geology of the area, see Outback 3 Uluru: the Base Walk.) We climbed a sand dune across the road from the lookout: if we hadn't, we would never have noticed the large salt pan on the other side.
No sign of a Rock yet on the western horizon
We didn't spot Uluru as soon as we'd expected because Mulga- and Spinifex-covered dune ridges rise 10-15 metres, and in places immature Desert Oaks are almost forest-like in abundance. There had been so much more vegetation than I'd expected all the way from The Alice.
Once we reached Yulara, I couldn't wait to get into the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Once you're up close to the Rock, there's a compulsion to photograph it from every angle and in every colourway.
Yulara is where you fly into (Connellan Airport) to visit Uluru and where you stay, 18 kilometres by road from the World Heritage listed Rock. There used to be motels and unmonitored development near the base of Uluru, but in 1973 the Commonwealth government decided to build a new resort outside the National Park. When this became operational in 1984, the area near the base of Uluru was rehabilitated. The resort complex has changed hands several times, but in 2011 was sold to the Indigenous Land Corporation. Since 1992 it has been run by Voyages Hotels & Resorts. I was pleased to see that the little town hadn't changed much since my last visit. Despite more accommodation options, it's still peaceful, spaced out and green. You can hardly see it until you get there.
We stayed in Emu Walk Apartments, part of the Desert Gardens Hotel, and fairly close to the 'town square'. The apartment blocks have been designed in sympathy with their desert setting, and our apartment was spacious and well furnished with a large comfortable bed and a fully equipped kitchen. The washing machine was useful a week into the trip.
We'd checked in before 11 but our room wasn't ready until 2. So we visited the information centre, which is more about booking organised tours than basic info. You can't buy a National Park entry pass, which is essential, but you can book a car rental, camel train, scenic helicopter flight, motorcycle tour, dinner beneath an outback sky or a sunrise tour. 

We browsed the Indigenous art markets in the town square lawn area, and we visited the new Wint Jiri Arts & Museum, opened in June. It features an 'artist in residence', other Anangu art and Indigenous design products. In addition, there's information on history, geology, fauna and flora of the region. I learned that in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park there are 416 species of native plants; 26 species of native mammal (another 20 have disappeared); 179 species of bird; 73 species of reptile; 4 species of frog; and hundreds of species of invertebrate, including 76 types of ant, 82 types of spider, 57 types of beetle, 27 types of bug, 20 types of cricket and grasshopper, 15 types of cockroaches, and 30 types of wasp, moth, butterfly and termite!

Once we'd got settled in our apartment, we headed for the National Park entrance, where we bought a three-day pass. We visited the Cultural Centre, which has also been constructed with minimum intrusion on the landscape. This was even better than I remember: there is a learning/information centre where for a few dollars I obtained a folder full of information sheets on subjects ranging from bush foods to habitat types, fire management, introduced species, and Handback (of land rights to the Anangu traditional owners in 1985). Having not found this level of detail in the resort information centre or the Wint Jiri Museum, I was delighted. Walking through the Tjukurpa Tunnel, with its desert voices, you can absorb the ancient laws and stories of the Anangu. There's an art shop, with some good stuff in it, and a cafe with another shop, both of which are worth missing.

The Pitjantjatjara are the Traditional Owners of this part of the Central Australian desert, but refer to themselves as Anangu. They are closely related to the Yankunytjatjara, another name you will come across. The land is inseparable from their identity. Anangu have their own seasons and more of them. They are distinguished by the nature of the wind or clouds; the plants that flower, seed and fruit; when reptiles come out of hibernation or disappear from the cold; when important food plants flourish. Habitats are recognised differently: puli are rocky areas, gorges and scree-like slopes; pila are Spinifex plains; tali are sand dunes; and puti open woodlands. At the Cultural Centre, Anangu welcome you to their place: 'to listen to the insects and birds, look at and feel the land'.

The Walkatjara Art shop is well worth some time, especially if you are looking to buy Aboriginal art and are concerned about its provenance. Desart ( was formed in 1991 to support Central Australian Aboriginal artists and their art centres, offering support services, marketing opportunities and advocacy. There are more than 40 art centres across the Northern Territory, Western Australian and South Australia, and Walkatjara is one of them. The profits from sales are returned directly to the artists.

We bought a beautiful Mulga boomerang from the Cultural centre and a women's club, also made from Mulga, from Maruku Arts in the town square market. Boomerangs made in the central and western desert are the non-returning variety. They are primarily made for hunting, but may also be clapped together rhythmically during ceremonies. Men's clubs are smaller and have a variety of uses – hunting, fighting, ceremonial, and as adzing and grooving tools for decorating weapons – but women's clubs are used exclusively for self defence.
We stayed at the Cultural Centre until it was time to get into position for sunset viewing, in an extended lay-by with a great vantage point. It was more than an hour before sundown, but my friend made a brew and we sorted ourselves out in readiness. There is something of a party atmosphere as the car park fills up with people from around the world. I chatted for a long time with a German couple who were 'doing' Australia in three weeks of honeymoon. This was their second consecutive sunset, and they pointed out colour changes to the sky at each side of the Rock, too. Many cameras were clicking furiously. 
In the end we were rushing back – in as far as that was possible as part of a queue from the sunset viewing to the Resort – for dinner at 7.15 in the Arnguli Grill at the Desert Gardens. We had what was a candidate for best meal of the trip, and were waited on by a charming and unobtrusively attentive young Frenchman who had just given in his notice. Arnguli's loss, indeed. The chef knew what he was doing, too. My salmon was accompanied by the best b├ęchamel sauce ever. Ever.

How wonderful it was to be here. And tomorrow we had the Base Walk to look forward to.

This post was last edited on 1 October 2015

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