The Outback Made Personal
|The Shot!: The ubiquitous profile of Uluru (courtesy, Tourism Australia)|
All apprehensions aside, if you go to Australia, you should make it to Uluru. Simply put, it will astound youthis massive sandstone structure rises a monolithic 1,141 feet off the surrounding pancake-flat scrubland, a modest height only when you realize the rock extends another 9,800 feet below the earth. Its base circumference is 5.5 miles; up top it's 1.7 miles wide. Uluru and the surrounding 823 square miles of national parkland support 400 plant species, 150 types of birds, and 25 varieties of mammals.
Actually, make that 26, if you count the perennial human presence. We knew we were drawing close to the world's biggest rock before it came into view simply by the number of cars, trucks, and buses on the road. But when Uluru comes into viewsuddenly and without warningeveryone became immediately transfixed. And as we drew closer, Uluru exposed its true complexity. Unlike the myriad two-dimensional images that assault you country-wide, the seemingly smooth flanks of red rock, as featureless as glass, are actually honeycombed with caves, lips, ledges, and concave and convex bulges.
We quickly disembarked, shrugged on our daypacks, and beat feet to the nearby base of the rock. You can climb Uluru, but you'd do well to quell that "because it's there" instinct. The Aboriginal owners politely request that you respect their sacred site by not clambering on it (quietly, politely, with posted signs near the trailhead), and anyway, what's the thrill of doing the same thing that an army of other misguided tourists have done?
Besides, climb Uluru and you won't have time for the much more rewarding 5.8-mile hike we undertook looping around the rock's expansive diameter. From the trail's vantage point, Uluru reveals its shadowy, mysteriously impressive topography. The sandstone has been carved by erosion into a gallery of wonderfully absurd, truly mesmerizing features: a narrow fissure like the mouth and nose of the statues of Easter Island, an outcropping that evokes thoughts of Mick Jagger's pouting lips, scribbles of black striations caused by running water on those rare times when it rains. Walking alongside the monolith, you pass sections marked as ancient Aboriginal sites, some with placards offering explanation, others modestly asking you to refrain from taking pictures. You step from the brilliant glare of the Outback sun into Uluru's soothing shadows, from red, dusty terrain into a dense forest of green-leafed ghost gum trees, then back into the dazzling sunlight...
We spent four hours traversing the path, and could have spent hours more marveling at the intricate details of Uluru. But daylightand another Uluru tourist rite of passagedictated that we depart the parking lot so that we could watch the sun set on the rock.
One word of advice: if your guide knows of a less popular place than one of the roadside overlooks, go there. Our group wasn't so fortunateJays knew of a place, but one traveler with a very expensive digital camera insisted that she had to get that one ubiquitous shot of Uluru (and for the record, it was not one of the Aussies in our crew).
So, we joined the masses at the overview, as close to a cocktail party that you'll find on an Outback roadeveryone with champagne in one hand and biscuits in the other, waiting for the sun. Despite the crowds, the sunset on Uluru's expansive face astounds. As the light shifts from day to dusk to darkness, a symphony of colors explode across its surface, from vibrant crimson to deep red to radiant purple to indigo blue....
All the photos I shot during those very fast 15 minutes have baseball caps and plastic champagne cups hoisted into my frame, and our aspiring photographer desperate for that one dream shot complained that there were too many people in the way. But witnessing the moment in personeven with 50 other peopledissolved any irritation wed felt earlier, and our collective exhaustion made our swags feel like down-filled mattresses when we finally fell asleep in the neighboring campground.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication