Wednesday November 19 - Well, the Rex wasn’t exactly fit for a king, but for just the one night I really wasn’t greatly fussed, especially as rooms anywhere in the Adelaide area were so obviously at a premium. By climbing over my bags I manage to get breakfast done and dusted and complete the challenging task of stuffing all my worldly possessions into just the two bags (I’m sure one or more of those poor, complaining zips will give up the ghost before the end of this trip).
I’m sure you guessed that the next leg of my trip will be taking me into the Red Centre of Australia; the very heart of the country, in every sense, so I’m constantly reminded. I had always planned to do at least one of the great rail journeys whilst here, so months back I booked a ticket on the Ghan train from Adelaide to Alice Springs, a journey of some 25 hours, and which I hope will prove to be another in the ever-lengthening list of highlights of the trip. The rail terminal isn’t very far from the hotel, but I deemed it a sensible move to book a taxi yesterday for the short ride there, so I settle myself down in the lobby with today’s newspapers. I’m fascinated and appalled in equal measure at the sight of several hardened gamblers pouring money into the fruit machines in the hotel’s sizeable gaming room opposite - and this in the middle of the morning.
At 10.45 my taxi arrives and the driver for some reason seems convinced that I want to go to the airport… Once we have cleared up that little misunderstanding, he doesn’t recognise the name ‘Adelaide Parklands’ - he knows the rail terminal as the ‘Keswick Interchange’. No matter; we arrive in good time for ‘checking in’, airport-style, which takes only a matter of moments. My big bag disappears, hopefully to re-appear tomorrow at Alice Springs, and I’m left with plenty of ‘mooching about time’ prior to departure at 12.20 p.m. The terminal (evidently the word ‘station’ is too down-market) is bright and modern, and rapidly beginning to fill up with fellow-passengers. I kill a bit of time by having a coffee and a custard tart in the café; buy a couple of postcards; and then wander along the platform to the front of the 13-carriage train to await the traditional ‘coupling up the locomotive’ photo-opportunity. In fact there are two locomotives, so we shall have plenty of pulling power. It’s all quite exciting watching as supplies are taken on board; the carriages are smartly finished in a ribbed aluminium cladding, with the Ghan logo of a camel and rider prominently displayed on each one. The train crew go through an obviously well-rehearsed ‘meeting and greeting’ routine prior to allowing the passengers to board. Not quite the Orient Express, maybe, but this train is taking me to places where that legendary train has never been - and I certainly won’t need to be donning evening dress for dinner tonight. I’ve booked to travel at the ‘basic’ end of the various options, in ‘Red Kangaroo’ class, which provides a reclining seat for the overnight section of the journey. My travelling companions in Carriage ‘R’ are a motley assortment of backpackers, older travellers and obviously less affluent families returning home to various points in the Northern Territory. I’m sitting next to a pleasant German chap, and across the aisle there’s a very blond young Swedish man and a down-to-earth Australian lady who’s heading all the way up to Darwin (most, though, like me, seem to be getting off at Alice Springs).
Bang on time we ease our way out of the terminal and the great journey begins with a far from scenic run through the less glamorous outskirts of Adelaide. Our ‘Train Manager’ runs through his little introductory talk over the intercom system, welcoming everyone aboard and giving out a few nuggets of safety information. The airline-style feeling is reinforced by a glance through the inflight-style magazine (on-rail magazine, perhaps?), complete with Jackman and Kidman on the front cover; he chisel-featured and brooding; she pouty and buttoned-up. From time to time, a quite well-prepared pre-recorded tape is played over the intercom, giving information about the areas and settlements we’re passing through, and our Train Manager adds his own commentary when he sees fit. I try out the buffet car, which is right next to our carriage, and they run up a perfectly decent cheese and ham toastie which, with yet another apple juice, will do me okay for lunch. Some four hours after leaving Adelaide we reach Port Augusta, which is the only opportunity we will get to stretch our legs. There are some interesting murals on the walls of the station building, and a small buffet bar where I invest in a couple of energy-type bars and a bottle of, yes, apple juice, to keep the hunger pangs at bay. That aside, Port Augusta doesn’t exactly look like the sort of place that you would otherwise linger in.
Soon after setting off again, we’re informed that there will be two dinner sittings tonight - at 6.00 p.m. and 6.45 p.m! Whatever happened to slow, relaxed eating at a somewhat later hour? Needless to say, until the tickets run out, everyone goes for the later sitting. Outside, the countryside is flat and already pretty barren, although away to the east, the rugged Flinders Ranges are catching the fading light as the sun begins to sink in the west. It’s been a warmish sort of day, but high cloud has moved in, and there are even a few spots of light rain falling as us night owls take our places for our decadently late dinner. There is a choice of three hot dishes, with a vegetarian option, which I go for, as it looks the most appetising of the three. Penne pasta with mushrooms is in fact quite nice (although the portions are fairly diminutive), and I have to say it’s far cheaper than any equivalent fare on offer on British trains. I’m joined at my table by a friendly Dutch guy, Jost, who’s been out here for several years now, working for a company in Melbourne. He’s good company and we get to chatting amiably about this and that until the Train Manager drops some heavy hints that he needs our table - and several others - to complete the dinner service. Jost and I agree to reconvene in half-an-hour, which we do, and pass a pleasant couple of hours which serves to shorten what we both suspect will be a fairly sleepness night. He’s paid a little extra to secure a separate sleeping compartment, but when I see it I struggle to work out how he’s going to fit into it (and there’s even a top bunk bed, which only someone with severe curvature of the spine would be able to use). Definitely not for the claustrophobics of this world!
Oh well, I can’t put off the evil moment much longer - let’s see just how far this ‘reclining seat’ actually reclines…
Thursday November 20 - The trouble with retiring for the night so much earlier than you would normally do is that, naturally, you’re highly unlikely to sleep through until a ‘normal’ waking-up time - and that’s in a conventional bed, rather than a not-terribly comfortable, not-very reclining seat on a moving train, which grinds to a mysterious halt every now and then. I’m really not very good at sleeping on any form of transport, to be honest; trains and buses are a better bet than planes, which I find well-nigh impossible; all scrunched-up in economy. The Ghan, however, doesn’t provide anything like the requisite level of comfort, at least in Red Kangaroo class (and as I’ve been enjoying so many undisturbed nights hitherto, maybe I just wasn’t feeling all that tired anyway). So all in all, it’s a long, long night, punctuated by some heavy and prolonged snoring from those who obviously don’t share my insomnia. Some time around midnight we turned north at Tarcoola, leaving the Indian-Pacific route behind and heading into the geographical and metaphorical heart of the country. As first light begins to show on the eastern horizon I can see that we’re travelling through a pretty featureless flat landscape, with the vegetation having become sparser and sparser as the miles have slipped by. The vastness of Australia comes home to me (yet again) as I realise that we are still in the state of South Australia, some 17 or 18 hours after leaving Adelaide.
The opening up of the breakfast bar at least provides the excuse for getting up and moving around just a little, and with the benefit of a window seat in the buffet car, I can better enjoy the view. The breakfast isn’t at all bad - scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns and baked beans, plus toast, juice and tea, and again, all at a more than reasonable price. I spend most of the remainder of the journey in this carriage; Jost arrives to say hello (and to confirm that he didn’t find sleep any easier than I did), and the woman who was sitting opposite me gives us her take on the Rudd government; as an ‘ordinary Australian’, her views are interesting to me. I’ve been hesitant to pose this question up to now, as politics is always a tricky subject, but here she has a captive audience and is happy to chat about such things. Finally, we cross into the Northern Territory, where our obliging drivers slow the train to a crawl so we passengers can photograph the trackside state boundary marker; the first of several such ‘photo-slowdowns’ of which we are forewarned by our ever-cheerful Train Manager. He and his crew have actually done an excellent job, both in keeping us all well informed about the features of interest en route and our progress, and in serving up very creditable food in what must be far-from-ideal conditions. We are advised that the Northern Territory is in yet another time zone (one hour behind South Australia), so more re-setting of watches is called for. I can’t quite see the logic of this, given that, longitudinally, the two states are almost perfectly aligned.
More photo-slowdowns as we cross a number of rivers which would normally be dry, but because of heavy rains in the last few days have quite respectable levels of water running. Likewise for the ‘Iron Man’; a minimalist sculptural representation of a man carrying a railway sleeper, made out of those self-same sleepers, and which marks the point at which the one millionth concrete sleeper along this north-south trans-continental railway was laid. There’s time for a final snack lunch before we finally inch our way at a snail’s pace through the Heavitree Gap and into Alice Springs station, just ten minutes behind schedule; probably due to our having to await the southbound Ghan a short distance south of the town, where we ‘swap’ drivers. It’s seriously hot in a town like Alice - a town literally in the middle of nowhere, and somewhere else I couldn’t imagine myself ever setting foot in all those years back as an atlas-devouring ten-year-old. There’s a rather fine statue of an Afghan rider mounted on his camel on the station platform, so another photographic ‘must’, particularly with the Ghan train carriages in the background. The train stops here for some five hours, so most of those heading on to Darwin have signed up for a bus tour around the town - I’m just glad to be getting my feet moving again! Well, the Ghan was a memorable experience and I’m so pleased I didn’t take the easy option and simply hop on another flight to get here; I can now say that I’ve experienced one of Australia’s great rail journeys, and after a good night’s sleep tonight I’ll soon overlook the lack of comfort. If there’s a next time, though, I think I would lash out the extra cash and give the Gold service a whirl.
I now have a long wait for a taxi, which is partly my own fault, as I graciously wave others ahead of me, having given my name to the lady in the station’s V.I.C. Eventually, I ask someone else for assistance, as the supply both of taxis and people to fill them now seems to have dried up… Finally, I get my cab which whisks me quickly to the Avis office where I collect my fourth car of the trip; a return to my first Toyota model, but a newer vehicle (and this one has proudly emblazoned on the licence plates: ‘NT - Outback Australia’ - oh yes, I like that!) I almost get third degree burns from the steering wheel, but, risking blistered hands, drive the short distance to the Desert Rose Inn, where I take possession of a hot, cramped room; another case of ‘It’ll do for one night’, I suppose. Having ascertained that the air-conditioning is indeed functioning, I decide to get out and explore Alice Springs on foot. I walk to the top of Anzac Hill, from where there are, as promised by the guide books, fine views over the town and the surrounding parched Macdonnell Ranges. Then along to the Todd River, where a group of aboriginal children are enjoying the unaccustomed pleasure of splashing around in their normally dry local river. Then a stroll through Todd Mall, past Adelaide House, where some quite appealing indigenous artwork is on sale, but unfortunately I have absolutely no room back home for any more holiday mementos! I walk as far as the old Royal Flying Doctor base, which of course by now is closed for the day, before heading back for an early dinner. I pick a place which is offering Moroccan-style lamb shanks on garlic mash, which most definitely hits the spot, with a couple of beers. Then it’s back to base with the intention of a shower followed by a spot of diary updating; however, lack of sleep last night overcomes me and I start writing gibberish, so decide I’ll just have to turn in and be a day behind with it. I suspect I will manage to sleep through the rattly old air-conditioning…
Friday November 21 - Praise be to that noisy air-conditioning, which I left running all night to keep the room temperature bearable. Apparently, so I’m informed by the Desert Rose’s proprietor, some twenty-odd lads were partying and making a bit of a racket last night - and then they all left at six in the morning. I was totally oblivious to all this; I really must have needed that sleep! Before setting off on the long drive to Uluru I decide to have another little walk around Alice Springs, as I won’t be returning here after my three nights at ‘The Rock’.
Alice Springs doesn’t take much getting out of, and in a few minutes I’m heading down the Stuart Highway. Just outside town, there is one of those eye-catching road signs that just have to be photographed - it informs me that Adelaide is 1519 km distant and that I have 441 km to cover to reach Ayers Rock (yes, I thought it would say ‘Uluru’, as well). Even though I know this is a sealed and relatively well-travelled road I can’t deny that there’s a sense of excitement in heading out into the great emptiness that is the Australian outback. I soon encounter my first ‘road train’, thundering past in the opposite direction - I can see that you need a steady nerve and a lot of road to overtake one of those monsters. I’ve stocked up on bottled water, just in case, and I’m going to take the drive nice and steadily - no point in trying to break any records. I toy with the idea of calling in at Stuart Well roadhouse, to meet ‘Dinky, the Singing Dingo’; however, as it turns out, I find an alternative menagerie, further down the road. It’s very windy here in the desert, and little duststorms flare up regularly, with the air becoming filled with a reddish-orange haze. There are even a few drops of rain from time to time falling from a very strange sky; yesterday’s clear blue has been replaced by high sheets and ribbons of cloud, quite grey and vaguely menacing-looking in places. It’s not the sort of sky I think you would ever see back home, and I couldn’t begin to predict what kind of weather might come from it.
Eventually I reach the Erldunda roadhouse, which marks the turn-off on to the Lasseter Highway and the road to Uluru. I top up the petrol tank, and even though I only manage to squeeze in 17 litres, I feel more comfortable knowing I now have plenty of fuel to get me all the way there, plus some ‘running around’ leeway as well. I buy a bottle of apple juice and a hedgehog slice for now, plus a tuna sandwich for later. My bottled water is horribly warm by now, but I take a good swig anyway, having read all about the insidious dangers of dehydration. I press on, now heading due west, and marvelling all the while at just how remarkably red the soil really is here; the ‘Red Centre’ is a wholly appropriate description. An hour or so later Mount Conner appears to my left; often mistaken, apparently, for Uluru by first-time visitors, as it is also an isolated monolith, but in fact its profile is quite different. My last stop before journey’s end is at the Curtin Springs cattle station roadhouse/motel/café/shop/bird aviary - a delightful madhouse of a place, but I bet it would be fun to stay here. They have a wonderful sign which warns visitors: ‘Please do not feed the emu’ - now that’s something you wouldn’t come across in Manchester… I’m warned about said emu’s fondness for cake, so am on my guard lest my orange cake catches his (or her) eye, but for the moment my sole companion is an ancient hound, covered in battle scars, who slumps down next to my chair with a resigned air. After a while, the emu deigns to put in an appearance, strutting around amongst the tables and chairs, though perhaps sensing that I’ve finished off my cake, gives me a wide berth.
Keen to get to Uluru in good time to get settled in well before sunset, I head on through an area of low, scrubby hills which prove to be remarkably effective in blocking any premature views of Uluru itself, until only about 15 kilometres out, when I finally get my first tantalising glimpse of its pink top away to my left. I reach the turn-off for Yulara village, which is all very well signposted, and am soon at the campground reception, where I fill in all the necessary paperwork. I’ve pre-booked an air-conditioned cabin here, though I haven’t had to pay any deposit, so now part with a hefty $454.50. My (semi-detached) cabin is a short distance further on, and is perfectly fine, with a separate (smallish) bedroom; another room with four bunk beds, where I intend to stash all my stuff; and a main kitchen/sitting area, with a small table and all the usual cooking utensils, pots and pans, cooker and fridge. As there is a sink, I really only need to use the ablutions block, a little further along the campground road, for showering and toilet purposes.
Before heading out to the sunset viewing area, I have an ‘orientation’ drive around Yulara village’s little ring road, around which are dotted the various accommodation complexes, from the swish ‘Sails in the Desert’ down to, ahem, the campground. I take a look around the little shopping centre, where there are several gift shops, a post office, a branch of ANZ bank, a restaurant and take-away, and a well-stocked supermarket. The National Park entrance is 4 km down the road, where I buy a 3-day pass, for $25, and then I’m on my way to Uluru itself, finally revealed in all its astonishing majesty. This great, ancient monolith simply rearing up out of the flat, red landscape is a literally breathtaking sight - I’ve seen so many pictures and film footage of it, the reality shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it’s just utterly stunning. There is a long parking area just off the road for sunset viewing, so I park up and stroll up and down trying to decide on exactly the best spot. Intervening bushes and small trees make getting an entirely clear shot of the rock itself quite tricky, but do I suppose add a bit of ‘foreground interest’. The weather isn’t in a particularly co-operative mood, being rather grey and cloudy now, so tonight at least we’re not going to get any of the famous crimson and red hues; nevertheless, just watching the great rock become darker and darker in the gathering gloom is yet another of those ‘pinch myself’ moments. This is, let’s be clear, one of the world’s truly great sights - and not one bit oversold, in my opinion.
I’m in no hurry to drive away, and by the time I’m reunited with the car there are very few other vehicles left in the parking area. Still more than a little awestruck, I drive back to Yulara village and park up behind the shopping centre, as I’ve decided to eat at Gecko’s restaurant there. It’s pretty busy (I suppose they can guess quite accurately what time their main influx of diners is likely to arrive, depending on sunset times), but the nice waitress finds me a table quite quickly. I do have a longish wait for my pizza, but she makes a point of coming over to apologise and assure me that it won’t be much longer, which is a considerate and welcome touch. When it does arrive it’s huge (I should have guessed as much), and despite a glass of nice red and a big bottle of water, I can’t finish off the last slice. A good feed! Back to my cabin, where I catch up on my paperwork; write up two days’ worth of diary details; and then wander down to the ablutions block for a shower. It’s slightly unsettling to note a warning posted on the washroom wall about snake bites… The facilities are clean, though to have one’s own bathroom is obviously preferable; but I am, when all’s said and done, trying to keep costs down at this notoriously expensive location. I set my travel alarm for 4.15 a.m., which should give me enough time to get up, have a quick wash, maybe a glass of orange juice, and then get down to the viewing area in time for sunrise at 5.38 a.m.
[Alice Springs to Yulara village: 477 km.]
Saturday November 22 - I get a very rude awakening not long after dropping off to sleep - the radio alarm clock on the bedside table had been set for an even more ungodly hour than I’d set my own trusty little travel alarm, and it suddenly goes off, not once but twice, before I manage to disable it completely. And then, of course, I get a second awakening at 4.15 - not exactly my best time of day, as anyone who knows me will confirm. I stagger out of bed; have some orange juice and cereal; find my bleary way to the toilet block; and somehow have sufficient nous to gather together the things I’ll need for this horribly early venture. I’m clearly far from the only one on early autopilot, as the lights are on in a number of the cabins as I drive out, with the eastern sky brightening by the minute. There’s a bit of a hold-up at the National Park entrance station, where it seems quite a few people need to purchase their passes; all of which takes a little while to sort out.
The sunrise viewing area, on the north-east side of Uluru, isn’t as well organised as the sunset viewing area, and cars and coaches are strung out along a lengthy section of the road. It’s a cloudy morning, so again, no really spectacular show of colours on the rock, but the subtly changing shades are nonetheless wholly beguiling. After sunrise I drive around the full length of the loop road to get a view of the southern side of Uluru and, as the morning is reasonably cool, decide to do the base walk, or as much of it as I feel like doing. I park up in the Mala car park, where the climbing route begins, for the foolhardy and/or those who choose to ignore the indigenous people’s request that visitors do not do so. In any event, ‘due to forecast rain’ the climb is closed today. Looking up, I can trace the route up the steeply sloping face of the rock by the line of stanchions supporting the handrail - it really does look a terribly hard slog. More than happy to stay at ground level, I set off anti-clockwise, along the Lungkata Walk, which brings me around to the western face, which is the one you see from the sunset viewing area. Every now and then there are signs requesting visitors not to enter or photograph certain sacred aboriginal sites; the first of which is Pulari, one of the traditional women’s gathering places. Rounding the south-western ‘corner’ of the rock I arrive at the Mutitjulu waterhole (at the same time as several tour groups). There are some ancient paintings underneath a rock overhang here; crude, but strangely powerful images.
The rock is quite astonishing; close up its surface is mottled, rather like the bark of a plane tree; quite patchy and layered - and is it just my imagination, or could it even be called scaly, in an almost reptilian way? I find that a quite disturbing thought; the rock does indeed seem to me to have a kind of elemental life force - it’s as if it might suddenly come alive… I find I can’t take my eyes off it; every step of the walk brings a fresh perspective. There are huge cracks and crevices which cleave its bulk; caves and other peculiar holes and hollows which pitt its surface. I’m also intrigued by the fact that it makes what I can only describe as a perfectly ‘neat join’ with the surrounding ground - here gravel and soil; there solid rock. I’ve never seen anything like this, anywhere. For most of my circumnavigation of the rock I’m away from the crowds, and there is a great stillness; as if Uluru is blanketing all other sounds. I feel it’s the sort of place where I should experience some life-changing revelation; as if the secrets of the universe will be revealed here. I can’t get the image of the mysterious black monolith in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, out of my head - this place is beginning to play tricks with my mind, I think.
Fairly quickly I complete the route along the South Base Walk, and reach the eastern end of the rock. I now have just the long slog back around the north-east face to complete to bring me to the Mala Walk, which leads into a narrow gorge, with the great rounded shoulders of the rock rearing up on either side. Here there is another small waterhole, which is again of great significance to the indigenous peoples. Finally, I complete my circuit, which has taken me a little under three hours, and which I can, hand on heart, say has been one of the most extraordinary walks I have ever done.
That walk has sharpened my appetite, so I drive back to the campground and finish off my breakfast before settling down to a serious postcard-writing session. After several leisurely cups of tea (you see, to a Pom, sometimes only tea will do) I head off to the shopping centre where I stock up on my provisions, buy 20 minutes’ (expensive) internet time, post my cards and buy a few more. Back at the cabin I’m enjoying just chilling out in the shade; bringing my travel diary bang up to date before fixing myself a suitably hot-weather lunch of bread, paté, cucumber and tomato, and a big hunk of watermelon. Efficiency writ large(!), I write my latest postcards and top up the petrol tank before setting out on the drive to Kata Tjuta. The drive takes about 50 minutes, plus a stop at a very crowded dune viewing area some 20 km before the car parks at Kata Tjuta itself. There are a number of tour groups here, and to be honest, it’s not the best angle for capturing the extraordinary jumble of rock domes which form the Olgas (which it may be politically incorrect to now call them, but it is somewhat easier to pronounce).
There is, however, a startling distant view of Uluru, now glowing a sort of salmon pink in the afternoon sunshine.
I drive on, noting with some interest the start of the 4WD track leading to the Western Australia border - now that would be a drive and a half! - and soon after, arrive at the Valley of the Winds parking area. The walk to the first lookout point, Karu, is quite easy, so I press on to the second, Karingana, which involves considerably more effort, with some steep uphill and downhill sections. Unlike at Uluru, here at Kata Tjuta the configuration of the rocks means that you can access the centre of the site, with the trail leading you in amongst the towering rock domes. Karingana lookout is well worth the effort, with wonderful views down into the valley beyond, but that’s as far as I (and one or two others) are prepared to go today, as completing the full circuit in daylight looks touch-and-go, and this would be no place to be stranded at nightfall. Retracing the route back to the car park gives plenty of opportunity for marvelling at the extraordinary geology of this place. The sunset viewing area next to the car park is becoming a little busier, but it’s a lot quieter than at Uluru. A small tour group set themselves up nearby, with bubbly and nibbles - how the other half lives, eh? Tonight, fortunately, the sun is being more co-operative, and re-appears, turning the rock domes an almost translucent orange - definitely the best light show so far. Again, I’m so absorbed by the spectacle unfolding before me that I’m almost the last car to leave, around 7.30 p.m. Then it’s a long drive in the dark back to Yulara - no wildlife alarms, though, I’m pleased to report. I head straight to Gecko’s restaurant for an excellent steak and some chat potatoes cooked with chorizo sausage - it’s good. I celebrate a memorable day with a couple of Cascade beers before the usual pre-retiring ritual of shower and diary updating.
[Yulara village to Uluru, Kata Tjuta and return: 176 km.]
Sunday November 23 - Well, I have decided to have a lazy day for once today. I didn’t set an alarm, as last night’s weather forecast indicated that it would be another cloudy sunrise (later confirmed by some early risers). I have a bit of a lie-in - well, it is Sunday, after all - so it’s nearer 9 o’clock than 8 o’clock when I emerge. I ease myself into the day with a leisurely breakfast, after which I call in at the campground reception to re-check my flight departure time for tomorrow, just to make sure Qantas haven’t changed it again - fortunately, they haven’t. Then I end up at the reception of the Desert Gardens Hotel, after a bit of a search for a functioning internet terminal. Discover that my football team have taken a wholly unexpected point at Anfield against Liverpool, so back at the cabin have a celebratory mug of coffee and a couple of Anzac biscuits. As it’s now pleasantly sunny, with plenty of blue sky, I decide to go for a leisurely clockwise drive around Uluru, which is now looking distinctly orange in the mid-day light. I stop at several points for further photo-taking (yes, very lazy for me, I know, but I did promise myself one day of minimal physical exertion).
Having completed this circumnavigation, I set off on the Kata Tjuta road, looking for a good spot to get a distance shot of those remarkable domes. After some 15 km I find the place I’m looking for and capture that all-important picture. Then back to base for a lazy lunch (as per yesterday), after which I treat myself to a nice little doze, despite the best efforts of someone using a leaf blower outside to keep me awake. It’s really very quiet here; not many of the cabins seem to be occupied, and the campground itself is practically deserted; I guess this really is the low season. When I decide I’ve probably been horizontal for long enough, I set to extricating my new memory card (purchased in Hobart) from its Fort Knox-like packaging (I’m down to the last few shots on my current one). It’s turning quite grey, dull and threatening-looking outside once again, and soon, rain begins to fall, so once more I fancy my chances of seeing Uluru tonight in its ‘crimson mood’ are rapidly diminishing; nevertheless, it could still be an interesting sunset, albeit of an unconventional kind. I shall set off shortly to see what transpires, and to bid a fond (and somewhat awed) farewell to this extraordinary rock.
On the way there rain is still falling and the clouds are very grey and dark, but there’s clear sky far to the west, so we could be in for some unusual light effects… Lightning is flashing in all directions at the viewing area (though fortunately not too close at hand) - and then, lo and behold, dimly at first, but steadily building in length and intensity, a wondrous rainbow forms immediately above Uluru, and as it brightens, a second one, to its right, begins to form, splitting the rock into three equal segments. The watching crowds are spellbound - how could you remain unmoved by a sight like this? Along with everyone else I take shot after shot of this magical spectacle, whilst behind us, a beautiful sunset is building steadily, with dappled red clouds spreading across the sky, casting a deep maroon tint on to Uluru. These few precious minutes were worth the whole trip to Australia - just magnificent. Finally, Mother Nature draws a veil over this astonishing floor show as the rainbow gradually shortens and slowly fades away - I half expect applause to ring out. I sense, instead, that those watching have been reduced to awed silence by what they have just witnessed. Uluru really has saved the very best until last. Reluctant to tear myself away, I stay until the great rock has become merely a dark shape before leaving it behind for the last time.
Dinner tonight cannot be anything but an anti-climax after such an experience, but Gecko’s doesn’t disappoint. I had been toying with the idea of eating at the cook-it-yourself open air barbecue place at the Outback Pioneer Lodge, but with rain still in the air I settle for the easier option of another giant pizza and a glass of red. Again, it’s excellent; a very good and not outrageously expensive dining choice in this otherwise pricey outpost. I round off yet another unforgettable day with a late shower and more diary updating - tomorrow will be a busy morning.
[Yulara village to Uluru (twice), Kata Tjuta viewpoint and return: 158 km.]