Last weekend I flew to Uluru to take part in the Australian Outback Marathon, along with the 20 or so other people who made up Team Epic Good. You can read more about the marathon experience here (to be clear I ran the 6k course not the full 42!), but I also wanted to share some of the highlights of our experience on this beautiful land of the Anangu people.
My only previous visit to Central Australia had been on a school bus trip in early 1985, and while I knew some things had changed quite significantly since then – my hair style and predisposition for dressing in matching outfits with my high school bestie included! – I was curious to see what other changes the 30+ years had brought.
The first and most noticeable was the accessibility. We travelled on a bus for days and days from country Victoria before we arrived at Uluru last time, but this time the relatively short 3.5hr flight from Sydney not only saw me arrive a lot fresher, but also provided incredible views of Australia’s red centre from above.
I had clear memories of how spectacular the sunset was, and how the rock seemed to almost glow from within as the light changed, and this certainly had held true. I am obsessed with reading all of the brochures and information in the room whenever we check into a hotel which at times drives Stuart and the kids mad, but often enough this habit throws up gems of information that completely justify it. I’d seen a map that showed a viewing area just a short walk away from my room, so I decided I had time to squeeze in a quick stroll over there before the welcome dinner event on the chance that it would provide a good view of the sunset, and boy did it deliver. There was hardly anyone there, and the clear skies delivered a stunning sunset that more than lived up to my memories.
It was an early start the next morning to head out into the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park to watch the sun come up, and a busy one! There were at least a dozen bus loads plus multiple smaller vehicles at the viewing area, but it was well laid out with plenty of places to watching the changing colors. It was stunning to watch, with the color changes much more visible in person than is represented by the ensuring 300 or so photos on my iPhone that I waded through to find one to best represent the experience…..
From there we drove around the base of Uluru, where the bus driver explained the cultural significance of the land to the Anangu people, and some of the history behind its return to their custodianship by the Hawke government in 1985.
I had known that one of the most significant changes since my earlier visit was the change in attitude towards climbing Uluru. When our school group was there in early ’85 I don’t remember an option not to climb even being discussed, back then it was considered a standard part of any visit to this part of Australia. Since then the traditional owner’s request for visitors not to climb this very sacred space has been well publicised, and is clearly represented in a wide variety of languages at both the site itself and by every tour guide we encountered. So the thing that completely surprised me and actually made me pretty cross was how many people were prepared to blatantly ignore the request and climb anyway, prioritising their own tourist experience over respecting the culture and beliefs of others.
Our group was more than happy to restrict our explorations to ground level, walking around the base and seeing not only the enormity of Uluru but also the array of vegetation in the area, I had remembered it as being much more barren but there were flowers in bloom everywhere.
My love of a Segway tour is well documented, so I’d booked Stuart and I in for a tour of the base, which was great fun and also provided a lot of additional insights into the important cultural significance of the rock and its surrounds.
For the Anangu people, the stories of Tjukurpa, creation time, teach a number of different lessons. Only a small number of these are able to be shared with the general public, but we loved hearing them and they certainly provided a deeper understanding of the significance of the site.
You can still get an elevated view of the area without having to climb the rock, with helicopter tours readily available. We went up on a cloudy day, and when the sun broke through the clouds and hit the rock the result was stunning.
We also flew over Kata Tjuta, which was great to see from above before driving over there that afternoon and seeing it from the ground.
It was a shame that the kids hadn’t been able to join us, but thanks to the wonders of technology (and the readily available wifi points around Uluru) we were able to FaceTime them in to enjoy sunset with us, so they didn’t miss out entirely!
One thing we definitely didn’t do on our school trip was the Sounds of Silence dinner, and it was a very worthwhile addition to the itinerary. After watching the sun go down we sat down to a delicious dinner featuring bush ingredients and prepared in a pop up kitchen in a remote location, before all of the lights were switched off to allow the impact of the stars to take hold. An astronomer used a Batman-style beam of light as a pointer to illustrate the different constellations, and we could have sat and listened to her for hours.
It was wonderful to have the chance to return to this beautiful part of Australia, and great to find it so well maintained and unspoilt. There are many new ways for tourists to enjoy the landscape, but all are focused on the premise of ‘leave nothing more than footprints and take nothing more than photographs’, leaving the area remarkably untouched.
We loved sharing it with the great group of people who made up Team Epic Good, in addition to the wider marathon group, and are looking forward to returning with the kids. I’m not sure when we’ll get back – next years Outback Marathon is a red hot chance! – but I know it definitely won’t take another 30+ years.