When I was a kid, I knew of Ayers Rock. A sleeping, red, ominous giant. A pimple in the middle of the Australian outback.
You’d think there wasn’t such a thing as a good pimple, of course, especially not a bright red one that stands out for miles around and brings people from everywhere to come stare at it.
However, this isn’t a blemish for teenage boys to worry about. This red lump is celebrated across Australia, famous globally, and the oxidation of its minerals is what gives it such a fiery hue.
Nowadays what the world knew as Ayers Rock is officially called by its traditional name, Uluru – although both names are used, depending on who you speak to.
The stars of the show around here are Uluru itself and Kata Tjuta – formerly known as the Olgas. You can see both in the top image, with Kata Tjuta in the background – more of those later.
Let’s talk about Uluru. Despite it being a big stone, it fascinates. If nature is poetry, Uluru is the chorus that you belt out loudly, even if you can’t sing, because those words really mean something to you.
Uluru is a shapeshifter. It looks quite different at various times of the day. You think “Well, I’m not going to be hypnotised by a rock.” But you are. You can’t take your eyes off it, and its palpable shifts of colour make the thing seem like it’s more alive than you are.
The above shot was taken a little after sunrise – and that hour, plus sunset, is really when the rock is at its best.
This one was was taken shortly before the sun had given into the snooze button.
And this one was taken after the sun started to get a grip and was rising steadily.
And this was shot as the sun set one evening. See how different it can look?
The more you stare at Uluru, the more you notice its texture and shapes. This lion’s head was pointed out to me.
Here I am with a much-needed cup of coffee on one of the occasions that I got up before the sun did, just for that lump of rock.
I’m not a morning person, and have to get up around 4.45am regularly when I’m working shifts at the BBC, so I usually begrudge having to arise at ungodly hours when it’s not for employment purposes.
But I’m really glad I did. Seeing the sun rise over Uluru is a surprisingly unforgettable experience. It is, after all, just a rock. But when it’s right in front of you, it seems a whole lot more than that.
The Aborigines implore you not to climb Uluru, saying it is a sacred place and should not be clambered over.
Looking at how steep it is, and taking into consideration that 40 people have died and around 100 others are suspected to have died shortly after descending through heart failure, makes you wonder why on earth anyone would want to attempt an ascent. And the descent looks like the really hard part of it.
I was told a great story about the chain that goes up the first part of Uluru’s ascent path. Apparently a farm owner got the contract to put the single chain in, stretched between regular poles, for people to grip onto.
He was told to make it thigh-height. He was apparently quite a short man, so in obeying instructions he made the chain much too low for those of average height, or above, to hold onto as they haul themselves up the red, unforgiving rock.
After worshipping from afar, we finally got up close and personal with Uluru, walking around part of its base and even being able to press flesh on that red rock.
And when you’re so close, you can see all the detail that has enchanted the indigenous people for so many millennia. Stories have been created to complement the fissures and mineral stains on the stone, for example.
While there, we spotted some markings in the sand in a cave, drawn by local Aborigines. No-one could work out what it meant. Looks like a dingo to me.
But if Uluru is the flashy redhead that everyone fawns over, Kata Tjuta is the cleverer, more voluptuous one.
They were formed around the same time but it’s Uluru that grabbed the spotlight, sells the postcards, brings all the tourists in. Kata Tjuta is the girl next door, the one with plenty to offer but who needs more work to unlock her secrets. She doesn’t put out quite as easily as the popular red head next door.
It too had a name change. It used to be known as the Olgas, a suitably exotic-sounding name for its red, rounded peaks.
It has, in some ways, more to offer. It opens itself up invitingly, like a familiar lover, as you walk over the Mars-like surface of Walpa Gorge.
Walking into this part of Kata Tjuta made me wonder what on earth it was like for the indigenous tribes who came here before the modern world ever presented itself to them so crudely.
Also the first explorers who found this place – looking up at the red walls, we were seeing much of what they saw back then. It was a thrilling time for me, to be treading the same paths as they did.
Speaking of which, some of Kata Tjuta’s peaks have green trails on them. This is because people used to climb these rocks too, and brought seeds on their boots. While the people have long been banished from clinging to the slopes, Mother Nature hasn’t relinquished her opportunity to spread a little more greenery around.
Aside from all this expeditionary stuff, there was some good old-fashioned pampering going on.
Kate and I had a great ride out into the desert just before sunset, thanks to Uluru Camel Tours.
I was riding Meryl, a cute and impeccably behaved camel. The seats are fashioned to each individual camel so they make for a very comfortable ride, even for someone with cheeks as skinny as mine.
Kate was on Rex, and it was a lot of fun getting out to our desert destination that way.
Once I’d bid a fond farewell to Meryl and scratched her behind the ears a bit (take my tip, fellas – the ladies love that) Kate and I had a wonderful evening at the Sounds of Silence dinner.
This saw us and a large number of others all sitting at round tables, enjoying tasty food and lots of Aussie banter. Then a hush descended on the assembled and suddenly a chap in a hooded cloak, an astronomer, started talking about the various constellations and individual stars which dazzled above us.
The cloak was naturally just for effect, but I must admit is was pretty cool. If cloaks came back into fashion, I’d be all over that.
I have never seen the night sky look like it has done in the Northern Territory. You can forget all sense of time with all the glittering.
Our planetary guide pointed out various star sign constellations including Sagittarius, which was quite moving for me as it’s mine and I’ve never seen it before. I don’t really believe in astrology, but the individual characteristics of my star sign often describe my behaviour and attitude, so I do find that aspect interesting.
Another moving moment was when the astronomer, using a hugely powerful green laser pointer, wobbled it around a sparkling dot. We were looking at a star’s light which dated from the time that the first settlers were building New Amsterdam – which later became New York, my favourite city in the world.
The photography around both Uluru and Kata Tjuta is severely restricted. We had to submit our photographs for approval before we could use them on any social media.
Any that showed parts of the rocks at certain times of day, when details such as some caves are in focus, were rejected. Therefore it was a little tricky to get some SOTMs there, but I did manage a couple, including this one. Click on the image to see what it’s all about.
We each sat on the back of a Harley Davidson provided by Uluru Cycles. We then rode to Uluru, saw another sunrise and toured around the rock in the chill of early morning. A brilliant experience.
Despite this pic, I didn’t control the beast myself. But I watched a lot of CHiPs when I was a kid, so like to think I styled it out pretty well.