Archive for the ‘Uluru’ Category

By a quarter to ten we had showered, got dressed, eaten breakfast, made a picnic lunch and finished our packing and were ready to drop off the keys and head back to Alice Springs.

Except reception didn’t open until 10am.  We could have popped the keys in the letterbox, but we wanted to buy two more fly nets for the grown-ups as we found these very useful last night during our final sunset at Uluru when we borrowed the girls’ fly nets.

Shortly after 10 we filled up the car with petrol ready for our four-hour car journey.  We had planned to charge up Hannah’s Zen in the car, but for some reason the charger doesn’t work any more. Fortunately, we didn’t need Lady TomTom as we only had to follow the Lasseter Highway to Erldunda, then turn left and follow the Stuart Highway all the way to Alice Springs.

Traffic was slightly busier this time, the girls were happy reading and the journey was pretty uneventful.

Until we passed Mount Ebenezer where we spotted a person in the middle of the road.  He approached our half and started to wave his arms.  Tim duly slowed the car down, as this man had no intention of moving out of the way.  As a matter of fact, he actually walked towards the car and almost made us veer off our lane.

It was an aboriginal man asking for money!  First we understood his car had run out of petrol and he had run out of money.  As we were thinking about what to do, he changed his story and now he said he had been running all day and was hungry.  Could we spare some dollars for him to buy some food at the Mount Ebenezer roadhouse?  Without being harsh or mean, we found it difficult to believe his story, so we ended up apologising and driving off.  He kept on smiling though and was probably just going to wait for the next car to approach to have another go…

We carried on a little further to Erldunda roadhouse where we stopped to have our picnic lunch.  We decided to stay in the car as it was way too hot to get out and we would have been surrounding by flies in no time.  (Tim and I swapped sides and within seconds had about 10 flies inside the car!)  Whilst nibbling away at our ham/cheese/salad sandwiches we looked out on this huge wooden echidna and live emus.

After lunch we carried on for the second half of our very last long car journey of this trip.  We made good progress and we reached Stuart Cabin and Caravan Park well before 3pm.  We were given the keys to the same cabin we had a few days ago and picked up the bag we left in the storage room.

Stuart Highway.

Road train.

First job was to catch up on our laundry, second job was to cool off in the campground swimming pool.  The water wasn’t as chilly as last time and the girls and I had a good half hour splashing and swimming around.  Tim sat in the shade recovering from the drive.  Whilst driving the car for two hours this morning, his right foot had been in an uncomfortable position and by the time we got here he had a pain in his hip.

Neither of us felt like driving into town to buy some food, so we ended up going to Hungry Jacks (Burger King) for supper and made it back in time for “Finding Nemo”.

These are our last couple of days in Australia before flying out to Singapore on Tuesday.  Some of  tomorrow will be taken up by going through all our clothes and books and decide what to leave behind or send back home.  As we won’t have our own transport as of Monday afternoon (until the very end of our trip) we would like (need) to keep our bags as light as possible and make room for possible souvenirs!

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Toodle-oo Uluru

A painfully early start at 6.30am to ensure we made it out in time for our free, ranger-led Uluru walk at 8am – not helped by my waking every few hours to ensure we didn’t oversleep… (Hayley wasn’t on the case today.)

Anyway, we got there with a good ten minutes to spare, pulling into the Mala walk carpark from where we saw a steady trail of culturally-ignorant tourists climbing a dangerously steep rock incline to the summit. Why? It’s hardly a challenge for the serious mountaineer, and what do you see from up there? It’s like saying ‘I like that painting so much I think I’ll stick my head through the canvas’. Pointless, insensitive and destructive.

A group of twenty or so of us gathered for our base-level tour (easily outnumbered by the crass mass of climbers). Park Ranger Tim introduced himself and then took us on a two-hour gentle 1.5-kilometre shaded walk to Kantju Gorge and back again, stopping frequently to tell us about the sites we were passing. In keeping with the joint management of the whole park, he gave us the aborginal stories behind rock formations as well as the scientific/geological explanations. Certain areas are culturally sensitive and may not be approached or photographed (though I presume we are allowed to look). One such was Mala Puta (our guide apologised to any Spanish speakers in the group for the unfortunate linguistic coincidence) – in the Pitjantjatjara language this means ‘pouch of the rufous hare wallaby’. There was a surprisingly symmetrical pouch-shaped cave in the rock face with two rocks below it resembling giant newborn jellybean joeys waiting to climb up.

We admired the acoustics and flowing curves of the ‘wave cave’, a natural auditorium carved out by the action of water and wind. Another cave contained rock art dating back perhaps 17,000 years, new drawings on top of older ones ad infinitum (or nearly); rough stones in front of the wall had been worn smooth by countless generations of teachers’ bottoms.

Not the wave cave, but similar…

Our guide mirrored the indigenous method of drawing in the sand to illustrate and communicate his explanations. It’s the world’s first whiteboard; write with a stick and erase with your foot, but with the bonus feature of simple 3D modelling. For instance, a representation of Australia as it used to be hundreds of millions of years ago, with a rim of mountains – heaped sand – and a plateau in the middle. The dynamic process of drawing and moulding is a far more effective didactic method than the static (and possibly confused) end result. (In other words, you won’t learn by copying up the notes afterwards.) Thus the cave drawings looked a random mess, but would have made sense to those present at the time that they were being drawn. (A bit like my boardwork in the classroom…)




One story about the misinterpretation of symbols: an early white settler came across a set of emu footprints and promptly followed them away from the waterhole, much to the bafflement of indigenous onlookers. The settler read the three-toed footprints (travelling forwards) as arrows (pointing backwards).

By spending a few days near Uluru we can get beyond the immediate ‘ooh! isn’t it big/old/pretty in the setting sun?’ and start to see it as a mighty natural mnemonic for a religion, a culture, a way of life. Each cave, boulder, waterhole has a significance with a creation story attached, and for a people with no written language this monolith is an encyclopedia of epic proportion.

The fact that indigenous Australians have evolved a belief system, a moral code and traditions that have enabled them to survive for over 50,000 years in such an unforgiving environment is worthy of huge respect. Now the staff of the National Parks are learning much from the surrounding Aboriginal communities about sustainable management of the land and how to live lightly upon it.

After our walk we circumnavigated Uluru by car; you can do this on foot but the day was hotting up by now and it’s a 10km slog. You only get the classic steep-edged view from the sunrise or sunset side, so it’s worth the drive to see the other aspects. We detoured to a new lookout point to the east called Talinguru Nyakunytjaku, fitted out with a huge coach and car park, and were astonished to have the whole site to ourselves. At last a chance for solitude and silence; we sat there awhile, gazing towards Uluru and also to Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) further away to the left. When the flies and the heat told us it was time to move on we completed the circuit before driving west to a dune viewing point for Kata Tjuta – 36 strikingly-rounded domes of rock, the name meaning ‘many heads’.

Uluru from the north.

Uluru from the east.

Kata Tjuta.
Kata Tjuta Panorama

Back to the cabin for lunch followed by a rest (or fruitless hours looking for Singapore accommodation). Then an hour’s hedonistic laze in the campground pool, the water just warm enough and cool enough for a blazing day such as this.

We downed a quick supper (bananas on toast) then drove out for a sunset farewell to Uluru. Today there were very few cars and camper vans at the lookout, giving a more relaxed atmosphere; no jostling at the front for the best photo spots. On our left, a newly-engaged couple along with her parents from Germany or Austria, posing with glasses of wine. On our right, another couple doing those silly shots of Uluru in the palm of your hand (so very Bolivian salt-flat, don’t you think?).

I attempted a set of identically-framed photos showing the colour transition, while Kirsten videoed the sudden plunge from orange to chocolate. The girls took pictures from inside the car to avoid flies while we borrowed their fly nets (quite effective, they are). Then back for diaries and an attempt to book a Singapore Youth Hostel.
uluru comp

Kata Tjuta sunset.

Outback sunset.

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Dot Art

We slept fairly well in our comfortable beds, though they had starchy sheets and the room temperature was slightly higher than I would have liked.

Tim and I took turns in walking down to the amenities blocks for our showers, which was then followed by breakfast and catching up with diaries.

Around 9.30am we headed out in the heat and drove down to the Cultural Centre in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in time for a cultural/environmental presentation by two aboriginal elders. We made it just in time, but were surprised when we were told that the elders hadn’t turned up. This sometimes happens when they have other commitments or appointments. We might try again tomorrow.

The Cultural Centre is spread out over several smaller buildings that blend in nicely with the surrounding landscape. Some buildings house art shops or a cafe, the main building houses the information centre, the Touch Wall and a wall with photos and information boards about the Aborigines and their culture.

Whilst the girls were colouring in pictures of grubs and ants, Tim and I briefly watched a film about the regional flora and how the aboriginal women find (for example) honey ants underground or how they know when plants or trees are in flower and which parts are edible.

Yesterday I saw a sign asking tourists not to climb Uluru as the Anangu people (the traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta NP) don’t like visitors to get hurt or die on their land, but I also wondered about any cultural reasons thinking that these might be more important.

At the information centre today I picked up a leaflet called “Please don’t climb” which states several reasons why Uluru should not be climbed.

Apart from the obvious health and safety reasons, it also mentions environmental and cultural reasons.

Climbing Uluru has a significant environmental impact on the condition of the rock. The millions of footsteps have smoothed the path and the erosion is changing the shape of this beautiful, magnificent world wonder. There are also no toilets on Uluru, so everything gets washed down into the waterholes when it rains. There are signs that the water quality in these waterholes shows higher bacterial levels, compared to those further away from the rock. These waterholes are frequented by precious reptiles, birds, animals and frogs.

From a cultural point of view tourists are asked to fight the urge to climb the rock. It has a spiritual significance as the traditional route of the ancestral Mala men on their arrival at Uluru.

I was pleased to read that climber numbers had drastically dropped over the past 20 years. Only 38% of visitors climb each year, compared to 74% in 1990. So it looks like the Anangu people are getting the right message across.

Before returning back to our cabin for lunch we walked through the Tjukurpa tunnel. Tjukurpa means the foundation of Anangu life and society. It refers to the creation period when ancestral beings created the world, and from this religion, law and moral systems. Tjukurpa is not written down, but memorised and passed on from generation to generation through songs, stories, ritual dances, rock art and dot paintings.

One side of the tunnel explained the role of the women and the other side the role of the men.
Little girls would watch their mothers, grandmothers and older sisters and learn how to look for bush food and track animals. Teenage girls would also learn how to prepare and cook food.

Little boys would be looked after by their mothers but when they are old enough they would spend more time with their fathers and grandfathers. That is when they would learn to hunt. They would also be taught how to make and use tools and weapons, find waterholes and how to make fire and carry it.

It was time to let all this information sink in, so we headed back via the supermarket. After a light lunch the girls and I decided to return to the Cultural Centre for an afternoon talk about aboriginal art.

I had booked this Dot Painting Workshop earlier today and the girls were all for it. Tim had decided to stay behind to upload photos on our blog.

There were seven of us in our little group, four adults and three girls. We were led outside by our guide and translator to a shady spot where we were greeted by an aboriginal artist called Happy. She sat on the sandy ground and explained the meaning of aboriginal symbols by drawing them in the sand. A “U” shape represents a person sitting down, this is often accompanied by either a bowl or digging stick (for a woman) or spears or boomerangs (for a man). Each painting or drawing tells a story. A similar symbol could mean different things depending on the artist’s interpretation.

After about half an hour it was our turn to try and put a story on a piece of canvas. We picked up our little canvas rectangles and chose a colour paint for the background. Both girls (and I) had a fantastic time and really enjoyed this creative moment. The only (very slight) complaint I had was that we weren’t really taught the different techniques. We used broad and narrow paint brushes, sticks, little squirty paint pots and the back of paint brushes.

Artist Ellen concentrating on her second painting

Artist Hannah hard at workIMG_4352

At the end we all had a go at telling our story. The girls and I showed our painting for Daddy – red background (K), green snake with black dots (H), yellow dots around the snake (E) and symbols representing a man (K). Neither of us wanted to leave, but by now we had had enough of the heat and the persistently annoying flies. It is really difficult to concentrate on your painting while at the same time flicking flies away from your nose and eyes!

Happy and her grandson

I’m not going to describe our paintings – the photos below will explain…

Ellen’s artwork nr 1 : woman sitting down with bowl and digging stick

Ellen’s artwork nr 2 : snakes returning from watering holeIMG_4365

Hannah’s artwork : watering hole, snakes and kangaroo footprintsIMG_4362

our joint effort for DaddyIMG_4363

K’s attempt at trying out different techniquesIMG_4361

Back home for a desperate ice cream and cold drink and catch up with Tim. After this we all changed into our bathers and walked down to the campsite pool. Lots of people had the same idea, but there was still enough room in the water for us to cool off and enjoy a splash.

Chicken, cheese and salad in wraps for supper, followed by diaries and blog.

I will try to have a slightly earlier night tonight as we are planning on going on a morning walk towards the big red rock!

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We upped sticks this morning and left one of our bags (full of linen and leaflets) at the campground Reception, thereby enabling us to fit our luggage into the micro-boot – apart from food which went in the middle of the back seat between the girls. We made such good time that we squeezed in another Alice Springs attraction before the long haul down to Yulara.

The School of the Air began here in 1951 and it is still the world’s biggest classroom; their catchment area of outback cattle ranches (over 1 milion square kilometres) would easily contain the entire United Kingdom. They relied on radio communication until as recently as 2001, after which time increasing use has been made of broadband internet via satellite links (students are supplied with $10,000 worth of computer and communications equipment for a nominal annual upkeep fee).


Despite the vast area covered, the school has only 138 pupils on its books, aged between 4 and 14. Older children then go to boarding school (paid for by their families) or else continue to study at home by correspondence course.

Pupils are supported by a Home School Tutor; in 70% of cases the mother, 10% another family member and 20% an outside tutor employed by the family (the tutor is typically paid around $300 a week but receives free board and lodging). Pupils have only three or four lessons up to an hour long per week with the Alice Springs teacher, connected via video link, but will then do up to six hours of bookwork a day with their tutor.

Three or four times a year, all the pupils meet up for an ‘Interactive Week’ in town, when they play team sports and generally get to know their fellow classmates. In addition to this, the teacher will endeavour to visit each pupil at home – once – over the course of the academic year.

Today’s talk was far more relaxed and two-way than the rushed Flying Doctors’ presentation, but otherwise similar with a ten-minute video and then the chance to observe lessons in progress (one Japanese and one Maths). Apparently the children perform well academically in comparison to their conventionally-educated peers, no doubt because of all the one-to-one time with their tutors and the low potential for distraction in the classroom. My main reservation (on the basis of the film extract) is that their group singing during their Interactive Weeks is dire! A lack of practice there, certainly, and rigorous adherence to the Freedom of Intonation Act.

Old radio equipment.

Maths lesson in progress.

The wall of one classroom had been signed by many visiting celebrities, all started off by the Rolf himself. The only VIPs not to do so have been the Queen (or ‘Queen Elizabeth 11’, according to their website) and Charles & Di in 1993 (of whom a video loop was permanently running – Charles wittering on about his polo ponies and Di diplomatically answering that Will’s favourite toy was a koala).

At the end of the tour, Hannah and Ellen each bought a book to donate to the School of the Air Library; the girls could write their name inside and a message to future readers; a nice tangible way to show where your money is going.

It was then time for our outback expedition. I stopped to withdraw cash, we checked that we had sufficient petrol and water and then we were ready for the Stuart Highway. A chance for us to stretch our legs, speedwise – the limit is 130km/h for much of the route, although as signs frequently remind you, it’s a limit, not a  challenge. But the Northern Territory is so huge and so sparsely populated that an increase over the usual 100 or 110km/h is understandable for practical reasons (such as driving your son or daughter nearly 1000km to Alice Springs and back for their Interactive Weeks).

And so we sped along straight empty roads for a couple of hours, stopped for lunch at a picnic site, filled up with petrol and sped along more straight empty roads for a couple more hours. We began the day with a near-perfect blue sky but cumulus clouds then bubbled up, presumably marking an array of thermals over the hot landscape. Still a scorching, bleaching sun – the stereotypical Australian outback. The land was sketched with a pastel palette; a baby blue sky, while the dust along the verge was a pale brown-orange-pink that I knew I had seen somewhere in another context. Eventually I worked out that it is one of the colours of the girls’ jumbo pavement chalks from home – a chalk-brown.

Roadhouse loo stop.

Along the second, westward stretch, the Lasseter Highway, a few sights to catch the eye. The ‘false alarm’ of Mt Conner (some people mistake its mesa for Uluru, but it’s a few hundred km too soon); a group of five wild camels off to our right; and finally the Big Red Rock itself, teasing us with glimpses from behind the rise on our left.

Mt Conner.

Camels on the loose.

First sighting…

We reached the Yulara resort just before 4pm and checked in to our cabin. It’s half of a big wooden hut, quite compact with no bathroom and a squeezed-in kitchen (no oven or grill). But it has air conditioning and a good mobile internet connection. Then to the local shopping centre to sort out supper. Do we eat out? No – even the cheapest cafe has no main course for less than $20 a head (this is usually our total bill). So potatoes, beans and sausages from the supermarket; some mark-up inevitable because of the remote location (all deliveries come 1000km or more by road), but still a far cheaper option.

The race was then on to get home, cook supper and eat it and then get out to buy our park admission passes and see the Uluru sunset. Quite a close-run thing, but we made it; by 6.45pm we had found a space in the extensive rank of vehicles parked in the designated area to take in the classic postcard view of the monolith.

Golden hues gave way so quickly to chocolate brown as the sun dipped, as if the plug had suddenly been pulled. We were pestered by flies and buzzed by helicopters, but it was worth the annoyances just to be there. At this point I waste too much time attempting to find the right words and repeatedly failing; I’ll try again once we’ve paid another visit tomorrow.



Back to camp as daylight faded; moths in the cabin to bother the girls, and all manner of insect life in the communal washblock – including a giant centipede (I think) a good 4 or 5 inches long…

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