Australia - Journey to the Rock

By early afternoon five flights have arrived; by mid-afternoon the last of five outbound flights is leaving. As the final passengers shuffle out of the departure hall, the cafe is closing down. Connellan Airport doesn't do pressure.

991 miles from Adelaide; 1,216 miles from Darwin; 1,274 miles from Perth; 1,440 miles from Melbourne; 1,761 miles from Sydney. Welcome to Ayer's Rock.

This ignores Alice Springs, but Alice Springs is still 287 miles away - six hours of driving, or a 50 minute flight.

A coach whisks you from the airport to the Ayer's Rock Resort. The driver has a script, to be delivered neatly within the 15 minute ride. A lot of the script concerns water - he encourages you to drink at least a litre of water an hour. This may be something to do with your being in the desert.You hope that there is a decent provision of toilets.

On arrival you are all processed into your hotels - there is also some self-catering, and a campsite. For someone who only ever managed one week in a caravan at Herne Bay, the latter is unthinkable.

In Reception at the Desert Gardens Hotel, you queue. Some of the reception staff are badged as trainees, and it shows, but they are willing.

You are given a map, but a map is hardly necessary. The accommodation and facilities lie on the periphery of a perimeter road, and a free bus departs every 10 minutes or so for the round and round and round journey. The walking distances are not great, but the lure of the bus's air conditioning appears to tempt many. 

Crowds flock towards Town Square

With room not yet ready, time to explore Town Square. This is the centrepiece of the resort and meets all needs - supermarket for the self-caterers; restaurants,.....

.....and the gift shop, that sells fly nets that can be worn tastefully over a hat. Even a 10 minute walk from hotel to Town Square has confirmed the value of a fly net.

You try on a fly net, and this shows (1) how ridiculous you look and (2) how uncomfortable it must be wearing a veil - no more discussion of this sensitive subject.

After trying on the net, it is time to return to the hotel, as there is nothing else going on in Town Square at this time.

At 5.30pm you are ready for the first highlight of your visit, Uluru Sunset.

First, a brief explanation of names, with thanks to the locally produced Insider's Guide to the area. Englishman William Christie Goss became the first European to climb the Rock in 1873. He named it after Sir Henry Ayers, then Chief Secretary to, and later Premier of, South Australia, but the Rock is now more commonly and correctly known by its indigenous name of Uluru.

The coach guide explains that much of the history will be dealt with when you do Uluru Sunrise , so for the 30 minute journey you manage with a rationed commentary and a view of the desert.

At the base of Uluru you take photos. The Rock is very impressive and very red. How many photos to take? Who knows, but you feel that you must keep up with the crowd around you. The guide makes clear that when you get to the sunset viewing area you must take many photos, maybe one a minute, as the colour of Uluru changes by the minute at this point.

Base of Uluru

The sunset viewing area is easy to spot. It is a large car park, with some things around one side.

The things turn out to be trestle tables. They have on them wine, beer, soft drinks and crisps. Staff are ready to serve you. You have a table allotted for your group. This is in the middle of the desert. It is all quite incongruous. 

Plain, or cheese and onion, sir?

Your coach is early, but soon other coaches flock in; also minibuses; also Kombi vans. Presumably the latter come from the campsite. 

You take advantage of the wine and the crisps. The flies compete.

There is still a little time for the sun to do its work, so you look for somewhere to sit down. There is a bench about 20 metres away. You head for it and grab a seat.

This is a mistake. You have ventured into the German zone. There are dirty looks. Maintaining patriotic pride, you wait until you have stuffed the last wodge of crisps into your mouth, and then strategically withdraw. 

Finally sunset. Phone out. Get snapping. And the colours do gently change. But a photo a munute?

From the viewing area

Around you the photo activity diminishes. People are still on their phones, but now they are checking messages (despite this being the desert, there is 4G). You glance over the shoulder of your companion. She is playing bridge online.

It is now dusk. Time to return to the coach, but you are first invited to admire the handicraft of local women who have assembled nearby, and maybe you might buy. The women come from the neighbouring Ulara township. You ask your guide if the women trekked over here on foot. The guide gives you a withering look and says that they came by car.

Back in the village you have supper in the hotel dining room. The food is fine, but the staff, indigenous, have a sad, empty look about them. Anyway, you cannot overindulge as Uluru Sunrise beckons. 

At 4am, scrabbling around to put clothes on and be out for a 4.30am departure, you start to wonder why you are doing this. 

From the looks of your fellow travellers outside Reception, they feel the same. At least the flies, who have more sense, are sleeping in a little longer.

A coach draws up, but it is not yours. The sign on it says "Japanese Uluru Sunrise". Is this a parallel universe? Out of nowhere the Japanese group appears, shepherded by a guide doing solicitation in extremis.

They are gone. Your coach arrives. The driver/guide - out and out Aussie - is helpful, articulate, and talks. A lot. Which is a lot to bear when you are barely awake. However, his enthusiasm over the heritage and physical environment wins you over. 

Until he starts on his inner communion with the spirits of the ancestors. He has now morphed into a messianic born-again Christian preacher. Is this what happens to people if they spend too much time in Uluru? Or has he drunk too little water?

And it is still not 6am. 

Uluru Sunrise turns out to be impressive. But you cannot restrain the thought that if you had filmed Uluru Sunset and then ran it in reverse, you might have had, visually, the same experience. And you could have got up later. 

Uluru at dawn

The trestle table brigade are back, and have set up for coffee and biscuits - welcome, but still other-worldly. Once the coaches depart, the support team will soon move off, leaving barely a footprint on the hospitality area.

Time not to go back to the village, but to take in the the other natural wonder of the area, Kata Tjuta. You note that the name is close to Kajagoogoo, the band from Leighton Buzzard that had a hit in 1983 with "Too Shy". Has the disorientation fron the 4am awaking started to get to you?

Kata Tjuta, a series of domes, was first sighted by a non-indigenous person in 1872 and was named after Queen Olga of Wurttemburg, so becoming known as The Olgas. It is diffiicult to know if Queen Olga would have approved of a name that resembles a medical condition: 'How are you today?" "Not very well, I have a touch of The Olgas".

The Olgas

After the coach parks, you all take a walk into The Olgas. You walk for about 30 minutes to a viewing platform, then turn round and walk back. This is more interesting than it sounds - the scenery is attractive - but by the return the flies have well and truly woken up. 

Walking in The Olgas

Returning to Desert Gardens mid-morning, you catch up on sleep and then rouse yourself for lunch. To vary the excitement you head to Town Square for a ham, pineapple and fly pizza. Being in air-conditioned space is no protection, as the creatures queue up at the restaurant entrance and tailgate.

Back to the hotel for an afternoon on the terrace of rest, reading and doing messages.

Just the moment for the internet for the whole resort to fail. 

This of course does not bother you as you are not wedded to your phone....

....but three hours later and after several visits to Reception, you take the opportunity to quiz a member of staff who has passed by to check the mini-bar. This chap, with a refreshing candour that might alarm his bosses, admits that the problem is not infrequent.

The internet finally revives, and it is time for dinner - again - in the hotel restaurant. The deja vu of the menu is tiring.

Morning comes, but your flight is the last out in the afternoon. By way of deferred gratification (you kept this experience up your sleeve), you visit the art gallery next door to the hotel. This is worthwhile, but you find yourself spinning out examination of each piece in a way that would never happen in a gallery in London.

Too soon back to the hotel for check-out and wait for the coach - the heat-induced torpor makes venturing further afield impracticable. You combine reading with people-watching and fly-watching.

Eventually at Connellan Airport. Perhaps there are those who revel in the whole experience, and for the enthusiastic folk the area can be encountered by helicopter or by scenic flight or by car or by bicycle or by segway or even by camel.

But the enthusiastic folk do not include you.

The author is a professionally qualified tour guide who travels from time to time.

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