There’s a lot of nothing in Australia’s Northern Territory. The population density is the lowest in a country known for having a spectactularly low number of people per square kilometre, and the NT’s cities are really more like large towns.
We arrived on a tour from Adelaide, seeing the sights of northern South Australia before spending a couple of days exploring the Northern Territory, finishing in Alice Springs. After we crossed the border, our guide informed us that we’d soon be coming to an important landmark – the last tree for a couple of hundred kilometres. I prepared myself for the onset of nothing, red sand stretching flatly to the horizon, hours of boredom as a bland landscape sped by beside the road. But it never happened. The red sand was there, but mostly hidden under scrubby dark-green bushes and blond grasses that waved in the breeze. And the ground wasn’t flat either, except for the tarmaced road we were driving along – low mounds undulated away from the highway in all directions.
As for the sky, rainy season had arrived and a succession of cloud shapes decorated the deep blue behind. The landscape and skycape was constantly changing, meaning that looking out the window wasn’t the dull pastime I’d expected, but rather an engaging experience.
Uluru started to come into view, still partly masked by low mounds, then finally was completely visible. The shape and colour was instantly recognisable from the hundreds of photos and tourist posters I’ve seen over the years, but as we got closer I realised how different it was close up. The photos don’t do credit to the intricacy of the surface of the rock, the caves and pockmarks, the black tracks left by the path of the rain.
The clouds were hanging heavy as we drove into the carpark for our first close encounter with Ayer’s Rock. Our guide Bender told us that only 0.5% of visitors are lucky enough to see waterfalls on Uluru, and that we might just find ourselves within that number. We piled out of the bus and congregated around Bender, who started his talk just as the skies opened. Half the group ran back to the bus to get rain gear; Craig left with my umbrella, leaving me to get soaked to the bone. Finally together again, we walked partway around the base of the rock, marvelling at its shape and at the water that had begun to cascade down the black tracks. Bender had to work to keep our attention as he explained the geological history of the area then took us to certain areas that continue to have cultural significance for the aboriginal people of the area.
We eventually had to leave, drying off on the walk back to the bus, to drive to a special “sunset area” to watch the sun’s rays illuminate the rock. Bender brought out the bubbly and warned us that the clouds might block the sun, but the world wanted us to have the full experience – the waterfalls were still flowing, the sun broke through, and we sipped our wine from the perfect vantage point to see it all.
The next day we saw the sunrise and circumnavigated the rock before heading to Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas), another, less-known rock formation located not far from Uluru. The two share the national park that bears their names, and stand out in a flat landscape, but have a completely different history and shape. Uluru’s single shape contrasts with the bulbous mounds that make up Kata Tjuta, and each was formed in a different geological period of time.
After a short walk through Kata Tjuta, we hopped back on the bus to drive to King’s Canyon. Our accommodation for the night was in permanent tents like the night before; we also had the option to sleep in a swag, an Aussie institution that’s something like a waterproof sleeping bag. About half the group had taken Bender up on the offer the night before, but the rain had returned with a vengeance and even the most hardy of the group chose the relative comfort of a tent. Not that we got to sleep in; it was another early start. We drove back to King’s Canyon and joined the other tour groups for a walk around one of the most beautiful geological formations I’ve ever seen – the golden colours and the pancake formation of the rocks blew me away. By the end of the three-hour hike we were glad that we’d got up early; the day was heating up and we were relieved to get back to the air-conditioned bus.
Bender drove us on to Alice and we flew out a couple of days later –leaving with a definite desire to come back and discover more of the Northern Territory. There’s certainly a lot more to see.