Tom & Matt’s Four-State Road Trip
Day 14 — Tuesday, 9th August, 2011 — Coach trip, Alice Springs to Uluru, Kata Tjuta and return

 

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Census Day

Yes, this is the day when everybody counts — at least in the national census. There is something quite exciting that Matt and I are not in our usual places of abode when we are being counted. OK, well . . . maybe not THAT exciting.

We were up very early because wre had to be outside our residence and waiting on the street at 6:00am to be picked up by Emu Run Tours to begin our journey to Uluru (previously known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta (previously known as the Olgas). A little minibus picked us up (along with an already boarded girl) and took us to Alice Spring’s Lasseters Casino where we were all placed on a large coach-type bus, along with about 50 other people.

Incidentally, you will note that I have printed Uluru and Kata Tjuta with little marks under the ‘r’ and under the ‘t’. I have done this because I noticed it done in all the hand-out literature and, indeed, on all the signs and signposts in the area, as far away as where one turns of the Stuart Highway at Erldunda, almost 250 km* away. When I asked about it, I was told that it means that, in pronouncing these words, it is important that these letters be enunciated clearly. I have not been able to confirm this. Perhaps you know something about it and can let me know?

* 250 km is about 155 miles.

 

Dawn’s early light 

 

It was still quite dark when we set out. As the dawn’s early light began to stain the sky, I tried to take a shot of it. OK, so the coach was moving along fairly smartly and it was very early in the morning so the photo didn’t turn out all that wonderful. But I have included it as evidence that I really was up that early!

 

Erldunda coach stop 

 

Two hours later we had still not left the Stuart Highway. We stopped for the obligatory toilet break at a place I had never previously heard about — Erldunda. There is not much to it beyond the roadhouse that, as well as providing toilets, has a tiny supermarket and sells petrol, coffee and alcohol (though take-away alcohol sales in the NT are highly restricted and you have to produce an ID that is checked against a known list of criminals).

Notice how the front of the coach is lower than the back? The drivers/guides (there were two of them, a man and a woman) explained that, when they stop, the front of the coach “kneels” to make it easier for passengers to get on and off — like a camel. Clever, eh?

 

Mount Conner from distance 

 

 

 

As we journeyed on, in the distance we could see this feature looming out of the distance.

Could this be Uluru? It seemed too soon.

 

Mount Conner, NT 

 

 

When we got closer to it, the coach stopped for another loo break and we were told that this is Mount Conner. It is, in fact, bigger in area than Uluru and our guides explained that, because so many of the early tourists saw this and thought they had found Uluru (then called Ayers Rock), some of the locals explain that this is not Uluru but “Fool-eroo”. Hearty laughs all round.

 

Where the coach had stopped, we were able to walk cross the road and climb a sand dune (maybe four metres high of fine red sand but with lots of grass growing on it) and see Lake Amadeus, a huge salt lake that was named by the explorer, Ernest Giles, in 1872, in honour of King Amadeus of Spain. When you read about it at that first link, you begin to appreciate that I was still a long way from it when I took this photo.

Lake Amadeus saltpan

 

 

Casuarina tree 

 

As we drove along, our driver/guide pointed out some of the local vegetation, only some of which I managed to photograph and remember. This is a poor photo (out of the side window of a rapidly-moving coach) of the desert oak or, more correctly, the casuarina — after which a large suburb of Darwin is named.

It is not an oak at all, but has been given that name, along with the better-known silky oak (which is also not a true oak). The casuarina has three distinct stages in its growth and these ones are juvenile trees that have hairy vegetation growing all up their trunk. The adolescent trees lose the vegetation from their trunks, from the ground up. Finally, the mature tree has vegetation only at its crown.

 

Desert Jam 

 

 

Most prolific is the desert jam, also known as wirewood, wiry wattle, or dogwood. When it grows in coastal regions it flowers very much like any other wattle (acacia) but in the desert areas its blooms tend to be small and elongated, not round and fluffy.

 

First view of Uluru 

 

Eventually the real Uluru began to loom into view — actually quite a long time before we got anywhere near close to it. Even then, once we had entered the Uluru–Kata Tjuta National Park, we drove first to Kata Tjuta (previously known as the Olgas) and were told all about it (them?) before we were brought the 44 km* back to Uluru.

Note the casuarina trees in the foreground.

* 44 km is about 27 miles.

 

Kata Tjuta 

 

Kata Tjuta, so we were told by one of our drivers/guides, is from the Pitjantjatjara language and means “heads many”; we were also told an Aboriginal legend (what we used to call Dreamtime legend, but the Aboriginal people themselves prefer the word Tjukurpa — pronounced ‘chook-orr-pa’ — because they say Dreamtime gives the wrong emphasis) that explained the shape of these rocks.

The story had a lot of detail that I will skim over, for the sake of brevity, but it concluded with men from an enemy tribe being buried in sand up to their necks with just the heads showing. Hence “heads many”. How much credence can be given to the authenticity of this story as being truly indigenous is uncertain as Kata Tjuta is still an active sacred site, and so very few indeed of the stories associated with it have been released to the uninitiated.

 

Sacred area sign 

 

 

 

The fact of this being a sacred site was stressed to us and we were warned not to walk anywhere other than in designated and sign-posted areas.

 

Kata Tjuta conglomerate 

 

 

Kata Tjuta, although it is in the same geological area as Uluru and both are sedimentary rocks, is of a different geological nature. This is a close up of some of its surface and you can see that it is a sedimentary conglomerate, containing gravel, pebbles and boulders, all cemented together by what was initially sand and mud.

 

Distant Petermann ranges 

 

 

 

From Kata Tjuta, it is possible to see in the distance the Petermann ranges. The one I have marked with a red arrow is almost in South Australia and the one I have marked with a green arrow is almost in Western Australia. As I have said before, this is a B-I-G country!

 

Wild camels 

 

 

 

As we drove back from Kata Tjuta towards Uluru, suddenly we spotted some wild camels in the bush and so (at last) I am able to show you a genuine photo (taken by me) of the real thing.

 

Western view of Uluru 

 

 

 

So at last we approached Uluru, but from the western side as we returned from Kata Tjuta. I am sure every person reading this page has already seen every possible photographic view of Uluru from every possible angle many times. So I have tried for the remainder of this page to show things not usually seen.

 

Initially we were taken to the Cultural Centre but, before we got there, we were warned that we were NOT to take any photographs inside (or even outside) the Cultural Centre on pain of having our camera confiscated by Aboriginal Park Rangers and, if we were uncooperative, of being escorted to the National Park gate and missing the rest of the tour. So no photos.

We were then taken to that part of Uluru where the Mala people traditionally camped (Uluru is regarded as sacred territory by at least four different tribes of indigenous people, all part of the Pitjantjatjara language group, one of whom were the Mala. I took a series of photos to compose this panoramic shot. On the extreme left is that bit of the rock known sometimes as the kangaroo’s tail and on the extreme right is the comparatively gentle slope where (wind permitting) sometimes people climb onto the rock. We were discouraged from doing so and, as it happened, by the time we got to Uluru, the wind had increased to the point where the climb was banned anyway.

Mala area of Uluru

 

Uluru sandstone 

 

 

Earlier I described the rock of Kata Tjuta as a sedimentary conglomerate. The rock of Uluru is also sedimentary but is arkose sandstone, meaning that it is much more uniform and contains at least 25% feldspar, crystals that contain mineral ores — in this case iron ore. You can see how different it looks.

 

Spinifex 

 

A lot of the grasses that surround Uluru and Kata Tjuta are spinifex, although, strictly speaking, it is not a true spinifex but a triodia. Still, everyone refers to it as spinifex and the name is not likely to go away.

This grass grows only in arid areas and its blades are tough and spikey. The Aboriginal people had many uses for it, including using it as a surgical suture to close up an open wound. The seeds of the plant were ground to make a flour-like meal and the resin was used as an adhesive in spear-making. There were other uses as well.

 

After our conducted walking tour of the Mala area, we were then taken in our coach around the northern and eastern sides of Uluru (where stopping is not permitted on the road) and many features were pointed out to us and explained as we passed them. Eventually we found ourselves on the eastern side and disembarked from the coach in the Mutitjulu area. We walked a short distance to a rock shelter where we could see rock art. There are many, many layers of art here and we were told that it is not really possible to date any of the art but it is believed to date back many generations. These two photos were taken about five or six metres apart (say 20 feet apart).

Rock art

 

Mutitjula Pool 

 

 

Another short walk from there took us to this beautiful, tranquil pool called the Mutitjula Pool. Evidently it has water in it around the year and is always in shade so that evaporation is minimal.

We were told that a lot of the local indigenous children come regularly to this pool in the summer and swim in it, sliding down the rocky surfaces to plunge into it. I can tell you that, after the amount of walking we had done that afternoon, we were pleased to relax on the observation platform, even if we were not allowed to get into the water ourselves.

 

Waiting to view sunset 

By now it was getting late in the afternoon and we were taken, again by coach, to the area on a low hill from which people observe sunset on the rock. There are two designated areas, one for everyone and one for the passengers of tour buses (us).

We were served a typical ozzie meal described to us as a fourteen course meal of “tubular steaks” and thirteen varieties of salad. Actually it was barbecued sausages with (one) salad. But it was accompanied by a glass of sparkling Australian white wine served in champagne flutes and the whole experience was very pleasant.

But I was amazed at how many people gathered to watch the sunset. The sausages and wine were only for our coach-load of people, but have a look how many others came (some of whom had similar meals from their coach drivers/guides). All to see the sun set! My guess is that there may have been 500-600 people there. You can see abut half of the coaches lined up. The others are to the left of this photo.

 

Uluru at sunset 

 

OK, I can’t resist it! Just one snap of the sunset (taken a matter of moments before the sun finally set. Yes, that casuarina tree is right in the middle of the viewing area and the park rangers have resisted all efforts to have it removed. It is probabl 50-60 years old.

The vaguely purple shadows about half-way between the tree and the right-hand edge of the rock are caused by features of the rock itself. When the sun finally set, they just vanished.

Now, aren’t you glad I didn’t give you a whole series of pictures of the changing shades and colours?

 

From there it was back onto the coach and then the five-hour trip back to Alice Springs. We managed to be back in our lodging by midnight, but only just. You can understand why I didn’t then sit down and write another page for this blog!

That, and the long day’s drive of Day 12 help to explain why these entries are running about two days late. We have had one complaint from a reader in Adelaide (you know who you are!) that it is like the next episode of a favourite serial running late. Hopefully I will catch up by the time we get home, probably next Tuesday.

 

 

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Want to respond to this or something else on this site? Contact me by e-mail: pardy@ozemail.com.au