Onwards we went to one of the most eagerly awaited places on our Australia itinerary; Ayers rock. The ride to Ayers rock was uneventful but very gray and we were hoping that the weather would improve by the time we reached the Rock. We were lucky and it did clear up, but unfortunately this meant that it got even colder. The brisk wind made us really glad to have all the heavy riding gear which they had laughed at in Darwin for being too hot.
After having left Kings Canyon we noticed how more and more the area was turning a deep red. With good reason the locals refer to this area as the Red Center. The area near Ayers rock is fairly hilly and we would come over a small hill and look around to see the Rock poised in the middle of a flat red plain, with the Olgas framed against the skyline. Even from 30km the sight was truly impressive. Ayers rock is huge, but from a distance it was difficult to come to grasp how huge it really was, because there is nothing around it to compare it to. By the time we reached the Ayers rock resort we were starting to get sore necks from turning to look at the Rock and back to the road. After having set up our tent, shopping and cooking we finished just in time to go and take our first look at Ayers Rock at sunset.
Sunset on Ayers Rock is an event. People from the varying resorts come to various lookout points within the resort, some with champagne or wine all with a camera of some sort. It was a truly spectacular sight. The resort is only 18km from the Rock and you get a spectacular view by climbing on one lookouts as they are all on dunes 10-15 meters above the rest of the countryside. Cäcilia and I along with 20-30 other people would stand there and watch the Rock with the setting sun at our backs. The setting sun caused the Rock to appear in varying shades of red, from a dull flat red to a brilliant red that made it seemed like the Rock was liquid lava shimmering in the distance. As soon as the sun dropped below the layers of clouds in the horizon everyone started to go home. It had been a cloudy sundown and only when the sun managed to peek through the clouds and the Rock's red color became brilliant did the cameras started to whirl away. Cäcilia and I stood around in the falling darkness and turned our backs to the Rock which now had become darkening mass against the horizon to see the clouds in the sky illuminated from below by the setting sun, causing them to appear like fire in the sky. Flames of red against a deep blue heavens. Quite a sight. The Olgas, appearing as a number of rounded domes against the horizon with the clouds was no less spectacular than the Rock had been. So ended our first day at Ayers Rock, and as we climbed down to get back to the campground, a chilly wind caused us to button our jackets tight, it was going to be a cold night.
When Cäcilia got up in the morning to go jogging there was frost on the seat of the bikes and in the tent it was 4C, but in the sleeping bag it was hot as always. Every time I stuck my arm out of the sleeping bag I had to put it back in the bag in short order. As soon as the wind stopped and the sun came out though, it became quite comfortable. Today we headed to the Rock and were planning to hike around it. The Aboriginals consider Ayers Rocks or Uluru as it is called, a sacred religious site, and ask that people do not climb the Rock. They don't stop people from climbing but simply ask that people respect their wishes, therefore both Cäcilia and I chose no to climbing the Rock. Instead along with a friend (Graham) we had met at the campground who was also on a bike, we hiked around it.
The hike is 10km long and just being this close was an awesome experience. For those who are interested, Uluru is 9.4 kilometers in circumference, the highest point of which is 348 meters above the surrounding plains.2 We explored caves and sacred sites along the rock. There are lots of holes and indentations in the rock which have been made over the eons by water and wind. Caves and waterholes along the base were extensively used by the traditional owners. Many places along the Rock were used for religious ceremonies and even today there are signs saying that they wish people not take any pictures or enter any of these sites. Besides the size of Ayers Rock, my deepest impression was of something organic, living and ever changing. My reason for this impression had a lot to do with undulations in the rock surface, as if it was composed of water with small waves crossing its surface. These "waves" are the result of eons of rain which have cascaded down the sides of the rock from the huge catchment on top. Another reason was the texture of the rock, along with the protrusion and indentations, holes all of which changed shape and size depending on the angle of the viewer and the amount of shadow across its surface.
We spent the better part of the day walking around Ayers Rock and it is something neither of us will ever forget. I took a lot of pictures many of which came out quite good, hopefully they will soon be available here. One of the strangest things we saw at Ayers Rock was the memorial to various people who had died on the Rock, there are five memorials at the base of the rock, but since 1968 when they first started keeping count (before then there was very little tourism to Uluru) 25 people have died from climbing Uluru. One of the youngest being a 14 year old school boy who fell. Another a gentleman who died of cardiac arrest at the top of the rock at the age of 63, apparently he had a lifetime goal of climbing the Rock! After having hiked around the Rock, we rode around it and took some more pictures. We also visited the Maruku Cultural center while waiting for sundown.
This time we wanted to watch it from the "sunset viewing area" a few kilometer from the Rock. When we got there most of the parking spaces were already taken, and a lot of people were already enjoying the party atmosphere. On a couple of parking spaces a tour group had set up a table and were dispensing champagne and snacks to their group. Some were having a barbecue, cooking out of their camper vans, many due to the cold weather were just sitting in their cars enjoying the view. Today there were almost no clouds and as the sun started to set, it cast brilliant light on Uluru, bringing the deep red rock to life with a myriad of shades of red. Sometimes a cloud would obscure part of the suns rays causing Uluru to seem to be moving as the shadow moved across the face of the Rock. For the Australians visiting Uluru is almost a religious pilgrimage which a large number of tourist have also joined in, and from our point of view it doesn't matter how you got here or from where, it was worth it. As our hiking companion would have put it Ayers Rock is a definite "Wow". To finish the evening off, once Uluru became a dark void against the horizon, we turned our attention to the Olgas which now stood silhouetted against the setting sun. Again the once the sun sunk below the horizon, the firework in the sky began. Above the Olgas clouds on fire danced in the deep blue heaven, truly a memorable sight. This had been a day full of spectacular vistas and memories which we would cherish forever. Tomorrow we would see if the Olgas could compete, many of our friends who have been here have told us that the Olgas are even more spectacular than Uluru, could this be possible? We were skeptical.
Kata Tjuta consists of 36 separate dome shaped rock formations, the highest of which is 546 meters above the plains, they cover 35 square kilometers and are 24 kilometers in circumference. So much for the facts. For us they were impressive, but couldn't overshadow the experience of Uluru. We enjoyed the walk into the Olga Chasm and the 7 km walk through the Valley of the Winds. As far as visually diversity the Olgas are very impressive, lots of interesting and unusual views, but for sheer visual impact Uluru will be very hard to surpass. The views consist of valleys between the huge dome shapes with nearly vertical sides. Again the color of the domes and the sides of the valleys as the sun struck them was a very beautiful deep red. The texture of the rock strata in the Olgas is much rougher and in my mind not as visual appealing as the nearly smooth surface of Uluru. In the Olgas the walls are lots of rocks compressed in softer sand or clay (sandstone?) and has a much rougher texture than Uluru. In one way were the views of the Olgas better than those of Uluru. When viewed against a setting sun the profile of the domes in their varying size stood our much more against the horizon.
Later we watched the sunset over the Olgas from a lookout at the Ayers Rock resort, and with the burning sky of the setting sun it was a magnificent sight. I don't have a sufficient vocabulary to do justice to the beauty and majesty of these sights, but I can assure anyone reading this, that for Cäcilia and I these sights are something that we will never forget. Just standing in front of Uluru, we were going "Wow" and repeating it every few seconds as if in a trance. The impact that Uluru made on us is impossible for me to describe, that is probably why so many people have to do this pilgrimage themselves. Only by seeing it for oneself can people really understand the enormity of the experience. We have not met anyone not profoundly moved by the sight of this wonder of nature.
One quick word about the Ayers Rock resort at Yulara. For Cäcilia and I this was Disney Land in the desert. There is no town as such here it is just a resort with all the facilities that both visitors and employees require. There is a food store, a couple of snack bars, a number of restaurants, airport, tour companies, souvenir stores, amphitheater, and hotels of varying price range as well as a campground, all within the resort. Outside of the resort there is nothing, this is in the middle of a national park and the nearest roadhouse is 85 km away on the way to Alice Springs. It is an oasis for tourist in the middle of the desert.
So passed our days in Ayers Rock and it was time to continue back to The Alice and over to the coast. After a brief stop in Alice Springs we headed towards Mt. Isa via the Plenty highway. Before leaving Alice Springs though we finally broke down and purchased two Didjeridoos and got another for free. Having walked through every shop selling souvenirs and finally being able to get a sound out of the instrument, we were looking for, not only one that looked good, but it also had to have a nice sound. Those we purchased we sold by the a local Aboriginal store, and we got two very nice ones for a fairly reasonable price, at least compared to those that we had seen elsewhere in Australia.
The Northern Territory side of the Plenty Highway turned out to be in excellent shape and after a long 500km day we camped on a bluff from where we could see the parts of the Toomba range in the distance. As the sun was setting we cooked our dinner while the flies drove us crazy. The flies never leave you alone and the only respite you can hope to get is when the sun goes down, at which time they all disappear and the night shift takes over, the mosquitos. In many ways I prefer mosquitos to flies, that is in most places other than Kakadu. Luckily here the mosquitos weren't bad and we had a nice supper looking over this desolate country. During the whole day we had only seen two other vehicles on the road and the attendant at a station where we purchased petrol, as far as we knew we were the only people within 200km. This is one of the most enjoyable experiences travelling in the outback. In most places you can really be alone.
The starry sky explodes in brilliance with no city lights to dim light of the cosmos. The quiet of the bush land with only a gently breeze and the distance sound of dingoes howling (they don't bark, its rather like a whine) or the gently call of some night bird, truly epitomizes the beauty of the outback. This is "getting away from it all" at its best.
Passing into Queensland the road got much worse, but outside of some pieces of sand or bulldust we made it to Mt. Isa. Since it was fairly early we continued to Cloncurry where we spent the night. From Cloncurry we headed north to Normanton from there across Gulf Development road to Cairns. The road from Normanton to Cairns has a lot of tourist sights, all of which we skipped. We hit rain as we got into the Tablelands approaching Cairns, the first rain we have had for a while. We were now in a beautiful green pasture lands very reminiscent of Switzerland. The roads even tried to mimic the curvy mountain roads of the Alps.
The rain kept our speed down somewhat but it was a lot of fun riding around curves through verdant fields and deep valleys. The towns we rode through were also very scenic, places like Atherton, Kalunga, and Ravenshoe were all uniformly picturesque. Wide main streets, with shops on both sides and the requisite tavern/hotel at one end of town. After months of towns so far apart that we rarely would reach one in the span of a days travel, going through a lot of little villages in a few hours on curvy roads was heavenly, even the rain couldn't remove the grins under our helmets.
Once we came down to Cairns from the cool Tablelands it grew hot and the rain stopped. Coming down around steep switchback we spied our first glimpse of the ocean and nearly went off the side of the road. Beautiful blue ocean butting against bright green fields flanked by mountains, was a stunning sight after the Red Center.
Cairns as expected is a tourist center with all the usual amenities and entertainment possibilities. We are hoping to do some diving here when we return from Cape York, where we are headed next. Due to conflicting information regarding the state of the road we are not sure whether or not we will make it to the top. Apparently the only way to find out how bad the road really is we are going to have to try it on our own. In order t maximize our chances we have arranged to store the majority of our stuff here so that we can tackle the road as light and unencumbered as possible.
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