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Ayers Rock

(Reprint from News: March 11, 2002)

March 11, 2002


I drove on the next day to one of Australia's most popular tourist sites, Ayers Rock, the big rock that you've seen splashed across almost any poster printed by the Australian Tourism Commission.  The first thing you learn about Ayers Rock is that it's a long way from anywhere.  A lot of tourists think they'll fly from Sydney to Alice Springs and walk over to see Ayers Rock, but that's kind of hard to do because it's still 250 miles away.  The second thing you learn about Ayers Rock is that if you want to spend the night there, you have to stay at the Yulara village complex, about 10 miles from Ayers Rock and the only semblance of civilization in this area.  


Here's a good Outback song.  This is Lazy Harry singing My Boomerang Won't Come Back.

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Because there isn't any competition there, Yulara has got you by the... um, throat.  As I was planning my trip to Ayers Rock the night before, I looked at the lodging situation in Yulara and I just about gagged on my nachos when I discovered that the cheapest hotel room there costs US$100 a night.  However, for the poor and indigent -- and for those folks who've been traveling around for 12 months without drawing a paycheck -- there's a private campground in Yulara where you can pitch your tent for six bucks.  Yep, Option #2 was the winner.


Ayers Rock is at the end of a very long, dead-end highway, perhaps the longest dead-end highway in the world.  That afternoon, and without having seen the rock yet, I pulled into Yulara, a self-contained resort village complete with several hotels, a grocery store, gas station, police station and much more, all of which is set around a big looped road.  I drove past the hotels of the Rich and Famous and checked into the campground of the Poor and Insignificant, and was surprised to discover that I was one of the few people there.  Well yes, I suppose it was 102 degrees outside, so apparently this was still the off-season. 


After setting up my tent that afternoon, I took a nice, cold shower (please, no jokes).  Feeling much refreshed, I drove around Yulara to check it out, got some ice at the grocery store, then stopped at a take-out stand at a lodge where I bought a kangaroo burger for five bucks, definitely the best dinner deal in town.  As I discovered while eating my dinner at a outdoor picnic table that evening, kangaroo meat is leaner than ground beef and is actually quite tasty.  The only problem with eating it is that a half-hour later, you develop a strange urge to jump up and down.


For most tourists, there seem to be two main things to do at Yulara:  1). Drive out to Ayers Rock an hour before sunrise to take a picture and, 2). Drive out to Ayers Rock an hour before sunSET to take a picture.  Early the next morning before sunrise, I chose Option #1 along with several dozen other folks, and we all drove several times around Yulara's big looped road in the dark trying to figure out where the exit was.  We finally found it and, although I still hadn't seen the rock, I followed a large caravan of tour buses, 4-wheel drives and rental cars through the darkness and parked at a place called Sunrise Photo Point, which I figured would be a good place to take a photo of the sunrise. 


Sure enough, it was -- and I think the 200 or so folks out there would agree.  For the next few minutes as the sun peeked above the horizon, Ayers Rock turned from gray to a deep crimson, and then the onslaught began:  Shutters clicked to the left of me.  Shutters clicked to the right of me.  Shutters clicked in front of me.


And then suddenly, as if on cue, nearly everyone packed up their weary cameras, got in their vehicles and drove back into Yulara -- and, surprisingly, just as the light on the rock was getting good.  For the next half-hour, I stood alone in the desert and watched Ayers Rock brighten and change texture, and that's when it struck me:  this rock is REALLY big.  Ayers Rock is much larger than I ever envisioned and, with all the canyons, waterholes, and undulations, it's also a lot more interesting.


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Above left:  Here's the morning crowd with their cameras ready.  Watching the sunrise, hiking to the top, then watching the sunset seem to be the three main activities for most folks here.

Above center:  This is one of the few sunrise pictures that you'll see on my website.

Above right:  Watch out for those kangaroos, mate.


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Above left:  The other side (the "sunset" side) of Ayers Rock.  The rock is a lot bigger than I imagined and, with all the crevasses and potholes, it's also a lot more interesting.

Above center:  You can climb to the top of Ayers Rock at this point (note the chain railing).  The Aborigines prefer that you don't climb it though, so I didn't (besides, it was closed that day due to high winds).  I proudly bought a magnet in the Cultural Center that says, "I Didn't Climb Ayers Rock."

Above right:  Instead of hiking to the top, I decided to hike around the rock.  It's 6 miles around and, in the 100-degree heat, took me about 3 hours.  I was ready for another cold shower afterwards.


After watching the beautiful sunrise, I spent a couple of hours at the Aboriginal Cultural Center, which is located at the base of Ayers Rock, or "Uluru" as the Aborigines call it, and I learned quite a bit about this place.  Ayers Rock and the nearby Olga Mountains have been sacred to the Aborigines for thousands of years and this area is now a National Park, which is managed jointly by the Aborigines and the Australian Park Service, with the Aborigines having the upper hand. 


The Cultural Center was pretty interesting, but I didn't take a picture of it because the Aborigines request that you don't do so, so I can't show you what it looks like.  Besides, I don't think you'd like to see pictures of the movie they showed in the tiny theatre, with lots of very heavy, topless Aborigine woman bouncing up and down in the desert.  Actually, I haven't taken ANY pictures of Aborigines out of sensitive respect for their wishes (I also didn't want to get my camera bashed in).


There are plenty of ways to see Ayers Rock.  You can drive around it, hike around it, ride a camel around it, and hike to the top of it.  You can balloon over it, take an aborigine-guided tour around it, fly over it, and if you're feeling like Peter Fonda, rent a Harley-Davidson in Yulara and ride around it.  And even if you don't know how to ride a Harley, you can still hop on the back of a Harley and, for an extra fee, they'll drive you around it.  Just about the only thing you can't do is go under it and that's because it's about five miles deep -- like an iceberg, you can only see the very top of Ayers Rock.  


A popular option with many tourists is to hike to the top of Ayers Rock, but Aborigines ask that people refrain from doing that because it's a sacred monument.  I decided not to hike to the top out of respect for the Aborigines (well O.K., it was also pretty damn hot).  Instead, I decided to put on my Australian bush hat and hike all the way around it.  It was a looooong hike... about 6 miles, in fact, and it took me about three hours in the desert heat.  However, I'm glad I did it because hiking around Ayers Rock makes you appreciate its size and, for lack of a better word, its personality.


Ayers Rock is a pretty interesting place and there's a lot to do here.  I feel a bit sorry for the folks who fly into the Yulara airport, drive out to the rock and snap a few pictures and then fly back to Sydney, because it's hard to appreciate Ayers Rock if you're on a flight schedule.  If you ever come here, spend at least a few days exploring this area and trying to understand it like I did because, as some of the crusty old Aussies here say, "There's just somethin' spiritual about it."


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Above left:  Hotel rooms at Yulara are among the most expensive in Australia, starting at about US$100 a night.  The campground is the only affordable accommodation within a hundred miles of Ayers Rock, so that's, of course, where I stayed.

Above center:  Lunchtime at Yulara Resort.  The folks here are taking a break between their Sunrise and Sunset pictures.

Above right:  Viewpoint of the Olgas, a beautiful though lesser-known mountain range that's about 30 miles from Ayers Rock.


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Above left:  Hiking in the Olgas.

Above center:  Sunset over the Olgas.  I was the only person here enjoying this view -- everyone else was over at Ayers Rock, and that was fine with me.

Above right:  Looking west.



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