July 13th:

Random thoughts: There's an Outback Steakhouse in the suburbs of Sydney. Things are really expensive here - that movie I saw was $13.50, and a bottle of soda is $3. I don't think I've had a meal for less than $15, and a "light lunch" was $40 (not to mention that buffet for $57, when Old Country Buffet is under $10 in the states - admittedly the Winkiku buffet is rather higher class than Old Country, with lots of cold seafood (prawns with heads on, oysters, etc), proscuttio on a plate for taking, and fancy desserts). And the moon is, I think, waxing, not waning (I think it's bigger tonight than a few nights ago).

So, today I got up a little earlier than I needed to, so I took my time getting ready. I was out waiting in plenty of time but, as usual, the bus was late. I can only guess that they just started late for the hell of it, because when I got on, there were only 4 other people aboard.

We drove out to Uluru with our driver/guide, Tim, giving us some general information about the rock. We stopped at the climb point to take pictures and pick up some people who went out for the sunrise tour, more than doubling our count. We then proceeded to drive around the base of Uluru, stopping in two places for more photos, and one place to walk up to the Mutitjulu water hole and see some cave paintings. We learned that the east face of Uluru has never been photographed commercially, because the aboriginees believe that the horizontal stratification of the rock has ceremonial meaning for them. Fortunately, amateur photography is just fine.

Once we had completed the circuit of the base, we went to the cultural center. One of the two buildings there contained aboriginal history, including some creationtime stories that explain some of the geological features of Uluru (like the snake-like horizontal mark on one face above Mutitjulu water hole, and the round holes in various places, which are supposedly spear holes). The other building was an art gallery and a food shop plus souvenier shop, where I found a nice T-shirt. The bus went back to the climb point to pick up more strays, then returned to the cultural center (which was not allowed to be photographed because the buildings were intended to represent two of the spirit people/ancestors of the Uluru region) to get everyone else. We then returned to the resort and dropped people off at their hotels.

I dropped my stuff off at the room, and then went to lunch at the Geckos, one of the two eateries in the shopping center. The food was nice - I had tomato soup (rather chunky) and spaghetti - but the service was pretty terrible. I mean, how could it possibly take 15 minutes to dish up what has to be pre-made soup? And the spaghetti took rather a long time, too. The place wasn't overly busy, so it was either the waiters not doing their jobs, or the kitchen really messing things up.

I returned to my room again, taking the long way around and photographing some birds and finding the tennis courts. I chilled for a bit, then went back to the entrance to wait for my afternoon tour. The bus came, and this time there were plenty of people aboard. I still got a window seat. Sails is the third of four hotels at the resort, and we drove around to the Outback Pioneer, the last hotel, to get a few more people, really loading the coach up. And then we were on our way.

Our driver/guide, Colin, kept up the conversation for almost the whole way to Kata Tjuta (Many Heads, named by the white invaders for the German princess married to the King of Spain, Olga (the king was King Amadeus, and his name was given to the salt flats and lakes to the west)). He told us about the flora and fauna, about the place of fire in this desert (it helps plants regenerate - by eliminating trees that have lived their lifespan, by baking seeds so that they can germinate, and by starting the growth cycle over for some plants), about how water is actually bad for the desert because of how adapted the plants and animals are to the lack of it, and about how both Kata Tjuta and Uluru were formed.

We stopped four times. The first was at a lookout where we could see a large portion of the 38 domes that make up the many heads of Kata Tjuta. The second was another photo op, this time of the normally published view of the four main domes. The third was at the Walpa Gorge, a gap between two large domes, which we were invited to walk up. I walked some distance up, and probably shouldn't have - I think I pulled something minor in my side, because it still hurts (at 10:30 pm) when I take a deep breath.

The last stop was back at Uluru, at the sunset coach parking spot. There was a table set up for the AAT Kings busses (as many of the other tour companies had as well) where there were plastic cups of white and red wine, and "lemonade" (basically 7-Up), and an extensive area for standing and watching the west face of Uluru. I took photos about every 5 minutes until it got to 6pm, and then shorter and shorter. The color did change, and it was pretty spectacular - near sundown, the rock was glowing a reddish orange, and then shadow started creaping up from the base to the top. Really nice, and I didn't have to get up at a ridiculous hour to see it (like the sunrise tours do).

Back at the hotel, I dropped my stuff at the room and took the luggage collection card to the front desk (just like at check in, they will collect my luggage, and hold it for me until my shuttle bus arrives - the airport is so small that there are only a few flights out, so they know exactly when any and all shuttle busses depart). (Thinking about things, I have an idea that the delay in getting my room key was as much about housekeeping "checking the room" as the porters getting my luggage to it.) Then I went back to the shopping center to get some light eats at the Takeaway Cafe - a box of fries, a fruit salad, and a tuna sandwich ($16).

After eating, I went outside and a little way into the middle of the ring road to look at the sky - though this morning was fully cloud-covered, by the sunset viewing of Uluru, there were only a few wisps of clouds here and there, and so the sky was very clear. I didn't go very far (it was very dark!), but I did see quite a few stars up there. I returned to the room to do the normal evening stuff (downloading the 108 or so pictures and labeling them, and then writing this). I'll set my alarm for 9 am, but will probably wake up earlier. I'll still pack up as much as I can tonight, but as my flight to Cairns is at 12:20 pm, the shuttle won't pick me up until 10:50 am. The only snag is that checkout is 10am, but the resort has no problem holding onto my luggage until the shuttle arrives. (Somewhere on this whole vacation, my address tag on my suitcase vanished - I don't even know where.)

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