02.06.2016 - 05.06.2016 18 °C
From Sydney airport we flew off on our Virgin Australia flight to another new state - Northern Territory. Our destination; Uluṟu, also known as Ayers Rock. Most of the 3.5 hour flight (yes Australia is THAT big) was wholly uneventful until we started our descent. Uluṟu and its surrounding area was unusually cloudy thus we hadn't seen much out of the aeroplane window. All of a sudden we could see a vast wash of red ground only a 100 metres below us; a crazy sight for usually grey eyes - landing was imminent we thought. Then, all of a sudden we accelerated back up and the aircrew came over the PA to say "please remain seated, we are not yet landing" followed by the pilot "we are just heading to our waiting place where we will receive instructions from air traffic control as to what to do next. Please know that we do have enough fuel to divert to another airport if necessary". By this point Lauren isn't quite freaking out but her anxiety has certainly spiked. After about half an hour the pilot attempted the landing again and this time, we made it. It was only after we arrived that my friend Loz (another one) that we were staying with told us she'd heard the airport staff talking about a possible diversion to Adelaide and that the pilot had been too brazen with the first landing and so had to abort. Anyway no harm done and we'd made it to Uluṟu only an hour or so late.
So my friend Loz (who is also known as Ren and that is what I will refer to her as to minimise confusion) is an environmental scientist and works as a ranger at the Uluṟu national park. We felt very lucky to be getting such an amazing insight that other tourists wouldn't enjoy. We first drove in Ren's big old ute to Yalara (the resort at the park) to do some shopping. There was a blanket of cloud covering a lot of the desert but the landscape was still spectacular - so uniquely Australian. On our way back from the shop we spotted a man pulling some sort of animal to the side of the road. Ren jumped out to help and discovered that a euro wallaby (like a small kangaroo) had been hit (most likely by a tourist driving too fast) and seemed to have broken its legs and/or back as it couldn't move, but was still very much alive. Being a ranger (and a good person), Ren thanked the man for helping, sent him on his way and called the office for assistance. Ren told us that there wasn't very much wildlife at Uluṟu so it's always very sad when something gets injured or killed in an accident. After a short while one of Ren's colleagues turned up and was able to put the poor little thing out of its misery. Ren told us that the carcass would be given to the indigenous community (Mutitjulu) and that the Pitjantjatjara people would make a load of meals out of it. So at least its death wasn't totally in vain.
Lauren and I couldn't believe just how Australian our first hour in Uluṟu had been - against the backdrop of both 'the bush' and one of the oldest and most recognisable natural monoliths in the world, we had witnessed (from a ute) a wild, Australia-specific marsupial dying on the side of the road. All we needed next was a crocodile to crawl out of the spinifex and gobble the little wallaroo up. But apparently crocodiles don't hang out in the desert - shame.
We eventually got to Ren's house - Uluṟu Lodge - which is situated within Mutitjulu (the indigenous community), outside of the resort. As expected the house is ace; it sits on a large bit of land which Ren, her boyfriend Matt and her housemate Rachel have cultivated into a veggie patch, small pool and lovely garden with cacti, trees and many plants - all frequented by birds we've never seen or heard before. Two dogs are also residents; Millie - a gorgeous and playful little jack-russell dog and, a new addition, Ninti the semi-domesticated dingo who Ren is looking after for some friends. Ninti was run over a few years ago so her hips and back legs just aren't quite right. This makes her very wonky - she has a funny walk and when you give her a good scratch she just can't take it and falls over. She's naturally a little timid and lives outside but she will come up for a sniff and stroke and is as sweet as anything.
That night Ren cooked us an amazing Laksa soup and for pudding we bombarded her with questions about the big rock and the community. How lucky we are to get an insight that most tourists would never experience.
The next day we drove in Ren's ute (a fun experience in itself) to the cultural centre. It being national reconciliation week - a time "dedicated to growing respectful relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and other Australians" - there was a cultural talk led by the Anangu (indigenous Mutitjulu people). We sat with a load of other (mainly white Australian) tourists and learned about some traditional homemade tools, food and hunting and cooking methods. The presenter spoke in Pitjantjatjara and another guy translated into English. Two of the elders were also sat watching; one of whom is called Mr. Uluṟu - the rock allegedly named after his ancestors. As clichéd as it sounds, it was fascinating and reminded us (Lauren and I) just how disconnected we are from the earth we inhabit. At the end of the presentation I ate a freshly barbecued wichetty grub, which tasted a bit eggy and was quite tasty.
Well and truly captivated, after the talk we spent an hour in the visitor centre reading more about the history and culture of the Anangu and their relationship with Uluṟu and Kata Tjuta. We then did a short walk to one of the watering holes which was breath-taking, and along the way we even saw a small snake slither along the path in front of us.
For dinner we went to Gecko's café which is next to the brilliantly named Ayers Wok and then toddled off to the mini stadium where we sat under the astonishing night's sky and watched the film Mabo (which I'd highly recommend).
Ren told us that in Uluṟu, you're closer to the stars than you are to the nearest McDonald's.
Back at the house Ren started a fire and we sat with cups of tea looking up. The night's sky is so clear you can see the milky way. In all honesty it blew my mind.
The next day Ren had a day off so the three of us went on the Mala walk led by James. The Mala is a small hare-like marsupial that is an integral part of the history, stories, learning and rituals of the Anangu. We walked around the rock looking at specific caves and gorges that are or were used for men's and women's business.
For lunch Ren made us an amazing salad with veggies from the garden and homemade dressings and condiments. We sat outside and the weather was perfect; sunny but not too hot or humid. We then drove 1hr out to the other rock (or more accurately rocks) - Kata Tjuta, aka the Olgas.
As we were getting close to sunset we only hiked halfway to the 2nd lookout but along the way we absorbed the awe-inspiring sights of the ancient, colossal rocks, against the piercing blue sky with only the sounds of birds to be heard. It's enough to make you feel incredibly insignificant; a mere (very temporary) dot on the landscape. Ren told us all about the plants and flowers that are blossoming at the moment due to last week's rain. We found a dead micro-bat in a small crook and had a look at his little wings. It's the closest to Steve Irwin I'll ever get.
We climbed back to the ute and parked up to watch the sunset over Kara Tjuta. We sat in the back of the pick-up and observed the sky turning all the colours of the rainbow. With the silvery thin clouds, glowing sunset and tree silhouettes it looked just like an oil painting.
As darkness consumed we all quickly got changed on the side of the road as we were booked into the posh Anali restaurant for our last dinner (generously paid for by Ren's mum Cheryl). There we indulged in some cocktails and yummy gourmet food while conversing about or lives. The beautiful sunset must have made us go all philosophical. I chose kangaroo steak (rare), which was very nice - when in Rome and all that.
The next morning we discovered our early afternoon flight had been delayed so Ren took the extra time as an opportunity to show us around her old place of employment - the camel farm. Naturally we met lots of the camels as well as jumping in the most Australian animal playpen you'll ever see. In it was an emu, a few kangaroos (one of which was pregnant), a huge buffalo (called Buffy) and some ducks. We had some cuddles and strokes and watched some Chinese tourists squirming and screaming with laughter while trying to feed the pecky emu.
The flight kept getting delayed so we then fit in a lunch and some window-shopping at the resort before finally making it to the airport. In the end we were only 3hrs delayed. We soon discovered that everyone's flights has been delayed meaning the tiny airport was chock-a-block.
Eventually we got up in the air and we watched out of the window as we flew over Uluṟu. We said goodbye to what I felt was 'real' Australia and we will always be grateful to Ren for giving us a view that very few would have the privilege of encountering.