I had been to Australia more than 10 years ago and spent time exploring bustling Sydney and beautiful Cairns. Two of my most favorite places ever! So when the opportunity to travel through the interior of Australia and to the "Top End" Darwin, the capital of the Northern Territory, I just jumped at it.
My main reason for the trip was to learn more about the connections of the Aboriginals, the oldest people on the planet, where it is estimated that they have roamed the continent between 40,000 and 60,000 years, to what is now Australia.
I began my trek north via a plane ride from Sydney to Ayers Rock and entered the Uluṟu Kata-Tjuṯa National Park. My first sighting of the iconic big red monolith, Uluru, was during the short hop from the airport to our hotel. Even from some distance its powerful burning red presence is jaw dropping. With a circumference of 5.8 miles and a height of 1, 142 feet, it is impressive.
Uluru, is the proper Aboriginal name for this largest and most well known of the two red sandstone rock formations, and is considered by Aborigines as a sacred and spiritual place.
It sits almost halfway through what is called the red center of the continent, and is Australia's most famous landmark and a UNESCO world heritage site. It attracts thousands of visitors every year.
After many years of negotiation with the government, it is finally managed under a partnership between the Anangu Aboriginal clan and an Australian government authority. The clan oversees access to the park and orchestrates the activities it stands on. Visitors need permission to enter the park and must pay a $25 AUS fee.
Later in the afternoon of our arrival we were driven into a desert dunes clearing where we enjoyed a wide shot view of this magnificent rock. This was the beginning of The Sound of Silence, a nightly entertainment. At sundown, while sipping sparkling wine and sampling assorted canapés -- including roasted kangaroo -- I mingled with a small group of tourists from around the world, we socialized; while standing on the red dirt; but most of us kept our gaze on Uluru as the sun melted into the horizon.
Later on we were escorted further into a clearing where a blaze of white tablecloths adorned tables set for dinner. A first class on-site staff prepared and served an appetizing dinner with premium Australian wine, while a Didgeridoo -- an ancient Aboriginal wind instrument, serenaded us. Out of the dark a trio of young Aboriginal men appeared in full clan make-up and began ancient call and response chants accompanied by dance steps. They were painted in shades of gray and white and appeared almost as ghosts -- haunting and eerie, but meaningful.
The culmination of the evening was a night sky tutorial presented by an astronomer who guided our stargazing at a dazzling sky while listening to him as he located constellations and individual stars using his digital sky wand. As he decoded the southern sky, I felt as far away from 'civilization' as I have felt a long, long time. The four hours was captivating and delicious -- and went by in a flash.
This evening of events is known as an 'Australian Hall of Fame' tourism experience and is offered 365 days a year. In my Chicago neighborhood I rarely see many, if any stars. This evening certainly was a highlight of the beginning of my trek.
I can see why Australia draws one to its shores, but if you miss the center of the country and the Northern Territory, you miss the heart of this wonderful country.