This is Australia's Northern Territory. It's dawn at Uluru. The loud clapping woke us up. We found out later that the gardeners outside have to beat the pathways around the various parts of the hotels in order to chase away any unwanted animals that could have lodged in some hole somewhere during the night. The sun rose quietly, as everything is very stealth-full in the desert. We were still cold, but by 7 a.m. after coffee and scones (the English way), we headed for the reception desk to get our rental car for the day.
We wanted to see Uluru but also go around the magical landscape, and the other rocks formations in the region. But first, we approached Uluru, the sacred rock, and parked almost at its foot. A few tourists' buses where ahead of us, but really there was no crowd for such a popular place to visit. I guess it's really out of the way; you certainly must want to come here. All the better for us. The air was fresh and serene, the temperature rose to a comfortable 75 degrees, we took off our layers and started to walk.
After about 15 minutes of walking while ogling the magnificent red walls of the rock, a dingo started to follow my daughter, we had not seen it coming; he looked like a coyote, a little skinny, a little disheveled. At first we were a little fearful, we saw the movie with Meryl Streep (A Cry in the Dark, where a dingo took her baby), but he kept on following us and caught up to walk alongside us. He was really more attached to my daughter, and when we realized that he was not leaving, we tried to separate a little from her to see what happens, and he stayed with her, trotting at her pace, almost like a domestic animal.
We could not say no. We had no food with us, and he probably figured it out, as he left a few minutes later, after we took tons of pictures of him. He was calm and friendly, although we never touched him. My daughter's heart was fluttering from the experience. It was like a host of the desert had come to salute her, she was ecstatic. She felt good.
We continued touring around the rock, which is in fact not a regular chunk of stone but a world of crevasses, canyons, slivers of red dust, and large waves of stone formation as old as the Earth. From afar the rock seems smooth and sturdy, when in fact it is irregular and even seems to be moving. Apparently it is also talking, although it did not talk to us. The feeling of serenity encompasses the place. The Aboriginal tribes around revere the rock and give it special properties.
The walk took about six hours to complete and we were really glad to have started early in the day, as the temperature was fast rising to a hot summer day. The hike is not strenuous at all, we never climbed the rock, to respect the demands of the Aboriginal residents, but we did enter a few of the stone waves at the bottom, at path level, that look like canopy caves. You can clearly see that they have been formed by water rushing, although the majestic formation has not seen substantial rainwater for a long time now. A tiny pool of kept murky water is the only spot that is wet, with no explanation of how, and none asked by the tribes.
We finished the tour of Uluru with a feeling of contentment from the peace around and the quiet of its world. Even though the rock is now closer to civilization, it feels like this is perhaps one of the last places on the planet that will stay unchanged and pure, no matter how many tourists visit it. The rock is strong and eternal. It's almost a spiritual experience.
The last thing we did to end the day was a camel ride for a couple of miles, through the deserted bush, the famed outback of the continent. Many spiders holes were clearly defined by a tall stick coming out of each, that the local guides had put as warnings for the caravan's leader not to step over any of them, as the giant spiders will strike the camels legs, to no good result. I now was thankful for our sturdy and thick hiking boots. They were a nuisance to carry over from America in our simplified suitcases, but I have to admit they are a necessity over here.
Dusk was coming and the amazing shades of the camels were enlarged on the red soil in black silhouettes. The rock was turning fiery shades of violet and turquoise at the same time, while the sky was incredibly fast at turning black. You could see the night galloping on the horizon, almost trying to catch you in its dark veil. After our slow camel trek, we were invited to visit the enclosed pad where the camels are kept and cared for.
The cutest fluffy baby camels all wanted our attention at the same time, with dopey eyes and long lashes, they almost looked cute. Inside was a buffet for the starving trekkers, and some cactus wine, made of .... cactus flowers? We did not ask. But the heart-wrenching fact that camel meat was also offered in a kind of Carpaccio style made me wonder how they could possibly eat their own herd. That was a sad end to the otherwise wonderful day.
The next day, our second and last at Uluru, we drove to the other rocks at Kata Tjuta, about 20 miles from where we were staying. Nobody was there; we had the place unrealistically to ourselves. There are about 36 gigantic stone heads, softly rounded like bald crouched animals. The Valley of the Winds is a draft corridor between different rocks. The Aborigines considers this place the home of the sacred snake Wanambi - his breath is the wind blowing through the gorges that can turn into a hurricane when he gets angry. Better not offend him!
Then we left to fly back to Brisbane, via Alice Springs. I had wished to spend more time in this enlightened place. The scenery, the horizon, the legends, the quietness, all wanted me to be a better person. The Aborigines are barely seen here, they keep to their own secret locations, rarely mingle with the tourists, unless they desire to be official guides to the rock. But their impact and their ways are felt throughout the landscape, like invisible souls humming in the back of your head.