When we arrived in Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) the sign read “Palya!” (Welcome).
Wherever we travel in Australia, we’re continuously welcomed onto lands owned by the local indigenous population—in English, in Kriol, in Pintjantjatjara. “Welcome to country,” says the Aboriginal guide “Welcome,” reads the sign at Kata Tjuta, “Welcome,” says the Aboriginal artist in Hermannsburg. “Welcome.”
To receive this from a people whose lands have been taken, whose children have been stolen, whose culture was—for so many years—denigrated, does not cease to surprise me.
The world comes to Uluru, this majestic rock that began forming 900 million years ago when much of central Australia was a sea. They come by plane, by bus, in cars pulling camper trailers, like ourselves.
“Palya!” reads the sign, and then, a request: “Please don’t climb”.
This is a sacred site. Yet every day travellers and tourists ignore the sign and climb Uluru. 35 people have died climbing the rock. On our first night there three people were stranded at the top and needed rescuing. Why does the white person always have to claim it, climb it, stick a flag on top?
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Times are changing. 20 years ago when Lee first came here as a backpacker, he climbed Ayres Rock, completely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on a sacred site. These days there is a large cultural centre explaining the significance of Uluru to the Anunga people. When you walk around the rock, signs point out, “the teaching cave” and “the kitchen cave” and special sacred areas where you cannot take photographs. A lot has changed in two decades. Everywhere we go indigenous names replace settler names. It feels as if a new wave of respect is passing over this vast continent.
My own children have never heard of Ayres Rock and wouldn’t dream of trying to climb Uluru. Instead, we walked and cycled the ten kilometres around the big rock. Magic.
Kata Tjuta (the Olgas)
These rocks, about 40 kilometres from Uluru, turn purple in the evening light. The four of us went on a long varied walk here, which was equally, if not more beautiful than Uluru.
Warrtaka (Kings Canyon)
After four nights near Uluru, we travelled on to Warrtaka, where—yes, Alicia!—we heard the dingos howling at night. They also traipsed through our campsite, looking for food.
While there, we did the popular “rim walk”. It was a cloudy day, thankfully. The sun is strong in the desert even when it’s not hot.
On the initial steep ascent, R said, “Mama, a wheelchair couldn’t get up here. Why don’t they make it for a wheelchair?”
“Well,” I paused, for the thought had not occurred to me that this rugged 5.4 km walk should be wheelchair accessible. “It would be a bit hard to make a ramp up this mountain,” I explained. She was nonplussed with my answer—a future disability advocate in the making??
The walk was other-worldly.
We saw numerous “ripple rocks”, evidence of the sand shaped by ancient tides when the earth was warmer, the poles weren’t frozen and shallow seas stretched into much of central Australia.
Large dome rocks surrounded us. At the centre was an oasis, “the Garden of Eden”, green with plant life and in stark contrast with all that dry red rock.
Ellery Creek Water Hole
After three nights at Warrtaka, we carried on back to the West McDonnell Ranges and camped at Ellery Creek Water Hole, where it was just us and a two or three other campers and a billion flies. There were flies in our eyes and in our ears, flies wandering into our nostrils, flies making suicide jumps into the pancake batter. They all disappear when the sun goes down, however, and the sky reveals about 7,000 stars.
Ellery Creek Water Hole proved a deliciously cold place to swim and we had two beautiful long lazy bush days there.
The waterhole was serene—a large oasis with two orange craggy cliffs either side, and a lone gum tree near the top of one cliff. A heron fished for most of the day in the shallows, undisturbed by our girls playing in the water nearby.
I’m reading We of the Never Never and there’s a quote in the book about travelling in the bush that—although written over a hundred years ago—feels apt today:
Sixty-five miles in three days, against sixty miles an hour of the express trains of the world. ‘Speed’s the thing,’ cries the world, and speeds on, gaining little but speed; and we bush-folk travel our sixty miles and gain all that is worth gaining—except speed. –Aeneas Gunn