Early next morning , our fifth day in Australia , we took a luxury coach out of Alice Springs en route to the Ayers Rock Resort in Uluru National Park. The coach drove to the Stuart Highway and proceeded south between the Eastern and Western McDonnell Ranges before hanging a right and taking the Lassiter Highway almost due west. The landscape was rugged but the road ran straight as an arrow. We made two stops , one at a camel farm (where I passed up the chance to ride on a slobbering camel) and the other at the Erlundda roadhouse which was rudimentary to say the least. Resuming our journey , the highway on either side was bounded by cattle stations which were notable for their size . Kilometer after kilometer , we were hemmed in by barbed wire fence and the stations themselves occupied thousands of square kilometers . Because of the sparseness of the vegetation , the land can only support one or two head of cattle per square km. and the beasts range far and wide . The ranchers have an ingenious method of controlling the movements of the livestock. The water tanks and man- made watering stations are situated at strategic locations spaced about 5 km. apart , the greatest distance a cow can go for water. By filling up and shutting down watering places , the ranchers make them go where they want without actively herding them.
In Uluru National Park , there are three main resorts , next to each other ; ours was the Sails in the Desert , so named because it was distinguished by enormous triangular canvas shapes that looked like sails . The resort was the last word in luxury and , surprise of surprises, there was a large swimming pool at its center. It turns out that there is a very large underground aquifer and an abundance of water . Pity the poor aborigines who lived here for thousands of years , parched for water , not knowing that a veritable lake existed beneath their feet just out of reach.We rested in our rooms , took showers and left that evening for a sunset viewing of Ayers Rock ( Uluru) followed by Dinner in the Desert.
Uluru is the name the aborigines gave to this massive monolith. They lived in this area for the over 20,000 years and it is sacred to them . In 1985 , Uluru was returned with much fanfare to the Aborigine people who promptly leased it back to the government. The net effect was to provide funds to Aborigine causes and to make sure that Uluru was developed and exploited with more attention to Aborigine sensitivities. Uluru is shaped like a loaf and is made up of a very hard coarse-grained sandstone with few cracks, and that has helped it resist weathering . It is like an iceberg ; there is more of the rock beneath the surface than above it. It extends 5 kilometers below ground and 348 meters (approx. 1076 feet ) above it . It has a circumference of 9.4 kilometers ( just under 6 miles), a good-sized walk. The coach took us to a little hillock within Uluru National Park. We followed a marked path up the side of the hillock to a picnic area on the top and there was Uluru in all its majesty. The tour operators had set up tables and served us appetizers ( crocodile / kangaroo/ salmon / veggie bites on toast ) and we sipped our chilled wine and beer as we drank in the sight of Uluru. We had got there just before dusk and we were able to appreciate the changing colors . At times Uluru seemed purple , then gray or black and finally red ,as the rays of the setting sun fell on it . Looking at its immensity and knowing it has existed, just so, for thousands of years makes one aware of one’s own insignificance even as one marvels at the forces that created this phenomenon of nature.
When the sun had set and there was no more to be seen , we were asked to continue down the path to the other side of the hillock where tables had been set in a cleared area. More appetizers , more wine and beer, and an excellent buffet presided over by a chef resplendent in whites and a toque . I can’t remember the individual dishes but the meal was predictably meat-centric. I do recall that the lamb chops were excellent as were the desserts, among them an apple- wattleseed crunch. Dinner was consumed in the light of dim lanterns and afterwards , the lamps were doused while we admired the starry sky. Then there was a surprise as a young lady , with the aid of a powerful torch , pointed out the various constellations and gave a most informative and interesting talk. The dark was a deliberate ploy to add to the mystery. We were not able to see her ; all we could tell was that she was tall, had a British accent and sounded young. Very enjoyable . Then it was time to time to troop back to our bus for the ride back to the resort.
Early next morning , we were back at Uluru to see it at sunrise. Having been there the previous evening , this was not as magical. We were at a much larger viewing area and the mob scene detracted from the spectacle . It is amazing to see people focus so much on getting photographs rather than just enjoying the moment. Afterwards , some of us went on a walk to the base of Uluru while the rest took the bus to the Visitors Center , there to learn about the legends and the history of Uluru. Then back to the Sails in the Desert to lunch at the Tali Bar ; the Thai Curry and Rice was excellent , as was the steak sandwich , We also took the opportunity to sample two more Australian beers.
The afternoon was spent doing the laundry and resting and that evening we took the bus to Kata Tjuta. It was a bit of an anti-climax after two visits to Uluru .Kata Tjuta ( ” many heads ” ) is the Aborigine name for Mt. Olga situated 45 km. away from Uluru. Thousands of years ago , it too was a monolith , a single huge rock ten times the size of Uluru. It has long since broken up into 36 monstrous “domes”. Even though the tallest of these is 200 meters higher than Uluru and even though it is so much larger than Uluru , it doesn’t stimulate the imagination as Uluru does . As at Uluru , access is restricted . Most of us took a rather pointless walk to the base of the rock , and in the stifling heat , it was a more an endurance test than anything else. Before we set out , we were warned to drink plenty of water: at least one liter per hour , if we wanted to avoid being dehydrated. This gives some idea of how inhospitable and difficult the area is . In this hellish environment , the aborigines somehow lived for twenty thousand years , a feat that can barely be imagined . Water was so scarce that even their sacred paintings were done using not water, but the blood of the animals they had hunted. With all their faculties geared to mere survival , is it any wonder they have been unable to adjust to modern civilisation ? Consequently , they hey have fallen prey to its temptations . Many of them have become alcoholics, unable to hold down a job and living a hand to moth existence on the dole.
One can’t fault the Australian government which has , on the whole , been fair to the aborigines. They have treated the aborigines mush better than Native Americans were treated by our government. The trouble is that even well meaning efforts on behalf of the aborigines have back-fired. At the Old Telegraph Station in Alice Springs , there were posters documenting one such attempt . During the forties , half Aborigine children were taken from their parents and placed in group homes where they were given a rudimentary education to enable them to get employment at the cattle stations . It succeeded to some extent as they were able to get a toehold in society but it left scars because the children were separated from their parents . It was heart-rending to read how they cried themselves to sleep each night and longed to be with their mothers.Their’s is a sad story but , in my opinion , there are no villains. It is just that the aborigines were so far removed from modernity that they couldn’t make the adjustment .
Earlier at Erlundda roadhouse , I noticed an Aborigine family waiting outside : father , mother and two cute girls aged about eight and six. I assumed that they were just whiling away the time , my mistake , and I wondered what the future held for those children . About half an hour later as we exited the roadhouse , I noticed another Aborigine family with them and the children happily playing together. As I watched , the parents said their goodbyes , the children separated reluctantly and the families went to their respective pickups and drove away . Apparently , the dads worked at the cattle stations where their knowledge of the bush would be of good use. They had just driven to the roadhouse for a get -together. It gave me a good feeling to know that those little girls will have a future . Not everything is bleak
Our last dinner at Sails in the Desert was at their fancy restaurant and it was good. Replete with food and drink , we retired early for the night . Next morning we would be off to Cairns and the Great Barrier Reef.