We made an early start in the morning, keen to reach the Yulara Resort (campgrounds for the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park). Entry into the park is $25 per adult, but it’s a 3 day pass, so you can space out the parts you visit and take your time exploring and doing the walks.
We decided to explore Kata Tjuta (the Olgas) first – it takes 30 minutes from the park’s entrance just to reach the car park. The colours here are so distinct and strong – the blue of the sky, the orange rocks, the green spinifex and scrubs (if only I had bought the polarising cover for my camera lens – the pictures don’t do the views justice). We did 2 of the walks – Walpa Gorge and Valley of the Winds – which were both lovely in their own way. I loved how close we got to the domes – they look so smooth from afar, but up close there are plenty of crags, gashes, even huge chunks carved out. Kia kept a few of the tourists (and there were so many of them unfortunately) amused with plenty of anecdotes. We stayed for the sunset which was truly lovely, but headed back quickly as the temperature drops along with the sun.
The next day was spent around Uluru (Ayers Rock) – we visited the Cultural Centre first which has quite a good display explaining the dreamtime stories tied to the area, as well the significance of the site as ceremonial grounds to the aboriginals. There was a strong message being sent out for tourists not to climb the rock – I think it’s a valid enough request, but they have constructed a chain rail along the climbing section which signals that climbing is not forbidden. The park is run jointly by the aboriginal community in the area, and if they don’t want people to climb, I think a “Do not climb” sign is probably a more unambiguous message. The climb is actually quite difficult (as confessed to me by a few tourists), but we decided not to climb as a sign of respect for their culture (personal decision).
There are also a few art and craft galleries within the Cultural Centre – some really magnificent art (if only I had a spare $2000!). We then headed towards Uluru itself – it’s such an iconic picture you almost can’t believe you’re there in person. The colour changes through the day as well – in the morning and from afar it’s a dusky pink, as you get closer and towards sunset the orange comes out more and after the sun has gone down it’s a dark rusty red colour. We drove all the way around it first and then parked the car to get closer. We walked to a little rockpool at the base and another area that had a rock wave formation – all beautiful.
But for Mike and I, the experience was severely marred by the sheer number of people there. We counted at least half a dozen huge coach loads (mostly European and Asian tourists) and a few helicopters overhead as well. The sunset viewing area was standing room only – there were at least 100 people there. I guess if we want to see it without the crowds we should come back in the severe heat of summer? On our last day we did another drive to the lookouts for both Kata Tjuta and Uluru to have some family pictures without the “sunset crowds”.
Then came one of the highlights of the trip so far – Kings Canyon and the West McDonnell Ranges (absolutely MUST SEE!!). It took another full day of driving to reach Kings Canyon Resort from Yulara (it’s getting to where we all groan as we get into the car each day!), but it was sooooo worth it! There are 2 main walks to do at Kings Canyon: one along the creek bed (rated easy) and one along the rim (rated difficult and a bit scary as you get close to the cliff edges in places). We opted for the easy walk first which left me completely unsatisfied, as though I hadn’t seen Kings Canyon at all. So although it was now the middle of the day and pretty hot, I forced the decision to do the rim walk too.
The first 800m or so is the hardest as it’s straight up, and granted there were a couple of small stretches where you walked close to the edge, but once on the actual rim, it was absolutely magnificent!! It’s a 6km walk but you’re so busy marvelling at the views, you hardly notice the time. It helped immensely that we ran into a lovely family (with 2 boys a bit older than ours) halfway through and the kids scampered about together and forgot to whinge! Our only mistake was not taking enough water along with us and by the time we got down 3 hours later, Tiran was hot and dehydrated (Kia who is half goat, half camel felt no ill effects) – but we stripped off his clothes and cooled him down with water and he recovered quite quickly.
The next day we tackled the Mereenie Loop – our research (via the information centres and first hand accounts of recent travellers) had given us enough confidence to take Optimus down the 155km dirt road. They had done quite a bit of work on parts of the road over the last couple of months, so nearly half the road was “sealed”, but the other half had us crawling along at around 20km an hour, so it took us over 4 hours to reach the start of the gorges of the West McDonnel Ranges. Never mind, the views of the ranges more than made up for it.
Brief accounts of the gorges and attractions (really you have to see these places yourself!): amazing views of Mt Sonder and the Finke River (still had a bit of water), Glen Helen Gorge (lovely, but you can only see the entrance to the gorge unless you’re willing to swim around, which we weren’t), Ochre Pits (a palette of colour, absolutely fabulous), Ormiston Gorge (the most beautiful of the lot), Ellery Creek Big Hole (great name and lovely gorge, but strong fish smell due to algae infestation killing the fish) and Standley Chasm (had to pay to get in, it was lovely although the “light show” wasn’t that magical, but I wouldn’t do it again). All in all, one of the most spectacularly scenic areas we have ever seen!!
Now we faced the inviting prospect of travelling all the way back up the centre (about 1000kms) to the northern part of the Northern Territory!