When we were planning our Australian adventures to reunite Barry with his siblings, I hadn’t realised it was Jenny’s 60th birthday. She asked where we’d like to visit in Australia. Neither of us had much desire to see anything apart from hanging out in Gladstone where she lives. Apart from a long-held wish of mine to visit Uluru/Ayers Rock and Alice Springs. It turned out that Jenny had also wanted to visit those places. So we decided to throw caution (and budgets!) to the wind and make it happen.
Jenny mentioned other places I’d never heard of. Like Kings Canyon and the East and West McDonnell Ranges. I told her to go ahead and organise whatever she felt best, then let me know how much I owed her. Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. We spent a couple of months emailing back and further to get our itinerary booked and confirmed.
As each spectacular place we visited was so remarkable, to do the locations justice (and make it more readable and enjoyable for you), I’ve chosen to split this blog destination story into three separate posts.
- Uluru & Kata Tjuta
- Kings Canyon Rim Walk & the Mereenie Loop Road
- Alice Springs
There are connecting stories and snippets of Australian history interwoven. So, make a cup of tea (or something stronger depending on your time zone), and see if you can make it to the end! No Barry slide-show though, he stayed in Sydney avoiding the extreme heat.
The Queen Of The Desert
During the early years of our courtship, on 28th September 2006, Barry gifted me a birthday present of a ‘ticket’ to see the live show of ‘Priscilla Queen of The Desert‘ in Sydney. He knew I’d never been to Australia and was keen to visit someday. Both muy daughters had spent time there. However, the ‘ticket’ he gave me was one he’d cleverly made himself and printed. It looked authentic and I was ecstatic! But he confessed he’d not been ‘brave’ enough to actually book anything, as he didn’t know when would be suitable. Those who know me will understand his reticence (lol). I’m aware I can appear ‘formidable’. And it was the early days …
By 2008, we’d come no further. Things were strained between us, as Barry’s hopes of selling his photography business and house in order for us to travel to the UK and live in a narrowboat for six months (!) weren’t working out. I’d made the decision to take a three-month sabbatical in the UK and leave him to consider his options. This coincided with his daughter Jamie’s 21st birthday celebration, and the opening night on 26th May of Priscilla at The Civic Theatre in Auckland! Consequently, I booked the tickets myself. The sabbatical worked well – in a myriad of ways. And by 17th April 2009, we were engaged, had two weddings planned, in the UK, had bought a narrowboat and written our first-ever blog post.
I absolutely adored the production. Surprisingly so did Barry! Following the performance we had a drink in the bar downstairs. As we were heading out of the door, I spotted Mark Sainsbury, a well-known Kiwi TV personality. Not being one to miss an opportunity, I said, “Hi Mark“. Mark, “Hi, how are you? Did you enjoy the show?“. As if he actually knew who I was! “We loved it,” I said. “Are you going to the aftershow party?” Said Mark. “We don’t have tickets,” I said disappointed. “Here you go.” said Mark, “I’ve got a couple spare”
Wow! I was aghast! How wonderful; what a lovely man. We thanked him profusely and headed downstairs to share the food, drinks, dancing and revelry with the cast, crew and their entourage – as well as celebrities. There we listened to the Mayor of Auckland and the Director of the show’s speeches about the superb performance and drank out of (and took a few away with us!) light-up cocktail glasses. Check out some of the photos of the party (& glasses) here – https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/photos/priscilla-queen-of-the-desert-the-musical-opens-in-auckland
Just to prove we were there in 2008, here’s a selection of OUR images, including a photo of me holding the 2016 ‘ticket’ Barry made for me. Oh yes, and one of the ‘cakes left out in the rain’:
What a blast – definitely one of the highlights of my life. Bill Hunter was brilliant as Bob Sprat in the show (remember the ping pong scene?!), just as he‘d been in the movie. Plus he was born in Ballarat, where my great great grandfather Captain Henry Evans Baker emigrated to! Sadly he died on 21st May 2011 aged only 71.
Here’s a short clip of the movie, in case you’ve never seen it. You may wonder what this has to do with Uluru and The Red Centre …
… a couple of (recent) comments from the movie clip should help to explain:
“This is the best part of the movie, in my opinion. When they do other shows, the audience is very indifferent and cold. No applause, people look bored. It’s very frustrating. Aboriginal people are different. They are welcoming, clap their hands, show joy and even interact with them using their traditional instruments.“
“This movie was so ahead of its time!! Australians really sleep on how culturally significant this is and the beautiful message it coveys. Truly beautiful!!!“
“This version just rocks! The added chanting (dare I call it that?) adds SO much to the number. A beautiful fusion of cultures.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v0gGWiRkjYM
If you’ve never watched the movie, I’d highly recommend it. I’m going to watch it again, now I’ve met many Aboriginal people, travelled in the desert and been to Uluru and Alice Springs.
Anyway, I digress …
Vague Knowledge Of The Real (& Distasteful) History of Australia
Allow me to digress just a little more.
Before I share our life-changing experiences in the centre of this vast continent, I want to ask you, the reader, what you know about the (real) history of Australia.
I’ll admit I knew little before March 2023. Snippets really. Like the abhorrent ‘Whites Only’ immigration policy, I read about in March 2010. Though not the length of time it was in place (over 70 years last century – unbelievably shocking!). I knew a bit about the ‘Stolen Generations‘ (Aboriginal children stolen from their families between 1905 and 1967). Mainly through the 2002 movie ‘Rabbit Proof Fence‘, which premiered when I was first in New Zealand (and I was focused on learning about Maori history). I had an awareness First Nations people had been treated abominably because my darling friend André had spent much of her life trying to make things better for childbearing Aboriginal women. But there was, and is, so much I didn’t/don’t know.
The more I do learn, my level of distress and disgust of what the ‘white invaders’ did, and continue to do, to the First Nations people increases. What also increases is my level of respect for them, in the face of the despicable ways they’ve been treated. It feels like this year is possibly a defining one for their 65,000-year history. When finally, after just over 250 years of ‘occupation’ (invasion is the more accurate word for when Captain Cook landed in 1770), their rights should be justifiably enshrined in the Australian Constitution. The ‘YES’ vote has recently passed through parliament.
I’ll admit shamefully I knew little about the history of Uluru/Ayers Rock before visiting, apart from how amazing it looked in enticing tourist photographs. I’d highly recommend anyone who does venture to this incredible place, to learn more about it.
Let me help you out …
Uluru History Background & The Statement From The Heart
Uluru was first ‘discovered’ by Europeans in 1873 when explorer William Gosse named it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia. The area surrounding Uluru is believed, by the Anangu, to remain home to Tjukuritja and Waparitja. Creators whose journeys and activities are recorded in the landscape. Few non-indigenous people visited until the first road to Uluru was built in 1948 bringing miners and tourists. The Ayers Rock National Park was declared in 1950. Tourism gradually grew, and a new airstrip was built to allow visitors to fly in.
Thankfully Uluru was handed back to the Anangu people on 26th October 1985. It’s a deeply sacred place, and the protection and management of the lands around Uluru and Kata Tjuta are quite rightly considered to be intrinsic Anangu responsibilities. Under the terms of the handover agreement, the Anangu people leased Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years. This ensures the public’s ongoing access, as well as continued funds to the local community. A board of management was set up in December 1985 with a majority of Anangu members (8 out of 12, with the others having to be approved by Anangu people), and the park continues to be jointly managed by Anangu and Parks Australia.
From 1936 onwards, people began climbing this sacred rock. William Gosse was probably the first European. The number of people climbing rose slowly. A growing number of fatalities resulted in the installation of a chain on a portion of the climb in 1966. During that time, 75 people lost their lives and many more sustained injuries or needed rescuing. The adverse effect on flora and fauna was distressing. For example, the shield or tadpole shrimp that lives on the rock was driven to near extinction by being trampled by walkers. Thankfully, climbing Uluru was permanently prohibited from 26th October 2019. exactly 34 years after being handed back to the Anangu people.
In November 2013, Aboriginal people, with the help of the Indigenous Land Corporation, bought Uluru’s Yulara resort from the commercial operator that owned it.
We heard tokenistic phrases used everywhere on our travels in Australia, but to be honest they rarely felt genuine. Here at Uluruu though, it FELT as though First Nations people were proud and respected.
“The Uluru Statement from the Heart is an invitation to the Australian people from First Nations Australians. It asks Australians to walk together to build a better future by establishing a First Nations Voice to Parliament enshrined in the Constitution, and the establishment of a Makarrata Commission for the purpose of treaty making and truth-telling.“https://ulurustatement.org/the-statement/
Yulara (Ayers Rock Resort)
Our flight from Sydney on Tuesday 14th March took us above a breathtakingly beautiful landscape. It wasn’t difficult to see why it’s called The Red Centre! Though due to the amount of recent rain and the care that Aboriginals take of THEIR land, there was lots of greenery too. Massive salt lakes were noticeable too …
You may be wondering, what/where IS the Red Centre? Lots of people ask me when I talk about it. And to be fair, I wasn’t clued up on it at all until we visited. During our five-day stay, we drove the red road, from Yulara to Alice Springs – including the part through Hermansburg you see below.
During the flight, a large rock was spotted from the window. Sadly we were on the wrong side, but I handed my phone over and someone snapped a fairly decent photo. It wasn’t Uluru, but we would see it again on our travels on the road from Yulara to Kings Canyon.
We’d foolishly bought fruit and veg in Sydney as Jenny knew groceries could be expensive at Yulara. However, when we arrived we realised we weren’t able to take fruit from state to state due to the risk of introducing unwanted pests. Tragically we had to throw it all away! I did buy a delicious, though weird-looking, Australian custard fruit from the Yulara store which tasted divine.
Jenny had pre-booked a hire car for flexibility which we picked up at the airport. I’d said I’d rather not drive. Mainly due to my naivety – and memories of watching the 2005 horror film Wolf Creek 😂, about a couple of backpackers driving across Australia. Actually, that’s a lie – I never watched it all. I stopped halfway as it was too scary! In retrospect, I could have easily shared the driving. The roads were fine – and mostly deserted. In fact I’d have been happier driving the desert roads than any of the crazy ones here in the UK! Sorry Jenny 🙁
The car was parked in the car park, and once the paperwork was completed, they handed over the keys and we walked to it. There was no walking around checking it with the hire car company, as you’d have to do in the UK. I noticed the stark warning signs – the ‘Dusk to Dawn’ rule – there was to be no driving dusk till dawn away from Uluru. They displayed photos of those who’d disobeyed!
Ayers Rock Resort
We were booked into the Ayer’s Rock Campground, in a two-bedroomed cabin. It was basic but comfortable accommodation, with a walk along the road at night to the toilet under athe star-lit sky. Other accommodation at Ayers Rock Resort is rather expensive. Understandably so. It’s an extremely isolated area for staff – they’d have to live on-site.
We were greeted with the word Palya at the airport, and it was good to learn its meaning at the resort. Actually, as you’ll see several meanings! Hello/goodbye/thank-you/welcome, very similar to Kia Ora in Maori. We’d pre-booked a garden walk for the afternoon of our arrival which was cancelled. The guide told a tale of a recent tourist death due to heat exhaustion following a late afternoon garden walk. However, we got to listen to the end of a bushcraft talk and wished we’d booked that one, as it was fascinating.
We wandered around the Resort shops, and art gallery, where I got my first look at local indigenous art. There were Aboriginal artists sitting selling their beautiful work at the resort, plus some outstanding pieces in the art centre.
That evening we were picked up outside the campground and taken to our pre-booked Sunset with BBQ and stars evening. It wasn’t cheap, but blimey it was worth every cent.
The coach took us to the ‘reserved for coaches’ sunset viewing area. There we were given canapes and a glass of fizz or orange juice. We watched in awe as the colour of the sunset reflected on the magnificent rock. And felt incredibly blessed to be there to witness the spectacle.
Local Aboriginal artists sat on the other side of the area, showcasing their paintings. Art is an integral part of Aboriginal life, a connection between past and present, between the supernatural and the earthly, and between people and the land. We’d been instructed on the coach not to take photos without permission, nor take alcohol near the artists. This was for two reasons – the Aboriginal people there do not drink alcohol, and to prevent spillage.
I walked around the artwork and got chatting with a lovely young woman about one of her dot paintings called ‘The Three Sisters‘. She told me about it. I have three sisters so was keen to learn more, and discovered the three sisters are rock formations in The Blue Mountains near Sydney. My daughters had visited there during their time in Australia, so the painting was poignant for me. The price was a mere Aus$25. Which was exactly the amount of cash Jenny and I had between us. Verne is very talented. She signed the back of the canvas and was happy to have a photograph. I didn’t realise we were destined to meet again. Such serendipity.
We were then driven to the BBQ dinner very close to the base of Uluru. By this time it was darkening and the path to the dinner was lit by solar lights. The food was delicious – I chose kangaroo for one of my meats and then felt awful! After eating, drinking, chatting and generally soaking up the spiritual nature of the space, ALL the lights were turned off. Everyone was asked to stop looking at their phones.
Sadly one rather irritating Canadian guy at our table, who fancied himself as a photographer, had brought a tripod and set up his camera. The light emitted from this spoilt the vibe and a number of other guests asked him to turn it off. The sky was carpeted, in fact, blanketed in stars and planets. I’d never seen so many, not even in the dark sky sanctuaries in South Island and Stewart Island. It was breathtakingly beautiful.
On the drive back to the resort, the coach driver announced she would be taking her time, due to the risk of encountering wild animals such as kangaroos on the road. Sadly, during the three weeks we were in Australia, the only wild kangaroos we saw were on warning road signs!
We’d had a brilliant beginning to our Red Centre adventures, and headed straight to bed, after a walk to the toilet block, in anticipation of another amazing day with an extremely early start.
Uluru Base Walk At Sunrise
Our plan was to do the base walk around Uluru at sunrise. Rather than choose one of the organised tours, we decided to do it ourselves. We’d booked a Dot Painting workshop for 10.30 am, so had to ensure we walked (and enjoyed) the 10.6km, and returned to the camp in good time. As it was pitch black when we returned to Uluru, it took ages to find the Mala car park! You can’t just leave the car anywhere. And a number of parking places are reserved for organised tours we’d decided against. Ah well, we eventually found the correct place for the Uluru Base Walk. Sadly, as we started late, we may have missed the best sunrise photos.
I’m sure it mattered not a jot. I can’t possibly put into words how stunning and special the experience was. I’ll attempt with the photos I did get, but they’re not a patch of actually feeling the spiritual nature of this sacred place.
It’s recommended you start walking clockwise, to reduce the amount of direct sun and subsequently heat you experience. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and fly net is a must – the shops at the resort all sell them if you forget. It’s also highly recommended during summer (and early autumn it seems!), you complete the walk by 11 am. Otherwise, you run a high risk of heat exhaustion. There was an unbelievable variety of shapes and colours. Two specific areas were sacred for men, and one for women.
“Some areas are surprisingly green and lush, providing plenty of wildlife and bush tucker spotting opportunities, while other sections feel open and vast, with little shade.
The base walk will take you through acacia woodlands and grassed claypans. You will encounter bloodwoods, native grasses, and many waterways and waterholes.“https://parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/do/walks/uluru-base-walk/
The day we walked, it was unsurprisingly closed from 11 am due to extreme heat. Following the walk, I gave Jenny one of my rehydration sachets, and we both diluted them in water to replace our lost electrolytes.
I’ve been learning Maori Myths and Legends since first arriving in New Zealand in October 2001. The First Nations People have the oldest continuous cultural history on earth. There have been archaeological discoveries suggesting the Blue Mountains region of Australia was occupied by the Dar people 100,000 years ago. I relished discovering Aboriginal ‘dreaming‘ and ‘stories’ in our time in the Country. For instance, of the Kuniya and the Liru:
“Long ago in the Tjurpa the Kuniya, or non-venomous carpet snakes, journeyed from Paku-Paku, a waterhole near Mount Conner west of Uluru, until they came to a large flat sandhill in the centre of which was a waterhole. They made their camp there and for a time life was very good.
Each day the Kuniya women were able to find plenty of food which they carried home to the camp in their curved wooden carrying dishes. They prepared their bread from seeds gathered from grasses on the plain and cooked it in the ashes of their fires. The Kuniya men, after hunting kangaroos, emus and wallabies, liked to lie resting at the edge of the sandhill as the sun set.
This sandhill at the close of the Creation era turned to rock. The Kuniya people themselves were changed into various features of what is now called Uluru. The women seated in their camp became large boulders in Tjiki Gorge while their piti (wooden carrying dish) became a tall slab of rock at the head of the gorge. A rock hole represents their campfire, and small grasses and bushes which grow in tufts in the gorge are their hairs. The sleeping Kuniya men turned into boulders which now lie motionless in the sun on the plain beneath.“https://www.artistwd.com/joyzine/australia/dreaming/kuniya.php
Go to the website above to learn more. It’s an important component of life in Uluru. Plus you’ll find fascinating explanations of the reason for the rocks’ redness, why there’s so much discolouration, and how the deep fissures and potholes were made …
At one point, the walk takes you right alongside the rock. Jenny and I each took the opportunity to touch it and feel a unique energy. We were mesmerised by the rock art in the Mutitjulu caves, where people once lived. And the Kapit Mutitjulu water hole, where you can almost always find water. You can easily see the discolouration where water cascades down when it rains. The week before we came the forecast was rain on the only full day we were there. Thankfully it didn’t. Admittedly as a 1% chance it would have been spectacular, but I doubt the colours of the rock would have been anywhere near as splendid!
However, shortly before this post was published, Yulara airport, collected 64.6mm of rain over the 48 hours to 9 am on Tuesday 27th June. The wettest June days since 2004 and almost quadruple the June average. I saw an Instagram post with waterfalls cascading down the crevices of the rock and the paths turned into streams.
What a privilege it was to walk around and actually touch Uluru/Ayers Rock. We made it in good time, despite lingering in some places, and got back to the campground in time for a quick shower and change to get to the Maraku Arts Dot Painting Workshop.
Dot Painting Workshop
Jenny and I were joined by one other woman at the Dot painting workshop. The website states there must be a minimum of five people booked, so we were thankful it went ahead! The ‘tutor’ was a knowledgeable and friendly young man, whose name sadly I can’t remember. However, the Aboriginal artist was none other than Verne, who I’d met the previous evening. I’d been saying how I’d bought a painting when Verne was introduced. I was so happy to see her again. She drew signs in the sand, explaining what the symbols portrayed. And she told us the story of the Kuniya and Lira, via an amazing painting she’d done.
While we were given the opportunity to tell our own stories using symbols, Verne painted under the shade of a nearby tree. I did some painting, then sat with Verne and watched her (with her permission of course), and chatted to her. The finished painting was stunning, and I was compelled to purchase it – The Seven Sisters. Once we were all finished, everyone, including Verne, told the story of their artwork.
Something I’ve learnt in life is not to miss opportunities like buying Verne’s painting. They don’t come again. I had a similar experience along the drive from Kings Canyon to Alice Springs that I’ll share in that post.
A Disappointing Cancellation
For ages, I’ve wanted to experience a ride in a helicopter. Barry as a professional photographer, often flew around the East Coast of the North Island of New Zealand taking photos. In 2007, my youngest daughter Kimberley was with us, and he had the chance to go on a flight with Joe Fareham. His mum, June, was keen to go. Only two other people could accompany Barry. I let June and Kimberley go, knowing June would be unlikely to get a change again at her age (she was almost 83 years old).
While researching for our Uluru experience, I saw a sunset helicopter trip over Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park with Ayers Rock Helicopters and offered to book us both for Jenny’s 60th birthday. I was so eagerly anticipating it – what a chance of a lifetime to see the great rock formations from the air at sunset. Sadly I had an email just after the dot painting workshop, informing me it was cancelled due to ‘operational requirements’. I guess it was preferable to crashing due to not carrying out whatever ‘requirements’ were necessary. But I was soooo disappointed.
We did manage to get to the Bush Tucker talk, which was interesting, but we were both so tired by then I think I dozed through much of it! I managed to hear about toiletries produced by local people using sources from the bush. These were provided at the resort – but not the campground. He said to just ask if we saw someone with a trolley – which I cheekily did and was happily given four bottles of shower wash and four of shampoo. They smelt divine.
As we weren’t doing the helicopter trip, we had time to drive the 40kms to Kata-Tjuta via the Cultural Centre. Kata-Tjuta means ‘many heads’, and is sacred to the local Aboriginal Anangu people, who’ve inhabited the area for more than 22,000 years. The first non-Aboriginal person to see Kata-Tjuta was the explorer Ernest Giles, who spotted the domes while leading a party near Kings Canyon in 1872, and he named the largest dome Mount Olga, after Queen Olga of Württemberg. Hence they’re often referred to as ‘The Olgas’.
Stupidly I hadn’t taken my walking boots, I think my feet were still complaining after the morning hike. Most of the Kata Tjuta walks were too lengthy for the time we had left, and others were closed due to the heat. However, we started to do the Walpa Gorge Walk, but I soon realised my footwear wasn’t suitable for the rocky path. So I left Jenny to it and headed back to the car. The temperature at that time was 44 degrees! 🥵
Jenny enjoyed the walk, which didn’t take too long. She’s shared a few photos with me to post. On one she’d turned to face the sun and managed to get a fly in the landscape scene …
We feel we missed exploring Kata Tjuta due to time restrictions – maybe one day we’ll return and linger longer. I hope so.
By the time we drove back to the campground it was dark and we did the same as the coach had – very cautiously and slowly just in case.
Sunrise Field Of Light Show Uluru
We were up bright and early on Thursday 15th March for the Uluru Field of Light show we booked. While we enjoyed this, it wasn’t as amazing as expected or looked like the photos in the advertisements. You can sort of see what I mean when you look at the photo from the back of a bus, versus what we actually saw 😂. Maybe it’s the calibre of photography …
“The critically acclaimed Field of Light Uluru by the internationally celebrated artist Bruce Munro is on display and due to popular demand, has now been extended indefinitely.
The exhibition, aptly named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’ in local Pitjantjatjara is Munro’s largest work to date. Overwhelming in size, covering more than seven football fields, it invites immersion in its fantasy garden of 50,000 spindles of light, the stems breathing and swaying through a sympathetic desert spectrum of ochre, deep violet, blue and gentle white.“https://www.ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences/field-of-light-uluru-ga
Nonetheless, it was a sight to behold, and I was glad we saw it and walked amongst it and watched the sunrise before we drove away from Uluru.
There’s an even more incredible light show opened since our visit, called the Wintjiri Wiru, where choreographed drones, lasers, and projections light up the desert sky in a modern, artistic expression of an ancient Anangu story. It sounds and looks amazing.
We really tried to squeeze everything into 36 hours, but realised we needed much longer to really get the most of this outstanding place..
List Of Essentials
I thought I’d just add a list of essentials needed for people visiting Uluru if any of you are considering it in future (it’s definitely not exhaustive!):
- Fly net
- Wide-brimmed hat
- Water – preferably a container that holds three litres
- Dehydration sachets
- Good walking boots
- Clothing layers
- Mosquito repellant
- Buy a Park Pass in advance
Finally, and importantly, from the 2nd to the 9th of July it’s NAIDOC week. NAIDOC stands for National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee. Its origins can be traced to the emergence of Aboriginal groups in the 1920′s which sought to increase awareness in the wider community of the status and treatment of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
“National NAIDOC Week celebrations are held across Australia in the first week of July each year (Sunday to Sunday), to celebrate and recognise the history, culture and achievements of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. NAIDOC Week is an opportunity for all Australians to learn about First Nations cultures and histories and participate in celebrations of the oldest, continuous living cultures on earth.“https://www.naidoc.org.au/about/naidoc-week
I watched a funny, poignant and highly informative YouTube documentary recently about the REAL history of Australia. What moved me greatly was the final words of this wonderful highly intelligent and eloquent Aboriginal woman. She said, “We just want to be friends.” After all the abdominal things they’ve been subjected to by the invaders of their country, they still want to find a way forward in unity. I, for one, salute you all. And I’m so sorry that people from the country I was born in, did such terrible things to you.
Next Stop …
We left Uluru after the Field Of Light Sunrise trip and headed onto the sealed desert road towards Kings Canyon for our next exciting adventure. I’ll reveal all in the next post …