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When your tour guide informs you after a long day that there will be a 4 AM wake up call, the obvious response is to organise a mutiny. But then, this is only the second day of the tour, so patience may be called for. It seemed to me that the reward for such madness should, at least, come close to compensating us for the interrupted sleep– a bird’s eye view of an erupting volcano, perhaps, or a front-row seat as thousands of wildebeests thunder past on their annual migration.

The denouement for the first day of this adventure (for which several hundred people lined up at the designated spot) was a complete bust. It was supposed to be the best photo op of the trip– the sun setting over Uluru. Only there was no sun, and the monolith itself was obscured by ash clouds from recent fires. At least our guide was good enough to break out some bubbly and hors d’oeuvres.

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There had been rain in recent weeks, but the light rains followed 156 days without any precipitation. While we were eating dinner, lightning bolts flashed in the sky and those who ventured out from under the shelter felt a drops. For most members of our group, it was their first experience sleeping in the great outdoors in a swag.

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There were some looks of dismay as the Europeans realised that a fat roll of canvas was going to be home for the night. Dingoes or no dingoes, lightning, rain or flash flood. There was talk of tents, a discussion Tamara gently steered back to the benefits of sleeping under the stars. My previous trip in the Kimberley had prepared me for this and I was looking forward to it. What I didn’t realise until the next morning was that I had thrown down my swag in a nest of ants. It made for a long and itchy night.

After breakfast, at the designated sunrise viewing stop, we milled about with the rest of the tourists, unsure of what exactly we should be looking at. Kata Tjuta, (the Olgas) were barely visible in the distance because of the haze. The most obvious points of interest were a couple of brushfires that seemed to be burning out of control.

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Both Kata Tjuta and Uluru are remnants of a huge bed of sedimentary rock, worn down over some 40 million years following the retreat of an inland sea. It is believed that Kata Tjuta may have been a single rock, even bigger than Uluru before weathering wore it down to thirty-six separate rock domes, one of which remains 150 meters (about 500 feet) higher than Uluru.

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Between Ayer’s Rock and the Olgas lies an ancient valley made up of sand layers which hold water, much of which seeps into Lake Amadeaus, ten kms north of the Park. Some of this water is estimated to be seven thousand years old. The dunes themselves are older still, fundamentally unchanged for 30,000 years. Our destination for the morning is the valley of the wind trail, which is too hot to tackle in the afternoon. That is the reason for the ungodly wake up call. When I step into the magic of the Olgas, all thoughts of mutiny evaporate like a sprinkling of raindrops in the desert. It is magical.

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As our eyes drink in the stark, beautiful landscape, Tamara tells us about the plants and animals, the myths and history. We should be on the look out for euros, she tells us. One of our group is soon fishing in his pocket for a coin. Not that, she says, the euro is a sub-species of the most widespread kangaroo, the Common Wallaroo or Hill Kangaroo.

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They have shiny button noses like koalas and wombats. Euros hop on their short legs in an upright posture. They are less elegant than Red and Grey Kangaroos on flat ground, but bound up rocky slopes with ease. Not far down the trail, one of our group spots one, but by the time I have my camera ready, he is too far away for a good shot.

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At the end of our 7.4 km walk, we jump on ‘Snooty’ for a very long ride to our next destination– King’s Creek Station. I should explain here that the vehicle we are on is one of several owned by WayOutback, and in the interests of identification, each one has a name. Snooty is a 4 wheel drive bus that seats sixteen. In addition, we are hauling a trailer, which holds all the food and kitchen supplies. More about the trailer later.

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We’ll be backtracking past Uluru to the Curtin Springs Roadhouse, then heading North on the Luritja Road, about 170 kms of dirt. Drive too slowly on a dirt road and you feel every bump, too fast and the vehicle shakes apart. We drove at the automotive equivalent of a fast trot, skimming the tires across the tops of the ridges, which were formed by the action of the tires themselves. Just beyond the Curtin Springs Roadhouse, we catch sight of Mount Connor, another monolith, larger but a lot less famous than Uluru. Curtin Springs cattle station is a mere million acres, so Mt Connor hardly takes any room at all.

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This is camel country. Most of the early European explorers used camels, and when they finally had all tracks in place for the trains and telegraph lines, they were too dear to their handlers to put down. Here and there, handfuls of camels were quietly released into the wild. Today, there are an estimated one million rogue camels roaming the outback.

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We reach King’s Creek Station at last. Some of our group head to the roadhouse for a drink after dinner. I spread out my swag under the stars. It would be good to have a long night’s sleep at last.

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Even with the ash clouds surrounding the monolith and the smoke from brushfires, it is hard not to be impressed by Ayer’s Rock, also known as Uluru. It is like a windblown, ancient iceberg that has drifted to the centre of Australia, then settled into stone. It juts from the earth immense and alone, surrounded by unforgiving desert. The sandstone formation stands 348 m (1,142 ft) high with most of its bulk below the earth, awaiting a race of giants for excavation. Its girth is 9.4 km or 5.8 miles.

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All of us intend to walk at least part way around, despite the 40 degree Celsius (104 degrees F) temperature. The young and restless will trot around the whole thing. I have arrived here with a bunch of Europeans, travellers who wish to see more of the Red Centre than most tourists. We have signed up for five-day adventure, pitching in to help with cooking and cleaning up, washing dishes, collecting firewood and sleeping out under the stars in a canvas sleeping roll and mattress called a “swag.”

Our outfitter is WayOutback Adventures. Our guide/driver/cook/nurse/alarm clock/fire maker/ talking encyclopedia is a true-blue Aussie of Russian extraction, Tamara. We will all learn to appreciate her unflappable character over the next few days.

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Uluru is an inselberg, literally an “island mountain”. Inselberga are prominent, isolated knobs or hills that rise abruptly from relatively flat erosion lowlands in a hot, dry region. The remarkable feature of Uluru is its homogeneity and lack of jointing and parting at bedding surfaces, leading to the lack of of scree slopes and soil. Thanks to these odd characteristics, Uluru still stands while the surrounding rocks have all eroded to nothing.

Geologists refer to the rock strata making up Uluru as the Mutitjulu Arkose, and it is one of many sedimentary formations filling the Amadeus Basin.The layers of sand were nearly horizontal when deposited, but were tilted to their near vertical position during a later episode of mountain building, possibly the Alice Springs Orogeny of Palaeozoic age (400-300 Ma).

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Norbert Brockman’s (1997) Encyclopedia of Sacred Places tells of two tribes of ancestral spirits who were invited to a feast, but distracted by the beautiful Sleepy Lizard Women and did not show up. In response, the angry hosts sang evil into a mud sculpture that came to life as the dingo. There followed a great battle, which ended in the deaths of the leaders of both tribes. The earth itself rose up in grief at the bloodshed, becoming Uluru.

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Archaeological findings to the east and west indicate that humans settled in the area more than 10,000 years ago. Uluru and Kata Tjuta (also called the Olgas) were mapped by Europeans in 1872 during the expeditionary period and the construction of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line. In separate expeditions, Ernest Giles and William Gosse were the first European explorers to this area. While exploring in 1872, Giles sighted Kata Tjuta from a location near Kings Canyon and called it Mount Olga. The following year Gosse observed Uluru and named it Ayers Rock, in honour of the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.

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The first tourists arrived in the Uluru area in 1936. Beginning in the 1940s, permanent European settlement arrived in the area for reasons of the Aboriginal welfare policy and to help promote tourism of Uluru. The increased tourism prompted the formation of the first vehicular tracks in 1948 and tour bus services began early in the following decade. In 1958, the area that would become the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park, was excised from the Petermann Reserve; it was placed under the management of the Northern Territory Reserves Board and named the Ayers Rock – Mount Olga National Park. By 1959, the first motel leases had been granted and an airstrip was constructed close to the northern side of Uluru.

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Climbing Uluru is a popular attraction for visitors. A chain handhold was added in 1964 and extended in 1976. It makes the hour-long climb easier, but it is still a steep hike to the top, where it can be quite windy. Climbing is generally closed to the public when high winds are recorded at the top or when the temperature reaches 36 degrees celsius. There have been at least 35 deaths relating to recreational climbing since such incidents began being recorded.

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The local Aṉangu do not climb Uluru because of its great spiritual significance and they request that visitors refrain from climbing, partly due to the path crossing a sacred traditional Dreamtime track, and also due to a sense of responsibility for the safety of visitors.

Our only decision was how much ground to cover in the midday sun. We are all travellers from far flung, Northern lands, ill adapted to this heat. We keep a wary eye out for snakes and listen to the wind. Tonight, we’ll rest up from our travels and try to get a good night’s sleep in our unaccustomed surroundings. The walk in Kata Tjuta is long and it will be just as hot tomorrow. We have to get an early start.

Thanks to the first-rate Wikepedia contributors for much of the info in this post.

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