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Ayers Rock Thunderhead

Ayers Rock

We bid Sydney adieu with a bitter Italian-Australian cab driver who’d like to send the Olympics back to Greece for good. He’s lived in Oz 20 years but never been to the Rock. I find that shocking, then I realize I’ve lived in the States for 30 and never been to the Grand Canyon. It’s one of those monuments that’s taken for granted by the citizens, but acts like a magnet for those on a tight schedule. We board the Qantas 737 for the three hour flight to the Red Centre.

So where’s the red? The ground below is paler than I expect, a washed-out tan veined with black streams and dots of vegetation, white and green dry mineral pools. Waitaminit – those dots aren’t vegetation – they’re the shadows of little low clouds. The ground’s so scorched at mid-day that the shade stands out like sunspots on the face of the sun. (And remember that sunspots are relatively cool at six million degrees Fahrenheit.) The Outback is inhospitable to humans, just as we’ve been taught by those Mad Max movies.

The land finally grows red (and then surprisingly green) during the last hour of the flight, and up from the flat earth rises Uluru, the 1100-foot-tall two-mile-wide stone we’ve come to see. It’s the world’s largest rock, a single chunk of weathered sandstone extending some three miles into the ground. And it’s not the only monument here; twelve miles to the west lie the 30-some-odd rock domes of the Olgas.

There’s a high overcast sky when we step off the plane; the air is humid and very hot. It’s been raining for a week, and we’re lucky to enjoy a break in the downpour – the roads have been flooded for days and have just reopened.

The little airport is streamlined for one purpose – getting folks off the planes and onto free buses headed for Yulara, the resort that services the National Park. There’s no place else to go. There’s an Aboriginal town near the base of the Rock, but that’s off-limits to all but invited visitors.

It’s about two-thirty in the afternoon. The driver of the ATA-Kings tour bus we’re on helpfully reminds us that ATA-Kings features an Olgas sunset hike and barbecue this evening – and there still may be seats available.

The landing party retires to the apartment to snooze and catch up on our journals. We’ve selected the Emu Walk apartments, a mid-price offering at the resort, and the accommodations are fine if a little plain. There’s plenty of space in the split-level loft, a kitchen and patio, two bedrooms.

There’s an open-air restaurant back at the resort near the backpacker dorms. We pick a picnic table, run into Jared the cameleer putting the moves on one of the female employees, and order meals at the counter. There are open-air grills steaming just outside the dining area. It’s a cook-it-yerself Aussie barbie. Melanie gets the meat kebab and I get the fish.

  • Don’t get the fish

The barramundi takes twice as long to cook as the meat and it sticks to the foil wrapper. It’s hot enough to begin with even at night here, and there’s no need to spend extra time over a steaming metal short-order grill. That and the fish is full of bones. But the potato salad and sides are tasty, and we wash it down with a pitcher of VB.

There’s a shuttle bus that runs along the perimeter road, but we’ve just missed it. On the ride to the restaurant we saw the lighted footpath that bisects the resort loop, and in the light of the full moon we can still see the radio tower behind the apartments, so we strike off on foot. The wrong way. Sticking to the loop we’ll eventually pass every part of the resort, but we head away from Emu Walk to get to the path that brings us… well, closer to the apartments but not by too much.

The light of the moon is obscured and reflected by gathering clouds, painting the sky watercolor gray and steel blue. It’s the biggest sky I’ve seen in a long time, ominous and still and low to earth unlike the distant vault of the Milky Way last night. It begins to rain as we reach the apartment. It rains heavily throughout the night.