The sky is clear at mid-afternoon as we board one more bus to take us to the main attraction – the Rock itself. Eric, still fixated on the Thorny Devil we saw on last night’s bus, strikes up a conversation with the driver.
“So you see a lot of Horny Bastards out here?”
The young lady is nonplussed. “Believe me, we get plenty of those.”
On the short ride to the cultural center the driver tells us about the two phases of the desert oak’s life, and about the spinifex grass and the resin Aborigines make from it. Hm. Next she’ll be telling us about the poisonous… yep, there she goes.
There are hikes which circle the entire monument; we’ve selected a tour which begins at the Aboriginal cultural center and will visit the Mutijulu watering hole. We meet Charlie Walkabout, our Aboriginal guide and his interpreter, a small wiry woman with a quick grin and a thick Australian accent. About twelve of us begin to follow a long, winding mural that depicts the dreamtime creation story the Anangu people have developed to explain Uluru and its place in their mythology. Charlie speaks in the half-woof, half-warble dialect of the local tribe and the interpreter cheerily translates the information, somehow extracting full paragraphs from short sentences.
We board the bus again to cover the half-mile or so to the base of the Rock. We’re not the only ones on tour today – there are about eight groups from different tour companies jockeying for access to the various caves and watering holes on the Kuniya track.
Charlie discusses the scratchy drawings in the rocky caves and the ill effects of attempting to dam the water that runs from the rock face. We trek deep into a gorge in the southern wall to visit the watering hole.
This is billed as a sunset tour of the Rock. There’s a while yet before the sun sets, and the group rests in a small thatched hut passing around samples of the berries and grains the local people still use for food and medicine.
As the sun drops in the sky the bus circles the base of Uluru and Charlie describes the various features and how they relate to the dreamtime story depicted at the visitors center. Round pockmarks become eggs, cascading depressions are footprints and giant fissures the result of spear blows from a cataclysmic battle. Through broken English and the interpreter’s embellishment he asks that we not climb the rock face, a contentious tourist activity that violates a sacred Aboriginal site.
We’ve heard a lot of glowing prose about the color changes Uluru goes through at sunset. There’s been less of an acknowledgement among the staff that the clear sunsets that paint the western face a thousand shades of red rarely occur. Large clouds are gathering as we arrive at the viewing area – the last of maybe one hundred buses and campervans to unload in the vast parking lot. There are Germans everywhere with coolers full of cheese and champagne. As the sun sets behind a bank of clouds the rock turns from red to… gray.
The dispersed crowd floods back to the parking lot, and the buses rumble back to Yulara.