The tour bus pulls out at six PM, circles the loop road around the resort and heads into the park. It’s still hot out, but the oppressive haze has given way to more defined broken cloud. We skirt around the Rock and head west toward the Olgas – the domes are clearly large but it’s hard to tell just how tall they are from this distance. The luxury bus is maybe half full, and the four of us stretch out over much of the less-populated back section. The driver’s voice is sharp but soothing, coming in low over the intercom. He tells us a little bit about the size of the park, that there are something like twenty-two of the world’s twenty-five most venomous snakes in the Outback, and that he may stop the bus if he sees a Thorny Devil lizard he can catch to show us. This is a semi-arid area, not a true desert, and as the rolling landscape flows by we learn of the Desert Oak’s two phases of growth and the plentiful spinifex grass, which the Aborigines cook into a resin tough enough to plug radiators.
We pitch forward as the bus hisses to a stop; the front door’s open and the driver is a blur, running back up the deserted highway toward Uluru. It’s an image we won’t forget, very Australian, the driver in his short sleeves, boots and sunglasses racing with powerful stride back to the bus with… a little Thorny Devil in his left hand. The spiky lizard is very calm, like maybe he’s been through this before. Everybody gets a chance to take a picutre.
We wonder what the driver’s looking at as we continue on to Kata Tjuta.
The bus passes to the south of the rocks, travelling the main length of the formation. We’re still a ways out, but the domes are growing, red and ochre and pocked with holes and black rivulets. The bus parks to the west and we fill bright plastic canteens for the 45-minute hike to the Valley of the Winds. The footing is trickier than it looks, soft red dust giving way to a steep, concrete-like conglomerate rock. It’s sweaty walking but I’m thankful for the cloud cover. We’re surprised to find a waterfall and brook hidden behind the first dome, some tall trees with green budgies darting about. The rock walls are sheer and towering, and after a last push we get to the payoff – a stunning view of a vast hollow area in the rocks, the trail falling quickly before us into a low forest of scrub and trees. There is a little bit of the wind that gave this spot it’s name, and we linger to snap photos and soak up the view.
My calves are straining by the time we get to the bus, but as promised the driver’s readied the grill, and the champagne’s already been poured. The landing party limps a few dozen yards to the sunset lookout point to soak up the champagne.
The clouds that protected us on the walk stifle the sunset, but no matter – dinner’s ready, and we chow on steak and kangaroo (hey, they cultivate it like venison) and veggies at the far end of a long covered picnic table. I see the Southern Cross for the first time rising slowly above the northeast horizon.
The driver turns off the interior lights for the half-hour ride back. There’s a tape of Australian standards playing softly; we doze to Waltzing Mathilda and a guy who drinks VB. It’s been a big day.