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Desert Storm in Australia

The rain clouds gathered as the haunting sound of a didgerido filled the air and the landscape darkened. Tourists scurried for the safety of their hotel rooms as the skys opened and the first rain drops fell. They were like exploding water bombs, causing the window panes and the hotel to shake to its foundations.

To my surprise the locals seemed to do the exact opposite and were evacuating Yulara resort on mass. It’s a slightly worrying sight to see your hotelier and family jump into their four wheel drive and disappear down the rain swept road, followed by hundreds of others. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to brave the torrential rains and find out where all the locals were going in such a hurry.

In seconds I was drenched to the skin, wading in sandy red water up to my knees and trying to hail down one of the many modes of transport that hurtled past me. Seeing my plight several drivers stopped and told me to get in, excitedly telling me that the rock would be like a series of water falls. And there it was 15 minutes later, glowing a deep reddy pink, water pouring out of every hole and crack. The world’s most famous monolithic rock, known to the Aborigines as Uluru, rising like a monster from the flooded brown plains had turned into the world’s most spectacular waterfall.

From the moment I saw the rock it was easy to see why, for at least 20,000 years, people have been spellbound by its mysterious beauty. Even in the constant sheets of rain its aura and spirituality glowed through the stormy weather. In the distance a dingo howled and sent a chill down my spine. The wind, sounding like a baby crying out for help, screamed around the rock and I couldn’t help wonder what the true story behind the dingo baby case was. Hearing the dingoes it was easy to imagine they could kill a child in this desolate place the Aborigines call the heart of their homeland.

Lightning crashed overhead, stirring me from my morbid thoughts, just as a number of people left their vehicles and paddled by dingy to the base of the 348 metre high rock. “According to the Aborigines two thirds of the Rock is beneath the sand,” explained one guy as we made our way to the climbing point but it had been closed by the rangers and a large danger sign blocked the entrance to the path.

The appalling weather made it too dangerous to climb and it only reopened several days later when the sunny weather returned and the rock became safe to ascend. Even in good weather you have to be careful and carry plenty of water for the 1.6 km climb. Many a tourist has taken a fatal fall from the treacherous slopes and a little museum in Yulara documents them all. The Aborigines themselves never climb the Rock because they are superstitious about its evil powers. They frown on people doing so, but are realistic about the loss of income if they stopped it.

From the top of the Rock there are spectacular views of rolling sand dunes and solitary cactuses standing bolt upright like soldiers guarding the desert from the outside world. About 30 kilometres to the West are The Olgas, an equally impressive series of rocks which are 500-600 million years old and take several days to explore properly. The Aborigines call these 36 sacred domes Kata Tjuta. According to geologists The Olgas were once a single rock, many times the size of Ayers Rock and was eroded over millions of years into the present, oval shapes that are strewn across the landscape and described by many as the devil’s marbles.

There are a myriad of caves to explore and sacred cave paintings to discover at Ayers Rock. To do this you can go with a ranger or take one of the many walking trails around the rock. A good place to start is Maggie Springs, the only permanent water hole.

To really appreciate Ayers Rock’s splendour and experience its desolate setting hire a motorbike and ride out into the middle of the desert alone or hire a vehicle with a group of fellow travellers. There is nothing better than holding a cold beer and cooking local delicacies like kangaroo, emu and barramundi on the barbie and listening to a bit of rock and roll on the car radio. As the sun set the speakers crackled and started to play Rock Around the Clock so we kicked off our shoes and danced barefoot in the sand. As the light turned Ayers Rock a series of deeper and darker reds before fading to black, we sat down and enjoyed our barbecue in the tranquillity of one of the world’s last explored territories. 

Fact File

Getting there: Qantas fly to Ayers Rock, via Sydney or Melbourne

Where to stay: There is a great variety of accommodation available, from tent sites at $9 per person per night to the luxurious Sails in the Desert Hotel at $230. For comfort and value try the Spinifex Lodge where four people will pay $85 or hire a caravan for $60.

Entrance fee to the park: A three-day pass costs $10 and is payable at the park entrance, between Yulara and the Rock.

What to do: A 10 km walk around Ayers Rock with a good guide book allows you to see the sacred Aboriginal caves, art sites, desert wildlife and creation legends.

Tours include “The Spirit of Uluru”, a four-hour vehicle tour of the base with a series of short walks and visits to an Aboriginal arts centre. Adults $52, children $40, including breakfast. Another popular tour is the bush tour which shows you how to live off the desert flora and fauna and includes a talk on Aboriginal culture. It’s a two-and-a-half hour experience in the desert learning how the Aborigines survived for 20,000 years, where they find food and how they made weapons. Adults $40, children $29.

Harley Davidsons are available night and day to whisk you away from 20th century comforts into the outback. Sunset is the most beautiful time of day to go and costs $65. “Olgas and Dunes” is a four-hour tour covering the sand dune formations and watching the sunset from Olga Gorge. Adults $40. One day safaris to Mount Conner, the huge flat topped mountain in the middle of a vast cattle station, just 80km east of Ayers Rock Resort.

Visas: Everyone must have a Australian visa, which is free if you go direct to the embassy.

Warning: Any clearly fenced off Aboriginal sacred sites should not be entered or photographed. Not only is it an offence, but is considered bad luck as is taking even a chip of the rock as a souvenir. Elders ask that tourists do not go into their villages or buy booze when members of the Aborigine community are in town.

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