Friday, April 06, 2012

Travel: a personal view of view of Ayers Rock

You don’t expect a maul so forceful it would halt the All Blacks, not here at Ayers Rock. This is supposed to be the spiritual heart of Australia, the stepping stone to the dreamtime. Instead there’s a scrum around the tours desk inside the small airport building more like Oxford Street in the January sales.

Before collecting luggage, a feeding frenzy develops among new arrivals. “Are we booked on the sunset trip to the Rock?”, “What time is the pick up for the Olgas Sunrise Experience?” and “Is there an age limit for the Harley Davidson Tour?” The siege of the tours desk is a set piece battle, which follows the arrival of every planeload of tourists. They rarely stay more than two days, but demand to see and do everything.

Having booked people visibly relax and settle back into their seats on the complementary coach that takes them the short distance to the resort.

Ayers Rock resort is in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the red centre of Australia. It is an ecologically friendly, designer creation with accommodation ranging from the deluxe Sails in the Desert Hotel to the Ayers Rock Campground of Lindy Chamberlain fame.

There are few amenities other than the visitors centre, shops, takeaway and tavern. Surprisingly, in view of the fantastically high temperatures for most of the year, there is a jogging track. Quite what proportion of visitors is capable of rising above an amble in such conditions is difficult to imagine – unless it’s part of the final training for the ascent of the Rock that seems to be the foremost ambition of most.

Next to the shopping mall there is the amphitheatre where resident aboriginal band Indigeny combines electric rock with didgeridoo nightly under the stars. Unlike Alice Springs, you don’t often see aboriginals about the resort. Signs prohibit entry into their living area. Do not intrude: you will be as welcome as a dingo in the Ayers Rock Mothercare and risk a heavy fine.

Clearly it’s not the Resort but the Rock that the tourists come to see. One of the world’s largest monoliths, Ayers Rock is the exposed tip of a six kilometre deep mass of coarse sandstone. With the nearby Olgas, it dominates the desert landscape, and puts on a special show at dusk and dawn of changing colour and light. In addition it houses many aboriginal sacred sites.

Since 1985 the rock (Uluru) and Olgas (Kata Tjuta) have been jointly managed by a committee of aboriginals (anangu) and white Australians. Tourists or “mingas” (literally “ants”) are allowed into the Park on payment of a fee for a three day ticket, but the anangu have said that they would prefer that mingas do not climb Uluru.

The thinking visitor therefore has a dilemma: “Do or don’t I climb?”

A.A.T. Kings is the climber’s choice. Kings is the largest and most popular tour company in the Outback with an impressive fleet of air-conditioned executive coaches.

Their English passengers tend to be middle-aged. Dressed in Marks & Spencer sports casual or fake Gucci from the barrows in Bangkok, they are ticking off the touristic wonders of the world, like twitchers or train spotters. The rest are young Japanese and Korean couples in complimentary designer clothing ranging from Adidas to Armani. There is no conversation or getting-to-know-you amongst the couples. Whilst Dire Straits plays, most sit in silence with Pentax poised and the fixed look of marines on the way to the Normandy landings.   

A burly ocker driver in blue shorts and safari shirt shepherds the large group “doing” the Red Centre. No dilemma is evident, only the need to fit in the prescribed number of unique Rock, Olga, Valley of the Winds, base, climb, sunrise, sunset , breakfast and barbecue experiences each day.

The drivers are very good at what they do in a detached sort of way. The mixed nature and size of the groups plus the relative shortness of the trips prevents any kind of relationship developing between driver and group. On releasing his passengers to climb the Rock, our driver stayed alone in the air-conditioned coolness of the coach smoking and listening to the Brisbane Broncos game on the radio.

Climbing the Rock is a dual experience: part photo-opportunity and part ordeal. Tourists come to the awesome Rock throughout the day, but it’s at dawn and sunset that the changing colours are breathtaking. They photograph it in close up, from a distance, from every angle and in every conceivable light.

At dawn a row of ten or more coaches disgorges several hundred visitors. Each finds a place to view sunrise over the Rock and to take the snaps that constitute one of the two reasons for visiting the place.

The other reason is to climb the Rock. Seventy percent of visitors of all nationalities, ages and states of fitness make the strenuous ascent which begins with a 45 degree chained section. At cooler morning and evening peak times the experience will be shared with many hundreds of fellow climbers. Not everyone makes it back!

The role of the resort’s preferred eco-tour operator is filled by Uluru Experience. It claims a special interest in the desert and covers the same ground as Kings, but in much smaller groups... The main practical difference between the two is that Uluru Experience will not take you to climb Uluru.

Instead you are picked up in an air-conditioned mini–bus with a party of half a dozen or so. On a trip to see the Olgas and Dunes our group consisted of an elderly French couple who spoke no English and whose bewilderment grew to irritation as the tour wore on, three unsmiling, crew-cut German women in their twenties and a jovial retired BBC administrator from Solihull. Leading this challenging cross section of the EU was a tall kiwi in his early thirties who managed to look ascetic as well as dashing in khaki safari shirt, shorts and bush hat. He had studied art in Glasgow and, as well as eco-guiding, was looking to interest the anangu in ceramics.

Uluru Experience guides try to pass on information rather than just drive you around. After entering the Park we stopped by the roadside to be given a demonstration of anangu objects, tools and weapons. We threw a spear and boomerang and learnt how they were made, as well as examining desert plants such as spinifex. At one stage a dingo approached tentatively and allowed himself to be photographed.

The main point to the trip was of course the Olgas – described in the brochure as “mysterious domes..contrasting with the desert plains”. The view from a distance was magnificent as was the closer perspective from the Olga Gorge. As dusk approached we reached the viewing pint for the sunset and stood around clutching our plastic flutes of chilled Australian champagne.

Sunset over the Olgas is special. The light reflected over the strange round domes does change and there is a magical quality in the rising of the moon in front of you. With Uluru Experience you stand idly, feeling very right-on nursing your drink and listening to the guide’s stories of the Dreamtime.

Meanwhile you watch scores of Kings customers straight from the descent of the Rock tottering off their coaches proudly clutching their free certificates. They too will soon be enjoying their complimentary champagne and barbecue before joining in the communal viewing of the moonrise. Next morning everyone will fly out. As yet, neither tour company has succeeded in obtaining exclusive rights to the dawn or sunset.

Travel details - please check for changes:
I visited Ayers rock on the Australian Outback and Reef Tour with Kuoni Travel (Tel: 01306 741111) and stayed at the four star Sails in the Desert Hotel (Tel: 56 22 00)

Tours from the Resort:
• A.A.T.Kings (Tel: 56 21 71): Rock Climb and Sunset; Sunset only; Rock and Olgas Sunset and Breakfast Tours
• Uluru Experience (Tel: 1800 803174): Olgas/Dunes/Sunset; Uluru Walk
• Sunworth Taxis (Tel: 56 21 52) : Ayers rock and Olgas return trips
• Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (daily 6am to 7.30pm) ticket for three days entry

* a version of this article appeared in the Sunday Mercury



Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home