For the Uluru sunset, Cheryl made the choice to set up our champagne and snack at a private shelter. We were exhausted from hiking in the heat and having started our day at 4 am, and I had taken so many photos in the past two days, I admitted to being “all pictured out.” Charlie and Erin raised their glasses in a toast and we all had a laugh. Do you know why the shelter was private? Because from that vantage point, you couldn’t take a good photo of Uluru: it was in shadow, and of course the sunset was brilliantly bright. Hundreds of tourists were huddled like outback flies at a superior vantage point. It was okay. I was ready to put the camera down and enjoy several glasses of Australian bubbly. Excellent day, excellent guide. As Courtney would say, “Epic.” We were all very thankful.
Cheryl told us many of the Aboriginal legends that have been passed down for years: stories with morals about not lying or stealing with terrible fates befalling the unfortunate folks who made bad choices. Of course, there are signs in the rocks (like a huge skull shape on the side of Uluru) that tie into the fables. We learned just one Aboriginal word, “mullah-mullah,” which means “looks pretty but doesn’t do anything useful.” The English settlers would ask the natives their names for various new plants they found, and this one purple flower was called a “mullah-mullah.” Story made good material for inside jokes.
Some caves like the private one where the men meet were strictly off limits to photography due to Aboriginal requirements. Cheryl asked that we delete any such photos from the camera if we inadvertently shot them. The Aboriginals also don’t want people to climb their rock; they feel it is horribly disrespectful. When the tourist rules were negotiated, the white people would not agree to a complete ban, and left one area open for climbing. We observed many of these tourists obsessed with climbing making a line up the hot rock along a handrail, but personally I think the government should have banned climbing completely. Mainly, I think I think the wishes of the Aboriginals should be respected, but also climbing this steep and hot rock in the hot summer is very dangerous. Forty people have died on the rock and scores more have died after climbing from heart attacks. The Aboriginals also don’t like to be photographed, so we kept that courtesy in mind, too.
Cheryl of SEIT Tours picked us up again at 4:30pm (2:30am EDT!) for day hikes around the base of Uluru. It was a glorious sunny, warm day. Again Cheryl took a wonderful family photo of us with the big red Uluru rising from the plain behind us. Talk about a small world, Cheryl had checked my website over the lunch break and commented on the Normandy cemetery photo! She also shared with us her own beautiful photographs of Uluru. We drove to the base of the monolith and began the Mala Walk around the base, stopping to see naturally eroded caves, some with Aboriginal paintings. Uluru is sandstone but also rich with iron, and a lightening rod during a thunderstorm. Again, the scale is enormous, and I recommend a personal visit to anyone who loved seeing the Grand Canyon. It is the same sort of wonder. As we approached water holes, you could feel the air get cooler. Walking around every bend revealed another striking view – perfectly suiting the style of my own photography, as I am attracted to naturally occurring abstract shapes and blocks of color. The blue sky was brilliant against the orange rock, and I commented that these colors, on opposite sides of the color wheel are stunningly beautiful juxtaposed like this.
The cold and wind kept the ubiquitous outback flies away for our early morning hike, but the flies arrived in force at our breakfast camp, forcing us to break out the fly nets and fly-repellent cream as well, which we smeared around our eyes, ears, nostrils and mouth. (Note to self: don’t try to eat cereal and coffee THROUGH the net.) Cheryl broke out the coolers of milk and juice, and a little gas camper stove to grill our raisin toast. Somehow she made coffee, but I failed to notice how. Back to our hotel by 10:30 am, Erin went straight to bed, and we all enjoyed lunch, some Internet time and poolside time before our next adventure.
Photos are coming just as soon as I figure out how to resize them in this software!
After we called our sunrise photography a wrap, we shuttled off to hike into Walpa Gorge while it was still quite cold, very windy and empty as well. Our small group (9 including the baby) hiked between two enormously steep mountains of red rock, which was conglomerate rock heavily laced with iron. The red color comes from oxidation of the iron. The path was very uneven, and we were warned to stop walking while we looked up or took photos, because otherwise we were likely to fall. Cheryl talked about the “opportunistic trees and small shrubs and grasses that grew in crevices of the rock.” There was a great sense of tranquility there. Burnt trees and the overwhelming scale of the natural scene generated images of death, regeneration of life and a feeling of respect for the ecosystem. Not even photos will communicate the humbling nature of the place. I recommend a personal visit!
Ready for pickup by 5:30am for our small group tour with SEIT guide Cheryl. Made it into the National Park and over to a lookout point where we could see both Uluru and the domes of Kata Tjuta while the brilliant sun rose between them. Took a 5-shot panorama series of RAW photos of Kata Tjuta and the empty outback landscape leading to it about three times as the sun rose and the light changed the color of the rock. Used that funny little tripod that wraps around the railing. Was able to swivel the camera in a way that appeared to be level. When the sun first popped over the horizon in brilliant yellow, I was poised with my funky tripod facing the sun and Uluru to the right. I took a series of 5 bracketed RAW photos which I plan to combine in HDR (Nik software) and hope for a good result when I get home. Erin snapped away with her new Canon underwater camera, which seemed to do a fantastic job on dry land. (We plan to take some underwater shots in the Great Barrier Reef in a few days.) Cheryl demonstrated her innate talent with the camera and took a great family photo of us with early morning Kata Tjuta behind us. Sun is a bit glarey on our faces, but that will be a sign of sunrise reality
The Aussies have got to be the friendliest people on Earth. We have also met more good natured people who have a great gift of humor. Random bus drivers, cooks, waiters and guides have had a relaxed and graceful way of weaving humor into their everyday speech. We find ourselves laughing so often. I really wish more Americans could experience this great gift and emulate it.
The Aussies have not always been known for racial integration; to the contrary, they only allowed whites, mainly northern Europeans into their country for many years. Now, however they are experiencing an Asian invasion. There is a very noticeable influx of people from China, Japan and Korea. They are here as tourists, students and workers in restaurants and I suppose all over. Yesterday, a kind Japanese girl gave me her hand to steady me as I tried to step down several steps in a narrow ledge at Kings Canyon. I was also amazed to meet a couple where the wife was from Malaysia (she also spoke Cantonese) and the husband from France, and their common language was English. They had their 9 month old baby in a backpack to hike around Uluru. In Sydney, we met a Dutch couple; the husband went to college and law school at the University of Toronto, studying in his second language. They were currently living in Curacao and traveling around Australia for seven weeks with their 5-year old boy, Max.
Mercifully, the Australians have built an airport to handle our Qantas 737 and a cluster of resorts (all price ranges) to house 5,000 tourists just minutes away from the fantastic national park that protects Uluru and the big red mountains of Kata Tjuta. Before this accommodation to tourism was developed in the 1980s, visitors would have to drive 5 hours one way from Alice Springs through completely uninhabited arid land to see the big red rocks. The great thing about staying right there by the national park, is that you can do several excursions and hikes to the rocks. The night we arrived we watched the sunset on Uluru and had an excellent buffet in the desert and chance to see the stars where there was no air pollution or light pollution. The Milky Way was magnificent. An astronomer pointed out the southern constellation, the southern cross as well as Orion, which can be seen from both hemispheres. From his telescope, I got to see the rings around Saturn and the gassy cloud near Orion’s belt where stars are being formed. The star gazing was exciting, because the night sky was truly spectacular from here. Brother Chuck, we wished you were here with us!
We dined with two Australian families, and enjoyed getting to know Susan, Burr and Julia from Melbourne, a photojournalist on assignment, an American lawyer and their daughter in 10th grade. As for photography, I took some HDR shots of the fading light on Uluru. The lightweight tripod I brought collapsed under the weight of my Nikon 70-200 f 2.8 lens, but I held the collapsing leg with my hand, to try to steady the camera. We will see about the results. I have been downloading and reviewing my photographs along the journey, and it looks like we have “heaps” of good ones, as the Aussies say.
Had a full day trip to the Blue Mountains with a small group of 11 (one child, age 5). It was too much driving, but our guide was very knowledgeable and taught us lots of facts about Australia and the ecology and economy of the region. We were impressed by the panoramic view of the Jameson valley, a vast eucalyptus forest with sandstone mountains and rock formations and a great diversity of plants and birds. Saw the lyre bird, the colorful Jemby-Rinjah and funny trees like the short, black trunk grass tree. There is coal mining in the region, and cute towns like Leura where some residents commute two hours to Sydney via train. We saw an area that suffered a massive forest fire, ignited by lightening in 2006, now in the natural process of regenerating. There were sandstone caves eroded in honeycomb fashion. Our guide Frank taught us lots of Aussie info, such as how to survive a snake bite, in case you encounter one of the 20 of the 25 deadliest snakes in the world found in Australia. Now we know.