Most people are familiar with Uluru—the big, red, flat topped boulder formerly known as Ayers Rock. If you haven't been there you still know about it: you've seen it on documentaries, in magazines, on the front cover of any book about Australia. It rises suddenly from the flat, golden grassed plains, dwarfing the landscape, including the few stunted trees nearby. You see it from tens of kilometres away. For the aboriginal tribes it has been sacred for millennia; for the colonial explorers who stumbled upon it in the 1800s it was notable and they undoubtedly exclaimed "By Jove, how terribly notable", before claiming it as their own and naming it after Sir something Ayers, who happened to be important at the time. The government handed it back just a few years ago. It's up near the top of the 'must do' list for Australia. And yet even many Australians have never seen it in the flesh. This is not so surprising when you consider that from the local town, Alice Springs (which is in the middle of nowhere), getting to The Rock involves a 900 kilometre round trip.
Still, what's another 900 kilometres, we told ourselves as we turned right off the Stuart Highway and began heading west. The Lasseter Highway was very quiet—even quieter than the Stuart Highway. We saw more camels than cars. It was blowing a gale and we were glad we weren't in a bigger van, as our tiny van was being blown all over the road. Ahead the sky was very overcast; surely it wouldn't rain on us? About 200 kilometres into the journey, with Isla in the driving seat, we saw something strange on the horizon. We'd seen plenty of dust devils up to this point, but ahead of us it looked as if the whole desert had upped sticks and was marching towards us in a spooky, amber cloud. Within seconds we were engulfed in a sandstorm. We slowed down and crawled along at 30 kph. Driving through airborne sand is very similar to driving through fog (something we Brits have ample experience of), your headlights reflect back eerily and shapes loom up from the roadsides. We seriously considered turning back, as it would take days to get to Uluru at the speed we were going, and in any case if the rock was also in the sandstorm there'd be bugger all to see—but we pushed on.
The storm eased up quite quickly and was completely finished by the time we got to Yulara, the purpose built tourist village that serves The Rock. It was still as windy as hell, but the sand was all on the ground where it should be. From our campsite we could just see what we'd come to see, but it was a long way away. To go any closer we would have to pay an admission fee—$25 each (GBP 9.36 / USD 15.81). Why is the Devil's Marbles free, but not Uluru? Why does the Devil's Marbles campsite cost $6.60 and the Yulara one $31.31? Answer: because they can! Uluru is a must-do and people will pay for the privilege of seeing it. Doesn't mean we're happy about it. We grudgingly paid up and drove down the narrow road. The closer we got, the bigger the rock became... obviously, but from a distance you don't realise just how huge it is.
The thing to do is to be here at dusk and watch the colour change as the sun sets, so we went to the sunset viewing area and waited. From time to time we glanced behind us. The sun was heading horizon-wards, but it was doing so behind a blanket of cloud—it was just a pale disc and wasn't strong enough to even cast a shadow. Had we just driven 450 kilometres through a sandstorm to watch a sunset that wasn't even going to happen? As we waited, some bored teenage girls on a school trip were combating the monotony by posing for photos of themselves with our cool campervan. Then just as we entered the golden hour before sunset, by some miracle the sun broke through the bottom of the cloud and Uluru's sandstone surface was suddenly bathed in warm, yellow light. Over the next hour we were treated to the most incredible natural light show imaginable, with the rock changing colour from pink to yellow to red, to a deep burgundy just as the sun dipped below the horizon, and finally to a black silhouette against the crimson night sky. It really was stunning. We went to bed thinking the 50 dollars had been well worth it.
The following morning we got a chance to look at our van in daylight; she* too had changed colour—from white to red, coated as she was in a layer of sticky, fine dust. We'll have to give her a thorough wash before we give her back, or they'll think we've been off-roading! The wind had dropped. We set off back toward the Stuart Highway, happy to be able to see the edges of the road this time.
Back on the main road we stopped for lunch at Mount Ebeneezer Roadhouse. We'd finished our Famous Mrs Mac's Pies and were availing ourselves of the facilities (US: using the bathroom) when a tour bus rocked up and a load of tourists flooded in. We overheard the tour group leader talking to the roadhouse staff about the previous day's weird weather. In his many years of Uluru tour guiding he'd never known a sandstorm like it... or a better sunset!
South of Alice on the Stuart Highway is a whole lot of nothing. There's not much choice of campsites, so we drove until about 17:00 and stopped at the one we were closest to which happened to be at Kulgera Roadhouse. Apart from the Devil's Marbles, which only had a dirt toilet, and certainly no showers, it was the cheapest place we'd stayed: $11.00 (GBP 4.12 / USD 6.96). For that we got to park anywhere we liked on a large field of dry grass. We picked the only bit of shade we could find, behind a big yucca tree. The wind gusted across the campsite, rocking our little van from side to side. There's a good reason why campsite adverts emphasise "shady" and "sheltered"—when you're camping in the Red Centre it's very important!
We were sharing the huge site with half a dozen other vans. A tow truck was parked beside one of them, preparing to take it back to Alice Springs. There were no obvious signs of damage, but evidently someone's holiday had gone pear shaped. As we were making breakfast this morning the same tow truck rolled up again, and a second crippled campervan was loaded onto the back. This one had hit not one but two kangaroos last night—we mean it kids, don't drive in the outback at night! Park up and open a tinny instead.
We really hope our little Mitsubishi can make it out of the desert in one piece. This road trip has been one of the highlights of our whole round the world trip, but we don't want to be stuck in the desert forever, with this dust, constant wind and relentless sun.
[* For some reason, Isla always assigns a gender to vehicles (it's a girl thing). Our van is apparently a she—Glenn.]