There are some trips that don’t live up to the anticipation. Some places that I am glad I visited, mostly because I would have been so disappointed if I never made it. Places that until I was there, I was so sure it was going to be amazing. But, they just weren’t amazing. They somehow didn’t live up to the hype; or the cost and effort of getting there weren’t worth the payoff; or for whatever reason they just weren’t fantastic trips—some weren’t even good trips.
Some of those places have a longer term payoff: the pictures may be awesome, or the stories may be fun to retell, or I may have learned something useful in terms of history or science or politics or art. So, its not that they were a total bust. But there is no getting around the fact that they were basically let downs.
Uluru was a place like that for me.
I first went to Australia with my mom and step dad when I was in the 6th grade. We went for Christmas and New Years, so it was summer time there. I remember them talking about how it was too hot to visit Ayers Rock, even though my step dad really wanted to climb it with me. (Back then, people still called it Ayers Rock, and people still climbed it).
I had been back to Australia for two more visits during the same time of year, and each time it was with building regret that I didn’t go see Ayers Rock.
So, in 2010 when I was planning my travels for all the places I wanted most to see in the world, Ayers Rock was on the list, and I made sure my trip Down Under was NOT in the heart of summer.
Getting to Ayers Rock, as the flight destination and town are stilled called (versus Uluru which is the proper way to refer to the rock itself) is no small task. Flights are expensive, and relatively long.
And, once you land you are immediately engulfed by the heat. Even in the very early spring when I went, it was hot. Hot. HOT. But, I love the heat, so that wasn’t the problem for me.
When I got to the hotel, I dumped my bags in my room, and headed to sign up for the 1:30pm shuttle to the rock. The shuttles run at fixed times, and it was frustrating to learn that the return shuttle was at 5pm, so I had just under 3 hours to do the 10.5km base walk around the rock. That meant no lingering, no marinating in the experience, just hustling around the rock.
But, as soon as I started the walk, I was wishing it was over. Not because of the intense, engulfing heat. But because of the damn flies. There are these horrid flies whose sole purpose in life seems to be to irritate Uluru visitors. They buzz around your ears, eyes, nose, and land on your arms and legs. The walk around the rock becomes something of a spastic-looking dance, with the constant swatting at these pests.
But, even with the hustle, and the heat and the flies, I was awed by the rock. It is majestic. And powerful. And mystical. And massive. All the things it is supposed to be.
I didn’t climb the rock because it is offensive to the Anangu. It seems every country but Japan has stopped promoting the climb, and only 38% of visitors the year before my 2012 visit did it. (For Japan, I was told the climb has cultural significance, in 2 ways. First, they like climbing things because it gets them closer to god. And second, there was a spiritual Japanese movie made at rock 15 years ago or so that many people identify with). In any case, they were planning to close the climb in a year or two.
I was determined to get the most of my trip, so the next morning I did the 4am “Desert Awakenings” tour. We drove to a sand dune, which we climbed up and waited for the sunrise. While we waited, we had tea, coffee and orange juice. And, then, bacon and egg sandwiches made onsite by a cook. The net net of which meant I was watching the sunrise with bacon grease dripping down my arms, and spotted across my clothes.
That afternoon I took the 1:15 shuttle to Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), a mountain 50km from Uluru, which is said to be even more striking. It was over 90 degrees, but I was excited for the 3hr/7.5km “Valley of the Winds Walk” I was planning to do at Kata Tjuta. It is shorter but more difficult than the Uluru base walk.
And hotter. Way hotter. I was crusted in salt when I finished. I finished in under 2 hours, so I had an hour to wait for the return shuttle. I thought it would be lovely to sit in the shade, look at the rocks, listen to the wind, birds and crickets, and cool off. Except, the spot I picked (the only shady spot) is the same shade all the tour guides use to orient their groups. It was like a parade of nations, as the Japanese, then Italians, then Germans, then more Japanese came into “my spot”. I was also attacked by biting ants during my hour of “rest”. So I had the dilemma of sitting in the direct sunlight, or succumbing to incessant ant bites. There isn’t an easy answer to that.
At 5:30, the shuttle showed up and headed to the sunset viewing of Uluru. Which was beautiful, but I was envious of all the folks who thought ahead and have tables and wine and cheese.
So, yes, the sunrise, sunset, and rocks themselves were spectacular. But, I don’t know that seeing them in person made them any more awesome than looking at photographs. In fact, the heat, the flies, the ants, the crowds, and the frustrating shuttle times made the in-person experience unpleasant.
And, I grew to feel conflicted about the indigenous people. They are reclaiming a lot of locations as being sacred, etc. And, there are notices all over asking tourists to try to respect and learn about their culture, not just take a picture of the rock and leave. Fine and good, and something I’d be really into doing. But, its not actually possible. They say its all secret. They can’t tell you about their history. They share a few stories from their oral tradition about the creation of Uluru, but that’s it. They won’t explain why certain places are sacred. So, I found it a frustrating request that they are making.
So, the bottom line of my trip, is that I recommend skipping Uluru, and spending an extra day or two at one of the other amazing locations across Australia. I left feeling unfilled and disappointed. But, I do have some amazing photos!