“You’re lucky mate, you are doing something most Aussies never do. Ninety percent of Australians haven’t seen red sand and even fewer have ridden on a camel,” said the announcer at the Camel Races and Rodeo in Uluru. And that’s why I flew three hours from Sydney to attend the Australian Outback festival, ride a camel to eat under the stars and bike around the iconic Ayers Rock.
Is there any more recognizable Aussie icon than Ayers Rock? I’d seen it on calendars, promotional ads and posters for years.
There, in the middle of boundless emptiness, reigns a red rock of colossal, noble and grand character -1,150 feet high, a mile and a half long, five and a half miles around, – it is everything I expected and in so many ways more powerful than I could ever have supposed.
It was totally mesmerizing. I could not stop looking at it; I didn’t want to stop looking at it. I watched it as sunset, ate dinner in its shadow, and rode a Harley with my hair blowing in the hot wind to a viewing point, just for another peek. I took a guided tour and then returned on a bike alone. As I drew closer, it became even more interesting.
My first night in the desert, I visited a Camel Ranch. After a safety lecture, I climbed up onto the saddle on the one humped Dromedary. Then I almost fell off when the camel dipped his head, raised his rump, and rose to his feet. He groaned and grunted, and chewed his cud like a cow. As we plodded through the desert, with no signs of technology or civilization, I could almost forget we were in the 21st Century. After 40-minutes, I was ready to dismount when we arrived at the dinner location.
What is funnier than watching camels race? Betting on them! Once a year there is an outrageous “Outback Fest” in Uluru, complete with races, I traveled to Uluru to join the fun; two days of camel races, a pre-race party, dancing in a bar with two live camels chewing their cuds in the corner, forming camel syndicates for betting, and a beauty contest for the “Fanciest Filly in the Outback.”
Bonnie, my camel – well the one I bet on – ran only one race. Rather, she started to run in one race. Nearing the finish line, she abruptly stopped, turned around and walked slowly and stubbornly in the opposite direction. Those of us who bet on Bonnie ran along the fence urging her to turn around, and laughing hysterically.
Best Nighttime Activity -Progressive Dinner on a Sand Dune
For a completely different kind of dining experience, I recommend the “ Sounds of Silence” evening. At sunset you ride a camel to the middle of nowhere while watching the transformation of color on the rock as the sun slips behind the horizon.
During canapés of Kangaroo puff pastry bites and bubbly, local Aborigines danced, sang and played their haunting digeridoo music. Then we sat down to a candle light dinner with white table clothes and a tasty spread of typically Australian food of kangaroo, crocodile, beef filet and barramundi (white fish) and quandong – Australia’s premier native fruit of the wild peach species. The edible flesh is used for jam or as a dessert and an important source of food for Australia’s Aborigines. I had second helping of the richest, most decadent sticky date pudding I’ve had in years.
Under a million stars, I settled back with a glass of Port and listened to the resident astrologer decode the southern night sky. He located the Southern Cross, the sings of the zodiac, the Milky Way, planets and galaxies and shared local Aboriginal stories about them. And for the first time in my life, I looked through the high power telescope he set up, and I saw the rings of Saturn and the moons around Neptune.
Uluru (Ayers Rock) by bike.
I arose early and took the shuttle bus to the protected National Park. At the Visitors Center I rented a bike and pedaled through the desert to Uluru. Aboriginal ancestors walked the paths that I rode, and many of the caves around the rock hold deep meanings for them and contain ancient rock paintings.
Uluru is a World Heritage site, and although part of a protected national park, there may come a time when it could be off-limits to climbers. The paths are well marked, but lightly traveled and often during the hour-long bike ride I was alone to feel the spiritual rock and up close I saw curves, pot holes, dark markings, brilliant canyons and wavelike ribs. It is said that the monolith was created by ancestral beings during Dreamtime. Some of the forms around Uluru are said to represent ancestral spirits. Rituals are still often held today in the caves around the base where ‘No Photography’ signs are posted out of respect. The Aborigines prefer that tourists do not climb the rock, but many do it anyway. The wind howled in my ears and I imagined I heard the ancient spirits. It was haunting.
Considering the awful vastness in the outback, I was aware of how easy it would be to get lost and was comfortably reassured that the dirt track was legible. I was alone on the trail most of the ride and my solitude amplified the life-force and mystery of the rock.
It is accepted that Aborigines have the oldest, culturally live culture in the world. Their language family may be the oldest on earth and their stories and art are believed to be the oldest in the world. Indigenous peoples constitute only about 2-3 percent of the Australian population and most of them live in rural areas. To be honest, I didn’t have much interaction with them.
I was not alone in the outback. I was joined by the small, black, pesky Australian Flies. They buzzed in front of my face and tried to settle on my upper lip, under my sun glasses and in my ears. I swatted them away but they returned almost immediately to the same spots. Flick at them all you like, but they will not go away.
While I was renting the bike at Uluru (Ayers Rock), I furiously waved my hands in front of my face, bobbed my head like a maniac, blew out of my nose and mouth and occasionally slapped myself on the cheek or forehead. The man in boots and cowboy hat who rented me the bike smiled and said, “Mate you’re giving us the “Bush Salute.” As I pedaled away and created a breeze with my forward movement, the flies disappeared. I can tell you, I was happy to be left alone.
Where to Stay
Uluru, about a dozen miles from the rock, has its own airport and resort Yulara, owned and operated by the indigenous community. It offers a range of accommodations, from campgrounds and a youth hostel up to the most sumptuously deluxe of resort hotels, Sails in the Sand.
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