Scattered gum trees offer little spots of shade, and cicadas screech noisily amid the overwhelming heat of the bright desert sun. The earth is bright red — soft and dusty in parts and hard in others, with spiky shrubbery shooting up from the cracks. This is the Red Centre: the remote outback that seems to stretch forever, right in the middle of Australia.
My friend Arezu and I are in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, about to tackle the base walk around Uluru. It’s my first visit to the arid heart of my own country, having grown up in Sydney, with beaches and city life right on my doorstep. We’re here in the middle of summer and it’s already close to 40C at 8am, with a scorching sun overhead. We fill up our water bottles and start on the trail towards the rock.
Signs ask that visitors show respect for the Anangu Aboriginal people — the traditional custodians of the land — by not climbing Uluru. Recently, the park’s board decided that a climbing ban is to be enforced from October 2019. With Australia’s painful history concerning the treatment of its indigenous people, this is a step in the right direction. A chain blocks the path that leads onto the rock: it’s closed on particularly hot days anyway. The rock looms ahead of us, and this close up, it’s awe-inspiring — it’s immediately clear why Uluru holds such deep significance in Aboriginal culture. It’s a magical place; Uluru itself is said to hold spiritual energy, and against the harsh intensity of the desert environment is oddly calm and revitalising.
On the trail, we pass other travellers — many wearing the classic wide brim hats with hanging corks, acting as a shield from the sun and warding off persistent flies. I swat away a few buzzing by my ears, and regret my choice of hat; a baseball cap is hardly that protective.
The rock’s surface has jagged cracks and crevices, and then, in parts, is smooth with curved edges. Wild grass pokes from little gaps, and next to the trail, tall gum trees reach up, contrasting magnificently with the backdrop of the vivid blue sky and red desert palette. As the light hits the rock, it glows in different hues, from deep ochre to bright orange. Further along, cave shelters hang over the trail, with ancient rock drawings in yellow-and-white patterns inscribed on the walls inside.
We come across a particularly sacred area where photographs aren’t permitted. I’ve heard that ghostly figures or dark spots appear in photographs snapped here. There’s an eerie feel in the air, and we stop chatting for a while. Soon the trail opens out onto a sandy stretch, shaded by a cluster of gum trees. The scent of eucalyptus lingers sweetly in the air, and, suddenly, it’s much cooler. Just a little way on, we arrive at Kantju Gorge, a water hole next to the sheer rock wall. A dark line in the rock face traces the path of a waterfall that once tumbled down into the pool. There’s no one around, and it’s completely peaceful — an oasis away from the blaring heat and light. After a moment of stillness, we set off again, aiming to cover more ground before the hottest part of the day catches up with us.