……around the base…..

Yellow flowers flutter in the light rain.  Green melons lie by the side of the road, bloated and misshapen.  Some of then are broken leaking a sticky looking flesh that seeps into the red soil.   Overnight rain has made the flood-ways run with water, stained as rich a red as the soil that does not hold it. 

This combination of colours – yellow, green and red – becomes the whole landscape. We leave Kings Canyon and head south towards Uluru and its famous rocks.  The four beat swish of the windscreen wipers drops in and out of sync with the music on the radio.  In the floodway the water kicks away from the wheels of the cars and foams over the dry sections of road.  In the rear view mirror you can see it wash back onto the flooded section of the road.  Where the water meets the road, branches and leaves heap up in some counterfeit of a dam.   For a short while the tyres sing a sharp whistle as they shed the water drunk by their deep tread.   A brown falcon sits on a treetop branch, its head pulled tight into its wing shoulders.   It seems strange to be driving through a desert in the rain. 

Charcoal trees sprout through the burnt landscape, the ghost of last summer’s fires, making the rain seem even more unusual.  Another falcon sits on another tree top branch.  All of the landscape seems to be singing from the same song-sheet.  Space surrounds the road, seemingly more open than before.  The roadside rock walls that flanked the road from Alice have gone.   Despite the clouds the sky is tall, the horizon distant.  Red. Red. Red.

We pull the car off the road to look across the open spaces towards Mt. Connor.  According to the guidebooks this flat-topped mountain is often mistaken for the more famous Uluru, despite it being in the wrong place and being a different shape.  It looks for all the world like a mountain from a 1950s western film, with its spirit level summit, its vertical upper slopes and skirt of erosion.  I can’t help but wonder how the lens of harder material that caps the mount and protects the rock below formed.  It’s a special place to the local people, and you can only visit on organised tours.  The realisation that some places are still held to be precious enough to protect, that they won’t be sold lock stock and barrel to the world of tourism is an intriguing thought.  We only know what we are told about these places, the barrier of language and tradition keeps some people out and only allows others in.  Real access comes through knowledge rather than technology; education as social progress. Such thinking is a world away from the always connected, always on, dissociated community I walk through every day.

In the end the fact that we are downwind of (shall we say) a public facility drives us back into the car and on along the road to Uluru.

The first sighting of the famous rock sends a ripple of excitement through the car.  Rather than looking red, the bright mid-day sun bleaches the rock out to a shade of washed out pink.  Darker areas – surface caves and twisting shallow valleys that cut back into the body of the rock – give a faint sense of shape, but no real sense of size.

We join a short queue of cars to enter the National Park that surrounds and protects Uluru – and if this is unfamiliar, it may be better known as Ayers Rock.  The park is generally flat, with the occasional sand rise or faint valley.  But it’s not the sand that people come to see.  It’s the remarkable site of The Rock itself.  Once considered the world’s largest isolated boulder, it’s now understood to be an extension of the deep geology of the region. 

Initially the road strikes straight towards Uluru, and the rock rises to dominate the horizon.  It may have been the time of day, with the light falling straight and smooth onto its surface, but the rock showed not a hint of depth or structure. It looked like it had been painted onto the blue backdrop cloth of the sky.  Maybe its shape added to the otherworldly feel of the place.  I know of no other place that looks like this.  Seen from the distance of the road, the edges of rock rise straight up from the level sand and the summit surface draws a line parallel to the ground.  This may be close to heresy, but from the straight road the rock looks vaguely unreal.  It reminds me of the faux surrealist paintings that we churned out in my O Level art classes.   The strange face of the rock brings an unexpected silence to the kids in the back seats, a result as surprising as the discovery of the rock must have been in the first place. 

I am less well travelled than some, but luck has allowed me to be better travelled than many, and I have never seen a place that looks like this.  And I have seen it three times and the feeling remains.  Maybe the landscape lacks the defined components that make other scenes picturesque, or even the scale to make it grand.  But it is, nonetheless, remarkable.  Good beaches are great, but they just have more “beachness” than lesser ones. Striking mountains may be more mountainous than lesser ones, but they are drawn from the same palette – variation and theme, steep and sharp, rock shard and boulder. This really is a place like no other. 

When we arrive at the base of Uluru all sense of flatness disappears.  The bulk of the rock is rich in contours and shape, with twisting hidden paths and damply shaded water holes.  The surface itself looks like rusted iron, flaky and hard.  Only the passage of water – or the passage of feet – seems to break through the layer that faces the hot air.  Deep folds must hold precious water long through the summer, so plants can grow from the solid stone.  A darker red black marks where water temporarily flows over the surface, the darkness coming from the tiny cells of life that hide between the stone flakes.  In the shade you know it’s still winter, chill and brisk. In the sun you get a slight idea about how hot it will become in the summer months.

Heat loving reptiles are scarce on this side of the rock.  Grasses grow long in the thin but damp soil.  Within each footfall dozens of tiny seedling plants grow, responding to the strangely abundant rain.  A flock of zebra finches flicker in the dark shadows of a rock valley, avoiding the falcon that flashes overhead.  A pied butcherbird and a magpie, both black and white stealers of chicks, haunt the tops of the few trees in the area.  You grow up thinking savannah is an African place; finding it in Australia is a surprise. 

In some places the rock cuts in at its base, forming sandy-bottomed caves.  These are shelter places, welcoming places, and many of them bear the marks of human hands.  Patterns and paintings, overlapped and interlaced, cover the backs of the caves and flow across the ceiling rock.  Interpretative signs explain the meaning of the lines and crosses, but seem to miss the important part.  This was the art and science of a living culture.  A culture so sensitive to where it lived that the land and people became one in the minds of the people who lived there.  Generations of accumulated knowledge allowed people to thrive in places where we can only survive through the burning of oil or its chemical surrogates.  A culture that was almost wiped from the face of the Earth by another that thought it already had access to the only truth.  People in heavy leather boots, dragging boats in the desert, died because they would not listen and could not read the signs painted on these rock walls.  People who brought with them a cultural certainty based on coal, agriculture and old words so translated no one can be sure what they ever really said.  Wars are still being fought because of such thinking.  When you see these empty caves, when you think of the knowledge that has been lost, you can’t help but feel a loss.  The land lost its people and the people lost their land, and both suffered.  When you read through the catalogue of lost Australian animals you are reading the history of Aboriginal Australia written into its ecology.

Trees grow in a strip around the base of Uluru, their roots tapping the water that runs down the steep face.  They bring a green, speckled shade to the edges and make for a much softer light than the brightness of the open ground.  The fine sand crunches underfoot, leaving crisp footprints.  Red dust clings to the leather of my boots; socks take on the same colour.  The desert slowly begins to move into us as we slowly move through it.

At one point the face of the rock flattens out and flows down to meet the path, and rather than being a near vertical slab, it becomes a more gentle slope.  For many this is where the journey to the top of the rock starts; next to a sign that politely asks people not to climb. And next to the plaques that remember the people who have fallen to their death after ignoring the sign.

A snake line of people walks through the fence, past the sign and starts to climb.  Soon the rock starts to stand tall in front of them and they encounter a heavy chain; a metal handhold driven into the rock years ago to help people climb through the uncertain steepness.  Driven into the rock before the local people had found voice enough to ask people not to climb.  I would love to climb. To feel the grip of that rough rock under my feet and to pass through the steep walls ahead.  But I would no more climb than I would scale the Western Front of Wells Cathedral or clamber up the sarsens of Stonehenge.  And the simple answer as to “why not?” is that I was asked not to. 

If ever that was landscape where the challenges were internal it is this one. It’s a place where you come face to face with our (and by that I mean Australian) history.  In a culture where to name a thing is to own it, the placing of the name Uluru in front of the modern Ayers Rock becomes a meaningless symbol if we ignore the requests of the first owners and namers.  So, I did not climb – but I’m not sure if taking pictures of others doing so implicates me in some form of disrespect.  Such thoughts swirl here.  Respect and regret.  Guilt and rejection. If you come here and only see a large stone I think you may have missed the point.

Rising from the desert like a surprise Uluru catches then holds on to the last light of day a little longer than the ground around it.  In the mornings it lights up before the still dull ground around it.  If you could climb the day would be a little longer.  As the light passes over the rock it changes colour – red to orange, orange back to red and often a strange mix of shades that forms a kind of purple orange, red, pink mix that defines categorisation.  Such is the fame of these transitions that there are car parks – and separate coach parks – built at just the right places to let you view the sun rise and set on the rock. 

People bring camp chairs, beer, champagne, munchy snacks and above all else, cameras, to pass the time and to record the scene.  If modern Australia has a national environmental ritual, then this is it.  People gather to welcome the day, and to wish it good night.  The parallels between this twice daily ritual of watching and the more the solar-centric activities of older times are so clear that they go unmentioned, and, I suspect, unacknowledged.  The Earth tic-tocs its celestial clock, the rock changes colour and we grow a day older.  The observation of such things seems hard wired, and we ignore our relationship with this spinning ship of space at our own risk.

The time eating distances of central Australia rob us of the very first glimpse of dawn – better to blame that than my own morning slowness.  Light paints the rock and the colours step backwards through the sequence of yesterday evening.  Uluru shows a different face.  We turn our back to the sun and watch the birth of a new day. 

On the horizon the scattered heads of Kata Tjuta show pink and purple.

I hear the call of breakfast amplified by my children.  It’s time to go, to eat and head for the horizon.

Around the top.....

Kings Canyon - view from the steep hill
Driving on dirt roads is like playing with a pet crocodile; eventually something is bound to go wrong.  Both are ticking clocks, waiting for you for you to blink, look the other way or be distracted in some way.  And when that time comes, bang, you get bitten.  This fact must be frankly terrifying for people barrelling along dirt roads with a birdwatcher at the wheel of the car.  Phones and sat nav systems pale into insignificance compared to a bird on a high treetop for these most distractible of drivers. “Yes officer, I know I drove off the road for no reason that you understand, but I thought I saw a pale morph goshawk.”

After a few minutes I realise that the people in the car are much quieter than normal.  

Thankfully the road is in pretty good condition, and some sections are being graded as we drive through.  The road grader, basically a desert snowplough, is flattening out the regular bumps – corrugations – that form on the road over time.  It’s these regular bumps that can be the real soul destroyer of long trips on dirt roads.  They shake the fillings from your teeth, and buzz up the steering wheel and into your arms.  When you take you hands off the wheel – an action that is only recommended when the car is not moving – you can still feel your hands vibrating.  Long exposure to this type of thing would probable cause some form of industrial injury – Corrugation Induced Finger Buzz (CIFB) or something similar. 

In reality the unsealed section of the Mereenie Loop Road from Alice down towards Kings Canyon is not all that long - no more than 200 km – and not all that rough, but the journey seems to take much longer than expected because of the need to travel at speeds that do not awaken the pet crocodile sleeping in the rougher sections.  Luckily for us, he does not wake during the trip.

“ Camels!” Sal shouts, and we pull up to a sudden dusty stop.  The red devil on our tail briefly overtakes the car and as it clears, there they are – some of the only wild camels left in the world.  They are the ancient grandchildren of the animals from the days before rail and road links cut through the desert.  Standing way into the distance looking completely at home in the red desert and at the same time alien in a land of marsupials.  They turn and walk away from the car – I decide not to take any pictures of camel bums in the distance.   A little further on we see feral horses.  And then by the side of the road a donkey, its standard issue grey coat tainted red by the dust.  It pulls one ear back over its head as we slow, and looks at us with that half comical, half sad, look that only donkeys can muster.  If ever an animal was going to clear its throat and speak a few words of wisdom is was going to be this one.  But it doesn’t.  A silent grey desert oracle, surrounded by red sand and a huge blue grey sky, waiting to cross the road.

Dingo - Mereenie Loop Road
We find another horse beside the road, but this one never made it safely over.  Birds of prey – at least two Wedge Tailed Eagles and three or four Kites – gather around and on the carcass.  A U turn brings us back towards them, but they take to the air before I can focus.  They all seem heavy bellied with food, grateful for a feed of carrion.  It’s not prime beef; but things seldom are.   The left flank of the horse is open to the sky and piano key ribs show pale through the bright red flesh.  Kites drift in thermal circles above the car; the eagles are nowhere to be seen.  It would be good to retreat to a modest distance and see if the birds return.  My family think otherwise and we move off; the dust soon obscures the view back.

A few rain spots slick the windscreen.  The dust clogs to a red paste on the wipers.  Remarkably we pass two riders on bicycles, peddling in low gear up a hill we are descending.  I hope that the horse does not smell too bad.

By a shallow roadside pool a yellow, thin-faced dog lifts its head from drinking and looks towards us.  The dingo stays still, unfazed by the car or the camera long shots.  For a while we watch it watching us.  It dips its head for a final drink and turns tail to leave.  Looking back over its shoulder it trots into the stringy looking vegetation.   And then it’s gone; just like that.  Dingoes are a pest to some, and icon to others.  The wolf at the door or the spirit of the wild, hunting in the gaps between bush and sand and growing in the fertile ground of our imagination.  

Kings Canyon
We keep driving; past parrot trees and magpie trees; past flocks of small, fast moving finches and slow moving hawks, turning circles, drifting overhead.  There are ghosts of last summer’s fires everywhere.  Blackened stalks, fallen trees and stones scorched blue-brown by the flames.  It’s an open landscape, which for all its grandeur and scale, is rather dispiriting in this form.  And strangely it’s also a landscape I don’t recognise at all, despite having been here before.  The last time I drove down this road, it was in a car, which despite its design features was more suitable to supermarket car parks than unmade roads.  I think the fear of the crocodile must have been upon me, for all memory of that journey is lost – apart from the name of the car and a clear understanding that should we drive down this road again, we would not do it an a car called “Donald”.  

I notice a straight line across the road ahead.  It’s a fence.  The tyres buzz over a cattle grid and a near silence descends as we drive back onto the welcoming grippy smoothness of the tarmac.  We have reached the Watarrka National Park, and a little further on we turn off the road near Kings Canyon.  The accommodation is both a destination and waypoint on the road to the Centre, but we will stop for a couple of days.

Kings Canyon
Predictably, unpacking the car triggers a light sprinkle of rain.  We shuffle bags between car and rooms and settle in, ears still tuned to the background buzz of the road.   Burnt bushes and soil lie within a short stones throw of our door.  The nature trail behind the hotel is ashen and empty.  Last summer a fire came and almost took this place away. A fire the size of a county or a small country burnt for day after day, and stopped here only through a combination of good luck and hard work.  As ever, the kettle sings in the room, and the kids search for biscuits. It seems implausible that this place could have been lost; but in Australia there are few places safe from the fingers of summer fire

We eat dinner to the sound of band of such unifying badness that even the kids agree it’s rubbish.  Such a singularity of musical appreciation is becoming rare these days, as H explores his own musical tastes and P embraces her inner disco queen. P is called up on stage where she is given a plastic violin and a broken bow.  Ever a natural, she hams it up.  On returning to the table she delivers a line so cutting that it makes her father proud!  Well-handled sarcasm in the hands of a befreckled eight year old is a wonder to behold.  She complains her dinner is cold, but firmly rejects H’s offer to eat it for her.  We walk out into a star bright night, and shiver a little in the cold.

Clouds and rain must have slipped in overnight; the morning sky is a pale, listless grey and the ground around the parked cars is ring fenced with red mud.  The quality of the staff at breakfast is superior to the systems they are asked to operate.  The kettle runs out of hot water.  The plates are stacked away from the food and the buffet trays are largely empty.  Some people complain. Others recognise a group of underpaid staff are doing the best they can.  The serial complainers point out that there are no cornflakes. By any stretch of imagination the breakfast is not tasty, but the behaviour of some of the other guests is completely tasteless.  The whole family are nevertheless happy that the band from last night seems to still be asleep.

Kings Canyon
It’s only a short drive to the entrance of Kings Canyon.  In one of those annoying coincidences almost everybody seems to be arriving in the car park at the same time – the delayed early risers, the hurried and breakfastless and a coach group that seems to have banned the wearing of natural fibre clothing, but encourages the possession of wide brimmed hats and walking poles. 

After a few hundred metres of mingling with the crowd we reach a decision point.  We either head along the floor of the canyon, or break off left, up a steep looking ridge that rushes out towards us.  It’s not really a decision, as we are already committed to the ridge.  Thankfully the majority of walkers choose the canyon floor – and we part ways from throng and head steeply upwards.  The metallic clinking of walking poles recedes into the distance, keeping perfect time with a column of bobbing hats.

From the decision point the floor of the canyon doglegs away from us, so a spur coming in from the other side of the canyon hides the steep walls for which it is famous.  This is a walk that opens up only as you proceed, keeping its secrets for at least a little while.  Rough, well-worn steps wiggle up the spur.  The kids jump between some of the steps, just because they can.  I stop to take photographs, just because I can.  Sal walks to the top without stopping, just because she can.  We gather at the top, just off the path, for jelly snakes and water.  From here you can see miles in one direction, and not far in the other.  The walls of the canyon are clearly visible now, sheer and red.  Patches of birdlime pockmark the faces, like climber’s chalk left by giant’s fingers.  I watch for birds from the nest sites, but none seem to be at home.

Ancient ripple marks
Once we arrive at the top of the steps most to the uphill for the day is behind us.  The path skirts the top of the canyon, sometimes coming close the edge, often staying a discreet distance from the drop.  Small rises and deep thin cracks make the path weave far from the straight and narrow, but this roughness hides the other walkers on the trail.  Apart from the occasional glimpse of people on the path ahead, you could be on your own.  The illusion is not really helped by the frequent, but not unwelcome, presence of painted arrows on the rock.  And while the information boards and rescue radio stations hardly add to the sense of wilderness, this would be no place for unconstructed wandering. 

In places you can see the marine origin of the rocks.  Lain down in the depth of an ancient ocean, laid down a sand grain at a time.  And now being worn away, crack by crack, fragment by fragment.  Standing on solid rock marked with the gentle ripple patterns of an eon old sea focuses the mind in a remarkable fashion.  The same forces as today shaped the sea all those years ago.  The same processes that made this ancient landscape are still at work.  It took geologists years to work out that the present was the key to the past – and if you ever wanted to see evidence for this simple, but important idea you could do worse than come to Kings Canyon.  All that was missing from the rocks to be today’s beach resort was the smell of chips, the call of the gulls and the embarrassed posturing of teenage boys as they try to talk to holidaying girls. 

Battered looking gum trees, pale stemmed against the fevered red stone, wiggle their roots down through splinter cracks in the quest for water.  Ancient plants, the ghosts of an older wetter Australia, hide from the sunlight in wider cracks and darkened corners.  Cycads that fed the dinosaurs linger here.  We reach the head of the canyon, and have to head downhill, down metal steps with a convenient handrail and non-slip surfaces. This end of the canyon is called the Garden of Eden, and the safe steps mean it’s not a paradise for lawyers and ambulance chasers.

Down in the base of the gorge the air is cooler – it would be a relief to be here in the summer – and a still, deep looking, water hole is half hidden under an overhang of rock.  Branches reach out over the water.  Wind blown vees cut over the surface of the water – in other places I would have thought of fish, but here, that seems unlikely.  It takes no imagination at all to understand why this place could be held as special; harder in fact to understand how it could possibly be considered mundane.  Finches call from the treetops. Water drips, silver, slippery, almost silent, from the rock.  The metal steps ring hollow as we climb up the far face, back towards the rim of the canyon.

Kings Canyon
Looking down from the rim the Garden of Eden lives up to its name.  A canopy of green shades the red rock.  Below the sharp razor drawn cliff face the plants are a soft, pliable coat of life in an otherwise barren looking scene.  Across the canyon maw people walk close to the edge, seemingly unaware of the drop a trip step from where they stand.  We sit safely distant, excitingly close, to the edge, and to the sounds of voices from the Eden below we eat a midday snack of apple.

You really can hear the edge calling, inviting you to look down the face of red rock that makes this place famous.  From the other side of the gorge it looks like it’s smooth, marked by horizontal lines that never quite make it to being ledges.  In the centre of the face there is a bulge of rock, pushed beyond the vertical by the pressure from behind.  It’s a remarkable sight / site, showing how time and the slow processes of nature can form the seemingly miraculously.

Neither H nor I can resist the call of the face.  We take off our bags, lie on the ground and worm wiggle out towards the edge.  Space opens underneath us as our head and shoulders pass over the event horizon of the edge.  Even with almost all of my body resting on solid ground I feel a strange sense of gravity. The pull, pull, pull of height battles with the sense of solid safety that comes up through the ground.  H squeaks in an excited way.  Nothing but air between our heads and the ground.  Nothing between us and a sense of security but the imagination of falling.  We worm back towards our bags and solid geology.

We arrive back at the car, back to the start point of our circle walk.  Back from the edge. Back from the top.

Kings Canyon