Uluru, more than a rock


Uluru, NT (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

In 1967 my grandmother was living with us. She was 84 and had one bucket list item left and that was to climb Ayers Rock, as Uluru in the heart of Australia was then known. Dad bought tickets for us to tour the Red Centre which of course included Ayers Rock. But fate had it in for Nanna and she was hospitalizedwith cancer. In those days cancer could best be described as another word for death but Nanna clung to life tenaciously. As the date for the trip neared a discussion was held with the doctor. Nanna certainly wouldn’t be leaving hospital but as she was stable we may as well take trip before things got worse, after all it was only a two week trip.

We’re talking 1967 and the trip involved driving the trusty Holden from Melbourne to Adelaide via the Coorong with me in the back ogling at the straightest stretches of road I had ever seen in all of my 18 years. A brief stay in Adelaide where once again we marveled this time at the concrete, I say concrete, power poles. Wow this place sure is different (I might mention that Nanna’s name happened to be Adelaide). We then joined the tour bus to take us up the Stuart Highway to Alice Springs. Highway is a bit of a misnomer as in those days it was a dirt road, a very long dirt road, a thousand miles (1532kms) of corrugated dirt road through red dirt and gibber (small stones) plains.

Stuart ‘Highway’

Where toilet stops became “ladies to the left and gents to the right” as we squatted over the hot desert sand. Overnight stays were at the old Kingoonya Pub and the opal mining town of Coober Pedy which in those days was rather ‘wild west’ but very friendly and of course like today the population of Coober Pedy lived underground. Up the highway we pressed on in sunny weather with not a cloud in the sky, except for the trail of dust behind us, until we stopped for the night at a station called Victory Downs just over the Northern Territory border.

Word came through on the two way radio that the highway was closed due to flooding and the mighty Finke River north of us which is a dustbowl for most of the year was in flood and of course there was no bridge. To explain this phenomenon; when it rains in the wet season in Queensland a vast network of normally dry creeks and rivers carry the water in a south westerly direction almost a third of a continent away to the usually dry Lake Eyre.

What could we do? Nothing. Two busloads of tourists hunkered down in the dust for three days. Each day we walked in a different direction as far as we could go and never once did we see a beast so we had no idea what they bred there, cattle or sheep.  Though these days a quick Google search reveals that the answer is cattle. We even made the newspapers back home “tourists stranded in Central Australia”.

Victory Downs Station, NT

When we were given the go ahead to leave it was too late to visit Ayers Rock as that would have been a return drive of 540kms. Heading north we met with a swollen Finke River. Parked in the middle of the road, both bus drivers took off their shoes and walked arm in arm across the river to ensure that it was shallow enough for the buses to cross and off we went once more. This happened on several occasions before we finally reached Alice.

Crossing one of the rivers, note the chains on the ‘local’ bus
Can we make it across this one?

Awaiting our arrival was the news that, when we should have been at Ayers Rock, Nanna had passed away. My parents hurriedly caught a flight back to Adelaide and home and left me to finish the trip under the watchful eye of new-found friends. Little did I realise that this experience would kindle a life-long love of travel.

Fast forward to the late 1980’s and Woody had just landed his dream job. He resigned and left immediately as it meant working for an opposition company. It was a Friday afternoon and he had a week’s break ahead before starting the new job. We had a restaurant dinner already planned with friends which became ‘crayfish all round’. Next morning a little under the weather, he came back from the shops to tell me that he had just been to the travel agent (remember those) and booked a holiday but couldn’t remember where to. Needless to say he was somewhat incoherent, it must have been the ‘crayfish’. He happily declared that we were either going to Hamilton Island in Queensland’s Whitsundays or Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. That took a bit of digesting. Right, so it could be the desert or a tropical island, 1600kms apart and not even on the same latitude, at least it should be warm! As the effects of the ‘crayfish’ wore off, he remembered that it was Alice Springs that he’d booked and we’d be staying at the casino and we could fly out to The Rock for a day. I duly went to work on the Monday and hoped like hell that my boss would give me the rest of the week off. My boss, who was also partial to ‘the odd crayfish’ saw the humour in the situation and next morning we were on a flight to the Red Centre.

After checking into the Alice Springs Casino we went into town to book a flight out to ‘The Rock’ only to be told that “no one does that anymore” but that it was possible to take a one day return bus trip. We were warned that the day would be very long, 470kms each way, and to bring our own food as there was nothing available anywhere. We booked the tour and asked the casino to pack us a hamper for the trip.

Early next morning our ‘hamper’ appeared and was so large that it had to be stowed underneath the bus in the cargo area. There was enough food to feed almost the busload, at least we wouldn’t go hungry. We had barely hit the highway (which by this time was a good bitumen road) when we stopped to visit a camel farm and roadhouse for morning tea! So much for the lack of food. After several more stops and food at Erldunda and Curtin Springs we arrived at ‘The Rock’ close to lunch time. We took one look at the awe inspiring Uluru, its steepness and the multitude of plaques to those climbers who’d plunged to their deaths and decided on a walking tour of the caves and Aboriginal rock art around the base. After we’d had lunch of course. Late in the night we returned to our accommodation, utterly exhausted but at least we still had left overs to munch on. What a day, we’d finally seen The Rock.

Fast Forward again, this time we’re caravanners and it’s 2015. We’re at Katherine in the Northern Territory after having driven up the West Coast. We’ve got plans to visit Darwin then head south to spend some time exploring Alice and ‘The Rock’ on our way home. We’re enjoying Katherine a little too much and really aren’t in any hurry. We decide to spend a morning climbing up to Edith Falls about 60kms out of town and it is truly magnificent. The boulders are slippery and I constantly berate Woody for wearing ‘stupid’ sandals instead of hiking boots and we swim in the rock pool below the gushing falls. The walk back down is easy on a well-made rock pathway until I lose my footing on a wobbly rock and find myself plopped unceremoniously on my bum only a few hundred metres from the car park. By late afternoon I’m propelling myself out of Katherine hospital on crutches with a broken ankle and not a care in the world.

When the drugs wear off Woody declares that its time that we went home for rest, recovery and physio. A couple of days later we stop the night at the Uluru turnoff down at Erldunda Roadhouse, with one injured leg propped on a camp chair I gaze out at the red sand hills saddened that this is as close as we’re going to get to ‘The Bloody Rock’ …this time.

Crossing the Finke in 2015, even with a leg in plaster it’s a soda.

30 thoughts on “Uluru, more than a rock

  1. In 1968 I went on a bus trip from Adelaide to Uluru and Kings Canyon. I was so disappointed that instead of seeing the rock glowing in the sunset we saw waterfalls flowing over it in all directions. Must have been a couple of wet years or maybe we both struck the only rain in the area for those years.


    1. It’s funny what we expect isn’t it? The time we got there (with the enormous lunch) there was water cascading off in parts and I was thrilled I only wish I could find those photos. On the very first misadventure though the Todd was flowing and as I returned there was water in Lake Eyre a sight I’ll never forget.


  2. It just means yet another place still to visit – is good to have a “to do” list. Add Kings Canyon to that, too! It seems that the climb of Ayers Rock is definitely being closed soon.


      1. The times we’ve spent at Yulara, I’ve found the walk around the base to be engrossing. Worth doing twice – once in each direction, because it looks different each way. Then when it is wet, is very different again. The Valley of the Winds walk at the Olgas also brilliant. I look forward to your comments when you do get to Kings Canyon.


  3. Fabulous story, absolutely loved it. Your first trip sounds like it would make a delightful film. Shame you didn’t make it on that occasion though, at least you saw it eventually.


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