As we hike around and visit different parts of the national parks, we are also learning about the many stories that are attached to places of significant for the Aboriginal people. It is fascinating to contrast the scientific explanations with the creation stories that surround them. The stories illustrate beautifully the close and intertwined relationship that the Aboriginal people have with the land, their respect for it and the sense of spirituality that permeates that bond as well.
Day 1 camping - A long drive brought us to Watarrka or King's Canyon as it used to be called. After an initial steep climb up the aptly named "Heartattack Hill", we hiked for a couple of hours around the rim of the canyon. Matt taught us about the three main plants found in the desert and what their uses were - spinifex grass, the mulga tree and desert oak.
The first night of camping involved teamwork and we had a chance to experience a genuine bush camp. We first stopped to gather firewood where the whole group pitched in to make sure we had enough for the fire which was not just for cooking but also our heat for the night. Our campsite was literally out in the bush, not a campground, so with no lights in the vicinity the night sky was spectacular. The lack of plumbing was more than offset by being able to see the Milky Way the whole night while we slept under the stars. Dinner was cooked over the fire and included kangaroo tail which was roasted by burying it in the sand with hot coals. Personal note - it tasted like the dark meat from a turkey. It was a memorable experience, probably in different ways, for many of us.
Day 2 camping - Matt woke us up the next morning at 4:30 a.m. to begin our day. Waking up to the Hobbit theme music from Lord of the Rings in the middle of the Australian Outback before dawn - probably left some of us feeling a bit disoriented! We then drove on to Kata Djuta-Uluru National Park to see the two most famous rock formations there.
Kata Djuta means "many heads" in the Ptijanjanjara language. It consists of 36 domes formed from conglomerate. The domes are of different shapes and sizes and are inclined at a slight 15 degree angle. The formations encompass an area of 36 square km and are remarkable to look at from any vantage point. We had the opportunity to hike on one of the trails going through them, the Valley of the Winds, and were able to see the different colors, striations and textures of the rock up close.
After that it was time to head to Uluru or Ayers Rock as it used to be called. Uluru is a sacred place of great significance and meaning to the Anangu. Many of the stories surrounding Tjupurka - their creation story - center on Uluru. It is the world's largest monolith - to give a sense of its scale, the walk around its base is over 7km long. Made of sandstone, it is actially a greyish colour but the presence of iron expoed to air and water over several millennia, gives it that distinctive rusty hue.
We started our journey with a visit to the cultural centre where we learned about the Tjurkupa of Uluru. We then went on a short walk known as the Mala walk where our education on the meaning and relevance of many of the stories continued.
We saw some cave paintings which were likely at least 5000 years old depicting various images of significance to the Anangu way of life. We even sat in what is speculated to be used as a kitchen with little round niches in the stone used for storage, smoothed out from thousands of years of fingers reaching into those spaces to grab ingredients (including ours).
I have to digress for a minute to talk about something that we all noticed almost as soon as we started the walk. All over the Centre there were signs explaining the significance of Uluru to the Anunga people and why it was considered sacred, asking people to not climb the rock for those reasons. Yet the first thing we saw when we got to Uluru was a line of people, looking like ants because of how far they were, walking on sacred ground so they could say they had 'climbed The Rock'. Needless to say this was upsetting for many of the students and we spent some time deconstructing that experience.
After the Mala walk we watched the sun set over Uluru while Matt and Sky whipped up a delicious stir fry dinner and then it was time to set up night two of bush camp. This second camp was at a campground in Yulara near Uluru which is utilised by other tour groups as well. I have to describe our entry as it will likely be one of the most memorable moments of the trip for many of us.
Our guide Mattt was combination disc jockey/chef/driver/geologist/anthropologist and everything in between. He has an incredible playlist of songs on his phone that he played the entire time we were on the bus. He had a unique talent for picking songs that were suited for the moment. There is a healthy competition amongst the different tour guides and Matt wanted us to make an entrance when we arrived at the camp grounds where the other groups had already set up. So we blew by the other groups in our bus (whose name was Sheila), windows rolled down, music blaring, everyone on the bus singing as loudly as we could to the music of Queen's "We Will Rock You" followed by "We are the Champions". If I had to pick a single memorable moment from the entire trip - that would be it.
Day 3 camping - The next morning we woke early again to watch the sun rise at Uluru which was even more magnificent than sunset. Warning - we saw many sunrises and sunsets so be prepared and suitably impressed when the students want to share them with you.
We then commenced the remainder of our walk around the base of Uluru. Matt told us some more creation stories and we got to see some of the rock formations and markings that corresponded to those. We also saw another amazing set of cave paintings depicting symbols and objects from Aboriginal life.
From Uluru we started our long journey back towards Alice Springs where we stopped for more supplies and then headed out for our last night of camping at Glen Helen Gorge in the West MacDonnell ranges. The West Macs as they are known, are a mountain range that once used to be as high as the Himalyas but have been eroded over time to where the tallest peak is now about 1500m. 350 million years ago, an upheaval in the earth's crust caused many of the layers of different minerals and rocks that had been compressed over time, to rise closer to the surface horizontally so they they are visible and distinct in the rock.
Day 4 camping - After our last night of camping under the stars, we started our exploration with a pre-dawn breakfast to watch the sun rise over the West Macs. We then took a short hike through Ormiston Gorge. Perhaps the most meaningful part of that was a 30 minute discussion we had with Matt at the top of our hike on various questions the students had about Aboriginal issues. Matt had the opportunity to spend some time hunting with 4 Aboriginal men and had a deep appreciation, understanding and insight into their culture that he was willing to share with us, even on topics that would normally be considered difficult. We were so fortunate to have him as our guide.
After lunch and an opportunity for a refreshing dip at a water hole we stopped at the Ochre Pits. This area is of significance to the Arrente people of the region and there is a hefty penalty for ignoring the warning signs and touching or removing the ochre from the area. Ochre is a soft chalky substance that was used by Aboriginals for painting. The cave paintings that we saw at Uluru were done using ochre, possibly from this area. Since there are only a few sites in Australia where ochre is found it was a valuable commodity and was heavily traded as well. Most of the colours ranged from a rust coloured orangey red to yellow and white.
Our last stop was the Standley Chasm which is a spectacular rock formation carved out of the mountain where we spent time inspecting the geology of the rocks and taking many photographs.
Then it was time to head back to Alice and our four day adventure was complete. It was a bitter-sweet return; Matt appropriately played Green Day's "Time of Your Life" but we got to see Marr and Sky one more time. After getting cleaned up the whole group met for dinner. Our guides had prepared a quiz for us which we took in groups and I'm proud to say we all did well. Woven into the adventure and fun there was a lot of learning that took place. It was a fitting and satisfying ending to this remarkable experience.