107.2FM was the only radio station on the Lasseter Highway. There were no DJs or advertisements, just a collection of obscure American albums that someone cared enough about to share with whoever might be passing through the dusty red landscape.
It was late afternoon by the time we reached Curtin Springs. It was a motel with a gas station and a shop that had as many functions as a Swiss army knife. Jars of pickled snakes and small wooden plaques lined the shelves behind the counter. A TV in the corner of the room was blaring part two of an annual rugby game called State of Origin. The first time I heard the tournament’s name I thought it was an important political address by the Prime Minister.
Although we were in the middle of nowhere, the young staff were all foreigners extending their Working Holiday visas. Citizens of certain countries can stay another year in Australia if they spend three months working in regional Australia. If it wasn’t for this program, places like Curtin Springs would have a very difficult time finding employees to wear their trademark blue and yellow shirt: Ugly staff but top service.
The facility itself was surrounded by a million acre cattle station, all of it owned since 1956 by the Severin family. It was easy to forget the arid land could support a working farm. In fact, the only time I heard a cow was before dawn. A pack of dingoes had surrounded the frightened creature with barred teeth and howls like electric chimes.
Barret, our friends, and I pitched a tent in the Curtin Springs campground and built a small fire to cook our dinner. A tame emu strolled by, pecking around the fringes of our site.
“Hey you guys, guess what band was playing on the only radio station in the outback!”
“You’ll never believe it,” Barret added, “it’s so random.”
It was impossible to guess, so Barret finally shouted out, “Coheed and Cambria- the entire album!”
Turns out there is no ‘underground’ cattle station, only our American friends driving behind us with their iPod radio adapter. I was a little disappointed to hear that.
Just south of Curtin Springs and the Mobil gas station, a large plateau the color of dusty rose punched out of the flat terrain. To the unsuspecting traveler it looked like Uluru, but it was actually a beautiful red herring named Mt Connor.
The real Uluru was smooth, worn, and patterned like a tiger with dot-dot-dash stripes. When the sun began to rise, the bush landscape became two-toned. The tips of the vegetation were rosy-lime-green while the lower portions were blue-jungle-green. A ray of sun struck the monolithic rock and warmed it up like a glowing stove top.
This beautiful landscape first became a national park in 1950. Eight years later the land was taken from the traditional owners, the Anangu, and ownership was only returned in 1985. Since then, ‘Ayer’s Rock’ and ‘The Olgas’ are officially recognized as Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Longstanding cultural traditions, which had been suspended during that period, have also since resumed and contentious issues such as the ‘right to climb Uluru’ are being addressed. While it is legally possible to climb Uluru, it is culturally insensitive and heavily discouraged. The route up the rock is a sacred path taken by a few select Aboriginal men.
Photography is another thorny issue since ‘avoidance tactics’ are traditionally practiced after the death of a person. In the past this meant the deceased’s name was not said, but today it also encompasses photography and film. Obviously this is practiced to varying degrees within the community, but there are a few sacred points around Uluru where photography is prohibited.
Instead of climbing Uluru, our friends and I spent the rest of the day on a circular hike around Kata Tjuta, which means ‘many heads’ in Pitjantjatjara. Unlike the sandstone-composed Uluru, Kata Tjuta is a mosaic of pebbles and rocks cemented together by sand and mud. One of the boulders next to the footpath looked like a geodesic meatball.
The name of the walk was The Valley of the Winds and it cannot be overstated how beautiful the view was when we reached the top of the valley. The hidden oasis was a refreshing pause from the unrelenting sun, and that was the middle of winter!
The following day we drove to Kings Canyon. From ground level, the canyon appears to abruptly end at a sheer cliff face. However, the view from the rim reveals a massive expanse of stupa-like domes. Along the route we saw lizards, honey pot ants, and collected swarms of hitchhiking flies on our backs. The latter is one of those things you just come to accept because it’s just not worth fighting.
The trick to dealing with the flies was to keep moving. Then, when the sun set with a pink halo completely encircling the horizon, the flies just disappeared out of thin air. The red landscape turned to bruised plum and the temperature dropped. The desert might be sparse, but there is life quietly tucked away in every fold and crevice.
About: Curtin Springs
About: Uluru and Kata Tjuta
About: Kings Canyon