It's rough. The soil is hard and red, soft and warm at the same time. The shades of the rock are not really calming at all, nothing refreshing like the shade of a tree or a market umbrella. This is the center of Australia, this is aboriginal Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, its British name. We had to pick only a few destinations, as five weeks in the vast continent is nowhere long enough to see it all, and the rock in the middle of the desert was definitely on our list of places to see.
We arrived in Australia after an exhausting Miami-Los Angeles-Brisbane flight that took some 22 hours door-to-door. We left on a Wednesday and did not get there until Friday, we lost a Thursday - just like that, one day less in our lives. We ate breakfast, lunch, dinner, breakfast again, lunch again, dinner again - to arrive at 7 a.m. in Australia, just after dinner, plane dinner that is.
We had diner in California, lunch on Hawaii time, then lunch again in the Fiji sky, and diner over the Coral Sea, I think, before landing in Australia at dawn.
I knew before I booked out tickets that it was better to fly into Brisbane, coming from California, as opposed to the Sydney airport, which has a terrible reputation of keeping you through customs for hours at the time - sometimes 3-4 hours, on top of what feels like a decade you just spent flying to get over the great big ocean, you are still not quite arrived if you fly into Sydney. Brisbane was also on the way to the Great Barrier Reef where we wanted to start our adventure.
Arriving at the Brisbane airport , before we got our luggage, we were friendly sniffed by the cutest Beagle dog wearing a fitted red shinny leather uniform coat with the words CUSTOMS on it. The agile little thing stopped me and made me sit on a bench. I thought it was love and he wanted a hug. It was not love, it was business. The border officer sternly told me NOT to pet him. After the search, it just happened that I had a couple of almonds in the bottom of my carry-on backpack, and that was definitely a no-no in this country.
I was aware of the food restrictions imposed by the agricultural police, and we had already dumped apples and oranges served in flight before exiting the plane, but those two little almonds were cleverly snugged between my lipsticks and my pens, and I just completely forgot about them both, until now. The nagging little dog, no longer so cute, had smelled them, and because they were fresh, instead of roasted or coated, they could have prevented me from entering the country, seriously.
The stern custom officer abruptly told me that I was faced with AU$100 fine, or even could have been sent straight back home in the next plane, for immigration infringement, but he was going to let it go for this time, as they probably are also told to be nice to tourists. The little canine had a look of fulfilled joy on its face, as if to say BUSTED! Welcome to Australia!
Our hotel was gracious enough to give us our room at 10 a.m. when we arrived there, and after shading out winter boots and down jackets, we started our first day at the sauna/hammam in the basement. And then, in the middle of December, we were able to dress again like it was Miami in June! The wonders of South and North hemisphere weathers were good to us. It was 80 degrees right here right now, or 26 Celsius, as they like to call it down under. And since I am French, I also know my Celsius.
After spending a few days in Brisbane, we flew directly to Alice Springs, where you have to go to visit the red rock at Uluru. The three-hour flight with Qantas Air was around AU$330 round trip and was offered with a small enough airplane that we could see the desert underneath our wings as a continuous stream of brownish velvet sand with the occasional rock or dune, and the ever changing shadow of the plane wings on the surface of the Earth below.
The view was mostly spectacular, even though nothing was there. Being in the center of Australia, far from any other cities, the air is so pure that when we landed we could see the ripples of air created by the airplane in the sky. Its blue here is not like the Miami blue sky, it's a more whitish blue, a soft baby blue, overexposed like a milky faded photograph of the 1970s.
The bus took us to the real place we so wanted to see: Uluru, the majestic red rock in the center of the huge continent. It is a sacred place for the Aboriginals around, they respect and care for the monolith as if it was a person, almost a deity. They sing to it, talk to it, adore it, and use it as the father figure of their ancestral culture. They say it should not be climbed on, and I insisted that we did not, while many tourists still do, despite the polite request of the tribes around.
The rock sticks out of the landscape like a huge monolith of crimson dust. The horizon is so flat that it seems like the rock had sprouted from the underlying coats of melted fire to dry as soon as it hit the air, and was forever frozen in its state of in-your-face gigantic mountain. You know when you go to the Grand Canyon, you never really see it until you are almost at its edge, because it is a hole in the ground, a crevasse on the surface of the Earth. Uluru is not like that - Uluru. you can see it from everywhere, from a very long distance, for hours before you reach it.
The location in the desert has five hotels to offer, from simple tents accommodations to luxurious four-star-like hotels, even though they do not use the star system here. We had opted for third category, out of five, thinking that it would probably be plenty of comfort for the two nights we were going to spend there. The room was really pretty, orange and white, modern, with the bathroom behind the headboard, shower only, like everywhere in Oz.
The Australians are very eco-friendly, especially when it comes to water, which they severely lack - not of the salt ocean kind, but of the fresh sort. And this is one of the reason their immigration policy is so restrictive to newcomers, as no water = no life = fewer humans allowed to immigrate. They have space but no water. Until somebody discovers a machine to turn ocean water into fresh water, their problem will continue.
We took a little walk around the resort, in the maroon dust and brownish shrubs, but were warned about the large spiders coming out at dusk, so we retired promptly back into the safety of the hotels grounds. We came prepared with solid Timberlands hiking boots, but still we chose not to confront snakes and other nocturnal beasts.
The temperature was fast dropping in the desert and the warm air was becoming chilly. By the time we returned to our room to settle down for the night, it was close to 30 degrees outside, a 50 degrees drop from the daytime heat. And then we discovered that our room had no heat of any kind. After walking back to the front reception desk, in another building, we were given extra blankets, a cup of tea, and a few words about saving energy, with a kind look of empathy from the concierge. We huddled fully dressed the whole night long.
To be continued next week.