Post 21 of a series detailing our Australian adventure. Access the full series here.
Today was possibly the most momentous, and definitely the most challenging, day of our trip to Australia: the day we would walk around the base of Uluru in the scorching Red Centre.
We knew we had to set off early, as on previous days the Base Walk had been shut from 11am due to it being too hot and thus too dangerous to attempt it. Today was forecast to reach temperatures exceeding 40°C. After filling ourselves up on Desert Garden Hotel’s amazing breakfast spread, we jumped in the car, drove to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and reached the Mala carpark just in time to join the 8am ranger-guided Mala walk.
This was another fantastic free activity, in which one of the experienced park rangers led a large group on a short walk along a portion of Uluru, stopping at various points to explain the significance and the stories behind different caves and sections of the rock, in addition to elements of the local Aboriginal people’s culture and lifestyle. It was especially fascinating to learn the meaning of the symbols used in the cave drawings, and how Aboriginal parents would teach their children to survive off the land through hunting and scavenging.
In retrospect, as brilliant as the guided walk was it probably made what came next that little bit harder! It was past 9.30am by the time the walk finished and already very, very hot. Pushing my apprehension to the back of my mind, I followed Steve to the start of the Base Walk and we began our trek – bypassing a warning sign that said the walk would be shut from 10am…
The Base Walk
We began the walk at possibly the most boring section of it: a very long, wide, flat road running alongside the rock at a fair distance. The space between us and the rock was filled with spiny bushes and trees, partially obscuring our view. This road seemed to go on for a very long time, but my excitement to get closer to the rock later kept my enthusiasm up. The couple pushing a baby in a pram in front of us wisely turned back around after a distance, clearly deciding it was too hot for a baby (it was in fact too hot for me). As we pushed on, the lack of any shade whatsoever from the harsh, burning sunlight became an increasing worry. But there was no turning back now.
We were glad when the path began to narrow and curve back toward Uluru, enabling us to see the rock up-close and interact with it. For what is essentially one very large rock, Uluru offers a spectacular variety of unusual and fascinating forms. I was endlessly entranced by its precipitous edges and strange shapes, even as the rising temperature became a distraction. I was compelled to photograph every new composition it offered, yet felt that the wondrous otherworldliness of the scenes was impossible to capture on camera. The colours were just as spectacular: the earth and rocks almost luminously orange, the sky unbelievably blue.
The halfway point – for us an area called Kuniya Pita – had a small shelter with water taps. I fell gratefully onto the shaded bench and revelled in the respite from the sun’s punishing rays. But there was no respite from the heat. The water from the taps was very warm – no cooler than the 2-litre bottles that had been warming in our rucksacks – and thus seemed to offer virtually no refreshment. We refilled our bottles, reapplied our suncream (for probably the third time) and I tried to bargain with Steve to stay in the shade just a little longer. He persuaded me to move by reminding me it would only get hotter the longer we took to complete the walk!
The final half of the walk was undoubtedly the hardest. In fact I’d go so far as to say it was torturous for me, although Steve seemed absolutely fine throughout! It wasn’t the distance – I’ve walked far further than 13 kilometres before without batting an eyelid – but the heat. I could feel my skin sizzling even as I knew getting sunburnt was impossible through the layers of Factor 50 I kept slapping on. The few tiny patches of shade we passed felt like safe havens from the brutal sunlight. I felt so light-headed and exhausted that I was certain I’d collapse from heatstroke at any second, as we’d been warned could happen. Signs we passed, warning that the walks would be closed no more than half an hour after we passed them, convinced me that the danger was genuine; as did the advice on our map to finish walks before 11am (we were still walking at 1.30pm). I worried about how far we were from the closest emergency phone, which Steve would need to use to call out the rescue team for me. On top of that, the gallons of water I’d been drinking (in an attempt to fend off the heatstroke) had accumulated and made me desperate for the toilet – but the closest was back at the car park, still 6 kilometres away. I began pouring water over my head and clothes instead, hoping the evaporation would help cool me down.
Thankfully my fears were unfounded, and we made it back to the Mala car park without passing out! I sat in the dark bathrooms for a very long time afterwards just waiting for my senses to return. The cold water from the taps was blissful. I soaked both my hat and my top in the sink and stood under the cool dryers just to enjoy the cooling sensation. When I finally re-emerged Steve was mystified as to what had taken so long.
It was past 2pm now and we needed food desperately, so drove to the Cultural Centre cafe to buy much-needed ice creams. After a bit of mooching around in the museum’s cool air, we drove back to the resort and dipped into the theatre to watch a performance of an Aboriginal creation story. It was strange but brilliant. There was nothing left to do that afternoon but to relax, so we spent it cooling down in the swimming pool.
The heat had diminished our usually voracious appetites, and it wasn’t until about 8pm that we thought we’d better eat something. Deciding we wanted something simple and easy, we drove to the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge’s takeaway hatch and bought a pizza to share, covered in all the Australian meats: crocodile, kangaroo, wallaby and emu. We ate it on our room’s balcony, enjoying our final night of watching the sun set over the outback.
Looking back at the photos now, I’m really glad that I did the Base Walk – despite how awful I made it sound! There’s no other way to see Uluru’s every fascinating facet and feel that you’ve really experienced it. Just make sure you learn from my mistakes – and definitely avoid doing it in 45°C heat!