For anyone travelling through the centre of Australia, Uluru (Ayer's Rock) will surely be one of the highlights. It is the icon of the Outback. Getting there was a detour which would add a week to my Australia crossing, but after several thousand kilometrers of nothing, a week of cycling to look at a big rock seemed a pretty good deal. At the end of the day, what difference does an extra 600 kilometres make?
After several days of cycling, noteworthy only because of the wind which determined to push Jaimi and I back the way we had come, we got our first glimpse of Uluru. A huge mountain broke the horizon, coloured that red so synonymous with the outback. It rose with a grand prominence over the bush, and it was eye-catching and it... wasn't Uluru. A quick check of the map showed that Uluru was 100 kilometres away, and we were actually looking at Mount Conner. We were not the first to make this mistake; so many tourists with brains addled by the heat and endless sand-scape have confused the two landmarks that Mount Conner has gained the nickname, 'Fool-uru'. It turns out, Uluru is actually one of three bizarre geological features (The Three Tors) which emerge incongruously out of the desert plains. Three for the price of one!
We ate lunch soaking in a pool of shade, admiring the flat-top of Mount Conner when a car pulled up and a man marched over, 'Do you want my tickets for Uluru? They're still valid for three days.' Silly question, of course we wanted the tickets! We thanked him for saving us $50. The tickets had only been bought an hour before; he obviously hadn't been very impressed by it!
That evening we agreed to finish for the day and dragged our bikes from the road and through the desert, sinking into warm sand with every step. There were no cars on the road, but if there had been, the noise of engines would have faded behind us, lost to the silence of the void. We reached a sand-dune – it took both of us to heave one bike to the top, before returning to bring the other – and at last, we had found it... the camping spot dreams are made of. It was just us and Uluru (and it actually was Uluru this time).
Dinner was rice and tuna for the 5th day in a row, but tonight it tasted better, somehow. Sunset was a performance for an audience of just two, and we were captivated by the shadows which danced through the gullies and spread across ripples in the wall. The rock absorbed the final embers of the sun and became increasingly red, until I was certain it would burst into flame any moment. “We're so lucky.” I said to Jaimi. “Yep.” she agreed absent-mindedly, as if I was distracting her from the rock. “The luckiest people in the world”, I whispered to myself. I cheered for an encore, but the sun had gone. Night arrived, draping a black veil over the stage.
On the bikes the next morning, we never seemed to get any closer to Uluru, we just shrank further beneath it. Jaimi was ahead of me and lent some perspective to the scene, the rock was really, really big. It dwarfed her. We cycled a loop of the base, a giant 10 kilometre trip around one rock. It adopted a different appearance from every angle, and wasn't smooth as I had expected, but full of perfect imperfections; like an unironed T-shirt it was crumpled, and black scars of algae trickled down the creases where waterfalls have bloomed after heavy rains of years-gone-by. A rockfall revealed an brain-looking texture, and one part seemed to have been subjected to a drunken attack by a construction worker with a digger.
The base of the rock thrust from the ground like a crashing wave, and hid caves which have provided a shelter for generations of the local Pitjantjatjara indigenous tribe. Even I sought refuge here, and squeezed under one of Uluru's caves to escape the harsh sun. I found myself in a cave blackened by smoke from campfires, and the walls were a canvas, scrawled with ancient paintings retelling stories of epic hunts. I closed my eyes and immediately felt the warmth as the camp-fire reignited. I listened to the crack of wood, and the guttural chatter of aboriginal conversation which filled the cave, as they tucked into a feast at the end of a day. This rock had watched over thousands of years of human history, simple lives completely attuned to the unforgiving landscape. It really is a sacred place.
It is an amazing feeling to arrive by bike. Particularly somewhere like Uluru which you have seen a thousand times in photographs. The effort to get there and the days of anticipation offer a sensation incomparable to arriving by car. It had been a journey – a sandy and windy one – but that first glimpse alone, had justified the 600 kilometre detour.