The Drive to Uluru

March 1, 2014 | 5 minute read | By Kevin Read

There are only two instructions you need to navigate the 450 kilometer journey to Uluru from Alice Springs, the nearest major town: drive 190km and turn right. I leave town at 2 O’clock on a Friday afternoon, camera on the seat beside me with a change of clothes and 20 liters of water. Dusty red plains stretch out in every direction and the road cuts a thin line reaching to the distant horizon in front of me. I’d been in Australia for a week, but this was my first opportunity to get into the outback and explore.

The highway is simple and narrow, a lane in each direction with nothing separating them from each other or the raw desert either side. There’s not much vegetation to sway in the breeze in this remote area of Australia, and not much breeze either; the vast distance to the horizon and the huge sky overhead makes the stillness more absolute. What life there is stays motionless in the heat of the day, buried underground or hidden in the scrub. The landscape is paused until sunset.

It’s hard to find urgency in the outback, but today is a race against the clock. Years of photography causes an obsession over light and, after delays and procrastination, I had left just enough time to reach Uluru as the sun would be dropping to the horizon, casting horizontal colors on the landscape. The red shades that makes this place so distinctive are more pronounced at the end of each day. There would be another one tomorrow, but I hate to miss a sunset.

Occasionally, a car will appear on the horizon in front of me and grow steadily larger until we pass in a flurry of dust. Every so often it’s a road train instead: 200 tonnes of metal and freight hurtling towards me in the form of a truck pulling 3 trailers across the desert. When they pass, inches away, I grip the steering wheel tightly and wrestle to keep the car in a straight line against the wind.

At the one junction on the journey, I stop to restock on fuel and snacks. The air outside is dry and breathless, the tin roof of a shelter clicking in the heat with panting dogs resting in the shade. This little bit of civilization makes me feel even more remote, hundreds of miles from towns and cities, the coast, other countries, other people. I wonder what it would be like to live here with the dust and the flies and the sun. Thousands of tourists pass this way each year, as well as the road trains plying the route between Adelaide in the South and Darwin on the North coast, but it must still be a lonely place, everyone you see from far away, or going there.

The shadows are already getting longer when I continue, the road now running West towards the dipping sun. The landscape starts to develop more features; a shallow canyon running alongside the road, lone hills scattered in the distance. Australia’s Red Center is not all the barren landscape you might imagine. There are towering cliffs to be found here, deep gorges, rare plant life and hundreds of years of aboriginal history. Uluru is the biggest draw in the region with around 400,000 people a year finding their way to this faraway area of the world to see it.

Uluru is not the biggest rock in the world; it’s not even the biggest rock in Australia. It’s also not the tallest rock, the widest or the oldest. But I’m not making this journey in search of superlatives. So what am I doing here? At times, when preparing for this trip, it seemed like the worst kind of travel list-ticking. I’d not heard direct accounts from people or been inspired by some travel article about the reasons to come. Uluru just is; I don’t remember a time I didn’t know about it, when I didn’t see a picture of it and think ‘Australia’ or think about Australia and not picture the rock. Visiting Uluru was inevitable: something not to be missed without any firm reason not to miss it.

I had missed it on a previous visit to Australia, where I stuck to the East coast to visit the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney. That time, I was never closer than a plane ride away, but this trip was taking me to Australia’s Northern Territory and not going to Uluru would have been almost as deliberate as going there. I’m 9500 miles from home and 200 more from one of the most famous sights in the world and if it doesn’t live up to it’s world renown then at least it will be a good place to watch a sunset.

And I do make it for sunset, finally pulling in to a lookout already filled with people waiting for it. Uluru is a long way in the distance to the East, separated from me by a mile of low trees and a wire fence, lined with people holding cameras. Its shape is familiar, like I visited a long time ago but lost the original memory. Geologically, Uluru is an inselberg, an ‘island mountain’, and it is a mesmerizing sight, sitting alone on the surrounding flat land like it has been painted into the scene.

The sun is setting behind me. When it gets low enough the color of the rock changes perceptibly from a dusty brown to a glowing red, and the sky above fades to darker blues. The outback is less intimidating at dusk, the colors more vivid and the heat less oppressive. Once you’ve been in it for a few days, it’s easy to forget how special this landscape is, and how alien. The birds are exotic and colorful. The animals are strange and often deadly. Although the colors are muted during the day, they change with the light in combinations which are uniquely Australian.

I’d started my journey with a sense of barren, inhospitable wilderness, but there is much more to this place than heat, dust and sun. Tomorrow, I’d learn more about the origins of this landscape and the history of the people who have lived here, and I would get to explore the area on foot to see Uluru up close. Later tonight I’d worry about locating my bed for the night. For now, though, I could relax. After driving hundreds of miles to be here, there was nothing left to do but stand in the desert and watch.

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One response to “The Drive to Uluru”

  1. Arielle says:

    Love this Lucas! Interesting to read your thoughts on my beautiful country.

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