“I just can’t believe it,” I yelled over the music the band on the stage was blasting out. They had been flown in from Sydney for the occasion, playing covers from Stevie Wonder to Bruno Mars and doing them fucking well.
“What?” yelled back Paul.
“We’re here, at Ayer’s Rock, dancing to the sounds of a band under the Outback sky. It’s just too surreal.”
“It is!” laughed Paul as the music went up a beat and we danced amongst the rest of the revelers who had turned up for the ball, the after party of the Camel Races.
It all started 738 kms ago. A drive which began from Coober Pedy all the way to Uluru with a break every couple of hours to stretch out the legs. We stopped at Marla, the last town in South Australia before crossing the border into the Northern Territory. It was here that I somehow managed to break the handle of the passenger-side window of my car, leaving Cookie without the ability to open the window.
Learning from our experiences in Coober Pedy, I donned my fly net and headed outside to make myself some peanut butter and honey sandwiches before fueling up at $1.99 per liter.
Our next stop along the desolate A87 highway was Kulgara, a rest stop that was the border between the southern state and the Northern Territory. Along the way we spotted emus, wild horses known as ‘Brumbies’ and wedge-tailed eagles feeding off the carcasses of dead cows and kangaroos.
At Erldunda we took a left onto the Lasseter Highway towards Uluru. We passed Mt Conner which, for some reason, we assumed was Uluru. At Curtain Springs we learned that the owner of the station had buried his dead wife on the mountain top (which was a flat top of rock, kinda like something you’d find in the Utah desert). The Aborigines believe that due to that the mountain has bad spirits and only one tour company takes people up to it.
After fueling up at $2.20 per liter, we continued on the last hundred K’s, passing more cows and sighting our first dingo. Then Uluru greeted us with a red smile as the second largest monolith (the largest being in Western Australia) came into view.
We camped at the only facility available – Ayers Rock resort, located a half hour drive from the national park that housed the monolith.
Ayers Rock was named by Ernest Gilles, an English explorer that also discovered Kings Canyon in 1872. He named the rock after Sir Henry Ayers, governor of South Australia at the time.
“You’re in luck,” said the girl at the reception as we paid the $36 for a tent site. “This weekend we have the Yulara Festival.”
“The what?” I asked.
“The Yulara Festival. It’s the annual camel race. After the races there’s a ball. Frock up and rock up. There’s a free shuttle bus service to take you there. Starts tomorrow night at 8 pm and goes on until 2 am.”
Cookie and I looked at each other. “Good timing,” I grinned.
We pitched the tent and Cookie went off to check out the local market as I made dinner for myself. After driving almost 800 kilometers in one day, all I wanted to do was get some food in me and keep my legs in a standing position for as long as possible.
As fate would have it, a couple were running to catch the sunset on a hilltop behind me. While passing by, the fella called out, “I’ll have two steaks, medium rare,” as I was cooking by the barbecue.
“No worries,” I called back, playing along with the banter while I stirred my tuna pasta in the dish, grinning at them. They came back after the sun had gone.
“I’m Paul,” said Paul. “This is Regina, she’s from Germany.”
We hit it off immediately and I invited them to join me for dinner as I had, “Made too much food.”
They came back to cook their snags and shared their gin and tonic with me as we chatted away. It was evident that we’d become friends as soon as the Schwarzenegger impersonations came out.
“Anyone ever tell you you look like Hugh Jackman in ‘Wolverine’?” Paul said as he looked at me as one does when trying to figure out who you look like.
“A few times,” I said, laughing. “It’s the sideburns.”
We agreed to carpool for the sunrise the next morning. That evening we hit the bar.
Some things are expected when going to a bar in Australia: a bouncer (usually from New Zealand) will have a power trip and decide to not let you in because he thinks you’re drunk even though your just a happy-go-lucky chum. A bartender who’ll ignore you while everyone next to you gets to put their order in and some idiot who always spills their drink – on you.
In the Outback things are a little different. For one thing, the roof was made of tin. Everybody is drunk by 8 pm and the other thing that was a little hard to miss were the two single hump camels being exhibited for the people who had gathered to ‘buy’ a camel – placing a bid for the races the next day. It was the only time you could place a bet on a camel.
Australia is home to the largest population of wild single-hump camels (also known as dromedary), released when the explorers of the 1800s had finished exploring. They also released donkeys and horses, all sustaining themselves and becoming wild animals.
Just as we walked in, one of the camels urinated on the carpet they were standing on. “House-broken, I see,” I said in passing.
We had a few rounds sharing laughs with the locals, getting caught up in the action. One guy bid $900 on a camel.
At 22:30 I called it a night as I wanted to be fresh for the early rise to catch the sun, predicated to light up Uluru at 07:16.
After I brewed my Turkish coffee, we hit the road for the half hour drive to the rock. Paying the $25 for a three-day pass, we entered the national park just as the sun peaked over the horizon, splattering the rock with colours of pink and bright orange red.
I stood, shell-shocked, not believing that I was really there, at the place that I had only ever seen in photos on postcards and in National Geographic magazines, an elongated dream finally achieved – driving through the Outback to Uluru.
The culture center teaches about Uluru’s significance to the local Aborigines, the Anangu people, who maintain the park. It’s their Mecca, a sacred site to their way of life. It was here that the story of Tjukurpa – the Creation period – happened (not to be confused with the Dreamtime).
The men have sacred ceremonies at the top that are so secret, they are not allowed to be spoken of or discussed to anyone outside of the tribe and those who aren’t initiated. The women also have their sacred spots on the rock. These sites are forbidden to be photographed as the indigenous people believe that photography steals the spirit and soul of what is being photographed.
It is also disrespectful to climb the rock and although they don’t enforce the rule, they ask that visitors don’t climb it. But there are those who do. 35 people have died attempting to climb the rock since it was opened to tourism in the late 1950s.
As a strong believer in Karma, I refused to take part as did Cookie and our new friends. We watched tourists clambering up a very steep incline to the summit of 345 meters. We did walk the 10.6 km base around the magnificent structure.
I was surprised at how green the surrounding bush was, complete with red gumtrees and an abundance of wildlife.
“I really feel the spirituality of this place,” I noted to Regina who agreed.
Cookie and Regina got acquainted while Paul and I walked together for most of the hike, quoting ‘The Princess Bride’ and other movies, continuing our Arnie impressions and discussing farts.
“Ever noticed that when you fart in the shower it’s as though, by adding water, it becomes a chemical weapon of mass destruction?” I said as Paul laughed. “And there’s no better feeling than farting while you’re peeing,” I continued as Paul stopped to water a bush. “It’s about the only time a man can truly multitask.”
I told Paul of the legacy I had left at my high school some years back in Year 12. “I can’t remember why but I decided to go on this fruit diet which turned out to be a pretty bad idea. I have never farted such a rancid, toxic scent. One day I was at school and on our lunch break we were all chilling on the balcony. There were about 50 kids out there when I needed to release. I knew it would be silent. I also knew it might be deadly but it was a risk I was willing to take as it’s been scientifically proven that people who fart are happier than those who hold it in. So I released and knowing the outcome I stepped back and waited to watch the carnage unfold,” I paused for effect. “You know how some farts linger around for awhile?”
Paul nodded as he laughed.
“Well this one held on to anything it could due to the down wind that should have taken it away from those poor kids. I watched quietly as they ran around screaming, eyes burning. It was though someone had released a tear-gas grenade, which I think is what they would have preferred rather than endure the torture they were undergoing.”
Paul cracked up.
“To this day I’m forever remembered for that one moment,” I reflected proudly.
We finished the walk in 4 hours and headed back to the resort for a quick lunch and an afternoon chillout until we would meet up for the camel races.
At the dusty race truck, we were greeted by a small number of revelers. Paul noticed the face-painting corner and asked me to distract Regina while he went to get his face done.
The only way to purchase alcohol was by presenting a special permit that was provided when checking in. I suggested we go to the bar and get some drinks.
“You need glasses for the beers,” said the bartender to Regina who grabbed two beer glasses from the stand in front of me. They were still in plastic wrapping. When the girls ordered wine for themselves, “You need wine glasses,” said the bartender.
I was standing next to the stand that had the glasses set up and grabbed a couple.
“Hang on, mate,” the vendor grabbed them back, “you gotta pay for them.”
“What?” I said, Regina looking as baffled as I was. “Your saying it’s not enough I’m purchasing the beer and wine I also need to buy the container it needs to be contained in?”
“Yup,” he said flatly.
“How much are they?” I asked
“Six bucks?!” I almost yelled.
Regina turned to the bartender and asked for plastic cups. We realised that we had just managed to unintentionally steal two beer glasses to keep as souvenirs.
Good thing we didn’t climb the rock.
Paul had come back and was wearing his hat low over his forehead. His face had the look of someone who had done something mischievous and Regina knew right away.
“You’ve gone and done something stupid, haven’t you?” she said.
Paul looked shocked. “Do I have ‘stupid’ written on my forehead?” he said as he removed the hat, revealing a stenciled ‘S-T-U-P-I-D’ written on his forehead.
The camels were presented around the track and then the final race was won by camel number 2. The winner took home over three thousand dollars after ‘buying’ the camel for just $250.
From the track we headed over to a hilltop to view the setting sun over The Olgas, casting a purple colour over Uluru. We shared a bottle of Rose that Paul and Regina provided as we took photos and laughed our heads off by doing stupid antics as the sun set, providing entertainment for the French and German tourists that were also there.
Back at the camp we cooked dinner together. I made an Israeli salad while Paul barbecued porterhouse steaks and corn cobs.
“You know, Regina was the German Masterchef winner,” he announced proudly when she went for a shower just before we served dinner. We had some wine and beer and by 21:30, besides being drunk, we lumbered off in good spirits to catch the shuttle bus to the ball which was being held at the race track.
“Excuse me,” I turned to a security guard, “where are the toilets?”
“Anywhere in the dark, mate,” he grinned.
As I peed in the darkness staring up at the Milky Way, I realised that it was all just too surreal, with Uluru casting a watchful eye somewhere from within the darkness.