The sun rises. The sun sets. It does it every day.
The sun rises. Things are set in motion. Breakfasts eaten. Commutes bird-flipped and snarled through. Knees skinned in playgrounds. Milk bought at corner stores or removed from front doorsteps. Gardens weeded. Lawns shorn. Houses made and deals built. Relationships cooked, cakes ended. Beers inhaled. The sun sets.
It does it every day.
Every damn day. Pulling us from lid open to lid closed, like a human Goldberg contraption of knock-on reaction and forward momentum and don’t forget to take out the rubbish.
The sun rises. The sun sets. It does it every day.
But sometimes you have to pay money to be reminded to even look at it.
Of course it’s free. The sunrise. The sunset. But when you’re standing in a car park with a glass of bubbly and store-bought salsa hanging off the lip of a corn chip, you don’t mind that you’re paying for it. Because you’re too caught up ogling a bloody big rock as it flashes its sandstone thigh and reflects the gaze of that huge ball of fire.
Why am I in a car park? Why am I looking at a bloody big rock? Why am I rambling about the sun?
Because I’m a bad Australian.
I’m a bad Australian, but not because I represent the brand poorly overseas. I honor the brand. I am a great ambassador. I spread lies about the true meaning of Boxing Day, and how I rode a kangaroo to school as a kid. I still say “boot” and “jumper” and laugh (though not out loud so much anymore), whenever Americans say “khaki pants”,1 “who do you root for”2 and “I bonked during the race”.3 I fly the flag. No flies on me, mate. I’m dinky di, eat a meat pie, here’s Aeroguard in your eye.
No, I’m a bad Australian because I have seen more tourist highpoints of other people’s countries than I have of my own. And that is a crime. (See, I even honor the convict heritage.)
What’s the Great Barrier Reef like? Dunno, never seen it. Is it worth driving the Great Ocean Road? Dunno, never seen it. What’s Perth like? Dunno, never seen it. How about Uluru? Is it really just a big rock in the middle of nowhere? Your guess is as good as mine.
This, Sir, cannot stand. So that’s how I find myself standing in a carpark, sipping champagne—that for legal reasons we have to call sparkling wine—and taking way too many photos of a giant, glorious, and sexy rock that looks exactly like it does in the postcards.
Tick that box. Uluru is off the list. And I’m checking it off my parent’s list while I’m at it.
For those about to Rock.
We fly in on a Monday. My mother steals the window seat, which is fine by me, and proceeds to point out all sorts of flat things, straight things, dry things, and salty things from her vantage point. My Dad sees nothing like that. Just the aisle and flight attendants, and a movie that’s hanging from the overhead bins about three rows in front of us. This goes on for a few hours before necks periscope out towards tiny windows to catch a glimpse of the rock prior to landing.
And there it is. All around it, flatness. And the rock rising from nowhere. Truly, it is a boil on the arse of the earth.
Later, we learn the original airport used to snuggle right up to the side of the rock. I see a photo in the airport of a plane parked pretty much up its skirt, snuggling with it like some sort of aeronautical friends-with-benefits buddy. Of course that was back in the day. Before they realized it probably wasn’t such a great idea to have aircraft engines farting on sandstone and dribbling fumes and fuel onto the chin of the planet.
The first thing I notice when I step onto the tarmac of Uluru Airport is the cold whipping up my trouser leg. My Dad, usually a reliable source of barometric, isometric, and prognostication techniques, is way wrong on the temperature prediction. It’s bloody cold. In the middle of the day. In the desert. Although the sun is blaring and it’s in the mid 20s, the wind is nipping at nostrils and uncovered arms.
We laugh at how wrong he was. Oh, how we laugh.
Later, in the gift shop, I buy a hat. A tourist hat. It is well daggy. The kind I would never buy. Straw and cowboyish. I go to great lengths to crunch it into a full western look, with tilted front and rolled up sides. I call out a ‘look ma’ in the middle of the shop and Mum shakes her head. A mix of both embarrassment and horror. I expect one never gets over the wonder of the statement “that’s my child.”
I explain my rationale to her. That everyone is a tourist out here. There’s no escaping it, no way to look cool and aloof. I have a camera hanging ‘round my neck and I am a tourist. I plan to roll around in the juice of it until I’m wearing socks with sandals and subjecting people to my never-ending slide nights.
All aboard the sunset train
Our first true tourist commitment is the Sunset Tour. Barry, our guide, drives us out to the National Park and we do a fast lap of the rock in the bus. He points out things of interest, and also things the Aboriginal people would prefer we not photograph. Sacred sites.
It’s very educational, but he also throws out a couple of distinctly Australian phrases and dry comments that I know, I just know, the foreign tourists don’t quite understand. But I soak it up. It’s nice to rub my face in Australian-ness and Barry is a credit to the nation.
Also, I learn more in this hour about Uluru than I ever did in school.
Temperatures drop and spirits rise. It’s pretty chilly as the sun sets and we all ooh, and ahh as the rock changes color over the course of about 15 minutes. The memory card in my Nikon takes a good kidney punch or two, but I take a break from my relentless snapping to throw down some bubbly and gnaw on a chip. Looking down the length of the car park, I see a sea of tourist humanity.
Tripod legs spread, lenses swivel and arc in one direction, waiting paparazzi-like for the moment to arrive. That perfect color. That perfect second. The faint crackle and click of buttons being pressed and motors firing. The anticipation of pixels arranging themselves in an aesthetically pleasing order. Wine flows, beer cans clink and jolly faces beam in the golden hour.
I stand and have my photo taken. Face frozen mid-grin, eyes squinting against the light. The rock doesn’t move. Doesn’t even throw up the rabbit ears behind my head. I feel magnificently corny. Everyone who has ever been here, who has ever got their shoes smudged in the red earth, or been taught by a guide that ‘minga’ means very small ant, has this very same photo. It’s just the faces that change.
But I don’t care. I stand and I grin stupidly. Touristy. I just don’t care.
This is my photo. There are many like it, but this one is mine.
The quiet before the dawn
In the still darkness, the quiet time before the curtains open on the day, we walk together. A group of back-packed early birds. I’ve had a freezing night on a fold-out bed with one blanket to whisper my grumpy dreams to, yet I navigate through the darkness in a mood that could be accurately described as jaunty.
Barry has given each one of us a lunchbox. I’m giddy like a schoolgirl. Breakfast will crack along with the dawn!
Mick Jagger’s lips enter the conversation, though it takes a bit of imagination to see how a rock formation could be construed as that. I think they might actually mean the Rolling Stones lip logo, but no matter. And then there’s Darth Vader’s head. That I can see.
Barry is boldly dressed in casual khaki shorts and seems not to feel the chill, but there’s a breeze that must surely be tickling his kneecaps. He stops from time to time to point a wise finger at a shrub or bush (we now all know how to spot a bush with witchety grubs in the roots if we’re feeling snackish), or to tell a story from the dreamtime us outsiders are allowed to know.
Finally, the crowd hushes as Uluru and her dance partner, the sunrise, take to the stage. A moment of silence, please.
Six miles is a long walk when you need to pee. I would now like to apologize to anyone who did, because my Dad and I immediately lag behind the group and duke it out in a ‘who can take the most photos of the rock’ competition. The group waits patiently. Dad and I mumble ‘sorry’, but I’m not. It’s my bloody holiday!
My mother has a different strategy, choosing to motor off as though in some sort of base walk foot race. She doesn’t have to be physically restrained from power walking around in record time, but I can tell she’s getting frustrated at some of the old fuddy duddies dragging the chain of their we-really-should’ve-listened-to-the-lady-at-the-front-desk-because-we’re-not-fit-enough-for-this realization behind them.
It’s a good old trek. There’s more to this rock than sediment and 50,000 years of just sittin’ around. It’s got nooks and crannies and water holes. Awesome trees, rock formation weirdness, and cave paintings. We marvel at the toothy grin that is ‘the happy cave’, then all shake our heads and the douche-bag named “Richo” who graffiti-ed his dumbass name on top of some ancient aboriginal cave paintings.
I think we all learned something.
I learned I take too many photos. Dad learned he does too. Mum learned she can out-walk a bunch of tourists who are unprepared for her awesome onslaught of spryness. Everyone else just learned that when it comes to tourist guided events, the McCrae’s have their own pace cars.
Doh! It’s what’s for dinner
Fun Fact: Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), when viewed from afar and from a certain angle as night creeps up to go boo behind it, looks like Homer Simpson having a lie down.
I swivel in my seat and verify this fact. Well, bugger me! So it does. I follow the code of the tourist and snap a picture, then turn back to dinner. In the desert. In the open. There is no roof to this restaurant.
The Sounds of Silence dinner is a fine dining affair, but held in the bosom of some sandy dunes. It winds up its clock and starts with a sunset, viewed from atop a dune. We tick tock and gluck gluck our way through some sparkling wine. Fingers pick canapés from the shine of a silver tray and pop morsels into mouths as we watch the rock blush its way into the dark time.
Swivel to our right, and there is Kata Tjuta. Formed by the same geological event as Uluru, yet completely going its own way, composition wise. I can almost see it look Uluru in the eye and say “I can’t live by your rules, man! I hate sandstone! Conglomerate is the way forward!”
Or maybe that’s just the just-like-Champagne-but-not-called-that-for-legal-reasons sparkling wine, talking.
A didgeridoo moans, stutters, and mingles with everyone. We mix McCrae-style with people from all over the world. McCrae style is a stand-to-the-edge and don’t make eye contact until approached by others technique. I am an expert at it, and yet we still manage to make small talk and have our photo taken as family unit in front of the scene. I look like a boozer.
When the sun fizzes out, down a track we go. Over the edge of the dune. We come upon a gaggle of dining tables, finishing-school dressed and waiting behind the wind-sheltered dunes. It’s fancy schmancy, with oil heaters and a blazing fire off to the side.
With napkins flapped out onto laps and wine dribbling erotically into glasses, I look around. We’re sharing a table with 9 strangers, but the booze up on the sunset viewing area has already loosened a bunch of tongues. I am sitting next to a guy from Baltimore. A doctor. Conversation flows and dips. Candles flicker and bums are warmed against the bad-breath of the fire.
We eat. With gusto and vigor. Stabbing chunks of meat and ladling soup to our chatty mouths. It’s not long before the wine turns the volume dial in the desert to eleven.
But then, silence. Candles snuffed out and a voice from the darkness booms. It is strong and sure. This is the part I’ve been waiting for. The constellation talk.
The star guide, a loud-talking lass, flashes a giant beam of light skyward as she points out the major hotspots of the sky’s tablecloth. The Southern Cross hangs still and all her points wink as the light is waved across her. Planets, constellations and more stories. It is my favorite part of the trip so far. Of course, I’m saying that before I’ve had dessert, but I’m pretty sure it’ll hold up.
Later, I walk a dark trail out and away from the tables and diners. Telescopes are set up and I see that moon gonna shine like a spoon, big and brassy through the eyepiece.
Gird your loins here comes a cliché. The sky out here is so big. It’s probably the same size in New York, but I only look at it when it can equip me with some vital information related to how many layers I need to wear on any particular day. Is it full of clouds? Is water falling from it? Is the sun looking angry? That sort of thing. At night, I most definitely do not look at it, and even if I wanted to, light pollution tends to take the edge off.
But out here, the sky is big. The earth is big. I am just minga.
Giant steps are what you take
Kata Tjuta means “many heads”. I have now heard this about 20 times. What they don’t tell you is that it also means “another planet”. Ok, I just made that up, but it really does look like you’ve stepped onto the surface of an alien planet.
There are 36 domes (heads) jumbled together and bobbled up to form Kata Tjuta. We walk between two of them, through the Valley of the Winds. The path up there looks man-made. Cobbled and smooth. But really, the only thing man did here was line up some rocks to indicate where we should walk. To keep the tourist mob on track. The surface formed this way naturally. Cobbles and boulders pieced together into a weird drunken honeycomb and held by sandstone wax.
It’s pretty neat.
We drive out there after a free morning of not doing much. And by not much, I mean I’d basically pedaled a rented clown bike around the resort with my knees around my ears (couldn’t move the seat), and had a stare-off with a dingo on the way to rent it.
I’d seen him wandering around the car park looking for scraps, and then he’d popped out from the shrubbery behind me and said “Whaddup?”
I may have replied “Coochie choochie coo, cute doggie” and eagerly showed the mutt I had no jelly babies or sweeties of any kind. It sniffed the air in a manner that could only be described as arrogance and wandered off. My first dingo sighting.
Highlight of the morning really.
But the afternoon was planned out and locked in, and so we’d piled onto a tour bus and slogged it out to the many heads to see what all the fuss was about.
Our guide is a young fella. Very amiable. It’s a casual stroll and he let’s the group string out, taking turns at talking to the little clusters individually. My parents tear off up the valley at warp speed, while I lag behind doing my very best to avoid a small group containing an insane, un-manageable child.
This kid is out of control. He sticks to the guide like some kind of rash you just can’t get rid of, not matter how much cortisone you mush its face into. Kids who ask a lot of questions are great. Kid’s that are just little bastards are not. It’s not until we’re on our way back down to the bus that the guide manages to extract himself from the blonde-headed leach and approaches my parents and I.
He starts talking to my Dad. Then he asks me where I’m from and I explain how I live in New York, but have traveled out here with my parents so we can see stuff like this and be good Australians.
“Oh, you guys are together!”
It’s not obvious and I can see why he’s only just joined the dots on us. I’m not really walking with Dad, and Mum’s about 20ft in front of us all. We’ve not really spoken much the whole afternoon. It’s not that we’re having a dustup or anything. We just choose to marvel at the magnificence before us in calm and reverent silence.
Dad, being Dad, changes the subject by pointing out a dead camel down amongst the trees. It’s not listed in the official marketing materials, but I would say that’s a tourist attraction right there. A photo opportunity. The guide gives my Dad a ‘well spotted’ nod, and confirms his carcass conclusion. Others gather to see what we’re pointing at. Mentally, I check another animal off the list. Let’s see, that’s one begging dingo, one rotting camel carcass. Hmm, can an emaciated Emu be far behind?
As the sun goes down, we eat bread dipped in oil and local bush spices, and wash it down with some plonk. It’s quieter now. The child has been taken back to the bus to get something, and we take the moment to enjoy the serenity. Surrounded by desert oaks and the largest stable dune system in the world, we break bread with strangers and watch the bald heads of The Olgas get a sun licking to within an inch of their conglomerate lives.
I take a moment to reflect. If knowledge is power, I’ve had enough drilled into me these last couple of days to run a small bicycle headlight. And if amazing sunsets were alcohol, I’d be a fall-down, black-out drunk after this trip. Rehab tomorrow. All of us. Climbing aboard that QANTAS flight, packing our memories into overhead compartments and asking our seat mates “didya see that thing with the things and the other thing?”
We will go back. Back to our lives. Back to reality. Away from this surreal afternoon light. We stand silent as it catches the grin of all our faces and crinkles the corners of our eyes as they reflect fading pink, red, purple, and orange hues.
The sun rises. The sun sets. It does it every day.
Just show it some love and give it a squiz4 every now and then.
1: “khaki pants” – Where I’m from, the color khaki is pronounced “car-key”. Here in these great United States, it is pronounced ‘cacky’. Again, where I’m from, cacky means shitty, and pants means underwear. Thus rendering the sentence “I’m going to wear my best khaki pants” fantastically awesome.
2: “who do you root for” – root means to, you know, do it. Sexy time.
3. “I bonked during the race” – bonk means the same as root. And if you’re doing it during a race, I tip my hat to you.
4. “squiz” - Australian slang meaning to have a look.
For example: “Giz a squiz” = May I please have a look at that.