The clang of metal on metal shocks me awake.
“Rise and shine!”
My guide is loudly banging a spoon against a pot as I open my eyes to the still-dark sky, scattered with endless stars that only show themselves to the isolated. I pull the swag tighter and hope the clanging will end as the chill in the air seeps deep into my bones. Welcome to the desert spring.
“Time for breakfast,” he says loudly near my ear and nudges my shoulder with his steel-toed boot.
“Ugh,” is the only response I can muster and he laughs at me, overly cheerful for 4 am.
I wrap my blanket-sized but sheer scarf around my shoulders, hoping it will shield me from the cold. It’s no use, I didn’t prepare properly to go camping in Australia’s Red Centre, where days chap lips and burn skin with dry heat, and cold nights lead to stiff joints.
I eat dry toast and curse yet another sunrise awakening. The pain and fatigue of much hiking and little sleep means I’m a bit over the novelty. The tent is filled with mixing odors of meaty sweetness, burnt toast, peanut butter, as everyone rummages through jars to make their own breakfasts. Then, silence falls as we eat, with dull and tired expressions, staring at the table. We won’t come back here tonight, so we pack up our sleeping bags and swags and toss them onto the back of the truck. We leave the campsite just as the black of night begins to lift.
Our trip began in Alice Springs, where myself and nine others–along with Hugh, our pot-bellied Aussie tour guide–boarded a four-wheel drive to journey through the red-dust haze to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. My companions are a mix from Germany and Hong Kong, with a mother-daughter pair from Australia thrown in.
Now, it’s time to watch the sunrise on Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Dozens of people crowd around to catch the glimmer of the sun’s rays as they edge above the horizon, accentuating the silhouette that is Uluru, a lone feature standing atop flat earth. No one really looks in the other direction at Kata Tjuta, slowly brightening in the morning light, though Uluru is the formation in the shadows. My joints are stiff and cold, but the view between heads and shoulders is the ultimate distraction from this.
Today, we will hike Kata Tjuta’s Valley of the Winds Walk, so-called because of the winds that stir up when morning sun hits night-chilled rock. The Valley loops seven kilometres through the rocky formation, passing two lookouts along the way. This hike is one of two that remains open to the public at Kata Tjuta. Since Uluru has become a tourist hotspot, the local Anangu people hold most of their rituals at Kata Tjuta.
“Now, just so you know, this is about the time the snakes like to come out and warm themselves in the sun,” Hugh tells us as we stand in the sunrise glow. “I would think this goes without saying, but if you see one, don’t approach it.”
His tone is exasperated, but I doubt there will be any issues, at least not on my behalf. A fear of snakes (not to mention spiders) is almost what kept me from camping in Australia in the first place. Although, this trip has been at the top of my list for years, ever since Daily Planet had an Australia-themed week when I was 17.
My blisters still ache from days past, but I am grateful that the sea of flies that constantly crawled on my cheeks and lips and up my nose at Uluru haven’t seemed to follow me here. At least, not this early in the morning. From 6 to 9, we hike single file on the narrow path, happening upon trees that bustle and come alive with the movement of zebra finches and wallaroos that pose with the light behind them.
“The Anangu people are the traditional owners who’ve care for Kata Tjuta for over 20,000 years,” Hugh tells us as he leads the way up a steep-sloped hill. He is in quite good shape, despite his rounded appearance, and easily makes it to the first lookout while the rest of us pant and wheeze below.
He speaks of the creation stories from the dream time that relate to the laws, customs, and wildlife of the people and surroundings. Named “the Olgas” by Europeans, the aboriginal name “Kata Tjuta” means “many heads”–it is an accurate title given to the formation that erupts from the flat land in large, smooth and rounded red rock. At the Karu and Karingana lookouts we rest take in outback views amidst high domes believed to be around 500 million years old.
The German man, Lukas, stops to offer a hand to balance the rest of us as we descend the hills. He smiles and nods to each person and offers his hand, which is coated with ochre dirt and sweat. He looks fatigued in the now-present heat of day, but his eyes wrinkle as he smiles and his white teeth glow white against skin darkened by the sun.
“Thank you,” I say brightly, despite my own fatigue, and he nods again.
The hills open up to landscape that is infinite and I feel light suddenly. I must be in a glossy magazine ad, a portrait hung on an art gallery wall. The sun bakes the trees, grasses, all the vegetation, until is it pale, brown and tan, and dry. This is the outback I’d dreamed of. And I think to myself, “Who am I to wake with complaints in a place like this?”