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We planned to skip the Ghan’s Uluru option (crowds, distance, expense) and tour Alice Springs, where the train stops for the day. We changed our minds when we found that the scenic flight from Alice to Uluru included a stop on the ground to see Uluru up close, a drive around the rock, and some time to walk around.

From the air, we finally saw The Outback. Not a bare desert, but a vast area of tan grasses, spindly gum trees, and lots of an invasive grass from S. Africa that we are assured no animal will eat. Parts of the Outback resemble the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico. What differs is its immensity. We flew more than 400 km and saw roads only at takeoff and landing. There was one town, Hermannsburg, a former mission. There was also Pine Gap. If you watch Netflix, you may have seen the new show set at the CIA/Australian joint spy base. Having seen a few episodes, it was a bit strange to actually see the field of white domes that covers the spying equipment. Beyond Pine Gap and Hermannsburg, we saw no isolated farmsteads, roads, trains, trucks, vehicle tracks, not even any animals. Somewhere below us was a cattle station of over one million acres, yet we saw no evidence of this. There were no fences, water tanks, windmills, air strips, the features of remote farms.

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Geology and vegetation create the landscape. What looks like the green verges of a superhighway is a geological fault. A crack in the earth lets a bit of water escape and a streak of dark green trees emerges. Pale earth is peppered with green shrubs, alongside an empty river cut through rock. An irregular band of white pools crossed our route, a dry river of salt, hundreds of thousands of tons too remote to mine. Straight lines on the ground are bands of red, ochre, and tan stone lying one beside the next, straight as an arrow, or bending in parallel lines created eons ago. On the distant horizon rounded hills suggest this flat plain eventually ends.

Some of the landscape recalls aboriginal painting, circles, dots, lines of contrasting colors. How can there be no roads? Finally, I begin to see roads, threads of orange-brown.

After an hour and a half in the air, we approached Uluru, imposing even from above. The aerial circuit was spectacular, and was followed by a swing around Kata Tjuta, a knobby rock formation that is close by, aeronautically speaking, though it would take at least an extra day to visit by car from Uluru.

Kata Tjuta, with Uluru in the background.

We are compressing a three day visit into one, our aerial outback tour followed by a picnic lunch on the ground at a shelter perfectly positioned to let us soak in Uluru while sitting in the shade. Next we walk to the Mutitjulu Waterhole with a stop at some rock art along the way. Everyone sees different things in the rock art.

Our tour guide was a white Australian, young enough to be completely captivated by Aboriginal stories of The Dreamtime. The age of rock art is given as 5000 to 8000 years old. When we asked whether there had been any archaeological investigation of the area to provide samples for dating the rock art, the young man enthusiastically told us that archaeology wasn’t needed because the stories of The Dreamtime are supported by visual proof. “See the way there is a dark shadow on the rock that follows the curve of the cliff?” “That is the snake from the story of….” He believes that there is nothing more needed than the stories to explain Uluru. Science is not part of his mindset, at least not right now. We wonder why the guides are not Aboriginal people.

Completing a circuit of Uluru by car, we hear the history of visits and visitors. Many people have climbed it over the years, and though the aboriginal owners have banned climbing as of October 2019, there will be controversy until no one remembers when it could be climbed. We are not staying long enough to consider a climb.

On our return flight, I try to photograph as many of the different patterns of landscape as I can, knowing that a photo through the window of a small plane will be no substitute for seeing the many forms of the land that expand the definition of “desert” to a much broader range of shapes and colors. Back in Alice Springs, I am amazed and content. The tiny plane barely scared me and our visit to Uluru was beyond great.

The day is not over, as the entire train of 300 dines al fresco at the old Alice Telegraph Station. As the sky darkens and the stars come out, we walk away from the illuminated dining area to look up. The Milky Way is a starry shawl thrown into the heavens, while the constellations shine brightly, performing the fandango of the night sky.

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