The observer, when he seems to himself to be observing a stone, is really, if physics is to be believed, observing the effects of the stone upon himself.
Last time, I left you with the thought of Uluru, better known as Ayer’s Rock. Laying half a world away and looming large deep in the heart of the outback. A giant chunk of sandstone around 350 m high and roughly 9 km around it is one of Australia’s most recognizable icons. Referred to as a monolith, it is technically an inselberg or island mountain. I prefer the term monolith. Even now, over 15 years after standing in its shadow, I still feel it drawing me back. That isn’t just some bit of hyperbole. In the years since, I have dreamt about it time and again. Seeing it as vividly now as I did then I can still picture the dust beneath my feet, the spinifex grass brushing against my legs, the scent of the gum trees strong in my nostrils, the song of the magpies in my ears. I also remember with less fondness those damn dopey Australian flies that wouldn’t give you moment’s peace. And of course the sun, pressing relentlessly down as I went on my brief walkabout around Uluru. The legend and mystery that surround it are not hard to understand when you see it for the first time.
When I first set foot in Australia back in the fall of 1997 I wasn’t completely sure where I was going to travel or what I was going to do. Time and cost would be the deciding factor, although deep down I wanted to see The Outback. To someone who grew up and lives beside the saltwater, this vast arid desert which is home to all sorts of exotic plants and animals was completely unknown to me. It was hard to shake the thought of embarking on a journey into something that had grown into mythic proportions in my mind. The journey itself would add to that mythos. In the next 8 days I would average 1000 km a day by bus. Moving west across Australia and deeper into its heart. The blur of rest stops, road houses and bus stations in the seedier parts of big cities is a story in itself and worthy of telling in detail another time.
Everyone that travels to see Uluru must first pass through Yulara, a resort town catering specifically to those travelling to see the big stone itself. You can’t just arrive here. Rooms must be booked in advance. It has all the amenities that you need. Half an hour after arriving I was on a bus headed for Uluru that I could see lying 15 kilometers distant. I had decided ahead of time that I would not climb it. The aborigines that revere it would prefer that you don’t and feel responsible for those that die or are injured attempting to climb it. That feeling was shared by many of the resort workers, bus drivers and tour guides who won’t discourage it but don’t greet the idea with much enthusiasm either. As we arrived at our destination the bus driver asked each of us in turn what our plan was so he would know who needed to picked up when. When I told him I didn’t want to climb and had no real plan he suggested that I hike around it. The plan had never entered my head but I am glad that I did it. Sunset was a little less than 3 hours away and he would meet me there half an hour before then to pick up the last visitors for the day and take us to the sunset viewing area. This was another unexpected bonus.
The hike around it was unforgettable. As soon as I was out of sight of the parking area I hardly saw another person for the next 2 hours. What was wrong with people that they weren’t doing this? The stone slowly showed me its lesser known nooks and crannies. I snapped rolls upon roll of film. I saw everything from reptiles unidentifiable to a foreigner, wallabies, countless bird, foxes and feral cats. The last two introduced by the European settlers many years previously. The rock obviously had a large amount of water run off of it in the rainy season. This was evident in the amount of vegetation that surrounded its base and even the occasion pools that sat in the numerous shady places cast by Uluru that are every changing in appearance. Some of these pools had to have been old as they were used by the Aborigines for sacred rituals and photography and swimming was prohibited.
Caves and petroglyphs could be found along my walk as well. They describe Dreamtime, which was the time when Aborigines believe that the Earth was formed. It was a time when ancient heroes shaped their surrounding and developed practices which are still carried out today. The power that is believed to be held by Dreamtime is thought to be rooted under this giant stone. The track that those who wove it is believed to cross this stone too - another reason that climbing is discouraged. Uluru is a focal point of many Aboriginal stories of which I am not doing justice so I won’t go into further details. It is not hard to see how it dominates their culture and landscape. The ability for it to draw people in was not lost on me. More than once I reached out to touch the stone and I can still remember what it felt like. Being sandstone the feeling was familiar in warmth and coarseness but at the same time I have felt nothing quite like it since.
I was surprised to make it back to my starting point with time to spare. I had taken my time and lots of photos. So I sat there and soaked up some more of the scene until the bus arrived. The driver was delighted that I made it around with time to spare. After everyone was onboard we travelled back towards the resort, stopping at a large parking area beside the road that was already overflowing with vehicles. The next few minutes are a sight I won’t soon forget. Uluru standing orange in the sunlight like it is in practically every photo slowly began to change. As the sun dipped lower and lower the dark shadows that filled the deep stone creases on Uluru began to widen. The color transformed from an ochre color to a dusky orange, then slowly into a deep reddish-purple, then dark purple to gray and finally an unmistakable black silhouette against the dusk as it turned to night. Darkness comes faster the closer you are to the equator. It happened all too quickly, ending in cheers and even champagne bottles popping. Returning to the resort I felt that I had come away with much more than I had counted on. All those miles crossing the desert didn’t seem so daunting. I felt content but not completely satisfied. The next day I returned for a few more hours just after sunrise to see it all again. I do not know how much time I would have spent there before growing tired of it, if that is even possible. That night however, I toasted my fait accompli many, many times in the open air bar and barbeque pit. To get to the restrooms you had to cross a part of the resort that was dimly lit. After several trips I stopped to look up, take a breather and look at the stars. I was taken aback by not being able to recognize one constellation in the southern sky. After a while I think I could pick out the Southern Cross but drunken astronomy is not my strong suit. What I was certain of though was that I was a long way from home. The nearest beach or river that was not dry was thousands of kilometers away and the sky was void of familiar stars. It was not daunting but exhilarating. The brisk night air and a belly full of Coopers probably helped fuel this Zen moment but I will take them where I can get them.
It is a place that I have every intention of returning to. How someplace so inhospitable and foreign holds so much interest to me I will never be able to explain. Yet more rocks play a big part of my psyche and my experiences. Next time we will move away from the purely physical and into the monumental.
"Men go abroad to wonder at the heights of mountains, at the huge waves of the sea, at the long courses of the rivers, at the vast compass of the ocean, at the circular motions of the stars, and they pass by themselves without wondering."
Obsession is something that can take many forms. Many obsessions are subtle, some bordering on addiction. When something doesn't negatively affect your life, you often have a hard time recognizing the affliction. I am convinced that some mild forms of obsession are really more of a compulsion. Some hoard, some eat, some count, some wash, some collect. One of my compulsions only really occurred to me recently. Not surprisingly, that compulsion is stone.
It makes sense really. Rocks form a big part of our lives. Some people are drawn towards the clouds and others are drawn out to sea. Unless you are a miner or a bat, chances are that you can often see the sky above your head. The next time you look up at the sky, look down. What is around your feet? It could be water which covers 70% of the earth’s surface. If not it could be grass, mud, pavement or rock. Sedimentary rock only makes up 5% of the earth’s crust but about 75% of the land surface is covered in it. Sometimes it is under all that grass and pavement. So it would make sense that land, sea and air have been a big part of humanity’s thinking over the centuries. They are inescapable, shaping our minds and lives through both myth and necessity.
Queenstown, New Zealand from Bob's Peak, with Remarkables mountain range in the distance.
Highlights of our lives are often common ones, the relationships that we build, the people that we nurture and the lives that we build around them. Others are more personal, often based on work or play. Fragments of past trips always stick out in my mind and often they involve some unyielding, immovable chunk of stone. I think that it may have started with my trip to the Rockies almost 25 years ago. Standing in the Icefield Parkway, surrounded by the biggest mountains that I had ever seen. I felt so insignificant yet strangely comforted by being in midst of something so huge, and compared to the span of person’s life, timeless. The Cape Breton Highlands are stunning in their own right, but for some reason the Rockies stirred something in me that was only the beginning.
The feeling would stir again and again, seeing Queenstown from Bob’s Peak, the summit of Ben Lomond, Watching Mount Rauapehu - better known as Mount Doom if you are a Lord of the Rings fan - belch smoke from its crater at the end of an active volcanic period. Along the shores of New Zealand you can also find Mitre Peak, the most notable feature of Milford Sound, which is really a fiord. I also found myself at the Punakaiki Rocks, Waitomo Caves, and the Moeraki Boulders. A photo of those same boulders hangs beside my head as I write this. Countless times in folk songs and folklore have both the sea and the mountains been romanticized. These experiences help me understand why so many are drawn to the slopes of mountains and some up onto their peaks. Many have seen more than I ever will but if anything it strengthens my desire to see more and more of those breathtaking piles of rock.
Other places aren’t known so much for their height and enormity as they are for their uniqueness. The Tablelands in western Newfoundland are one place where the earth’s mantle pushed up through its crust. High in iron and low in nutrients the area is largely devoid of vegetation and more reminiscent of a red, Martian landscape than the northern end of the Appalachians. I have to return someday to visit Western Brook Pond, an inland fiord nearby. I have yet to see Perce Rock in Quebec or the Balancing Rock in Digby. The list could go on and on I am sure. Of all of these places, none came to me in me in my dreams, none beckoned me across the miles like one chunk of stone, perhaps the biggest single chunk of stone. And that stone is Uluru, better known as Ayer's Rock.