AN OLD FAVOURITE
The cliche shot is sometimes a cliche for a good reason, because it works. The sunset viewing spot for cars is an old standard and an excellent one. Buses have to go a little further up the hill and walk their passengers along the dunes for a peak at Uluru under the last light. The sunset viewing is excellent and even with a crowd of people to share it with, and some competition for parking spots, the experience is still photographically marvellous. A good 24mm lens is the go here, or a 35mm at the very minimum. You're pretty close to the rock in fact, and this location gives a good aspect on the height as the monolith emerges from the surrounding bush.
I arrived here at 3pm one day and spent the next 2 hours watching the colours change, and the crowds too. Waiting for the very last light is not always best, depending on the clouds that day, and even at 3pm the photography is worth your effort. (and even when you've accidentally left your polariser in a hotel 500kms west of Uluru!) My advice is start early and keep shooting, as the combination of back-clouds, light intensity, colour of the sunset and smokey skies provide a fantastic variety of tones upon the rock itself and sky above.
Sunrise was always a funny experience at the rock, with a particular stretch of highway becoming crowded with buses and motorhomes each morning. It was ratty and unruly, and faced towards some sacred areas of the rock. As of 2011 that has all changed with a new sunrise location developed to cater for large numbers, and much further away from the rock itself.
They got almost everything right with the new location, with a few walking trails to disperse the crowds, ample room to absorb the vista, beautiful scrubland to compliment the rock and plenty of views to inspire the camera besides Uluru itself. Regrettably it lacks one thing, a good view of Uluru at sunrise. That's right, they put the viewing platform south of the rock and not nearly far enough to the east. For a few months of the year the angle of the sun puts some light directly onto the southern face, or so I'm told.
Talinguru Nyakunytjaku is a lovely location and for many travellers it will make a memorable sunrise, but photographers will be disappointed. I last visited in May and at that time of year I had to wait for the sun to get a little higher before enough of the rock was out of the shadows. Walking around the trails at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku I found many spots where the silky-oaks gave me compositional inspiration, and I could let bits of the rock slip into the shot as well.
GOOD ROCK BAD ROCK
Formerly known as The Olgas but now restored to its original indigenous name, Kata Tjuta is a place that the traditional owners don't like much. They tell tales of people getting sick when they visit, and for the most part the indigenous people prefer to stay away. I can't explain it, but I don't like being there much either. From a distance they look like a bag of pebbles, and shooting the domes as silhouettes works very nicely. A good thing too because most views of Kata Tjuta are going to be silhouettes, as Uluru sits to the south.
A few years ago they built an elaborate viewing platform for Kata Tjuta, just 20 minutes from the park entrance. Regrettably it has no easterly profile, yet has been named the Kata Tjuta Sunrise/Sunset viewing spot. Go figure. Further down the road is a less developed sunset spot for the big pebbles, which offers no additional height on the vista but better light in the afternoons. From the carpark you walk 200m into the bush before the trail stops and the photos begin. The shrubs are getting pretty tall here, but this is the sunset light on Kata Tjuta looks its best.
(I was once told that any real landscape photographer carries a ladder with him, and I have to admit such a device would be handy in this instance.)
One of my favourite things about Uluru & Kata Tjuta National Park is the unique flora. The red sands provide the most vivid of backdrops to these miniature tales of natural survival. Bits of timber weathered by time, leaves and grasses turned golden by the sun or precious flowers that challenge the desert for months after each rainfall. Some species here are also found in other parts of the country, but many are unique to the region and the combination of flora and landscape makes a lasting impression.
Macro photography is worth your time out here, or just get close-up with your wide angle. A good 24mm lens with focus down to 25cm, giving you great emphasis on small detail while bringing in a little context from the landscape as well. There's no need to wander from the trails, and you're asked not to by the park management for obvious reasons. Walking the loop around Uluru can be a little too popular with tourists, who may not appreciate the strange sight of photographers lying on the dirt with a camera in hand.
Less busy in the daytime are the trails at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku, and the two Kata Tjuta viewing locations. Both are good for focusing on the little things.
Several kinds of grevillia taunted me from the roadside when last I drove about the park, especially the brilliant yellow blooms that always seem to be too far from the road or trail when I wanted a photo. These bits of detail add subtle colours to the desert. Silvery-green blades of grass contrast, rich red rivers of sand, brilliant yellow highlights from native wattle and grevillia, bright pink stars from succulents and subtle purple petals that hide under the scrub.
Often it proved that I hadn't the time to stop and photograph flowers, I was racing for sunset and had no time left for the little things.
The same thing happened the next morning after my sunrise shoot, when I had an appointment to keep with the airport. Under a particular shrub, a wiry bush little taller than my ankles, popped out the most delicate little red and yellow flowers. They reminded me of kangaroo paws, but on a diminutive scale. The flowers in fact appear to be in hiding, shaded by the bush and edging themselves out into the world with extreme caution. I can't say my photos do this bush justice, having stopped for a second to pause and admire them while heading elsewhere with my photo tour. I wish I could have stopped for an hour.
SILENCE OF THE SPIRIT
The main thing lacking from most encounters at Uluru are the people. Tourists should not expect to even meet indigenous folk while in the park, let alone photograph them. Some guided tours work with indigenous people but it may as well be a 'cultural show' as far as photographers are concerned. The cultural centre is definitely worth a stop for interest and art. I even tried the "Sounds of Silence" dinner experience in the hope that it was a culturally significant experience. They bus people into restricted parts of the park where you watch the sunset and dine under the stars. It's a great experience, but your views of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and quite distant, and you can't leave the confined area to play with lenses and tripod.
Traditionally the area around Uluru was not a place of residence, unclaimed by any single clan. Many groups came her for spiritual purposes only. This is why sacred places around the rock are so controversial for photography, as some places are believed to make the women folk sick, and some make men folk sick. Some make everybody sick.
The indigenous owners believe that when you photograph these sacred places that you too can become sick. From this basis comes their protest about sacred sites, plus the deeply disturbing practice of climbing the rock. In recent decades there have been over 30 people die while climbing Uluru, and countless others who experienced difficulty due to too little or too much water. There's nowhere to take a leak up there, and some people simply go to the toilet regardless. Imagine if a bunch of Aboriginal folk visited St Paul's Cathedral in London, climbed onto the roof and took a whiz? It would be outrageous, yet this is basically what tourism has encouraged at Uluru.
EMUS AND CAMELS
While driving the highways around Uluru you're advised to watch the speed limits, because without warning you may encounter camels and emus. After several visits to the park I have yet to miss out on a camel sighting, although they can be fleeting. These wild beasts were introduced by the Afghans well over a century ago, and they have done very well in the Red Center. Emus are native of course, and are very wary of cars and people. I have only twice seen them in the park, and each time it was amazing.
They have such mysterious faces, dark and hidden from the light. Their design looks like it came from the pen of an artist, elegantly curved and beautifully animated. I literally stopped breathing when I saw a flock of them just a few miles from the airport. The unexpected interlude was like a special gift from the spirit of Uluru, a present that was too special to be captured on camera. It felt like a gift to say thank you for respecting the spirit of the park.
Earlier that morning I had some odd conversations with an official of the parks service, a woman whose job includes advising photographers what can and cannot be photographed while visiting. She was 'being helpful' to a film crew at the time and confusing the heck out of them and me. In the absence of clear guidelines regarding there becomes a lot of room for interpretation. In my view this makes her job difficult and the photographers job even more so.
We were at the official sunrise viewing platform, and yet even here there were sacred areas of the rock that need to be avoided. She explained to the film crew, "The bits on either end contain sensitive sites, so just shoot the bit in the middle." The camera man kept his gaze on the rock and just nodded, while the producer rolled his eyes backwards and let out a silent sigh. In this context the issue was using a telephoto lens to reveal details of the rock, yet presumably a wide-angle shot would be OK. I asked her this, showing her a few shots for referral, but she deferred judgement and suggested that I send them in to her to get them checked for approval, just in case.
Just in case of what? How wide is wide enough? How much zoom is too much? Is it OK to shoot from official viewing locations, such as the sunset carpark?
The parks officials of Uluru may not be keen to express their approval but the spirit of the land was much kinder. As I watched the emus run past my car, like a brilliant indigenous painting come to life, I felt a giddy surge of affection for this land and all it contains. The rock is truly inspiring, a place of immense energy and beauty. The landscapes are vast and compelling, rich in flora and fauna.
If you plan to visit Uluru my advice is to spend your time well. Take it slow, give it respect and let the spirit of the rock guide you.