On my first day out at Uluru I saw this happen at about two in the afternoon. Joe took the picture with his i-phone. Some stuff happened before this though
Joe and I landed at the Uluru airport at 11:30 AM. Craig, the Uluru Cultural Heritage Project Officer, had us hop into a four wheel drive truck, and off we went. Did we go straight to Uluru and check it out? Nope. We went far afield into the tribal lands outside of the park boundaries. These lands can only be accessed in the presence of a local (Craig being that local). Our goal was to get out into the bush and to look at water holes (almost all of which are dry right now) which are going to be an important focus of our research at Uluru.
While en route to the first water hole, I told Craig that I was intensely curious about pretty much everything and that I’d like to ask him heaps of questions as fast as they came to mind. Craig was 100% cooperative and actually seemed to enjoy sharing his knowledge. That being said, my favorite Q&A moment was the first one of the day.
Me: How old are you Craig?
Craig: I think I’m 32, but I don’t really know, and I don’t really care, because I don’t really know when I was born
My mind was blown! This was starting out to be a phenomenal day.
Craig pulled over by a bushy looking tree, and asked if I would like to try some bush tucker (wild food), I said of course! It was a fruit called mangata, it was tender but had been dried by the Australian wind and sun. It was somewhat like a dried apricot. I ate several before we moved on.
Craig drove us all over the tribal lands while Joe and I clutched the “oh-shit” handles of the four wheel drive, because Craig drives on washboard dirt tracks at breakneck speed. At one point we were about 20 miles south of Uluru on a barren sand road, and I noticed smoke on the very near horizon. I alerted Craig, who was immediately frustrated. Wildfires had been popping up over the last two weeks and Craig was not too keen on engaging with another one today. However, Craig informed Joe and I that it is a common practice for local aboriginal people to build fires on the road when their cars break down as a signal that they need assistance. Cell phone service is limited at best in the outback, so smoke signal are still useful. As Craig neared the source of the smoke, we observed that, indeed this was the case. However things had gotten very out of hand.
As we neared the flames, we saw an older aboriginal man squatting in the shade of his vehicle. Craig chatted with the man in the local Pitjantjatjara language. Craig told us that the man had driven some 300 miles from the nearest village to come to a carnival at the tribal community of Mutitjulu. Mutitjulu is the local community at Uluru national park and it was hosting a 5 day carnival where several teams where competing in an Australia Football League tournament. The old man had gotten a flat tire and did not have a spare. He did not want to drive with the flat tire as he assumed this would damage his car. However he could not manage to pull the tire off the rims. So the man removed the flat tire and rims from the the car, then laid this mangled assembly on the side of the road. He then set fire to the tire to burn it off of the rims. The flames leaped off of the tire and started the wildfire that we were now in the middle of.
Craig radioed Kerrie, a member of the Uluru park staff to alert her about the fire. Kerrie was supposed to meet Joe and I later that day in the park head quarters to discuss plans for our research at the park. Instead I got to meet Kerrie decked out in Australian bush fire fighting gear, and driving a flat bed Toyota Landcruiser across the bush spraying water on a bush fire, with little to no affect. Craig and Kerrie discussed the pros and cons of fighting the fire, but ultimately given the forecast for prevailing winds and it’s distance from the park and local communities they elected to let the fire burn in the hopes that it would peter out on it’s own; and long story short, that’s more or less what happened. However, a dramatic shift in wind speed and direction could have resulted in a very different story.
Kerrie was super apologetic about meeting under these circumstances, but I found the whole first day to be super exciting, and I wouldn’t have changed a thing. Craig dropped Joe and I off at the park housing unit, while he went to locate some spare tires to go rescue the old man waiting by the bushfire. I learned later that they safely made it back to the carnival.
I also saw two Moloch horridus (thorny devils) later in the week at Uluru, and snapped the following picture of one of them. This was icing on the cake for my first week in Uluru.
I head back to Uluru in December, and I can’t wait, it’s a phenomenal place.