Uluru In The Rain: How The Worst Weather Can Make For The Best Vacation
As the plane shook and bounced its way through the remnants of Cyclone Yasi, the strongest storm ever to hit Australia, I began to wonder if I was on the right flight. Inside my head were postcard-inspired visions of the Outback: the looming red rock, the dry red desert, the baking sun. Outside my window were visions of the end of days: towering gray clouds, intermittent flashes of lightning, slashing curtains of rain. My heart sank along with the plane as we braced ourselves through one treacherous drop after another in our valiant effort to make it to the ground in one piece.
After a few minutes of cursing my luck, the flight attendant made a comment that brought me out of my funk — there was a photographer onboard who was headed to Uluru specifically because it was raining. I figured that if a professional was going out of his way to experience the worst possible weather, something truly exceptional must be in order.
At least this is what I chose to repeat in my head as I wrapped my heavy sweater around myself and battled through pelting raindrops on the walk across the tarmac, trying to block out the fact that it was the dead of summer in the desert. I waited for my luggage with all of the other soggy tourists taking their obligatory family shots in front of the “Be Prepared for Dingoes” sign. Settling into my seat on the hotel shuttle, I was quickly reassured by the driver of how fortunate I was to be there in such bad weather.
“I reckon you folks are pretty lucky to be seeing this. Only 2% of visitors get to see it rain on the Rock. Only 1% get to see waterfalls, so if you’re here for a few days you might be really lucky.” I wondered how many guides had been forced to memorize those statistics.
My gaze remained fixed out my rain-splattered window. There was a slight parting of the clouds, and I realized that I’d been staring at Uluru the entire time, I just couldn’t see it. As it was, I could just now make out a dark, ill-defined blob in the distance. It didn’t seem like much to me, but I could now count myself among the lucky ones who had seen it rain on the Rock.
As I checked into my room, the perky girl at reception made sure to ask me if I had heard that only 1% of visitors get to see waterfalls on Uluru. I assured her that I had. I also quickly gathered that I’d be told how lucky I was approximately 100 more times in the next two days. I was the 1%, long before that phrase had become synonymous with privilege. With sunset viewing out of the question, I salvaged the rest of my evening by seeking cover in the only tavern in Yulara, the tiny tourist enclave that had sprung up near the Rock. My disappointment assuaged by a few drinks, I began making friends with the locals as we all huddled together in fleeces and sweaters and laughed at our predicament. Mercifully few of them felt the need to point out how lucky I was to see the rain.
The storms paused just in time for my 14-mile sunrise hike around the base of Uluru. As we approached the Rock, one thing was clear: Australia’s “Red Centre” was lush and green. Our guides, of course, pointed out our supreme luck with the weather. As the hulking rock began to take form against the dawn sky, we could just make out some jagged lines that cut down the length of the monolith like scars — the elusive waterfalls.
Our trail, normally a cloud of pale red dust, was a hard-packed path of brick-red mud, still wet from the night’s storms. As the sky lightened, Uluru became shrouded in low-hanging clouds, lending an unusually hushed aura to the sacred site.
The next three hours wiped away any remaining bitterness I had about the rain ruining my desert vacation. Every few hundred feet we stopped to watch water cascade down the rock face, sometimes in trickles, other times in wide streams. Hidden around turns we found green pools of water, sparkling in the few errant rays of sunshine that managed to break through the clouds. There were even pools that our guides had never seen in all their time hiking Uluru. To make matters even better, we got to enjoy it all at a balmy 75 degrees, far below the 104 degrees we would normally have been suffering at that time of year.
Our respite from Yasi’s wrath was brief. There was just enough time to enjoy the second half of the Super Bowl in real time over lunch at the outdoor grill, complete with Australian public access commercials, before the clouds started to gather again. By the time the bus arrived for its run to the sunset viewing platform at Uluru, it was clear that there would be no sunset that night. Still, there would be free drinks, so I climbed aboard.
I crowded under the meager shelter with a bunch of strangers and helped myself to wine. Rather than witnessing a display of vibrant colors splashed across the clouds, we watched the sky grow darker and darker as the rain came down harder. The red rock transformed into a brooding black mass, contrasting sharply with the white streams of water that started pouring off it on all sides. I stared in awe, sipping my glass of wine and rainwater, not caring if I got wet. I finally understood why everyone kept throwing statistics at me, as I instinctively understood that I was witnessing something that many locals hadn’t ever seen. My suspicion was confirmed as our driver took us on three extra loops of the Rock on our way back to the lodge, gushing like a giddy schoolgirl the whole time.
Needless to say, that night’s scheduled dinner under the stars was washed out. I was now zero for three when it came to scheduled evening activities, and I couldn’t have cared less. Seeing one of my friends from the night before in the tavern, I made a beeline for the bar. Crossing over the four feet of sidewalk that weren’t covered by an overhang left me drenched to the bone. Surveying the scene at the bar, I realized that I wasn’t alone. Everyone there was completely soaked, and having a grand old time.
The bar was flooded with up to six inches of water in some places. I pointlessly rolled up my already-soaked jeans and waded in. Everywhere, tourist and locals were laughing and kicking up water. My new friend and I sought higher ground with our drinks by perching on some barrels, and then settled in to the kind of night where the hours fly by as you discuss life’s biggest questions with a complete stranger who it seems you must have known your whole life.
All the while, the rain never let up. Men played pool in standing water. The live musician called a premature end to his set for fear of electrocution. Small children emerged in swimsuits, inventing new aquatic games on the bar floor as their parents enjoyed beers and took pictures. I sat back with a contented smile, one flip flop tracing circles in the flood below me, realizing with a laugh that this was the best night of my trip so far.
During the two days that I was at Yulara, they had as much rain as they typically have in a year. It was hardly what I would have hoped for, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Like so many travelers, I used to tie my travel hopes to my expectations about the weather. It took a cyclone in the desert to make me realize that, until I learn how to control the sun and the rain, there’s no point in worrying about it. After all, the unexpected can make for the most memorable experiences. If I want to see normal, I can always buy the postcard.
By Stephanie Wilkins
About the Author
Stephanie Wilkins is a freelance writer and photographer based in Brooklyn, New York. Formerly an attorney at a big law firm in New York City, she left behind an eight-year legal career to travel the world and rediscover her sanity by focusing on her writing and photography. These days, she funds her trips by working as a private investigator on the side, and is very excited to find out what life will throw at her next. More of her photography can be viewed at StephanieWilkinsPhotography.