The (Seriously, Truly, Very) Fatal Shore

Australia's full of things waiting to sting, prong, chomp, drown, or lay you out with a toxic nip. People go missing there all the time. But the beer is cold. The sun mostly shines. And the author figures if he can remember to never leave the asphalt, he just might make it back alive.

Jun 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
Uluru and Alice Springs are so inextricably linked in the popular imagination that nearly everyone thinks of them as cozily proximate. In fact, it is 200 more miles across even more featureless tract to get from the one to the other.

The other thing about Uluru is that by the time you finally get there you are already a little sick of it. Even when you are a thousand miles from it, you can't go a day in Australia without seeing it four or five or six times—on postcards, on travel agents' posters, on the cover of souvenir picture-books—and as you get nearer the rock the frequency of exposure increases. So you are aware, as you drive to the park entrance and pay the ambitiously pitched admission fee of $9 a head and follow the approach road around, that you have driven 1,300 miles to look at a large, inert, loaf-shaped object that you have seen photographically portrayed innumerable times already. In consequence, your mood as you approach this famous monolith is restrained, unexpectant—pessimistic, even.

And then you see it, and you are instantly transfixed.

There stands an eminence of exceptional nobility and grandeur, 1,143 feet high, a mile and a half long, five and a half miles around, less red than photographs have led you to expect but in every other way more arresting than you could ever have supposed. I have discussed this since with many other people, nearly all of whom agree that they approached Uluru with a kind of fatigue and were left agog in a way they could not adequately explain. It's not that Uluru is bigger than you supposed or more perfectly formed or in any way different from the impression you created in your mind, but the very opposite. It is exactly what you expected it to be. You know this rock. You know it in a way that has nothing to do with calendars and the covers of souvenir books. Your knowledge of this rock is grounded in something much more elemental. Somewhere in the deep sediment of your being, some long-dormant fragment of primordial memory, some little severed tail of DNA has twitched or stirred. It is a motion much too faint to be understood or interpreted, but somehow you feel certain that this large, brooding, hypnotic presence has an importance to you at the species level—perhaps even at a sort of tadpole level—and that in some way your visit here is more than happenstance.

I'm not saying that any of this is so. I'm just saying that this is how you feel. The other thought that strikes you—that struck me anyway—is that Uluru is not merely a very splendid and mighty monolith, but also an extremely distinctive one, very possibly the most immediately recognizable natural object on earth. I'm suggesting nothing here, but I will say that if you were an intergalactic traveler who had broken down in our solar system, the obvious directions to rescuers would be, "Go to the third planet and fly around till you see the big red rock. You can't miss it." And if ever on earth they dig up a 150,000-year-old rocket ship from the Galaxy Zog, this is where it will be. I'm not saying I expect it to happen; not saying that at all. I'm just observing that if I were looking for an ancient starship, this is where I would bring a metal detector and start looking around. That's all I'm saying.

We stopped at the visitor center for a cup of coffee and a look at the displays, which were all to do with interpretations of the Dreamtime—the Aborigines' traditional conception of how the earth was formed and operates. There was nothing instructive in a historical or geological sense, which was disappointing because I was curious to know what Uluru is doing there. How do you get the biggest rock in existence onto the middle of an empty plain? It turns out (I looked in a book later) that Uluru is what is known to geology as a bornhardt: a hunk of weather-resistant rock left standing when all else around it has worn away. Bornhardts are not that uncommon, but nowhere else on earth has one lump of rock been left in such dramatic and solitary splendor or assumed such a pleasing smooth symmetry. It is a hundred million years old.

Afterward we had one last drive around the rock before heading back to the lonely highway. We had been at the site for barely two hours, obviously not nearly enough, but I realized as I turned around in my seat to watch it shrinking into the background behind us that there never could be enough, and I felt moderately comforted by that thought.

Anyway, I'll be back. I have no doubt of that. And next time, I'm bringing a really good metal detector.   

Bill Bryson is the author of A Walk in the Woods, I'm a Stranger Here Myself, and other books. This article is adapted from In a Sunburned Country, to be published in June by Broadway Books. He lives in Hanover, New Hampshire.

More at Outside

Elsewhere on the Web

Not Now

Got Wanderlust?

Escape your daily grind with Outside’s best getaways.

Thank you!