The next morning, we got up at 4am again. Oy. We hopped in the bus for a really long drive to Uluru (Ayer’s Rock).

Stopping for sunrise at the Painted Desert, we were at the edge of the old inland sea, which dried out eons ago.

Not too far along, we stopped at the "Dog Fence," an incredibly long north to south fence to keep dingos out of sheep farming country.

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Dingos on the right, sheep on the left. I think it goes through most of the country. Oz seems full of quirky, quaint old stuff that seems out of the past, but is actually still holding things together.

Stopping at a roadhouse later, we saw our first "big things." Australia, like the U.S., has a tradition of building out-sized objects get your attention at service stations or small towns. There are big crabs, rocking chairs, koalas, coffee pots, avocados, worms. And of course, there is a big echidna.

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Of all the big things to see, this was the perfect one for me, as I’m fond of the hedgehog, which bears a resemblance to the echidna. But, unlike the hedgehog, it is a monotreme.

After hours in the bus, watching relentless scrubby flat landscape, with occasional giant Wedgetail Eagles perched on dead trees, we stopped for firewood. The local, scrubby gum trees die in their teen years, so there are plenty of dead ones. We got to feel macho hauling big trees to the van.

Finally, in the evening light, we saw Uluru! Well, actually, it was Fooluru — there’s a plateau nearby that resembles the rock from an angle, and most on the bus were fooled. Not me.

After another hour or so, finally, we glimpsed the rock. It was purple, blue and red against the evening sky, and looked like an incredibly grand loaf of bread.

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What makes Uluru so amazing is that you’ve been driving through hundreds of miles of (beautiful) nothingness, then suddenly, here’s the world’s biggest rock, dark red and monolithic. We watched Uluru change color in the sunset.

The rock is sacred to Aboriginal people, and has been returned to their jurisdiction. They have many stories and ceremonies involving Uluru, which they still practice. Aboriginals are one of the world’s oldest cultures, and have been on the Australian continent for at least 60,000 years. They have been doing same dot drawings, eating the same bush-tucker, performing the same dances for eons. They remember the ice age. It boggles.

That night, we camped at a site near the rock. We slept in Australian swags, which are comprised of a thin mattress and canvas outer layer. You put a sleeping bag in, and pull the swag’s flap over your head to sleep. The combination of a cold night, swagging it, and getting up at 4 again did not result in the best of morning moods.

We went to a lookout point to watch Uluru in the first light.

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After sunrise, we took an 8km walk around the rock. It was a coldish, windy morning.

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From far away, Uluru looks monolithic. Up close, you realize that pockmark you saw is actually a large cave. Swooping, ribbed, undulating, striated, perforated, etched forms reveal themselves as you view the rock up close.

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There’s even a sort of inlet with a freshwater spring.

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Aborigines painted lessons in some of the caves. They perform sacred ceremonies around other features, but tourists aren’t allowed to photograph those.

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That afternoon, the flies were out en mass.

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We visited Kata Tjuta (The Olgas), a sacred site of Aboriginal men (Aboriginal women aren’t allowed there, but have their own sacred sites).

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Unlike Uluru, which is mostly granite, they’re formed from composite rock. They’re stunning forms, like tall cakes about to topple. Perhaps I was craving bread that day. They were carved by erosion, with really unique, generally pointy, light green vegetation growing at their bases.

We hiked through a stunning wedge-shaped valley between two of the rocks that made us feel very small.

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It was like walking through a mammoth Richard Serra sculpture.

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Fly-nets were the order of the day.

We drove back to the firewood spot, and gathered some more for that evening. That afternoon, another monster bus ride contributed to a rigor mortis-like feeling.

After dark, we arrived at our "bush camp," in an isolated part of Western Australia, after driving through some scrubby country on a twisty dirt road. It was a very nice, clean campground.

We all helped make a satisfying chicken stew and mashed potatoes, then sat by a big bonfire, created with our firewood. Things were more subdued than the previous night, as people had run out of booze. I found a really long stick and we roasted some marshmallows. Some in the international group had never eaten marshmallows and this was their first taste.

We swagged it again, but it wasn’t as cold that evening. There was a rock under my swag.