The idea of Uluru/Ayers Rock genuinely appealed to me.
I love rock formations and deserts (in either order), and Uluru is one of the most impressive of them all, with a circumference of 9.4 kilometers, rising 348 meters above a featureless desert — higher than the Eiffel Tower or the Chrysler Building.
It is in a harsh, inhospitable environment, yet filled with plants and animals that have learned to adapt to less than 308 millimeters (12 inches) of rain a year and summer temperatures over 105 Fahrenheit (40 Celsius), and has been inhabited for more than 10,000 years by the Anangu. It is a place where few people live, much less visit. It is outside of the middle of nowhere, not far from the “Red Center” of Australia, and 335 kilometers (208 miles) southwest of Alice Springs — Alice Springs being one of the stars of one of my favorite films, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, a 1994 Australian comedy-drama about two drag queens. And then there were the stories of the Anangu, the traditional custodians of Uluru, I needed to hear.
On the other hand, by the time we decided we wanted to go, getting there from where we would be was a hassle, the temperatures would be around 100 Fahrenheit most of the day. And there was that big red flag flying over the place we had to stay — Ayers Rock Resort — which we expected would be like a cruise ship in the desert with every option for activities and meals controlled by the same company and would end up a completely scripted experience.
But Uluru is one of those places, once you hear about, that relentlessly calls your name until you give in. So off we went.
It was worth all of the effort and all of the degrees, and the resort was quite different from what I expected it to be.
Uluru/Ayers Rock was as awe-inspiring as I had hoped, and along with it came a bonus, Kata Tjuta/Mount Olga. Not as well known as its sibling, it’s about 30 kilometers from Uluru, and made up of 36 domes (Kata Tjuta, the Anangu name for the collection of domes, means “many heads”) with a 22 kilometer (13.6 miles) circumference. The highest dome, Mount Olga, looms 546 meters (1,791 feet) above the desert floor and is 198 meters (650 feet) higher than Uluru. It definitely needs a better press agent.
Except for the fiery temperatures, I was in heaven.
Both Anangu names had been replaced by English settlers, and then in 1993, a dual naming policy allowed official names that consisted of both the traditional Aboriginal name and the English name. Eventually they became Uluru/Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta/Mount Olga
The geologists have their story about how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were created.
About 550 million years ago, rainwater flowing down the Peterman Ranges to the west of Uluru and Kata Tjuta eroded sand and rock and created alluvial fans on the surrounding plain, One of these fans was mainly water-smoothed rocks and would become Kata Tjuta. The other fan was mainly sand and would become Uluru.
Then 50 million years later the whole area was covered by a sea, and the pressure turned the fans beneath into rock — the rocky fan, conglomerate rock, and the sand fan sandstone. After 100 million years the sea disappeared, and geological activity folded the horizontal layers of Uluru and turned it nearly 90 degrees, and turned Kata Tjuta about 15 to 20 degrees. As impressive as both monoliths are today, what we see is only their tips, with the rest of the formation extending down about 6 kilometers (3.6 miles).
Over the last 400 million years, wind, but especially water plummeting down the hard rock, wore away the sandstone to form Uluru’s ridges and its caves, valleys, potholes, and pools. While gray was the original color of the sandstone, the iron in the sandstone has rusted, turning it red with gray patches.
When Kata Tjuta was being folded and otherwise beaten up, vertical fractures cracked through the rock, and water and erosion did its work there as well, creating valleys and gorges that split the rock slab into blocks and the rounded domes.
While tourists are quite content to experience Uluru/Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta/Mount Olga as magnificent rock formations to explore in the middle of a barren and almost lifeless desert, the Anangu, who have looked after, and in turn been looked after by the land for hundreds of thousands of generations, experience it very differently.
Their traditions and practices connected to the land are guided by Tjukurpa, the Law.
The Anangu believe before Uluru was created, the world was a featureless place without plants, animals, or landforms (sounds familiar, and predates a number of other religions). Ancestral beings (the Tjukuritja who can take the form of people, plants, or animals) traveled across the lands during the time before time (Dreamtime or Tjukurpa), and in a process of formation and destruction created the world as we know it.
Anangu religion, law and moral systems, and the rules of day-to-day life, defining the relationship between people, plants, animals, and the physical features of the land, emerged based on those events. While tourists think of Uluru/Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta/Mount Olga as monoliths, Tjukurpa identifies the sacred sites throughout the rocks where there were creation events, and the stories of those events — the physical evidence of the Tjukuritja’s time on the earth. For the Anangu, creation is not just history but remains always present — the stories are not just descriptions of events, but metaphors for how to live a meaningful life today.
From generation to generation, the Anangu have shared Tjukurpa — the activities and travels of their ancestral beings — through stories, songs, dances, and ceremonies. But Tjukurpa is surrounded in secrecy, and only passed on to people who have inherited the right to that knowledge and are deemed ready.
Most of the sacred sites are gender specific with men’s sacred sites forbidden to women and vice versa — so specific that members of the other gender are not even allowed to look at those sites, and led to the photography ban in parts of Uluru — ensuring the Anangu people don’t inadvertently see images of the locations. In fact, after the land was turned back to the Anangu, a road was changed so that any gender could travel on the road and not see sites forbidden to them.
After being in the intense heat and exploring the arid desert, I was amazed to find petroglyphs in the caves, cliffs, and fissures, telling the stories of the Anangu. I condescendingly thought, given how hard it was for Anangu to continue to survive in the desert, there would be no time for such “frivolous” things. But here, again, I found that the need to make art seems to be a fundamental part of being human.
The Anangu stories are more than cute, quaint, or charming. They remind us how they, like most indigenous people, and even us, are connected to the land — something easy to forget when in the place you live nature has been reduced to accent pieces.
Listening to the stories of the Anangu people who have lived here for 10,000 years, reveals once again that a desert is not a lifeless barren place. Plants and animals and people can learn to live, and in a relative sense thrive, in what most would consider the most inhospitable of conditions. How can you not be moved when you find out Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to more than 170 species of birds, kangaroos, emus, dingoes, and wallabies that roam the red desert sand.
All life is an important part of Tjukurpa, and if you look closely and listen, the desert and its plants and animals will tell you their stories.
Immature Desert Oaks look like a feather duster and can remain dormant for years, but when a tap route hits the water table its limbs spread as if to embrace the sky.
When the ngyari (thorny devil, Moloch horridus) is in a puddle or on wet sand, water runs up the legs and spreads over the surface of the body by capillary action, eventually reaching the mouth, and they also collect moisture in the dry desert by the condensation of dew on their bodies at night.
This careful relationship between the desert and its inhabitants that had existed for thousands of years ended when most of the Anangu were removed from the region in the 1930s, and then in May, 1977 Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was created and the “professionals” took over.
The Anangu, as established in Tjukurpa, had been doing traditional burning for thousands of years. Many of the desert plants rely on fire to regenerate, and others, like the desert oak, can survive small fires which, while burning its foliage, does not usually kill the tree, Fire encourages bush foods to grow and flushes out game, and reduces the brush that fuels fires, preventing the risk of large wildfires. So when they were booted out of the area, eventually there were disastrous consequences.
In 1950 a fire fed by fuel from the previous 20 years, burned about a third of the park’s vegetation. Again in 1976 two fires burned about 76 percent of the park.
In this case common sense, if not wisdom, prevailed, and park managers realized perhaps they were not as smart as they had thought and approached the Anangu for advice. Together they developed a system of patch burnings for use in the park that blended Anangu knowledge and western science to improve the health of the park.
Even more amazing is that in 1985 the Australian Government deeded the park back to its Anangu, who in turn leased it to the Director of National Parks, to be jointly managed by a board made up of a majority of Anangu with Tjukurpa, guiding everything that happens in the park — as was the case for the previous several thousand years.
Since the late 1950s, there had been motels, a store, service station, and an airstrip at Uluru. In the 1970s the accommodation village and airstrip were moved outside of the Park area. Then in 2011, the resort was purchased by the Indigenous Land Corporation, which in October 2011 established Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, to assist Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to (re)acquire and manage their land. It also started The Indigenous Traineeship Program with all graduates offered either full-time employment with Ayers Rock Resort or assistance with finding employment in the tourism and hospitality sectors across Australia.
The resort experience, which I had serious doubts about, also turned out better than I had hoped.
Linda and I try to avoid scripted manufactured experiences, especially those involving indigenous people, at all costs. But the Sounds of Silence Dinner came highly recommended by friends, and we took a chance.
The dinner was on the top of a small hill overlooking Uluru, and we watched the sunset with its colors changing by the minute. But it got more interesting when it got dark, and the lights were turned off, and the southern sky exploded in all its glory. I finally got to see not only the Milky Way, but the Southern Cross (one of my goals in life), and both the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds, the last three visible only in the Southern Hemisphere.
Later we went down into the Field of Light art installation — 50,000 soft lights covering the desert floor, created by Bruce Munro who wanted to “create an illuminated field of stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, would burst into bloom at dusk with gentle rhythms of light under a blazing blanket of stars”, and indeed it did. It seemed the stars in that spectacular night sky were being reflected by the desert, or maybe even the other way around. We walked with the star talker that had given an astronomy talk earlier (and had helped me find the Southern Cross), talking mostly about the stars and the installation, and then gradually her experience as a Torres Strait Islander in colonized Australia. It was a magical experience.
What really struck me about Uluru, was the distinction of experience between the casual visitor, who comes to see an iconic rock formation, and the Anangu. For them, the rock, the land, and the past, present, and future are all connected through Tjukurpa, and I think they are much better off than the casual visitor for it.