JOURNEY TO THE RED HOT CENTRE
The sacred Uluru.
Everyone knows the red rock monolith in the outback at the centre of Australia is sacred. Some say it’s a powerful energy vortex – one of the planet’s chakras. Someone even told me it has psychic powers; that if you got close enough, it speaks. The area has been listed as world heritage twice over and let’s not forget the eerie element of “A dingo ate my baby!” One thing is for sure: this is no ordinary rock. For the traditional owners, the Anangu Aboriginals, Uluru has always been sacred. In their creation stories, it all began with serpent beings, a great battle and the earth rising up in grief. Geologists, however, say Uluru and neighboring Kata Tjuta (also known as The Olgas, 25km to its east,) are among the oldest land formations on the planet, at around 550 million years old. What we see is just the tip of the iselberg; Uluru extends under the surface for another two to three kilometres.
It is not at all easy to get to, and that’s part of the allure. Being so extremely remote, Uluru requires all the intent and preparation required of a once-in-a-lifetime journey to the centre of the earth. Flying across the vast nothingness of the outback, it’s impossible to miss the striking anomaly – from out of nowhere appears a red pillow on a bed of expansive red flatness.
Uluru has such a magnetic pull that its popularity spawned an airport and even manufactured a sort of city, Yulara, a resortplex just 25km from the park’s gates. The nearest authentic outpost is Alice Springs, at 450km away. Not surprisingly, 450km away is also the nearest possible love connection on your mobile dating app. After that, your closest date is 700km away, then 1,300km. Talk about getting away from it all.
Everything has to be trucked or flown in to Yulara, so the budget is never going to be shoestring. Ayers Rock Resort has five hotels, a campground, grocery store, multiple dining options, shops and free activities like boomerang throwing, traditional dances, bush yarns and garden walks. But the thing you first notice, besides the penetrating heat, are the bugs. There are ants and insects the size of small cars. When I went to take a photo of a gigantic walking stick, more like a walking branch, it suddenly sprouted wings and flew away. Then there are the flies, not as atrocious as I’d been warned, but tenancious nonetheless. For this, they sell flynet hats in the shops, a been-there souvenir if not a fashion statement.
Thankfully, the luxurious Sails In The Desert resort is both bug-free and air-conditioned. With a modern design interweaving the spirit and colour of the local people, it’s the ideal retreat after an early morning trek. Visitors here awake long before dawn and drive to Uluru (or Kata Tjuta) for Yulara’s raison d’être – the sunrise over sandstone. The most impressive views are at sunrise and sunset, when the spectrum of the sun’s rays are at their reddest, reflecting the red oxide of Uluru in a burst of electric scarlet that just as suddenly as it appears, dies. Sleeping in is not an option.
At sunset, this mass witnessing is repeated. In between, days are spent lounging by the pool, taking part in the activities or indulging in the five-star catered all-you-can-eat breakfast at Sails – also known as the best way to precede a nap. Long walks around Uluru and Kata Tjuta offer a solemn, majestic trek back in time. With multiple domes (and thus perspectives), Kata Tjuta is an oftenover shadowed formation that is in many ways more exceptional than its more famous sister.
There are posts at certain points along perimeter trails that ask tourists not to take photos. The rock’s features are like scripture for the traditional owners and though these signposts indicate a general area is traditionally for “men’s business”, they don’t say what specifically we can’t take photos of or exactly why; this is for the Anangu alone >>
>> to know. While there are traditional dances and didgeridoo playing at Ayers Rock Resort, accessing the contents and meanings of their sacred scriptures is impossible for outsiders. Attempting to learn these aspects of Aborigine culture underscore the true meaning of sacred – something intensely private and personal, unsullied by outside influence or opinion. Unlike organised religion, thankfully, they aren’t preaching.
Being in this place, you can’t help feeling for a people who co-existed within their environment, who didn’t seize or build or destroy or interfere and they lived this way until not very long ago. White man first saw Uluru (and named it Ayers Rock in honour of Sir Henry Ayers) in 1873. The rock is now called by the traditional name known by the Anangu who have been in the area for 22,000 years. It is surprising to think just how
Aborigines here were left largely alone until the 1930s, when the Australian government declared dingoes a pest and placed a bounty on their scalps.
recently things changed. The locals here were left largely alone until the 1930s, when the Australian government declared dingoes a pest and placed a bounty on their scalps. “Doggers”, as they were known, increasingly came into contact with Aborigines to enlist their help – trading scalps for items like jam, which wreaked havoc on their digestive systems.
In 1948, the spectre of tourism entered with the grading of a bush track from Alice Springs. Tourists took a two day bumpy ride to visit Ayers Rock where they camped in tents. A trade route soon developed, motels were built at the base, a climbing trail with walking posts was installed like a scar up the mountain and tour guides tossed pails of water on cave walls to better view (and quickly destroy) cave paintings. In 1984 the motels were closed, leaving only Yulara which was outside the park. The following year, the Australian
government returned ownership of Uluru to the Anangu, on the condition they lease it back to the National Parks for 99 years and that it be jointly managed. The Prime Minister at the time, Bob Hawke, reneged on a deal to close the trail, and that was another condition – that tourists continue to be allowed to climb.
They don’t want you to climb the rock. For the Anangu, it is sacred. What’s more, at least 36 people have died as a direct result of climbing it over the years and it makes them sad to see people die on their sacred site. But they can’t officially make it off limits and this concept is difficult for a lot of visitors to understand – it’s only human to see a rock and want to climb it. Certainly, that possibility brings a lot of tourist dollars in and this must have been Bob Hawke’s way of thinking: who’s going to travel all this way just to look at it?
Once arrived, however, there is a lot of discouragement. Stickers and patches for sale in the gift shops (among amazing souvenirs like the ‘Hard Rock No Café’ stubby holder) proudly exclaim, “I didn’t climb Uluru!” A cultural centre in the park informs visitors how the Aboriginals existed on the land before white men came along and ultimately asks that you respect their wishes, tossing in a psychological twist by asking why you would want to climb it? What are you trying to conquer (white man)?
Park rangers stop any conquering by closing the climb at any chance: a gust of wind or a period of mourning. When we were there, the trail was closed due to heat. I was told the trail is closed any day the temperature reaches over 30C (the average temperature during the summer being 36C). They didn’t give an exact figure, but the trail appears to be closed for much of the year. The trail officially closing forever is only a matter of time.
Of course you don’t need to climb Uluru because the best way to get the view from the top is by helicopter. A breathtaking half-hour tour offers a bird’s eye view of Kata Tjuta, Uluru and the vast outback precisely at that moment when the sun splashes it radiant crimson. The rocks soar from the waves of dunes held in place by the roots of spiky spinifex grass which, like the iconic dots in an Aboriginal painting, spot the outback all the way to the horizon.
Back on the ground, Uluru’s walls stretch skyward for 348 metres. Around its base, quiet groves of desert oak shelter the watering holes where the Aboriginals and emu once came to drink. Its surface is ribbed, fissured and pocked with caves and indentations and the memory of a million sacred ceremonies. The breeze blows, whispering omniscient and ineffable and ancient. There’s a lot you can learn from a rock, if you listen.
more: ayersrockresort.com.au, travelnt.com
from the air. (This Simon do Uluru by camel.