JOUR­NEY TO THE RED HOT CEN­TRE

The sa­cred Uluru.

DNA Magazine - - CONTENT -

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.

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