This story first appeared in Vacations & Travel magazine, winter 2019, issue 111
Uluru is much more than just a big rock. Here, we celebrate the spiritual power and Indigenous culture of this geological landmark at the heart of Australia.
I have none of my normal frames of reference in the sun-blasted centre of Australia. Nothing by which to measure its immensity. No farmland, few buildings, the occasional tenuous, tarmacked road that eventually morphs into red earth. The spinifex seems to go on forever. The clouds are immense galleons sailing into a blue sky without edges. The landscape is so big that Uluru, when I first glimpse it, seems inconsequential. A pointillist dot on a vast canvas of orange and red outback.
As I get nearer, though, the rock looms steadily larger and is increasingly thrilling. Up close, it’s gigantic. I expect that, of course, but not the texture of its surface. It isn’t as smooth as I’d imagined. Uluru is wrinkled with crevices, lumpy as batter, and startlingly red. It has undeniable character. Almost immediately, I’m struck by its power. It slumbers like a huge brooding beast, and has an extraordinary presence. Small wonder it has been a place of spiritual significance to local Indigenous people for 3,000 years. You wouldn’t be human if you weren’t awed and humbled by this mighty rock.
Uluru’s traditional owners have declared that climbing the rock will come to an end in October this year. They’ve never liked the procession of tourists who have tramped gouges in the rock, discarded their rubbish and disregarded Uluru’s spiritual significance. What strikes me when I’m here, beneath this extraordinary monolith, is how inconsequential climbing Uluru seems. This is a landmark not to conquer, surely, but simply to admire.
Just walking around its base – a not insignificant achievement in itself, since the track runs for 10.6 kilometres – is a marvel. I’m dwarfed by Uluru’s pockmarked, folded surface that turns from red to orange to purple depending on the time of day. It shelters fig and acacia trees alive with twittering birds and waterholes. After rain, it cascades with waterfalls.
I join a complimentary 90-minute walk led by an Indigenous ranger, who talks about Uluru’s significance to local Anangu people and the rock art at Mala, an overhang that has provided shelter for millennia. The art speaks of the almost defiant human aspiration to understand the immensity of the world and shout against our insignificance in it.
The nearby Cultural Centre fills out more background on Indigenous art and culture, and recounts the events that led to Uluru being returned to native ownership in 1985. The centre is well worth a lingering visit, placing the geological phenomenon that is Uluru into the context of Indigenous culture, and explaining its importance to local people over thousands of years.
Ayers Rock Resort has a cultural program that includes indigenous storytelling, a walk through the grounds to learn about bush tucker, and the chance to perfect your boomerang-throwing skills. I join a dot-painting workshop and learn how the painting form is a way of recording history and Creation time or Tjukurpa, and is used for educational and ceremonial purposes. Soon my hands are covered in paint the colour of the landscape, burnt-red and ochre and orange.
The Red Centre’s hues are constantly changing. A Desert Awakenings tour to Uluru at sunrise provides more Indigenous insight just when the rock seems to explode out of the night in glowing orange. At sunset, the Tali Wiru experience – which involves a gourmet meal created from native bush ingredients – is more distant from the rock, but showcases how it looms dramatically out of a flat landscape. At this time of day, it glows red beneath clouds that turn pink, before it’s swallowed up in the pitch blackness of an outback night.
Sounds of Silence is another sunset dining opportunity in the desert, but it’s when the lights are turned off that the outback reveals another stupendous sight, the night sky. I gaze up at a vast swathe of glittering Milky Way that would astonish even the stony-hearted. Two telescopes allow a peer at Orion Nebula and the glowing moon’s surface. A guide points out Gemini, and the Southern Cross, and the constellations of Indigenous Australians, such as the Emu and Stingray.
Unexpectedly, it’s an Englishman who seems to have captured the light, colour and poetry of the landscape at Uluru in an art installation called Field of Light, which runs until 31 December 2020. Artist Bruce Munro says he was inspired by the idea ofthe desert’s dormant seeds blossoming into flowers after rain. Some 50,000 coloured lights nod on spindles and are indeed like flowers, or perhaps a fallen part of the Milky Way above.
Uluru is a brooding background outline to this fantasy of glowing lights in white, pink and purple. My early morning visit starts in the dark with a carpet of light. As the sun comes up, the light installation fades into the background and Uluru takes over. It seems to glow from an inner light. The sky above becomes yellow, and then blue. It’s like watching the dawn of time itself.
The sun has risen every day for 600 million years over Uluru. The landscape is as gigantic as the stretches of time that created it. It’s hard to get your head around it, actually. But you’ll be moved and awed and, just like it does for the Anangu people, it will make your soul sing.
Fly into Ayers Rock Airport.
Where to stay:
Voyages Ayers Rock Resort has five distinct hotels, a campground and numerous restaurants and shops. Five-star Sails in the Desert features décor inspired by Indigenous art and has a spa and swimming pool set in native landscaping. Airport transfers are complimentary. – ayersrockresort.com.au
Tourism NT – northernterritory.com