Uluru, Northern Territory, Australia
Flying from Alice Springs towards Uluru, the orange plains of Central Australia stretch out in every direction. It’s easy to spot anything rising up from these flat lands and so, about 40 minutes into the flight, I see a red mound interrupting the horizon.
I point it out to the pilot but he shakes his head. This is the trick he had mentioned before we took off. What I’m pointing to is actually Mount Conner, or ‘Fool-uru’, which looks similar to the more famous rock but, when you examine it closer, has much straighter edges and a flatter top.
It’s not the only surprise I’m going to have on my excursion to the red centre. For one of the most photographed natural sites in Australia, there is a lot that’s unexpected.
Five minutes later I spot the real Uluru through the windscreen of the plane and it’s the image you have come to recognise (and I instantly see the difference to Mount Conner). We land at the airport and drive straight to the most popular viewpoint. Here there are still no surprises. This is the postcard view, the rock in full sunlight, red and vibrant, relatively barren land before it.
But, leaving the viewpoint and driving closer, Uluru takes on a different shape. In fact, it takes on many different shapes. From a distance, it appears as a smooth monolith, like a pebble shaped by waters. In actual fact, it has ridges and crests, small canyons, caves and irregular slopes. Patterns on the face tell the story of time – and the people who have lived here for thousands of years have told their own stories through these shapes.
My guide for the day, Nadia Wallace, takes us to the Mutitjulu Waterhole, an unexpected oasis on one side of Uluru where gum trees grow and birds hop between the branches. This cool and green environment isn’t what I expected out here.
Nadia points out the markings high up on the side of the rock, caused by erosion and other natural damage. She tells the tale that the markings inspired for the local Anangu people, which they shared with each other when they were alone on this land for countless generations. It’s a tale about honour and respect and punishment for those who don’t follow that code.
“When you look at those markings on the rock and you hear the story and you hear the lessons about what’s happened there,” Nadi explains, “it’s the same story that Anangu people have been teaching each other for years and years and years. Kids have been learning those same things for a long long time.”
The Anangu people have lived here for about 20,000 years and their first contact with non-indigenous foreigners wasn’t until the 1870s. These stories were their version of biblical tales – parables with which to learn to act as a community. They saw Uluru as a spiritual place and even today you can feel it. The rock and the surroundings seem to give off an energy that could be from a force of divinity.
The local indigenous people who still live in the area are, as Nadia puts it, quite shy. Some work as rangers, some as artists, but many of them keep to themselves. It’s a pity there aren’t more opportunities to hear about the significance of this land directly from them but there are lots of signs that explain the history and culture.
“All of the stories that you hear,” Nadia tells me, “they explain how to live and how to survive and the stories travel so if they needed to get from one place to another, if they knew the stories, then they knew how to survive along that pathway.”
The pathway that has brought me to Uluru is The Ghan Expedition, the four day train journey from Darwin to Adelaide that travels overnight through the vastness of Australia and arrives each day at a new destination where you can get off and explore. Almost all of the excursions are included in the price of the trip but this scenic flight and tour around Uluru is an optional extra with an additional cost.
For Australians who think they will one day come back and spend more time here, it’s probably not worth it. But for those who would otherwise never see the rock, it’s an easy way to experience the spiritual heart of the country.
A few hours on the ground is long enough to feel the energy of Uluru but not long enough to become absorbed by it. Many parts of the site – including the entire northeastern face – are designated as sacred areas because of their significance to the indigenous inhabitants. That means people aren’t allowed to take photos of these areas and so it’s likely you’ve never seen images of them before. These, in particular, are the places that I would like to have spent more time looking at, thinking about, being a part of.
Ever since climbing the rock has been discouraged, the guardians of Uluru have worked to provide more appropriate experiential options for visitors. One of them is a hike that goes the entire way around the base. That’s something I would love to come back and do sometime. The diversity within the single walk – the sun and shade, the caves, the different colours of the rocks, the trees, the paintings, the wildlife – create a picture words could never do justice. It’s about the soul as much as anything.
Spirituality is, in many ways, a human construct. It is something we have created for tens of thousands of years to explain the unexplainable elements in our life that feel as true as anything we can touch. It’s easy, from a distance, to say that indigenous people just created the spirituality of Uluru as a part of their belief system. But, close up, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s real, it’s here, and no postcard photo will share it with you.
Uluru needs to be felt to be truly seen.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. For more info click here. You can see all the UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited here.
Time Travel Turtle was supported by Great Southern Rail but the opinions, over-written descriptions and bad jokes are his own.