A closer look at Uluru

Travelling Well | Words: Gary Tippet | Photos: Anne Morley | Posted on 16 January 2018

The ancient monolith of Uluru hums with millennia of human history and culture. The Anangu people  have lived here for more than 30,000 years and their spirit stories are imprinted on its surface.

On a high, red, spinifex-covered sand dune, a woman lifts a flute of sparkling wine and turns to a friend. “You know,” she says softly, “I felt a… I don’t know – a spirit out there.”

They clink glasses and their gaze is tugged back – out there – to where Uluru shifts colours in the setting sun: from its daytime deep orange and rusty ochre through blazing red to pink, bruised purple and chocolatey brown.

There are some who might tell you this is just an effect of the atmosphere, as dust, ash and water vapour filter out the blue end of the colour spectrum to enhance the red.

shot of uluru ayers rock in full sunlight

They’ll explain that Uluru is part of a remnant alluvial fan of arkose, a coarse sandstone rich in feldspar, formed by erosion around 550 million years ago, compressed under an inland sea, then buckled and folded and tilted 90 degrees by immense geological forces.

They’ll add that the bit you see – 348 metres high, 3.6 kilometres long and about 10 kilometres around – is merely the tip; the rest of the slab continues below the ground for possibly six kilometres. They’ll say that if you scratch its ferrous skin, what lies beneath is disappointing dull grey.

And they’ll be right. Yet they will have entirely missed the essence of Uluru.

In part it is the sheer immensity; the rock’s sudden and solitary eruption from the vast plain.

I’m with the entranced women on that dune. Spend enough time at the monolith – and its nearby sister formation, the 36 domed heads of Kata Tjuta – and listen to its storytellers and custodians and it’s near-impossible not to feel that spirit.

In part it is the sheer immensity; the rock’s sudden and solitary eruption from the vast plain; its contrast against the blue sky; or its almost symbolic location at the heart of the continent.

More than that, though, Uluru hums with millennia of human history and culture. The Anangu people of central Australia have lived here for more than 30,000 years and their spirit stories are imprinted on its surface.

shot of a night at field of light, central australia
tali wiru with sunset in background

Rocks, crevices, caves, waterholes: these are the Tjukuritja, the physical evidence that supports the creation stories of Tjukurpa, the complex laws and systems of belief and morality of the Anangu.

Here, indentations along Uluru’s side are paw-prints of Kurpany, the devil dog sent by enemies from the west to massacre the ancient Mala ancestors who insulted them. There, scaly grey-green marks represent the burnt skin of greedy, lying Lungkata the lizard, smoked from a cave and fallen to his death after stealing food.

Further on, Mutitjulu Waterhole is a place of tranquillity and beauty, fed by a cascade of pools in the rock above and ringing with birdsong. But it is surrounded on both sides by marks of legendary violence.

You don’t need to be an Indigenous Australian to consider Uluru a sacred site.

In the Dreamtime, Liru the venomous snake killed a nephew of Kuniya the sand python. Enraged, Kuniya pursued him to the waterhole. Boulders near its entrance are the eggs she put down in preparation for battle; sinuous marks are her track; and to one side is Liru himself, a massive rock split by two cracks.

The smaller is where Kuniya first hit him with her digging stick, the larger is the killing blow. She remains coiled below, watching in case the murderer returns.

Honey Grevillea with Uluru in background
camel to sunrise tour

These are not mere symbols but eternal lessons to the Anangu about honour, duty, daily practice, honesty, respect and the value of life.

But you don’t need to be an Indigenous Australian to consider Uluru a sacred site. Millions of the rest of us have been enticed here since the first tour group arrived – in a school bus after a tough, two-day haul from Alice Springs – in 1950. Every year 250,000 Australian and overseas tourists visit.

They enjoy far more comfort and variety than those in that bus. Some might say luxury. Take the two women with the sense of spirit: tonight their view and the bubbly are shared with indigenous-flavoured canapes, perhaps kangaroo and bush tomato crostini or paperbark-smoked crocodile frittata.

They, and I, are enjoying a Sounds of Silence dinner, in which our bush tucker buffet will be spectacularly lit from above and below – by the brilliance of the Milky Way and the world-renowned art installation Field of Light, in which 50,000 frosted glass spheres flower with changing colour. Creator Bruce Munro was inspired when camping at Uluru in 1992.

Out here, morning or night, with the rock a constant companion, why not go al fresco?

“I saw in my mind a landscape of illuminated stems that, like the dormant seed in a dry desert, wait until darkness falls, under a blazing blanket of southern stars, to bloom with gentle rhythms of light.”   

His vision realised is like a Monet masterpiece splashed on the earth, and we walk through it with a reverential hush as we head back to our accommodation.

That will be Voyages’ Ayers Rock Resort, nestled like a snake and artfully hidden below the highest sand dune and literally the only place to stay out here.

Not to worry. The resort has the gamut of accommodation, from five-star Sails in The Desert Hotel through the recently refurbished Desert Gardens Hotel and self-contained Emu Walk Apartments, to the economical Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge and the budgeters’ Ayers Rock Campground.

desert gardens hotel exterior
camel to sunrise tour

There’s a similar host of drinking and dining options, from do-it-yourself barbecue and burgers to premium restaurants. But out here, morning or night, with the rock a constant companion, why not go al fresco?

So as Uluru pinks and brightens in the chilly sunrise, a breakfast of bacon-and-egg rolls and hot damper with golden syrup is enjoyed on a private sand dune. This is the beginning of the guided, small-group Desert Awakenings tour, which leisurely circles Uluru, from Mala Walk through Kuniya and Mutitjulu to the National Park Cultural Centre.

(It should be noted there are many ways to circumnavigate Uluru, from foot and bicycle, motorcycle tours and helicopters, to those slightly ridiculous Segway things. I prefer Trigger, three-time winner of the local Camel Cup, my somewhat grumpy conveyance on the wonderful Camel to Sunrise experience.)

Everything about Tali Wiru seems designed to impress.

At evening, after having also felt the spirit, I’m back at that Beautiful Dune – Tali Wiru, in the local Pitjantjatjara language – summoned by didgeridoo to champagne and an amusé of Jerusalem artichoke and sevruga caviar.

This is the resort’s signature dining experience, a five-course table d’hote menu including pressed wallaby and fermented quandong, pan-roasted toothfish or rosella and lychee petit gateaux, each paired with a fine wine.

(Everything about Tali Wiru seems designed to impress. Even the long-drop dunny has fresh-cut flowers, dot-paintings and a brilliant view of the humps of Kata Tjuta.)

wine glasses with sunset in background
tali wiru bush foods

It is there – “many heads” in Pitjantjatjara – that we’ll go for another sunset colour change: one arguably more vivid and jaw-dropping than at Uluru. The 36 eroded domes of what once were called the Olgas are sacred under Anangu men’s law, with many of their stories not known except to initiated men, but a walk to the Valley of the Winds hints at their mysteries.

As it should, Aboriginality suffuses the resort, from the bush tucker tones in the menus and cooking experiences, star-gazing tours, dance and theatre performances, the Wintjiri arts centre and museum and particularly the staff. More than a third of its workforce are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, many educated at its National Indigenous Training Academy.

One lunchtime, my “breakfast martini” of green ant-infused gin, Cointreau, lime juice and marmalade (I kid you not) is served by the wonderful Kristie. She’s been here two years, trained through the academy, and is being groomed for bigger things in function management.

But she’s resisting the conflict management component of the training. “I’m too nice,” she tells me. “I don’t have conflicts.”

That’s the spirit.

More

Ayers Rock Resortvoyages.com.au

Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is 5½ hours’ drive south-west of Alice Springs.

The writer and photographer were guests of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.