The universal appeal of Uluru
Caroline Berdon and Michael Wayne | AAP | June 27 2017
An immense land iceberg in a sea of sand swirls, Uluru appears almost out of nowhere as we fly over central Australia.
But nowhere is a relative term. This landscape may look dry and empty, a marbled carpet of ochre and scrub, but historically and culturally, it's dripping in wealth.
The Anangu people have been living here in the middle of our nation for 30,000 years. Their population is seven times older than Egypt's pyramids. But even in their earliest years, Uluru was ancient.
Uluru is estimated to be around 600 million years old, a surviving nub of an early mountain range that was created when big crustal blocks came together to form Australia.
Today, the rock really is like an iceberg. It rises 348 metres above the plain and has a circumference of 9.4 kilometres, but its vast majority, almost 2.5km worth, is underground.
This bizarre monolith is one of the most photogenic land forms in the world. The 250,000 people who visit from around the world each year soak up its striking forms and textures, marvel at its size and wow over its glowing red hues at sunset and sunrise.
For the Anangu people, though, Uluru is a living place. Their compass, their soul.
"We navigate ourselves around Uluru. It is part of us," says Anangu elder Sammy Wilson. "Without it, we would be lost."
In the 80s, Uluru and its surrounding land was handed back to its traditional owners (albeit on a 99-year lease). Since then, the Anangu have tightened accessibility so as to preserve their culture.
Thirty years ago, Uluru was about conquering. Many tourists climbed the rock, marvelling over the desert view from the summit.
These days, its traditional owners discourage climbing. For many tourists, it's now more about selfies from a distance. In fact it's nearly impossible to get a photo at any of the viewing platforms without catching a selfie-stick in shot.
It's a funny struggle between two cultures: tourists, endeavouring to drag Uluru into the 20th century and beyond, and the indigenous, who are trying to preserve its ancient significance.
Each side's conflicting visions of the rock send a clear message: Uluru can be all things to all people.
Wilson takes us on a bushwalking tour of the rock to teach us what Uluru means to the Anangu people.
We hear all about Tjukurpa, a wide term depicting culture and soul. The region's dot paintings and wooden craft, the inma (traditional dances), the body painting, the storytelling and the gathering of bush tucker - it's all Tjukurpa.
Anangu consider 30 to 40 per cent of the rock to be sacred sites. Wilson points them out to us from a distance, while explaining how creation beings have left their marks on the rock's surface.
As we contemplate what Uluru means to the Anangu, a willy wagtail swoops down to bath in the rock's biggest freshwater pond. He clings to the rock wall, waiting for the right moment to immerse himself in the crisp water. To him, Uluru is a different kind of life force.
After the bushwalk, park ranger Monica Quan checks our pictures. There are strict rules about what you can and can't photograph. Sacred sites cannot be captured in detail. Thankfully, we can keep our pics.
We ask Quan what happens at these sacred places. "We don't really know," she says. "As non-Anangu, we aren't told much. And for me to relay the wrong information would be akin to stealing a car."
Such is the sacred power of Tjukurpa. It's importance here cannot be underestimated, but its deeper knowledge is held close.
What is open to everyone here, however, is the sky. At night, out here in the desert, it sparkles.
Visitors to Uluru today are more likely to book a dining experience under the stars than a rock climb. Our Sounds of Silence dinner offers us superb food at candlelit tables, with blankets to keep us warm and a fire to facilitate hearty chats with local elders.
Before dessert, we enjoy a laser tour of the night sky and swoon at the moon's craters through a telescope.
The next morning the sun throws yellow rays over the desert floor, illuminating the desert oaks and prickly spinifex studded across the red sand.
Uluru looms over us, its face red-gold to the sun. After spending time talking with the Anangu, we ponder its power. Tourists at the sunrise lookout snap wildly.
Compared to this ancient rock, we're all infants, even the Anangu, and this world is our cradle. Uluru holds significance beyond human understanding.
It holds Anangu stories of creation and is a spiritual compass. It has sacred boulders you can't take photos of. It has freshwater ponds that double as bird baths. It's a tourist goldmine. It's an outback signpost. It's the dead centre of the red centre.
By its very nature, Uluru is all things to all things, and it'll go on being so long after we've gone.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Ayers Rock airport is accessible daily from all state and territory capitals via multiple carriers.
STAYING THERE: Not far from Uluru is Yulara, the village of Ayers Rock Resort, which offers multiple accommodation and dining options. For more info, visit: www.ayersrockresort.com.au
PLAYING THERE: Sunrise and sunset tours can be organised through your concierge. Sounds of Silence dinner, also organised by the resort, costs from $199 per adult. Visit: www.ayersrockresort.com.au/Silence
* The writers travelled courtesy of Google.
(main image: grant-mciver-592/unsplash.com)