Australia is vast and much of it is relatively unpopulated. Many major roads out west are two-lane dirt roads.* While I yearned to get far out into the bush away from the drum of people, I was smart enough to realize that renting a four-wheel-drive car on my own and driving into the desert would likely lead to me getting stuck somewhere and dying from dehydration. Since I didn’t really budget enough time in Australia to do that and since I desperately wanted to see Uluru (ool-or-roo), I journeyed to the “Red Centre.” Ayers Rock Resort, the “town” near Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park probably can’t be classified as the outback. It’s basically a small, well-run, local resort near the Rock. Since it is the only place to stay near the Rock, it’s also overpriced. Most backpackers don’t go to Uluru because of the cost. Most Australians have also never been to Uluru, but then again, many Australians have never left the southern or eastern coastal cities.
When I arrived, I was shocked to see greenery. I had assumed that since I was going to a desert, it would be arid. It turns out that this part of the Northern Territory is semi-arid and doesn’t have alternating wet and dry seasons. There were shrubs and trees everywhere, forming a beautiful and varied landscape. There was a lot of red dirt too, but I was impressed by the foliage. Above all of this rises a huge monolith: Uluru. Much has been written about the beauty of Uluru and I feared that the travel writers had embellished the magnificence. I was delighted to find that they hadn’t. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Every time I looked at it, I noticed a new color, crevice, or shadow.
Uluru and nearby Kata Tjunta (catta-jew-tah), a series of 36 domes, were formed by the erosion of the Petermann Ranges, mountains to the west. Around 550 million years ago, the once massive Petermann Ranges started eroding, sending out fans of sand and mud. These groups of sand and mud were then covered by the sea, the weight of which turned them into rock. Eventually the sea disappeared, but these rocks remained buried underneath the earth. Over the last 300 million years, erosion has worn away the softer rocks, leaving only the domes of Kata Tjunta and the single rock of Uluru. Uluru and Kata Tjunta are made of different materials and scientists believe that Kata Tjunta fractured at some point, hence Uluru remains a massive monolith and Kata Tjunta has eroded into several domes.
That is the simplified, western, geological explanation. The Anangu (arn-ung-oo), the Aboriginal people of the Western Desert, tell a different story about the history and shape of Uluru and Kata Tjunta.** The Anangu believe that ancestral beings created the landscape, travelling across the land and shaping it as they went. This creation time is referred to as Tjukurpa (chook-orr-pa) and it forms the foundation for Anangu culture. Much of Tjurkurpa knowledge is sacred and cannot be shared with outsiders. Uluru and Kata Tjunta both contain Tjurkuritja (chook-orr-icha), physical evidence that Tjurkurpa events occurred. The Anangu graciously share some of the culturally important stories related to Uluru with visitors. The significance of Kata Tjunta and of certain areas of Uluru are known only to members of the Anangu community, although you can hike around Kata Tjunta and the entire base of Uluru.
I had the chance to learn hear more about the significance of Uluru from a ranger on a short, guided walk. As I continued my walk around the rock, I saw more evidence of the sacredness of the site: there are plaques detailing stories about the caves and pits as well as signs denoting cultural sensitive areas where photos should not be taken. Honestly, I was quite impressed by this entire situation. Tourism can be good for a community, but it can also be exploitative. At the moment, an appropriate balance seems to have been reached. Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t always this way.
Many indigenous communities in central Australia had almost no contact with European settlers until the 20th century. Between 1918 and 1921, large areas were set up as reserves for nomadic Aboriginal communities, similar to the Native American reservations created in the US. In the 1940s, tourists began to flock to Uluru. By 1958, the federal government had decided to excise Uluru and Kata Tjunta from the reserve, turning them into a federally owned national park. It wasn’t until 1985 that the Anangu, after a long series of negotiations and court battles, were granted the land back. Yet, even this return of ownership came with a series of conditions. On the same day that the title to Uluru-Kata Tjunta was handed back to the Anangu, they had to lease it to the National Parks and Wildlife Agency for 99 years under joint management. Eight of the twelve members of the Board of Management must be indigenous people nominated by the Anangu, of which half must be female. The remaining four members represent the federal and state governments. Through this system the Anangu decide what cultural stories they want to share about the rock with visitors and set park management practices. As an outsider, it’s hard to know whether the local communities like the current situation, but everyone I talked to was very welcoming and spoke highly of the joint management system and economic impact of tourism.
The one interesting caveat to that was the climb. The Anangu consider Uluru sacred. Climbing it is incredibly offensive to the traditional owners. Yet, the climb is still open. The climbing trail was created and opened by the federal government long before the Anangu regained ownership. The management board intends to close the climb, but is waiting until they believe people are ready for it, or in numeric terms, until less than 20% of visitors choose to climb it. Right now, 20-30% of visitors climb it. I was disgusted by this number and by how many people I saw climbing it. Every material and sign I saw respectfully asked visitors not to climb the rock. If you could set aside how incredibly inappropriate and offensive it is to trample on sacred ground, the safety issues alone should be a deterrent. It’s basically like climbing a massive boulder. It’s steep, incredibly windy, and there’s only one chain handrail to hold onto. Thirty-six people have fallen off the rock and died and many more have been injured. There are two helipad stations on top of the rock in case someone needs to be rescued. Fortunately, all the tourists I spoke to were also dismayed by how many people still climb it.
My trip out to the desert ended all too quickly, but I was pleased to see Uluru and to hike the Valley of the Winds at Kata Tjunta. I did not see a kangaroo, as it had been rather wet lately, but I also didn’t run into any poisonous snakes so I consider my adventure a success.
*For those interested in a visual display of the emptiness of central Aussieland, check out this map.
**The information about Anangu and their relationship to Uluru is pulled from the National Park Visitor GuideNational Park Visitor Guide and the oral stories shared by the park ranger on a guided tour. For more information about the Anangu communities, check out the park page.