Uluru/Ayers Rock – Built by boys or aliens?
It has been said hundreds, if not thousands, of times and has become as clichéd as shrimps on a barbie. But it is true.
Ayers Rock looks like something you would find on another planet.
The remoteness of this Australian giant has to be seen to be believed.
Most of us, living our lives in the busy, crowded world of the 21st century, aren’t used to wide areas of open space.
So the deep red of the Australian outback already jars on our city-acclimatised senses. Add a huge sandstone rock, appearing unhindered out of the middle of nowhere, and it is no wonder things start to feel alien.
Ayers Rock – or Uluru as it is alternatively and probably correctly known – is located in the Uluru-Kata Tsuta National Park on Aboriginal land.
And it is not just my westernised, modern mind that this ancient sandstone structure has been inspiring – centuries before it created similar feelings in the Aboriginal Pitjantjatjara tribe that lived in the area.
The Pitjantjatjara, who refer to themselves as Aṉangu (people), believed Uluru was formed during the Aboriginal Dreamtime.
According to the Aṉangu, the world began as a featureless place. Creator beings, in the forms of people, plants and animals, then traveled widely across the land forming the landscape we know today.
One legend – and there are many – says Uluru was built by two boys who played in the mud after rain.
Aboriginals today believe the land is still inhabited by the spirits of dozens of these creator beings, known as Tjukuritja or Waparitja.
It is for this reason that the Aṉangu would prefer people do not climb the rock – although visitors have been doing so for years.
My own trip to Uluru came in 2002, and I first came to the rock on a dawn tour – watching the fierce outback sun rise above this colossus in a flash of colour.
High wind levels meant the rock wasn’t climbable at that time, though none of our guides indicated it shouldn’t be done.
Instead I walked around the base of the rock, enjoying the glorious reds and sheer size of it.
By the time I had circumvented it – a couple of hours in ever increasing heat – people were climbing the outside of it, pulling themselves up the steep edges with the help of a well used handrail.
The history of the Pitjantjatjara and their reverence for Uluru can be studied in the fascinating Uluru-Kata Tjuta Aboriginal Cultural Centre, just south of the rock.
But at the stage I reached the base of the climb I was ignorant of it – I was a traveller, there was a huge, exciting rock to climb and I was looking for challenges.
Did I climb Uluru? Of course I did.
The climb itself is far from easy. I saw many people struggle – and plenty give up. It is very steep and no clear path has been cut into the rock, save that made where it has been weathered by the slow march of boots up its sides.
The final metres come with no handrail at all, producing an undignified scramble for the top.
Despite this, coming down is much harder than going up. There is little grip for feet and shoes that have often come unprepared for such a trail.
But the views from the top are spectacular and – at least during my visit – there was a chance to get some peace away from other tourists, as many do not complete the climb.
It was on the top of Uluru that you get a real feel for the size of the desert and the isolation of the rock.
Would I have climbed it if I had known the history? It is a harder question to answer than it should be.
Reverence for Aboriginal tradition should leave people rooted at the bottom, but the very human desire to conquer, to climb what is in our path would have been a hard urge to resist even then.
And the experience and views the climb offer remain treasured, untarnished despite knowing I trampled on someone’s tradition.
People will make their own minds up.
Of course, Uluru has a second name and history.
On July 19, 1873, surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named it Ayers Rock in honour of the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
In 1993, a dual naming policy was adopted allowing official names that consist of both the traditional Aboriginal name and the English name.
Ayers Rock/Uluru became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the names was reversed to Uluru/Ayers Rock on November 6, 2002 following a request from the Regional Tourism Association in Alice Springs.
From a distance the rock looks like it has a smooth surface, but it is actually pitted with depressions on the top caused by weathering.
Three-and-a-half kilometres long, nine long kilometres around the base and 348 metres above the ground, Ayers Rock is a truly awe inspiring sight.
Even more incredibly, two-thirds of the rock is buried underground.
Alien landscape, home to ancient spirits, tourist mecca.
The clichés are all correct, but the only way to really see Uluru/Ayers Rock is with your own eyes.