A giant chunk of red sandstone in the middle of the Australian desert is steeped in mystery and legend. This place of spiritual significance, whose every eroded scar has a meaning for its Aboriginal owners, also exerts its power on the imaginations of the thousands who visit it every year.
As the sun spreads its dawn rays across the sky, Uluru begins to lighten. Shifting from black to deep mauve, the giant monolith gradually becomes more distinct. When the first rays of the sun strike, the stone bursts into a riot of reds and pinks that chase each other across the surface with startling speed. Shadows flee the hollows until the whole rock is bathed in desert daylight. The colour changes continue throughout the day, and by evening have run the spectrum from golden and pinky reds through ruby to crimson red and purples.
Like the Sydney Opera House, Uluru has come to symbolize Australia. But unlike that modern man-made structure, the rock represents the country’s far distant past, when the Aboriginal peoples were the only human occupants of the land. Uluru is the Aboriginal and now official name. Better known is the English name, Ayers Rock – which dates only from 1873 when the explorer William Gosse saw it and named it for Sir Henry Ayers, premier of South Australia, which was responsible for the government of the great expanse of the Northern Territory.
A visitor’s first impression of the rock – it is visible from 60 miles (100km) away – is the abruptness with which it rises above the plain. Then it is its sheer bulk that amazes. Measuring 1142ft (348m) high, and with a circumference of 6 miles (9.5km) at the base, Uluru is often cited as the world’s largest monolith. But it is in fact just the tip of a mostly submerged ‘mountain’ of rock extending to an estimated depth of 3¾ miles (6km) below ground level. Some 550 million years ago, the rock was part of the sea floor that occupied the centre of Australia. The waters receded, and gradual movements and upheavals in the Earth’s crust pushed the rock over onto one side.
The rock is made of arkose, a type of red sandstone that contains large quantities of feldspar. Various oxides of iron are also present, and their oxidization, actually rusting, contributes to Uluru’s red-brown colour. This composition accounts for the remarkable changes in colour that occur as night gives way to dawn, dawn to daylight and daylight to dusk. Many people visit Uluru simply to watch the effects of light at different times of day and during different seasons. When it rains the rock appears to have a liquid silver skin. Surface grooves become raging torrents and the water that cascades down the rock’s precipitous sides forms transient pools on the surrounding desert floor.
On close inspection, the rock reveals a delicacy of form in features that have been carved by rain and wind. They include the caves and permanent pools that are the sacred places of the Aborigines, and the cracks, crevices, and ridges that have been ascribed animal or human shapes.
The forces of nature are also wearing away the rock with other clearly visible results. The alternating extremes of hot and cold temperatures, characteristic of a desert environment, bring about a process called spalling, in which flakes of rock are shed from the surface and slide down to the ground below. Not all the loosened areas fall away, however: on the north face of Uluru a colossal rocky spine known as Ngaltawata leans like a giant buttress against the steepy curved slope.
Rock holes such as the Mutitjula waterhole were formed and are fed by torrents draining off the rock during infrequent desert storms.
William Gosse was not the first European to set eyes on Uluru. A year earlier, the explorer Ernest Giles glimpsed it from the shores of Lake Amadeus, some 25 miles (40km) to the north while making one of several expeditions into the Australian interior. When he returned to the rock the following year, he found that Gosse had already reached the summit. More recently, the Australian adventurer and writer Robyn Davidson visited Uluru while journeying in the outback. In her book Tracks she described her first, vivid impression of the rock: “The indecipherable power of the rock had my heart racing. I had not experienced anything quite so weirdly, primevally beautiful.” Davidson’s sentiments are echoed by most visitors, who are usually surprised by their strong emotional reaction to what is, after all, just a massive lump of stone.
These impressions become more meaningful to those who know something of the Aboriginal myths and legends associated with the rock and its environs. According to Aboriginal legend, during the creation period the world was a featureless place until the creator beings travelled across the land and their activities formed the landscape. The paths that the creator beings followed are called iwara and Uluru is a very important landmarks on these tracks.
The story of the creator beings is part of the Tjukurpa of the local Anangu people. In the beginning, the Mala people – in the form of hare-wallabies (small, kangaroo-like animals) – travelled to Uluru for an important men’s ceremony. Some of the men planted a ceremonial pole on the top of the rock, while the women gathered food.
Later, the Wintalka (mulga seed) people arrived to ask the Mala to take part in another ceremony. When the Mala men refused, the Wintalka became so angry that they used powerful magic to create an evil dog-like monster called Kurpany. Kurpany was sent to Uluru to disrupt the Mala ceremony and the people fled far to the south after the monster killed some of the Mala. To the Anangu people who live in the Uluru area, Tjukurpa is both their traditional law and their religion. It explains past, present and future existence and is the source of stories, art, ceremonies, landscapes, plants, and animals. Tjukurpa, the very foundation of Anangu life, is often erroneously referred to as the ‘Dreamtime’ or ‘Dreaming’, but these words are inadequate as they imply that Tjukurpa is not real.
During the ancestral Tjukurpa, the world was inhabited by animal-humans with supernatural powers, including the Yankunytjatjara, or python people, and the Pitjantjatjara, the hare-wallaby people, both of whom are associated with the rock itself. These ancestral beings undertook long journeys and quests across the then featureless world. Wherever they stopped to pick fruit, hunt or even to throw away bones, the landscape changed. Waterholes came into existence and rock formations appeared, all of which became sacred.
In these places, different Aboriginal families, each wit its own language and stories, were born. At the same time, an intricate pattern of iwara (tracks or paths) was established across the desert. These tracks link significant sites, such as Uluru, and were once vital to the survival of the people who lived and hunted there. Their whereabouts and secrets have been passed down from generation to generation in songs, in paintings, and in the ritual corroboree ceremonies. The painting below shows a python and witchetty grubs during the Tjukurpa.
For today’s Anangu people, the land is still inhabited by the spirits of the ancestral creator beings and evidence of these incidents can be seen all around Uluru – locked in the shapes of boulders, caverns, groves, and markings. Every part of Uluru, therefore, has powerful connotations for the local people, who consider themselves custodians of a symbolic and sacred landscape. It is for this reason that the Anangu prefer visitors do not climb the rock.