The fantasmagoric Uluru

Uluru is a gigantic rock that suddenly and inexplicably appears from the depths in the very centre of the Australian continent. They say that this strange object, this red rock, goes down into the ground as deep as 5 kilometres. Ancient geological cataclysms are responsible for its formation. As you would expect, this major fantastic element of the landscape simply had to evoke most fantastic images in the minds of the aborigines who lived around it for millennia. Indeed for them every crack and ridge of the Rock is full of meaning as described in stories of their dreaming.

On the map Uluru looks close to Alice Springs, but in fact it is 450 kilometres away. I decided to go on a three day tour of Uluru and Kata Tjutas which also included King’s Canyon on the last day. This post is about the first two days of this tour.

After driving for hours and hours through the desert from Alice Springs, finally we can take our first look at Uluru:

The road passes through the desert, and yet there are a number of farms and roadside shops. We stopped in several and made acquaintances with these guys, who ate grass from our hands with great pleasure:

This map of Australia in a tavern by the road shocked me. It depicts the division of Australia into aboriginal tribes. It defeats entirely the absurd claim of the English colonisers who declared Australia as terra nullis – empty land. For a long time this idea of terra nullis served as a justification for all sorts of colonial decisions. In reality however as this map shows Australia was composed of at least 250 such tribal units – comparable to countries – which spoke some 700 languages. Moreover, friends in Australia described to me that nowadays there is evidence that there existed in aboriginal times some mysterious connections and institutions that went above and beyond the tribes. It appears that the representatives of the tribes would gather in some secret locations in the middle of the continent. We do not know the details of these rituals because up to this day the aborigines keep a close lid on their secret knowledge and most of all hide it from the white people. Which is easy to understand, considering what terror the white man has instituted to the locals.

As you look away from Uluru, you see another massif – Kata Tjutas. It is less well known, but is equally impressive.

On our first day we went on a walk around and inside Kata Tjutas – on the so called Valley of the Winds walk. Kata Tjutas in a local aboriginal language means many domes. In fact there are 36 domes, but the aboriginal language has no numerals above 3. The European name of the massif is the Olgas, which was given to it by a German explorer who first described it in honour of Olga, then the queen of Württemberg – and a daughter of a Russian emperor.

No dreaming stories about Kata Tjutas have been revealed to the non-aborigines. Many parts of the massif are closed for visits as they have a sacred meaning to the locals.

The final point of our ascent inside the massif. It offers a view of the gorge and another row of domes in the distances. Here we turned around to walk back the same way we came.

As we approached the minivan before departure, this local suddenly came out to say hi:

It is a perrenti lizard, rather rarely sighted. As most representatives of the native fauna, it is under serious attack from the introduced animals. Species such as the possum (a marsupial tree fox), wallaby (a small kangaroo), bandicoot (a marsupial badger) and mulgara (a marsupial mouse) have been entirely destroyed by the newcomer predators. The most dangerous predators are feral cats and foxes. There are special programs to eradicate them, since the native animals have no evolutionary defences against them and fall easy prey. Our guide however stressed that in particular the cats are so cunning and tenacious that it is virtually impossible to hunt them down.

As the evening fell, we returned towards Uluru to watch its spectacular changes in colour in the light of the setting sun.

A lot of the time I would sit next to the driver, as this seat offers the best views as well as the opportunity to ask him all kinds of questions. Our driver-guide on this trip was a young guy from Queensland who had been living in the Red Centre for about a year and had a particular perspective of the place – not quite the local, but not quite the outsider either. We are driving here towards our camp. Kata Tjutas and the sunset.

The camp where we spent the first night.

According to the plan, next morning we got up very early – six o’clock if memory serves – in order to reach Uluru and do a walk all the way around it. It is important to reach it early in order to avoid the midday heat as well as to watch the sunrise.

The walk around Uluru is about 9 km long.

You can only photograph the rock in some sections of the path. Other sections are sacred and no photos are permitted. Special signboards repeat this over and over. The aborigines have a particular perception of the image and for them an image contains the soul of the being or object pictured. Hence the ban on photos.

The aborigines categorically oppose the climbing of Uluru by tourists. The rock is sacred to them and they never climb it themselves. The rock is 953 metres high, to climb it using a narrow steep path in the ever increasing heat is no walk in the park. People regularly get heart attacks, sometimes even slip and fall to their death. Furthermore it takes several hours to go up and down, and there are no toilets up there – inevitably the rock turns into a toilet. The aborigines insist that whoever climbs Uluru or steals a part of it – even a small stone – will be followed by bad luck. In the cultural centre nearby there is a whole wall of letters from the people who once climbed Uluru and later regretted it – and wrote about it to the aborigines. The Australian government however has resisted attempts to ban climbing as they see it as the key to attract tourists.

No one from our group climbed the rock.

The land where the Uluru National Park is situated today belongs to the aborigines. The Australian society has undergone a significant evolution in recent years, in line with other democratic tendencies the rights of aborigines for their ancestral lands have been recognised. Moreover, laws were passed that allowed the aborigines to ask for the return of their land (the so-called native title claim). In practice it is not easy to do so because the law requires a proof of blood relation to the people who lived on the land hundreds of years ago. In the absence of written documents and complete indifference by the colonial powers such proof is difficult, often impossible to provide. A whole series of such native title claims are litigated in the Australian courts at the moment. Some claims have resulted in favour of native owners and that’s why the ownership of the Uluru land including the Rock itself in 1985 has been restored to the four local tribes. The tribes have signed a compromise arrangement with the government, according to which the land is leased by the government for 99 years in order to create the National Park. One condition of the lease is that the board of the National Park is majority-aboriginal and so all major decisions thus have to have local support.

Uluru is a good place to learn about aborigines and their fascinating culture. Uluru National Park is one of the few places in Australia where the aborigines are still allowed to burn the bush in accordance with their traditional practices. It is done in a very particular ingenious way. Firstly, the burning only occurs in the winter months – as it is easy to contain the fire in colder months. Secondly, the land plots are burned in a chess board fashion – keeping patches of old growth where the animals can hide from the sun and creating new growth areas where the animals can graze. Such system supports the animals and at the same time makes it easy to hunt them. The information was encoded in Tjukuricha, the aboriginal wisdom contained in dreaming stories, and was supposed to be handed down by the blue tongued lizard Lungkata – if you remember. Parts of Tjukuricha cannot be said in a full voice and surely many parts of it have not been revealed to the Europeans.

Oh and one more lesson: boomerangs don’t actually come back.

In one place Uluru forms a sort of a shady pocket where you suddenly discover a small natural lake. It is fed by a stream running down the side of the rock. You cannot drink or swim in the lake for the reasons described above.

In precolonial times the aborigines never swam nor drunk the water from the lake. The point was to avoid contaminating the water with the human smell so as not to frighten away the animals. The aborigines would hide in the bushes surrounding the lake and systematically hunt down the kangaroos and wallabies who came to drink.

The depth of aboriginal knowledge of the land is astonishing. To me all the plants here look pretty much the same. A local would know dozens of uses for each plant – from food to medicine to various household uses. Another example: there are frogs that live by this lake. In dry season they bury themselves in the sand and they can survive for 4-5 years in this fashion. The aborigines would know how to find them and drink them for water.

The strange shapes of the rock surrounding the lake are particularly rich with aborigine legends. The Kuniya python and the Lyra poisonous snake fought here at dawn of creation and these are traces of their battle.

Some of the grottoes in the Rock have preserved the rock paintings. You can see the paintings much clearer if you pour water onto them. And so in the middle of XX century tourist groups would systematically throw water on the paintings here. No surprise then that most of the paintings have been washed away.

The aborigines still live around here, but they continue their nomadic way of life – they roam the land the way their ancestors did. Depending on the season – there are 7 seasons in their calendar – there can be from 12 to 4000 people in the Uluru area. From time to time the ceremonies are conducted here. No particular calendar for these ceremonies and they can last for many days.

Our tour was marketed as a cultural experience and so it was supposed to include a “cultural walk” with members of a local tribe. Our driver-guide however warned us repeatedly that the aborigines might simply not come – say if a ceremony were to be taking place at that time. We were lucky though, two elderly locals accompanied by a white translator did join our walk. The first thing they say was Palya. Palya means hi, welcome, as well as a number of other things. The aborigines are very shy and avoid eye contact at all costs. They told us right away that we were not allowed to film them – but we could make photos. The walk starts with this grotto, a men place.

I admit that the aborigines did not tell us very much on this walk. They told a short part of a story about how the Mala people living at the foot of Uluru were attacked by Kurpan, the magical being sent by another tribe. Various episodes in the legend explained the particular cracks and ridges in the Uluru Rock. They would point to a crack and tell a piece of the story.

For me the stories sounded pretty absurd in that every following step did not logically connect to the previous one. My whole being was shouting: non sequitur! But I had the impression I was perhaps the only person who even tried to follow the story – the rest of the group appeared to be completely puzzled. There was a moment where you could ask questions, and so I asked about the apparent lack of logical connections. The translator shushed me with vague explanations: circular logic, non-linear narrative… but as the rest of the group watched him with some amusement, he did translate the question. The aborigines thanked me for the question, but their answer simply restated the story.

A photo with the storyteller.

This is a mesa – a mountain formation that you can see as you cross the desert, quite similar to the formations in the United States. This photo is made next morning as we started our way towards the King’s Canyon. The next post will be about it.

And finally a look at Uluru from above. I made this photo some days later from a plane as I was leaving Alice Springs.

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