Dawn had yet to arrive, but the sounds of the desert had awoken me. I opened my eyes to the sounds of birds chirping and dingoes howling in the distance. A sky full of stars sprawled before me, the Milky Way running its course overhead. I listened to the desert orchestra and smiled to myself, enjoying this rare moment of solitude to myself. It was a privilege to be here in Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park, but even more so was the opportunity to camp out in this quiet and remote spot, and awaking to such a beautiful surrounding.
It was a beginning of a new day and the start of an action-packed day in Uluru. After a quick breakfast over the campfire, we packed up our swags, sleeping bags, and belongings and drove up a sand dune to watch the sun rise over Uluru and Katja Tjuta.
We didn’t have to wait for long: Blinding rays of orange flashed across the vast desert like a laser light show. What was grey and black in the dawn light instantly came alive. The brooding Uluru was now painted in burgundy red, rising from a lime green plain of spinifex grass with patches of red sand in between. The stack of rock mountains at Kata Tjuta was illuminated in a shade of rose red, with striated lines of black and white running across their flaky surface. The fascinating transformation from night to day took place in a sheer matter of minutes – but it was a moment I would remember for life.
What was grey and black in the dawn light instantly came alive. The brooding Uluru was now painted in burgundy red, rising from a lime green plain of spinifex grass with patches of red sand in between.
Aboriginal Culture in the Outback
We were on a camping safari with Wayoutback Desert Safaris, spending three days in the national park camping, hiking, and exploring the area. The three main sites in the national park are Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon – all of which are considered sacred to the Anangu, the Aboriginal people of the Red Center. Having lived here for a approximately 20,000 years, the Anangu have a particularly close relationship with their land – surviving entirely on what the bush provides for food, education and spiritual development. Today, the traditional landowners continue to live here, protecting and managing the World Heritage Site.
The day before, we had started our trip from Alice Springs, a gateway town in the Outback. Led by our young and feisty guide Nick, we drove almost 335km (208 miles) through vast fields of red sand and green spinifex along with 16 other campers on board a massive 4WD truck. The Stuarts Highway, that connects the top end of Australia all the way to the southern edge, brought us right into the heart of the Red Center. Along the way, we saw falcons flying overhead and giant lizards crossing the road. Sometimes we drove for miles without seeing anyone else in sight – that was the sign that we were heading further away from civilization and closer towards the our destination.
Having lived here for a approximately 20,000 years, the Anangu have a particularly close relationship with their land – surviving entirely on what the bush provides for food, education and spiritual development.
Our first stop was the Uluru Cultural Centre, where we hungrily devoured interesting information about the area’s cultural heritage and tradition. Here, we learnt about the Anangu, one of the 500 different Aboriginal tribes that live all over Australia. They speak mainly Pitjantjatjara (pronounced as pigeon-jarrah) and Yankunytjatjara (pronounced as young-kun-jarrah), each of which only boast 4,000 speakers.
Having been named Ayers Rock by the Europeans who arrived later, Uluru is now once again known by its Aboriginal name. When I asked Nick about the meaning of Uluru and how it came about, he explained, “The word Uluru has no specific meaning in Pitjantjatjara, it’s merely the name of a place, although the place itself holds very special meaning for the Anangu.”
Dreaming and Songlines
So why is Uluru such a sacred spot for the Anangu?
When we arrived at the base of Uluru, Nick pointed at the monolithic rock mountain rising above the sand before us and said in an almost poetic fashion, “Look at it. How many monoliths like this do you see in the world?” Spotting big blond dreadlocks, Nick looked like a new-age hippie but he had an endless thirst for Aboriginal knowledge and he was as curious and intrigued by his own country as we were.
We stood staring at the majestic Uluru, thought for a moment and nodded in unison. In the morning sun, Uluru spotted a perfect dome-shaped silhouette. There was nothing surrounding it, except for flat desert plains that ran for miles. It was as though God had purposefully molded it into what it is today – a flawless mound of red sandstone, standing lonesome and majestic in the middle of the desert. There really isn’t any monolith as big and perfectly sculpted as Uluru anywhere else.
Because Uluru is considered sacred, this spot often appeared in Aboriginal Tjukurpa (pronounced ‘chook-orr-pa’) stories. Tjukurpa has many deep, complex meanings – even the Aboriginals themselves find it a concept hard to explain. In general, Tjukurpa refers to the creation period when ancestral beings created the world. From this came their religious heritage, explaining their existence and guiding their daily life. Like religions anywhere in the world, Tjukurpa provides answers to important questions, the rules for behavior and for living together.
Many of the rock paintings on Uluru show scenes from Aboriginal dreaming, which explain how the rock was created and how some cracks came about on Uluru. Scientifically speaking, the cracks and flakes on Uluru are formed by the extreme cooling of water beneath the rock layer (which freezes at night and then expands in the day, which causes the cracking). But the Anangu think otherwise and they’ve got plenty of stories to show their side of it.
Because Uluru is considered sacred, this spot often appeared in Aboriginal Tjukurpa stories. Tjukurpa has many deep, complex meanings – even the Aboriginals themselves find it a concept hard to explain.
The rocks told many stories – those of the Anangu and of the Europeans. We came upon drawings of camels on the walls. Nick explained that these paintings were done during the 1850s when Europeans arrived with camels. The first European who came was Ernest Giles, who first sighted Uluru in 1872 and climbed the monolith with the help of an Afghan camel driver. This spot became the classroom for the Anangu children, who all came here to learn about the dreaming stories.
Meandering further along the base of Uluru, Nick picked out plants like the bush fig and wattle (Australia’s national flower), which fed the Anangu for centuries. Even now, it is still part of the Aboriginal culinary tradition, which we would learn about later during a Mbauta dinner with an Aboriginal chef. Continuing on our walk, we found a part of the rock formation that resembled a wave. Nick told us this was the kitchen for the Anangu. There was a grinding area where they used to ground wattle seeds and drain blood from kangaroos. They usually barbecued the kangaroos for a short while and ate them almost raw as the meat would have more moisture in them.
By this time, the sun was blazing even though it was only 11am. Temperatures at Uluru can rise up to 42 degrees Celsius and dip to a low of 5 at night. To escape the extreme heat of Uluru, we headed back to the camp. Nick grilled some thick juicy Australian sausages and we all gathered for a quick lunch, before heading back to the base of Uluru for another evening walk. There are several hiking routes along the base and it takes several days to walk all of them.
Uluru’s Modern Day Problems
When tourism in Uluru started in the 1940s, the white Europeans drove the Aboriginals out as they didn’t want them in the area when tourists were taking photos. The Anangu suffered in silence, left their sacred land, and retreated deeper into the desert. Fortunately in the 1970s, the land was eventually returned to the Anangu.
They now have a shared management program with the government authorities, which means both parties maintain the site, protect it and make any Uluru-related decisions together. On the board of authorities, half of the members are Aboriginals and the other half are white Australian government officials. The board ensures that visitors to the site adhere to both Aboriginal laws and Australian rules.
Photography of sacred sites is not allowed and no other animals are allowed to be brought into the park. Climbing Uluru is strongly discouraged as it is considered disrespectful to the Aboriginals; but it is not completely banned, so some people still attempt the climb. Each year around 40 climbers die, because of the danger involved (some slip and fall, others suffer from the heat). Some of these climbers hike and camp on the top, which often destroys the environment considering how fragile Uluru is. I personally think that as travelers, we should always respect the locals, regardless of where we are in the world and as such, I would never attempt the climb.
Continuing further along the trail, we came across an area with burnt vegetation. Nick explained that the vegetation was just recently burnt by a young Aboriginal boy. The Aborigines like to burn vegetation so that new plants can grow and that would give them more food. This has become quite a serious problem in Australia, and we’ve seen it in other parts of the country as well. Thankfully, Nick said that the burning in Uluru is controlled now.
Right before ending our walk, someone in the group pointed out to a giant lizard standing on a rock surface. It was a perentie, Australia’s largest reptile. We watched in awe, amazed to find a creature of this size running wild in the desert. It stood staring at us for a long time, before sneaking off into the seams of the rock.
Sunset at Uluru
By the time we finished our walk, it was the perfect time to catch the sun set over Uluru. We drove out to a nearby lookout point, but sadly we were not the only ones there – a whole row of tourist buses and campervans had already gathered here to watch the spectacle.
“When sun is low, the sky becomes red because of the infrared rays that penetrate through the atmosphere. And when that happens, Uluru will become red too.” Nick shared with us.
Along with probably hundreds of other tourists, we stood with our cameras ready, anticipation and tension piercing the air. Soon enough, the color of the rock changed quickly from sandy brown to orange and eventually bright red. As Nick said, Uluru was now shrouded in a shade of vermillion red, glowing like a tungsten light bulb against a clear cloudless sky. Everyone went silent, watching the phenomenon in awe.
As the magical moment passed us, Nick popped open a bottle of champagne and we clinked glasses in celebration of the moment. Platters of cheese and crackers were served and everyone was in high spirits; Nick was spoiling us terribly. Back at the campsite, night fell and we were quick to get started on cooking. The guys helped Nick start the fire while some of us girls started chopping, dicing and washing. It was plenty of fun getting to know our group of travelers from different corners of the world – made up of a Norwegian couple, an outgoing Canadian brother and sister team, an American girl traveling solo around Australia for a year, and two young German boys who had just graduated from college.
That night, we sat by the campfire and tucked into a hearty meal of pasta bolognaise and chocolate cake, chatting and laughing as Nick told us campfire stories. Under the starry skies, we tucked into our sleeping bags and swags and dozed off – dreaming about what would await us the next day.
TO BE CONTINUED….
The weather conditions in Uluru can be very extreme, with blazing heat in the day and cool desert temperature at night. We visited in October and the heat was really extreme. I fell sick after a day under the sun. Be sure to bring lots of water and hydration salt with you and wear layers for the extreme weather. Hiking at the base of Uluru is rather easy and straightforward, the longest hike we did at Uluru was three-hour long but it was a flat path. If you’re hiking on your own, be sure to time your walks with the coolest time of the day (either before 8am or after 5pm).