Uluru: In the heartland of the world’s oldest living culture

Uluru: In the heartland of the world’s oldest living culture

SYDNEY—Can you see it from up here? I asked my daughter Giselle while I was looking out the window as the plane descended. If it’s on this side and it isn’t cloudy, she replied. Seconds later, it came into view: Uluru, the mammoth red rock that is Australia’s most iconic natural landform and one of the world’s largest monoliths.  

We were approaching the Red Center of the Northern Territory, a vast region of outback desert plains, rare species of flora and native wildlife, and ancient Aboriginal culture. It is referred to as the heart of Australia, where the earth is indeed red, owing to oxidized iron, or rust.   

Three hours away from Sydney, we had also traveled back in time.  The region dates back 550 million years, or 250 million years older than the dinosaurs. Geoscience attributes its topography to all those years of erosion and redistribution of soil, rocks, mud, and other sediments from high areas and sunken surfaces.

Uluru is a remnant of eroded sediments that were buried and compacted. So is Kata Tjuta (pronounced ka-tah chuta), the nearby cluster of 36 domes. The former is a sandstone rock, the latter a conglomerate of mostly granite and basalt rocks. 

The local Anangu Aboriginal people believe that the landscape was formed by the movements of ancestral beings across the land in the beginning of time. As their descendants, they are responsible for its protection. 

Sacred land

The place is sacred to the Anangu. It has been their home for 60,000 years. As archaeological evidence attests, theirs is the world’s oldest continuous living culture. To them, Uluru and the surrounding land are alive with the marks of creation and the knowledge passed on through generations.    

As we drove to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park the next day, Uluru, looming in the distance, struck me as deceptively still. In a split-second, I imagined the rock heave, as though to breathe. The desert stretching as far as the eye could see—nowhere to run, nowhere to hide—tempered my excitement.  

Giselle’s presence kept the anxiety at bay. Having visited the Red Center twice before, she drew on previous guided tours in working out a short but informative excursion for me. 

First things first. No, we didn’t camp out in the desert (although it is an option for adventurous visitors). From the modest airport, we were shuttled to our accommodation 10 minutes away at Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara, an isolated and relatively new town (pop.: about 1,000).  

The resort is an Aboriginal-owned complex with five hotels, cafes, restaurants, a supermarket, an amphitheater, art galleries, shops, clinic, a tourist information station, and gardens, all a stroll from one another around a town square. 

It carries Uluru’s non-Aboriginal name (given by a European explorer in the 1800s), but it is clearly Aboriginal country. Aboriginal artistry is on full display not only in the art galleries but also in facilities and amenities. Iconic dots, concentric circles, and swirl patterns in strong earth tones are featured in signage, murals, carpets, upholstery, and beddings. 

Traditional Anangu greeting in big, bold letters

Palya,” the traditional Anangu greeting, is spelled out in larger-than-life wooden blocks atop a flight of steps facing the highway. Inscribed on the “P” is the multiple meaning of the word: hello, goodbye, thank you, welcome.   

In our room, the Anangu welcome video from the Indigenous TV station provided interesting information. Outside, the town square pulsated with the rhythm of piped-in music played on the didgeridoo, the Aboriginal wind instrument.   

On the side of a shop, I passed an Aboriginal woman peddling artworks on the pavement. Sensing that I might take a snapshot, she motioned to say no, then pointed to one of the smaller pieces, saying “forty dollars” (about P1,500).  

Two other women had more pieces spread out on the lawn. Nearby, tourists seated on stone benches were listening to a talk about the Anangu way of life. Other activities in the gardens were guided walks and dot painting workshops.  

The Lost Camel

A stone’s throw from the gardens is the Kulata Academy Café where, Giselle mentioned, food and hospitality students at the National Indigenous Training Academy made up the staff. Nearly half of resort employees are Indigenous; the rest are from all over the world. They live within the resort. (A woman behind the counter in a shop caught our attention. She was chatting animatedly on the phone, in Tagalog.)  

The hotels have names that denote location–Sails in the Desert, Outback, Emu Walk, Desert Gardens. Ours was The Lost Camel. Although drawn from an Indian folktale, it is a reference to the resort’s camel farm, which offers camel rides.    

(Camels were brought in by British explorers in the mid-1800s for transportation in the desert. There are now more feral camels in Australia than in Egypt, I am told.)

The Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is outside Yulara, a 20-minute drive from the resort. It is a dual World Heritage park managed by the government in collaboration with the Anangu, who own the land.  

Besides appropriate shoes, visitors are advised to bring a hat or beanie, light jacket or scarf, depending on the time of year, and, most important, a fly net. The flies in the Red Center are smaller, paler, and flimsier than the houseflies back home, but they can be annoying. They swarm your back and your face, and if you’re exposed, you could swallow or inhale them! 

‘Many heads’

Our first stop was Kata Tjuta, which means “many heads.” Covering 20 kilometers, the 36 domes are also called The Olgas, after Mount Olga, the highest at 546 meters. 

Viewing the domes from the car, I remembered Bohol’s Chocolate Hills and the unnerving, surreal feeling they set off. The Olgas were more awesome than alarming up close, as we navigated the first of two walks, Valley of the Winds. 

The welcome sign at the starting point comes with polite reminders to “walk quietly, tread lightly” as a sign of respect for the sacred place. The park’s website gives practical advice: “Be reasonably fit…be careful,” the path being “steep, rocky, and difficult in places.”

Minding my step while gazing at the panorama was initially manageable, with my feet secure on level ground or cobblestone paths. A walk in the park, I thought, as I exchanged greetings with other hikers, including seniors like me and families with children.   

Half an hour into it, however, the path did indeed become steep and rocky. As though upping the difficulty level, swooshing and whistling winds constantly threatened to blow me away, literally. I stopped looking up at the domes and focused on my feet instead. 

Upon reaching the first lookout, Giselle and I agreed we would not proceed to the second one. The directional sign alone was intimidating: “steep track on rough terrain with loose rocks.” 

Between two domes

Otherworldly vista from the rest stop along Walpa Gorge Walk

We drove instead to the other end of the dome cluster four minutes away to do the Walpa Gorge Walk. This is a moderate-grade walk along generally level path, with a gentle swell midway then a downward slope at the penultimate section approaching the gorge. The reward at the end of the hourlong hike is finding yourself right between the two highest domes. 

We met only a handful of hikers, none by the time we were halfway. 

Neither of us completed the walk, although Giselle made headway toward the final stretch. Around three-fourths of the way after the downward slope, I turned back. I was not tired, I felt claustrophobic. As the path narrowed, the two domes appeared larger, higher, closer, as though about to wall me in.  

Back at the top of the swell, I settled on the solitary bench where we had earlier rested. From there I watched Giselle disappear far below to my right. 

It was high noon. There was not a soul in sight. The majestic vista was otherworldly. In that rarified moment, the stillness soon stirred a sense of one’s smallness and vulnerability. 

The thought of Giselle, herself alone and out of reach somewhere I would not even venture, sent me feeling for the rosary in my pocket. It must have been 15 minutes before a speck of her image became visible in the distance.  

In the afternoon we finally made our way to Uluru, starting at the Cultural Center, which looked like an irregularly shaped thatched hut. Displays familiarize visitors with Anangu culture and the traditional spiritual law, Tjukurpa (pronounced choo-koor-pa). Uluru’s history, geography, how people should behave and look after country are all laid down in the law and handed down to the next generation through stories, songs, art, and rituals.  

One display tells the story of two creation beings, a python woman and a venomous snake man. They killed each other in battle, leaving their mark on Uluru—the python as the black curving line on the eastern wall of the rock and the snake’s head as a large boulder. 

Uluru, the name Aboriginals gave the rock, has no English meaning.

Walking around its base, visitors pass the caves, or rock shelters, where ancestors camped or performed traditional ceremonies. Markers explain their significance. 

‘Sensitive’ sites

The full walk around the rock’s 11-km circumference takes three to four hours. Giselle and I covered the sections along moderate tracks that pass some caves and fascinating spots.  

Certain sites marked “sensitive” are sacred spaces for rituals specific to one gender. One is where designated senior women orally pass on important stories to young girls as a cultural inheritance. The writings on the cave wall are considered sacred scripture. Taking pictures is prohibited in sensitive sites.   

Uluru Kitchen cave
Swallowed in the cavernous kitchen cave

The kitchen cave is where women and young girls prepared food they gathered from the bush. To this day women continue to teach girls the preparation process.   

Teaching cave, ancient classroom with “lessons” on the wall

Boys became men in the teaching cave. Separated from their families, sometimes for years, they were taught discipline and self-reliance by grandfathers. The elders painted pictures on the cave to teach them how to hunt. 

In the family cave we mingled with a tour group and caught snippets of the guide’s spiel. He likened the large open area to the living room where the father is watching TV after a day of hunting and the children are romping around while the mother is in the back cooking.

Knock on rock 

Generations of Anangu families camped there, shared food and stories, and made pictures, paintings, symbols on the rock to teach children. Rock artworks feature outlines of animals, figures representing animal tracks, and concentric circles. 

Somewhere in the vicinity, I got up close and personal with Uluru. Giselle called me to a spot that the guide from her previous tour pointed out was hollow underneath the surface. She invited me to knock on it, like beating on a bongo drum, as the guide had suggested. I did, producing a thumping sound. 

Uluru is 348 meters high (taller than the Eiffel Tower), but its bulk is underground, 2.5 km deep.

In a cordoned-off stretch we passed a sign, ‘’Permanent Closure October 26, 2019.” That was the day climbing Uluru was banned. The act is disrespectful to the Anangu, who had been campaigning for the ban for decades, even after the government handed back the title deeds to the land in 1985, acknowledging them as the traditional owners.

Our last stop was tucked in a clearing behind lush greenery. It was the Mutitjulu Waterhole, one of the few permanent water sources in the arid landscape. And what a refreshing surprise it was, in every sense of the word! 

Shower of blessings

Waiting for the sunrise on a rainy day

The sound, like gentle night rain in harmony with a soft breeze, provided the perfect atmosphere for heightened senses to calm down after a day of adventure. Giselle and I basked in the peace and tranquility, as we were fortunate to have the place all to ourselves for a few minutes. You could say we had saved the best for last!

It was the highlight of the tour for me, I later told my Melburnian friend, who has traveled through the Northern Territory. Water is life, and it is widely depicted in Aboriginal art, she said. A recurring theme is the search for water, and the iconic concentric circles are a representation of waterholes and campsites. 

Rainfall is erratic in the arid region. We happened to be around when it got a good drenching—overnight, hours after we toured Uluru-Kata Tjuta Park. We agreed with another hotel guest that it was a blessing. 

On our last full day, intermittent showers rain confined us to the resort, allowing only two windows to view Uluru from a distance, at sunrise and sunset. On that cloudy morning the rock wore a misty veil. 

In the late afternoon, we trod an uphill dirt path across the highway from the resort to an elevated viewing deck. As the setting sun swathed the earth in vibrant orange, a steady stream of people filled the path to the deck. 

Perhaps because it was Holy Tuesday, they conjured up an image of a village procession to a hilltop chapel preceding Vespers. This was, after all, a sacred place, and Uluru has been likened to a church. 

The trip to the Red Center was a gift from Giselle for my 70th birthday. We arrived on the day itself and I got my first glimpse of Uluru at sundown over cocktails and canapes on a viewing deck. We went around the park the next day, winding up at the waterhole. 

Here’s to Uluru! Cheers!

It was a rejuvenating start to the eighth decade of my life.      

Angelina G. Goloy is a former journalist and PR consultant in the Philippines. She regularly visits her daughter Giselle, a geologist-environmental scientist, in Sydney.

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