The otherworldly aspects of Uluru

By AAP/Belinda Cranston with AG Staff 30 August 2010
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Australia’s most iconic natural feature can have a mysterious effect on visitors.

FUNNY THINGS HAPPEN WHEN people visit Ayers Rock. Now more widely known as Uluru, the Anangu name for the mysterious monolith, it seems to hold power over people.

The traditional owners have known this for thousands of years and respect its spirituality – one of the reasons why they ask, but don’t demand – that tourists not climb it. The spell is cast the moment one disembarks from the airport, where the rock can be seen looming in the distance like a lone iceberg on a rust-red expanse dotted with spinifex bushes, desert oaks and myrtle shrubs.

The first time I see it, stepping of a plane just after midday, I’m mesmerised by its smokey lilac colour.

Then at dusk, when I’m at sitting around a table set in sand, complete with a white cloth, sterling silver cutlery, and tall wine glasses, it’s again in the background, switching from hydrangea pink to a deep shade of mauve. It then fades to a silhouette, and the night sky lights up with what look like little boxes of jewels.

IT’S A LATE AUGUST EVENING, and Torres Strait Islander singer Christine Anu has been asked to sing. She seems so genuinely happy about the arrangement, she reminds me of a little girl who’s been allowed to stay up long past her bedtime.

In between songs she starts “yarning” about her Indigenous roots. There’s a reference to a small Aboriginal community she once lived in, in far north Queensland, that had no electricity or running water. Then her family moved to a town where toilets could be flushed. “I can’t tell you how much fun it was to push a button and see all this water come out,” she blurts out.

She performs her Coz I’m Free tribute to Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman, then gauges if she can extend her allocated time on stage. She’s urged to continue.

German tourists, I’m told, are notorious for being so inspired by the rock they wander off on not so well worn paths, resulting in search and rescue operations being regularly launched to find them. Other tourists behave in more bizarre ways. Some remove all of their clothing and “disappear” for days, says Parks Australia director Peter Cochrane.

Then there’s the French woman who in June climbed the rock, stripped down to a white g-string and white heels, then filmed herself dancing for all the world to see on YouTube.

It’s well documented that tourists who climb Uluru are a source of distress for the traditional owners, the Anangu, because of its great spiritual significance. But they recognise that many regard climbing the rock as a rite of passage, and understand there is a fear visitor numbers would decline significantly if rock climbs were banned. So it’s left up to the conscience of individuals to make the decision to climb or not to climb.

Up close during the day the 348 m-high monolith is a gorgeous deep rust red colour, with intricate grooves, buffed ridges, pock marks, and black vertical lines – residue left over from heavy rain gushing down during the wet season. The best way to appreciate it without causing anyone offence is to simply walk around it. Walks range from a 10.6 km-loop, which takes an estimated 3.5 hours, to an easy 1 km walk, which takes approximately 45 minutes.

It’s not so magical viewed from platforms while several coach loads of human cargo are also present, but this is only one aspect of experiencing the rock.

THE OTHERWORLDLY ASPECTS REACH out into the wider area. At nearby Kata Tjuta, after becoming separated from the group I am travelling with, I hear the sound of gravel crunching, presumably beneath someone’s feet behind me. I move to the left to allow a presumed fellow tourist to pass me. But when I look over my right shoulder, I see no one there. A woman in my group admits to having the same eerie experience. We decide the sound of people marching further ahead of us has bounced off rocks, creating an echo.

Much stranger things happen to people who take mementos away from Uluru and Kata Tjuta, apparently.

At the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, where the local lore of the Anangu is explained in detail, there is a ‘sorry book’ filled with letters sent from people all over the world who – in a fit of guilt or perhaps superstition – have returned souvenired rocks.

Many of the letters are from people who maintain they had no idea it was an offence to remove rocks. One person returned a rock 20 years after removing it. “I have had nothing but misfortune since then, and I’m returning it,” he wrote in an accompanying note. Another note, along with a rock that was returned two years after it was taken, reads “It needs to go home. My guilt and Karma can’t take it anymore.”

So I decide to gauge whether it is an offence to souvenir a small glass of the Red Centre’s rich, terracotta coloured soil. It would look spectacular on a kitchen or bathroom window sill with sunlight shining through it, I figure. I introduce myself to a National Parks ranger who has been based at the Rock for eight months.

She’s happy to point out spinifex bushes, desert oaks and myrtle shrubs to me, but is horrified by my question about the soil. “It would be an offence to remove anything,” she tells me sternly.

I don’t dare defy her.