Growing up in Scotland, I feel I’ve lived a somewhat sheltered life. Into adulthood, immigration became a hot topic in the years before I emigrated myself, and whilst I always had an awareness of what has and is occurring in other countries around the world, it is only since moving to New Zealand, where not only am I not a native, but my race is not the indigenous one, that I have had my eyes opened a little more to the realities of race relations. Whilst it looks like progress is being made in both Australia and New Zealand with regards to Indigenous rights, there is still a long way to go it would seem, and a lot of dissidence, misunderstanding and prejudice still remain in both countries. I’ve had a side-ways interest in the Indigenous Peoples of Australia for some time, mainly sparked through movies and books over the years. I was interested to see what my experience would be upon visiting the Northern Territory. I’d already been made aware of the lack of recognition by many people within and outwith Australia of the return of naming Ayers Rock to Uluru, being met by blank faces multiple times when I chatted to people about my trip plans. Having visited Fraser Island, now renamed K’Gari, just a few weeks prior, this slow rate of progression was very evident.
So when I got off the Uluru Hop On-Hop Off bus at the Mara car park, excited to be next to this most famous of geological structures, it was with a divided heart that I watched the people climb up the rock face to the summit in front of me. I’d long since heard about the request of the Indigenous landowners not to climb Uluru, and right in front of the track up there is a sign stating this also. However it is not illegal, and so there was a steady pilgrimage of people hauling themselves up with the chain that is still steadfastly bolted into the sacred rock. I was divided because it looked so achievable, and I love summiting mountains, but I was brought up to respect other people’s beliefs, and understanding the significance of this rock, I knew it was not right to climb it. But as multiple tourists turned up to climb including a busload led up by their guide, I did wonder about why these tour companies were allowed to do this, and why they were not promoting the right message. I was waiting for the guided walk to start, and had a bit of time to kill at the base. It was already hot at 10am and there was little shade around. I watched and pondered for some time, distracted only by a large perentie, the largest monitor lizard in Australia.
I would highly recommend the guided walk, which follows a small section of the base walk around the bottom of Uluru. The Indigenous guide gave a fascinating insight into the spiritual significance of Uluru to the Indigenous landowners, the Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu, as well as covering flora, fauna and geology. I’d already been amazed in Queensland about how knowledgeable the Indigenous Australians are about living off the land and utilising it to its best potential. From understanding the seasons and what to harvest when and how, to navigation and survival in the harsh Outback. The stories can vary from one Indigenous group to another, and within them there are rules and traditions, which can mean some things can only be passed on by women, and some only by men. Others are sacred and cannot be translated. And others still, require trust and understanding to have the privilege of hearing them. To the local Aṉangu, only the chosen few should summit Uluru. As the guide pointed out, if you were asked to wear a head scarf or take off your shoes to visit a church or a mosque, you would do it. So why would you climb Uluru when you were asked not to? To them, it is akin to respecting someone else’s religious beliefs, and I totally agree.
I took few photos during the guided walk as I was absorbed in everything the guide told us, but after it was finished, I had a lot of ground to cover in the heat of the day. I planned on walking the base track that circumnavigates the base of Uluru, despite the insane heat. I was slathered in suncream, had the hat on I’d bought in Adelaide, and I had as much water as I could carry. There was no point rushing, and once on my own, because hardly anyone else was crazy enough to hike in the heat, I became snap happy as the shape and pattern of the rock next to me constantly changed. In places there are signs requesting no photographs are taken due to the significance of that part of the structure to the Aṉangu, but large portions can be photographed without disrespect, and I was as much fascinated by the flora and fauna that surrounded the track as I was by Uluru itself. I was just loving the oranges and reds of the rock and the desert.
As the track heads east along the northern face of Uluru, there were all sorts of gouges and crevices in the rock face, creating an effect of artwork, the largest of which looked to me like a brain and face. The vegetation surrounding the path was a mix of desert shrubs and flowers and occasionally there were insects and birds flitting amongst them. When I eventually reached a shelter after some time in the full exposure of the sun, I took the opportunity to hide out in the shade for awhile before pushing on.
As the track turned south around the eastern end, it passed a no-photo zone before reaching a car park. There were a few people around here, and from this point onwards, I had a bit of company on the track, after having the northern aspect pretty much to myself. Whereas the northern and western aspects had been more about steep verticals, the eastern and southern aspects were more rolling and rounded. It was still steep but the look and feel of this side was quite different and even the nearby vegetation seemed different too. It was possible to see fissures and cracks with rocks breaking apart, and streaks of black through the orange denoted where waterfalls streamed down after rain.
After some time, a track split off to cut up to a little pool and nearby was an overhang where some Indigenous rock painting could be seen close up. From here onwards, the track hugged the base of Uluru quite closely, giving a close-up view of the make up of the rock. When I made it back to Mara car park I was dismayed to see a coach load of tourists heading up the track to the summit. I retraced part of the track I’d done with the guide earlier that day in order to photograph a few of the spots we’d stopped at in the morning, before returning to the car park once more, 4hrs after starting the walk.
From the nearby toilet block, the Limu walk cut across the desert to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta cultural centre where I had planned on getting back on the bus. I’d originally planned on getting the last day bus back, but after chatting with the driver at the centre, there was space for me to go on the evening bus which included an additional stop on the way back. This meant I had a bit of time to spend at the centre and explore. Aside from the shop which sold me some much desired ice cream, and a few galleries of local artist’s work, there was an interpretation centre giving more insight into the local Indigenous culture and tradition. Ownership of Uluru was taken by the Northern Territories Reserve Board and it was renamed Ayers Rock before the Australian Government later returned it to the Aṉangu on the condition that they lease it back to the Government, resulting in it being co-managed. This lease lasts for 99 years, starting in 1985. The footage of the handover was an interesting video to watch, and it was clear there were mixed emotions about getting ownership back in theory, whilst still not getting it back fully.
I got picked up by the very last hop on-hop off bus to join a small band of people to head to a special lookout spot to watch the sunset over Uluru. In an uncomfortable and awkward moment, the bus driver accidentally killed a perentie that was sunbathing on the road. This immediately reminded me of one of the excursions I’d done in the Galapagos Islands when the bus that was taking me to see the endangered bird life, accidentally killed one of the endangered birds. It was yet another reminder of what implications tourism can have on local wildlife. The driver felt really guilty and kept apologising to us for the rest of the way.
There was only one other small coach there when we arrived, but we were warned it would get busy, and sure enough, coach load after coach load began to pull in and unload a crowd of sunset watchers who spread out across the viewing spot, jostling for the perfect place to watch the colours of Uluru change. As with the night before, the sky went through a range of blues and Uluru itself turned from orange to red as the light level faded. After a while, I crossed to the far side of the lookout to view the opposite direction, where the hint of Kata Tjuta just about peaked over the horizon close to where the sun sunk low. The colour palate was beautiful, and despite the crowd around me, it was a magical experience.
Back at the Outback Pioneer, I had some laundry to do before dinner, and now in darkness with only the low-level lights marking the pathways, I came out of my dorm room to head towards the main building when suddenly a creature shot out in front of me from near the kitchen disappearing into the darkness. The moment was over as soon as I acknowledged it but I was excited after the failed sightings on K’Gari to add wild dingo to the list of animals spotted on my trip. Taking the shuttle to the main square, I had a delicious dinner at one of the eateries in the resort, seemingly confusing the staff by being a lone diner. Perhaps they don’t get many there, but I personally don’t have a problem eating out on my own. Afterwards, there was a long wait for the shuttle bus back. I was tired and full and didn’t want to walk back, but I got antsy waiting, aware I still had to sort out my laundry before getting to bed. By the time I crawled into my bunk, I was eager for sleep but despite the coolness of the night outside, the dorm room was oppressively hot. I had my stuff all ready to make an early exit, as I had another early rise the next morning. As impressive as Uluru is, there is more to see within the National Park, and I was determined to see as much as I could.