Saturday February 23, 2013
Red hot Uluru
By S.S. YOGA
Pictures by S.S. YOGA and courtesy of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Red hot, Uluru is one of the enduring symbols of Australia.
THE flight to Uluru, Northern Territory, from Sydney was about three hours plus. The outback landscape from the air was breathtaking – severe, harsh and beautiful.
The place, 440km south-west of Alice Springs, is semi-desert and gets hardly 200mm of rain a year. The red that dominates the arid landscape comes from the iron oxide found in the sand and some of the rocks.
I was hoping to get a glimpse of the massive monolith from the air, only to be frustrated. Tip for travellers − if you want to see Uluru, be seated on the left side of the plane! But on arrival at the airport, my disappointment turned to glee when we were told to immediately hop onboard a helicopter for a 15-minute ride around Uluru and the other massive natural monument, Kata Tjuta.
Words escaped me when I laid eyes on Uluru. It was so magnificent it left my mouth agape, wordless. But keep that mouth shut when you get up close to Uluru.
For it’s a notorious fly zone – as in the insect.
Much has been written about Uluru (or Ayers Rock, until its Aboriginal identity was restored) and its many colourful moods. From brown to orange to fiery red to purple. Yes, purple.
When we were there in November, the heat was still tolerable (though it did hit 40°C at one point) and the colours bestowed upon us ranged from brown to orange, depending on the time of day.
The occasion for our visit was the 10th anniversary of the swanky Longitude 131° luxury resort. Part of any stay with them is a tour of Uluru and Kata-Tjuta. Just in case you’re wondering: Kata Tjuta (previously, the Olgas) is an equally impressive group of 36 large rock domes 32km to the west of Uluru.
It is also considered sacred to the Anangu Aboriginal people here. Kata Tjuta in the Pitjantjajara dialect means “many heads”. The other dialect spoken in this area is Yankunitjatjara.
The creation stories (Tjukurpa) of the native people here all refer back to Uluru and Kata Tjuta, and by that we mean the story of how the land and the people were created. Earlier Western accounts referred to these stories as the Dreamtime, but it’s not appropriate to use that term anymore.
But Tjukurpa is much more than creation; it’s also the laws that govern the Aboriginals − in relation other humans, to the animals and plants, how to look after the land and even prepare food. Our guides on the respective tours, the knowledgeable Trevor Riley and Nicole Napier (non-Aboriginals) made sure we understood that.
These stories are all told in song.
“These creation songs were passed down from father to son through many, many generations right down to this day. And a young boy just by singing those verses could venture into territory he had never been thousands of kilometres away and not get lost. Because it was also like a map, giving landmarks of the areas on the journey. Amazing,” exclaimed Riley.
These are also sacred places because the Anangu carried out their rituals and ceremonies here and some of them even went on for months. But as tourism has engulfed the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park 365 days a year, the Anangu have no choice but to move their rituals to another area.
For a long time, the Anangu and other Aboriginal people did not have ownership of their traditional lands. Then an act recognising this was enacted in the mid-70s. But it was only in Oct 26, 1985 that the Anangu fittingly received the title deeds for Uluru-Kata Tjuta − dare we hope the same for all native people the world over?
Now the Anangu have leased the park area back to the government for 99 years, and it is being run jointly by the Anangu and Parks Australia.
You can view the historic video of this at the Cultural Centre in Uluru, and it is truly a moving clip. The Cultural Centre, by the way, is very well put together and is a must-visit. There, one can find all sorts of information on the area. They even have two shops selling various Aboriginal craft and paintings.
For me, the other main selling point is the fascinating Sorry Book. In it are thousands of correspondence from people all over the world. The running theme is their remorse at taking a souvenir from the area (it is illegal to take even a small stone from the area).
The reason for the remorse: they have had extreme bad luck since taking the “souvenir” back with them. So they express their regret and return to the Anangu their “stolen” heritage.
As a result of the cultural significance associated with the area, there are do’s and don’ts when visiting Uluru. This includes not taking pictures of certain areas of Uluru and to a smaller extent, Kata Tjuta.
Another thing is that while it is not illegal to climb up to the top of Uluru, it is not encouraged. Besides the cultural insensitivity, there are two other reasons why you shouldn’t. One is safety
Quite a number of people have died or injured themselves while attempting to do so; also, environmentally, it erodes and destroys the surface of the rock. Plus, there is no toilet at the top, and people being people, they sometimes do their “business” there. In fact, someone who has been on the summit opined that the smell was akin to an open septic tank.
When it rains, the waste trickles down to the waterholes. Through the years, many waterholes have become so contaminated that no living thing could survive there.
One of the walks we did around Uluru led us to the beautiful and serene Kantju Gorge. It was truly a peaceful spot but part of the experience was tainted knowing that the calm pond, the Mutitjulu, was one of the waterholes declared unfit for life.
The Mala walk is one of the easier trails. If the heat becomes intolerable, sections might be cordoned off but we managed that day to do the whole route. We saw the sites where the women made food, where the children were taught, and ended up at the beautiful Kantju Gorge.
On another walk, one of the creation stories, of Kuniya the Python woman, vividly came alive for us. All the evidence of the creation stories, including this one, could be seen on the surfaces of Uluru, via the markings and the rocks there.
The ancestors of the Anangu were said to be giants – animals who later turned into people. Kuniya, for instance, was a giant snake who came to Uluru where she was born to lay her eggs. You can see giant egg shape rocks all piled up at the cave area in Uluru called Kuniya Piti.
We also noticed very large wavy lines up on the rock besides Kuniya Piti, signs of her slithering across the rock looking for food. When Kuniya was there, her nephew Kuka Kuka was on the other side of Uluru after being chased by the Liru Men.
Her nephew had broken their laws and they wanted to punish him and so attempted to spear him. He dodged most of them (we could see the marks where the spears hit the rock) but one eventually hit him and mortally injured him.
All the Liru then left, but one of them stayed behind.
Kuniya discovered what happened to her nephew and wanted revenge. When she arrived at Mutitjulu, she saw the Liru man who proceeded to mock her. She grew angry and started a powerful dance and seized a handful of sand, some of which she threw against the wall of the valley (there are black patches where the sand hit the wall).
But the Liru man just laughed. So Kuniya hit the Liru man on his head with her wana (digging stick) twice, and he died. And lo and behold, there are two cracks where the fig trees grow along the wall and even a stained area, from the blood flowing from the cut.
When the Liru man fell dead, his shield tumbled down to the rocks below, and there you still see it. That is why walking around Uluru is so fascinating.
Ancient and sacred
We were fortunate to be privy to the creation story because most of the creation songs are sacred and secret − only spoken to the initiated among the Anangu. There are only three that have been shared with the outside world, including one of a fierce battle that is especially gripping.
The only way to see and observe this is to go there yourselves, because pictures and videos are not allowed at these sacred areas and markings.
Again, it would be remiss to visit the park and not have a walkabout around Kata-Tjuta, which is fascinating in its own right.
On our walk to Walpa Gorge, accompanied of course by a convoy of flies, we were given an insightful brief about the unique vegetation here and how the Anangu interact with and use them.
The animal life is also different and we were lucky to see some euros (no, it was not some currency European tourists had lost) – smaller cousins of the kangaroo.
Sunrise, sunset and all the moods in between − we witnessed it all and were left transfixed and mesmerised. Uluru-Kata Tjuta is much more than the sum of its parts!
The trip was sponsored by Tourism Australia.