Over the course of your travels have you ever come face to face with an icon? I’m talking about a landmark, area or a monument that is so synonymous with a place that it’s the first thing that springs to mind in conversations.
How did you feel? Was it a moment that will stay with you forever, or was it overhyped? Did you wonder whether it was worth it or know that it was one of the best things you’ve ever done in your life?
Australia has several such icons: the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House being arguably two of the most well-known man-made places of interest in the world. But how about the naturally formed phenomena – the Grand Canyons’ of this world?
Australia is home to one of the most recognisable natural landmarks on the planet. Yep, you guessed it: I’m talking about how it felt to visit Uluru.
What is even more remarkable about Uluru is that it remains one of the most culturally significant places in the country. And has been this way for over 10,000 thousand years.
How It Felt To Visit Uluru
When I talk to people about Australia they always seem to ask whether I have visited Uluru. I think international intrigue about this icon runs strong. I believe that you can almost view Uluru as the cultural heart of the country, and I just knew that my time in Australia wouldn’t be complete without a trip here.
Having just said that people are on the whole interested by Uluru, I have also met others’ who are much more dismissive of the area. ‘Well, it’s just a giant rock, isn’t it?’ is sometimes the attitude I’m met with when I discuss a potential trip there.
The nose wrinkling and shake of the head says to me that this person’s view of Australia differs greatly to my own; that their visit to this country will be remembered by the beach days at Bondi and the nightclubs of the Gold Coast. I’ve come to understand that my experience with Australia has been far more about the times I have escaped the cities and explored an unfamiliar and varied landscape to my own home country. This is when I’ve felt a deeper, almost spiritual, connection to the land around me.
And I believe that the land is what makes Australia so special. For Australia is only a modern country if you look at the history of white settlement by the Dutch and the English. What citizens and tourists of this country struggle to align with is that the history of this country goes back much farther than that and how our presence has irrevocably altered the history of the original landowners in Australia.
I didn’t know what to expect when I visited Uluru. All I knew was that after almost two years in Australia I would kick myself if I never got there.
Face-To-Face With An Icon
Uluru is a monolith that juts out of the earth west of the Simpson Desert. It is in the ‘red centre’ of Australia, some 463 kilometres to Alice Springs by road. The rock was formed 600 million years ago and used to be on the ocean floor. Now it stands 348 metres above ground. It gets its characteristic ochre colour from oxidisation or its iron content.
Your experience of Uluru starts several hundred kilometres away as you witness the rock growing to fill the horizon. Against the cyan sky, the contrast of the red rock is outstanding. Its hulk dwarfs you and everything for miles around it. It is taller than the Statue of Liberty in New York and the Eiffel Tower in Paris.
Up close is when you truly appreciate the unique cracks, grooves, crevices and patterns on its face. Uluru spans for 3.6 kilometres long and 1.9 kilometres wide. It runs for a staggering further 2.5 kilometres underground. So what you’re seeing is like the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
The Anangu aboriginal tribe have lived in this area for approximately 10,000 years. Uluru is a family name that is applied to both the rock and the waterhole on top of the rock. The Anangu people belong to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara tribes (click here for source) and are the traditional owners of Uluru. In their tradition, only certain male elders may climb the rock to perform sacred ceremonies. The Anangu people are guided by their Tjukurpa (law) to keep both country and culture strong and live and work with Parks Australia staff to manage the area.
Walking The Base Loop
By 8am I had started the Marla walk at the base of the rock. This stretch of track takes approximately 40 minutes to explore and the area is rife with hugely sacred places for the local Anangu tribe. Here you could walk past the women’s birthing pool, medicine preparation area and the kindergarten. Each area is rich with a history of a people that are deeply connected to the rock and the surrounding area. And when you survey the miles and miles of dry land that surrounds Uluru, you start to build an appreciate why it is so special.
These areas are not to be photographed as aborigines do not believe in photography. They argue that if you simply take a photograph of a place then all you leave with is that picture. To truly appreciate and learn from a place you should go with your hearts and minds open to make more of a lasting connection with the land. That way you leave taking a deeper understanding with you and more of an imprint on yourself than a picture could ever make.
Once you have finished the interpretive Marla section of the track it is then time to get underway. The loop of the Uluru base is 10 kilometres around. The walk is on a flat path so it is not a strenuous hike. However, the intense heat is not to be sniffed at. I recommend you start the walk no later than 8am as the heat of the day quickly intensifies to temperatures that are inadvisable to walk in.
I found the walk to be highly enjoyable. As you rounded the rock, I was surprised to see how much the shapes, patterns and consistency of the stone seemed to change. In some places the rock was dramatically eroded by years of rainfall. In others, the rock looked like a honeycomb, where smaller boulder sized pieces had worked loose and fallen free.
All the way around the base of the rock there were trees, shrubs and other foliage that sustained a remarkable variety of wildlife. As I walked I disturbed tiny finches chirping in the trees. I brushed my hand along grasses that had probably been growing for longer than I’ve been on this planet.
Making A Choice
Many visitors choose to climb Uluru. They view it as just a rock to conquer with a steep climb and a few photos. 40% of visitors to the National Park still opt to climb Uluru.
Climbers ignore the signs at the base of the rock outlining the cultural significance of Uluru to the local people and a respectful request not to climb and begin their climb.
The walkers leave a physical scar on the side of the rock. Years of feet climbing in the same spot have worn down an obvious path; a silvery blight on the red face. All day you can see trails of people hauling themselves to the top.
At the top it has been known for people to celebrate by eating their packed lunches and leaving their rubbish to float off in the breeze. Other people, caught short by the lack of facilities, opt to take a squat at the pinnacle of Uluru. Their waste washes down the sides of the rock in the rain and pollute the pools at its base affecting the wildlife that rely on these water sources.
The walk is a strenuous and dangerous ascent. In windy and wet conditions it becomes very difficult and National Park staff close off the walk for safety reasons. Since the 1960s, 38 people have died whilst climbing Uluru.
More Than Just A Sunset
Of course I took in the beautiful sunsets and sunrises at Uluru. I doubt there is one visitor to the area who doesn’t witness the beauty of Uluru changing as the sun either sets or rises. For sunrise I was there on the viewing platform at 05.48 (in November) and jostled with the crowd there to snap my pictures. For sunset I was parked with the rest of the eager viewers, ready and in position to watch as the rock changed colour.
Was it the best part of visiting Uluru for me? Actually no.
Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy this part of my trip. I love sunsets (who doesn’t?) and it always makes me feel proud when I’ve dragged myself out of bed to see a sunrise because they’re always worth it.
Apart from some great photos, which I will admit are cool mementos of my trip, I would say that the sunset and sunrises were not the highlight for me. What surprised me was how much I connected with the base walk. The act of placing my feet one in front of the other for 10 kilometres round this solid entity affected me more than I realised.
With the sun beating down on my body, sipping water and fully aware of how my life depended on it, I couldn’t help thinking about the lives that Uluru has managed to sustain over the years. From the pools of water at its base, lush green vegetation and the cool, shady caverns with rock art on their walls dating back thousands of years I could see how Uluru supported life.
Make Time To Visit Uluru
I was surprised by how it felt to visit Uluru. Face to face with this giant icon moved me far more than I ever thought it would. Visiting Uluru, I felt a spiritual connection to land that, if you took away white settlement, has remained unchanged for thousands of years. I was fortunate enough to benefit from a great tour guide whilst I was there, who spoke passionately about Uluru and the indigenous people so that there was no doubt that as an Australian he connected completely with the place.
I implore you to make time to visit Uluru whilst you’re in Australia. As much of the Northern Territory as you can fit into your trip, in fact. If you need any more convincing, check out why I think the Northern Territory should be top of your hit list and how, if you’re looking for a quintessential Australian adventure, the NT is simply unmissable.
Would you like to visit Uluru? Have you been there already and what did you think? How have you felt when you’ve visited other sites of natural significance; did it leave you cold or where you blown away by Mother Nature? Let me know what you think in the comments!
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