A cultural trip to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in Australia
Uluru – the famous sandstone monolith in the middle of Australia. While I loved the breathtaking landscapes, the experience of learning about its cultural significance was what has left a lasting impression.
Dreamtime in the Stars
There I was, sitting in darkness, in the middle of a sand dune, red dust in my sandals, in the middle of the Australia desert, in total darkness.
On my first night in Uluru, our hosts at the Sounds of Silence dinner had just turned out the lights at our remote dining site far from the main resort and any remnants of light pollution. While the electrically generated lights went out, the stars turned on over my head in a light show I won’t forget. It was like a second light switch had been turned on. I have only been THIS remote and in THIS total darkness a few times in my life and each time, it takes my breath away. It’s an amazing transition as my eyes adjusted to seeing nothing around me and everything above me.
It’s already overwhelming to see that much beauty in nature, but the experience was further enhanced as our host delighted us with traditional aboriginal dreamtime stories of the stars. The stars came to life as Orion became a canoe holding three brothers learning a valuable lesson about not breaking the law. Different animals appeared in groupings of stars similar to those I had learned in Greek mythology but purely Australian. For thousands of years, different cultures in different parts of the world have looked up at the stars, and without being able to communicate with one another, they could see similar shapes which related to their lives. A lesson of the common thread in humanity.
The Northern Star was not in sight. As an American, this bright star has always been a constant that you can not see this far down into the Southern Hemisphere. Both an eery disorienting feeling and exciting to know you are on the other side of the world.
My favorite story was hearing the Anangu beliefs of the milky way, a celestial river where their ancestors rowed their canoes up into the sky after death. When you see a shooting star, you know that ancestor is looking down upon you and all is good. I can’t quite look at the milky way or the stars the same as in each one I now see my grandma’s, grandpa’s, relatives and dear friends who have passed all up in that celestial river of stars sparkling.
Like so many cultures, the stars were used to navigate by ancient peoples long before wifi, gps and google maps. The aboriginal cultures of Australia also understand their creation stories through the stars and their environment. These stories not only tell their history of their people but also teach the moral lessons of life. To remember the countless stars and sites and their history, the aboriginal people have illuminated them with dreamtime stories of their creation and morality. These stories still live today teaching us a map of their world both physically and spiritually.
And so, I took the trip into the cultural landscape of Uluru.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is located in central Australia, as remote as you can think of.
Australia is roughly the same size as the contiguous USA (excluding Hawaii and Alaska). The population though is vastly different with Australia’s 24 million people vs America’s 325 million. The majority of Australians live in 5 cities all located on the coasts leaving the center of Australia, where Uluru lies, very unpopulated. The nearest major town to Uluru is Alice Springs which is a four and a half hour drive. Fortunately, a small town Yularu has been built to provide a small airport (Ayers Rock), accommodation, restaurants, gas and other essential services to visit and explore this UNESCO site.
Flying in to Ayers Rock Airport, you will feel that remoteness as you look out onto sand dunes that have been there for over 30,000 years. The Australian aboriginal people who still live here, the Anangu people, belong to the oldest culture known to man dating back 60,000 years.
Two striking images emerge from the desert sand dunes – Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Both are sandstone monoliths that are geographic & cultural wonders.
Uluru erupts from the desert as one solid mound. What you see of Uluru is actually just the the tip of a huge slab of rock that continues below ground for ~3-4 miles. Uluru is 2.24 miles long and 1,142 feet tall. By comparison, Uluru is taller than Sydney Centrepoint tower and the Eiffel Tower and just a little lower than the Empire State Building. The monolith is oval in shape, measuring 2.2 miles long by 1.5 miles wide, with a circumference of 5.8 miles. Uluru is actually grey, but the iron oxide gives it is red tones which change in the different light throughout the day from soft purples to bright oranges.
While Uluru is the postcard favorite I had seen in many Top 10 lists of Australia and visited by dignitaries and royals for its cultural significance to the country, there is also another monolith called Kata Tjuta comprised of 36 domes and 1791 feet above the plane (over 650 feet higher than Uluru). This site is even more culturally significant to the local Ananga aboriginal people.
The rock known as Uluru was created over some 600 million years. While indigenous Australians date back 60,000 years, the Anangu aboriginals have been in the area and used Uluru and Kata Tjuta for traditional ceremonies and rites of passage for the last 10,000 years. Just take that in for a minute… 10,000 years of history of a culture with knowledge still flowing through their stories today telling of the land, their people and the events that have shaped their lives of the local Anangu people.
Before European arrival & colonization (just 248 years ago in 1770), Indigenous Australians spoke an estimated 700 dialects. Today, it is estimated that only 20-50 languages are still described as “healthy” or spoke and used by children. Anangu mainly speak Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara but may speak up to six of the Aboriginal languages. I was truly excited to get a glimpse a culture so enduring.
The first European, an Englishmen named William Christie Gosse, climbed Uluru in 1873 after a three month trek through the desert from Alice Springs (today you can drive from Alice Springs to Uluru in 4.5 hours). He named the rock Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary who later became the Premier of South Australia. Since 1993, there is a dual naming policy in Australia allowing official names that consist of both the traditional Aboriginal name and the English name highlighting the history of this nation. So, you will now see this site referred to as “Uluru / Ayers Rock”.
More explorers started arriving in the 1930’s and 1940’s with the first graded road in the late 1940’s. In the 1950’s post WWII, tourism officially started with a few thousand per year visiting. Over the next few decades more tourism operators started tours, roads were built and a small airport sited in a small town created nearby called Yularu. The inquisitive tourists and explorers created some negative effects on the remote site including trash and pollution.
By the 1980’s & 1990’s, change was underway with three significant events. First, the Australia Commonwealth Government handed the Uluru National Park back to the traditional Anangu Aboriginal owners.
Second, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia was setup as a subsidiary of the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) to manage tourism and resorts on behalf of the traditional Anangu Aboriginal owners. This was a pretty unique company and program that I found very interesting especially in perspective of what I have seen in my own country of America with indigenous Native American.
Everything at Uluru and Kata Tjuta is guided by Tjukurpa, Anangu law. Voyages works to create a positive environment between tourism and maintaining & benefitting the local culture. The company provides the Indigenous workforce training, employment and economic development of their local lands. The trainees can then stay on working at local resort, which is now at 37% indigenous employment, or secure employment in the hospitality industry across Australia. For guests, the company hopes to provide a more “authentic” Indigenous Australian experience, which is something that I find myself and most of my counterparts longing for as we travel. All profits from Voyages business activities go toward building the resort experience and supporting Indigenous training and employment across Australia.
Voyages has heavily invested in the town and surrounding area of Yulara over that last few decades including in 2003 with a $100 million master plan completed to upgrade the various hotels, residential facilities and infrastructure and in 2012 with an additional $43 million invested into a 5-star resort, Sails in the Desert hotel and conference facility. While the Northern Australia Territory maintains the roads leading to the township of Yularu, Voyages manages
Lastly, Uluru was given two World Heritage Site listings. In 1987, UNESCO listed Uluru as a natural World Heritage Site in recognition of its unique geology and in 1994, Uluru was listed as a cultural site due to the significance it has for local Indigenous Australians. Uluru is one of the few places in the world to hold a rare dual-listing and another boost for tourism and preservation of this unique site.
In 2015, over 279,000 tourists visited Uluru.
Ayers Rock Resort
The township of Yularu will be your home base for exploring Uluru. There are several options for places to rest your head between all the exciting activities. Voyages owns and manages these properties which are located around the Yularu town centre.
Accommodations are provided for every budget including a 5-star resort, Sails in the Desert, a more modern hotel, Desert Gardens Hotel, self contained Emu Walk Apartments, the Outback Pioneer Hotel and Lodge, and the Ayers Rock Campground, offering powered campsites and air conditioned cabins.
I had the opportunity to stay at the beautiful resort, Sails in the Desert, for a five-star experience. The rooms are open, light and comfortable surrounding a blue pool with white sails providing shade across the property. The resort also provides fabulous restaurants, bars and unique indigenous art along the walls to enhance your Outback experience.
The township is a bit of a a marvel in the middle of the desert supporting almost 1,000 staff members of which ~700 fly in every year to start their new jobs. Trains travel the 1,033 miles from Adelaide to the Resort twice a week with 3 trailers carrying pallets of amenities for both survival and luxury in the desert. The town has all the services needed for this community (and over 275,000 tourists/year) including a cultural centre, post office, K-12 school and child care centre, a dump, recycling centre and a fleet of over 100 vehicles. …. all in the middle of the desert.
Activities at Ayers Rock Resort
You will likely be surprised at the amounts of activities to enjoy deep in the heart of Australia. Voyages provide over 65 tours, local activities and attractions including: segway tours, helicopter tours, jeep tours, bush food experiences, and dot painting.
During my two days and two nights at Ayers Rock Resort, I packed in quite a few. Sunrise and sunset are prime time, so set your alarm clocks early and plan for a shady nap at the pool mid-day so you can enjoy these activities.
Field of Light
The highlight of my trip and what caught my attention to want to visit Uluru in the first place was the Field of Light installation and I had a chance to see it on my first morning.
It was an early morning after my late night at the Sound of Silence dinner to arrive at the light installation before sunrise. The sleepiness wore off quickly as I walked into a field of more than 300,000 individual components and 50,000 individual stems glowing under the night sky across the Australian desert covering an area of seven football fields.
The exhibition, named Tili Wiru Tjuta Nyakutjaku or ‘looking at lots of beautiful lights’, was created by Bruce Monro. This visionary has created many light installations world wide, but this is his largest iteration.
This light installation is solar powered and completely reusable. It took over 2,000 hours to design and build in the United Kingdom and then another 3,900 hours to assemble on the site near Uluru. The exhibition originally exhibited through April 1, 2016 through March 31, 2018 has been extended to end December 2020, so be sure to arrange your trip soon.
It’s a magical and overwhelming experience to see the transition of lights as they pulse from golds to purples to blue and pinks. It’s a bit like Alice in Wonderland – Australia style. After a walk through what was likely only 10% of the maze of lights, I climbed the path up the sand dunes as the sun rose and the field glowed and pulsed in the last moments of darkness as the sun illuminated Uluru.
For a golden experience, I took another quick trip into the field just at sunrise to see the stems glowing in the light.
Desert Awakenings Tour
The main event, of course, is visiting the famous rock. Our Desert Awakening Tour guide, Toby, picked us up before sunrise on my second morning to arrive at our remote sand dune for sunrise viewing of Uluru while eating bacon & egg rolls with coffee.
After sunrise, we headed to the massive rock that erupts from the desert floor. Toby pointed out crevices, caves and other markings on the face of Uluru as we toured around the rock sharing with us the Anangu Dreamtime creation stories. Each tour guide has taken studies in the aboriginal Anangu history, so you can be assured that each story and belief is accurate to the original intent. This is a rarity nowadays in tourism and I was very appreciative of the care that the guides take with their telling of the Anangu stories.
Another interesting point about the Anangu creation stories is that there are several levels of these stories. We were told the stories as they would tell a youth or 5-6 year old, as that was the level we would be able to understand their culture. The youth of the Anangu receive more information or levels of the stories as they grow older and grow in their understanding of the rich culture.
Our first stop was near the climb site. This was a question I was repeatedly asked when telling friends I was visiting Uluru. Would I climb the rock? Jump down to the last section to read why I did not.
As we stopped at different sections of the rock, I was very surprised at the different textures, caves, trees and water. The markings on the Uluru rock each have a story correlating with their history and the journey of their ancestors. The Anangu believe that the marks on the rocks are the physical evidence of these creation stories
At our final stop at the Mutitjulu waterhole, we were treated to one of the rock art sites that is believed to be over 5,000 years old. The walls contained images of their past – concentric circles and animal tracks that must have held significance of their history and environment. Prehistoric art just continues to impress me in seeing people express themselves for thousands of years and to see the similarity in humans at the basic level.
Australian Aboriginal flavors
“Bush tucker “ is a new term I had to learn while in the Australian outback. This is food from plants and animals native to the Australian outback. Widgetty grub was the only one I had heard of before arriving and I was pleasantly surprised to see and taste a variety of other items at many of the restaurants around Ayers Rock Resort.
I just love to be around people who love their jobs and their executive chef, Vanessa Grace, has a passion for these ingredients. You should have seen the excitement of chef Vanessa as she talked about green ants & coastal greens and how her and her team deliberated over the flavors to incorporate them into the menus. I had to give them a try and they did add a nice flavor!
This passion for food can be tasted throughout the resort at the various restaurants incorporating indigenous ingredients into their meals to create innovative delicious meals. A nod to both the past and the future. Innovation at its best.
Make sure to try out some native fig, lemon myrtle or coastal green in one of your dining experiences.
While at Ayers Rock Resort, I was treated to two fantastic sunset dining experiences, the Sounds of Silence Dinner and Tali Wiru, with world class meals made from local bush tucker ingredients.
Sound of Silence - Dining Experience
The Sound of Silence dinner is now an Uluru institution celebrating its 25th anniversary. I had the opportunity to visit on the 25th anniversary dinner. This was my first dinner on my first night in Uluru and certainly set the stage for both a luxury and cultural experience.
At this remote location, I watched the sunset in the desert with sights of Uluru and Kata Tjuta while enjoying champagne and canapés.
The buffet dinner was bush tucker inspired buffet that includes barramundi with lemon myrtle cream, and native dukkah-crusted kangaroo with organic quinoa and warrigal green and mushroom risoni. Desserts included desert lime cheesecake, warm chocolate and wattleseed or pear and lemon myrtle teak cake.
With your appetite satiated, your host will bring the night stars to life first by dimming the lights where you will see more stars than you can count and then bring them all to life with indigenous stories.
Tali Wiru - Dining Experience
Then the feast begins as the chefs incorporate aboriginal flavors into a delicious four course meal paired with Australian wines.
Cauliflower espuma with native thyme, Chilled king prawns with squid ink tapioca cracker, Waygu beef fillet with paperbark smoked onion soubise, topped off with textures of chocolate sauce poured over davidsonplum, lemon myrtle, quandong.
Your hosts will again further enhance the experience with aboriginal stories of the stars. Another opportunity to see that amazing night sky where you will see stars you normally would not away from the light pollution in cities or even small towns. The experience can be enjoyed with your own personal small group or you will surely make new friends with others booked at the elegant dining experience.
As I continue to travel, the way I see and experience culture in places I visit (and re-visit) changes. I am less concerned with capturing the photos and conquering each site, but rather spending moments seeing the world from a different perspective. Thousands of years of knowledge are waiting to be passed on through each cultures traditions and I hope to take a piece of that knowledge with me.
So in each place I visit, I try to remember that I am a guest in the places I visit and try to open my mindset to experience their way of life and learn about their beliefs.
Though I only had a brief 2-day experience of the Anangu, I enjoyed seeing a completely different view of life from my Western upbringing that is deeply tied to the land. It is apparent in the way they talk about their environment, their use of foods, and in how they relate to their ancestors.
As part of the Desert Awakenings Tour of the base area around Uluru, the first stop was at the spot where tourists would start their ascent to climb Uluru.
While I was not intending to climb Uluru, a sign near the start point certainly grabbed my attention.
We the Anangu, the traditional owners, have this to say.
Uluru is sacred in our culture. It is a place of great knowledge.
Under our traditional law, climbing is not permitted.
This is our home.
As custodians, we are responsible for your safety and behavior.
Too many people do not listen to our message.
Too many people have died or been hurt causing great sadness.
We worry about you and we worry about your family.
Please don’t climb.
We invite you to walk around the base and discover a deeper understanding of this place.
An old way of thinking?
Since the 1940s Uluru has been promoted as a place to climb.
Organized tours traced the explorers’ steps, planting a flag at the summit.
This act of conquering evokes strong emotions of pride, achievement and ownership.
Challenge your perspective.
Is it right to continue, knowing what we know today?
Is this a place to conquer – or a place to connect with?
We invite you to open your hearts and minds
to the power of this landscape mysterious Tjukurpa.
This place has a story…come on a journey.
Tourists have long climbed the mountain leaving a white scar in the rock. Many have died from falling or the exhaustion form the climb and the heat. It’s a lot higher and hotter than you realize. The environmental scar is not just in the tread up the rock face but also in the waste left behind in both physical products and bacterial contamination (there are not toilets up there.) There is also a cultural scar in conquering a rock that means something completely different to the indigenous people, not to mention the heartache of those injured from the climb. Fortunately, times are changing and the climb site will be closed in October 2019.
The climb was not on my agenda in the first place and I enjoyed the perspective to journey instead of conquer.
The Anangu also have a different relation to their deceased. Traditional law across Australia said that a dead person’s name could not be said because you would recall and disturb their spirit. You will often see this disclaimer “use caution viewing this film, as it may contain images or voices of dead persons” in movies in Australia.
Lastly, there was a learning experience in how the Anangu see their environment. While in Uluru, there are several restrictions about publishing photography, especially for commercial photographers. While at first, you will feel your Western angst at not being able to “capture it all”, just a little time around this culture and you will sense their deep guardianship of the land, ancestors and culture. Some of the sites at Uluru are considered gender specific and while you can view these areas if you are the opposite gender, they request that these images are not published. The rock art and your interaction with the aboriginal people is to be enjoyed there and express permission is needed to publish these types of photos.
Sometimes putting down the camera creates a more lasting memory. It’s a reminder to stop and enjoy the moment, the people, and your environment. I can appreciate the care and guardianship they are taking over their history that has been passed to them for thousands of years. It’s pretty special to experience.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a must see on any bucket list of Australia. I had a whirlwind trip in just 2 days and 2 nights and I would highly recommend spending more time in order to explore more and soak up the culture in this unique environment as well as a variety of additional activities from hiking and exploring Kata Tjuta to enjoying the beautiful resorts and daily activities.
Take in the rocks, listen the stories of the Anangu, learn of their creation, ponder their moral lessons, be enraptured by the magic of the night skies, the stars glistening. Immerse yourself in the desert of an ancient people.
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