The next day we return to Uluru for a closer look and to learn a bit more about the history and the significance of this place to the local people. And this is what Uluru is all about.
Uluru belongs to the Aboriginal people, which means that it is not a tourist attraction. For them, this sacred site is means to educate the white people about their ways, their spiritual beliefs, their history and their struggles. The Anangu ask expressly to respect their wishes not to climb their sacred rock, but, alas, thousands of tourists each year view Uluru only as a tourist attraction that they need to conquer by trampling ancient tracks with heavy boots. It’s a bit of a shame, really.
A visit to the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park follows its own rules. After entering the national park you are urged to first visit the cultural centre before anything else, an organically shaped flat building which introduces the visitor to the customs and stories of the Aboriginal people, the guardians of this ancient land. Here you get very close to the art, history, knowledge and spiritual beliefs of the Aborigines.
In the little movie theatre we watch a film about the official return of the lands from the whites to the hands of the Aboriginal people – a moment so important not just for the people here but for all natives in the world. Call me sentimental but it moves me to tears. Afterwards, we equip ourselves with maps and some personalised tracking recommendations and hatch a plan on how best to discover the magic of Uluru with two kids under 8. The trick is to keep it short but meaningful, and exciting at the same time.
We decide on two tracks for the day – the rather short Kuniya walk which we use as an endurance test for the little ones. The longer Mala track, our second choice, is a bit longer but also more attractive as it promises a number of important sites along the way.
From the cultural centre we drive a couple of minutes to our first stop. Curiously here, people seem to be most fascinated not by the beauty of the desert but by one of the benches that line the track. We soon learn why: only a couple of months ago this bench had been the spot where the royal couple Prince William and the Duchess of Kent had stopped for a photogenic rest.
This track really is very short, maybe 15 minutes by foot each way, but in my view it makes an excellent start to the day. Right at the beginning we pass by formations of smaller rocks that in their haphazard set-up have been providing shelter from the elements for centuries. This is a place that humans have been using for thousands of years to rest for the night, to prepare and store food. It may not look very spectacular on first sight, but when you think about it, this really is something. Only a view steps further, a bit of an opening, a cave. And here, the stories of the Aboriginal people become very apparent, as the ceilings and walls are covered with paintings – paintings that have been used for generations to show children the ways of the world.
On this crisp winter morning, in the shadow of Uluru, the bitter cold creeps deep into our bodies, the constant breeze tickling our ears. We move on along the path, deeper into the folds of the monolith. To our left and right, the deep red stone closes in on us, like the folds of a mother’s mantle. High up there are caves, indents, channels that the water follows when it rains, they may look like imperfections, but when you spend more time looking at them, contemplating, you realise they all make perfect sense.
We catch up with the group that follows the free Aboriginal guide. His tales are full of stories from the dreamtime, from ancient beings that created the world and fought over it, all too familiar, and yet very foreign. Looking at the shapes of the rock while listening to the guide, it is easy to understand why the people here have a culture that is so rich with stories. To fully appreciate you must pause to listen to them.
The story of this track is that of the epic battle between Liru and Kuniya from the creation period. Kuniya, a young womb python snakeboy was ambushed by the Liru, which are venomous snakes, in a spear attack. The snake boy was killed, and this aunt was so angry with the Liru that she took revenge and killed one of the Liru after a furious chase. All of this can be read from and seen in the rock face – the points where the spears hit, the track that the aunt snake followed to chase the killers, and the blood that was spilled by the dying Liru.
The track ends at a waterhole. Today, in the middle of winter, the water looks clear and cold. We figure, in summer, this must be paradise. The guide tells of different techniques and ancient knowledge that the Aboriginal people preserved over generations and that help them live in this harsh arid environment. Waterholes are not abundant in the desert, they are very special and can easily dry up. While we modern, civilised people would undeniably die of thirst in this climate in no time, the Anangu know to follow the sound of a special frog which will drink its fill while there is still water around, only to then bury themselves in the ground for years during a drought, waiting for the next rain. Filled to the brim like a water sack, they make an excellent source of water; that is, if you are not afraid to kiss a frog.
This, and other stories are shared before we head back to our next encounter with the stone, the Mala track. For this, we circle Uluru in our motorhome, a drive that comes with the added bonus of seeing the lesser known backside of the monolith. It is a bit like orbiting the moon and suddenly seeing the back of it. Water and wind have eaten away the smooth surface of Uluru on this side to reveal giant cheese holes and caves, high up and unreachable by humans. It is as if the rock wants to show us that its secrets will never be fully revealed or understood, teasing us with our own insignificance.
We park at the beginning of the pathway that invites climbers to the peak of Uluru. Looking at it from the bottom, we can almost understand why people feel the temptation to climb. Besides the feeling of conquest, it must be wonderful to enjoy the views of the landscape from above. However, there is walk waiting for us that we want to follow, leading us past important caves, wall paintings and ending at another waterhole that is sheltered by sheer cliff walls.
This side of Uluru appears friendlier that the Kuniya side as it is bathed in warm morning light. A difference of day and night compared to our earlier walk along the Kuniya track. It is also busier and more popular, but still not overrun by tourists. The Mala track is named after the Mala people, mythological creatures that are the forefathers of the local Aborigines. A small cave with strange holes above the entrance tells the story of how the people believe that the Mala are important ancestral beings who have been watching the Anangu for thousands of years from these little holes, ensuring that the relationship between people, land, animals and nature is in balance.
Most fascinating are the three caves we see along the way – one for the hunting men, one for the women and one for the elderly, all of them wonderful in their own way. The women’s cave is sacred, and taking photos is not allowed here. Its shape resembles a bit the front view of female genitalia, I wonder if this is why the cave was selected by or for women, and if this is why photography is off-limits.
The men cave, pun intended, is formed like a lengthy carving wave, a shape that comes along as strong and powerful and frozen in time, again, not surprising that it was selected for the hunters of the group. The elderlies’ cave on the other hand is very enclosed and protected, its walls and ceiling blackened by centuries of fires, and painted by generations of people who passed their time by preserving and passing on their culture.
You cannot help but admire the dozens of visible paintings along the walls – spirals, faces, hand prints. We continue our walk until we reach the waterhole, which is surrounded on two sides by the steep sandstone walls of Uluru. A blackened line indicates the way the water takes when it does rain, the drop must be at least a hundred meter or so. No doubt, the water would not just trickle, it would thunder down on a rainy day.
Today, it is no raining, the waterhole shrunken to a pond. A bench with a view beckons to sit and rest and admire the view. A sign asks visitors to keep the noise down. All you hear is the song of the birds, it is that quiet. A beautiful oasis in the shadow of the rock.
It is strange to think that the local native people never fully settled here. Considering the vastness of the desert that surrounds Uluru this place must be heaven, an oasis of shelter, shadow and food supply – who wouldn’t think about staying here forever, if the alternative was to track the desert? But this is what the Anangu did for tens of thousand of years, they only borrowed the land without impacting on it, then moved on to other grounds. And so must we.
We return to our camper van to visit the next highlight, the gorgeous rock formations of Kata Tjuta.
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