After recuperating for a couple of days in Alice Springs from my marathon drive across the western half of Australia, I headed for Uluru, the spectacular red rock dome rising out of the remote Australian desert. I took a break from the driving by joining an adventure tour group for 3 days of bush hikes & camping in the Outback.
Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock, is the sole reason most travelers venture deep into the Outback desert. At the geographic center of Australia, and 400 miles from Alice Springs, this is one of the most remote places on the planet, or would be except for the modern infrastructure put in place in recent years to facilitate tourism. What was once accessible only to the hardiest and most committed adventurers (like myself) is now accessible to the fly-in/fly-out tourists.
Uluru is the largest monolithic structure on the planet. It is a giant sandstone rock, extending 1142 feet above the ground, and 6 miles under the ground, with a circumference of 5+ miles. It is a Unesco World Heritage site, and Australia’s most recognizable natural wonder.
In the late 19th century white explorers named it Ayer’s Rock, after a famous Australian explorer and territorial governor (who never saw the rock, and wasn’t even governor of this area). It took another 100 years for the Aboriginal people to convince the world that the big rock already had a name, “Uluru”, and to convince the Australian government that they (the Aborigines) were the rightful owners of Uluru, having held title by squatter’s rights for the previous 45,000 years. In 1985 the Australian government begrudgingly returned ownership to the local Pitjantjatjara Anangu tribe, in return for a 99-year lease. Today, Uluru is jointly managed by the local tribe and the National Parks and Wildlife Administration.
Uluru is a sacred place to the Aborigine people, holding a significant role in their creation story, and they have (mostly) succeeded in mandating that the Australian government adopt a respectful approach to tourism. It hasn’t been easy, as we westerners are typically more respectful of dollars than of indigenous people’s inconvenient religious rights and territorial claims. It was only this year that the Australian government has finally banned climbing the rock (beginning in 2019), which has always been considered highly disrespectful by the Aborigines. Interestingly, it was the local white ranchers who championed the Aborigines’ request that the climbing be banned.
While climbing Uluru is for now still legal, there are a lot of days that the climbing facility- a tacky imbedded chain running up the side of the rock- is closed to the public. This was the case on the day my group toured the rock. Further, the local tribe strongly requests that tourists wiilingly not climb the rock out of respect for its sacred role in their belief system. Never-the-less, I can report that some young tourists were indignantly bummed that they couldn’t disrespect the rock and the tribe, since they had come all this way to do so.
I was happy for the opportunity to hike the base trail that circles Uluru. It wasn’t the extreme sport that some were hoping for, nor did I find the spiritual event that many others come here for. What I did experience was a deep sense of awe that comes from experiencing a natural wonder that is on-par with our Grand Canyon. I find myself humbled and grateful that I can bear witness to one of Earth’s most amazing places.
I’m glad that the Anangu people have ownership and custody of Uluru. They will take good care of it, as they have proved over the past 45 centuries.