From the sky, the land below could be mistaken for an Indigenous artwork. It’s a deep ochre canvas interspersed with grey-green dots – spinifex peppering a thick carpet of desert sand. Flat, dry and vibrant, this is Australia’s Red Centre. And at the heart of what is an intensely striking landscape are its traditional owners, the Anangu. This is their land and we are their visitors.
Experiencing Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa in its entirety is as much an historical and cultural immersion as it is a sensory one. The land, while undoubtedly beautiful – or ‘wiru’ as the Anangu say – is highly politicised. It tells stories, not only from creation time, but also from our recent past. The flaky red surface of Uluru tells sorrowful tales of ignorance and bigotry, while the desert oaks that surround it increasingly share narratives of unity and respect.
Perhaps the tale that draws a line in the hot, red sand, is that of the 1985 handback – in which Australia’s then Governor General, Sir Ninan Stephen, handed the title deeds to Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa back to the Anangu people. At that time the Anangu signed an agreement leasing the land back to the Federal Government for 99 years, and in the 30 years since, the Anangu and Parks Australia have jointly managed the national park.
In what is an as yet unfinished tale of mutual respect, the concept of joint management transcends far beyond the organisation of the national park. In fact, the interweaving of traditional and western cultures impacts upon all facets of the community. On arrival at Ayers Rock Resort everyone from the reception to the bar staff receive you with ‘palya’ – Anangu for hello/goodbye/thank you/welcome – the foreign cadence of the word making you feel as though you’ve travelled somewhere far beyond Australia’s borders, let alone to its very centre. And tjukurpa – the creation period/lore/way of life – has been incorporated into much of the resort’s interior design. It can be found in the carpet in the Sails in the Desert’s lobby – a Sandy Willie design that depicts a story about a grandfather and his grandson, and in the decorative cushions on each and every bed that tell the story of the elusive Seven Sisters.
“They have a saying out here, ‘Tjurkupa above all else,’” explains Desert Awakenings veteran tour guide Alex Revithiadis. He describes tjukurpa as the heart and soul of Anangu culture. “It’s comprised of stories that are handed down during ceremony from generation to generation,” he says. “It’s their explanation of how everything got here, but also how to behave, how to act towards each other, the punishments that go with crimes, how to hunt, how to look after the land. So even though it’s lore, it’s also law.”
It’s humbling to think that the Anangu are so willing to share the core of their culture with us, and gratifying that history has brought us to a point where we are willing to embrace it. Their stories not only explain some of the sensitive practices around Uluru – like not climbing it, or photographing certain sites – but also help to bring the rock to life. With tjukurpa, what is a dormant monolith rusting under the blazing sun becomes the site where Kuniya, the woma python woman, killed Wati Liru, the poisonous snake man, in an act of revenge.
Yet, when day turns to night and the light begins to soften the landscape around its edges, history and politics fall by the wayside. The vastness of the land makes your breath catch in your chest, and for a brief moment the enormity of this world is overwhelming.
This intense sense of wonder only intensifies as the sun disappears completely and illuminates the night sky. The Red Centre is arguably the best vantage point in the world to explore the cosmos, and there is perhaps no better time to do so than during Ayres Rock Resort’s annual Uluru Astronomy Weekend. Hosted by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki, in conjunction with some of the world’s leading experts, the weekend manages to transform the night sky into more than simply a twinkly and bewitching thing of beauty.
Such is the magnitude of the cosmos however, that the weekend perhaps confounds as much as it illuminates – albeit in a fascinating and aweing way. Conferring with a panel of experts on the origins of the universe, Dr Karl asks, “So the fabric of space-time got created in the big bang, and the universe is not expanding into anything – it’s just carrying the fabric of space-time outward as it expands?” To which eminent astrophysicist Professor Rachel Webster pauses briefly before answering, “Yes.” The mind boggles.
Ironically, all of this feels utterly inconsequential when looking up at the stars. Speckling the black backdrop of the night sky are stars of various size and brightness. They are transfixing. “In the Southern Hemisphere you’re lucky enough to see the Milky Way in its full glory,” says astronomer and cosmologist Professor Roger Davies at one of Ayres Rock Resort’s signature events, Sounds of Silence. Hailing from Britain, it’s little wonder the faint glowing band arching across the sky seems a think of luck – it’s enchanting. Dr Karl adds, “That’s the best view of Mercury you’ll ever see in your life,” and he’s not even speaking in hyperbole.
Riley Palmer was a guest of Voyagers.