The morning after my visit to Kings Canyon, it was back on the road south – three hours to Yulara. Yulara is the township associated with Uluru and the home of Ayers Rock Resort which was booked out solid when I arrived (the reason why I later ended up camping at Curtain Springs 180km away). I stocked up at the supermarket and from the town lookout saw Uluru gleaming in the distance 25km away. But a closer visit to the Rock would have to wait till later in the day.
First I was heading 50km west still within the same national park to Kata Tjuta. I stopped at the viewing area 15km out to get my first good look at the ancient red rock formations though they looked more brownish at this distance.
But red they were as confirmed at closer range. Kata Tjuta is a Pitjantjatjara phrase meaning “many heads”, and that image too looked more obvious a couple of kilometres out. The largest of the domes, Mt Olga (hence the old European name for the entire range “the Olgas”) is 546m above the surrounding plain and 198m higher than Uluru.
Mount Olga was named in 1872 by Ernest Giles, in honour of Queen Olga of Württemberg (daughter of Tsar Nicholas I). On her 25th wedding anniversary in 1871 she and her husband, King Charles I of Württemberg, named Giles’s expedition funder Ferdinard Mueller a baron and the now von Mueller wanted to repay the compliment.
This part of Central Australia is in the Amadeus Basin, formed 800 million years ago. Around 550 million years ago, an event known as the Woodroffe Thrust lifted rocks northward and when they eventually eroded they created the deposit known as the Mount Currie Conglomerate. Uluru and Kata Tjuṯa are made of sediment originating in this Mount Currie Conglomerate and both have a chemical composition similar to granite.
The Pitjantjatjara and fellow traditional owners the Yankunytjatjara people knew these rocks for thousands of years before they were renamed for obscure German royalty. They still hold the ancestral dreaming law known as Tjukurpa. Tjukurpa has many deep, complex meanings and refers to the period when ancestral beings created the world.
Most of the dreaming law is not accessible to outsiders. But one legend surrounds the great snake king Wanambi, who lives on the summit of Kata Tjuṯa and only comes down during the dry season. His breath could transform a breeze into a hurricane in order to punish those who did evil deeds.
There are two major walks in Kata Tjuta and I did both that day. The first, the Valley of the Winds walk is a full 7.4km circuit of the rocks, which guide books say takes four hours but I did in an hour and a half.
The second walk is the Walpa Gorge Walk which takes you deep into the structure. Walpa (windy) Gorge is a desert refuge for plants and animals and the track gently rises to an ephemeral stream, passing rare plants and ending at a grove of spearwood.
The walk gives visitors a close-up glimpse of the amazing sheer walls of granite. And no matter how warm it is in the Territory sun, it can get quite chilly in the shadows.
This is the view looking out from Walpa Gorge.
On completion of the second walk I drove back to Uluru. I’d last been to this part of the world in 2002 and was keen to renew acquaintance though I would do things a little differently this time. I’ve written before how I did the climb in 2002 though later admitted this was the wrong thing to do, ignoring the wishes of traditional owners. As it turned out the day I returned was too windy and park rangers closed the climb anyway. A wise decision as my memory of that climb (especially the way down) was that it was deeply treacherous and dangerous and one false move would end in certain death.
The local Anangu, Pitjantjatjara people call the landmark Uluru which has no known meaning. On 19 July 1873, surveyor William Gosse sighted the landmark and named the Rock in honour of Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. In 1993, it was renamed “Ayers Rock / Uluru” and became the first official dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to “Uluru / Ayers Rock” on November 6, 2002. While the resort retains the name Ayers Rock, it is fading from common use as Uluru becomes the generally accepted name.
Uluru is a 10km diameter inselberg which means “island mountain” in German. Inselbergs are prominent isolated hills that rise abruptly from lowlands in a hot, dry region. Uluru is also often referred to as a monolith, although this is term is avoided by geologists as ambiguous. I parked my car along the Mala Walk (named for the rufous hare-wallaby) and although I planned to do the full 10km circuit of the rock, I stopped to admire the artwork embedded in the rock along the Mala Walk illustrating the stories of the Tjukurpa. Traditionally Indigenous people made paint from natural minerals, mixed with water or sometimes animal fat. Colours most commonly used were red, yellow, orange, white, grey and black.
Uluru rock is composed of arkose, a coarse-grained sandstone rich in the mineral feldspar. The sandy sediment, which hardened to form this arkose, was eroded from high mountains composed largely of granite. Over 500 million years ago the newly-formed Petermann Ranges were similar in size to the Himalayas but eroded quickly without plant cover. The sand that became the arkose sandstone of Uluru was dumped at the bottom of the mountain range. As geologist Dr Marita Bradshaw puts it “Uluru is almost just shedding of granite.”
From a distance, Uluru looks smooth and featureless. But up close its face is weather-beaten – pitted with holes and gashes, ribs, valleys and caves.
Scientists debate the formation of the caves at Uluru. Some say they can begin with water lying in dimples in the rock when the weathering process forms a hollow and gradually ‘eats’ backward and upward into the rock until it becomes a cave. Others say the ‘high’ caves on the southern side of Uluru may have begun by water soaking in when the plain surface was at a higher level and again the weathering process could again eat upward and backward to form a cave. The spaced high caves on the north-eastern and western faces may have begun by the flaking process and honeycombed out by wind and water over time.
As I returned to the Malu Walk on completion of the 10km circuit, the evening sun poured tantalising shadows on the rocks. Uluru’s flaky surface results from the chemical decay of minerals.
Mutitjulu Waterhole is one of Uluru’s many hidden gems.
This was the cave where the old people sat and the cave’s ceiling is blackened by fires. Here they told stories and keep their spears and tools and cook up malu (kangaroo) the younger people would bring them.
On completion of the walk I timed my drive out of the park to coincide with sunset. Uluru’s sunset car park was heaving with tourists but a little further along the road you could stop (legally) and quietly enjoy the magnificent rock change colour as it reflected the fading sunlight.