This combination of colours – yellow, green and red – becomes the whole landscape. We leave Kings Canyon and head south towards Uluru and its famous rocks. The four beat swish of the windscreen wipers drops in and out of sync with the music on the radio. In the floodway the water kicks away from the wheels of the cars and foams over the dry sections of road. In the rear view mirror you can see it wash back onto the flooded section of the road. Where the water meets the road, branches and leaves heap up in some counterfeit of a dam. For a short while the tyres sing a sharp whistle as they shed the water drunk by their deep tread. A brown falcon sits on a treetop branch, its head pulled tight into its wing shoulders. It seems strange to be driving through a desert in the rain.
Charcoal trees sprout through the burnt landscape, the ghost of last summer’s fires, making the rain seem even more unusual. Another falcon sits on another tree top branch. All of the landscape seems to be singing from the same song-sheet. Space surrounds the road, seemingly more open than before. The roadside rock walls that flanked the road from Alice have gone. Despite the clouds the sky is tall, the horizon distant. Red. Red. Red.
We pull the car off the road to look across the open spaces towards Mt. Connor. According to the guidebooks this flat-topped mountain is often mistaken for the more famous Uluru, despite it being in the wrong place and being a different shape. It looks for all the world like a mountain from a 1950s western film, with its spirit level summit, its vertical upper slopes and skirt of erosion. I can’t help but wonder how the lens of harder material that caps the mount and protects the rock below formed. It’s a special place to the local people, and you can only visit on organised tours. The realisation that some places are still held to be precious enough to protect, that they won’t be sold lock stock and barrel to the world of tourism is an intriguing thought. We only know what we are told about these places, the barrier of language and tradition keeps some people out and only allows others in. Real access comes through knowledge rather than technology; education as social progress. Such thinking is a world away from the always connected, always on, dissociated community I walk through every day.
In the end the fact that we are downwind of (shall we say) a public facility drives us back into the car and on along the road to Uluru.
The first sighting of the famous rock sends a ripple of excitement through the car. Rather than looking red, the bright mid-day sun bleaches the rock out to a shade of washed out pink. Darker areas – surface caves and twisting shallow valleys that cut back into the body of the rock – give a faint sense of shape, but no real sense of size.
We join a short queue of cars to enter the National Park that surrounds and protects Uluru – and if this is unfamiliar, it may be better known as Ayers Rock. The park is generally flat, with the occasional sand rise or faint valley. But it’s not the sand that people come to see. It’s the remarkable site of The Rock itself. Once considered the world’s largest isolated boulder, it’s now understood to be an extension of the deep geology of the region.
Initially the road strikes straight towards Uluru, and the rock rises to dominate the horizon. It may have been the time of day, with the light falling straight and smooth onto its surface, but the rock showed not a hint of depth or structure. It looked like it had been painted onto the blue backdrop cloth of the sky. Maybe its shape added to the otherworldly feel of the place. I know of no other place that looks like this. Seen from the distance of the road, the edges of rock rise straight up from the level sand and the summit surface draws a line parallel to the ground. This may be close to heresy, but from the straight road the rock looks vaguely unreal. It reminds me of the faux surrealist paintings that we churned out in my O Level art classes. The strange face of the rock brings an unexpected silence to the kids in the back seats, a result as surprising as the discovery of the rock must have been in the first place.
I am less well travelled than some, but luck has allowed me to be better travelled than many, and I have never seen a place that looks like this. And I have seen it three times and the feeling remains. Maybe the landscape lacks the defined components that make other scenes picturesque, or even the scale to make it grand. But it is, nonetheless, remarkable. Good beaches are great, but they just have more “beachness” than lesser ones. Striking mountains may be more mountainous than lesser ones, but they are drawn from the same palette – variation and theme, steep and sharp, rock shard and boulder. This really is a place like no other.
When we arrive at the base of Uluru all sense of flatness disappears. The bulk of the rock is rich in contours and shape, with twisting hidden paths and damply shaded water holes. The surface itself looks like rusted iron, flaky and hard. Only the passage of water – or the passage of feet – seems to break through the layer that faces the hot air. Deep folds must hold precious water long through the summer, so plants can grow from the solid stone. A darker red black marks where water temporarily flows over the surface, the darkness coming from the tiny cells of life that hide between the stone flakes. In the shade you know it’s still winter, chill and brisk. In the sun you get a slight idea about how hot it will become in the summer months.
Heat loving reptiles are scarce on this side of the rock. Grasses grow long in the thin but damp soil. Within each footfall dozens of tiny seedling plants grow, responding to the strangely abundant rain. A flock of zebra finches flicker in the dark shadows of a rock valley, avoiding the falcon that flashes overhead. A pied butcherbird and a magpie, both black and white stealers of chicks, haunt the tops of the few trees in the area. You grow up thinking savannah is an African place; finding it in Australia is a surprise.
In some places the rock cuts in at its base, forming sandy-bottomed caves. These are shelter places, welcoming places, and many of them bear the marks of human hands. Patterns and paintings, overlapped and interlaced, cover the backs of the caves and flow across the ceiling rock. Interpretative signs explain the meaning of the lines and crosses, but seem to miss the important part. This was the art and science of a living culture. A culture so sensitive to where it lived that the land and people became one in the minds of the people who lived there. Generations of accumulated knowledge allowed people to thrive in places where we can only survive through the burning of oil or its chemical surrogates. A culture that was almost wiped from the face of the Earth by another that thought it already had access to the only truth. People in heavy leather boots, dragging boats in the desert, died because they would not listen and could not read the signs painted on these rock walls. People who brought with them a cultural certainty based on coal, agriculture and old words so translated no one can be sure what they ever really said. Wars are still being fought because of such thinking. When you see these empty caves, when you think of the knowledge that has been lost, you can’t help but feel a loss. The land lost its people and the people lost their land, and both suffered. When you read through the catalogue of lost Australian animals you are reading the history of Aboriginal Australia written into its ecology.
Trees grow in a strip around the base of Uluru, their roots tapping the water that runs down the steep face. They bring a green, speckled shade to the edges and make for a much softer light than the brightness of the open ground. The fine sand crunches underfoot, leaving crisp footprints. Red dust clings to the leather of my boots; socks take on the same colour. The desert slowly begins to move into us as we slowly move through it.
At one point the face of the rock flattens out and flows down to meet the path, and rather than being a near vertical slab, it becomes a more gentle slope. For many this is where the journey to the top of the rock starts; next to a sign that politely asks people not to climb. And next to the plaques that remember the people who have fallen to their death after ignoring the sign.
A snake line of people walks through the fence, past the sign and starts to climb. Soon the rock starts to stand tall in front of them and they encounter a heavy chain; a metal handhold driven into the rock years ago to help people climb through the uncertain steepness. Driven into the rock before the local people had found voice enough to ask people not to climb. I would love to climb. To feel the grip of that rough rock under my feet and to pass through the steep walls ahead. But I would no more climb than I would scale the Western Front of Wells Cathedral or clamber up the sarsens of Stonehenge. And the simple answer as to “why not?” is that I was asked not to.
If ever that was landscape where the challenges were internal it is this one. It’s a place where you come face to face with our (and by that I mean Australian) history. In a culture where to name a thing is to own it, the placing of the name Uluru in front of the modern Ayers Rock becomes a meaningless symbol if we ignore the requests of the first owners and namers. So, I did not climb – but I’m not sure if taking pictures of others doing so implicates me in some form of disrespect. Such thoughts swirl here. Respect and regret. Guilt and rejection. If you come here and only see a large stone I think you may have missed the point.
Rising from the desert like a surprise Uluru catches then holds on to the last light of day a little longer than the ground around it. In the mornings it lights up before the still dull ground around it. If you could climb the day would be a little longer. As the light passes over the rock it changes colour – red to orange, orange back to red and often a strange mix of shades that forms a kind of purple orange, red, pink mix that defines categorisation. Such is the fame of these transitions that there are car parks – and separate coach parks – built at just the right places to let you view the sun rise and set on the rock.
People bring camp chairs, beer, champagne, munchy snacks and above all else, cameras, to pass the time and to record the scene. If modern Australia has a national environmental ritual, then this is it. People gather to welcome the day, and to wish it good night. The parallels between this twice daily ritual of watching and the more the solar-centric activities of older times are so clear that they go unmentioned, and, I suspect, unacknowledged. The Earth tic-tocs its celestial clock, the rock changes colour and we grow a day older. The observation of such things seems hard wired, and we ignore our relationship with this spinning ship of space at our own risk.
The time eating distances of central Australia rob us of the very first glimpse of dawn – better to blame that than my own morning slowness. Light paints the rock and the colours step backwards through the sequence of yesterday evening. Uluru shows a different face. We turn our back to the sun and watch the birth of a new day.
On the horizon the scattered heads of Kata Tjuta show pink and purple.