The Australian continent is believed to have existed as a stable tectonic entity for two billion years, and over that time it has drifted from the arctic north to the southern hemisphere. Some of the rubble-strewn outcrops of Central Australia are 1.8 billion years old.
Here, great mountain ranges have been ground down to red stumps. Their remains are like the roots of ancient teeth barely sticking out of a fossilized jawbone. More than six hundred million years ago, when Australia straddled the earth’s equator, Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed from debris torn off what was once an enormous pile of mountains to the south, eroded and washed north during aeons of torrential storms. The sediments settled over a hundred million years into a two-mile-thick sheet of rock, a huge inland basin. Fifty million years later a shallow sea covered the alluvial deposits.
Then for a hundred million years another uplift caused massive compression and faulting in the region, and the sandstone layers forming Uluru were folded nearly vertically. The softer surrounding rock was worn away for several hundred million more years by the waters of another inland sea. The land changed again. Wind and rain of millions of years of tropical climate then shaped the rocks until the centre of the continent dried out during the last ice age. The great outcrops, Uluru, and Kata Tjuta, labelled until recently Ayers Rock and The Olgas, form the mystical heart of the continent, jutting up like great sandstone bergs from the vast dry peneplain of central Australia.
Saturday 25th August: Driving south all day through an ancient landscape, on the arduous red track from the McDonnell Ranges to Kings Canyon, where I stopped for a stiff hike and climbed down several hundred feet for a swim in a deep, chilly rock pool. I wanted to get to the famous Ayers Rock, or Uluru, by sunset. It took a fast four-hour drive on the narrow tourist road from King’s Canyon south, and then west, to reach it. By late afternoon I could see it rising in the distance like a grey ship on the horizon. By six pm, I was speeding along the paved roads of the park with the stupendous yellow rock sinking and bobbing out of the Spinifex dunes, deepening in colour every minute. I got there just in time. The main western viewing area was crowded with cars, buses, 4-wheel drives, and hundreds of people with folding chairs, beers, binoculars and cameras on tripods. Years of travel-brochure hype had prepared me to be under-whelmed, but when I settled down and opened my eyes fully to it, my brain was as if newborn. The rock, as big as a city, swelled and receded in the changing light of dusk, from marigold to the fiery red of an old bloated sun, to cool ochre purple. The monolith radiated an immovable intensity, becoming delicately reassuring, and then brute heavy as it settled into dark, spiritual silence.
The ancestors of this land, half human, half animal, created the landscape and the laws still held by the local Anangu people. Uluru is the snake from the higher realms. Uluru brought forth the rainbow. And on this rainbow Uluru slithered down to earth. The serpent lies curled up like a heavily pregnant animal resting on its side. The lower part swells with eggs. The figure is both male and female and is considered to be the mother and father of all forms of life.
The landforms of the Red Centre radiate emotional power, and like truths that strike the human heart before language arises, the power is subject to interpretation. The region is considered by many New Age savants to be the heart chakra of the planet, as though mother earth has risen above the surface to embrace visitors. Even the 18th century French mystic St Germain is believed to have uttered so in one of his trances.
Sunday 26th: Last night, after visitors and workers had driven back to the busy resort with its restaurants, hotel rooms and campsites, I drove ten miles out of the park to bivouac away from scrutiny and extra fees. Found a rough track into the scrub, and drove, headlights off to avoid blinding and confusing the kangaroos, several miles north onto the cold and windy plain. Spread my mat and bedroll, and set the alarm. Too tired to cook. Ate bread, cheese and drank a cup of wine before settling my spine onto the ground.
The alarm woke me at six, the world of shapes still dark and colourless. I rose to face the first rusty smear on the horizon. Not so wintry this morning. The car, and most of my equipment spilled fine red dust. Packed up and headed back to Uluru for sunrise, on the northeast side of the rock this time. Only a few were there, bundled up against the morning cold. The sun rose behind us, heating our backs. The raiment of the rock changed suddenly, its folds made visible, and colour welled up through its veins and spread across its skin, purple ochre, a brief rosy blush and then trumpet blasts of brilliant red before settling down to amiable orange-gold for the day. Made coffee on my spirit stove, toasted and ate a mouldy crumpet, and set out on a three hour walk around the base of the rock. Bare toed in sandals, still cold. A batch of joggers with a few chatterboxes among them preceded me. I was glad they were in a hurry to get their exercise. An old earth mother with a walking stick hiked alone, quiet and smiling as she passed me going clockwise, and it was sweet to return the silent friendly greeting. Long stretches of solitude: the dimensions of the monolith unfolded before me as I hiked in and out of its flanks. Uluru jutted out and drew me in on my left as I passed, its dimensions folded in again behind my line of sight. Purple flowers, grasses, clumps of spearbush, fragrant mulga and skinny silver eucalypts dangled their brittle fingers over the path.
Many areas around the monolith are fenced off, sacred to men’s and women’s ceremony and education, and no image taking is allowed. Two of the women’s sacred places are hidden under great genital gashes, like lips hundreds of yards wide. A mile later a roo paw print a hundred yards long appeared, gouged out of the rock face above me. Further around a silhouetted native face hundreds of feet high came into view, a great brain carved by rock fall, rain and wind over the ages. The rock, its features, caves, rippling walls and many folds, crannies and waterholes sing of man’s relationship with nature.
I discovered I had walked around Uluru with my fly undone after having peed behind a bush. A few might find spiritual significance in that.
Some biblical creationists have written at great length, that the freshness of the feldspar in the sandstone, which according to science degrades into clay over millions of years, proves that the great flood of Genesis shaped these rocks a few millennia ago.
But the Anangu also sing the following story: At the end of the time of creation when heroes carried out mighty deeds, a great sandhill turned into stone and became Uluru. The carpet-snake people, the Kuniya, camped here, but the Liru, venomous snake men, led by their chief Kulikudgeri, attacked them. A powerful Kuniya mother, Pulari, wishing to protect her newly born child, spat death and killed many of the Liru. Kulikudgeri slew a young warrior who challenged him to a death match, but the youth’s mother struck Kulikudgeri a blow on the nose with her digging stick and he died writhing in agony.
Sunday noon: The ancient spirit ancestors, the hare-wallaby people, had in mythic times climbed over the rock on their journey east. This is now the climbing route for visitors, but with discouragement from the local Anangu people as it is considered an affront to the spirit of this place. People have died on the climb, especially those with high blood pressure. A few dozen visitors were hauling themselves up the path by the chain-link guardrail as I passed that spot, nearest the parking area full of cars and buses. They were like a ragged band of ants streaming up a boulder.
Back to my wagon parked on a quiet stretch of the road. Four men and two women wandered by asking for cigarettes. They were a group of dusty, weather-beaten outcasts, ones who could not be saved from drink, and who had been abandoned by the tribe. I doled out papers and wads of tobacco. A couple of the fellows peered into my station wagon and saw the empty wine cask. One of the men asked for a drink. “No mate,” I replied, “it just takes away your manhood.” But it was a bit late for that dry response, as I could see from their red and yellow eyes, bruised, alcohol puffed faces, and bodies bloated with ill health and despair. They shuffled on, and squatted down a hundred yards up to roll and smoke their tobacco. They sat in the dust by the side of the road waving at cars, none of which stopped for them.
And others, watchers of the coming Aquarian Age, adepts of the divine life force to the Elemental Kingdom, say they await certain grid activations awakening the primal Record Keeper Crystals which have been held in Uluru for safe keeping since the sinking of Lemuria aeons ago.
Monday 27th: I spent the afternoon until the close of sunset at Kata Tjuta. This place (the name means Many Mounds, in Anangu) made an even deeper impression. But I had some tourist irritation to overcome. I made my first easy reconnoitre up the paved path to the Olga Gorge and the viewing platform at the end. There, some tallow limbed Britons were talking amongst themselves, loudly regretting the presence of so many other tourists. I waited a while and they bumbled off, and there was silence between these 1500 ft high smooth and sheer red walls. I doubled back to a longer and much rougher trail and spent the last few hours of sunlight hiking and clambering the circuit deep into the canyon and around the Valley of Winds. But, dammit, a noisy German family preceded me. If I were to pass them they would catch up eventually and ruin the reverie, so I hung back. Their two girls fought and whined. The father clambered up onto every erect piece of rock to have his photo taken by his wife, who like a barking sergeant organized his poses for him. They were a German version of the Griswolds, heroes of those National Lampoon Vacation films. Earlier I had encountered other herds of tourists, bellowing away about nothing, seeing nothing, hearing nothing. I got sharp a couple of times, and gave withering looks as I passed them by, remarking, “silence is wonderful isn’t it?” People got the message but I felt weary and ashamed of my impatience and righteousness.
Little is spoken or sung about Kata Tjuta. A few say it represents the petrified remains of giant creatures. The largest of the monoliths is the home of Wanambi, a snake with long teeth, a mane and a long beard. During the dry season he lives in a waterhole in the gorge where his breath becomes the wind. And some of the domes are Pungalunga men, giants who once fed on the Anangu.
But then I had a quiet laugh to myself as I followed the last of my fellow creatures. Perhaps I had found my vocation: by divine self-appointment, official shusher-upper to the world’s parks and wildlife areas.
A bit of patience got me a long stretch of peace. I hung back and let the German Griswolds disappear ahead, and ended up striding along in my bare feet on the pebbly path until my soft city feet could bear me no more, the only human soul in the valley these last hours before dusk. I hiked between the crack of Kata Tjuta’s great terracotta thighs, like the fat thighs of a Neolithic Venus opening to reveal a fragrant garden. A glorious red-green valley under the bowl of blinding blue, with kangaroo grass, silvertail flowers, saltbush, desert oak and everything else I could not name surrounded by huge domes of oxidised sandstone. Kata Tjuta enveloped me, reluctant to let me go, even as the stories surrounding it cannot be spoken about outside secret circles. I sat on a rock wishing never to leave. But if I were to linger after the sun abandoned the earth I might not have found my way out.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org