Discovering Australia’s Past at Ayers Rock
“It’s a friggin’ rock!?” my friend back in Brooklyn emailed me. “Why go so far out of your way to see a rock?” Not a bad question. Make no mistake, Uluru (Ayers Rock) is very hard to get to—even by private jet. The distance from Sydney to the rust-coloured, hulking monadnock is about 2,900 kilometres (1,800 miles). That’s about the same distance from Brooklyn to Amarillo, Texas or Paris to St. Petersburg, Russia. Australia is much bigger that you’d think. To quote Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country, “The thing about Ayers Rock is that by the time you finally get there you’re already a little sick of it.”
But before leaving Sydney, my guide Richard Graham showed me a colourful map of Australia’s native clans. It was an Australia I had never seen—a puzzle of ethnic regions, languages and people who’d been there for thousands of years. This sacred, painting-adorned rock was their Louvre, their Matterhorn, and their Grand Mosque all in one. “There was no ethno-linguistic commonality in Native Australia, ”says TCS & Starquest onboard lecturer David Keeling. “Even the creation myths developed in slightly different ways.” But colonialism put the kibosh on the hodgepodge of Native cultures, and the Down Under we foreigners know today is more black and white than it is 50 shades of Oz.
We tipped our wings as we passed Uluru to get a better glimpse, and frankly that would have been enough for me (and many other passengers). But this isn’t my private jet, so we landed anyway and went through the rigmarole of Australian Customs and Border Protection, which involved swapping out crew and landing again in Darwin to clear immigration. Ayers Rock was so difficult to get to that I was determined to love it. I had to love it.
The rock itself is old—some 300 million years, give or take an epoch. It’s located within the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and jointly managed by Parks Australia and its native Anangu owners. It’s also a rare double-ranked UNESCO World Heritage site, inscribed both for its natural and cultural values.
Sympathetic as I am to indigenous culture, the visit to Uluru made it easier to understand why Australia’s natives are often at odds with its colonial present. Native Australian culture is way out there. Most of the world’s indigenous people were influenced by nautical explorers or engaged in trade with other civilisations. Australia’s isolated natives developed with little to no exposure to the outside world. The modern visitor’s rules of Uluru attest to this. Climbing is forbidden. Ditto for photography in some segments. There are male and female components of the rock. This “friggin’ rock” does not fit into the modern world. And what a disappointment it would be if it did.