Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park is owned by the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people of the central Australian desert. I want to begin with them, because it is with them that the world’s largest monolith, Uluru – or Ayers Rock if you are used to the 1873 European name for the rock – begins and ends.
For the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people, Uluru is a scared place, one created by the movements and experiences of their ancient ancestors who have inhabited Australia’s central desert for an astonishing 30,000 years. The fact that so-called Western Civilisation, spanning from the Ancient times to present day, is only about 2,000 years old (and Egypt’s famous pyramids are 2,500 years older than that) should put that kind of time frame in perspective.
The history books cite English-Australian explorer William Gosse as the first European to ever see, climb and name Uluru (after Premier of South Australia Henry Ayers). By 1900, the land around it was declared an aboriginal reserve while a road slowly emerged to encourage tourism to the site and cut Ayers Rock and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas, discovered and named by English-Australian explorer Ernest Giles one year before Gosse discovered Uluru) – off from the aboriginal community into a separate, white government-owned national park.
In October 1985, the 1,326 km² site of Uluru and Kata Tjuta was handed back to the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people and they agreed to lease it to the Australian Parks and Wildlife Service, something that has allowed tourism to continue while a greater acknowledgment of the traditional land owners is upheld. While every year thousands of people remain determined to assert the gross mass of their body weight belligerently over the rock by climbing it – against the wishes of the aboriginal people – there are now plenty of signs requesting you to respect aboriginal culture, learn the stories of the rock from the ground through “tjukurpa” (the force that unites aboriginal people and their land) and feel the spirit of the rock as you walk around it.
It really is worth the trip. It took us about four-and-a-half hours to walk 9.4km (5.8 miles) around the base of Uluru, just because there was so much to see and we were determined to capture beautiful photographs and take in the stories of the ancient ancestors of the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people.
I have never experienced a walk quite like it. Overseen by the spirits of the 1,066-metre high rock (it’s significantly taller than Paris’s Eiffel Tower at its highest point), we found it quite deserted, strangely silent and stunningly beautiful. You can see the shapes of faces eroded into the sandstone, find traces of fires burnt over thousands of years and duck into caves painted by aboriginal people over countless generations. It’s a pilgrimage made by thousands – on foot, camel and bicycle; barefoot, running and otherwise – every year and it’s every bit as inspiring and affecting as people say.
– Words and photos: Rosie Pentreath