Uluru: Australia’s Mythic Monolith


It’s one of the most iconic sights in Australia,
perhaps in the world. In the Central Desert, a vast sandstone monolith
rises from an endless flat plain, its red walls changing color with the shifting sunlight. Taller than the Eiffel Tower, older than the
Himalayas, and covering more area than the entire nation of Monaco, it goes by the ancient
name of Uluru. Today, it is one of the most sacred places
in the entire world. The traditional home of the aboriginal Anangu
people, Uluru formed some 300 million years ago, at a time when even dinosaurs were barely
a celestial twinkle in God’s eye. In the aeons since, it has witnessed ice ages
come and go, species rise and fall, and humans reach Australia. But there is more to Uluru than simply a tale
of geology. As a central part of the Anangu’s Tjukurpa
mythology – often inaccurately called “the Dreamtime” in English – Uluru is a place
of myths, magic, and modern-day controversy. Today, Geographics is putting on its sunhat,
firing up its 4×4 and heading into the Outback to explore one of Earth’s greatest natural
wonders. In the Beginning… The Anangu creation story begins with a world
that is empty, devoid of forms and shapes. Interestingly, the geological story is pretty
much the exact opposite. Uluru was formed not from nothing, but from
too many somethings all crashing into one another. 500 million years ago, the continents as we
know them had not yet formed. Instead, the Earth was a shifting mess of
crustal blocks that kept thudding together to form new shapes. Were you to stand on one of these newly-forming
continents, you would encounter a world with no grass, no familiar animals. Landmarks such as Mount Everest wouldn’t
yet exist. In short, it was a place as different to our
modern eyes as an alien planet. But not for long. In a short space of geological time, a monolith
would appear that all of us could recognize. As the continents formed, the impact created
colossal mountain ranges. In what is now Australia, the Petermann Ranges
first appeared, growing to the same height as the French Alps. But while the Alps are around today, the Petermann
Ranges were destined to slowly erode away. And we mean slowly. While the process is gonna take a maximum
of twenty seconds in this video, in reality it took tens of millions of years. Anyway, as the mountains eroded, the sediment
ran off their edges. One of these sediment streams, made entirely
of sand, began to pile up in a single location. It was from this unpromising pile of debris
that Uluru would eventually form. But Uluru didn’t just spring into existence. It would take two Biblical-level catastrophes
to create it. The first was a Flood. At some point in its distant past, Central
Australia was swamped with water, becoming an inland sea. Over many more millions of years, mud and
limestone all sank to the bottom of this sea, settling upon the sand pile of Uluru. As this muck settled, it began to press down. Eventually, it was pressing down so hard that
the Uluru sand pile fused into solid sandstone. The second catastrophe came 400 million years
ago. At some point, the tectonic plates shifted
so violently that the inland sea drained away, and Uluru itself was flipped on its side. We’re not gonna lie, the sort of forces
required to do that would’ve been crazy. But, hey, since we’re not recoding this
from Paleozoic Australia, we can just move safely on. After being catapulted onto its side, Uluru
just sort of sat there in the Australian desert, waiting to assume its final form. Over the next 100 million years, the winds
gradually eroded away the softer rock parts, until just the durable sandstone remained. It was at this point, a jaw-dropping 300 million
years ago, that Uluru was born. You know how you sometimes have a Sunday afternoon
so boring it seems to last an entire year? Try enduring 300 million of those afternoons
in a row and you might start to get the tiniest conception of how long ago this happened. And so those endless Sunday afternoons passed
for Uluru. As continents were born, dinosaurs came into
existence, then a meteor wiped out those same dinosaurs, Uluru simply sat watch, waiting
to be discovered. Finally, 50,000 years ago – a length of time
still so unimaginably vast that it’s pointless trying to describe it – the first humans reached
Australia. Eventually, a small tribe descended from that
original group ventured deep into the Central Desert. There, they found a great stone monolith that
changed color with the sun, rising out the plain. They gave that monolith the name Uluru. In the Other Beginning… So, that’s the story of how Uluru came to
be. Or rather, it’s one of the stories. Because Uluru has two tales of creation: the
geological one, and the one belonging to the Anangu people, whose ancestors first discovered
Uluru in 47,000BC. Now it’s time we heard their version. But a quick heads up before we start. In Anangu culture, stories are seen as inheritance,
things that get handed down from generation to generation. Some can only be told by certain households. Some belong only to men, or only to women. Some can only be heard once you reach a certain
age. As such, outsiders are only ever told the
absolute basics of their stories, the sort of thing you’d tell a child. So the tale we’re about to tell you is merely
a glimpse, an illicit peek inside an ancient belief system. But that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. According to the Anangu, Uluru didn’t begin
with crashing continents. It started with nothing. With an empty world in which shapes and forms,
animals and plants simply didn’t exist. Into this unformed world came the ancestral
beings. Emerging from the void, these beings took
the forms of animals. As one, they swept across the landscape, creating
and destroying, rearranging the nothing into something. It was from these twin acts that all shapes
came into the world. The most monumental of all was Uluru. For the Anangu, Uluru is evidence that the
ancestral beings they claim to be descended from existed. But not all of Uluru was created at once. There are other tales detailing each part
of its creation, such as the tale of Lungkata. Lungkata was an ancestral being, one who took
the form of a blue tongued lizard. Long, long ago, he approached Uluru from the
west, burning everything in his path. When he reached the rock, he took a cave near
the top as his home, from where he hunted emu. It was this pastime that would be his downfall. The tale goes that, one day, Lungkata saw
an emu with a spear sticking out its side, symbolizing it already belonged to another
hunter. But Lungkata, being something of a cosmic
jerk, scuttled down and grabbed it anyway, dragging it off to his camp. Eventually, the original hunters came looking
for their dinner. They asked Lungkata if he’d seen their bird,
only for the lizard to hide the evidence and tell them no. But the hunters weren’t stupid. As they left Lungkata’s camp, they saw the
tracks and realized what he’d done. And they decided to teach him a lesson. When Lungkata saw the hunters coming back,
he grabbed his stolen food and tried to race for the top of Uluru. But “race” is a relative term here. Lungkata was so stuffed with emu that the
hunters easily caught him. They lit a fire beneath him, and Lungkata
burned to death. As he died, the lizard rolled down the side
of Uluru, leaving strips of his burned flesh clinging to the rock, strips that can still
be seen to this day. Kind of a cool story, huh? And there are plenty of these in Anangu culture,
each pertaining to a specific part of Uluru. But it’s worth looking a little deeper,
at the meaning of the Lungkata story. According to the Anangu, Lungkata’s fate
shows both why you shouldn’t be greedy, but also why you shouldn’t climb Uluru. It’s this aspect that’s gonna become important
later. But first, we’ve got to tell one last origin
story: the story of how ancient Uluru was transformed into Ayers Rock. Yep, it’s time for the white man to arrive. In the Penal Colony
In 1850, an unassuming young man named William Gosse stepped onto a boat in England and struck
out towards an unknowable new life. Just 80 years before, the famed explorer James
Cook had claimed eastern Australia for the British crown, and now London was encouraging
settlement on the new continent. This – as you might expect – had been bad
news for the aboriginal peoples, who wound up dying of all the smallpox, measles, and
flu the colonists thoughtfully brought with them. But Gosse wouldn’t have been thinking about
that as he boarded the ship. Still only 8 years old, he would’ve thought
of Australia simply as a place for the family to settle, a place warm enough to potentially
cure his father’s bronchitis. Little could the boy have guessed that he
was destined to go down in Australian history. Not that this was immediately obvious upon
the family’s arrival. In Australia, Gosse spent his formative years
avoiding all the snakes, spiders, and drop bears that plague the continent, before finally
landing a job at the surveyor general’s office, aged 19. Over the next few decades, he did such good
work mapping hitherto unexplored parts of the continent that, in 1872, the government
invited him to find a route between central Australia and Perth. This was the great age of Australian exploration,
when you could make a name for yourself by taming – or trying to tame – the hostile continent. That very same year, another English emigree
named Ernest Giles had traded in life as a post office clerk to start exploring, and
become the first non-aboriginal person in history to lay eyes on Kata-Tjuta – an outcrop
of rocky domes a mere 40km west of Uluru. With the insouciance only a colonial explorer
could muster, Giles had promptly renamed Kata-Tjuta Mount Olga, after the obscure queen Olga of
Württemberg. So adventure was in the air in 1872. It’s entirely possible Gosse dreamed of
being the next Ernest Giles; only presumably without that gross story about having to eat
a baby wallaby raw to avoid starvation on one of his travels. Yuck. Come July 19, 1873, Gosse was on his travels
when he spotted what appeared to be a tiny outcropping in the distant desert. As he rode closer it grew and grew in size,
until the astonished Gosse realized he was looking at a monster forged from sandstone. It was, of course, Uluru, and Gosse was the
first European in history to witness it. Although Gosse kept a diary, it’s relatively
dry, which makes it hard to imagine what he felt, seeing this sacred monolith for the
first time. Did he watch the rock begin to glow at sunset,
and think deep thoughts about our planet’s beauty? Did he dwell on Uluru’s mystical significance,
the strange energy it seems to give off? If so, he didn’t write about it. The very next day, Gosse climbed the monolith
alongside his local guide. At the top, he was awarded with a vista of
the desert all around him, vast and hostile. Gosse declared he would name Uluru Ayers Rock,
in honor of the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. Then he clambered back down the rock and carried
on his way. Not long after his discovery, Gosse would
be dead, felled by a heart attack aged only 38. But his place in history was assured. Gosse had finally leaked the secret of Uluru
to Australia’s new settlers. For the next hundred or so years, the story
of this monolith – and its Anangu guardians – was going to be very different. The Rock
Let’s leave the historic narrative there for a moment, and take a breather to really
get to know Uluru. We’ve already seen how the rock formed,
both in the geological sense, and within the Anangu mythological tradition. But what actually is Uluru? What exactly was it that William Gosse was
so overawed by? The first aspect was probably its size. You can’t really tell from photos, but Uluru
is gigantic. Both the Eiffel Tower and the Chrysler Building
in New York max out at lower heights. While that would’ve seriously impressed
Gosse, though, he would’ve had no idea about the true extent of Uluru. Remember back in that time of geological upheaval
when Uluru got flipped on its side? Well, only a part of it ever made it back
to the surface again. Like an iceberg, Uluru exists mostly out of
sight. The rock has been estimated to continue 6km
below ground. As for the color, Uluru is well-known for
its reddish hue that looks most dramatic at sunrise and sunset, shifting with the light. But that’s not its original color. Uluru was gray, as parts around its base still
are. According to ABC, it’s only due to iron
elements within the rock oxidizing away for so many endless millennia that Uluru looks
so striking today. It’s not just the rock itself that is visually
misleading. Take the surrounding area. What do you picture when you picture the area
around Uluru? Even if you’ve been there, the answer might
be “desert. Lots of desert.” But there’s semi-lifeless desert like the
Atacama, and then there’s the desert around Uluru, which is teeming with life. There are over 400 plant species here, including
some which are as freaky as anything Australia has ever come up with. Ever heard of the desert bloodwood? It’s a tree with sap so dark red it literally
looks like its bleeding, like the Amityville Horror has dressed up for Halloween. Not that the desert bloodwood is the only
freaky thing around Uluru. This being Australia, there are reptiles with
names like “the death adder” and “the thorny devil”. But perhaps the most famous story of dangerous
wildlife around Uluru comes not from poisonous reptiles, but from an animal that – frankly
– looks adorable at first glance: the dingo. Yes, Uluru is the site of the Azaria Chamberlain
murder case, probably most-famous in popular culture for spawning the phrase “a dingo
ate my baby!” Unfortunately, that’s exactly what happened. Poor Azaria was just two months old when a
wild dingo snatched her from her parents’ tent and devoured her. But all that was in a far future William Gosse
couldn’t possibly have foreseen as he sat atop the monolith, a future with airplanes,
and penicillin, and popular geography videos on YouTube. So let’s instead turn back to what he may
have seen. Well, if there had been some recent rains,
Gosse might have looked inside one of the rockpools that form on Uluru. In the waters, he might’ve found Branchinella
Latzi shrimp, a super-rare type of shrimp now thought to be extinct due to tourist activity. He might have also taken a look at the surrounding
lands and seen the odd Rufous hare-wallaby, another species that went extinct – although
they began to be reintroduced in 2005. In fact, sat atop this 1,425,000,000 tonne
rock, Gosse would’ve probably seen a world that hadn’t changed for tens of thousands
of years. He would’ve been one of the very last ones. Now the word was out, Uluru’s story was
about to enter its dramatic next act. Everything Changes
The story of Australia’s relationship with its aboriginal peoples in the 20th century
is a story of mistakes made and lives shattered. And, thanks to its symbolic importance in
Anangu culture, its also the story of Uluru. Millennia before William Gosse was even wearing
diapers, the Anangu had used Uluru and nearby Kata-Tjuta for their most sacred rituals. When the Australian government began creating
indigenous reserves in 1918, this was initially taken into account. In 1920, Uluru was included inside the Southwestern
reserve, and the Anangu mostly able to continue their traditional ways of life. Unfortunately, this arrangement wouldn’t
last long. The 1930s would be marked by two growing pressures:
local pastoralists (or farmers), and tourists. The latter started in 1931, when a guy called
Walter Gills visited Uluru on camel, becoming likely the first tourist to the area. But it was the former, the pastoralists, who
were initially the bigger problem. By the mid-1930s, farms were starting to spring
up around the edges of the Anangu’s reserve as Australia’s once-impenetrable interior
was slowly tamed. As these guys set up shop, they started diverting
resources such as water, bringing them into conflict with the Anangu. When those conflicts happened, whose side
do you think the Australian government took? By 1940, the government was pursuing an aggressive
“Europeanization” project, designed to take the Anangu and other tribes off their
land and integrate them into civilization. This was the time of the infamous Stolen Generations,
when federal and state agencies took mixed-race aboriginal children from their families and
put them into enforced adoption. At the same time, the first tracks had appeared
linking Uluru to civilization. Bus tours were becoming a thing, and plenty
of tour operators weren’t happy their newest destination was in a reserve. So the government did away with it. In 1940, the Southwestern reserve was severely
reduced in size, leaving the Anangu with very little. 18 years later, in 1958, Uluru and Kata Tjuta
were both formally removed from the reserve. Uluru was renamed Ayers Rock National Park. And, just like that, the Anangu were cut off
from the place that had sustained their civilization for fifty millennia. Although the Anangu would continue to sneak
into the national park to perform their ceremonies at Uluru, the government’s official policy
was to move them on, while tour operators applied their own pressure to stop them from
staying. By the mid-1960s, Uluru was well on its way
to becoming just another tacky tourist spot, surrounded by resorts and hotels. Luckily, events were about to give the government
a severe attack of conscience. The Journey to Shared Ownership
If you’re not Australian, the chances you’ve heard of the Wave Hill Walk-Off are slim. A general strike by indigenous workers at
a cattle station on August 23, 1966, it sounds like exactly the kind of historical footnote
you’d probably ignore. But make no mistake, this one strike directly
led to Uluru being the place it is today. The story starts back in the 19th century,
a mere two years after William Gosse sat atop Uluru and decided to call it Ayers Rock. Up in the Victoria River area, a guy called
Nathaniel Buchanan had just been granted a huge swathe of land. This was news to the Gurindji people who lived
on that land, but Buchanan was determined and soon Gurindji land was swarming with cattle,
destroying the fragile ecosystem. But the Gurindji couldn’t move elsewhere. Their culture emphasized a strong bond with
ancestral lands. So, unable to leave, they began working for
Buchanan as cowboys. Over the next few decades, the Gurindji put
up with a horrendous amount of abuse. They received low wages, their women were
often assaulted. In 1965, the government tried to remedy this
by increasing pay, but the new owners of Wave Hill Cattle Station refused to pay the Gurindji
a penny extra. By the following August, tensions had reached
boiling point. Under community leader Vincent Lingiari, the
Gurindji downed tools and walked off the job. But they didn’t start picketing or acting
like regular strikers. Instead, they set up a camp in the middle
of their ancestral lands, and issued a statement saying:
“We feel that morally the land is ours and should be returned to us.” It was the spark that lit a thousand bushfires. Around Uluru, the Anangu were inspired to
try their own forms of protest. Guided by their own community leader, Paddy
Uluru, they began a campaign to have their claims to the monolith recognized. By 1972, the campaign had gathered so much
steam that the Labour Party was elected on a promise to look into land rights. In 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam symbolically
handed part of Wave Hill back to the Gurindji. The following year, the Aboriginal Land Rights
(Northern Territory) Act was passed, allowing aboriginal groups to reclaim land if they
could prove an ancestral right to it. Not that it was a sure bet that the Anangu
would get Uluru back. The monolith lay inside the Ayers Rock National
Park, meaning it was governed by different land laws. It took until 1983 for the Hawke government
to amend the laws creating National Parks, specifically so the Anangu could make their
claim. On October 26, 1985, the handback finally
took place. Ayers Rock became Uluru again, and the land
around it was returned to the Anangu. The only conditions were that the Anangu then
lease the park back to the Australian government for 99 years, so tourists could continue to
visit, and that they continue to allow people to climb Uluru. That last point, by the way? Majorly controversial. Remember the tale of Lungkata, whose firey
death showed why you shouldn’t climb Uluru? Well, the Anangu thought it was a sacred prohibition,
and did not want people climbing the rock. Getting everyone else around to their side
was a different story. It took over 30 years for the Anangu to get
their climbing ban through. Arguably, it only worked when tour operators
saw which way the wind was blowing and started creating alternative activities to do around
the rock. If you’re feeling tempted to take the side
of the climbers, don’t be. While many treated Uluru with respect, many
more urinated up there, defecated in sacred pools, chucked drinks cans and diapers behind
rocks, or stole stones from the site. There’s a good reason the Anangu wanted
the climb banned, and that reason is that huge crowds of humans have a tendency to act
like grade-A douchebags. The final day for climbing Uluru was October
26, 2019 – exactly 33 years after the handback. That evening, the last 8 tourists on the rock
stepped off as one, holding hands. When the sun rose on Uluru the next day, it
was on a rock untouched in ways it hadn’t been since William Gosse first scaled its
sides. So that’s the story of Uluru, from prehistory
to the present day. After an interregnum of almost a century,
Australia’s great landmark is returning to something like its natural state. But that doesn’t mean that nothing has changed. From a remote spot unknown to those descended
from Europeans, to a place that tried to ban aboriginal peoples, Uluru’s recent history
has been one of great tension. In the last few years, though, that tension
seems to have melted away. As of 2019, Uluru is jointly managed by Anangu
and non-aboriginals, a place Australians of all backgrounds are cooperating to preserve
for future generations. It may be 300 million years old, but Uluru
today is as powerful and as iconic as at any point in its history. When future generations visit Uluru hundreds
of millennia from now, hopefully it is to see not a symbol of division, but one of endless
cooperation.

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