One of the largest and most famous monoliths in the world, Ayers Rock is a huge lump of arkose, a sandstone rich in feldspar, lying 200 miles southwest of Alice Springs at the centre of Australia. Its rounded and naturally furrowed cliffs, about 1,100 feet high and 5 miles in girth, are the more startling for rising sheer above the flat desert plain, which is dotted with mulga trees, spinifex grasses and desert oaks. But the revelation of the rock comes at dusk or dawn: the monolith seems to soak up the sunlight and, like a giant chameleon changing its colour, glows with the radiance of myriad rubies.
Ayers Rock was discovered in 1873 by the explorer William Gosse, accompanied by his Afghan camel driver, Khamran. Gosse named the rock after the premier of South Australia, not realizing that it already had an Aborigine name: Uluru. For the Aborigine people, the place had been sacred since the time of their ancestors—an era known as Dreamtime or the Dreaming. This was the period when, according to Aborigine tradition, the ancestors journeyed across the country, creating from their footprints and daily actions various landmarks such as rocks, caves, trees and waterholes.
A potent symbol
Uluru, now associated with the Pitjantjatjara and Yankuntjatjara tribes, is a significant point on the Dreaming trails that traverse the land. But it has also become, in the words of Australian writer Thomas Keneally, “an important, affirmative, national symbol” for Australia’s white citizens. Every year, thou sands come to this stone omphalos to watch it turn deep Venetian red with the sunset, or, after a storm, stream with silver torrents, like the body of a surfacing whale.
The highlight of a visit is to climb (now with the help of a chain rail) up the rock’s western flank, whose smooth surface has in the past claimed several lives. On the wind swept summit, riven with deep pot-holes and gutters, there are sweeping panoramas all around; none betters the view, through the haze, of the “rounded minarets, giant cupolas, and monstrous domes” of Mount Olga, 20 miles to the west.
The creation of the rock
The geological history of Ayers Rock goes back millions of years. Its vertical layers of rock were once horizontal—part of an ancient ocean floor—until they were upturned by movements of the earth’s crust. The forces of erosion that have worn down everything else in the area have weathered and scarred the rock with caves, hollows, ridges and grooves, but have not destroyed it. In fact, through the recurrent process called “spalling”, the entire sandstone surface of the rock flakes off evenly so that it “sheds its skin” like a snake but maintains the same shape.
However, Uluru is more than just a giant lump of stone. For the Aborigines, the rock is a living sculpture of ancestral history, and its physical features are accounted for by legends. One of these concerns the battle between two tribes known as the Kunia and the Liru. For example, Maggie Springs water- hole on the rock’s south eastern face contains the blood, now turned to water, of a dying Kunia warrior. The marks made by the Liru spears are pot-holes in the rock’s southern flank; dark gaping holes in the cliffs are the mouths of shouting Liru; and patches of desert oaks are the transformed bodies of Liru warriors.
The Aborigines keep alive the traditions of their Dreamtime past and celebrate their natural environment in paintings, whose simple but symbolically complex lines and shapes can be seen on different parts of Uluru. Engravings pecked out of the rock are believed by the Aborigines to have been made by their spirit ancestors.
It is unsurprising that this massive rock, with its isolated position, its mysterious deeply grooved walls and uncanny changes of colours, should be steeped in Dreamtime legends. For it is a place where myth meets nature, as the anthropologist Charles Mount- ford observed: “When I learned the legends of the place. . . . The immense and beautiful surroundings were no longer mere precipices, caves or splashes of colour; they had been vitalized by the stories that the Aborigines had told me …”.