by Tim Dawe
I am standing at the front of a luxury coach hurtling down the road towards Uluru, still known as Ayers Rock. I conclude my tour leader’s briefing to the increasingly excited teenagers in front of me with: “Uluru is a sacred place and the Aboriginal custodians have requested that you show respect by not climbing it. Now, who still wants to climb the rock?”
A wave of noise in a sea of hands indicates their intentions with all the subtlety of a two-fingered salute. The fingers in this case belong to 27 international students from 16 countries on their youth exchange year.
As the coach disgorges its multi-cultural cargo onto the main car park, I make a valiant plea for anyone to join me in walking around the rock. Even the tour assistant, my 25-year-old daughter and former exchange student, is scrambling for the roped climb start. But it seems not everyone saluted.
In the emptying car park I am left looking down on the solitary Akiko, from Fukuoka in Japan. With few words spoken we fall into step – walking clockwise. We start the Mala Walk.
It’s pleasing to leave the commercialised car park but we are far from the wilderness. Here, carefully placed, are metal bridges over creek beds, informative signs explaining special places and extensive use of stainless steel fencing, all of high quality. It’s a pleasant shady spot with tall grass around. The path meanders purposefully through clumps of gum trees, bush plums and wild fig. We get up close and personal with the untouchable rock. This area has special significance. The Mala (hare wallaby) men, totemic Dreamtime creatures, created this part of the rock.
I marvel at the sheer cliff face towering over me with tell-tale markings of periodic waterfalls crashing into a sculptured receptacle. It’s Kantju gorge and the women’s waterhole. Akiko is in quiet awe with this place but there is a conversational vacuum that I foolishly rush to fill. I try my best at explaining some aspects of Aboriginal culture, pointing out that this fenced-off area is only for women for special rituals known only to them. I note some weathered “feminine” shapes in the smooth rock. Some things are best left unsaid.
Suddenly the topography changes and the Mala Walk ends abruptly like the final dusty stomp of a corroboree dance. We make a sharpish turn to a very long track. It swings away outlining the rock from quite a distance. It’s hard going along the red dirt track under a strong northerly sun. The ground is hard, dry and treeless. But the view of the rock is wide-angle. Now lighter in colour, the wall of rock is severely weathered, with not just holes but large caves with jagged entrances. Seen from the air the rock is stratified in long parallel ridges that are replicated here. Looking up to the dark blue there are companion clouds in white ridges. There’s a connection of sorts.
It’s a long walk with little spoken. In our endurance a familiarity grows, not between Akiko and me, but with this mighty rock.
The next stop is transformational. A neat boardwalk leads us to a jumble of boulders. One in particular is gigantic. If forms the roof of a dark cave. Some would liken it to its cousin, the grotto, misconstrued perhaps given this place reaches back to the beginning of time, of mankind and of ritual. Akiko and I enter to examine the faded rock art and instinctively speak softly; we can’t possibly know the purpose and the symbolism but we feel it is a spiritual place. Someone has lit a fire on the sand floor, possibly met here, and possibly continued an age-old ritual.
Akiko and I talk about what it can mean, without saying what it means to us. Something changes in Akiko – hard to pick – but it seems to me a meeting of Aboriginal mysticism and Japanese inscrutability.
Our next stop is Lungkata, a sacred waterhole and home to the water snake Wanampi. It’s cool and shaded with boardwalks through tall trees, and well-appointed for viewing. It’s beautiful. The rock here is a smooth roller-coaster moulded in wet sand. It’s here we meet people lounging on benches, taking in the ambience of this inlet in the rock. It dawns on me how alone we have been. The base walk around Uluru is 10.6km. To this half-way point we have seen about five or six others.
We set forth on the last long segment. What a difference south-facing makes. It is forested and, now with overcast skies, resembles a different country from the north. Our return journey takes on a winding path, in and out of varied micro environments, all the way coming back to “civilisation”, passing car parks, turn-offs to other tracks and, in the distance, the Uluru Cultural Centre.
If you are not scampering up a steep and dangerous rock face there is time to reflect. Walking around the rock is the right thing to do. And it’s also a wonderful, often surprising, experience. It is long and arduous in places, and the full Monty is not for everyone. For those there is easy access to special spots or the short walks of Mala, Mutitjulu, and Kuniya.
What the walk reveals is that it is not just a rock, or even a gigantic monolith. For hundreds of thousands of years people have drawn on its unique facets and special environments for their sustenance – physical and spiritual. And to wonder why.
My wonderment is not only seeing the rock in all its many moods and guises but also to reflect on a particular joint venture: Akiko and me. It’s about eschewing group norms and striking out. It’s about loners and being alone. It’s about discovery and achievement. But most of all it’s about a sense of connection across the cultures.
That, and a memorable walk with a young Japanese girl I barely knew.