Uluru, a Spiritual Place

Uluru, a Spiritual Place

» Featured Columnists | By Mike Cooney | February 3, 2012 10:45 AM ET

There is no such thing as short distances between destinations in the Outback. Most everyone's impression of this region of Australia is what they have seen watching Crocodile Dundee. In addition to the Aussies' use of "good day, mate" and "no worries", the movie's depiction of this vast country was reasonably accurate.

The distance from Darwin to Alice Springs was over 900 miles. Since our route there was quite meandering and took in both Litchfield and Kakadu National Parks, the total distance to Alice Springs was closer to 1,500 miles. Prior to researching our route, I mistakenly thought Uluru or Ayers Rock was just outside of Alice Springs. In reality, the fabled monolith was an additional 300 miles from the largest city in the region. Since our destination was literally in the middle of nowhere, we would have to backtrack just under 1,000 miles to Three Ways; the only decent road that would eventually lead to the East Coast. There's nothing like seeing miles and miles and miles of desert only to repeat the seemingly endless monotony a few days later.

As most everyone knows, Australia was a penal colony of the British Crown in the 1700 and 1800s. Both men and women were exiled there, and many of today's residents can trace their family trees back to some of the first Europeans brought to the God-forsaken sandbox. The months at sea did not count toward their sentence, and if they survived the horrendous conditions on the ships ,their personal hell was only just beginning. Once they served their sentences, many became prosperous merchants, landowners and farmers.

Prior to the "British invasion" in the 1700s, it is estimated there were 600 to 700 separate and distinct Aboriginal tribes. Their relationship and association with each other was highly complex and followed certain protocols that today would give even the most brilliant genealogist a nearly impossible family web to unravel. In addition to the complex social structure, each tribe had its own unique dialect. We were told that even neighboring groups could have languages as different as Japanese and English.

In the early days of the white settlers, Aborigines referred to all Europeans as "whitefellas" and conversely, all indigenous peoples were called "blackfellas". In addition, "whitefellas" are depicted in Aboriginal rock art as standing with their hands thrust into their pockets. As a result of the almost systematic extermination of Aborigines over the eons there are virtually no pureblooded indigenous people left. It seems ironic given the
fact that "whitefellas" are now exploiting the culture they nearly wiped out. And sadly, many of the "blackfellas" live on reservations, are unemployed and alcoholics. Sound familiar?

Uluru or Ayers Rock is the world's second largest monolith. Interestingly, the largest is found in Western Australia and called Mt. Augustus. Uluru, the name given to the sacred rock by the Aborigines, is a uniquely Australian icon known the world over. The distance around its base is nearly 5.5 miles and rises nearly 1,000 feet from the plain surrounding it. Furthermore, only one-seventh of the rock is visible, which is the desert equivalent of "just the tip of the iceberg". Come to think of it, I have never heard anyone refer to a giant piece of floating ice as "just the tip of Uluru", and I doubt that I ever will.

Uluru is on many peoples' bucket list. When the weather and wind conditions are right, the rock can be climbed, although frowned upon. Aborigines view Uluru as a highly sacred place. To put it in perspective, it would be the equivalent of climbing over, under and around the alter in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome; something "whitefellas" would never tolerate. Even though the climb is hazardous and exhausting, it does not stop thousands of visitors from climbing to its summit each year. The initial climb is at a very steep angle, and the only lifeline is a chain that most people hold on to going up and down. The rock is like climbing a giant piece of sandpaper that has been worn down through constant use. It's easy to slip on the fine-grit that covers the humungous rock, which is why many people each year are seriously hurt and killed trying to climb it.

Uluru's ochre color comes from the oxidation process that has occurred over millennia. It's rich red color changes by the minute, hour and season. Sunrise and sunset are the two most popular times to witness its transformation. Once observed, it's easy to understand why the Aborigines find it mystical, magical and most of all spiritual.

Within sight of Uluru are the Olgas or Kat Tjuta. They are an impressive array of 36 steep-sided monoliths of varying sizes and shapes. There are several walking trails through and around the impressive rock formations. Like Uluru, light and shadows constantly change the rocks' appearance, which gives the illusion (Or is it?) that they are constantly moving, floating and changing shapes right before your eyes. Also like Uluru, Kat Tjuta is most impressive during sunrise and sunset.

The next leg of the trek would include several National Parks and more than 1,600 miles of hippy-van driving. As mentioned in the beginning, there is no such thing as short distances in the Outback. As an example, I missed a turnoff that would have taken us to Brisbane, but instead we wound up in Townsville on the Northeast Coast. That (not so minor) faux pas added nearly 1,000 miles to our trek. However, that same blunder allowed us to see a very illusive and rare species of animal in its natural habitat. See, everything does works out!

And remember, "Travel is the ultimate education."

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