Lessons from Travels: Uluru and Kata Tjuta

by Carl Strang

This is an iconic Australian scene:

Uluru, known to the English language as “Ayer’s Rock,” as though a single person’s name could contain such a wonder.

Uluru is the Australian umbilicus, occurring as it does in the continent’s center. It is renowned geologically because it is a single, huge undivided mass of stone.

As in the distant perspective of the top photo, this view from an intermediate distance likewise gives an impression of uniformity.

If you take half a day to walk around the thing, experiencing its silences and sounds, its textures and variety, you lose any sense of simplicity you may have held after reading about Uluru.

For one thing, there are cave-like indentations.

Erosion has exposed and perhaps augmented Uluru’s internal texture.

Legend likens this shape to a frog.

Oddest and most unexpected, up close the rock seems to have a scaly skin.

The flakes are each a few inches across.

Uluru is amazing, awe inspiring, well worth savoring. No wonder it has significance in Aboriginal spiritual tradition. That tradition is as differentiated as the rock itself. Some parts of the rock’s proximity are forbidden to Aboriginal women, some parts to the men. Some parts are so sacred that photography is forbidden. I did not even try to photograph the signs that mark such areas, out of respect for that wish as much as for its legal codification.

But here is what impressed me most. Uluru is known all over the world. Local tradition holds it as sacred. But, back when the Australian government was being what passed for conciliatory at a certain stage of its history, it gave the local Aboriginals a choice. They had two traditional sites in that area which were sacred to them. One they could keep almost exclusively to themselves, with highly limited and restricted access for outsiders. The other site they must open to tourism. They elected to open Uluru. This means that to them, the other site is more special, more sacred. My tour group walked the short trail that provides limited exposure to that other site. It is called Kata Tjuta, but I think of it in the English translation of that name: the Many Heads.

Like Uluru, the scope of Kata Tjuta requires a perspective from miles away.

The diversity of shapes is here more complex than at Uluru.

The iron oxide red of the stone’s surface contrasts amazingly with the sky and vegetation.

As at Uluru, one’s sense of the place alters as one gets closer.

Light and shadow, sky and cloud, plants and rock, all fit together in a way that seems more intuitive than conceptual.

There is a perfection in each scene, each view. One measure of this is that I have done less photo cropping for this post than I believe I have done for any other to date.

At some point the rocks’ texture begins to become evident.

All of this in a trail loop that covered only a tiny portion of the Kata Tjuta site.

At each turn the view changes impressively.

Most of the posts in this Travels series throw perspective on our own northeast Illinois landscape through some contrast in ecology, biology or geology. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are so removed from our local experience that even “contrast” seems inadequate to express the difference. I can think of one connection worth mentioning, though. Like the Aboriginals, Native Americans found The Sacred in the local landscape during their thousands of years of tenure here. Their traditions include stories that connect them to the animals, plants and physical features of their surroundings. Our European-derived culture has lost that sense of the sacred in its commodification of the land. Perhaps the lesson from this travel episode is to find a connection to every place that expresses a deep level of personal, community and cultural value and significance.

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