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An aerial view of Uluru triggers the imagination in endless ways. It's a splintered arrowhead, an angry welt, a wad of scar tissue, a heart beating eternally in Australia's deepest core. This is the lens through which I first perceived the fabled edifice during a flight from Cairns to Perth 20 years ago. I hadn't expected to see Uluru on this journey, but it had emerged from the expanse below, a faint aberration which grew steadily from that fiery landscape into something solid and definable before evaporating on the contrails as though it were an illusion.
A decade later, on a family road trip from Sydney to Central Australia, the rock had taken days to materialise, long hours of anticipation and yearning as we drove through a landscape cloaked in salt lakes and desert oaks. Like most people who arrive by road, we'd sighted Uluru earlier than expected, somewhere along the Lasseter Highway; we'd claimed it as a victory before realising we'd been fooled by the imposter, Mount Conner (known by locals as Fool-uru).
As we approached the outskirts of Yulara, Uluru had made a surprisingly demure appearance, playing hide-and-seek with us from behind the mulga trees, staining the horizon grey, growing bolder and ruddier until finally it rose before us, an omniscient megalith lodged in a bed of golden spinifex. It snatched my breath away, and called to mind a prayer from my youth: as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be. This was the most infallible artefact I'd ever encountered.
Up close, its ancient sandstone casing was pocked with notches and honeycombs, its calloused folds painted tar-black with recent rain, its alcoves enlivened quite unexpectedly with waterholes and foliage. High above us we could see the white scar etched into this twice-recognised UNESCO heritage site by defiant human footprints, the chain railing hammered into the bedrock, bodies scurrying like ants up its sacred face.
Another decade later, Uluru is about to cast off its chains. On October 26 – 34 years to the day since the Anangu people received the land rights for Uluru and Kata Tjuta – the climb will close for good. The decision was made in November 2017 by the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management after several preconditions were met (namely, a drop in proportion of those visitors wishing to climb Uluru to below 20 per cent, and evidence that cultural and natural experiences are critical factors influencing visitors to the park).
And while the impending closure resulted in a last-minute rash of climbers, it has also heralded a fresh beginning for Uluru, another handback of sorts that will be commemorated by the Anangu people at a small public event on October 27.
"Many of our staff have already expressed their excitement to be here at this point in history, recognising the significance of this occasion," says Ben Lanyon, manager of Longitude 131. "They're looking forward to witnessing the official closing ceremony, which will be seen as a celebration by many."
The chain will be removed and possibly exhibited in a historical display. As for the scar trailing towards Uluru's summit, it will re-oxidise and return to its natural state over time, says Steven Baldwin, manager park operations and visitor services at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
"Together, we're setting a new direction for the park. Our vision is to provide fulfilling cultural and natural experiences that give visitors a deeper understanding of the park's ancient culture, and benefit Anangu. Together we want to ensure that Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is a place where Anangu law and culture is kept strong for future generations," he says.
Visitors will benefit from a range of new activities. First up is Opera Australia's inaugural performance at Uluru, a sold-out concert that will take place in November against the backdrop of Bruce Munro's Field of Light installation – itself so successful it's been extended for another year. And Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia CEO Grant Hunt – who was a member of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management when the decision was made to close the climb – expects November's record accommodation bookings to set the tone for another prosperous year.
"We were very confident as tourism professionals and custodians of the national park [when closing the climb] that the destination wouldn't suffer, and I strongly, strongly believe that," he says.
While old favourites like the annual Outback Marathon and the Uluru Camel Cup have been retained, much thought and investment has gone into the development of contemporary activities, Hunt says.
"[But] we're very conscious of making sure that we're as authentic as possible. We're trying to reinforce the cultural and natural significance of the place in everything we do."
Refurbishments are planned shortly for Sails in the Desert and the Outback Pioneer Lodge. But with about 2500 new visitors arriving at Uluru every day, Hunt is mindful of the impact of tourism on the environment.
"We operate in a very sensitive part of the world, and we're very focused on sustainability issues – recycling and conservation being the two main focuses, as well as our social and cultural focuses through the [Anangu Communities Foundation]," he says.
Under such vigilant custodianship, Uluru will soon demand that we view it through new eyes. Ten years hence, I imagine returning to it and finding no trace of the dead tissue chafed by climbers' boots. Instead, the only things discernible upon this rock will be the weals and knobs and indentations snaking across its surface, articulating as they go that most ancient of dreamtime stories.
SEEING WITH NEW EYES
The best view of Uluru is not to be found at its summit. From up there, the rock is merely a platform from which to survey the vast country of which it is the epicentre. Better to appreciate this cultural treasure by focusing on it from a more intimate angle.
FROM A DISTANCE
The real pinch-yourself moment comes from spying Uluru in all its expansive glory for the very first time: there it is, just as you thought it would be, only more beautiful. This is a view that never gets old, and there are designated bus and car sites in the park from which to take in that most quintessential of Uluru images, the wide-angle sunset vista. For an exhilarating sunrise viewing of both Uluru and Kata Tjuta, head to the viewing site called Talinguru Nyakunytjaku (which means "place to look from the sand dune") and, after sunrise, take a walk along its raised tracks to see an interpretation of Aboriginal stories. And don't forget to watch Uluru falling asleep during a Sounds of Silence or Tali Wiru dinner. See ayersrockresort.com.au
An aerial view of Uluru puts the great monolith in context – especially for visitors who've flown here. From above, the rock assumes new dimensions, a remarkable bullseye to which the boundless country is anchored. For the best views, book a sunrise or sunset helicopter flight. And for an even deeper look at this country from above, take a full-day charter incorporating flights over Kata Tjuta and Kings Canyon. See ayersrockresort.com.au
You'll see Uluru rushing towards you as you freefall from a plane 12,000 feet above it, but there will be time to appreciate it at a comparatively sedate pace once your parachute is deployed and you glide earthwards. This is perhaps the most unique way in which to enjoy Uluru – and certainly the most audacious; take the plunge at sunrise or sunset and you'll visualise the earth's rotation as sunrays bloom or wane. All skydives are done in tandem with experienced instructors. See ayersrockresort.com.au
Circumnavigate Uluru on a 10-kilometre base loop, stopping along the way to enjoy ancestral stories, pause at waterholes, acknowledge sacred sites and peer up at Uluru's preternatural rock face. Weaving through acacia bloodwood copses and native grasslands, the flat, signposted walk gives visitors a clear impression of the rock's size and might. Complete the entire loop or just a part of it; take advantage of the free ranger-guided walks along a section of the walk called the Mala Track which incorporate commentary about the park's geology and natural environment, demonstrations of traditional Anangu tools and tales of the creation stories known as Tjukurpa. Start early to avoid the heat. See parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru
RIDE A CAMEL
Glide across the dunes aboard a "ship of the desert" and watch the desert yawning off in all directions and Uluru looming ahead like an oasis-fringed jewel. All the camels at Uluru Camel Tours are mustered in the wild (around 200,000 dromedaries, first brought here in the 19th century, roam the outback) and are broken in by owner Chris Hill. Fitted with custom-made saddles, the camels – each with its own distinct personality – are now ready to carry visitors across redcap dunes for an undulating perspective of Uluru. See ulurucameltours.com.au
It's a bemusing sight, this group of peculiarly upright vehicles whizzing around the monolith lying at Australia's centre. But those who've taken a segway tour declare it to be a lot of fun – and every bit as culturally enriching as more traditional tours, with stops along the way to learn about rock art, sacred sites and the flora and fauna proliferating around Uluru. But don't be fooled into thinking this is a tour for sloths: segways require a certain level of fitness and co-ordination to operate; tours are open to guests aged 12 and over. See ayersrockresort.com.au
Uluru scrolls by at a pace of your choosing when seen from the saddle of a bicycle. Bring along your own or hire one from Outback Cycling's mobile bike shop at Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. From here it's a 15-kilometre self-guided ride to Uluru and around the loop encircling it. You can stop and start as often as you'd like to – and can take littlies along in a toddler seat or tag-along. See ayersrockresort.com.au
Here's an opportunity to combine two dreams: seeing Uluru and riding a Harley Davidson. Feel the desert wind in your hair (or on your face, at least) as you take a spin around the icon on the back of a late model Heritage Softail Harley, or join family or friends on a three-wheeler trike tour (also suitable for children aged six and over). See ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences/detail/uluru-motorcycle-tours
Tuck your head beneath the rim of Kulpi Nyiinkaku, a "teaching cave" on the Mala Walk where Anangu elders would show boys transitioning to manhood how to survive this hostile landscape. The rock art on these cave walls contained important guidelines on tracking and hunting. Around 80 rock art sites are scattered hereabouts – including one on the Kuniya walk which can also be viewed by visitors. Made from a mixture of natural minerals and ash mixed with water or animal fat, the paintings are a record of human occupation in the area dating back at least 30,000 years. See parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/do/rock-art/
FROM UP CLOSE
Zoom into Uluru's many rock faces and you'll capture a unique view of one of Australia's most photographed landmarks: geological scars that turn purple with rain; creases that flatten out at midday and are coaxed back into multi-dimensions by late afternoon's shadows; flanks glowing pure gold at sunset. For a crowd-free, shimmering sunset head to Kantju Gorge on the rock's northern side – and always remember to observe signs requesting visitors to refrain from photographing sacred sites. See parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/do/photography
Uluru feels alive, its pulse murmuring beneath a skin of sandstone that burns in the heat of the day and contracts as the sun starts to ebb. Place your palm against its flank and you'll be leaving your own invisible imprint on a megalith shaped by evolution and the rhythms of the landscape containing it. Visitors are permitted to touch Uluru during the base walk when in the company of a guide, but not at sites marked as sacred. Rock art is not to be touched under any circumstances. See parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/do/walks/lungkata-walk/
FROM FAR AWAY
Enter some of Uluru's sacred spaces from your own web browser in this collaboration between Parks Australia and Google's Story Spheres. The technology enables those who can't visit Uluru (or are planning a visit) to explore its sights and sounds with 360-degree visuals and audio clips, and to listen to the traditional owners' stories. See parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru/discover/virtual-tour
FIVE PEOPLE WORTH MEETING AROUND ULURU
CHRISTINE BRUMBY, MARUKU ARTS
Traditional owner and artist Christine Brumby grew up watching her mother paint and share stories with visitors to Maruku Arts at Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre. "I learned from my family that it has always been important to share the Tjukurpa [creation stories] so that visitors know the right stories about this place." Today Brumby does just this during her cave art tours, Kantju Gorge walks and dot painting workshops. See maruku.com.au
THE SEVERIN FAMILY, CURTIN SPRINGS
In their first year at this cattle station, the Severins – Peter, Dawn and their three-year-old son Ashley – saw just six people: two stock agents, two friends who'd come to check that they were still alive and two tourists en route to Uluru. That was 1956. These days, Peter, Ashley and his wife Lyndee are seldom alone: while they still run cattle they also operate an inn, a paper-making workshop and a restaurant and bar (where you can hear tales of their pioneering days). They also offer tours to Mount Conner, at whose feet Dawn was buried after her death in 1983. See curtinsprings.com
LISA EVANS, ULURU CAMEL TOURS
This camel lover and desert convert – Evans moved here from the mountains of Victoria 11 years ago – exudes enthusiasm for her charges at the southern hemisphere's largest working camel farm. As sales and marketing manager of Uluru Camel Tours she gets to interact with both camels and visitors (more than 60,000 last year) every day. "I think camels have been misunderstood for some time," she says. "When people leave our farm they have a whole different view on camels – they're cheeky, affectionate and a loads of fun." See ulurucameltours.com.au
GARY STEVENS, SEIT OUTBACK AUSTRALIA
After an extended road trip from his home in the La Trobe Valley through the Red Centre and up to Darwin in 2016, Stevens did a U-turn, drove back down the highway and started working as a guide at Uluru. "We have a lot to learn from the Anangu, whose ancestors have lived here for thousands of years," he says. "Their understanding of, respect for, and connection to the land is something all our visitors can experience. Yes, the sunset photos of Uluru are always beautiful, but this is also a place to learn about and connect with." See seitoutbackaustralia.com.au
LEROY LESTER, VOYAGERS INDIGENOUS TOURISM
Ayers Rock Resort guests taking a garden walk with Anangu man Leroy Lester will discover the Red Centre's superfoods – vitamin C-rich fruits like figs, native plum and quandong. "Eating a handful of native plums will heal a cold by the next morning – you'll be bouncing around in no time," he says. The son of Yami Lester, a Yankunytjatjara man who's worked for Aboriginal land rights, welfare and development, Leroy learnt to hunt with spears and boomerangs as a child. Today, he likes to change visitors' perspectives. "Every day people say to me 'well, I never knew'. They need someone to explain things to them, then they see it in a different way." See ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences
FIVE OTHER THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN AND AROUND ULURU
VISIT KATA TJUTA
Kata Tjuta means 'many heads' in Pitjantjatjara, and the 36 bald domes for which the formation is named invariably turn the heads of visitors drawn here by its more famous sister, Uluru. Formerly known as the Olgas, the formation is located 40km west of Uluru and is sacred under Anangu men's law. Nonetheless, visitors can observe it from a viewing platform, on walks through Walpa Gorge and hikes through the Valley of the Winds, or from above on a scenic helicopter flight. See ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences/kata-tjuta-experiences
SEE ROCK ART AT CAVE HILL
Deep in the desert of the Pitjantjatjara Lands of Central Australia you'll find Central Australia's most significant rock art site, Cave Hill. Here, the Seven Sisters creation story is told in paintings adorning the cave's ceiling. Under the guidance of an Anangu host, climb to the top of the hill for panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. See seitoutbackaustralia.com.au
EXPLORE KINGS CANYON
You've come this far, so why not detour from Uluru to Kings Canyon, a plunging limestone gorge located in Watarrka National Park around 300 kilometres from Uluru. Take a walk around its elevated rim or admire its vertiginous walls from the plant-filled canyon floor. See aatkings.com and phs.com.au/browse/scenic-flights
The dry, unpolluted skies of Central Australia are ideal for stargazing, and here the constellations can be appreciated through Indigenous eyes. Peer at the Seven Sisters (Pleiades), part of the songline traversing the continent, during one of the resort's outback sky journeys; capture the star-splashed sky during an AstroWorkshops photography tour; hear the story of Ngurunderi, who created all the species of fish and then placed his canoe in the sky so that it could become the Milky Way during the Tali Wiru dinner; or just lie back and watch the stars raining down on you. See ayersrockresort.com.au
SAMPLE BUSH TUCKER
Ayers Rock Resort's Bush Tucker Journeys program includes a cooking and tasting demonstration during which participants learn ancient food preparation techniques, guided garden walks which explain how Indigenous people harvested spices, fruits and seeds from the bush (both activities are free for guests at the resort), and dining experiences such as Sounds of Silence and Tali Wiru, which incorporate native ingredients. See ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences
Jetstar and Virgin Australia fly daily from Sydney to Ayers Rock Airport. Jetstar also offers four direct services weekly from Melbourne and three from Brisbane. Qantas flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Alice Springs, with onward connections to Ayers Rock Airport. Qantas also operates direct flights to Ayers Rock Airport daily from Cairns and twice weekly from Darwin and Adelaide. See jetstar.com virginaustralia.com and qantas.com. Car hire is available at Ayers Rock Airport. See ayersrockresort.com.au. AAT Kings offers luxury coach transfers between Ayers Rock Resort, Kings Canyon and Alice Springs. See aatkings.com
Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia is owned by the Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation and manages Ayers Rock Resort. The resort is located near the entrance to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and offers a variety of accommodation ranging from unpowered campsites at the Ayers Rock Campground all the way to five-star tented luxury at Longitude 131. See ayersrockresort.com.au/accommodation
Visitors to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park require entry permits, which can be purchased online or at the park's entrance. A three-day pass costs $25 per adult and $12.50 per child aged 5-15; family passes and annual passes are also available. Download the park's visitor app for audio tours, maps, itineraries and other information, and its Uluru birds app for advice on where to locate local birdlife and how to pronounce bird names in the local Pitjantjatjara language. See parksaustralia.gov.au/uluru. There are more than 100 individual activities to choose from at Uluru, ranging from Indigenous excursions to art workshops, guided walks and foodie experiences (some of which are free-of-charge) and tours offered by individual operators. All bookings and itinerary building can be done at ayersrockresort.com.au/experiences.