Even from a great distance, Uluru is instantly recognizable. And once you stand in front of it, its nine-kilometre perimeter overwhelms.
Australia – Long Read

Outback cathedral rising from red earth

Photo by Barry Skipsey

Australia – Long Read Outback cathedral rising from red earth

Australia, a place so dry and underpopulated that everything is called The Outback with the exception of a few cities. Its epicenter is a giant red rock rising from the red desert earth, calling like a beacon.

Barend Toet
Barend Toet Writer

“It’s a terrible trip,” warns an Australian friend. “One horizon after the other, layer upon layer, like it’s never going to end.” Uluru was once only visited by a tiny handful of enterprising tourists every year, enduring hundreds of miles of bumpy dirt roads to reach what many still call “Ayers Rock”. The local hotel was a shed with a tin roof and 12 hard beds. Today, you can fly directly to the heart of the Australian Outback and stay in a luxurious resort with a spa and swimming pool. But the long, hot and dusty overland trip remains an alternative for those prepared to brave it.

Central Australia covers some 110,000 square miles and this vast area holds a few indigenous Aborigines, a handful of cattle-farmers and miners, and a lot of very little else. The landscape’s emptiness is overwhelming as soon as we hit the Stuart Highway just outside Port Augusta in South Australia. From here to Alice Springs (a distance of some 850 miles) we are almost alone, apart from an occasional homestead or petrol station.

I find comfort in the words of Australian landscape painter Peter Coad. “You’ll love it,” he says. “Traveling through the desert is a therapeutic experience. Your thoughts get all the chance in the world to fully develop. “The horizon stretches 360 degrees around the vehicle, with the serrated battlements of the Flinders Ranges to the right.

"Traveling through the desert is a therapeutic experience"

The two-lane bitumen road that disappears into the shimmering horizon is a thin line in the immense, rusty landmass. Some 310 million years ago, the highest mountains that ever existed towered over this area, now pulverized by earthquakes and the grinding wear and tear of torrential tropical rains and seawater that covered big parts of Australia for millions of years. This is the land after the Flood.

The only relief from endless sand dunes here are rock formations such as the Devil’s Marbles: weathered boulders up to six meters in diameter which represent, according to the Aborigines, the petrified eggs of the mythical Rainbow Serpent from the Dreamtime. Although the annual rainfall can be as low as four inches, the area is dotted with pockets of lush palm trees and ferns, and permanent water holes are home to 11 species of fish.

After about 60 miles we pass Lake MacFarlane, one of the impressive salt lakes in this area: a silvery white mirror under the deep blue sky, framed by purple shores. The salt is a relic of the seawater that covered this region for millions of years. The heat is scorching, the air shimmers and vibrates, the cracked earth is thirsty and there isn’t a living plant in sight. Further inland, the vegetation returns: plenty of Spinifex, the popular name for more than 20 species of spiny tussock grasses, and a surprising number of trees, their roots often longer than their trunks.

When confronted with extended drought, these trees fall into a kind of summer slumber, just vegetating until the next rainfall allows them to burst forth, blossoming and bearing fruit. Only those plants adapted to extreme heat, cold and drought can survive in this merciless environment. Free-roaming cattle scrape a meagre meal together or hide from the stinging sun, ruminating in the thin shadows of small bushes. A lone goanna – a big lizard – runs across the highway in front of the car, alarmed by the sudden sounds in its silent world. I wonder how humans can survive in this unforgiving habitat.

Hundreds of miles down the road and hours later, we see signs of civilization again: a line of billboards for beer and gasoline. “We serve the best fish in the desert,” says the Greek owner of a restaurant in Coober Pedy. She’s right, it’s excellent, as is the retsina. However, Coober Pedy is more famous, or rather infamous, for its opals. These gems are dug out of open cast mines that leave a residue of vast heaps of dead, violet- grey dust and some rocks.

The plains around Coober Pedy are pockmarked with human molehills great and small, turning this area into a vast lunar landscape. Although each individual feels minute in the vastness of this desert, the influence of human activity on the environment is much bigger than a passing visitor might think.

The cracked earth is thirsty and there isn't a living plant in sight

In little more than a century, imported cattle have eaten away the complete natural food supplies of some indigenous animals, resulting in their migrating to other areas or their annihilation. The population of rabbits who have no natural enemies in this part of the world, has reached plague proportions and also had a severe impact.

Populations of possums, bilbies and rufous hare-wallabies have disappeared or died out. The food supplies of the nomadic Aborigines has been severely affected and, at the same time, their freedom of movement, essential to their livelihood as hunters, was restricted by cattle and rabbit fences.

More acute problems between the two groups arose around the use of water holes and the Aboriginal custom of burning the land regularly. The resulting conflict between black and white led to a short and bloody colonial struggle which was easily won by the whites, who had superior weapons. Historians refer to this episode as “the biggest and quickest land grab of all times.” This dirty war has still not been settled peaceably between the two sides. What separates both groups is a fundamental difference of opinion about the relationship between humans and nature.

In the eyes of the Aborigines, every human being must respect the earth and all that lives on it, in order to keep the cycle of nature intact and sustainable. The notion that land could be the property of individuals was unthinkable for them, and to this day their claims to land are always collective.

This basic respect for Mother Earth is further strengthened by religious ties with the landscape, wildlife and plants. For the European immigrants, on the other hand, land was an economic asset, there to be exploited by its owner regardless of the consequences for the ‘useless’ plants, animals or ‘savages’ who might get in the way. The mobile phone, dead in the desert, crackles back to life when we reach the dry bed of the Todd River which runs through Alice Springs.

For the European immigrants, land was an economic asset

Until the beginning of World War II ‘The Alice’ was a village with only a couple of hundred inhabitants. During the war, however, more than 200,000 soldiers passed through on their way to the strategic north, threatened with Japanese invasion.

After 1945, some of them returned as tourists, marking the beginning of a broader interest in desert holidaymaking among a wider public and laying the foundations of a town of 27,000 inhabitants. Many of the locals still make a living from tourism, although business has suffered since the arrival of Ayers Rock Connellan Airport, much closer to the biggest attractions in the area: Uluru and Kata Tjuta.

That evening, I stand on one of the many hills at the outskirts of Alice to gaze at the spectacular evening glow, when the last red rays of the day illuminate the scarlet landscape until darkness falls. The view is dominated by the humpbacks of the MacDonnell Ranges.

The next day we visit the Strehlow Research Centre, a museum dedicated to the life and work of Theodor ‘Ted’ Strehlow, the most prominent white scientist to study the values and customs of Aborigines until today. Strehlow was born in Hermannsburg, a mission post built by German Lutherans at about 150 kilometers from Alice Springs in 1877. Raised by the Aranda tribe, Strehlow spoke their language fluently. He was even initiated as a ceremonial chief, an ‘Ingkata’, gaining intimate knowledge of tribal secrets that are completely taboo for non-initiated men or any females.

The rules for initiation are very demanding and painful: it is not uncommon for a candidate’s tooth to be knocked out, and novices might have to spend a few weeks in the desert, taking care of themselves and gathering food without outside help. Many young men are understandably scared to death of these rituals and stay out of sight around the end of the year, when the elders, recognizable through a red band around their head, roam the streets recruiting novices.

To prevent irresponsible youngsters from selling the tribe’s sacred objects or ‘Tjurunga’, Strehlow was even given custody over these artefacts, which must always be kept hidden. They are now locked away in a vault in the Research Centre’s ‘Vesda Room’ – only accessible to those elders with the right credentials.

The last red rays of the day illuminate the scarlet landscape

When leaving the museum, I meet a group of Aborigines lying under a tree in the park outside. Two men are sound asleep in the yellow grass, while two barefoot women work in silence on a large dot painting that is nearing its completion. “You got some cigarettes for us?” asks one of the women as I inspect the painting.

The men wake up. Without a word, they light the requested cigarettes and the women return to their artwork. Aboriginal art is a highly appreciated commodity these days; there is a lot of it for sale in the chic galleries in the centre of Alice. The contrast between the quiet, somewhat shabby artists in this little park and the elegant, mostly white, midtown art dealers is noticeable.

That night I drink a beer in ‘Scotty’s Bar’ – a well-known watering hole in traditional outback style, which dates back to the early days of Alice. The walls are adorned with faded photographic portraits of local heroes: cattle farmers, mayors, postmen, vicars, policemen, nurses, athletes and bakers.

There are over 150 photographs but nearly all are of whites, except two: Amelia Kunoth, an Aranda ‘princess’, and Aboriginal painter Albert Namatjira. Namatjira made a fine career during his life. Yet he died miserably and lonely in a police-cell, jailed because he had shared his booze and cigars with family and friends. In those days, the law expressly forbade Aborigines to consume such intoxicants but Albert, thanks to his fame, was an exception.

However, he had not understood that sharing them with other Aborigines was a punishable offense. One of his favorite subjects was Mount Zeil, 75 miles west of Alice Springs. The next evening we camp at the banks of the Finke River on a popular spot near Glen Helen Lodge with a fantastic vista of Mount Zeil and Mount Sonder and the wide surroundings.

The charming, well-worn, wooden Glen Helen Resort (erected over 100 years ago, making it a veritable antique in Australia) is managed by two bearded cowboys nearing retirement. They take care of the business for its present Aboriginal tribal owners. “This is the only bar in the world without beer,” grins one of them, referring to the decision of the new owners to prohibit alcohol sales on the property – which goes for blacks and whites alike.

"This is the only bar in the world without beer"

“A desert trip is not complete without a night of camping in the open air,” our guide said. So, we spread the ‘swags’ out on the dry sand. A swag is a combination of a sleeping bag and a mattress, rolled into a big bundle. The stars blaze the inky desert sky, while we listen to a choir of frogs and crickets. In one hour I see more shooting stars than I ever have before or since. The superstar is a glowing comet that seems to bounce off the earth’s atmosphere, trailing behind it a flaming peacock-tail of fire and light. No five-star hotel can match this light show.

You may follow the Mereenie Loop from Glen Helen, a lonely, unsealed road along the track of an 19th century explorer for minerals. A hundred years ago, this route used to take weeks to complete. I feel almost guilty about the sweatless, effortless way we can traverse this very difficult and dangerous terrain in an air-conditioned jeep in some hours. The Mereenie path, flanked by numerous termite-hills, leads along and through the Gardiner Range until you reach the Watarrka National Park, where you’ll find the well- known King’s Canyon.

There is a well-marked walking path that begins with a short but steep climb to the top of the Canyon and then generally follows the Canyon rim around, along mazes of weathered sandstone domes and a waterfall near the ‘Garden of Eden’ a water hole where palms and tropical ferns grow in the cool shade of the narrow gorge.

The Australian desert knows more such places where the remainders of once huge tropical rainforests found a ‘niche’ to survive. One of the best known is at Palm Springs, not far away from King’s Canyon. The impressive gorge with its towering 1,000-feet-high cliffs was carved out by what must have been a powerful, raging river. Today, the present King’s Creek which runs through the gorge is a mere trickle.

The various layers of sediment, each with its own texture and color, are the visual reminders of nature’s patience in moulding these high cliffs from pebbles and sand at the bottom of a sea. From King’s Canyon, it is about half a day’s drive to Yulara, the modern hotel-village that was built next to the Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park in the 1980s.

Coming from an empty desert, the Ayers Rock Resort in Yulara is an astonishing place with its collection of three-, four- and five-star hotels and a series of (often excellent) restaurants. The wilderness has been transformed into a shopping and leisure-center, in the middle of nowhere. The hardships of the first daring desert-trekkers who could only reach this place at the expense of blood, sweat and tears have faded into history; even the camping grounds look impeccable - with fresh green lawns and first class amenities.

Uluru is clearly recognizable from a distance of 20 miles or more, because the colossal red mass rises so unerringly, so majestically and so alone from the surrounding flat plain. Once you stand in front of it, the impact of its five-miles perimeter is one of overwhelming awe.

Layers of sediment are visual reminders of nature's patience

“Some of the things that tourists tend to do, like climbing the Rock, upset the local population,” says one of the park rangers the next day. “It’s very difficult to maintain a reasonable balance between the interests of the locals, who live here, and the visitors, who just pass through, because there are so many of them.”

Long rows of tourists still climb Uluru, day after day, despite the Aboriginal elders’ belief that clambering over Uluru is tantamount to raping a sacred and all-important place in their mythology. They have nicknamed the daily procession of climbers: “Human ants.” But there are also plenty of visitors who do pay respect to the sacral aspects of the landscape, listening to explanations of the guides about Uluru during the various tours at ground level, without scaling the mountain at all. The number of visitors who climb has dropped from three-quarters in 1990 to about a third today.

In so doing, those being respectful are introduced to the fascinating thoughts and ideas behind the Aboriginal belief-system and the interwoven relationship between man and nature that is so central to their philosophy. These nomads lived a simple life as hunter-gatherers, yet they developed a complex social system and a highly expressive and captivating religion – feats which were ignored or underestimated by those who rode roughshod over their world. Uluru remains an obviously impressive geological monument, dating back to the days when the earth was still ‘searching’ for its present form.

That evening hundreds of tourists witness the natural light show of the last sun rays playing on the rock. The solar performance doesn’t take long, but the rock changes in a few minutes from a pale blueish grey, through pinkish to a deep red, like a full-blooded glass of beautiful wine, while the last light colors the grass at its feet a golden yellow.

It is fascinating to realize that this gigantic rock was once hidden under a towering range of mountains that has since been pulverized. This unique land jewel did not surface before untamed tectonic forces pushed it into daylight from its hiding place under the earth’s crust. Secretly, I hope that the same happy future may await the philosophical foundations of the Aborigines.

Then, darkness falls. That night, the stars flicker more powerfully than before. I feel strangely moved. Maybe Uluru has told me its wisdom without the need for words.

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According to Aboriginal legend, before Tjukurpa (the time of creation), the earth existed, but it was flat, dark, silent and cold. Not a living being walked abroad, no river flowed and neither mountains nor hills raised their heads. Photo by Barry Skipsey

Barry Skipsey

Barry Skipsey

According to Aboriginal legend, before Tjukurpa (the time of creation), the earth existed, but it was flat, dark, silent and cold. Not a living being walked abroad, no river flowed and neither mountains nor hills raised their heads.