The question of what to see in a short time in Australia is daunting. Like Canada, the vastness and diversity of the country make for some tough choices. Even our planned cycle route from Sydney to Brisbane will cover only a small fraction of this island continent. In the end, we decided there were two places we did not want to miss: the “top end” and the “red centre”. With the assistance of Flight Centre, we booked a trip to Uluru and Darwin.
The massive arkose sandstone rock of Uluru, located in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, is as familiar an Australian image as the Sydney Opera House or the Great Barrier Reef. As with any trips to view such famous landmarks, we wondered if the experience would live up to its billing (and justify flying 1/2 way across the country). We needn’t have worried.
The unique rock formations of Uluru (previously called Ayers Rock) and nearby Kata Tjuta (also known as Mt. Olga or the Olgas) have plenty of pull. Quite apart from their interesting geological origins, these ancient giants radiate a force, palpable as we approached and hiked their bases. One of the biggest draws, and a highlight for us, is to witness the colours change at dawn and sunset, when the rocks glow a deep orangey red. For the Anangu people, who have occupied this part of central Australia for more than 30,000 years, Uluru and Kata Tjuta are sacred, featuring prominently in their creation myths, some of which are depicted in a number of stunning rock paintings. Both sites contain numerous “sensitive areas”, including caves, rock paintings and unusual rock formations, where photography is prohibited.
The unique rock formations resulted from shifting tectonic plates pushing up a river bed (conglomerate) -Kata Tjuta – and an alluvial fan (sedimentary) – Uluru, which had been compressed and baked, around 550 million years ago. The sedimentary layers of Uluru are at an angle of nearly 90 degrees, creating an inselberg. It is estimated that the bulk of the rock formations lays below ground. Very little vegetation is apparent on the surface, apart from black algae where waterfalls appear during the rains. The formations are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In 1985, a land settlement agreement returned title to the land of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park to the Anangu, in exchange for a 99-year lease back to the federal government for the purpose of continuing to administer the park. The park is co-managed by the Anangu and government through a board, on which the Anangu have 8 of the 12 seats; 4 occupied by Anangu men and 4 by Anangu women. The Anangu receive 25% percent of the park entry fees and 7% of the “royalties” from the Ayers Rock Resort (Yulara), a purpose built resort commmnity just outside the park, run by a subsidiary of the Indigenous Land Corporation, a federal agency. An agreement originally made between the Anangu and Prime Minister Bob Hawke that the climb to the top of Uluru by tourists would be stopped was later broken. It has now been agreed that climbing on Uluru will no longer be permitted from October 2019.
We were curious about the extent to which the Anangu were benefitting economically from the huge number of tourists the park attracts. We were told that there has been a significant increase in the number of indigenous people employed by the Resort and a number of the Park Rangers are indigenous, through trainjng programs under the ILC, National Indigenous Training Academy. The Kulata Academy Cafe (where we had great espresso) provides training for Aboriginal Australians in the food service industry. However, we saw only two trainee guides at the museum, and none of the staff working for the largest tour company, AAT Kings, appeared to be indigenous. We read that the local Anangu community of Mutitjulu had protested before a Northern Territory commission into juvenile justice in 2016 that the NT and federal governments have neglected their community and that children are denied basic housing, plumbing, food and healthcare. “The oldest living culture in the world has been kicked to the curb by the government,” stated traditional owner Rameth Thomas. Our hotel encouraged donations to the Mutitjulu Foundation, but we were surprised to see that the funds helped support local women to go to Alice Springs (the nearest town, 465 km southwest) for health screening, something we would have expected to be funded by government.
A tour of the Wintjiri Museum provided a good introduction to the history of the park and its flora and fauna. We also saw a demonstration of “bush tucker” – local plants and seeds – and its traditional uses by the Anangu. This included a sampling of delicious butter shortbread made with wattleseeds. The ciabatta we enjoyed later at dinner was accompanied by “dukka”, in this case a paste of lemon myrtle, macadamia nuts and wattleseed. We passed up the “free range” kangaroo steaks!
There were some bird sightings, although fewer than we had expected. Unfortunately, no emus or mammals were to be seen. A guide informed us that feral cats are a real threat to bird life throughout Australia. According to a fellow tourist from Sydney, areas in that city now fenced off from feral cats have become avian havens. Rabbits, foxes and camels are other invasive animal species, which have had a detrimental affect on indigenous plants and animals. Even the dingo was introduced into Australia, albeit 4000 years ago, becoming a predator of the now extinct Tasmanian tiger. Tasmanian Buffel grass, an example of an invasive plant species introduced 50 years ago to control erosion and for “pastoral purposes”, is wiping out native plants and threatening endangered animals in the park.