Known traditionally as Uluru, Ayers Rock adopted its alternative name in 1873 when the surveyor William Gosse named it after the then Chief Secretary of South Austrlaia, Sir Henry Ayers.
Before visiting, I was under the naive impression that people went to Ayers Rock, gawped at it for a long moment and then either splashed out on a helicopter ride over the top or left again. I had no idea we’d be able to get so close, or that we’d learn so much in one day about the Aborigines. So, in the interest of sharing this fascinating experience, here are 10 Ayers Rock facts.
1. It’s possible to climb Ayers Rock
If the conditions are considered safe, it’s possible to climb Ayers Rock. However, it is closed under the following circumstances:
- A temperature of 36 degrees or more;
- December to February after 8 am;
- A greater than 20% chance of rain within three hours;
- A greater than 5% chance of thunderstorms within three hours;
- A wind speed at the summit of 25 knots or more;
- More than 20% of the rock surface still wet following rain;
- Cloud descends below the summit;
- Rock rescue operations underway; or
- Traditional owners request closure for cultural reasons such as a period of mourning.
A rope was installed in 1964 by a vertically challenged man. When asked to ensure it was at waist height, he went for his own waist height rather than that of the average person. This has resulted in the somewhat amusing spectacle of hunched tourists scrambling in a line as they try to avoid slipping and sliding. The indigenous people call these ant-like processions ‘mingers’. Given fact number 2, I think it’s quite fitting.
2. If you respect the traditional owners you won’t climb the rock
While the clearly marked trail and assisting rope give the impression that climbing Uluru is perfectly fine, it is against the wishes of the Aboriginal owners. Some people mistakenly believe it’s just a safety issue. A sign at the base says ‘Too many people have died or been hurt, causing great sadness’ and the warnings shouldn’t be taken lightly since there have been at least 35 recorded deaths relating to recreational climbing. But the reasons go deeper than that. Uluru is spiritually significant to the Aboriginal people, and the path crosses a sacred ‘dreamline track’. In the nearby cultural centre is a visitors book specifically for people who didn’t succumb to the peer pressure.
After you read what one traditional owner is quoted as having said, I’m sure you’ll think twice:
That’s a really important, sacred thing you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway, that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to teach people what behaviour is appropriate. It has been the same for us since the beginning. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the proper way: no climbing’.
3. You’re not supposed to take photos of certain sections
For reasons related to traditional Tjukurpa beliefs, there are specific sections of Uluru that you should not photograph. Tjukurpa is a religion and a way of life for the Anangu people, who live on the land surrounding Uluru. It is a law about caring for one another and about caring for the land that supports them. This law is passed down from one generation to the next through stories, songs, dances and ceremonies.
Areas where photographs are forbidden are clearly signposted. The reason behind it is that gender-linked rituals of the Anangu people have traditionally taken place in specific spots. Members of each sex are forbidden to enter certain grounds where the opposite sex performs rituals and they do not wish to inadvertently break these rules by encountering photographs of these sites.
4. You can walk around the base in about 3 hours
The circumference walk is so much more interesting than you might imagine. Up close, Ayers Rock is more than an imposing lump of red sandstone. Its surface is cracked and weathered; there are huge caves and tunnels at its base; and you can see Aboriginal rock art and smoothed areas where seeds were once pounded with round stones.
At some points, the path takes you right under huge overhangs and you can learn about Uluru’s importance to the Aborigines through information plaques. Later you will move further away for panoramic views as the sun beats down on its surface.
5. Most of Ayers Rock is underground
Ayers Rock is an ‘inselberg’, or island mountain. In fact, it is believed that it is actually banana shaped and continues for up to 2.5 kilometres below the surface of the earth. It was formed by the build up of sand deposited as part of an alluvial fan. This describes the action of a nearby mountain range called the Peterman Ranges being slowly eroded away and causing a mudslide.
The Peterman Ranges originally equaled the size of the Himalayas and were partially submerged by the ocean. There were two depressions under the sea. The heavier rocks travelled less far and settled in the first depression, while lighter dust was blown by the wind and settled in the second about 50 km away. Heat from the earth’s core forced its way up, while the pressure of the ocean forced down on these deposits. These pressures eventually forced the compressed stone deposits skywards, the more compressed ones cracking to form what we know today as the Olgas and the lighter deposits forming Ayers Rock. With continental drift, the ocean has long since disappeared, leaving the impressive formations we see now.
6. After heavy rains, you can see waterfalls pouring down its surface
The temperatures around Ayers Rock are frequently in the mid- to high-40s, but every now and again it rains, and when it does, it forms quite a spectacle. Water pours over its weathered surface on all sides. On dryer days, you can see dark black marks left behind by the rivulets.
7. Ayers Rock is not the only spectacle of its kind in the area
Contrary to popular belief, Ayers Rock does not rise out of the baron outback as the sole geological feature in hundreds of square kilometres of flat earth. The Olgas (pictured above) are almost as impressive and formed as part of the same process over billions of years.
On the 450 km drive from Alice Springs to Ayers Rock, you will also pass a similarly shaped rock known affectionately as Fooluru. This is Mt Conner. It doesn’t have the same wow factor that Ayers Rock has, but it’s still worth a roadside stop to snap a few photos.
8. Ayers Rock changes colour depending on the position of the sun
There’s a designated look out point that’s swarming with people every morning before sunrise. The effort of getting out of bed close to 3 am is absolutely worth it to see the imposing silhouette gradually turn from black to grey, to pale orange and, eventually, a stunningly vibrant red. This colour comes from weathering of the iron minerals within the rock.
There are faint light markers to show you the trail to the look out point and, no doubt, however early you are, you will be able to see crowds forming on the elevated platform.
If you’re sensible, though, you’ll keep to the left and find yourself a spot on the path at the bottom. I was one of two people who chose that option and could have fooled myself into believing we were the sole spectators. Afterwards, some others wandered down to join us and admitted we’d chosen wisely. They’d had to contend with human limbs blocking their view and spoiling their photos, while the whole while we’d had front-row seats and not one picture contained another living soul.
9. Ayers Rock is listed as a place of outstanding natural and cultural value
Ayers Rock is one of the few places in the world to be dual listed by UNESCO as a place of both outstanding natural value and outstanding cultural value.
It first made the World Heritage list in 1987, when the international community recognised its geological formation, rare plants and animals and astounding natural beauty. In 1994, it became the second park in the world to also be recognised for its cultural heritage.
10. There are three sunset viewing spots at Ayers Rock
With such a fantastic view to take in, why settle for just sunrise? Plenty of tours set up camp as the sun begins to set, and many of them provide champagne and nibbles.
The car sunset viewing area is for cars only, and the best spot from which to watch the colours change as the sun goes down. The bus sunset and dune walk viewing area allows you to get a slightly elevated view of the rock. Finally, Talinguru Nyakunytjaku provides three shelters and two viewing platforms, as well as a few kilometres of walking track to allow you to find the perfect spot away from the crowds. From this position, it is also possible to see the impressive bumpy Olgas formation in the distance.
My Outback Adventure was sponsored by Contiki. While they requested that I write about my trip, the choice of topics has been left entirely up to me. Any opinions expressed are a genuine reflection on how I felt about the experience.