In The Red Heart
Uluru and Kata Tjuta, 16th October
The alarms go off at 4 am. We have smartly prepared everything since last night for a quick start and at 4:22 am we are already on the road - too excited about the day to come to be tired.
We have been through a lot to get here. You probably remember in the last story that we stayed at a campsite last night that was 134 km away from today’s destination. We will be witnessing the sunrise in National Park Uluru and Kata Tjuta - one of Australia’s most emblematic parks. The sandstone rock Uluru and the brother formation Kata Tjuta (“Many Heads” in translation from Anangu) rises alone in the Australian outback attracting thousands of people. It is not a coincidence that Uluru is in the wonders of the world as the second biggest rock worldwide, 318 m high and close to 10 km in circumference. It is time for us to see it too.
The names are Aboriginal. The first British explorers did, of course, give them their own. Uluru also carries the name Ayers Rock given to it in 1873 in honour of the Chief Secretary of South Australia - Sir Henry Ayers. Kata Tjuta is also known as the Olgas after Queen Olga (of Russian descent). And yet, nowadays the Australian society imposes the use of the Aboriginal names - a gesture of recognition to the centuries-old native population.
We are not alone on the road this morning. With every kilometre closer to Uluru we join a bigger convoy of cars. We are all travelling in the dark to welcome the new day. It is about 5:30 am and we start to recognise the black silhouette of the Rock against the dark morning sky. We don’t miss the photo opportunity, naturally, with dark and blurred results. Our heart rates are racing and the smiles are growing.
We have headed towards the sunrise platform together with everybody who has had the will to wake up this early. The place hasn’t been chosen accidentally either. We are looking straight West. In front of us are Uluru and the moon in all their glory, and the sun is rising from behind us. We need to be witnesses of the first rays that touch the surface of the Rock. The entire grounds are sacred for the Anangu tribe which believes in the legends of an energy source in the heart of the red giant. That is why I start to clearly imagine the sun rays that will break through to reveal Uluru’s holy secrets.
Well, it didn’t happen - not today. The sun was surrounded by clouds which made the sunrise itself beautiful but the effect was lost on Uluru thus making the picture grey in the morning haze. And yet - there it is in front of us! How many pictures of it have I seen in my English school books and now we are here collecting our own memories of this place. It rises in front of us large, disrupting the completely flat landscape, jumping out from the nothing. Its sheer scale is mesmerising, but there is something more … Something invisible that makes it so special. What message is Mother Nature trying to share through Uluru?
We will not “touch” the Rock right away. First, let’s collect some knowledge. In the museum at the Cultural Centre, we learn about the legends connected to the region - Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Attila (another sacred rock located outside the boundaries of the “red centre” but just as important to the Anangu tribe). We are also told the contemporary history of the park. The socio-political relationships amongst the century-old heirs of the Land Down Under and the British colonists are an important topic across Australia. Here, in the centre of the desert, there is no lighter heritage gathered. After tens of years of exploitation, no earlier than the 80s did the Australian government begin to reinstate the stolen birthrights of the tribes and returned the land to its original owners.
On the road map of Australia, there are marked areas which are today Aboriginally owned. They are usually in the central parts of Australia - the dry, wild and hard-to-reach areas of the Outback. These are usually lands where the tribes live in complete isolation and only a written document can allow an outsider to enter into their lands. They guard this right religiously. According to the Australian legislation, some criminal offences against Aboriginal tribes can be punished according to the traditions of the given tribe. The punishments sound exotic to us. For example impaling the shoulder with an arrow is a possible sentence . It is done skilfully without life-endangerment but painful enough for you to learn your lesson.
The history here is emotional and captivating. On 26th October 1985, the Anangu tribe received back Uluru and Kata Tjuta after years of political warfare. With pride and happiness, the Aboriginals take responsibility for its lands and share the tourism management with the state in exchange for rent and a percentage of the ticket profits. This we learn from one of the informational signs in the museum. But we discover more in the film created to honor the anniversary of Handback Day. We can all read the facts but the feelings need to be shared. With the film, it is easy to feel the importance this day had to the local population, when you hear their words, see their happiness and feel their tears - to get the permission to manage what is rightfully theirs.
I want to see it, to touch it! I want to be next to Uluru!
We have booked the luxury of seeing Uluru on bicycles. It turns out to be a great decision for the ten kilometres surrounding it. The bikes shortened the time but also lowered the access of the flies which have not stopped torturing us since leaving the East coast. We end up using the compulsory accessory for the Australian desert - head nets.
Close up Uluru is unique! Stunning!
I wasn’t sure how close we will be able to get to it but in most areas we are right next to it - we can touch it. In some places, it looks like rusty, crusted iron and in others, it is smooth and rounded. The colour is intensely red with black stripes coming down the rock which are active symbols in the legends of the Anangu people. They don’t live here today but their predecessors have left their marks and drawings in the inhabitable caves of the Rock. The sacredness here is also protected with forbidden photograph areas in some places.
We get off the bikes at the Waterhole of Uluru which is the most dependant water source in the region. Unfortunately, today it is completely dry. Not a drop in sight. It just proves the severity of the current drought but for me it also takes away from the sacredness. Water makes every element of life more special.
At the end of the path we reach the place where the climb up the Rock begins. In the months following our visit here we will often be asked whether we had the luck of going up. Actually, we are here at a very suitable time for modern history. Today is one of the last 10 days in which Uluru can be climbed - on 26th October 2019, 34 years after Handback Day, Anangu are closing down the activity indefinitely. A special level of arrogance and ignorance is required to not understand the wish of the locals. Every other sign calls for tourists to be respectable to the sacred place and follow the example of the Anangu people. They would never climb Uluru what gives us the right to do so despite their traditions on their land? No, Nic and I did not climb the Rock.
There is something very special about Uluru. Even without knowing the beliefs of the tribe, you can feel it. It soaks through your eyes and skin and settles deep down. You connect imperceptibly and unobtrusively. It wasn’t like the first sight of the Colosseum in Rome from the exit of the subway or the Sydney Opera House from the plane, both of which immediately caused tears of excitement. It is different here. Simply as you begin to move away you feel you shouldn’t. As if the only right thing you can do is stay. It pulls you like a magnet to your soul. Perhaps the legend is true and a strong energy source draws you inwards from the heart of Uluru.
After this magical experience with the Red Rock we leave the National Park for a bit and drive to Ayers Rock Resort - for a dot painting workshop. The Aboriginal art style is famous worldwide. Black canvases filled with colourful dots. Sometimes we can recognise some shapes like lizards or snakes, but more often than not, without knowledge of the symbols we simply see an abstract painting. And they always mean something specific; have an exact meaning that can easily be deciphered after a short course. That’s what we’re here for.
We are sat in a semi-circle around a small sandpit. The workshop is led by an Aboriginal artist from Anangu. She draws in the sand the symbols that are traditionally used in Aboriginal art - concentric circles for a water hole, fire or any other emblematic place of importance to the artist; an arrow for an emu; a vertically split arrow for a kangaroo; a bow for a sitting man; waves for river or ocean; three pairs of concentric circles arranged in a straight line for Attila, Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
After I told mum about the symbols and how usually the landscapes are from birds-eye view she asked me: “Well, how do they know what the world looks like from above?”. And that is a fair question - how could the ancients “see” their surroundings in this way if their day-to-day was low down. The answer is slightly disappointing - they couldn’t have done. The Australian aboriginal art is developed in the modern world by the British settlers with the specific idea to find a method for the “forgotten generation” to find their way - the aboriginals who couldn’t take part in the newly introduced education for the young ones. Actually there is nothing ancient or secretive about the dots. As in many other civilizations across the world, here too, the authentic ancient art is limited to handprints on cave walls. The dots are only since the 19th century - modern art for ancient people. But that makes it no worse - the mastery and beauty are still from the soul.
The interpreter of today’s lesson is one of the select people with access to those isolated villages. In many of the cases these people are the only fragile connection between the artists and the other Australia. They buy off the pieces and offer them to galleries across the country thus contributing to the economy of the closed communities.
It is time for us to draw our own masterpieces and tell our story on a small black canvas. We both decided to paint our “Home”. Nic draws the English one, and I - the Bulgarian. There is something beautiful in “translating” your home into a new language. And afterwards, around the art galleries of Perth, Adelaide and Canberra to translate other people’s stories into your own.
With two painting in hand, we return to the National Park. We need to see Kata Tjuta as well. “Dune” lookout offers the perfect view to the “Many Heads”, arranged in front of us, looking towards the brother Rock. According to our tour book from 1995 Kata Tjuta and Uluru are a part of the same rock formation connected underground. Geologists say Kata Tjuta was once a whole rock like Uluru but erosion has done its job and has formed the Many Heads that we see today.
We hike two of the Kata Tjuta trails under the scorching sun and in the company of millions of flies. But here we feel something is missing - the split of sacredness hasn’t been very fair between the two brothers. Unlike Uluru (and in typical Australian fashion) Kata Tjuta’s views are empty and naked - searching without results. Quite unfair. We had to go through so many hurdles on the way - we couldn’t have at least seen something stunning at the end! But that is not Australian enough.
There are 2 hours left to sunset. We have time to see the gallery in the Cultural Centre, look for ice cream and start evaluating the day. Up until now, we have been awake and in constant movement for 12 hours and 3-4 more are needed. The tiredness of heat, flies and effects of such a strong emotional experience are starting to be felt and as we get in the car to leave Kata Tjuta my brain is ready for sleep. Unfortunately for it, it will not get sleep soon.
In the Cultural Centre you can also find the Maruku Arts galleries which also lead the dot painting workshops. The displays here are collected from all Aboriginal artists under their wing. The colourful dots are translated on a variety of surfaces - from bookmarks to huge canvases and from boomerangs to didgeridoos. The compositions are endless - monochrome or extra colourful; with familiar shapes of lizards and snakes or without them. There are even some without dots - some with lines in earthy colours; other with a brushstroke in vivid colours. The prices are mind-blowing - any chance of even a bookmark is quickly evaporating.
And then I suddenly fall in love. The canvas is about 1by 3 meters. It is covered in colourful brushstrokes - blue, magenta, merging into one another. The black areas are filled with white dots. It is different, new, gentle. Because of the size and price I started the hunt - for the same one but with more “suitable” characteristics. The curators disappoint me - they don’t have anything similar in a smaller size (though they have it bigger). Then she explains that the strokes of the brush on the black canvas symbolise herb medicine - bush medicine. And that makes me want the painting event more. It’s as if it is directly speaking to my soul. If only I could take it home with me. Photos weren’t allowed but the temptation was too big. I took one.
Time goes by slowly and now it is time for sunset. We decide to go back to the sunrise platform. That way we will see the sun and Uluru side by side. Otherwise, the sunset lookout follows the logic from this morning - one in front, on behind. Our decision isn’t tradition so we are two of the very few that are sending off the day from here. Perfect - there will be fewer heads in our pictures.
I understand why the platforms are positioned with their back to the sun but I personally see more symbolism when the sun is in front of my eyes. The sun itself is sacred, a separate element in every faith and religion. I saw it in all its phases in this magical place. Just one day but to me it is a true representation of everything that we have learned and will take away with us. Everything that enriched us and we will pay forward. All of a sudden life is one with the day. The Red Centre was incredible from start to finish. And 6 days driving through the nothing to see it only amplify the delight.
Reviving, physical, creative, spiritual and hot - a full set of emotions. Simply - one day …
Vassya (and Nic)