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Uluru: Forever A Native Sanctuary

4th November 2015

The battle between Kuniya, the young python spirit, and the evil Liru snake was played out in a land created by sand lizards, hare wallabies and devil dingo spirits.

Spears soared high through the air, each hitting the red earth with a thud until one reached its target. Kuniya fell to the ground lifelessly, so the tale went. “His spirit is still here,” said our guide Zee, pointing up at the deep holes peppered across the southern face of Uluru, Australia’s emblematic monolith. “That’s where the spears landed.”

Countless legends surround this revered rock, which rises up majestically from the endless plains of the Northern Territory. Every crack, crease, cave and crevice tells a story from the Dreamtime, the name given to the time of creation by the indigenous folk who have long been the custodians of the Red Centre.

Symbolic anniversary

Last month marked 30 years since Uluru was officially handed back to Anangu Aborigines, whose ancestors first settled here 30,000 years ago. It was stripped away from them by settling Europeans in the 20th Century until 1985, when, on October 26, Governor-General Sir Ninian Stephen stood beside elder Yami Lester and transferred the title deeds in a groundbreaking ceremony that was translated in both English and the native Pitjantjatjara tongue.

 The deeply symbolic handover was a big step in the journey for equality for Australia's indigenous population.

They huddled around a sign: ‘Nyuntu anangu maruku ngurangka ngaranyi’ (‘You are on Aboriginal land’) as the black, red and yellow Aboriginal flag billowed proudly overhead. It resonates even now.

“This is an Aboriginal place. Our grandmothers and grandfathers held our culture strongly. Now we are living and working together, white people and black people, equal. But Uluru still runs according to our law,” said one Aboriginal elder.

But the deeply symbolic handover – at the time a big step in the journey for equality for Australia’s indigenous population – wasn’t without its tension. A plane flew overhead towing a sign that read: ‘Ayer’s Rock for all’ while Lester teased that the Aborigines were going to take the rock away. “By tomorrow it will be missing.” Thankfully, for me and the rest of the world, they left it just where it was.

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Beguiling sunrise

Uluru is mysterious any time of the day or night but at its most beguiling at sunrise. Despite the early hour, the gates of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park – now co-managed by Parks Australia and Aboriginal elders – were clogged with coaches and cars, their headlights slicing through the darkness. Most were headed for the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku viewing area, but our small group tour with Zee promised rather more solitude.

Barely an hour later, at 6.17am, just as Zee served cups of strong coffee and slices of banana bread by a spot overlooking grass claypans, the first rays of the day splintered through the distant desert oak trees and settled on Uluru.

 Countless legends surround this revered rock.

We stood in silent appreciation, watching the shades morph from black to a rusty orange and finally the deepest crimson. Uluru – under water 500 million years ago and formed when the sea bed rose – owes its distinctive colour to the extreme weathering of its iron-rich arkose sandstone.

I felt a little smug knowing that just half a kilometre up the road were dozens of coaches and thousands of people jostling for space and perfect selfies at the viewing area of Talinguru Nyakunytjaku (meaning ‘place to look from the sand dunes’).

Tourism tensions

Uluru remains the spiritual heart of Australia, but tourism in the Red Centre has been shrouded in controversy since its humble beginnings in the 1940s. Extracted from a previously designated Aboriginal reserve, an access road was swiftly laid and the government set about encouraging people to visit with the sole purpose of climbing the 348-metre tall monument.

It’s a controversial choice of activity and one the Anangu request visitors to refrain from as a show of respect. More than 35 people have died trying to reach its steep summit and countless others injured, most recently a Chinese gentleman who wandered away from the designated trail and fell down a ravine, breaking his hip, ribs and collarbone. The incident cost him more than $A100,000 in fines and medical bills.

 Uluru remains the spiritual heart of Australia.

The very first person to scale Uluru was Englishman William Gosse, the man credited with ‘discovering’ it in 1873 at the end of a three-month trek from Alice Springs (these days it’s just a 45-minute flight away). After naming it Ayer’s Rock after the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Henry Ayers, Gosse set about getting to the top with an Afghan camel driver named Khamran. The Anangu were, understandably, more than a little miffed that their sacred rock had suddenly become a climbing frame.

There are calls for climbing to be banned completely. According to park officials, however, the activity would need to be replaced with a less questionable alternative to avoid a drop in visitor numbers. But with a dozen different ways to experience the majesty of the Red Centre’s crowning beacon already in place – from camel treks and sunset dinners to ranger walks, Harley Davidson rides and cycling tours – the question is what?

Uluru circuit

“The best way to see Uluru is on foot,” said Zee, matter-of-factly. “It’s the only way to get a true sense of just how big it is.”

And, boy, is it big. It takes around three hours to complete the 10-kilometre loop of its base. With our time restricted, we concentrated on a few special spots.

First stop was the Mutitjulu Waterhole, where Kuniya battled the Luri. There, we walked among native fig trees growing around the entrance to a small cave where young Aboriginal men were once taught to hunt. A classroom of the most primitive kind, its dark walls acted as a blackboard with ancient sketches still visible today.

 Mutitjulu Waterhole. Picture: Shutterstock

Mutitjulu is another firm favourite on the ‘Uluru circuit’ but being here so early, long before the coaches departed Talinguru Nyakunytjaku meant we had it to ourselves.

Further along, colossal boulders, rough and ruddy, lay strewn and smashed at Uluru’s base. Its red walls soared towards the flawless blue sky. This close-up perspective revealed more intriguing details: ripples and vertical indentations (said to be where a snake spirit slithered through) and deep holes with honeycomb interiors (left by passing marsupial spirits).

Home free

But it’s not just devil dingoes and marsupial spirits that call Uluru home. The thorny Ngiyari lizard, which drinks with its feet, somehow survives here in temperatures that often exceed 45C. So, too, does the modest population of Yulara, a township (the fourth-largest in the Northern Territory) that largely exists to support the purpose-built Ayer’s Rock Resort, erected in the 1980s at a cost of $A140 million.

It’s home to a small village of handicraft shops, galleries and a handful of accommodation options, from 5-star hotels to campgrounds. Those seeking a little luxury should book into Sails in the Desert (and enjoy a Desert Awakening treatment at the Red Ochre spa), while the midrange Outback Pioneer Hotel is famed for its bush tucker barbies of kangaroo and emu. Not a witchetty grub in sight.

The day was beginning to warm up. The sun rose in the sky and fresh bird tracks criss-crossed the cayenne-coloured sand.

 The cayenne-coloured sand. Picture: Getty Images

I scooped a handful and the fine grains seeped between my fingers and drifted downwards like flour from a sieve. It was tempting to take some home – the ultimate souvenir from the Outback – but I had been warned against such foolish ideas.

Many do and find themselves plagued with bad luck and ill health. Every year, the park’s headquarters receive hundreds of letters from desperate past visitors pleading for their regrettable mementos to be returned to their rightful place.

The coaches pulled up just as we reached the end of our walkabout. Saying a reluctant goodbye to Zee, and Uluru, I feverishly dusted the sand from my trousers and stamped my feet loudly until every last grain and loose piece of gravel tumbled to the ground. I wasn’t taking any chances.

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This article was written by Nick Boulos from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.