In the outback of Australia, beyond the fabled "black stump" where daytime temperatures can soar to 40° Celsius and up, a giant sunburnt sandstone rock rises magnificently out of the red desert. To the local Pitjantjatjara people this landmark is called Uluru while to many Europeans it is known as Ayres Rock. Although the word Uluru has no particular meaning in the Pitjantjatjara language, it is also used as a local family name by the senior Traditional Owners of Uluru.
Located in the Northern Territory about 430 kilometres south of the capital Darwin, Uluru is notable for appearing to change colour as the different light strikes it at different times of the day and year, with sunset a particularly remarkable sight when it briefly glows a fiery red. Although rainfall is uncommon in this semiarid area, during wet periods the rock acquires a silvery-grey colour, with streaks of black algae forming on the areas that serve as channels for water flow.
Uluru/Ayres Rock is classified as an inselberg, literally "island mountain," an isolated remnant left after the slow erosion of an original mountain range. The remarkable feature of Uluru is its homogeneity and lack of jointing and parting at bedding surfaces, leading to the lack of development of scree slopes and soil. These characteristics led to its survival, while the surrounding rocks were eroded.
The world-renowned sandstone formation stands 348 metres (1,142 feet) high (863m/2,831ft above sea level) with most of its bulk below the ground, and measures 9.4 kilometres (5.8 miles) in circumference. Both Uluru and nearby Kata Tjuta (Mount Olga or The Olgas) have great cultural significance for the Anangu Traditional landowners, who led walking tours to inform visitors about the local flora and fauna, bush foods and the Aboriginal dreamtime stories of the area. According to the Anangu:
There are a number of differing accounts given, by outsiders, of Aboriginal ancestral stories for the origins of Uluru and its many cracks and fissures. One such account, taken from Robert Layton's (1989) Uluru: An Aboriginal History of Ayers Rock, reads as follows:
Two other accounts are given in Norbert Brockman's (1997) Encyclopedia of Sacred Places. The first tells of serpent beings who waged many wars around Uluru, scarring the rock. The second tells of two tribes of ancestral spirits who were invited to a feast but were distracted by the beautiful Sleepy Lizard Women and did not show up. In response, the angry hosts sang evil into a mud sculpture that came to life as the dingo. There followed a great battle, which ended in the deaths of the leaders of both tribes. The earth itself rose up in grief at the bloodshed, becoming Uluru.
Archaeological findings to the east and west indicate that humans settled in the area more than 10,000 years ago. Europeans arrived in the Australian Western Desert in the 1870s. Uluru and Kata Tjuta were first mapped by Europeans in 1872 during the expeditionary period made possible by the construction of the Australian Overland Telegraph Line. In separate expeditions, Ernest Giles and William Gosse, were the first European explorers to this area.
While exploring the area in 1872, Giles sighted Kata Tjuta from a location near Kings Canyon and called it Mount Olga, while the following year Gosse observed Uluru and named it Ayers Rock after the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayres. Further explorations followed with the aim of establishing the possibilities of the area for ranching. In the late 1800s, ranchers attempted to establish themselves in the area and interaction between Aborigines and white people became more frequent and more violent. Due to the effects of grazing and drought, bush food stores became depleted. Competition for these resources created conflict between the two groups, resulting in more frequent police patrols. Later, during the depression in the 1930s, the Aborigines became involved in dingo scalping with 'doggers' who introduced them to European foods and ways.
Between 1918 and 1921, large adjoining areas of South Australia, Western Australia and Northern Territory were declared as Aboriginal reserves, sanctuaries for nomadic people who had virtually no contact with European settlers. In 1920, an Aboriginal Reserve (commonly known as the South-Western or Petermann Reserve) was declared by the Australian government under the Aboriginals Ordinance and encompassed Uluru and Kata Tjuta.
The first tourists arrived in the Uluru area in 1936 and then beginning in the 1940s, permanent European settlement began appearing in the area as part of the Aboriginal welfare policy but they also began to promote tourism of Uluru. This increased tourism prompted the formation of the first vehicular tracks in 1948 and tour bus services began early in the following decade. Then in 1958, the area that would become the Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park was excised from the Petermann Reserve; it was placed under the management of the Northern Territory Reserves Board and named the Ayers Rock - Mount Olga National Park.
On October 26, 1985, the Australian government returned ownership of Uluru to the Pitjantjatjara, with one of the conditions being that they would lease it back to the National Parks and Wildlife agency for 99 years and that it would be jointly managed.
In 1993, a dual naming policy was adopted that allowed official names that consist of both the traditional Aboriginal name and the English name. On December 15, 1993, it was renamed "Ayers Rock/Uluru" and became the first officially dual-named feature in the Northern Territory. The order of the dual names was officially reversed to "Uluru/Ayers Rock" on November 6, 2002, following a request from the Regional Tourism Association in Alice Springs.
The Aborigines do not climb Uluru because of its great spiritual significance and they have requested that visitors do not climb the rock, partly due to the path crossing a sacred traditional Dreamtime track, but also because of a sense of responsibility for the safety of visitors to their land. Due to their spiritual connection to Uluru, the Aborigines feel a great sadness when a person dies or is injured whilst climbing. It is sometimes reported that those who take rocks from the formation will be cursed and suffer misfortune.
From the first tourists in the 1930's to today, climbing Uluru/Ayers Rock has become a popular attraction. A chain handhold added in 1964 and extended in 1976 makes the hour-long climb easier, but for many it is still a long and steep hike to the top. The Aborigines who own this land continue to maintain their culture and their traditions, but they recognize the importance of tourism, however, they say tourists are frequently guilty of ignoring Aboriginal sensitivities. Today the National Park management are considering banning climbers. They say Uluru is like a church to the Aborigines and the caves containing historical rock paintings and the natural features of the rock tell their traditional stories, just like stories in the Bible.