I Touched Uluru and Said Hello

I Touched Uluru and Said Hello

Palya is a word you’ll hear a lot in Yulara. It’s a word used in the western Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages that has many meanings. Depending on the context, it can mean hello, welcome, good, fine, and thank you; it can also mean goodbye, even okay.

For tourists arriving in Yulara via Virgin Australia’s new Uluṟu route, flying direct from Brisbane or Melbourne, palya will be everywhere from the moment you touch down at the region’s modest airport. It’s on the Ayers Rock Resort marketing. Almost every worker you meet in the area will greet you with it. Learning it and using it while you are in Yulara is the first of many marks of respect a trip to Uluru asks you to embrace. It’s a subtle litmus test: if you can find your way to making it part of your vocabulary right away and use it when meeting new people, they will know you’ve come to this special and sacred place with an open heart.

Palya (Fine, Okay)

Uluru flights Virgin Australia. Lifehacker Australia/David Smith

This is important because there are many rules and concessions that must be observed when visiting Uluṟu. Agreements with the local Aṉangu, the Pitjantjatjara people, dictate that the rock should only be photographed at a distance, from certain angles, at certain times of the day. This is because while the sun illuminates the rock, its most sacred spaces are visible. During sunrise and sunset, when the rock’s contours cast dramatic shadows that conceal these spaces, it is perfectly fine to grab a photo. Indeed, the locals and the Aṉangu enthusiastically encourage it.

Those who visit Uluru and walk around the base are welcome and encouraged to view the rock in its entirety, but are asked not to photograph certain sacred sites, which are signposted along the dirt track that cuts around its base. 

The reason for all these rules is that the Aṉangu believe that photographing a sacred object diminishes its spiritual power. It is also a way to safeguard their customs, lest another Aṉangu accidentally encounter a photograph of one of the sacred sites, breaking a strict cultural taboo.

Because of these agreements with the Aṉangu, climbing the rock was forbidden in 2017, and the (appropriately, ironically) white scar that marks the old ascent route remains closed to this day.

I understand that, for some visitors, abiding by some of these rules may be frustrating. My advice to those visitors is to get over yourselves. Ask yourself if someone scaling the Vatican and leaving garbage on its roof would upset you. Ask yourself if someone climbed that sacred building and, realising there were no toilets at the top, simply pissed on its roof? If the very idea upsets, disturbs, or outrages you, then you understand how the Aṉangu felt watching thousands and thousands of tourists scale Uluru against their wishes, and disrespect it in unspeakable ways. 

Further, there were no safety railings on top of Uluru, and the desert winds were sometimes strong enough to blow unwary climbers off the rock to their deaths. To the Aṉangu, death is a matter of immense importance and is taken seriously. They felt a responsibility for those killed on Uluru, that they should have been able to protect them, despite their climbing against the Aṉangu’s wishes.

Anyway, the climb is closed now, and most in the region seem to feel that’s for the best.

Palya (Welcome)

Uluru flights Virgin Australia
Uluru flights Virgin Australia. Lifehacker Australia/David Smith

The Aṉangu aren’t interested in taking things away from those who wish to experience their land and their culture for the sake of it. For every rule for Uluru that must be followed, there are any number of activities in the region that respect and honour the Aṉangu, their history, their stories, and their culture.

Touring Uluru is easy – couch companies operating in the area will drive guests to the site, explaining its history, geography, and cultural significance on the way, before taking the guests on a walking tour of some of its sacred sites. Those who prefer to run their own race are free to walk the long track around the base of the rock, or hire a bike or a segway if they’d like to get around a little faster. Everywhere you go on this path is clearly signposted, with facts about the rock, Aṉangu culture, and its importance as an Australian icon.

In doing both of these activities, I learned more about this specific subsection of First Nations culture in two-and-a-half days than I did in an entire primary school education piled high with white-washed Aboriginal history.

At the Cultural Centre, we met a wonderful Aṉangu woman named Evelyn, who taught us about dot painting, and how the Aṉangu used their art to make maps or recount long journeys. She was a gentle but also mischievous soul, happy to teach, pleased to see us learn and enjoyed speeding ahead of her translator as a way to fluster them. Her gnarled fingers drew the most practised, perfect circles in the sand. Still and steady, she drew out what each symbol meant as though we were children. And to her, culturally, we are. We are starting from the same place an Aṉangu child would begin their lessons.

This is a microcosm of what Tourism NT hopes will fill out the Uluru experience moving forward. There are a host of sights, activities and businesses tied to the Uluru and nearby Kata-Tjuta formation (formerly known as The Olgas). Education and understanding are the high priority.

Some of this education is conducted through experiences, like the Field of Lights installation by artist Bruce Munro. A work of art on a massive scale, a space the size of seven football fields has been filled with LED-filled spindles that spring to life as the sun sets, and glimmer all night against the rock’s imposing silhouette. Guests can also attend a dawn version and see the lights fade as the sun climbs over the horizon, illuminating the rock.

A similar experience, Wintjiri Wiru, is a globally celebrated drone show staged a short distance from Uluru. As the sun goes down, projectors, lasers, and thousands of drones ascend into the night sky to recount the legendary Mala story. The local Aṉangu asked me not to repeat the details of that story here, nor record any video, preferring to communicate its events orally and in person. I will respect their wishes and say nothing about the particulars of the story, but I heartily recommend getting along to this one. The technical prowess on display in this show is world-class, and the story itself is mesmerising.

Palya (Thank You)

Uluru flights Virgin Australia. Lifehacker Australia/David Smith

Between the various hotels, which range in price and quality from Bargain to Modest Luxury, there are numerous unique activities to undertake, and you can get around them no matter where you’re staying. On this trip, I had options for a guided garden walk at Circle of Sands, to hear some Bush Yarns from local Aṉangu, another painting class at Sails in the Desert, and even a tour of the Gallery of Central Australia (GoCA).

The town square also contains a pub, the Outback Bar & Grill, in case you need a watering hole, and complimentary shuttle buses drive the hotel ring road all day from around 10:00 am to 12:30 am.

These activities are among the more simple on offer, certainly, but they’re also a chance to meet people who live in Yulara. They work in tourism, yes, everyone here works in tourism, but all have stories to tell and their respect for the rock and the traditional owners of the land on which it rests is palpable. It’s a privilege to live and work here, and there’s an unmistakable sense of pride in their work. What they have to show you, you can’t get anywhere else in the world, and you’ll remember it forever. 

But it’s also these extant activities that give me pause. Virgin and Tourism NT were clear that they hoped the range of new activities combined with more flights to Uluru would turn the site from a bucket list destination into a to-do list destination. I think it will. I think there will be more people than ever coming here for the first time. I do wonder if they’ll be making return visits, however. It’s possible to see and do a lot of what Yulara has to offer in less than a week. Once those things are done, will there be a reason for out-of-state or international tourists to come back and spend more?

Time’s gonna tell on that one.

Palya (Hello)

Uluru flights Virgin Australia
Uluru flights Virgin Australia. Lifehacker Australia/David Smith

I don’t think I’ll ever forget seeing the rock for the first time. Our Virgin flight did a loop of the rock as we flew in, but I was in an aisle seat and couldn’t really get a good look at it. It was on the road to Sails in the Desert that I saw it for the first time, breathtakingly in the middle distance, and strikingly red in colour.

Uluru is red because, like the desert soil around it, its iron content is uncommonly high. When iron is exposed to oxygen and water, it oxidises. What happens when iron oxidises? It rusts. That’s why Uluru is red. It’s quite literally rusty.

A day later, I was on a guided walking tour and face-to-face with the largest monoliths in the world. Its immensity communicates not just its importance, but its age, measured in the millions of years. To be close to something so incredibly vast and old is, I think, the closest I’ve ever come to a religious experience. I am not a praying man, but there were several moments on our tour when I felt compelled to kneel.

Our tour took us past the Bush Boys cave, an ancient kindergarten classroom, where young Aṉangu boys learned the skills that would help them become men. Inside the small recess, there are paintings on the wall, drawn over hundreds of times as their lessons were repeated. The overhang was low, and a few people used it as a chance to reach up and touch this old stone. I followed their lead. As the tour group began to move away, I stole a quiet moment to touch Uluru, feeling the cool, rusted sandstone beneath my fingertips, and I said hello.

Lead Image Credit: Uluru flights Virgin Australia, Lifehacker Australia/David Smith

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