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My pilgrimage to Uluru

Catherine Stewart

Catherine Stewart

September 3, 2012

What is it about a rock in the middle of a desert landscape that can create such a siren call? For years I’ve thought “I just have to go there”. I haven’t and I’m not sure why. But last week I finally got to see and touch the famous rock that is Australia’s heart – Uluru (or, to the old-fashioned, Ayers Rock), an amazing red monolith that towers above its surrounding plain very close to the geographic centre of Australia.



It’s well-known among ‘non-indigenous Australians’ (and I have to admit to hating that phrase – being described as not being something) that our indigenous Aboriginal people hold Uluru in great reverence and awe, as a sacred site.

I didn’t travel the whole way by camel. Just as well.

In their Dreamtime stories of how the earth became as it is now, Uluru and its near neighbour, the equally compelling Kata Tjuta formation, are rich in meaning and spiritual significance. There are signs everywhere telling visitors all about that, asking visitors to respect Aboriginal feelings about Uluru and not climb it, or take photographs in particular places. I agree – we absolutely should respect their feelings about it. But conspicuously absent from the signs is any acknowledgement of my feelings, as a non-indigenous Australian, and the powerful pull that draws me and many others, almost as pilgrims to this place. I spoke to several Australian tourists at Uluru and all admitted a similar sense of needing to go there, like it was a sort of Australian Mecca.

I think it’s sad that non-indigenous Australia’s connection with Uluru is completely, or deliberately overlooked by its current custodians. I think it misses a real opportunity for us to use this shared reverence for Uluru to find some common ground between Aboriginal and ‘white’ Australia. We all love it and want to protect it. Hell, you could blow up the Sydney Opera House and it would be a tragedy but you could rebuild it. But imagine losing Uluru!

Red quartzite capping resists erosion

Beautiful Glen Helen

Our trip to Uluru began in Alice Springs, from where we headed west through the MacDonnell Ranges. Folding and uplifting of the land has created wave forms with spectacular erosion-resistant red-quartzite ridge caps that look like red dry stone walls. Gorges with deep, cool water holes break up the arid-zone landscape. Mosaic burning to reduce summer wildfire turns some roadsides into charcoal spots on a rich red-earth background, as individual grass clumps are reduced to ash. Introduced buffel grass is a major problem; it burns hotter than indigenous grasses, so the ecology of many areas is slowly changing as some local species cannot withstand the hotter fires.

Xerochrysum and Brunonia

Xerochrysum and Brunonia

In one area cleared by a burn last summer and spurred on by rain, native everlasting yellow daisies (Xerochrysum) and rich blue Brunonia australis had germinated, their intense colours contrasting with the red earth.

Desert Oak Allocasuarina decaisneana

Desert oaks (Allocausarina decaisneana) are common through out Central Australia. Young trees grow in a slender, flagpole style for several years until their roots reach down into the permanent water table. Unlike many eastern Casuarina and Allocasuarina, they are not killed by fire, and their blackened trunks and wispy grey-green foliage is impressive against the red earth.

Ghost gum stand out against the red rock

Another significant tree is the whiter-than-white ghost gum, Corymbia aparrerinja. Unlike many white-barked trees, the colour holds right to the tiniest uppermost twigs. Filled with jet-black ravens cawing and croaking, it’s an incredible sight!

Red mulga, Acacia cyperophylla

Acacias are the most common shrub, their leaf-like phyllodes (an adapted leaf petiole) reducing water loss for survival in both 45-50 degree summer heat and occasional sub-zero winter nights. And who could resist the beautiful bark on red mulga, Acacia cyperophylla. Take that Acer griseum!

The Australian sprinker at work

Arid zone gardens in the Red Centre are bizarre. In one of the the driest parts of Australia, deep bores into the Great Artesian Basin allow garden sprinklers to lavish water on the red sand, sustaining lush lawns, flowering perennials and annuals and cooler-climate trees. No water restrictions here!

Blooms at the Alice Springs Flower Show

A drive around Alice Springs reveals English style suburban gardens of petunias and roses and cooler climate shrubs, kept alive by copious water. What? Perhaps if I lived in such a parched environment (there’s been no rain here since April), I would do this too, but it just looks weird.

Pretty & practical Alice Springs garden

One lovely front garden I did see was a sort of tex-mex style of covered pergola to create some shade, and a few have used the slightly other-worldly Sturt’s Desert Pea (Swainsona formosa). It’s the closest thing you’ll see to a real flower that looks like plastic. Except maybe a tulip.

Sturts Desert Pea

Alice Springs Olive Pink Botanic Garden was a bit of a disappointment and looked like they need an injection of funding. However the privately funded (and $25 entry fee) Alice Springs Desert Park was a wonderful place, full of interesting plantings, informative signs and aviaries filled with local birds.

Alice Springs Desert Park

There were some other revelations during this wonderful week-long trip, including the dangers of allowing monopolies like Voyages Resorts to control accommodation and facilities at Yulara (near Uluru) and Kings Canyon (bad, bad, bad). But, if you are Australian, finally seeing Uluru, that magnificent heart of Australia is worth putting up with pretty much anything.

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Mary Gray
11 years ago

What an amazing trip and a gorgeous landscape!

I was fascinated by your discussion of Uluru as a kind of Mecca for ALL Australians..indigenous or not. I sat and tried to think if we have an equivalent site here in the US, a site that embodies the essence of America, but all I could think of was Disneyworld. That is sad.

By the way, what is that camel-like creature you are riding on in the photo?

Mary Gray
11 years ago

Wow, I had no idea that camels were brought to Australia for that purpose. And that they are physically superior, disease free, and exprtly trained…just like all Australians? :0) Thanks for this post…I can’t wait to read more about your trip!

11 years ago

Very inspiring article Catherine, thanks for sharing. I’ve always loved the Ghost Gums!
Travel and plants are so very much bound together. It’s one of the first things you notice when exploring somewhere new.

11 years ago

HI Catherine
When Australiana is so spectacular I will never understand why people persist with ‘English Cottage Gardens’ type gardening. I saw a segment on TV last night that showed an English garden, and in it was a bottlebrush! So why do so many Australians not revere our own flora?

11 years ago

I love Acacia cyperophylla – in the SA outback it’s known as ‘Minni Richi’. So pleased to read of your trip – the floral glories of states other than WA are often overlooked. I’ll look forward to more posts.

11 years ago

A lot of people do not stop to find the tiny precious flowers we have on our arid natives, the glorious grevillia and calistimon have higher water needs than our arid species of eromophila and heathers. I have been on a wonderful walk today in The Gudabooka National Park, south of Bourke NSW, this is one of the only places in Australia where the pandorana pandorea grows, some call it a native banana, though it is more commonly know as the Wonga vine. We currently have our Budda bush and Heather flowering out here, plus some tiny peas and some beautiful tine orchids. You don’t have to go too far to find wonderful arid beauty, I live here and it is only 9hrs from Sydney, 10hrs from Melbourne and 12hrs from Brisbane….sry I love my area and all its bounty.

Julie Thomson
11 years ago

What a fantastic trip and your description makes me feel like I am there. I have yet to go to the centre of our beautiful country. From friends and family who have and feel a spiritual connection with Uluru and the majestic landscape and huge skies, I have caught a yearning to get there before too long.
I got a taste of marvellous Australiana at Lichfield National Park and Darwin some years back, but there is so much more that beckons.
Thanks for the inspiration, Catherine and the delightful minutiae of flora that would otherwise have passed my by. It seems you have to have eyes high, low and centre to take in all the wonders of our outback properly.