The Monolith Called Uluru

Ayers Rock, Australia

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Australia's Ayers Rock, rising 1,142 feet, holds an important place in local aboriginal folklore.

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To the uninitiated eye, the arid expanse at the heart of Australia looks almost lifeless, almost featureless. It offers little shade and even less water. The days can be scorching; the nights, too cold. There's hardly even a strip of pavement to break the dull sameness of the desert. Yet amid all this monotony, one object, at least, stands out for its spectacular grandeur. The world's largest sandstone monolith, dubbed Ayers Rock by the first white man to see it, glows a fiery red at dawn and dusk. From a distance, it looks smooth and sculpted. But scrutiny reveals texture: Grooves and pits formed by erosion streak each of its faces.

The rock has special meaning for the local Anangu aboriginals, as well as for camera-toting tourists who fly to the site, toast the sunset with a flute of champagne, and quickly leave. For the Anangu, however, the rock isn't an isolated attraction. Uluru, their term for the site, is but one station of a vast desert sanctuary in which each dimple and crease in the terrain is the subject of a unique and venerated tale. The whole landscape is alive with fables.

In fact, Uluru isn't necessarily the most sacred spot in the region. Some say that honor should be bestowed upon a formation of rounded rocks to the west that's named Kata Tjuta, or Many Heads. Numerous sacred tracks, sometimes called Dreamings, run between the two sites. Others branch off in all directions, crisscrossing the desert, says Peter Sutton, an anthropologist at the South Australia Museum in Adelaide. When he plots dozens of these tracks on paper, he says, "it looks like a map of the subway system for New York."

Story trails. Dreamings often run from water hole to water hole—oases nestle among the shadows at Uluru's base—and many correspond to routes that hunting-and-gathering groups have treaded time and again. For instance, in an expansive salt flat just north of Uluru, where the landscape is especially unforgiving, various tracks converge into a single corridor that transits the treacherous environment.

But Dreamings are not merely timeworn footpaths. They embody aboriginal myths of creation—and conflict. "They're all story trails," says Bob Randall, an Anangu aboriginal who lives near Uluru. "Each site has its story, has its song, and has its dance—and then you can paint the story. We call them stories from the Tjukurpa, from the creation period."

One story tells of a violent murder of an innocent snake man, a mythical being, by a group of Liru, or poisonous snakes. The Liru cornered their victim against the monolith and chucked spears at him. At the site of the crime, says Randall, "you can see the pockmarks where the spears hit Uluru."

Another story tells of the rock's formation by two young boys, who once paused in a flat landscape where the sand was wet with rain. Like beachgoers building a castle, Randall says, "they started pulling the sands together." For sport, they slid down the mound, until some men arrived and began preparing for a ritual that the boys weren't permitted to watch. So Uluru's creators left, heading east. For eternity, the rock stands behind.