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Australia’s Uluru. Source: bennymarty / Adobe Stock

Uluru: Australia’s Most Iconic Landmark and Largest Monolith in the World

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Uluru, once known as Ayers Rock, is one of Australia’s most iconic landmarks. Located in the Northern Territory of Australia, it is the single largest monolith rock in the world. At a staggering height of 346 meters (1135 feet) and running about 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) in length and width, this sandstone rock formation towers over an otherwise completely flat terrain. Uluru, which means ‘great pebble’, carries great spiritual and cultural significance for the Aboriginal tribes of this region.  

Looking at the vast desert plain around Uluru, it is hard to believe it was once  underwater. The monolith was formed around 500 million years ago when the earth’s plates were shifting and due to a burst in pressure, the giant rock formation was formed. The rock is homogeneous, and as a result there is no soil on it. Its creation, material, and size make it one of the most significant sites for geologists.

One of its most notable features is the spectacular way in which it changes color as the sun reflects off the minerals within the rock. Full of caves, canyons, cracks, water holes and other natural formations, as well as ancient rock paintings and carvings, Uluru, and the surrounding national park, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1987 for its important natural values. In 1994, it was also added to the list for its extraordinary value as a living cultural landscape.

Aerial view of Uluru at sunset. (Dimageau / CC BY-SA 4.0)

Aerial view of Uluru at sunset. (Dimageau /  CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Early European Explorers

In 1788,  European colonizers  arrived in Australia and began subjugating the Aboriginal people. The indigenous people lost most of their land and sacred sites, and many were murdered, died from introduced diseases, or were taken as slaves.

European explorers undertook expeditions to discover the vast territories of the continent and find new lands for agriculture.  In 1873, British explorer William Gosse became the first non-Aboriginal person to see Uluru, naming it Ayers Rock after the Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.

Satellite picture of Uluru. (Astro_Alex / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Satellite picture of Uluru. (Astro_Alex /  CC BY-SA 2.0 )

The Legendary Creation of Uluru

According to the local  legends, Uluru is believed to have resulted from the intervention of ancestral beings or gods, when the divine beings emerged from the void and created all life on earth. To the Aboriginals, this time is known as the  Dreamtime. It is said that two tribes of these ancestral beings had a battle to the death in this area over a beautiful lizard woman. As the result of this battle, the earth rose in grief and thus Uluru was created.

Each region of Uluru was believed to have been formed by a different ancestral spirit. The southern site was said to have been created due to a war between the poisonous and carpet  snakes. The northwest side was created by Mala, the hare wallaby people, and another area was formed by the Tjukurpa of Kuniya, the sand python, who went dancing across the rock.

An aerial view of Uluru. (Aleksandr / Adobe Stock)

An aerial view of Uluru. ( Aleksandr / Adobe Stock)

Why Uluru is Important

This monolith is an important and sacred place for the  Aboriginals in Australia —in much the same way Titicaca is for South American tribes. Archaeological evidence has shown that the Aboriginals have lived in the region of Uluru for at least 30,000 years. Uluru is still a cultural landscape and, to the Aboriginal people, it is a living, breathing landscape and a resting place for ancestral spirits. Cultural customs and traditions are handed down and link the people with the land and animals.

The Anangu Aboriginal people are guided by Tjukurpa (law) to keep both culture and country strong. This is something that has never changed. 

There are a number of sacred locations on and around Uluru, which were used by the indigenous people for ceremonies, teaching, and daily activities:

  • Kulpi Mutitjulu  (Mutitjulu Cave) – A place where Aboriginals would share and distribute food caught during the day, and teach children Dreamtime stories. This is reflected in the rock art within the cave.
  • Taputji  - Separate from Uluru on the northeast side, Taputji was an ancient hunter-gatherer location used for collecting food and plants.
  • Tjukatjapi, Pulari, and Mala Puta  - Located on the north, northwest, and south sides respectively, they are sacred sites for the women.
  • Warayuki - Acave-like site on the north side of Uluru which is sacred to the Anangu men
  • Kuniya Piti  - Sacred men's site located on the far east side of Uluru with similar sacred rock carvings and features to Mala Puta and Pulari.

The Kitchen Cave along Mala Walk at base of Uluru. (bennymarty / Adobe Stock)

The Kitchen Cave along Mala Walk at base of Uluru. ( bennymarty / Adobe Stock)

Return to the Aboriginal People

During the time of European colonization, the  Aboriginal people were actively discouraged from visiting the area and their culture and rituals were largely ignored. The Australian government promoted “Ayers rock” as a tourist site. Over the decades, millions of tourists flocked to the monolith to climb it, trampling over sacred territories and leaving rubbish and damage behind.

However, as attitudes began to change, and following years of campaigning and lobbying to the government, the Anangu were finally recognized as the traditional owners of the land in 1985. The  Australian Government handed the title deeds to the park back to their rightful owners and in 1995, out of respect to the traditional owners, the park name was officially changed from Ayers Rock to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. On 26 October 2019, climbing Uluru was officially banned.

Top image: Australia’s Uluru. Source:  bennymarty / Adobe Stock

By Joanna Gillan

Comments

Jonathon Perrin's picture

Thanks Jo for another trip around the world and look at an amazing geological and cultural wonder! As a geo, I've always been fascinated with seeing it, but alas I can no longer touch it. Too bad, but I understand. Great pictures, and makes me want to research it more.

Cheers!

Dallin Heperi's picture

Uluru is the largest rock ever seen in the world.

Dallin J N Heperi

Hi guys.
Sorry to put a mark on your great site, but Uluru is not the largest rock/monolith.
It is actually Mt Augustus in Western Oz.
This is a well known fact here in Oz.
Have a good one.
Scott.

Tsurugi's picture

The Uluru monolith is sedimentary rock, but at some point in the distant past, possibly as a result of some massive cataclysm, it was rolled over so that its strata are turned nearly 80 degrees up from horizontal. It erodes in a very unique way because of this.
Unlike normal sedimentary rock with horizontal layers, it does not crumble at the edges, and as a result it hasn't developed the characteristic smooth ramping slopes of rubble around the base which softens the profile of most sedimentary outcrops.
Because the edges of the strata are turned upward, the rain and wind can cut directly into the softer layers, tunneling between the harder layers for hundreds of meters deep in the rock, so that there is a vast three dimensional labyrinth of tubes and tunnels inside the monolith, which can hold a vast amount of water and keep it from being evaporated by the desert sun and arid climate. As a result, there is almost always cool, clear water to be had in one of Uluru's myriad pools and springs. Naturally, there would be animals coming to drink from the springs as well. So Uluru was a constant, reliable source of food and water for anyone nearby.

I've heard that there are certain hidden or secret caves within the monolith where there is ancient knowledge related to the first days, the beginning of the dreamtime, writ upon the stone by the first men.
There is a quote that has long fascinated me regarding this legend:

"...those ancestors of ours who ventured forth from Avalon across the continent of Mu as far as the central desert of Australia--when all the continents were a single land mass, the wondrous Pangaea. If only we could still read (as the Aborigines can, but they remain silent) the mysterious alphabet carved on the great boulder Ayers Rock, we would have the Answer.
Ayers Rock is the antipode of the great (unknown) mountain that is the Pole, the true, occult Pole, not the one that any bourgeois explorer can reach. As usual, and this should be obvious to anyone whose eyes have not been blinded by the false light of Western science, the Pole that we see is not the real Pole, for the real Pole is the one that cannot be seen, except by some adepts, whose lips are sealed.
-Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

"The Aboriginals do not climb Uluru since they consider it sacred, and although tourists were able to climb it in the past, it is now forbidden."

No, it is not forbidden. The Anangu Aboriginal people tell visitors it is against their culture and an insult to do so, but it is not forbidden under common law and many people still do climb the rock. Lot's of tour buses visit the rock and follow the directions of their guide and climb the rock without knowing it insults the local tribe.
Me, it's just a rock and I would climb it if I could be bothered going out into the middle of nowhere to see it.

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