50 Shades Of Red: The Spiritual Outback

28 May 2015
Read Time: 2.9 mins

In darkness and silence, we drive around the perimeter of the rock. It cuts an imposing figure against the night sky, like a sleeping giant; a beauty spot on the face of the Red Centre.

It’s the second morning we are up before dawn and it won’t be the last during our introduction to Australia’s heartland. Early risers are rewarded here. Today, we’re braving the desert chills in the hopes of catching one of those enduring Outback sunrises.

 Setting the sky on fire (Image: Ashton Rigg)

As we make the short drive from the Sails in the Desert resort and the comfort of our toasty beds, our guide Ryan explains the guidelines for photographing Uluṟu.

It’s natural and common these days to get a little snap-happy and document your every move from breakfast through bedtime, so the simple act of having to think before you click feels foreign.

Uluṟu continues to be a site of great cultural significance to the local Anangu people of Central Australia. Certain faces of the rock will never be caught on camera for this reason. In total, there are eight sacred sites that require the lens cap to stay on here.

The Anangu believe taking a photo of something captures a little bit of its essence. Given that Uluṟu has only been back in the hands of its traditional landowners for 30 years, you can understand why cultural sensitivity is high.

 Uluru, pretty in pink (Image: Ashton Rigg)

The weather is on our side this morning. We’re treated to a fiery sunrise, watching dawn break over the sand dunes and bushland. It doesn’t take long for the sky to mirror the earth, with ribbons of dusty pink cloud cloaking Uluṟu.

With bellies full of bush muffins and with Uluṟu's iconic lightshow at a close, we load into the van and push on to the Outback's second act: Kata Tjuṯa.

It's ironic that Kata Tjuṯa sits in Uluṟu's shadow figuratively, when the latter could fit into the former 10 times over. The tallest dome at Kata Tjuṯa reaches approximately the same height as the One World Trade Centre in New York City. She's certainly no second fiddle.

 The impressive domes of Kata Tjuta (Image: Ashton Rigg)

Back on the road tracing the outskirts of Uluṟu, Ryan paints a picture of a time not so long ago when hotels, motels and even graffiti cluttered the base of the rock.

Looking at a site so breathtaking in its natural state, it’s hard to imagine an era when Uluṟu was little more than a tourist trap; its spiritual significance all but left in the dust.

Thankfully, that's all well in the past. After more than 100 land rights claims to Uluṟu, it was formally handed back to the Anangu people in 1985, who choose to openly share their special part of Australia with around 400,000 visitors each year.

The question “to climb or not to climb?” is still a valid one. When you see the gradient of the climb firsthand – which, yes, is still permitted – along with plaques of those who have perished, and think about what a four-hour trek with no bathroom means for Uluṟu's ecology, it’s an easy 'no'.

When popularity of the climb dips below 20 per cent, it will be stopped entirely. In a triumph for commonsense and respect, that goal is well within reach.

 Grabbing the Red Centre by the handful (Image: Sophie Cattana)

Tourism in Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park has flourished. It's twice World Heritage-listed for both its natural and cultural significance and is one of around 30 places worldwide to achieve this feat.

It's only been about 70 years since the Anangu people used Uluṟu's caves to teach, hunt and learn. There are locals in the area who still remember Uluṟu as their playground and kindergarten.

The Anangu continue to share their songs – their stories of Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa – which are woven across the land and add to the rich tapestry of Indigenous Australia.

From rock art dating back 34,000 years to modern-day dot painting, culture here is strong. Most Aboriginal people in the Red Centre speak at least four or five languages, such is the diversity of the desert.

 All the colours of the desert (Image: Ashton Rigg)

Before we leave, we try our hand at telling our own stories through dot painting. Clued-up about symbols like meeting places and bush tucker, we sit with paintbrush in hand, saying very little as we try to bare our souls on canvas.

In centuries past, paintings and stories were law, religion and philosophy. They were a survival guide for the desert. On the bare semi-arid landscape surrounding Uluṟu, we see red dirt, drought-proof plants and little else.

Anangu see sweet honey ants, medicine in trees and the marks of their ancestors scarred across the dunes.

Some of us painted our past, others our future, some their family, their friends, their home, but we all took home something special; something that we couldn't hang in our living rooms.

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Ashton Rigg

When I'm not at home in Brisbane, you’ll find me wanderlusting around hipster bars, eclectic boutiques and arty nooks. From bagels in Brooklyn to strudel in Salzburg, I believe the best way to experience a destination is by taking a bite! Tweets & 'grams at @AshtonRigg