Uluru: a pebble in your hand

October 22, 2013 in Australia, Oceania, Travelogue

Uluru (Ayer's Rock) Sunrise 8

Imagine a pebble in your hand.

Make it a piece of sandstone. Roll it around in your mind’s eye. One solid piece of rock formed over millions of years from tiny fragments of other material laid down by water and then pressed with unimaginable pressure over millions of years. Feel the grainy texture on your fingers.

Now imagine it bigger.

A rock the size of my fist that the boys are tossing up into the gum tree to try to dislodge the boomerang they got hung in the branches before dinner.

A rock the size of a tire that you’re digging, with all of your strength, out of the center of what will be your garden plot. Feel the weight of it. It takes all of your strength to work it loose with the aid of your spade, leveraging your weight.

Now the big boulder that sits in a park you know, with a brass plate screwed to it, commemorating something. It’s as big as your car. It will sit there forever.

Remember the rocks that you saw once, as big as houses, deposited by the unbelievable force of a glacial river pulling her nails over the surface of the earth in the not too distant past. Mother Nature is a powerful woman.

Think even bigger.

Uluru, Ayers Rock, is like that pebble.

One single piece of sandstone, formed millennia ago from sediments laid down when central Australia was part of the great inland sea. Pressed, and pressed, and pressed; then, with a shift in the earth’s crust, tipped on her side and thrust upward until her nose peeked out of the soil, like a whale having a little spy-hop, only frozen in stone for millions of years.

From a distance, it’s hard to grasp the enormity of the pebble. The landscape doesn’t give the eye many clues. The horizon is flat, so there’s nothing further away to compare it to. The trees are short and scrubby; not too good for measuring and estimating against. We trick ourselves into thinking it must be much further away and smaller than it really is. Then, we turn off of the main road and, all of a sudden, BAM! The rock is right underfoot; towering over us like the monolith she is.

348 meters of one, single, solid rock, dwarfing everything in the vicinity.

Of course what can be seen is just the tip of the (very hot, dry, dusty, non-ice-like) iceberg. Below the scorched surface the pebble continues for 6 km in the blanket of the earth’s crust. Six kilometers of rock… six kilometers of ONE ROCK…. 6.3 kilometers of pebble. Can you get your head around that? No, me either.

It took us about three hours to walk the 10.6 km loop around the exposed tip yesterday morning. We started at dawn, before the heat became unbearable. The sun does not shine here, he screams down from the heavens, lashing the landscape with his fiery tongue in retribution for some long forgotten crime by early inhabitants. The gentle warmth and paternal caress he lavishes on other parts of the world is unknown here. The day we arrived, it topped 41C (approximately 104F). This is just early spring. We cannot imagine the summer heat, which locals tell us can cap 50C. The fellow who handed out Cokes to the kids last night reported that it hasn’t rained here since May of last year. It sprinkled a bit at bedtime, we were “lucky.” Hannah, hot, and dusty, compared it to Dante’s Inferno. Not an uninformed comparison.

As we walked I studied Uluru’s nose: scaly, like a snake, where flakes of sandstone are weathering away. The bright red colour is nothing more than veneer: layers of sienna coloured earth painted on her by the red desert. It occurred to me that it makes the whole pebble appear sunburned; which of course, she is. There are gaping holes and chunks that have dropped away: the multi-ton chunks lay crumbled around the base; pea gravel in comparison. The kids noted that the whole rock looks a lot like an enormous termite den, having seen the waist high mud houses of the little critters scattered across the desert.

“Wouldn’t it be funny if the whole thing cracked open and giant termites poured out?!” That provided some amusing conjectural conversation as we hiked.

“Maybe it’s an alien landing pad…” someone else suggested.

“No, maybe it’s actually a ginormous alien that fell face first into the desert!” 

Or, maybe it’s just the biggest pebble on the planet.

Of course, like anything impressive the world churns out, it’s sacred to the local Aboriginal people groups. For thousands of years ceremonies have been held here. The cool caves with sun-sheltering overhangs along her base are filled with Aboriginal legends and ten thousand years of layer upon layer of paintings in reds, yellows, ochre and white.

Uluru Cave Painting

I walked quietly for a while, carefully pacing my steps so that I fell several yards between children so they wouldn’t talk to me. The only sounds were the wind through the dry grass, the tinkle of the silver charms I wear around my neck, and the ubiquitous drone of the hoards of black blow-flies; scourge of the Outback.

I listened harder and out of the distant past, shimmering and dancing like the hot, desert mirages they are, I could hear the people:

Women chattering quietly as they ground seeds on the stones, adding precious water, making a paste, baking their damper over evening fires. Men, telling stories beneath the southern cross, passing on their oral history to wide eyed boys, covered from head to toe in iron red dust, just like my own kids are. Children laughing and running around the base, telling the story of the evil spirit dog who attacked the camp, pretending to fight him off like their ancestors did, pointing out the giant sandstone footprints in the walls of the elders cave, proof positive that the legend is true; sending small children shrieking with fear and laughter from their game. I can almost smell the kangaroo roasting in his own skin to preserve the juices, life giving water isn’t wasted by desert people, the hunter standing proudly nearby, anticipating receiving the choicest bit for his own consumption: the tail. An emu rustles the underbrush nearby, keeping one wary eye on a group of small boys practicing with their boomerang. They aren’t big enough for him to worry about the curved piece of hardwood whistling between his long legs and taking him off at the knees.

They’re all still here, and they lift their heads as I walk by. Separated by time, space, experience, millennia, race, culture and a thousand other things. Connected by a shared wonder: Uluru.