Located in Australia, a giant (348 meters (380 yards) high, 9.4 kilometers (5.8 miles) wide), red rock formation (arkosic sandstone) in the middle of the desert (500 kilometers (300 miles) west of Alice Springs).

Named by a European explorer (Ernest Giles) who "discovered" it in 1872. He named it for the South Australian premier of the time, Sir Henry Ayers.

(which begs the question be asked, would he have so named it had he known that it already had a name? and if he had had E2 available to him, could he have found it? but I digress...)

Uluru is nowadays often regarded by tourists as a large rock. It is however of great spiritual significance in Aboriginal culture, and is seen as the place where life appeared on earth. Many Aborigenes therefore disapprove of tourists walking over it.

This writeup discusses Ayers Rock from the perspective of the early European explorers. As such, it uses the names and terms familiar to these Europeans.

Ernest Giles set off with two companions in August of 1872 to explore the region to the southwest of what is today Alice Springs. Their ultimate goal was to reach the western coast of Australia. In mid-October of 1872, he saw "an exceedingly high and abruptly-ending mountain" towards the south. His attempts to reach the mountain were soon blocked by a wide salt flat which he named Lake Amadeus. Looking towards the south from the north shore of Lake Amadeus, Giles saw a rounded feature which he named Mount Olga after Queen Olga of W├╝rttemberg. Giles' journal includes no reference to any feature/landmark corresponding in appearance/shape to what would eventually be called Ayers Rock (i.e. contrary to common misconception, Giles did not discover Ayers Rock in 1872).

Abandoning the attempt to reach the mountain, Giles returned to base camp where his two companions left him. Giles was forced to abandon the attempt to reach the western coast and continued on alone to Adelaide. Upon arrival in Adelaide, Giles learned that William Christie Grosse had been commissioned by the government of South Australia to find a way to the western coast.

William Grosse set out from Alice Springs on April 23, 1873. His party included five other Europeans, three Afghans (to deal with the camels) and an Aborigine male. On July 11, 1873, Grosse arrived at what is today called Kings Canyon. A day later, he notes in his diary that he sees what he believes to be Mount Olga. A week later, he notes that he has seen a high flat-topped hill to the east of Mount Olga. He names this new hill Mount Conner and sets off towards the hill with Kamram, one of the Afghans (by heading towards the hill and not towards Mount Olga, Grosse skirts the eastern edge of Lake Amadeus).

Approaching Mount Conner on the 19th of July, he writes:

"The hill, as I approached, presented a most peculiar appearance, being covered with holes or caves. When I got clear of the sandhills, and was only two miles [3 km] distant, and the hill, for the first time, coming fairly in view, what was my astonishment to find it was one immense rock rising abruptly from the plain; the holes I had noticed were caused by the water in some places forming immense caves."
He abandons the name Mount Conner and names it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, Premier of South Australia.

He and Kamram climb the rock on the 20th and are rewarded with a spectacular view of the area including Mount Olga to the west. While exploring the immediate vicinity of the rock, he finds a strong spring on the south side of the rock which he names Maggie's Spring. He also finds numerous caves and other interesting features. He remarks in his journal that "this rock is certainly the most wonderful natural feature I have ever seen".

Returning by a slightly different route to Kings Canyon on the 22nd of July to rejoin the rest of his party, Grosse reaches the southern shore of Lake Amadeus. Unlike Giles' experience the previous October, Grosse finds the lake to be more easily crossed in July.

Grosse and his entire party set off for the rock, reaching it on the 28th of July. He and his party spend the next twelve days exploring the region around the rock. Rain on two of the days give Grosse the opportunity to see the rock with water coming down in spectacular waterfalls.

On one of the twelve days at the rock, Grosse encounters two "natives" who had come to the rock apparently for water. He is unable to communicate with them although he does determine that they call water 'carpee'.

On the 8th of August, 1873, Grosse leaves the rock and sets off to the west for Mount Olga. Grosse is considerably less impressed by Mount Olga than he was by Ayers Rock and soon sets off for his primary goal of the western coast. A lack of water forces him to turn back and he arrives back at the telegraph line between Adelaide and Darwin on the 13th of December, 1873.

Meanwhile, Ernest Giles had left the junction of the Alberga and Stevenson rivers on the 3rd of August, 1873. Approaching from the south, Giles reaches Mount Olga in mid-September to find Grosse's wagon tracks. As Giles's goal is also the western coast of Australia, Giles heads west (i.e. he has yet to visit Ayers Rock although he has seen it from Mount Olga). Although also forced to turn back due to lack of water, he reaches a point roughly 75 miles [120 km] further west than Grosse.

Returning to the telegraph line, Giles sets off again for Mount Olga which he reaches on the 5th of June, 1874. He finally reaches Ayers Rock for the first time on the 9th of June, 1874. Among other observations, he notes that Ayers Rock appears to be a single solid granite rock which formed in-place. In contrast, he notes that Mount Olga appears to have been thrown up from below at some point after it formed. He estimates the height of Ayers Rock to be 1100 feet [350 m].


In 1894, members of the Horn Expedition set out to explore the MacDonnell Ranges. Along the way, Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer and two companions set out on the June 16th, 1894 for Ayers Rock. On either the 19th or 20th of June, Baldwin Spencer photographed the rock for the first (but certainly not the last) time. He also set out to climb the rock although gave up the attempt after two hundred feet [60 m].

Baldwin Spencer and his companions left the rock after only a single day to spend a day at Mount Olga. They return to Ayers Rock the next day and then leave a day later to rejoin their expedition.

Baldwin Spencer wrote some years later that

"There is nothing to tempt ordinary travellers into this desolate, forsaken part of Australia; in fact no one has been there since our visit, now more than ten years ago, and no one is likely to go there again for years to come."
For all practical purposes, this prediction proved correct as practically no Europeans were to visit the rock for over thirty years.


In 1900, Harold Bell Lasseter claimed to have found a large amount of gold while travelling through central Australia. In 1930, Lasseter arrives again in the area with trucks and airplanes to re-discover the gold. Lasseter fails to find the gold although he, quite literally, dies trying. Other expeditions have been mounted over the years searching for gold in the area. No gold has yet been found.

Also in the 1930s, a severe drought in central Australia forces the Aborigines to resort to eating some of the cattle and sheep which have been introduced into the area by Europeans. The result is that police arrive to arrest these "poachers". Contact between Europeans and Aborigines quickly becomes a common occurrence to the considerable detriment of the Aborigines.

In 1934, an Aborigine is suspected of killing a European (this Aborigine is believed to have been the son of one of the Aborigines that Baldwin Spencer met in 1894). Shortly after his arrest, the Aborigine escapes custody and flees to Ayers Rock where he is cornered and killed by the police. An official inquiry determines that the killing 'though legally justified, was not warrranted'. The killing of this Aborigine is not a solitary event as the police, and other Europeans, frequently track, hunt and kill Aborigines 'as if they were kangaroos or dogs'. Modern civilization, such as it is, has arrived at Ayers Rock.


In 1935, Charles P. Mountford, an anthropologist arrives in the area for a brief visit. Captivated by the landscape, he returns in 1940 to spend a few months studying the Aborigines. Mountford's obvious respect for the Aborigines leads to the Aborigines cooperating with Mountford in a series of visits over the next twenty years.

Unfortunately, recent anthropological work has revealed that Mountford's writings range from quite accurate to dead wrong. As there is little doubt that Mountford was sincere in his efforts, his relatively poor grasp of the Aboriginal languages probably resulted in him failing to understand all that he was being told.


By 1957, Ayers Rock has become a tourist destination. Bill Harney, a European married to an Aboriginal woman, is appointed park ranger. A national park encompassing Ayers Rock and the Olgas is created in 1958. Harney and the rest of the "authorities" are resented by the Aborigines primarily because they presume to "own" land which is not rightfully theirs.

1958 sees 2,296 visitors to the park. By 1968, the number of visitors grows to 23,000 people. An airstrip is built right next to Ayers Rock along with numerous campgrounds, hotels and other "amenities" in the surrounding area. Even though the Aborigines have never approved of the activity, climbing Ayers Rock becomes "the thing to do" when visiting the rock. Someone evens drills holes and installed a series of metal posts into the rock's western side to make it easier to climb.

Things are getting ugly (in a literal as well as cross-cultural sense).


In 1972, the Australian government commissions a report into the issue. This is followed in 1973 with the enactment of the Northern Territories Land Rights Act. The act provides a mechanism for Aboriginal people to claim title to their traditional lands.

The report leads to the establishment in 1983 of the resort/town of Yulara roughly twenty kilometers north of Ayers Rock. Yulara is situated in a location where it is all but invisible from the rock and yet the rock can be easly seen from many parts of Yulara (the author of this writeup spent three nights in a hotel room in Yulara in July of 2004 with a direct and quite spectacular view of the rock). The airstrip and all other "amenities" near the rock are removed or allowed to be taken over by nature.

The act leads to the acknowledgement by the Australian government in 1983 of the traditional owners' right to Ayers Rock, the Olgas and the surrounding land. Two years of acrimony and debate lead to the handback of the area to the Aboriginal people (i.e. to the Anangu) on October 26, 1985. With the return of Ayers Rock and the Olgas to the Anangu, the rock's name reverts to Uluru and the Olgas name reverts to Kata Tjuta (the European names are, naturally, still in quite common use). Maggie's Spring's name reverts to Mutitjulu waterhole.


With the return of Uluru and Kata Tjuta to the Ananga, this discussion of Ayers Rock from the European perspective comes to a close.


Sources

  • ULURU / Looking after Uluru~Kata Tjuta ~ the Anangu way by Stanley Breeden, © 1994 Stanley Breeden, published by Simon and Schuster Australia, ISBN 0 646 30763 0.
  • Personal recollections/knowledge.

Notes

  • Sections enclosed in double quotes are taken verbatim from Breeden's book and are, in turn, taken verbatim from the respective explorer's journals.

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