I had a good think about how to structure this post. Normally I relate things in the order they happened, but the problem with describing our visit to Uluru in that manner is that it would go something like this:
We drove to the rock. There were flies. Then we drove around the rock. It was hot. Then we drove to the auxiliary rocks. There were flies. I got hangry. Then we drove to the rock for the sunset. Then we went to bed. Then we drove to the rock for the sunrise. There were lots of flies. There were lots of flies. THERE WERE SO MANY GODDAMMED FLIES. Then we left.
Combine this with the fact that the 300+ photos I took pretty much all look the same, and this was shaping up to be one hell of a boring post.
So instead, I’ve opted for the current trend in online time wasting: a “listicle” à la Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, etc., and I’m going to title it “10 Reasons To Consider Giving Uluru A Miss.” Except I’m not doing it this way for the sake of trying my hand at conniving clickbait just to excite your curiosity about the non-coaster content here as I drag you through these three non-park days. If I wanted to do that, I’d title it “I Visited A Rock In Australia. You Won’t Believe What It Did To Me” or “Hundreds of Tourists Fall For This Gimmick Every Year: The Shocking Truth That Aborigines Don’t Want You To Know (And It’s Not What You’d Expect).” No, I’m structuring it this way because it is, unfortunately, the most honest way to relate my experience (okay, and to hopefully keep your attention).
So. Here we go.
10 Reasons To Consider Giving Uluru A Miss
10. The only accommodation in the area is an overpriced, underperforming craphole
Yulara is not one of those places that has a main drag lined with various independent (and predictable) chain hotels and restaurants. Instead, Ayers Rock Resort is literally the only accommodation within several hundred kilometers of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, and just like the price gouging going on in the rental car business, the resort brazenly exploits its position in a captive market with rates not at all commensurate to the amenities provided. The resort hosts a range of lodging options, including campgrounds, apartments, dormitories, and a choice of three hotels. Since the sex segregated dormitories with their communal bathrooms were a bit too nightmarishly juvenile and the five star accommodation was a bit too nightmarishly expensive, we took the middle road with the Desert Gardens Hotel. For one night’s AUD$350 stay, this (supposedly) four and a half star hotel provided:
- The chance to be just like the region’s ancient Aboriginal inhabitants as they navigated their way across the land with little to no guidance in their search for suitable habitation. Desert Gardens consists of a series of buildings, each containing a small block of rooms. The check-in attendant pointed us in the general direction we needed to go, and from there the quest was on! Dragging our suitcases behind us in the 110+ degree heat (because the Aborigines didn’t have porters, so why should this hotel offer them?), we wandered down the sidewalk for a good while, looking in vain for something, anything that resembled a hotel. No wonder we couldn’t find it. Our mistake, you see, is that we were looking for a hotel.
- An exterior façade done up in the rosy nostalgic style of Dilapidated Roadside Motel, complete with chipped floor tiles, old leaves pushed into corners, and a single pitiful chair outside each dirt mottled door. The only thing missing was a sign advertising air conditioning and color TV beneath some buzzing neon.
- An interior liberally perfumed with the inspiring message that your respiratory health matters. YOU matter! Nothing like a whiff of musty dampness (and the accompanying sight of some black mold in the bathroom grout) to turn you into a wheezing champion of your own wellbeing!
- A showerhead that performs sensational acrobatics. Who needs a functional showerhead when you can sharpen your mental and metacarpal dexterity by figuring out how to balance the showerhead so that it remains elevated and aimed at you instead of flopping downward to spray the wall behind it? It’s like Jenga but with water and more expletives! What could be more fun at five ‘o clock in the morning?
- A spider web complete with resident spider in one corner of the ceiling. Besides being a tasteful complement to the cobwebs accenting the other corners, it validated my fears of staying on the ground floor. I squinted and stared up at it for quite some time the way you’d study a painting in an art museum, wondering if the spider was alive. At one point I stood on a chair, trying to further survey the situation without getting too close to it. Admittedly, the spider was tiny, and that plus exhaustion forced me to abandon my vigil and hope for the best. That night, I had a dream a black widow bit me (I am not making that up). In the morning, I checked and the spider was in the same spot and bodily position it had been previously. I assumed it was dead and began to wonder how long it had been there. How’s that for $350/night housekeeping?
- The opportunity to reenact one of television’s greatest shows. If you are a fan of The Three Stooges, then my goodness, is Desert Gardens perfect for you. The nightstand was equipped with about six light switches, and we might as well have been Larry, Moe, and Curly as we tried to turn them all off. Two lights would click off as another clicked on, then one light off, two lights on, and so on and so forth until we were pretty much woop-woop-wooping and nyuk-nyuk-nyuking our way to an advanced stage of sleep deprived insanity.
Let me just reiterate that the above is considered four and a half stars.
This leads me to presume that as you downgrade the star level, the room spider grows progressively larger and less dead while the quotient of Three Stooges farcicality rises until you get that flame shooting tarantula from Have Rocket, Will Travel.
Oh dear, those poor dormitory guests :\
9. The food situation leaves you bewildered and HANGRY
Look, I’m not naïve enough to expect there to be a McDonald’s or KFC in a place like Yulara. And, given my picky eating habits, I knew I couldn’t count on finding an unlimited smorgasbord of Megan-compliant dishes. I did, however, expect that a place calling itself a resort would have plenty of food options available during the hours generally regarded as peak mealtimes. You know, those periods commonly known as “lunch” and “dinner.”
Apparently that was the most naïve expectation of all.
When we were driving to Yulara that morning, Richard had suddenly grinned and said, “You know, wouldn’t it be really funny if this place had a restaurant called Ayers Wok.” He said it as a statement, not a question, and he stated it several more times that day, especially as our stomachs began to growl late in the afternoon following our first excursion to the rock. We arrived at the resort to check in…
And lo and befuckinghold.
To say we were ecstatic would be an understatement. I was bubbling with teenage girl levels of “ahhhhh omg omg lol lol” and both of us vowed to deposit our luggage as quickly as possible so we could gorge ourselves in a stir-fried puntastic revelry.
The plan was to eat quickly so as to make it back to the rock well before the 7:30 sunset. At about 5:30, we set off in the direction the sign was pointing. We promptly got lost. Perhaps it was a hunger induced mental fog that led us astray. Or maybe we got distracted thinking about our stellar accommodations.
Or maybe it was because there were no effing signs to point us in the right direction apart from the first one, whose distance from the restaurant made it entirely insufficient as the one and only navigational aid. We wandered down dirt paths, kicking up dust as we went, my steps becoming slower and slower as I realized just how hungry and drained of energy I was. The intense heat wasn’t helping and as my sweat trickled my irritation prickled. We couldn’t even ask someone because that was the other thing—the place was a veritable ghost town. For a short while, we didn’t even see any buildings. Eventually, I saw a sign for a “town square” and suggested we try in there. This proved sound judgment and our spirits lifted when we finally found it…
…only to come crashing down in a bewildered rage that the place was closed. I looked at my watch. 5:40. What the hell was a restaurant doing closed at this hour? A look at a sign in the window revealed that Ayers Wok did business for a mere three hours a day, from 6-9.
Now, on the one hand, I could sort of understand it. The “town square” was populated by shops that, judging by the darkened windows, pulled a 9-5 business. And we were visiting in the off-season. Yet it still didn’t make any sense why a place would wait to open until after a large proportion of guests would have left for the sunset. It wasn’t just Ayers Wok—there were other food outlets whose doors were still locked at 6:00. And if the stores did do a 9-5 business, wouldn’t it make more sense for food outlets to accommodate those hours? (and vice versa?)
We decided to wait it out and just bring takeaway with us for the sunset because we were at the point where want of food was dramatically sapping both our moods to the level of “PMS Suffering Teen Learns That Zayn Has Left One Direction.” When the doors opened at last, I was relieved to order my chicken chow mein. Finally I could quell both my stomach’s complaints and my festering annoyance at everything that had occurred during our short time at the resort.
Which is why I internally blew a gasket when the chef told me he was out of chicken.
I admit it. I gave up. I walked out, plopped down on a low stone wall, and engaged in some magnificent pouting. I had reached unprecedented levels of hangriness. I officially hated everything.
Luckily, Richard had more sense than joining in on my irrational, impulsive behavior and devised a plan B (beef), which he was happy to share and I felt guilty for eating—and all the more so because it was the best damn chow mein I’ve had in my life.
Unfortunately, restricted hours and a vexatious lack of signage weren’t the only things about the food situation that reinforced our sense of being ripped off. I said the room was $350 for one night. In actuality, it was $424. The extra $74 was not for luxurious extras like room service or a massage. No. It was for a continental breakfast. We spent $37 each just so we could have the privilege of not starving in the morning.
It’s possible there was a restaurant somewhere in that resort that would have offered cheaper fare. But it probably wouldn’t have been open (that is, if we could have found it in the first place).
8. Just about everything is an upcharge
Want to extend that sense of gastronomic harassment? Join the Tali Wiru dinner, where for $325 per person you can pretend to be a pretentious culinary connoisseur amidst an ambiance peppered with the delightful sinus tickling boogie woogie that only millions of flies can deliver! Nibble at undersized portions of food you can neither pronounce nor see in the dim candlelight, listen to storytellers regale you with uplifting tales of modern political strife and Aboriginal repression, and, of course, guzzle plenty of wine to help you forget that your wallet is getting raped!
Need to dial the level of snobbery down a bit? No problem. For only $195 a person, experience the Sounds of Silence dinner, which is pretty much the same as Tali Wiru save for the fact that we make you do the work because if it’s under $200, we do it buffet style, baby!
If expensive breakfasts are more your thing, join the Desert Awakenings tour, where you can haul your dumb exploited ass out of bed at four a.m. for $173 breakfast rolls and coffee before embarking on a guided tour of things you can see for free*, like the sunrise, walking trails and the utterly pointless Cultural Centre!
* not really
For a cheaper but no less potent insult, why don’t you see if we can trick you into forking over $69 to watch the sunrise and $59 for the sunset? Sure, you could drive yourself to these places in the comfort and privacy of your own car, but if you subject yourself to the company of other gullible tourists like you for a three hour bus journey (you might get lucky and score a seat behind some Chinese tourists who will yell over everything the tour guide says!), we’ll give you a glass of sparkling wine!
Feeling creative? How about spending $69 to sit outside and sweat you ass off just for the privilege of painting some dots on a canvas for reasons you’ll only half listen to as you swat away the flies?
Or is it adrenaline you want? Let us fondle your wallet some more with skydiving, motorcycle, and helicopter adventures. A couple hundred dollars for less than an hour’s worth of fun? It’s a once in a lifetime experience, so hand over the dough if you want your life to have any meaning, motherfuckers.
Oh, you just want to enter the park and be left to your own devices? Fine, that’ll be $25 per person, please.
* * *
You see my point? I’m not saying that the activities offered are stupid (although my descriptions of them are not that far off the mark, based on some Trip Advisor reviews). Some people really enjoy this kind of stuff, and if that’s their thing, then cool. Hell, I’d appreciate a guided tour or two so I could better appreciate what I’m seeing. The problem is that if you want anything more than the most cursory of experiences, it’ll cost you a pretty penny. The resort’s website offers a series of suggested itineraries and their estimated costs, which range from two night weekend getaways to five night luxury holidays. As of this writing, the cheapest itinerary comes in at a whopping $897 per person based on double occupancy for two nights—and that’s calculated according to non-peak season pricing.
In the interest of fairness and trying to represent both sides, however, I do understand that labor can’t be cheap in a place like this. Australia’s minimum wage is $16.87, but I imagine you’d need to promise a bit more than that to attract enough manpower in a place so remote. But still, it’s hard not to go bug-eyed when you tally the bill.
Combine our flights, car rental, accommodation, fuel, admission into the national park, and extras like our Ayers Wok meal, and between the two of us we spent about $2000 for this place. $2000 to visit a fucking rock. Now imagine if we’d included any of these upcharges.
7. Irritating tourists, both present and past
I mean, this one’s to be expected. Of course there will be irritating tourists. Irritating tourists are everywhere. But at a destination that is a once in a lifetime thing for most people, there are some who go out of their way to be irritating, as we witnessed on one occasion.
Upon arriving at the main sunset viewing area, many people chose to wait in their cars until the colors began to change sufficiently enough to warrant braving the hordes of flies in the interest of filling their memory cards with hundreds of identical pictures. With the temperature still well above 100, lots of these cars (including ours) remained running so the AC could keep flowing. After we eventually got out and stood scouting the fence line for a suitable viewing spot, I noticed one family—parents likely in their late fifties/early sixties and a daughter in her twenties—set up a table and camp chairs, sipping San Pellegrino while pretending the flies were not assaulting them. The air was filled with excited chatter as people began to scurry about looking for the best photo angle, staking out spots, setting up tripods, and conversing with family and friends.
In other words: it was not altogether quiet. It was still calm and peaceful, just not in a hushed and reverent way. And that was fine. What else could you expect in the most popular sunset viewing area?
The impossible, it seems.
I watched the daughter rise from her camp chair and sashay over to the SUV behind her whose engine was running—an SUV, I should point out, that had been parked there well before her family chose their viewing location directly in front of it. She knocked on the window and the driver rolled it down. We were standing close enough to hear the entire exchange that followed.
“I would like to ask if you’d please turn off your engine,” she said in a very thick French accent. “It’s very loud and disturbing the peace.”
There was a pause before the driver replied. “Well, yeah, I can for the time being, but I’m going to turn it back on if it gets too hot.” His accent was either American or Canadian.
At this point I would have smiled and thanked him for obliging (well, if I had the nerve to even confront someone like that in the first place). She, however, decided that this acquiescence wasn’t good enough.
“You should turn it off. This is a place meant to be enjoyed in quiet and peace. You are disturbing the cultural sacredness.”
“Okay, well, as I said, I’ll turn it off for you for now.” The guy’s tone was more clipped now, bordering on the defensive, but he pulled the key out of the ignition anyway.
That still wasn’t good enough.
By this time, we’d both turned to watch the unfolding drama.
She proceeded to lecture him on the cultural sanctity of the site in a tone so condescending and arrogant that I’m surprised the guy didn’t clock her one in the face (definitely a Canadian accent, then), a tone that inspired immature reveries of yelling “Bitch please, you want to talk about culture, I WILL TAKE YOU TO SCHOOL” as I shoved my Phi Beta Kappa credentials and anthropology honor cords down her throat. I mean, seriously. Yes, it’s a sacred cultural site. But if you wanted absolute silence, why the hell did you choose to sit in front of a noisy car and, more to the point, why the fuck did you elect to watch the sunset from the most crowded viewing area in the entire national park?
So what did we, as two mature, decorous adults do in response to such an outrageous exhibition of selfishness?
We may have “accidentally” photobombed a few of their sunset shots.
And the next morning, when they asked Richard to take a family photo of them at the sunrise, he may or may not have but most certainly did ensure his thumb covered part of the lens.
Of course, the problem with this sort of behavior is that it stems from the reality that you will likely never return to this place. The resort profits from this truth, touting how its upcharge activities offer memories that will last a lifetime. That’s how the price tag manages to fade into the periphery, at least for a short time. The downside to this YOLO mentality is that it leads to unrealistic expectations. You demand perfection from your visit—and the blame for this lies on the countless past visitors whose hyperbolic reminiscences have rendered this orange tumor in the desert into the stuff of fantasy.
Which brings us to point #6.
6. It’s very likely that seeing it in real life will be a disappointment after what you’ve been led to believe
And no, this won’t be true of everyone, but I bet it applies to more people than are willing to admit.
The thing about Uluru is that it’s a badge of honor. It’s a way of humble bragging about how far you have traveled (we’re talking a place so far removed from everything that many native Australians haven’t even been there). It’s like riding those obscure coaster credits—the more exotic and interesting you make them seem, the more exotic and interesting you seem (or at least you’d like to think so). The temptation to separate yourself from the masses who haven’t experienced it may be hard to pass up. Even if not-as-subtle-as-you-think showboating isn’t your intent, the rosy glow of nostalgia tends to eclipse the more mundane details, leaving them behind the curtain so that only the highlights wind up on center stage when you recount the experience. The result is that, whether advertently or inadvertently, you hype it up so much that you create an illusion that becomes the benchmark by which your listeners will interpret their own visit.
Multiply this phenomenon by the thousands of visitors who have journeyed to Uluru and told their tales over the decades, and what Bill Bryson described as “a large, inert, loaf-shaped object that you have seen photographically portrayed a thousand times already” becomes a respectable entry on that cliché we call “the bucket list” thanks to Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson making it sound cool.
The photographs, the travel accounts, the fact that Kate Middleton stood in front of it wearing a pair of totally-impractical-for-the-rugged-landscape-but-who-cares-because-it-makes-her-look-pretty-now-isn’t-that-a-hearty-dose-of-sexism-amirite wedge heels—all of it must be validated. And so you persuade your boyfriend that you have to visit it in order to authenticate your visit to Australia. And when he begrudgingly agrees, you regale him with stories of others’ visits to show him how wonderful it will be. And you worry that you haven’t allotted enough time, that you’re not doing it right, because you can only give it about 24 hours when it seems everyone is waxing poetic on their stays of two, three, even more days.
And then when you get there and see what there is to see in under three hours, you think, wait.
Don’t get me wrong. The sight of that rock for the first time was utterly captivating…
…especially after a four hour drive through flat, barren desert that was broken only by a stop or two to boldly play the can’t-get-any-more-stereotypically-touristy-than-that card.
As its name suggests, Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park actually consists of two major rock formations. Uluru is, of course, the headliner, but 50 km down the road is Kata Tjuta, or what I referred to as “the auxiliary rocks” since, for all intents and purposes, they seem to be regarded as a sideshow.
(Not part of the park but still a part of it all in my mind is this, “the imposter rock.” This is Mount Conner. It appeared a good 110 km from Yulara and, for a moment, really had me thinking that Uluru’s level of big assedness was an even bigger level of big assedness than I’d thought.)
When we arrived, we drove around the base of Uluru and then made our way to Kata Tjuta. We took our time, stopping for photos along the way to capture different vantage points; getting out of the car every now and then for as long as we could endure the flies; and doing the gawking, “oh wow”ing, and wordless marveling one does in the presence of such natural splendor.
I’d be lying if I said we didn’t appreciate the magnitude of it all, for it really was quite striking and beautiful.
But after two hours or so, we were done. We felt that we’d seen what there was to see. I was a bit surprised with myself because I’m usually the one who is rushing against the clock to take it all in, but I reminded myself that I’d still yet to see the sunrise and sunset. That was what so much of the fuss was about, that was the subject of the most passionate narratives about Uluru, that was why I was willing to skimp on sleep to catch both in the limited time we had.
You see where this is going, right?
Witnessing an Uluru sunrise/sunset was supposed to be one of those defining life experiences, one of those moments that made you feel reverent, transcendent, alive. The composition of color cast by the changing light on the rockface was made out to be some sort of magical phantasmagoria, the kind of thing that stays with you forever, the kind of thing that makes your future grandchildren discreetly roll their eyes at each other while murmuring “mmmhmmm”s at appropriate intervals as Grandma repeats her incoherent ramblings about it at every family gathering.
In other words, I was expecting to start jizzing rainbows and stardust and glitter as World of Color: Geology Edition unfolded before my rapturous eyes.
And, well, as far as carousels of color go, if we use the Grand Carousel at Knoebels to represent what I was expecting…
…then the sunset and sunrise would be equivalent to, say, Six Flags Great America’s Columbia Carousel: unique* in appearance and quite lovely to look at, but lacking the totality and perfection that only hand carved horses, thundering German organs, and brass rings can provide.
*yes, yes, I know there’s technically another one, but when I say unique, I mean that SFGAm’s sits majestically at the head of a beautiful pool lined with trees and flowers, whereas the other sits at the head of the ocean of excrement that is California’s Great America. Big difference.
None of this is to say it wasn’t impressive.
As the last glints of the sun gave way to dusk, the rock turned brown and took on a matte effect. It was as though it contained some sort of internal dimmer switch that had started at full brightness but was now almost dialed back to the off position.
Once the switch was turned all the way down, Uluru became a hulking splotch of darkness against the sky, similar to the way the Titanic iceberg has been described.
The sunrise was more dramatic.
When the first rays of light hit it, I began to get a sense of why this event has generated so much fervor: the rock glowed. Yes. Glowed. Glowed because Uluru’s characteristic orange tint didn’t pop all at once but rather turned on in bits and pieces depending on how the light hit it.
The sun’s low angle kept many shadows intact, but it also speckled the rock with these glimmering bits that looked like some giant glowstick had leaked onto it.
In the distance, Kata Tjuta was a similarly luminous set of embers.
The sun rose higher, dabbing more orange onto the rock and gradually unzipping the shadows from the trees in a way that tempted me to break into song about some anthropomorphic lions.
Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was a unique experience. No, I’m not sorry for getting that song stuck in your head.
But it wasn’t a euphoric, soul nurturing, nirvana moment whose absence from the trip would have rendered me undeserving of that Australia stamp in my passport.
It was a sunrise over a pretty rock.
Kind of like this one.
Or this one. (Well, minus the rock part.) (Look, I’m really struggling here to make this have more than just orange rock photos. Can you see now why I didn’t want to document this chronologically?)
And in the end, for as much as I worried about not having enough time to fully immerse ourselves within the Uluru experience, we actually left for the airport early.
It marked the moment we were finally in mutual agreement about this place.
5. If you’re looking for science, you’ve come to the wrong place
The ultimate reason why Uluru fascinates visitors—the reason it was noticed in the first place, the reason it has inspired such voluminous mythology among the Anangu, the reason it occupies gigabytes of memory card space the world over, the reason it will continue to serve as a tourism cash cow—is simple:
It’s a big ass rock.
It’s one hell of a big ass rock.
It’s one hell of a big ass rock in the middle of nowhere, a monolith whose stark contrast to the flatness surrounding it would be as pronounced as the common coaster enthusiast standing in a bevy of sorority girls, were such a thing possible in the real world. In other words, it sticks out a bit. It’s huge. It’s the geological equivalent of one of those medical abnormality shows on TLC (“New episodes of ‘My 3.3 km² Life’ return this Tuesday at 10/9 central!”).
And so, just as you’d look at a ninety pound tumor or a fetus in fetu and ponder how does that happen?, the first question that naturally arises when you look at this humongous orange lump is: How did it get there?
Well, with all the experience and knowledge I gained from visiting the national park specifically designed to educate visitors on the significance of this natural wonder, here is what I learned in regards to that question:
Now, I know Uluru is synonymous with embellishment and exaggeration, but I swear I am not overstating (or would that be understating?) this. To prove it: I fucking hate when people use the term “literally” to describe something figuratively. Therefore, know that I am being completely serious when I say: I learned literally nothing about Uluru’s origins; hell, I learned literally nothing about the site’s geology. This is not because I didn’t bother to seek answers, but rather because there is literally nothing there to provide those answers.
That’s right. There is nothing to inform visitors about the topographical provenance of one of the world’s most famous topographical formations at the actual location of said famous topographical formation.
Which is entirely unacceptable when it was the raw, corporeal, earthly immensity of the thing that got your attention—and everyone else’s—in the first place.
Having looked it up after visiting, I can tell you that Uluru and Kata Tjuta are inselbergs—erosion-resistant rocks left after millions of years of incredible geologic forces and the erosion of everything else around them. It’s an overly simplistic explanation, but the fact that I needed to consult Professor Google for it speaks to the failure of the site itself in providing even the most elementary of scientific facts, the sort of facts you expect to learn at a visitors’ center from a ten minute introductory film that’s narrated by a British guy and condenses millions of years of geologic events into a few handy computer animations. Not that your average visitors’ center is going to make you an expert on its subject matter in one afternoon, but you can usually walk away with an understanding of the basics.
That is, if the place you’re visiting has that average sort of visitors’ center. I suppose I took it for granted that a location so famous would have a few air conditioned rooms of multilingual informational placards, maps on touchscreens, video nooks, and of course the requisite exit through the gift shop.
Instead, the closest thing Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park has to a visitors’ center is the Cultural Center…oops, wait, I mean “Centre” because this isn’t America.
And yet the thing is, even after visiting that I’m still somewhat in the dark about the intricacies of this place.
And that’s because I’m not allowed to know.
4. The Cultural Centre is cryptic and patronizing
We all have THAT Facebook friend. You know, the one who posts enigmatic statuses designed to lure their friends into asking for clarification, only to snub them with more passive aggressiveness when they do:
By deliberately baiting a public online social setting with this sort of suspenseful ambiguity only to play it off coyly when pressed for more details, the soon-to-be-unfriended Kimberly is, of course, an attention seeking, self indulgent brat. She manipulates and teases because mysteriousness not only breeds interest, but also cultivates an air of superiority. Dropping hints but withholding full disclosure gives her an impression of control and dominance. Stringing her beguiled followers along sends the message that she has an interesting story but not everyone is entitled to hear it. In other words, she uses subtle condescension to fabricate a sense of self importance.
Now imagine if that attitude was the mission statement of a museum, and you have the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Cultural Centre.
The traditional landowners of Uluru and Kata Tjuta are the Anangu, who have been in the area some ten thousand plus years, although some archaeological evidence suggests that humans have inhabited the area for as long as thirty thousand years. Whatever the number, it’s ample time for the rocks to have taken on a prominent role in Anangu culture. It comes as no surprise that they are embedded within a rich mosaic of myths, legends and lore, from creation stories to fantastical tales of ancestral beings. Uluru’s existence and many of its physical features are explained in terms of tjukurpa, the Aboriginal worldview that describes the energy uniting people with each other, the land, and the past. Tjukurpa is the root of Anangu heritage: it is the way in which they interpret the physical world as well as the basis of social conduct, custom, and tradition. Therefore, Uluru, as an embodiment of it, is a place of inimitable spiritual and holy significance.
And that…well, that’s pretty much all I know. Oh wait! There’s a story about a snake in there somewhere. Okay. Now that’s everything I know, because that’s as much as Kimberly was willing to divulge.
How about elaborating a little more on the specific ways in which you guys honor Uluru? Like, what are your rituals like? Can you even concentrate on holiness in a place where nothing seems more sacred than a $2.99 fly swatter from Target? What’s day to day life like, living in the shadow of this thing? Can you try to describe it so I can understand it from your point of view and hopefully come away from this place with a deeper respect and appreciation of it all?
No. Tough shit. The Cultural Centre doesn’t want to talk about it right now.
Before I go further, I want to make it very clear that I am not belittling the culture of the Anangu people. I did not subject myself to thousands of dollars of student loan debt for a piece of paper that signifies my capacity to hold more than a passing interest in the kinship charts of some clan in Papua New Guinea no one’s ever heard of only to revert right back to some good old fashioned Western ethnocentrism at the first sign of opposition to my polite curiosity.
What I am criticizing, however, are the Cultural Centre’s irritatingly gratuitous reminders that I am not entitled to collect more knowledge of that culture.
Oddly enough, while writing the last bit I discovered that a brief geological history about Uluru actually does exist on none other than the resort’s official website. Also appearing on the page is the following: “The Anangu people know how Uluru and Kata Tjuta were formed. This knowledge comes from the Tjukurpa, the stories and lore that explain and govern Anangu life. But much of it, particularly about Kata Tjuta, is sacred and cannot be presented here” (emphasis mine). And okay, I would never try to circumvent an inviolable cultural code like this mandate for secrecy, but it is quite disturbing that the stuff about geology—interesting information, largely objective information—apparently wasn’t important enough to make it past the HTML stage, while the declaration of withheld information is present on almost every placard in the Cultural Centre.
From mythology to descriptions of food gathering, the same admonition is repeated over and over and over again: the Anangu code of law and ethics prevents disclosing this bit of information to outsiders, it’s against Anangu beliefs to describe that custom to outsiders, it is disrespectful to relate this initiation ritual to outsiders, etc.
I don’t have a problem with the Anangu wishing to retain some exclusivity and privacy over their traditions. I get that, I respect that. But when a Cultural Centre reminds its visitors with almost fanatical frequency that they are not privileged to see the whole picture, it comes off as obnoxious and arrogant—and all the more so considering the utter needlessness of it all. The placards would be no less informative without the constant memos. Instead, their persistent presence renders the texts in the Cultural Centre vaingloriously formulaic:
- Identify a cultural element
- Explain a thing or two about it
- Declare there’s so much more to it than can be lawfully discussed
- Remind readers that it’s their alien status that is responsible for curbing the flow of information
Dropping hints with no intention of expounding on them adds nothing of substance or value, so why bother? Imagine working your way through this place, encountering steps three and four over and over again. Sure starts to resemble the sort of deliberately attention seeking teasing found in the subtext of THAT Facebook friend’s status, doesn’t it?
Kimberly P: Guys, I had a bad day and I’m upset about some things, but I’m not going to tell you why or what they are. I’m just going to hint at it publicly because as long as you know that I know something you don’t know, you’ll think I’m interesting and special. More interesting and special than you.
Cultural Centre: Visitors, there’s this ritual the Anangu perform every February to commemorate the invention of aerosol bug spray. It’s really, really fascinating but we’re not going to tell you why, and it has a totally killer back story too, but we’re not going to tell you what that’s all about, either. We’re just going to hint at it publicly because as long as you know that we know something you don’t know, you’ll be reminded of your place, which is less interesting and special than ours.
Again, I am not taking issue with the fact that there will forever be parts of Aboriginal culture inaccessible to the outsider. My point is that the Cultural Centre, rather than capitalizing on the education it can offer, be it cultural or scientific, seems more concerned with ensuring that the lines of division and segregation between natives and visitors are clearly marked. The endless barrage of reminders that we outsiders are not allowed in on the secrets at the very same time intimations of those secrets are dangled before us—like holding a piece of lunch meat just past a dog’s reach—is borderline insulting.
Whether intentional or not, the compulsively repetitive affirmations of staggered privilege leave the Cultural Centre throbbing with a vibe that is smug, alienating, patronizing—and ultimately unwelcoming.
P.S. Not to mention it doesn’t have air conditioning. So yeah. That.
3. What’s the deal with the climb?…and other mixed signals
“Aboriginal traditional owners would prefer visitors not to climb Uluru.”
“The climb is physically demanding. Do not attempt if you have high or low blood pressure, heart problems, breathing problems, a fear of heights, or you are not reasonably fit.”
“We Don’t Climb”
“Persons are permitted to climb and remain on Uluru during the hours of sunrise to sunset only.”
“That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing. You shouldn’t climb.”
“If you choose to climb, we ask that you do so safely.”
Uh, sure, whatever you say.
Climbing Uluru has long been a controversial and sensitive subject. The Anangu consider it deeply offensive and disrespectful. Tourists who climb, they argue, are missing the point of the site entirely: to view Uluru as little more than a challenging physical workout is to pretty much shove a middle finger in the face of tjukurpa—in other words, to brazenly insult everything that makes Uluru what it is. And frankly, that should be all you need to hear. After all, they are the owners of the land, and you sure wouldn’t go scaling the walls of the Sistine Chapel for the sake of a few sweet Instagrams or sneak to the roof of the Hagia Sophia just to post on some Facebook fitness app how many calories you burned doing it*, would you?
*We all have THAT Facebook friend, too.
Unfortunately, that’s not enough for some people, and decades of trekking Timberlands and Merrells have worn thin white lines into Uluru’s ochre sides, among other unsavory remains (i.e., poop. No plumbing or septic systems up there, which I’m sure you find just shocking). And yet is it fair to entirely fault these hikers when, juxtaposed with Anangu requests, there are just as many notices advising how to climb safely along with the permitted times to do it?
And I do mean literally juxtaposed. This is the map we were given when we first entered the park. Similar contradictions are found on the signs at Uluru’s base as well as numerous websites, including the official ones. There’s even a handrail running up the rock, for Christ’s sake.
Perhaps, however, these mixed messages are symptoms of a wider syndrome.
Much of my time at Uluru, something felt…off. It wasn’t an overpowering sensation, but it was definitely there. It was there when a park ranger sternly instructed us to move along when we pulled over on Uluru’s loop road for photographs. It was certainly there at the Cultural Centre as we were constantly reminded of our foreign status. It was there as we realized that even what could be shared with us still seemed hazy and obscure owing to the decontextualized manner in which it was presented. And it was there in the mixed messages regarding the climb.
You cannot view the rock from any angle you wish, you cannot know the whole story, you cannot fully comprehend what is shared, you theoretically cannot climb the rock. You cannot customize your visit. You must stick to the path. Stay in your zone. Remember your place:
You do not and will never completely belong here. You are just a source of income.
And I think it is that tension between cultural sanctity and economic dependence that generated the queer feeling I had. Something didn’t feel right because I didn’t feel welcome. There I was at an internationally renowned touristy hotspot, yet the resort’s taglines to “touch the silence” and “hear the land” were impossible given the perpetual murmur of aloofness permeating the place, a murmur that told me I was, ultimately, an intruder—but I’d be tolerated so long as I kept my dollar sign costume on.
Which would make me feel rather indignant if it weren’t for the fact that it’s the truth.
Of course I was intruding. All tourists are intruding. Uluru is hallowed ground for the Anangu and with so many aspects of it off limits to nonindigenous people, it’s fairly obvious that it never would have opened to tourists had the Anangu been powerful enough to thwart it. As is all too often the case, however, the white man got his way and what was once the exclusive domain of those who were there first has become one of Australia’s most recognized and profitable landmarks.
I don’t pretend to know all the intricacies of economic development in Aboriginal communities, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the revenue generated from Uluru tourism is a significant source of funding for the nearby Aboriginal community Mutitjulu, which is no small thing when poverty tends to run rampant in many, if not most, Aboriginal societies. Compound that with disputes between Aborigines and non-Aborigines regarding the dispersal of those resources, add in the history of conflict between those two groups over the management of the site, and there can be little doubt that Uluru, as a national park, is hardly a seamless operation. For the Anangu, it seems the result is an uneasy relationship between cultural sanctity and economic dependence: an everlasting battle between preserving and protecting their heritage from the people who have commercialized it, while at the same time acquiescing to those very same people to continue commercializing it in the interest of financial relief.
While it’s not as bad as it could be—Uluru is, thankfully, not one of those repulsive scenes where vendors will chase and bully you into buying kitschy souvenirs all the way down the street to a Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville—we, as tourists, are still actively devaluing Anangu culture by allocating their holy site for our own entertainment. Yet we are needed. Or rather, our dollars are needed.
One manifestation of this friction? The conflicting messages regarding the climb. While numerous efforts have been made to shutter it permanently, none have been successful. I suspect that’s because there are fears that its closure might repel visitors and lead to diminished profits (an argument that likely reflects more on the power imbalance between indigenous and nonindigenous members of management than on the unpleasant reality of Aboriginal economic development).
Ultimately, it is this discord that must explain why non-Aboriginal folk will never be able to appreciate the full beauty of Uluru. It’s why we are relegated to certain spots for photography and viewing. It’s why a visit leaves you intimately acquainted with your credit limit. It’s why we are barred from ever knowing the full back story. It’s why we are reminded, time and time and time and time again, of our place and that we may not deviate from it. At the heart of it, we are unwelcome. We were never meant to come here.
Perhaps, then, I have no right to bitch about how expensive the whole affair is, how the Cultural Centre’s tone is so blatantly condescending, how the place seems determined to retain a semblance of obscurity, how there is such a dearth of information on the site’s geologic history. Perhaps it’s wrong to gripe about its unwarranted hype and annoying tourists. That’s not what this place is about. After all, what right do I have to complain about a place I never should have been able to visit anyway? It’s like showing up to a party uninvited and then complaining that the host didn’t offer enough food.
Yet we are invited. We party crashing tourists do serve a purpose. If we are choosing to spend our money, shouldn’t we have a right to something that’s better than lukewarm hospitality at best and outright hostility at worst? Or is it disrespectful to even entertain that thought? If there are signs condoning and condemning the climb, what else is ambiguous territory? Are we allowed or aren’t we? What’s right and what’s wrong? Seriously, what is the deal?
The questions are endless, awkward, and rhetorical, and so we are left with mixed messages undergirded by resentment, confusion, reluctance, guilt, and antagonism. It’s an ever present tension where only one theme is clear: we are tolerated, but only at arm’s distance. Close enough to reach the wallet, but not close enough to be let in. We will always, always be intruders.
And we will always, always be reminded of it.
2. I HAVE HAD IT WITH THESE MOTHERFUCKING FLIES AT THIS MOTHERFUCKING ROCK
Sometimes I feel a twinge of guilt if I kill a bug (and regret if it happens to be a stink bug). To prevent this, I will actually go and procure a cup and index card to save one scuttling up the wall, using every last ounce of rationality and willpower to fend off the very persuasive expostulations of the creepy crawlies encouraging me toward the contrary (well, after the prerequisite round of shrieking and leaping, of course). Fetching said lifesaving devices generally requires taking my eyes off the bug, which is how you know that I am truly dedicated to the cause. The lifesaving process then unfolds in the following order:
- I take a few deep breaths of the sort you might recommend to a woman in labor.
- I guide the cup toward the wall the way a lion stalks its prey—slowwwwly, slowwwwly, then REALLYFASTJUMPPOUNCEAMBUSHWHOA.
- The bug and I squirm in unison. The bug is squirming because it realizes it’s trapped; I am squirming because the bug is squirming and I am convinced that it’s about to go all Incredible Hulk on me at any second.
- This is the leap of faith step, where I hope the bug won’t suddenly get smart and dart out of its entrapment in the millisecond it takes to tilt the cup away from the wall in order to slide the index card beneath it.
- Once the index card is positioned to entirely cover the circumference of the cup rim, I gently pull the cup back from the wall with my palm pressed firmly against the index card. One does not take chances with a .007 inch thick bulwark.
- Upon completion of this step, known formally as The Usain Bolt, the bug will have been deposited outdoors.
- I give myself a pat on the back, knowing that I have just saved a poor, innocent creature from dying an undignified indoor death so that it may have a chance to die a proper outdoor death, which will probably happen within a couple of minutes if it happens to be winter.
My point here is that it takes a bit of effort, terror, and lunacy to save a bug rather than just squashing it. But I do it anyway because sometimes my conscience is remarkably loud, loud enough to drown out even Richard’s uproarious laughter like that time I reenacted being on one of those Slingshot rides when he calmly observed there was a spider crawling right next to my head.
At Uluru, I became a serial killer.
You may have noticed my various mentions of flies in this post. There was a postcard in the Yulara Shell station that said something along the lines of “Australia: One opera house, one rock, one barrier reef, and 1,000,000,000,000,000 flies.” I don’t know where in Australia that postcard’s creator got that number, but it clearly wasn’t at Uluru because he would’ve needed at least fifteen more zeroes to accurately convey the diptera situation there. Possibly more.
I knew it was going to be hot in the Australian interior. Every time I opened the car door, I was greeted with the same heavy, stifling blast that had taken my breath away in Alice Springs. I never anticipated, however, that I wouldn’t owe my relief on returning to the car solely to its freon supply. No, that hideous Misubishi Pajero served a greater purpose: it was our refuge, our safe area, our hideaway from the relentless onslaught of hundreds of tinnily buzzing flies that flocked to every millimeter of exposed skin with the wretched ferocity of rednecks stampeding a Walmart Black Friday sale and the unprecedented tenacity of Kay Burley parading all the stereotypes that keep misogyny alive and well.
The way they descended on us, you would have thought we were walking pheromone traps. They flitted around my face, and no matter how many times I batted them away, they returned, oblivious and unperturbed. Even when I got to the point where I was waving my arms in front of my face like windshield wipers, they managed to duck and whiz and sweep into whatever opening they could find. They pranced and strutted across the rims and lenses of my glasses, an evil irony given that the frames are from the Project Runway line. My eyelids were the counters from which dozens of proboscis straws sucked up eye fluid smoothies with such gusto that you would have thought it was BOGO day down at the Cornea Coolers Juice Bar. They cavorted in my ear canals with all the merriment and debauchery of a medieval orgy. They hovered in my nostrils, my forceful exhalations apparently the fly equivalent to tourists standing in the blast from a 747 at St. Maarten’s famous airport.
They frolicked and we groused.
They tickled and we despaired.
They heckled and we seethed.
They taunted and we said, fuck this.
As I slammed the car door following an aborted attempt to enjoy the rock’s scenery and petroglyphs from up close, I cursed as I realized about a dozen of the little fuckers had followed me and were now jiving in aimless squiggles against the window. I lowered it and successfully shooed some away, but a few stragglers remained. I watched one continue its languid dance, a black dot of irritation, a reminder of all the other annoyances that had marked our short visit—the price gouging, the shitty hotel, the hostility, the conceitedness, the rude tourists, and all of this for a rock, a rock!—and I did it. I said the line:
“Enough is enough!” And I reached out my pointer finger and stabbed the fly, stabbed it hard, stabbed it and pressed the flesh of my finger into it so I could feel its body squash solidly against the glass. The mangled corpse stuck to me as I pulled away. I delightfully admired my handiwork before flicking it out the window.
I jabbed at another one. “I have had it!” I cried, taking another jab. “With these MOTHERFUCKING FLIES!” Another jab. “At this MOTHERFUCKING ROCK!” Jab. Jab. Jab.
With each jab, my satisfaction ballooned. Each jab was vindication. Revenge. Rebellion. Triumph. Outright, utter glee. I mirthfully murdered the rest of the stragglers, letting out a noise between a chuckle and a growl as each body came away crumpled in a tiny wine colored gloop of fly guts.
It was finally a victory. Not a big one. A pitifully small one, actually. But it was a victory.
I’ll take my straitjacket purple and polka dotted, please.
* * *
At this point you may be thinking one or two things:
- Megan, for fuck’s sake, can’t you think of anything positive to say?
- Megan, for fuck’s sake, haven’t you ever heard of brevity?
1) Guys, let’s be realistic. I am female. The art of complaining is hardwired into my genetic code. But okay, no, not everything about Uluru was negative. In no particular order:
- Ayers Wok really did serve the best goddamn chow mein I have had in my life. It was greasy, fatty—the kind of noodles that leave a sheen on the fork no matter how many times you try to lick it clean. Also, the chef there was extremely friendly. I honestly feel awful for letting my hangriness get the better of me.
- Most of the tourists we encountered were fine. At the sunrise, I met a father and daughter who were roadtripping from Tasmania up to Darwin. They were lovely to talk with—the father had visited Uluru thirty years prior and had even climbed it, which certainly sparked some curiosity on my end. They were abuzz with interest about Ireland and the U.S., as well as our onward travel plans in their home country. It was the kind of conversation that reminded you that people like Miss Sacred San Pellegrino are the exception, not the norm.
- The park rangers are really serious about animal welfare. They even give out a number to call if you see injured wildlife. The afternoon we arrived, I spotted two dingoes in one of the parking lots looking hot and miserable as hell. We stopped by the Cultural Centre where I notified a park ranger, who asked me lots of questions and pulled up photos of dingoes to make sure that was what I had seen. He told me they were most likely pets from neighboring Mutitjulu and not to worry because they knew where to find water. He thanked me for my concern, and it was a genuine thank you.
- I expanded my fashion horizons. Never has the bulky, ungainly, grim reaperish mesh of a mosquito hat looked more seductive.
- The breakfast may have been horribly overpriced, but the host who greeted and seated us was one of the friendliest, smiliest, bubbliest people I have ever met. I kind of wanted to pinch his cheeks, he was so cute. Between that and my ability to wax poetic on the experience of this place, I am going to make a terrific old lady.
- Playing shower Jenga and Three Stooges in the hotel is the stuff the best vacation memories are made of. Just don’t remind us that we lost more money playing than some people lose in Vegas.
- I did gain some idea of the importance of Uluru to the Anangu. I’ll never get the full picture, and I still wish they presented it differently, but I did learn something. And for the approximately 4.8 seconds I was able to admire the petroglyphs before the flies presented me with an alternate agenda, I was in awe. It’s one thing to see that kind of thing in textbooks, but another thing entirely to see it in person and to be in the presence of something so old. Plus, the flies did make it so I remained animated and alert, so much so that even if Lewis Binford had been there describing the significance of the petroglyphs in relation to the hypothetico-deductive model and processual archaeological theory, I would have remained lively. For anyone acquainted with Binford’s work, you will understand that this is the highest possible praise I could ever give him. For the rest of you who aren’t in the know on the always hot topic of anthropology’s who’s who, which I assume is somewhere in the region of 100% of you, Binford was…well, he was no Dos Equis man, let’s put it that way.
- The rock is pretty cool to see in person. And the sunrise and sunset are pretty. Not life changing pretty, but prettier than the sunrise over rusty shipping crates with accompanying dead fish stench I get to enjoy over Dublin Port on the way to work every morning.
I will admit that, on the whole, I am glad to have seen it—but only because I would have been forever wondering if I hadn’t. All the vicarious experiences in the world will never match up to the real thing; even a post like this wouldn’t have been enough to deter me from visiting. I always want to form my own judgment and I know that if we’d passed it up, I would have regretted it. I still encourage you to go if you are set on it. Your experience won’t be my experience. I hope it’s a better experience. But if you are having any doubts whatsoever as to whether it’s worth it, then I would strongly urge you to spend your time (and money) elsewhere because, knowing what I know now, well…
2) Yes. Watch.
At the end of the day, Richard may have been right all along: