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Ayers Rock: The Dreamtime Sanctuary

Updated: Dec 30, 2022

A giant chunk of red sandstone in the centre of the Australian desert is steeped in mystery and legend. What is its significance for Aborigines? Why are the marks left by erosion so important to them? Do visitors to the rock feel any sense of the sacred?

Ayers Rock in Australia is surrounded by myth, legend, and mystery
Ayers Rock in Australia is surrounded by myth, legend, and mystery

While exploring the arid lands of Australia's Northern Territory in 1873, William Gosse, a deputy surveyor-general, discovered a range of domelike rock mounds south of Alice Springs. The most impressive was a great red monolith which he named Ayers Rock after the Australian Premier, Sir Henry Ayers. What Gosse did not know was that the rock, with its vivid sunset and sunrise colours, already had a name given to it by the Aborigines: Uluru

The lump of coarse arkose grit, standing 335m (1,100ft) above the surrounding desert and with a girth of 9km (5.5mi), is a crossroad on the Aboriginal Dreamtime trails. Goose had stumbled on the place of the sacred Water Python; of Kandju, the benign lizard; of the hare-wallaby and carpet-snake peoples.

Every crack, crevice, indentation, lump, and striation had a meaning to the local Aborigines. The water stain down one side was the blood of the venomous-snake people, conquered in a famous Dreamtime battle. The holes in one boulder were the eyes of a long-dead enemy; the lump on another was the nose of an ancestor, now asleep. And each cave around the base of the rock had a purpose in the rituals of the Aborigines.

Who Are The People Of Ayers Rock?

The Dreamtime was the time when the earth was still malleable and in the process of being formed. During that time, animal-human heroes carried out journeys and quests, setting the pattern for their descendants in tracks and trails across the vastness of the Australian deserts. Waterholes and soaks were formed and found. The survival of the Aborigines living in the wilderness today depends on the knowledge of where to find these watering places along the Dreaming trails, knowledge passed down to them from their ancestors in the form of songs and ritual ceremonies. But Dreamtime is more complicated than this - its mysteries and magic are locked into the minds and emotions of the Aborigines themselves. Outsiders receive but a mere glimpse of the network of fables and legends.

Uluru is a remote landmark on the Dreamtime trails which form intricate patterns across the continent. It was the Dreamtime home of the Pitjantjatjara, the hare-wallaby people who live on its north side, and of the Yankunytjatjara, the carpet-snake people who live on its south side. In the vicinity of Uluru, two great battles took place and these are still alive in the songs and ceremonies of today's Aborigines.

From the Dreamtime south came a ferocious tribe of venomous-snake people, intent on slaughtering the carpet-snake people. But Bulari, the earth-mother heroine of the carpet-snakes, met the onslaught of the attackers breathing a lethal cloud of disease and death, so vanquishing the invaders. Some bodies of the venomous-snake people are locked into the shape of Uluru. The remains of their tribe went further south to attack other non-venomous snake tribes, only to meet a similar fate.

The hare-wallaby people on the north side also had to deal with an aggressive enemy, a terrifying devil dingo. This beast had been sung into existence by a hostile tribe who had filled the creature with savage malice before letting it loose. The hare-wallabies escaped using their fantastic leaping ability - the footprints of their frantic retreat are visible in a series of caves around the base of Uluru. They were eventually saved when the totem, which had been the source of its power, was snatched from the mouth of the great beast.

The Importance Of The Geophysical Markings

The substance of the rust-coloured rock is a sedimentary sandstone that flakes away in a process known as 'spalling', just as a snake might shed its skin. As a consequence, it always retains its distinctive shape. All the geophysical markings on the body of Uluru have meanings related to a tale, fable, or song. In the overlapping folds of the rock, the Aborigines see the lizard, Kandju, who came there to find his lost boomerang. On the northern face are the famous markings which non-Aborigines call the skull because the pattern of the grooves resembles a human head.

An example of the rock art at Ayers Rock, Australia
An example of the rock art at Ayers Rock, Australia

The rock is a natural water trap. Around its base are some 11 soaks and holes which provide vital liquid for the people who live there, for visiting animals, and for a skirt of foliage. On the rock face are many sacred cave paintings, some of which are exclusive to women and others to men. Neither sex can so much as look in the direction of the caves of the other and must even avert their eyes when passing forbidden places. In 1978, a European woman who visited a spot taboo to females was threatened with death if she ever repeated the transgression. Ayers Rock was also the scene of the recent and much-publicised Azaria case in which the Chamberlain family claimed a dingo had stolen and killed their baby. Whether this death had anything to do with the mythology of the Aborigines is not clear, but it ranks among the strangest 'murder' cases in the world.

The hare-wallaby cave of Mala, now off-limits to non-Aborigines, is a place where local boys are initiated into the tribe. The walls of this rock tunnel are covered in strange markings and inscriptions said to be the ritual cuts of original Dreamtime and subsequent initiates. On a large flat stone at the entrance to the cave, the boys are painted with ochre, and besides this natural table stands a rock which is the sleeping form of a Dreamtime elder. The cave of Mala is known among the Aborigines as a 'plenteous happy place' where returning initiates - Aborigines who have traveled and come home - weep with joy when they recall their own personal initiation rites.

What Do Visitors Feel About The Rock?

Known as 'the dead heart' to the white population of Australia, Ayers Rock is growing into a tourist attraction with all the attendant problems that entails. Many climb the white line painted up the side of the rock to film the remarkable views from the top.

Few visitors fail to be surprised by the strength of emotion they experience when confronted by what is, after all, a giant lump of red rock in the Australian desert. Robyn Davidson, an Australian adventurer who made an epic journey by camel across half the continent, described her feelings in her book Tracks: "The indecipherable power of that rock had my heart racing. I had not expected anything quite so weirdly, primevally beautiful.' For all its wonderment, the rock will remain the Uluru of the Aborigines who see themselves as custodians of a symbolic landscape bequeathed to them by their ancestors. Now you have read about Ayers Rock, make sure you have a look at the article on Petra: The City Of Tombs Carved Into The Jordanian Desert.


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