When visitors think of Australia, as well as kangaroos, boomerangs and the population’s inordinate fondness for terrible beer, they will undoubtedly also visualize the red desert of the centre, and the world famous landmark of Uluru, the red rock formerly known as ‘Ayers’.
Indeed, any organized tour of the country is guaranteed to take in a visit, at the very least to Uluru – even if just flying in one day and flying out the next. For us, some seven days into our trip, and having driven across the country to get here, we felt some small sense of achievement and perhaps even greater appreciation of the landscape and the breathtaking vistas of the “Red Centre”, although nothing, I am sure, compared to the experience of the hardy souls that we saw cycling up the Stuart Highway to get here.
The red dust, for which the region is famous, coats everything and tinges everything it touches. Driving down the highway it is easy to spot the cars that have been driving off-road. Drivers give a knowing nod to each other as they pass and the cars wear their thick coat of red dust like a badge of honor – as if to say “Look at me – I’ve been driving across the desert”.
And it’s not just the cars. You find the dust coating your skin and your possessions. It gets in your hair, your clothes and up your nose. When you are camping, as we are for this leg of the trip, you get used to wiping the red dust off your plate before you eat. Someone even assumed that Saffy’s red tinged coat was due to her desert adventures. They were slightly surprised to discover that she has always been that colour.
Uluru itself, rises out of the surrounding landscape, looking like, well, a giant red slug sitting on the surrounding plains. It’s not very poetic I realise, but if I was ever in charge of defining legends, and let’s be honest, it’s just as well that I am not, I would have created a tale of a giant blobby sea-creature that hauled itself out of the ocean, then fell asleep – then awoke to discover the sea had long retreated and now found itself alone in an arid landscape. Not knowing what else to do, it fell asleep again, to awaken at some time in the future when the sea returns. You can use a story like that to scare the kids when they’re misbehaving. “If you don’t eat your dinner, Uluru, the giant sea slug will wake up and eat you” – that kind of thing. Like I say, creating legends not really my thing.
But jokes aside, there is a sense of deep time here and the feeling that the landscape remains unchanging and unchanged for unimaginable years – and remains less touched by human hands than most that we encounter. It is of course one of the harshest environments on the planet, and it is a tough plant, animal or human that choses to live here. Many European explorers have perished trying to cross or live in this land and this landscape can shrug off most human attempts to tame it.
And in this flat, red landscape, sits some of Australia’s most famous geological features. As well as the most famous of them, Uluru, within 50kms you can also see the related formation of Kata Tjuta (also known as the Olgas) and just a few hundred kms away, King’s Canyon. All of them carved out of differing shades of red and ochre.
And in the red dust and red rocks of this country, you can, if you wish, read something of the history of our species and our planet, and, if you really wish, the past – and future of our solar system itself. But more on that later.
The local indigenous people, the Anangu, have done a better job than me of building stories around these landscapes, and Uluru and Kata Tjuta are integral to their story and their connection to the land. Every aspect, and every animal or plant is linked to the “creation ancestors” which are integral to their identity as a people. The stories they tell – the “Tjukurrpa”, defines their knowledge of the landscape which is intimately tied to their creation ancestor stories, and which form their lore of how to survive in this desert terrain. The Tjukurrpa is integral to every aspect of the Anangu society and the preservation of this knowledge has always been of critical importance to their survival, being passed down through the oral tradition. Painted on the cave walls at the base of Uluru are images of plants and animals important to their survival and these are/were used as part of the process of educating each generation as their time to learn the Tjukurrpa began.
For most of the period of colonization of Australia by European settlers, the Aboriginal people have been viewed as “primitive” and not worthy of recognition of claim to their ancestral lands. That is changing, of course, but it is a tough and bitter fight for the indigenous population, who have been marginalised and victimised for the past 200 odd years, having lived in this land for something like 40,000 years before a certain Captain Cook came sailing by. But it is worth reflecting that for 9 out of the 10 years that humans have been around, we all lived a life similar to that of the Anangu and other aboriginal peoples. From a history of some 100,000 years, it is only in the past 10,000 years that human society transitioned to farming and the more “modern” life that this provides.
So, having direct contact with people who can provide an insight into our own, relatively recent past is a rare privilege, given how few of these societies exist today. Our ancestors may not have lived in deserts, but they would certainly have told stories of their own legends and myths, and these would have been woven into their lore of how to live and how to behave in their own land and societies. All our stories are long since lost, probably disappearing in a handful of generations after our ancestors took up a farming lifestyle, and only the occasional preserved rock painting gives some echo of the stories that we would have told.
But the red rocks and dust of this region have another story to tell, much much older even than this. The characteristic painted red colour of this landscape comes from iron oxide – rust and it tells the tale of something that happened an unimaginable long time ago – and that set the stage for the rise of the earliest true plants and animals. For 2.3 billion years ago, this landscape was once at the bottom of an ocean at the time when there was no oxygen in the atmosphere, and any animal today would have died instantly in the toxic environment of the early earth. Iron was commonplace in the rocks, and even dissolved in the sea.
But when these first bacteria started turning water into oxygen, they not only killed most of the early life on the planet, to which oxygen was poison, but also changed the world to one where complex, oxygen-breathing life could evolve. The iron-rich rocks literally turned to rust, and were washed down the rivers to the sea, where thick sediments of iron oxide formed. Over time, the iron oxide was compressed into other rocks and millions and millions of years later, was raised up above the sea then slowly weathered down to the red dust of this land. Only the harder rocks of those days survive to decorate this ancient landscape today.
And if you want to go even further back, there is an even more ancient story in the rocks – the story of iron itself. There’s a reason why we build bridges and ships out of iron – as well as being strong, it is cheap and plentiful, and Australia is particularly rich in it, as we’ve seen. This iron literally came from the stars, for iron is the ultimate stellar ash formed as stars age and die. As stars like our Sun age, they start to run out of the hydrogen fuel that powers them and start to use heavier elements – and in the process they grow and become “red giants”, expanding and swallowing their planets. But as they fuse heavier and heavier elements together to eventually create iron, they can no longer create energy and then they must die – perhaps in a final explosion known as a ‘nova’, which scatters their remains, including all that iron across the cosmos. Some 4.6 billion years ago, some of that ancient stellar ash from the death of older suns, together with clouds of hydrogen and other elements coalesced to form our sun and solar system. some of that iron eventually found its way onto the earth’s surface and formed the red rocks and dust of this land. Deep time indeed.