The Unexpected Pilgrimage - A Lasting Impression

PART ONE - DAY ONE - An introduction to the bus and the Watarrka National Park (Kings Canyon)

Like countless other backpackers had before me I made the sleepy start (5.30am in Alice Springs) to climb aboard a mini-bus and see the sites of the Red Centre. It all started out as you might expect, finding a seat on the bus, remembering to run to the toilet as the engine starts, slightly awkward introductions to your new travel buddies and while you do spend some time on the bus driving from place to place, it’s NOT wasted time. Here in Alice Springs, Australia traveling down the dusty roadways in a 21 seater mini-bus, I felt closer to nature than ever.

It’s around 7am, it’s pitch black outside as the sun hasn’t yet risen. The landscape here is like nothing I’d ever experienced before, flat and vast with lone rock giants erupting from the dust. The towering shadows teasing, ready to reveal themselves with the sunrise. As the orange sun floods the land, black barked trees sprout from the shadows and scatter the plains. Yellow grasses and green shrubs ripple in its glow, fixed in a deep, rusty, red ochre earth. Just before 8am mist appears on the land giving the illusion that the mountains are floating on clouds. As condensation forms on the windows I see glimpses of the past, previous travellers who had written their names or drawn pictures, little traces, tracks of who had been before. Freed from the burden of driving I had time to contemplate and as my fellow travellers caught up on sleep, I enjoyed what was just a sunrise on a mini bus, but it’s one i’ll not forget soon. 

Our first walking stop is Watarrka National Park which has not only been the native land for the Luritja Aboriginal people for over 20,000 years, but is also home to over 600 species of indigenous plants and animals, many unique to the area. We are invited to a guided tour following the Rim Walk, which takes around 3 hours. It all starts which a challenging climb up around 500 steps - don’t be put off by this, it’s actually not too bad if you take your time and drinks plenty of water (particularly if it’s hot). When we reach the top the gratification is instant and unexpected. Coming from the UK i’m used to green hills and lush fertile land; this place is Mars but at the same time thriving with life. We skirted the fringe of this great canyon (over 300m deep), carefully peeping over the edge when we had the chance. Again I noticed tracks, footprints, left by the previous travellers, now although Kings Canyon attracts around 215,000 visitors a year it’s surprising how easily you can find yourself unescorted, stopping for a moment of peace to take in not only the views but the energy of this sacred area. Don’t fall back too much though as you could be missing out on the guided talks about the areas creation and wildlife. Our guide (Flinders A.K.A Goofy) taught us about the different uses for shrubs and trees; the Luritja people used this area as a pharmacy, larder and ritual space and whether you needed some sunscreen or to cure a nasty rash there would be a plant to suit your needs.Around half way through the tour we reach a set of wooden steps. We descend into an oasis, aptly namedThe Garden of Eden before once again rising up from the canyon floor to reach the other side. 

The walk sure does take it our of you and after the 3 hours i’m grateful to be back on the bus heading to Curtain Springs campground, but not before stoping to gather that essential firewood from the outback. It’s a night of traditional beer bread, chilli, a roaring, warming campfire and a taste of Kangaroo tail should you so wish. It’s also a night sleeping underneath the stars but note these are not the stars you may be used to. These stars are different colours, greens and pinks and blues. There are millions of them sitting in a dark sky with a streak of the cloudy milky way. There’s a depth to the night sky that i’ve never seen before, it’s imposing and at once inviting, it moves and glitters and before I fall asleep under it, it creeps into my dreams. 

PART TWO - DAY TWO - Kata Tjuta, Aboriginal Cultural Centre and the sunrise at Uluru.

Wake up before the sun, it’s a busy day ahead, thankfully starting with hot showers. We leave the campground with the embers of our campfire still burning, just as was left for us. Again I start to wonder about the many thousands of people that have been before me on this journey, the ghosts they’ve left behind and the ghosts they’ve taken with them. Whether you’re religious or spiritual or neither, when you start this journey you become part of this great new pilgrimage to discover something about yourself; whether you realised you were searching or not. It’s with this thought in mind we arrive at Kata Tjuta.

It’s incredible. The Anangu, the ancestral owners of this land, named this space Kata Tjuta which means many heads. These heads are the 36 domed mountains that stretch over 20 kilometres. Goofy (our tour guide) started the 7 kilometre Valley of the Winds Walk with an interactive demonstration. We all played a small role learning how these mighty domes were formed (I got to play a tectonic plate, which I feel I did expertly). It’s also explained to us that this area is very significant in Tjukurpa times (creation times) particularly to the Anangu men and boys. These domes are the homes of many aboriginal ancestors such as the snake king Wanambi who sleeps in a watering hole at the summit of Mount Olga; the Kangaroo man Malu; Mulumura the lizard woman and the Lira – a group of poisonous snake men. However because this land is so sacred many of these stories are protected, they are not disclosed to tourists and are only passed on to the Anangu boys once they have undergone ritual rites. I didn’t need to know everything about this place to feel a part of it, the four hour walk leads us right into the heart of the domes. We walk through creek beds and to the Karu and Karingana lookouts and we were even lucky enough to spot a kangaroo. The air is warm and fragrant. The path is rocky and at points steep, but the views; the views are ancient, untouched. 

Next stop the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Aboriginal Cultural Centre, an intriguing building close to Uluru itself. After the little tasters on the tour I was dying to get in to the centre to learn more. The space contains accounts of sacred stories, images and art and therefore does not allow photography. Here I learnt more about Tjukurpa which is not only an account of how the land came into being but is also set of principles discussing religion, philosophy and human behaviour. The Anangu people observe Tjukurpa in order to live harmoniously with each other and the land. To the Anangu people Tjukurpa isn’t an idea or a dream, it’s the breathing, driving force of daily life, it lives in the land and the people and it connects us together. The fundamental principle of Tjukurpa is that people and the landscape are inextricably one. Which is why we are asked, on more than one occasion that tomorrow, when we arrive to explore Uluru further, we do not make the climb up Uluru. 

It’s a bit of shock actually, I didn’t know this was a thing; choosing not to climb. To some people this is a little disappointing, many people have come to the Red Centre for this exact reason - to climb Uluru. Before the cultural centre i just thought you came to Uluru to climb it, get a picture of the view, to conquer it. But, after the cultural centre, after starting this unexpected pilgrimage something in me is changing. I think Tony Tjamawa, a traditional owner of the land, explains this change well;

“The tourist comes here with the camera taking pictures all over. What has he got? Another photo to take home. keep part of Uluru. He should get another lens - see straight inside. Wouldn’t see big rock then. He would see that Kunija [the original ancestors of the Anangu people] living right inside there as from the beginning. He might throw his camera away then.” Tony Tjamawa - traditional owner. 

Before heading back to the campground we watch the sunset across Uluru. We see the light touching the surface, almost being absorbed. The earth changes colour several times and there are moments I question whether the glow I see is coming from the sun or, from within the rock itself. 


It’s relatively early, we reach the base of Uluru. We’re greeted by a sign which reads; “… the climb is not prohibited, but we prefer that, as a guest on Anangu land, you will choose to respect our law and culture by not climbing.”

In Anangu law climbing this rock without proper ritual is not allowed. I read this sign, i’m reminded of this statement from the cultural centre - 

“There are sacred things here, and this sacred law is very important. Government law is written on paper. Anangu law is in our heads and in our souls. We don’t put our law onto paper. It was given to us by our fathers and mothers, to hold onto in our heads and in our hearts”. 

There are twenty-one people on our tour, twenty-one people following a similar path but each on a different journey. Each pilgrimage leaving its tracks. It is of course up to an individual to follow the path that they believe to be right for them. I’m proud to say that my path, along with nineteen other travellers does not include a steep 800m hike, crossing a traditional and sacred Anangu ritual path. Instead my path includes excepting an unwritten law from a people who believe we are all connected, from a people have been through enough hurt, from a people who are sharing something sacred with me, from a people I respect. 

By excepting this law my path changes; it now also includes a phenomenal two hour walk around the base of Uluru, witnessing first hand the spaces in which this culture developed. I contemplate the woman python Kunija at the Mutitjulu watering hole where she came to hatch her eggs which she carried around her neck. I relive the story of Lungkata, the dishonest blue-tongued lizard man at the very place he died. I absorb these stories as I decipher them from cave paintings left behind from another time. 

Part of me understands this desire to leave an impression, whether that’s carving your name in the trees, concurring the climb of Uluru or simply taking a picture to tick that box off your bucket list. Being close to nature, to culture isn’t about conquering it, it isn’t about the perfect picture for your Facebook page. This account isn’t about the lasting impressions we make; the footprints in the sand or the condensation names on the mini-bus. This account is about the lasting impression these wonders can make in you.

Being Lost in Australia isn’t about a geographical location. It’s about being lost in yourself, searching for something, and perhaps finding something new.