The massive, rust-red rock rising from the dry ground in the middle of Australia is a sight that leaves most people in awe. Indeed, it's such a unique structure that the Anangu tribe, an Aboriginal people of Australia, have considered it a sacred site for 10,000 years or more.
Uluru goes by two names. The common name is Ayers Rock, named after Sir Henry Ayers by William Gosse in 1873. However, the Aboriginal name for the rock, Uluru, is its official name. No matter what you call it, it's clear this vividly red monolith is a popular destination for travelers. For those who won't be going to Australia any time soon, you can still explore the site, thanks to Google. To get a sense of how inspiring this place is — and why it matters — this Street View video is a wonderful place to start.
Here are some things worth knowing about this special place — including how to virtually walk around the soaring tower of sedimentary rock.
1. Uluru is a sacred place
Uluru has a rich geological history but also a rich cultural history. The monolith is a holy place for the Anangu tribe, who have been in the area for around 10,000 years.
"Aboriginal culture dictates that Uluru was formed by ancestral beings during Dreamtime," explains Uluru Australia. "The rock’s many caves and fissures are thought to be evidence of this, and some of the forms around Uluru are said to represent ancestral spirits. Rituals are still often held today in the caves around the base where 'No Photography' signs are posted out of respect."
Artwork on the rock dates back at least 5,000 years, possibly more, and as Parks Australia explains, the drawings are not frozen in time: "Anangu have a living culture, this symbolism is still used in sand painting, wooden craft making, body painting and modern artworks today."
After many thousands of years as a sacred ancestral place for Aboriginal people, Uluru along with neighboring geological formation Kata Tjuta, were excised to create the Ayers Rock Mt Olga National Park. It took decades of campaigning for the area to be returned to the Anangu, who are now recognized as the rightful owners. In return, the Anangu leased the land back to Parks Australia so it could continue to be one of the celebrated spots in the Australian parks system.
In 2017, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park Board of Management unanimously voted to close the site to climbers, and in October 2019, that came to pass and the Anangu traditional owners celebrated at the base, according to ABC News. The move was made out of respect for the site's cultural importance.
"It is an extremely important place, not a theme park like Disneyland," board Chairman Sammy Wilson said in an address to the board when they voted. "If I travel to another country and there is a sacred site, an area of restricted access, I don't enter or climb it, I respect it. It is the same here for Anangu. We welcome tourists here. We are not stopping tourism, just this activity."
It's not the biggest monolith in the world
Many think Uluru is the largest single chunk of rock on the planet, but that's a misconception. Mount Augustus in Western Australia is actually the largest monolith around. Though it can't lay claim to this superlative, Uluru is more than simply a monolith.
Uluru is an inselberg, a geological term that literally means an island mountain. Seeing the huge rock rise up from the flat surrounding land, the term makes perfect sense. But how did it get there?
The location where Uluru stands was an area where sand was deposited during the rapid erosion of surrounding mountains around 600 million years ago. Because the mountain ranges formed quickly and there was no plant life to slow erosion, materials were deposited quickly. Then, the transformation began. ABC Science explains:
"After this period of rapid mountain building and erosion the centre of Australia turned into an inland sea… At around 400 million years ago the sands and gravels of Uluru and Kata Tjuta were so far down that they were well lithified or knitted together, changing from sediment into rock. Another mountain-building event — the Alice Springs Orogeny — began around this time, folding the rock and further compressing them… Over millions of years the Alice Springs Orogeny created the great big folds that are visible when you fly over Central Australia today, and in the process further folded and turned the rocks that make up Uluru and Kata Tjuta."
After millions of years, Uluru is what's left from the constant erosion of the surrounding land and the rock itself. Because the rock that forms Uluru is so hard, it's more resistant to erosion than everything around it. Millions of years of polishing from wind and rain hav shaped Uluru into the iconic structure it is now.
While you know how Uluru was formed, you might be wondering how it got its amazingly vivid color. The rock that forms Uluru has a high iron content, so while the rock really has a grayish color, the oxidation that occurs with weathering turns the surface rust red.
Most of Uluru's mass is underground
Standing at 1,141 feet tall, 2.2 miles long and 1.2 miles wide, Uluru is a truly massive piece of rock. And yet most of Uluru is actually underground. Though it looks like it was set down on the landscape, Uluru isn't like a boulder that rolled into place and mostly sits above ground. Rather, the rock is more like an iceberg, with some of its mass above the surface but much of it remaining below. More than 1.5 miles of the rock is believed to lie beneath the ever-eroding earth, though no one knows for certain how far it goes.
Uluru is a UNESCO World Heritage site
Uluru is a popular tourist destination, with many accessing the area to celebrate the landscape and the culture surrounding the rock. The Uluru Base Walk that runs around the entire base of the rock. (Photo: Maurizio De Mattei/Shutterstock.com)
Not only is Uluru recognized unofficially as a truly special spot, but the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park as World Heritage site, a prestigious designation. According to Parks Australia:
It is one of the few properties in the world to be dual-listed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) for outstanding natural values and outstanding cultural values. The park was first inscribed on the World Heritage list in 1987, when the international community recognised its spectacular geological formations, rare plants and animals and exceptional natural beauty. In 1994, the park became only the second in the world to be acclaimed for its cultural landscape as well. This listing honours the traditional belief systems as part of one of the oldest human societies on earth. We have a responsibility to protect the park's World Heritage values. Traditional knowledge is combined with western science in caring for country.
You can visit it on Google Street View
If you can't travel to the outback to see Uluru in person, you can still see a significant amount of it thanks to Google. The Street View Trekker is a camera system worn by hikers who are putting spectacular spots on our planet online, one step at a time. Uluru is the latest location to be put on Google Street View, where people can wander about virtually and explore what the site has to offer.
The Telegraph explains how the images come together:
"The images, taken by Google’s Street View Trekker (a backpack-like camera system) with 15 lenses, were captured over the past two years in collaboration with the park’s traditional Anangu owners, Parks Australia and the Northern Territory Government, according to the Anangu people’s traditional Tjukurpa law, which prohibits certain sacred sites around the base of the rock from being photographed. Viewers have access to around 40 per cent of the rock and its surrounding sites, including views of the Talinguru Nyakunytjaku, the winding trail of the Kuniya Walk, Kapi Muṯitjulu (waterhole) and ancient art at Kulpi Muṯitjulu (Family Cave). While users can zoom in for detailed views of the "curves, crevices and textures of Uluru" and its 'glowing gradient of colour', they won’t be able to enjoy views from the top of it, as climbing the rock is discouraged by locals."
You can hop online from anywhere in the world to explore the interactive map of Uluru (an extrapolation of the video at top) to stroll down the paths around it and listen to audio files from the Anangu people as they explain the site's cultural significance, how it was created, traditional law about the site and more. In fact, visitors who explore the site this way may learn more about it and be more appreciative of its rich cultural and ecological significance thanks to the added interactiveness of the virtual map.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in June 2017.