A circuit around the base of Uluru, with interpretative signage and access to Mutitjulu Waterhole, Kantju Gorge and multiple caves with rock art.
An alternative to the (now closed) Uluru Climb, the Uluru Base Walk is a great way to experience the sheer size of Uluru. It was formerly called Ayers Rock, when by the surveyor William Gosse (who sighted the landmark in 1873) named it in honour of the then Chief Secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. Uluṟu is the name given by to it by the local Pitjantjatjara Aṉangu people, which was local family name by the senior traditional owners, and formally adopted in 1993 under a dual naming policy.
The traditional starting point is the Mala carpark on the western side of Ulura, and it’s recommended that you to do the walk in the early morning, walking clockwise. I’m doing the walk in the late morning, walking counter-clockwise, which is a bit more shaded as the sun gets higher in the sky (but being April, the maximum temperature around midday is only 30 degrees). Walking anti-clockwise, the first section is the Lungkata walk, which is considered one of the most geologically impressive and visually diverse sections of the Uluru base walk. It’s the same starting point as the Uluru Climb – which you can see heading up the rock – that is currently closed due to high winds.
The western side of Uluru is the steepest one, with the sheer rock face marked by caves and black streaks from the very occassional waterfalls that form after heavy rain. One of these caves is the Lungkata Cave, the object of one of many Aboriginal stories…
Interpretative signage explains the story of Lungkata, the cheeky and dishonest blue-tongued lizard man who came to Uluru from the north.
At Uluru, Lungkata camped in a cave high on the western face, looking out over where the Cultural Centre is today. He hunted around the southern base of the rock, where he came upon a wounded kalaya (emu), still dragging a spear from another hunt. Lungkata knew that the wounded bird belonged to other hunters and it would be wrong for someone else to kill it and eat it, yet this was exactly what he did. He then began cutting it up and cooking it.
The two panpanpalala (bellbird hunters) who had wounded the kalaya were not far behind. Seeing the smoke from Lungkata’s fire, they came up to him and asked if he had seen their bird. Hiding the pieces of kalaya behind him, Lungkata lied and told the two hunters that he had seen nothing. Disappointed, they walked off, but when they located the tracks of the kalaya they guessed what had happened.
Meanwhile, Lungkata gathered up what he could carry of the bird and raced westwards to his permanent camp, dropping pieces of meat behind him. You can still see the kalaya’s thigh at Kalaya Tjunta, just north of the Ikari cave near Mutitjulu Waterhole. The trail Lungkata left was easy to follow, and the two panpanpalala caught up with him. The hunters made a huge bonfire under the slow, fat lizard as he struggled upwards to his camp in a cave up high. Lungkata, the greedy and dishonest thief, choked on the smoke and was burnt by the flames. He rolled down, leaving strips of his burned flesh stuck to the rocks he touched. As his flesh came off, Lungkata got smaller and smaller, until eventually he became a small solitary stone.
The smoke and ash from the fire still stain the side of Uluru’s steep slopes above Lungkata’s body. Lungkata reminds us what happens to the greedy and dishonest. [Source: Parks Australia]
Towards the southern tip of the rock is Pulari, one of three culturally sensitive or sacred women’s sites that are around the rock.
Kuniya walk and Mutitjulu Waterhole
A side-track on the southern side of Uluru goes from the Kuniya carpark to Mutitjulu Waterhole; this is a popular short walk.
Just after turning off the main (Uluru Base Walk) track is the Teaching Cave (where the Anangu elders taught boys how to travel through the bush, track and hunt for their food) and Kulpi Mutitjulu or the Mutitjulu Cave (below) which is the family cave. Many generations of Anangu families camped here.
The track enters a shaded area, with tall grasses and red gum trees supported by the nearby waterhole.
The Mutitjulu Waterhole is a permanent water spring, at the base of Uluru, which provides a natural source of water to flora and fauna in the area and supports many diverse animals and plant species.
Around the Mutitjulu Waterhole is the presence of two ancestral beings: Kuniya, the woman python, and Liru, the poisonous snake.
The Kuniya and Liru story occurs on different sides of Uluru, but their deadly battle took place near Mutitjulu Waterhole.
The Kuniya woman came from far away in the east to hatch her children at Uluru. She carried her eggs strung around her neck like a necklace and brought them to rest at Kuniya Piti on Uluru’s north-east corner. There she left the eggs on the ground. Kuniya camped at Taputji and hunted in the nearby sandhills. As she left and entered her camp, she formed deep grooves in the rock. These grooves are still there. One day, Kuniya had to draw on all her physical and magical powers to avenge the death of her young nephew, also a Kuniya. He had enraged a group of Liru, or poisonous brown snakes, who travelled from the south-west to take revenge on him. They saw him resting at the base of Uluru and rushed upon him, hurling their spears. Many spears hit the rock face with such force that they pierced it, leaving a series of round holes that are still obvious.
The poor Kuniya, outnumbered, dodged what he could but eventually fell dead. When news of the young python’s death reached his aunt on the other side of Uluru, she was overcome with grief and anger. She raced along the curves of the rock to Mutitjulu Waterhole, where she confronted one of the Liru warriors, who mocked her grief and rage. Kuniya began a dance of immense power and magic. As she moved towards the Liru warrior she scooped up sand and rubbed it over her body. Her rage was so great that it spread like a poison, saturating the area at that time. In a fearsome dance she took up her wana, or digging stick, and struck the head of the Liru. But her anger was now beyond restraint, and she hit him again across the head. He fell dead, dropping his shield near Mutitjulu Waterhole, where Kuniya herself remains as a sinuous black line on the eastern wall. The blows she struck are two deep cracks on the western wall, and the Liru’s shield, now a large boulder, lies where it fell. [Souce: Parks Australia]
You can see the series of spear holes, high up on the rock face…
The next section of the Base Walk, along the souther side of Uluru, doesn’t have an Aboriginal name.
The track passes through tall grass and sparse trees, supported by a few small waterholes: Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park is home to more than 400 different plants, including several rare species.
Towards the eastern end of Uluru, the track follows the base of the rock. You get a sense of the size of the monolith from the tiny figure standing at the base: Uluru is technically a an inselberg, or “island mountain”. While Uluru rises 348 metres above the surrounding plain, most of its mass is underground – the rock extends 2.5km below the surface! The Northern Territory Geological Survey in 2018 calculated the weight of Uluru (for the ABC TV series Catalyst) as 1,425,000,000 tonnes – and that is just the (small) part above the ground!
At the eastern-most corner of Uluru are two more sacred sites: Kuniya Piti (where men’s ceremonies were held) and Taputji, a separate site a short distance away from the main rock (where where the Mala women collected grass seeds to make nyuma or seedcake, and where the tracks of the Kuniya can be seen as she slithered past to go hunting each day).
North-east face walk
The track now continues north-east, away from Uluru, along what is called the North-east face walk. Running from Kuniya Piti to the Kitchen Cave, this is the the longest stretch of the Uluru base walk. It’s a culturally sensitive area, with the rock formations of the north-east face representing creation stories that should only be learned in person and containing some of the rock’s “most mysterious formations”. Due to the sacred sites along this section, I’ve taken few photos and no close-up images of Uluru.
One of the creation stories centres around the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) people, who came from the north and were attacked by the evil spirit – a huge devil-dog called Kurpany. Many of the formations and features along the norther face of Uluru represent different parts of this story.
The Mala, rufous hare-wallabies, came to Uluru from the north and the west. They had come for important men’s ceremonies at Uluru. The Mala men decorated a ceremonial pole, the Ngaltawata. A group of senior men then climbed to the top of Uluru and planted the pole at its highest point. You can see the Ngaltawata at the rock’s north-western corner as an almost detached curved pillar of stone. The ceremony had now begun.
The women in the meantime had gathered enough food for everybody. They prepared and stored it in caves at Taputji, a small separate outcrop at Uluru’s north-eastern side. The Mala women and the nyuma, seed-cakes, they made are visible as small stones on top of Taputji. Not long after the men had begun their ceremony an invitation came from the Wintalyka men, the Mulga Seed men, in the west to attend their ceremonies.
But once a ceremony has begun it must be completed without interruption. The Mala men had to turn down the invitation, but their refusal enraged the Wintalyka men, who used powerful magic to construct an evil monster called Kurpany. Kurpany was sent to wreak havoc on the Mala ceremony. The Mala women, camped for the night, did not hear the monster’s approach.
Luunpa, the kingfisher woman who lives at Ininti waterhole, screamed out a warning just in time and the women fled, right into Malawati, the place where the men were performing their ceremony. The arrival of the women ruined the ceremony, and the monster attacked two Mala men and devoured them.
In great fear and confusion, the Mala men and women fled many hundreds of kilometres to the south with the monster in hot pursuit. At Ininti waterhole Luunpa still keeps watch, but she is now a large rock. Just above her Kurpany’s footprints are deeply impressed into the rock, striding towards the east and south. Malawati, where the Mala men were attacked, remains as a honeycomb of horizontal shallow caverns.
The footprints of Kurpany and the imprints of the dead Mala warriors are permanently imprinted on the north-east face of Uluru at the sacred site of Tjukatjapi, a “honeycomb of horizontal shallow caverns”.
The Base Walk track heads towards the north-west corner of Uluru, where it follows the road for a short distance.
The last (or first) section of the Uluru Base Walk is the Mala Walk, on the western side. The highlight is Kantju Gorge, where a boardwalk from the Base Walk goes up to the sheer rock face of Uluru.
The Kantju Gorge has a spring at the base of tall cliffs, discoloured by a waterfall that runs after rain. Like the Mutitjulu Waterhole, the water supports tall trees and ground plants – a welcome relief after the northern and exposed part of the walk.
There are a number of caves in this area that you can visit:
- Old People’s Cave where old people (who were too old to participate in the men’s ceremonies) would rest, cook and tell stories.
- Men’s Business Cave where the Mala men conducted their secret business
- Kitchen Cave where the women would cook (flat rounded areas were used to pound seeds with round stoness to produce flour for baking flat bread) and pass on cooking knowledge to girls
- Mutitjulu Cave (below), a family cave where children were taught the stories that were passed down by word-of-mouth.
It’s a great walk around one of Australia’s most iconic land features; you could complete the walk in a couple of hours, but it’s worth allowing 3-4 hours to explore all the sites and features along the 11km circuit. If you’re short of time, at least visit the Mutitjulu Waterhole and Kantju Gorge.
0.0km Uluru "Mala" carpark. Start Lungkata walk
2.2km Junction with Kuniya walk to Mutitjulu Waterhole
2.4km Mutitjulu Waterhole
2.6km Base Walk
4.8km Emergency Radio. Start of North-east face walk
9.4km Junction with Kantju Gorge and start of Mala Walk
10.9km Mala carpark
|Location||Uluru Mala carpark|
|Distance||11km loop. 3-4 hours.|
|Season||All year – early morning or late afternoon best|
|Map/s||Interactive topographical map [AllTrails]|
|Resources||Parks Australia – the Uluru Base Walk is divided into four sections:
Kuniya walk and Mutitjulu Waterhole
North-east face walk