Monoliths are big single rocks, which is unusual because when you bash into them most big rocky things (eg. hills, mountains, your baking) are made out of a whole lot of separate rocks. So Uluru is all one, and it's pretty big, apparently 9.4km around, and rising 348m above the largely flat land around it – the other 514m are underground.
It was formed as a single big entity amongst all the other bits of rock, but the other stuff has all eroded away down those 348m, leaving it poking out and looking like it was made bigger in the first place.
So it's basically there because the other rock was all easily broken up and worn away, and it isn't, for example there's no scree slopes (that's the crumbled-up rock we're used to struggling up and down on walks around the globe), which is good since they pretty quickly break down the rock. Instead it's just got nice smooth slopes which gently wear away in curves by water action and don't fracture much.
It's definitely not featureless, when you get up close it has a sort of mottled texture, and then there's areas with a whole bunch of holes poked in the rock, as if someone really big had mushed their fingers into the cake while it was being made (which is more or less how the aboriginal creation stories explain a lot of the holes).
You can also see clearly from that photo above late in the day, and from this one that looks a bit like the cybermen from Doctor Who, that the whole rock has a particular slanted pattern running through it – the strata of the original rock, over some enormous period of time slowly pressed up and tilted onto their side, so that the originally horizontal layers have ended up almost vertical if you look at the strata end on.
But it is smooth, and very few bits of the rock have been broken off into separate chunks.
There are waterholes around Uluru, sorta tucked into the curves and folds of it at the base. It rains seasonally, albeit only a small amount (except for the occasional storm), and this being right in the middle of an arid desert the oases are not very large, but in relative terms the waterholes were a huge natural resource and were carefully protected.
Many further rules existed to limit the use of natural resources of other types, such as plant and hunted animals, to levels that the environment could sustain.
I like the way that they looked after things to ensure the resources would remain usable for a long time to come, but I found some of the social restrictions a bit frustrating…
The system of lore was that firstly, tradition about many things could only be told in the place that it applied. For example, the ‘Dreamtime’ creation stories giving the traditional explanation of how Uluru and many of the geological features on it (for example, their non-geological explanation of the holes that appear pressed into the surface) can only be discussed there and by the specific places featured in the story in question.
But it doesn't just extend to religious myths: even things like certain food gathering and preparation practices can only be discussed in the places where such food is gathered and prepared.
More bothersome to an egalitarian like myself (and I think most Kiwis) is that secondly, there were strict traditional gender rules – certain things are “men's business”, and certain things are “women's business”. Not only are certain areas taboo to the other gender, being used for private rituals – nothing unusual there – but it is not permitted to pass certain kinds of knowledge to the other gender, maintaining rigid domestic gender roles within the society.
I don't like that. I realise it's their tradition, but it was tradition in our society, and I don't think that made it any less crappy.
I can only partially sympathise with the view that we should not encourage any change in ‘traditional’ cultures. I don't think that's morally rightful, but then on the other hand I don't think that it ever works properly when one culture imposes its view on another. Firstly, because that tends to turn the whole world into a myopic monoculture which is not healthy (everyone's eggs being in one basket, so if the views turn out to have severe shortcomings, you're all screwed). And secondly, because having rules designed to fake what a dominant culture consider healthy cultural attitudes is not the same thing as the less dominant culture having matured to the point where it feels the same rules (or lack of rules, in this case) are appropriate. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink.
And of course, there's always the risk that the more powerful culture's views will in time be proven incorrect, at least in that context – as has certainly been demonstrated by the extraordinarily short run European-style farming practices managed in Australia before the water table, salinity mobilisation, nutrient runoff, and topsoil destruction absolutely ruined the local ecology (making continuation of the same farming almost impossible), in contrast to the slowly-developed food extraction processes used by the Australian Aborigines.
Still, it is a bit of a jolt to be told that you can't take photos of a certain area (though no-one seems to kick up a fuss when such areas are implicitly included in lower resolution when you take a photo of the whole rock from further back!) and to think that the rules insist some people in your group wouldn't all be allowed to do thing you might be (not that an outsider would be invited to do it anyway).
And while I can imagine that insisting that knowledge be transferred in sight of the objects the knowledge relates to, I can't help but feel that any barriers to information dissemination has the impact of greatly slowing down any possible advances for that group of people – one reason (of many) why geographically isolated cultures tended to be technologically less advanced than those cultures where people could learn from and extend innovation transmitted from other areas and cultures.
The question is, should you climb it? In the end I didn't, because they strongly request that you don't (in not too many years you won't be allowed to), primarily for cultural reasons but also for safety and physical impact reasons.
I have to admit that if it was my own culture I wouldn't really feel any reason not to climb, but as a traveller I feel like I should try and minimize my impact and a big part of that is not making people wish the tourists didn't come!
But a lot of people do climb it regardless. It is a hard slog, and people quite regularly die, still today – the most recent was a guy whose distraught wife was waiting for him at the bottom, whose corpse had to be carted down by a team of rangers.
But it isn't the only rock around the area, which is the impression the marketing material sort of gives you. Maybe if we were allowed to climb Kata Tjuta people would be happier to compromise!
But of course, the same cultural restrictions apply to Kata Tjuta, otherwise known as the Olgas.
I had no idea these even existed before I started preparing for this trip, but they're not too far away from Uluru and you can see one from another if you have a good place to stand.
Uluru is still unique in the immediate area being a single giant rock, and a very monolithic shape, whereas Kata Tjuta is a series of big bumps and is a conglomerate of many small rocks pressed together, whereas Uluru is made from a lot of sand pressed together. The same types of geological processes produced the two formations, but the raw material came from two different alluvial fans (the pans when a river exits a canyon or similar constraint) – one sandy, the other including pebbles and other such stonier material.
So Kata Tjuta looks more like a series of mounds than a single mound as you can see from the first photo there (taken out the plane window), and also in an Wikipedia excellent photo from space where you can see that it's not just one line of rocks as it sometimes appears looking at it from on the ground.
We made a couple of trips out to make the most of our time in the National Park; it's about half an hour down the road from Uluru. I wouldn't really bother doing the short Walpa Gorge Walk unless you are unable to do the longer Valley of the Winds Walk, which provided some spectacular colors as the sun rose up (we had to get up a couple of hours before I function humanly to fit this in!).
There was life there in relative abundance, plants bursting out of cracks in the rock, and birds nesting in the hollows (as on Uluru) and sitting in the trees, and it was really nice being there early to hear the native birdcalls ringing around the canyons before the tour groups arrived (we had a little laugh at the apparently ridiculously misplaced woman wearing high heels and sequined clothes around a bushwalk track).
I'd definitely recommend going if you visit the Red Centre.
Uluru and Kata Tjuta are both inside the so-named National Park and there is a per-person cost for an entry permit, which lasts for several days. You can't camp or stay inside the park, but can freely enter and exit within opening hours.
It is very expensive to stay in the hotels in the area, which form a small village called Yulara. There are cheaper lodge and camping options there (though you would need to deal with the climate if you camp!). Everything's expensive because it has to be shipped in from far away, particularly water, so don't expect much luxury despite the cost (the hotels originally had separate owners and all lost money badly when run in competition, until eventually the government decided to lease the lot to one provider).
As such, you will want to get the most out of your visit as you can.
2 full days is enough to see the stuff in the immediate area, but the way that the tourist hotel prices work if you're there for 3 nights you get a 4th free, so it ended up not being worth us staying further afield for the extra night we wanted to visit the Watarrka National Park, since we were flying in and out of Yulara airport (Alice Springs is a long way away so it doesn't really work out to hire a car from there and drive across).
You almost certainly won't see Uluru from your hotel room, though you can from the mound in the middle of the village roundabout, and it's a short drive to the Park entrance. There didn't seem to be much difference between the main hotel options so we decided based on marginally different reviews.
The food options in Yulara were actually alright, we got supplies from the small supermarket, had alright pizza at the cafe place, and cooked ostrich sausages, crocodile kebabs, and kangaroo fillets off the BBQ. Not cheap but not as bad as you might expect given the hotel prices.
Remember to take a lot of water with you and go easy on the alcohol during your trip – it often gets very hot, even in winter (the best time to visit), though it's also cold at night.
We were there in August which seemed ideal as the weather was not problematically hot, and the desert climate was flowering and at its most lush.
We also visited the cool King's Canyon down the highway in Watarrka National Park.