March 2022

The Nation Reviewed

Rain on the rock

By Rachel Withers
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The spectacle of Uluru after a storm, and what it might symbolise

The rock – usually so dominant on the horizon, orange on blue, red on lavender, brown on indigo, depending on the time of day – has vanished. As you drive closer, however, Uluru slowly begins to re-emerge from the fog, from the base up, a dense cloud still crowning it like a halo.

It isn’t until right up close that you glimpse the bright white lines streaming down its sides. These dozens of waterfalls are what make seeing Uluru in the rain such an otherworldly experience – even more otherworldly, somehow, than seeing it dry.

Already famed for its changing colours, the drenched sandstone takes on new shades: deep burgundy from the water and the cloud cover; ghostly silver from the clouds of mist drifting around it. But it’s the white waterfalls – runoff from pools at the top of the rock – that seem to glow. The heaviest cascades spray droplets into the air, while the lightest ones trickle through, finding crooked pathways down crevices in the stone. Sometimes the water hits another divot and begins pooling again, another waterfall beginning at the lip of that pool, a process repeating again and again as rainwater travels hundreds of metres along the rock to reach the ground.

Uluru’s waterholes, often sitting low or empty, are replenished. At the Mutitjulu Waterhole, home of the Wanampi ancestral water snake, local kids make their way down to hang out around the pool. Water-holding frogs, which bury themselves deep underground during dry spells, emerge to breed and feed, calling out to one another in a deafening chorus as the rain recharges the ecosystem for plants and animals alike.

The astonishing waterfalls, however, dry up not long after the rain does, the soaked rock left glinting in the sun as blue sky breaks through the clouds.

As to the specific meaning of rain on Uluru for its traditional owners, the Anangu people, much of their sacred knowledge, Tjukurpa, is reserved only for elders. The Uluru creation stories that are shared with non-Indigenous guides and tourists are kept at a children’s level, and the only thing that feels right to share from conversations with locals is that rain here holds connotations that are found almost anywhere: it can be cleansing, a sign of rebirth and renewal, but it can also be sorrowful, the reflection of a mood.

For the travellers who ordinarily flock here – tourism has remained way down in the past year due to closed borders – rain on Uluru can be a different kind of spiritual experience, a natural wonder, the fulfilment of a lifelong dream for some. While it’s an event that occurs a handful of times per year, usually between November and March (rainfall hit the rock in January and again in early February this year), the breathtaking phenomenon never fails to make headlines, with the latest amateur footage becoming a kind of staple “novelty” weather story on the likes of CNN and the BBC.

The first people to capture it on film, reportedly, were Mike and Mal Leyland, whose popular TV adventure program Ask the Leyland Brothers first introduced many Australians to the outback. Their footage of Uluru in flooding rain, taken as part of their 1966 documentary Wheels Across a Wilderness, became the most famous they ever took, Mal later said. (The footage includes parts of Uluru that are sacred and would not be filmed today.) The pair opened Leyland Brothers World in 1990, its main structure a crude, 1:40-scale replica of the rock with a few small waterfalls painted on its side. The park soon sent the brothers bankrupt, and the replica, which had been turned into a roadhouse, burnt down in 2018.

The spectacle of Uluru in the rain has even been captured in song. John Williamson’s 1987 “Raining on the Rock” describes it as “an almighty sight to see”. In 1998, Arrernte man Warren H. Williams re-recorded the song as a duet with Williamson, which won Single of the Year at the National Indigenous Music Awards. In Williams’ version, the questionable lyric “I’m proud to travel this big land / like an Aborigine” becomes “as an Aborigine”.

In later years, Williamson described the song as one of his most important. “The ancient nature of the country that was here before any of us is the one thing that can draw us all together, putting religion, politics and race aside,” he said.

It’s a wonderful sentiment, but one that failed to eventuate in 2017 when the federal government rejected the Uluru Statement from the Heart: a momentous call made by Indigenous delegates who had gathered at the rock, and an open invitation to the people of Australia. Like the rain, this could have been a cleansing moment, a point of renewal for the nation’s soul. Whether it is ultimately one of rebirth or sorrow remains to be seen. The rain comes to Uluru a few times a year, but who knows if or when that almighty sight – of First Nations leaders coming together to make a historic entreaty – will come again.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.

@rachelrwithers

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