Uluru, the sacred rock of the Aṉangu people in Australia, is steeped in mythology and history. One of the most important ancestral tales, or Tjukurpa, of the local people of the area surrounding Uluru, involves the Mala people. In May 2023 it was given a global stage with the premiere of Wintjiri Wiru, a story told through technology using lasers, drones and video projections.
"If you ask the Aṉangu how long they've been here they'll say that they have been here since the very first sunrise," says guide or Mark "Chappy" Brittain. We are heading towards Uluru. The ochre colour of the monolith changes once we get closer to multiple shades of orange, patterns emerging on rocks like silvery scales and honeycomb pock marks. Among the red dirt grow dark green mulga trees and spiky pale green spinifex grasses.
Our guide is indulging in a little "Tjukurpa"(pronounced 'chook-orr-pa'). For Aṉangu, the local people of the area surrounding Uluru, Tjukurpa is their foundation and means story time or creation time. It is where they pass on knowledge of everything from the life cycle, which animals to hunt, which berries to eat, marriage rituals and punishments. The stories start off being told at the Tjitji or children's level. It is around Uluru that once upon a time the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) proliferated. This small macropod resembles a large rat or small wallaby with tiny forearms. The mala is a very important animal for the Aṉangu and one of the most important ancestral tales or Tjukurpa involves the Mala people.
The story begins with the Mala people, living at Uluru who are conducting their inma (ceremony). An invitation came to join another inma from the West. They had to decline the invitation as they had already begun their own ceremony and it could not be interrupted. So an evil spirit was created to destroy the Mala's inma. The spirit travelled toward the Mala's inma and the first to see it was Luunpa, the Kingfisher Woman who alerted the group. Her warnings went unheeded. The evil spirit shape-shifted into different forms from trees, rocks, birds before ultimately transforming into Kurpany, the devil dog. When the Mala people finally saw Kurpany they became terrified.
After attacking the men (Kurpany did not attack the Mala women) the remaining Mala fled South from Uluru where they live today. The lesson that this story tells is about the importance of finishing what you've started and to look out for signs of danger.
In May 2023 this tale of the Mala people was given a global stage with the premiere of Wintjiri Wiru (‘beautiful view out to the horizon’). The story is told through technology using lasers, drones and video projections. It is a collaboration between the Aṉangu and RAMUS (media architecture studio) and Voyages Indigenous Tourism.
Bruce Ramus with the drones
It was five years ago that the concept was first ideated. It started with identifying a working group of 10 seniors from the Aṉangu community. These "bush professors" or knowledge bearers guided the process sharing their story with light artist Bruce Ramus of RAMUS. The Canadian born Melbourne based artist has directed the lighting design for artists’ appearances on the Grammys, Oscars and Super Bowl halftime show and was the lighting director for U2's tours from 1992 – 2007.
"The ideas came from the land and it was our job to be open to that," says Bruce. The Aṉangu had final say on all of the artistic elements. "Tech was secondary to the primary story," says Bruce.
The main environmental challenges were heat, cold, wind and dust. The drones themselves weigh just over 300g as these carry just lights and no camera. There are 1,269 drones on site and every day the computer selects 1,200 of those drones to go up in the air. Their dancing path is down purely to GPS programming and each drone does not know it is next to another one. They soar up as high as 100 - 202 metres into the air depending on the strength of the wind and fly as fast as 25kms an hour.
The curved boardwalk up to the show was raised and curves around the endangered skink population that resides near it. No concrete was poured to ensure that it could be easily removed. Solar panels were nixed because they would have too much of an impact. Instead of a projection screen it is just the sky and the spinifex bushes (and Uluru in the distance) that provide a backdrop. Acoustic and nocturnal light studies were undertaken to reduce the impact of the show on the wild life.
The curved walkway set above the ground
Financial compensation was also vital. To do this they had to bridge the gap between the Indigenous world and the Western world. They worked with an Indigenous law firm Terri Janke to protect the use of the Aṉangu's story. Everyone that worked on the site was paid rates set by arts law centre and everyone that worked on set had to undergo cultural training developed by the Aṉangu.
The working group were elated with the results, "When we saw the result we were overcome and so happy. We had nothing to do with technology in the past. It came from our Tjukurpa, our story, our understanding of the world," said Rene Kulitja, on behalf of the Aṉangu working group.
There are two nightly performances of Wintjiri Wiru with two options for food. The first is the three-hour Sunset Dinner for $385 pp. Canapes, cocktails and premium wines are followed by a a selection of hot and cold native inspired in a picnic box paired with wine. There is also a 1.5 hour After Dark show for AUD$190pp where guests snack on wattleseed caramel popcorn and gelatos featuring native ingredients. The food was designed by Indigenous chef Mark Olive of The Outback Café, The Chefs’ Line and On Country Kitchen tv shows.
Chef Mark Olive
Mark's interest in cooking was first piqued when he was 9 years old watching his mother and aunt cooking in the kitchen. When he saw dishes being pulled out of the oven, "It was like magic. All these years later it still fascinates me." The idea that ingredients that he has been working with for 40 years are being tasted by people from overseas thrills him. "This is the pinnacle," he says.
Mark makes as use of local produce as much as possible using products like Beechtree gin, Jarrah Boy beer and Yaru water as well as native ingredients to give broader benefits to indigenous businesses. The menu took 12 months from concept to realisation and one of the most important things was to ensure that there was a stable supply of the ingredients. Seasonality and demand plays a part but also weather.
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We watch the sun set with a view of Uluru while sipping cocktails and nibbling canapes. The crocodile lemon myrtle pie canape is a standout. Mark explains that crocodile is usually a very bland meat but when farmed tastes like chicken because that's what they feed the crocodiles. It can also be quite dry as it is low in fat so likes putting crocodile in a curry.
Clockwise from left: Sweet potato and warrigal green flan (v), blackened mountain pepper beef fillet on a truffle slider brioche and crocodile lemon myrtle curry pie
All guests receive a box of items including blackened pepperleaf kangaroo, a striated and lean smoked emu with saltbush chilli crust, lemon aspen and dill chicken tenderloin, black garlic hummus dip, a delicious bush tomato and capsicum dip, amazing saltbush marinated olives, semi dried tomato with ice plant and paper bark.
From front: Gin-infused cucumber with green ants and celery salt; Tartlet cauliflower mousse, bush tomato pearls and wattle seeds ( V); Braised beetroot on a pink bun (vv) (gf)
There's also lighter fare in the box like an ancient grain salad with quinoa, chickpeas, macadamias nuts, pumpkin seeds and mint as well as a native Waldorf salad with perfectly cooked prawns and native celery, quandong, apple, walnuts and wattleseed. There's also a selection of Australian cheese, Davidson plum and quandong jam, sun muscat relish, caramelised anise myrtle fig and fresh grapes. All of the native ingredients are folded in seamlessly using Mark's decades of experience cooking with them.
While ingredients like citrusy green ants feature on both the gin infused cucumber topped with green ants and celery salt as well as a green ant tart for dessert with coconut macaroon and a box of 4 chocolate truffles.
Green ant tart
Diners can enjoy the picnic boxes while watching the lights and illuminated drones telling the Mala story. It's a strikingly beautiful visual representation of the story made even more incredible by the music. When the Kurpany or devil dog rises high in the air to attack, the effect of the music and lights are so powerful that I recoil as I feel the reverberations of the devil dog's snarl and almost smell its angry, rancid breath. The actual show goes for 20 minutes with narration to help the story along. Afterwards the drones fall away and sail back in the air to their home, ready for another performance.
Kurpany the devil dog
The next morning we rise early for an Uluru sunrise walk. For the Aṉangu, Uluru is their storyboard of creation and every crack, every crevice, every cave tells a story. Uluru stands 368 metres tall and this inselberg, like an iceberg is only partially apparent. Uluru is estimated to reach 3-6kms underground. With wind erosion and rain we are gradually seeing more each year. Uluru's burnt umber colour comes from the rusting of iron found naturally in arkose sandstone.
Photo: Jennifer Ennion
We pass a sensitive area of Uluru where no photography is permitted. Honeycomb patterned indents in the rock form the shape of a skull; come that afternoon, shadows will bring this to life. The skull faces south showing where they Mala people fled and this physical representation of the Mala story of Wintjiri Wiru.
So tell me Dear Reader, have you ever been to Uluru? Would you enjoy the Wintjiri Wiru show?
Where We Stayed: Sails in the Desert
For our visit to Uluru we stayed at Sails in the Desert. This is one of the six accommodation options in the town of Yulara. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with a simple aesthetic with soft furnishings in Indigenous patterns. Indigenous products are used and rooms are rooms are serviced daily by the cheerful staff.
NQN travelled to Uluru as a guest of Voyages but all opinions remain her own.
Anangu share the Mala story, from Kaltukatjara to Uluru, through a drone, sound and light show designed and produced by RAMUS.wi