Monday, October 26, 2009

Sunrise and shade-set at Uluru

Shade – meaning that which is to sunlight as black is to white (not tonal gradation) – is a mostly blank spot in the Australian consciousness. The jolly swagman made sensible use of it, but Dorothea Mackellar couldn’t see the shade for the sunlight-sucking trees, despite otherwise being fond of clichéd dichotomies#. In modern times, shade has been domesticated into the amorphous and everywhere – shade-cloth and shade-sails – and the nowhere/too-hard-basket, viz the 95% or so of new houses built since the 1970s (when the basics of passive solar orientation of houses became something a 12-year-old kid would know) apparently designed for maximum summer (and minimum winter) sunlight-sucking. My kingdom for an eave – to the north, of course, and casting a 30° shadow – may be the catch-cry of the small minority who care about such things: us urban, surly neo-swagpersons (“eaves-spotters”?).

In nature, shade is justly largely synonymous with trees – from the architectural splendour of the banyan (here I mean the shaded spaces, not the living skeleton) to the aloof, but nonetheless welcome, tessellation of the desert oak (surely the ultimate inspiration for tall, anorexic fashion models worldwide). But everything that is visible and above-ground, not just trees, casts a shadow, of course – arguably most dramatically of all, a large steep-sided rock/mountain.

It should be no surprise that Uluru’s shadows/shade barely rates mention as a prominent feature or attraction for visitors. Indeed, the moving of the rock’s tourist infrastructure from hard against the south (= maximum, partially-permanent shade) and east side (= all-afternoon shade, a la Gold Coast beaches) to well away to the north-west (aka Yulara) was in part a deliberate shunning of the Uluru shade experience, in favour of "our" Sunburnt Country's – only replete with 5-star shade-sailed things – cosy familiarity.

Viewing sunset and sunrise on the rock (from the west and east, respectively) are obvious, actively promoted Uluru attractions. I wonder how many such viewers stop to ponder, or even consciously experience, the several km-long shadow the rock casts at sunset and sunrise on the rock (more or less to the east and west, respectively). Admittedly, the shade experience is a moveable feast, in terms of both real-time (as the shadow lengthens while simultaneously tracking south) and seasonal considerations (June’s sunset shadow trajectories will be many km’s south of December’s, and vice versa).

In seemingly perverse contrast, sunset and sunrise viewing at Uluru have been corralled into officially designated Viewing Points since at least the 1970s, despite wide and deep theoretical viewing arcs, which would allow more or less the same thing to be viewed from an extensive area, providing that there is some elevation at that point. Also, as long as these potential sunset/sunrise Viewing General Areas (if you will) were due west/east (or up to about 20° north thereof) of the rock, they would also be usefully static; that is sunset/sunrise could be experienced from go to whoa at any one point in the area, in any season. Great if you want to do the folding-chair-with-drink-holder thing, of course, and conversely a bizarre, pointless ritual for the highly-mobile, shadow-chasing minority sect.

As it happens, the sunset and sunrise official Viewing Points at Uluru do (or did until very recently) fit neatly into the due west/east to 20° north thereof optimal viewing arc I have proposed. It is hard to be too precise about this, however, because of the rock’s irregular shape (and, to a lesser degree, because these “Points” themselves extend hundreds of metres sideways along an arc, not depth-ways along an axis). What can be stated with confidence is that the sunset Viewing Point is sigificantly further from the rock that the (pre-October 2009) sunrise one (about 2 km vs 1 km), and that, due largely to the rock’s acute angle at its eastern tip, the former allows (or allowed) for better “go to whoa” viewing in summer, but is (or was) equal to the latter in winter.

Enter (finally, you might be thinking) the new official sunrise Viewing Point at Uluru, as opened by federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett on 7 October 2009. This time 3 km from, and (judging from pictures of the opening) about due south-east of the rock, it took a surprisingly long time (at least in the opinion of this hardened eaves-spotter) for the media to twig that the new sunrise location – which provides an excellent view of the southern face (which runs almost due east-west) of Uluru, but nothing at all past the eastern tip – would not be much chop in mid-winter, when the sun would not even glance upon the southern face. The shade-optimising consolations of the new location somehow escaped media notice (caustic sigh), but not so the new location’s dual-purpose view of Kata Tjuta, as well – at 30 km away, another triumph of shadow-less viewing experience engineering (harrumph).

More surprisingly, the second two-weeks-apart stories in the Oz, alluded vaguely to “cultural and sacred sites reasons” for the big move (IMO not “nearby”, as the first story puts it) in the sunrise Viewing Point from 1 km ENE of the rock to 3 km SE of it, while the first story was just-the-facts specific:

“Under traditional law, visitors are barred from taking photos of the rock from the north-east face because it reveals sensitive sites” (penultimate URL).

In case it is not clear, the pre-October 2009 sunrise Viewing Point looked at the north-east face of Uluru both exclusively and closely. This face is also immediately recognisable from any photo by the presence of a hemispherical (not elongated) outline and horizontal (not vertical) banding.

There is much more that could be said about indigenous sensitivities in these matters, but I’ll simply note that official park maps do show seven zones of “cultural significance” (aka “sacred sites”) on and adjacent to the rock, in/of which photography and filming is specifically prohibited. Three of these zones (which at 200m wide, or less, add up to perhaps about 5% of Uluru’s circumference) are on/adjacent-to the north-east face of Uluru, while another three are on the north-west face (which is directly in front of the sunset Viewing Point). The final zone is at the western end of the southern face. It should also be noted that at least one of the north-east face sensitive sites is particularly prominent; i.e. readily discernible even from a distant, whole-of-face omnibus image.

Finally, there seems to have been at least a third, quite different, sunrise Viewing Point at Uluru since the 1970s (I am not sure whether the sunset VP has been equally as mobile and/or controversial). Bruno Zimmerman’s Landscapes of Central Australia (Perth, 1973, unpaginated) has a photo captioned “Uluru-Ayers Rock from sunrise viewing point” apparently taken about 2 km ESE of the eastern tip*, and thereby showing (relatively unusually) both the southern and north-east faces. Another book from the 1970s, Derek Roff’s Ayers Rock and the Olgas (Ure Smith, 1979, p 48) shows two (uncaptioned) sunset shots from what appears to be a similar location as the brand new sunrise Viewing Point. One of these shots, which has cropped out both the sun itself and the distance specks of Kata Tjuta, actually shows Uluru (southern face) in formidable, just-shy-of-monochrome shade. I’m hoping, on behalf of eaves-spotters everywhere, that one day (if perhaps only when we rule the world) this particular image of Uluru will become de riguer – the new black.

# Although in "My Country" Mackellar waxes about the "green and shady lanes" of England (footnote added 27/10/09; body of post also slightly edited on this date).

* Possibly at or near the site of the former ranger station; see Bill Harney, To Ayers Rock and Beyond (1969) Seal Books pp 62, 66, 93-96.

See also related post: The view from Mt Ayers (21 July 2009)

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