Heat haze shimmering on the vast, sandy plains of Australia’s Northern Territory can make the first sight of Kata Tjuta seem like a mirage. The 36 rock domes rise sheer from the ground and form a circular cluster. Ernest Giles, an explorer who sighted them in 1872, likened them ‘enormous pink haystacks, all leaning against each other.
From a distance it is difficult it appreciates the enormous height of the tallest dome, Mount Olga. At 1800ft (550m) it is near twice the height of the Eiffel Tower and is the highest point in the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Many of the other domes are half as high again as Uluru, which lies 20 miles (32km) to the east.
Narrow ravines and chasms separate the domes, places where the sun barely reaches and the wind can whistle and howl alarmingly. The ravine at the heart of Kata Tjuta, called the valley of the Winds, is a sheltered, red-walled, green oasis where acacias, mint bushes sands and daisies grow amid spiny yellow porcupine grass. Here and there the trunks of ghost gums shine a gleaming white.
Towering above the Valley of the Winds is the Karingana Lookout, from where, in the early morning, the rich red domes are bated in sifting sunlight and the porcupine grass below glows gold like ripened grain. Kata Tjuta is an Aboriginal name meaning ‘many heads. Like Uluru, it is revered as part of the Jukurpa (pronounced ‘chookoorpa’), the Aborigine code of living. But unlike Uluru, the domes are formed from a mixture of pebbles and boulders rather than solid sandstone. Dense scrub covers the ravine floors, and caves around the bases of the domes are homes for bats and animals, such as the shy wallaroo, that feed mostly in the evening or at night. Aboriginal engravings adorn the cave walls.
Rainfall amounts to only about 8m (200mm) a year, but this fills crevices to form rock pools, which can last a long time in shaded areas. They give life to an amazing number of plants, such as the peach-like quandong, which has waxy blue-green leaves and red, fleshy fruits, which are edible.
Red, green and orange lichens pattern the rocks in some sheltered parts. Lizards and venomous whip snakes hide in rock in their hundreds, taking flight in flocks like a green snowstorm. Goshawks and wedge-tailed eagles soar high above the ravines, and colourful mulga parrots nest in hollow trunks.
In Aboriginal culture certain names are sacred, and within Kata Tjuta, some areas cannot be named due to this. One of these, narrow cleft, has walls pockmarked with caves chiselled from soft rock by rain and wind. On the southeast side of the mountain, a dome records the story of a man attacked by dingoes; a cleft in the rock is said to denote his wound. Large domes on the western side, it is said, represent the fearsome Pangalungas, who were cannibals. A cave in Mount Olga is the den of Wanampi, the serpent that breathed raging gusts of wind through the gorges if tribal laws are infringed, Then he forms himself into a rainbow.
Ernest Giles was the first European to discover Kata Tjuta, and, like many other explorers of his time, he decided to name the newly discovered feature after royalty.. It was said to have been after the Queen of Spain, at the suggestion of his patron, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. As there has never been a Queen Olga of Spain, the story was a subject of controversy for years. It was suggested that the lady in question might be the Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia, who was the grandmother of the present Duke of Edinburgh. The mystery was solved in 1981. An entry dated April 14, 1873, in the Stuttgart State Archives revealed that the queen concerned was the wife of King Karl of Wurttemberg, which is now part of Germany. Kata Tjuta was commonly known as The Olgas until recently.