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Oct 19, 2023


Share this article Wintjiri Wiru is a groundbreaking new light and sound show

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Wintjiri Wiru is a groundbreaking new light and sound show over Uluru in Australia's Red Centre. Photo / Getty Images for Voyages Indigenous Tourism AustraliaFor Travel - June 6

A groundbreaking new light and sound show over Uluṟu in the heart of Australia is both a brilliant, tech-driven spectacle, and a unique way to connect with the ancient culture of the Red Centre, writes Anna King Shahab.

The key landmarks of the eponymous Uluṟu-Kata Tjuṯa National Park preside majestically over the red surrounds – just one visible layer of a wondrously thick geological history. They began forming around 550 million years ago and got to looking the way they are today some 300 million years ago. As with icebergs, we see only the tips - their actual presence extends far beyond what we can see; these rocks continue below ground for up to 6km. This is learned on the five-minute coach ride from our accommodation at Sails in the Desert, Ayers Rock Resort, to the viewing platform for Wintjiri Wiṟu, the new light and sound show that tells a chapter of the local Anangu Mala story.

The viewing platform lies between Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa, offering breathtaking eyefuls of both, and was built to be low-impact, with no concrete poured and its location shifted at one point so as not to disturb a colony of lizards. Designs by Aṉangu artist Christine Brumby are cut into corten steel structure, lit with a glow once dusk began to fall.

Brumby and other elders from both the Kaltukatjara (Docker River) and Uluru Aṉangu groups worked alongside Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia and Studio RAMUS over several years to create the A$10million Wintjiri Wiṟu. And while the show is undoubtedly a technological wonder, the details of which could fill many pages, the whizz-bangery is really only a vehicle - for a story, for knowledge, that, like those rocks, runs much deeper.

As RAMUS artistic director Bruce Ramus explained, the process began by "Not thinking about the technology at all … By listening deeply and understanding the scale, the space; and listening not just with ears but on many levels. You can listen with your heart. Learning that began the process".

Anangu are part of the world's oldest continuous culture, having lived in the Red Centre for around 60,000 years. Wintjiri Wiṟu offers a rare insight into their tjukurpa - which translates to a belief system, law, and creation story.

After first enjoying cocktails and canapes made from native ingredients - the menu served at the show has been developed by renowned chef and Bundjalung man Mark Olive - we moved to take our seats on the staggered platform. The dark had taken hold and I was thankful for both the blankets provided and the foresight to pile on an extra layer. The crisp air was invigorating, and the clear, quiet sky the perfect stage for what was about to begin.

The show starts with an inma (ceremony), channelling through hidden surround-sound speakers and leading into narration in both English and the Aṉangu local language Pitjantjatjara. This runs alongside the visual rendering, which sees more than 1100 drones take to the sky each night, programmed to perform intricate choreography working with lasers and projection.

The sky canvas lit up with designs relaying tjukurpa, telling of an ancient feud. In the story, the Mala people (named for the rufous hare-wallaby of the area), were in the middle of an inma when they were attacked by a people from the west, who sent an evil spirit that took many forms – tree, rock, bird. These disguises appeared before us, they rose and fell, came together and shattered in the sky. Eventually, the spirit morphed into Kurpany, the gigantic devil dog. It loomed above us, 200m high and 60m deep, appearing three-dimensional, with a fearsome snarl and red eyes. Warnings by the Kingfisher Woman went unheeded and Kurpany killed many Mala men; the remaining Mala fled south and the next chapter of their story is taken up there. The Kingfisher Woman keeps watch today as a large rock, and Kurpany still stalks the land, his paw prints tracking across the land.

It's the largest permanent drone show anywhere in the world, it's been custom-designed to withstand the harsh desert landscape, and it's wondrous.

Build on the Wintrjiri Wiṟu experience with these activities…

The Mala Walk takes you along the base of Uluru, from the Mala carpark to Kantju Gorge. Daily free guided sessions with park rangers currently set off at 10am. We saw amazing rock art and marvelled at how many layers upon layers of designs must have built up over thousands of years. Some of the designs visible were motifs familiar from Wintijiri Wiṟu the night before, and from modern local artwork – motifs central to the Mala story depicting ancestral beings and local land formations. Various companies run tours that include the Mala Walk, including SEIT Outback Australia. We were very lucky to do the walk with Anangu man Sammy Wilson whose sharing of tjukurpa was invaluable – while Wilson doesn't guide the Mala Walk regularly, he does run the Patji Tour for SEIT, visiting surrounding lands.

Translating as ‘beautiful dune’, Tali Wiṟu is a unique fine-dining experience atop a sand dune under the desert sky, with a mostly - or sometimes entirely - indigenous staff. We were collected from Ayers Rock Resort by an all-terrain coach and on the 20-minute drive across the desert to the dinner site, we were treated to a potted history of the region's geology, flora and fauna by our guide, Bundjalung man Joseph King. Arriving at the dune prior to sunset, we were greeted by waitstaff with Champagne and canapes and we took in the incredible view to Uluṟu and Kata Tjuṯa. Head chef Marcellus Ah Kit, who grew up in Alice Springs, introduced our group to local produce he uses in his kitchen via a colourful platter of berries, leaves, succulents, and fruits.

As the sun sank below the horizon, casting its famous purplish hues on to the landscape, we sat down to a four-course meal – highlights included Moreton Bay bug with wattle seed, ice plant and wasabi, and toothfish with vermouth cream and desert oak (one of the dominant specimens of tree in the region, it sends a tap root metres down in its adolescence, yearning to survive).

The canopy of stars grew more vivid as the sky blackened, and King brought out his laser pointer for an astronomy class, weaving in knowledge from ancient cultures, including the indigenous people whose shifting maps of the stars guided hunting and foraging through the seasons. And, as we sat round the fire pit with boozy hot chocolates to finish the night, King took us through various indigenous tools and their uses.

The Gallery of Central Australia finally opened its doors last year and is handily located beside Ayers Rock Resort's Desert Gardens complex. Around 20 local communities are represented in the works for sale. Many of these communities are in extremely isolated areas with no visitation. GoCA enables an income for their artists, who are not only hoping to make a living but are sharing their tjukurpa, driven to keep their culture alive. We sat in on a fascinating yarning circle in which we heard Anangu woman Denise Brady talk about why she paints.

"When I was a girl, my grandma would tell me a story every morning and every evening and she would start drawing that story on the ground, and weaving things, making things," she said. "She would sing the story and tell the story with what she made … and I would listen. She passed away and it was my turn to draw the picture. I hear grandma when I paint … we’re carrying the voices of our old people with us."

Acknowledgement: An̲angu share the Mala story, from Kal̲t̲ukatjara to Ulur̲u, through a drone, sound and light show designed and produced by RAMUS.




Qantas flies from Auckland to Ayers Rock Airport, via Sydney.


Wintijri Wiṟu can be experienced as a premium three-hour sunset dinner with paired wines, priced at AU$385pp, or a 90-minute after-dark show, with wattleseed popcorn and gelatos, for AU$190pp.


Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia.

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