I approach as the sun withdraws. There are only two of us, the Rock and me. I glance upwards: gorgeous parabolas of stone, ferrous waterways etched in rust. One convex curve of curtained rock is fretted and tinted, purnu, an Aboriginal wood carving.
Around me all is still. I feel as I did as a child when I intruded into my grandparents’ bedroom. No-one found me, but the stillness nearly undid me.
I park the car, hide my keys, and set out, running clockwise. The rock is my companion, watching me, looking down from steeps and heights, not austerely, not unkindly nor yet tenderly. Keeping me in sight, keeping an eye on me.
Everywhere I go on earth I run; I feel the place then, I connect with its earth. I breathe its air. Well, no, not quite everywhere: not in sacred places – not on the Temple Mount, not at the Shrine of Remembrance.
The first time I came to Uluru, I drove here with my Dad. I parked and leaped from the car, crying, See you soon, Dad. Just going for a run to the top.
On the way up I discovered no-one ‘just runs to the top’. Too high, too steep, too tough.
On the way down I encountered an old old man, torturously creeping, pulling himself upward hand over hand by the safety chain. The old man looked up and our eyes met. He smiled. I said Hello Dad.
Preposterous ambitions. Absurd.
Only after descending carefully to the car park did we find the Notice: Anangu prefer that you do not climb the Rock.
Over the twenty years since, I have come here and run, again and again, always to find myself surrounded by crowds drawn to the celebrity rock, the “icon”. The thought grew in me that I was running around a cliché.
But this time I am alone and – beyond doubting – the great silent rock is real, sanctity manifest.
Only self doubt now: Is this alright? Do I offend?
I run alone but doubt keeps pace: What are you doing here?
My day’s work done, my afternoon prayer said, I come at sunset, the day’s dying moment, its moment of truth. That fragment of suspended time when a great peace settles upon the wild places. The earth exhales, blows out the light. And waits for evening.
Your complexion, pitted and scarred. What was your youth, your birth? Those gouges – what violence tore out such chunks? The battered old face, past vanity, gazes down, mute. You don’t say nothing/You must know something…
Ahead and above, a gracile arc of stone, seventy metres high, five metres wide, a bow stretched by the Archer a small way from the mother rock, admits a beam of last light from the vanishing sun. It is a benison, a gift to one alone, an old plodding jogger, come to pay respect.
Around the first bend now, the late sunlight dims behind me, I run deeper into silence. The road, the paved human arteriole that links me to my comfortable world, is long behind. No-one who passes along that road will dream I might be here. Alone, with the great rock.
The walls of stone, fawn in late sunlight, chocolate as I set out, darken, deepen, solidify. The Rock, too dense now for colour, is pure form. Bulky, tremendous, powerful beyond my thought or racing fear, my companion is sheer presence. And I, grateful ant, scurry about its foot.
I can barely see the path at my feet. The stars are a carpet of light, unspeakably ancient. The sliver of new moon, a lovely silvery skullcap that sheds no light. This new moon marks the start of the month of Tammuz and the season of lamentation for Jewish people. I look at the great wall on my right: What sorrows do you weep for?
Onward, racing for heat to fight the settling chill, I hear my hard breathing, louder than my soft footfall. Onward, beyond fear of the dark – that one element left to me from distant childhood – I run. I run because I can, I run now because I must; to stop invites dangerous cooling. And were I to stop I’d hear the bush, its frightening noises.
I run, hoping not to stumble and fall and fracture a weight-bearing bone. One fall, one small break, a night alone, a body frozen and still, to be found in the morning by innocent early tourist or earlier, by carrion-feeding raptor.
The stars show me my way, I run on and I do not fall.
Shapes loom at my shoulder on my pathless left side. Unseen, the remainder of the planet keeps pace with me in darkness.
I lose the path and run blindly on. I stumble at speed, my thoughts rush before me, the sloping earth, ragged here and jagged, rushes upwards at me, my skin shrinks in foreknowledge of the tearing, the scraping. But my downhill-speeding legs keep pounding, one past its brother, now brother past the other, and legs connect to feet that hold. I do not crash. I breathe my thanks, and I slow, get my bearings and trot chastened limbs towards mother rock.
Yes, this is a mother place, sacred for women, the Mutitjulu Pool, ever green and cool, in all heat and glare.
I look up. The great bowl above me is crowded with stars. One patch alone of unlight, upon my right. Casserole shaped mammoth, you alone, you starless immensity, you must be Uluru.
You kept me company. You brought me home.