It’s near zero and I am sitting on a deck, wrapped up warm with a blanket around my shoulders, staring at a night sky with impossibly iridescent stars. They sparkle in a way that can only be found when you are thousands of miles away from anywhere. Out of the night sky the menacing face of the devil dog (‘Kurpany’) forms above us, hundreds of metres tall, his eyes are angry, fiery red as he shifts colours in his rage from purple, pink and yellow. He then opens his mouth and moves towards us… it’s eery, thrilling and deeply spiritual.
This is Wintjiri Wiru, the first show on earth of this kind.
I am here in Uluru, the ancestral heartbeat of Australia. Home to the beginning of creation and the lands of Anangu – who are one of the oldest continuous living cultures in the world. In an epic voyage of time, trust and understanding where two cultures have come together. This story came from the land, it came from listening deeply, in many dimensions, not simply with ears but with hearts. The story has many layers but the DNA of the show was always story first, tech second.
Wintjiri Wiru is a light show which has taken over $10m and three years to bring to life the ancestral Anangu story through ground breaking technology with drones, lasers and light.
On opening night it’s hard to comprehend everything that led to this moment which for the next five years will redefine what it means to be the best in the world at creating repeatable immersive cultural experiences. I am here for two days to see the show but also learn what it’s taken to get it here. Let’s begin…
The Greatest Show on Earth – Opening night
A bus picks up from Sails in the Desert. The advice is to wear our winter woollies! It takes around 10 minutes to get to the site. It’s 5pm as I first set foot on red earth (advice – definitely don’t wear white!). We head out on suspended wooden walkways which weave upwards in soft curves, lifting us from the desert floor as we move towards a natural sand dune, perfectly positioned to be our viewing platform to the most notable prima ballerina that ever lived, Uluru.
The platform was moved from its original site following environmental studies on the area which revealed 14 endangered lizards were happily nesting. Much like how Bondi beachfront is at a premium, it is not surprising that these savvy lizards also love their rock views. It’s heartwarming to learn the attention to detail from gathering data on the impact of the site location on many aspects: the sound of drones on wildlife to arial and drone fall impacts, affectionately known as ‘dead chickens’. Even the pillar foundations for the platforms are sand drilled. When the show leaves, literally there will be nothing but a footprint which will be blown away in the wind.
I have seen Uluru a thousand times through other people’s lens. I was brought up in the UK and coming face to face with this beauty seemed like an impossible dream. She was my companion, a coffee table book, a screen saver and a bucket list item. Now I am here. Now I am saying hello to the red earth diva who I had yet to meet.
Uluru is majestic. Our group is instantly drawn to her like fireflies. The suspended wooden deck holds over a hundred people with layered levels to the earth bejewelled by rolled up red blankets, ready to comfort and cuddle us in the hours which will unfold. On opening night 10 elders of the working group and others from the indigenous community are gathered to our left as we are welcomed with Bimbagen sparkling wine, music and a performance of dance.
Sunset Dining Experience
Attention to detail is everywhere. Indigenous & TV chef Mark Olive, known for his work on The Outback Café, A Chefs Line and On Country Kitchen, was engaged to craft a dining experience to showcase Australian flavours.
The cocktails are circulating. I take a sip of the delicious Spiced Apple Tonic which is created from indigenous-owned Beachtree Distilling Company using organic Koala Gin. For purely professional purposes I also try the Jarrah Boy Golden Sun larger (refreshing and zesty) though I could have opted for a non-alcoholic range from Sobah breweries but I am thankful for a bottle of Yaru Water.
Canapes are being served thanks to man-high ovens whose contents are distributed in a military style operation. My first canape is a palm sized half of gin-infused cucumber. Now, I have to say that I thought it was topped with a herb of marjoram and black pepper, um, NO, it is actually green ants (RIP) with celery salt. Sometimes it’s best not to know? The menu leans on meat, as people are chomping down on truffle brioche sliders of blackened mountain pepper beef fillet. One of the most popular bites liked by our crew were the crocodile curry pies with creamy lemon myrtle (“um..er, wot it’s not chicken?”). Vegetarians and gluten free are catered for with foodie preferences gathered in advance. My mushroom pie was sadly past its best, due to the thick overcooked pastry hiding a small portion of umami laden mushroom medley. However, an orgy of pink bun- pink braised beetroot combo was pretty good and the flan of sweet potato and warrigal greens was delicious.
Whilst all eyes are on the rock, the sunset show is actually happening behind us as we farewell the day and greet the night. The earth is glowing and the sky changes into millions of colours which refract across the earth and rock face. There are times you don’t want to lose being in the moment because you are trying to capture it on your phone or camera. This is one. It is also nature’s lesson in 360 appreciation. Beauty is all around us.
We are asked to take our seats. It is here that on a normal night you might be enjoying an additional hamper of savoury goodies. With two shows a night and two price points. You can choose your own adventure.
Wintjiri Wiru Show
First we hear the voices. They surround us. Our audio companions include Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages. As we listen to a traditional Inma (ceremony) soundtrack which was recorded by local Anangu community members.
The sky is dark, and we hear a man’s deep voice…“The story begins with the Marla people conducting the Inma…”
Uluru is dark against a softly sleeping sky. Light projections illuminate imaginary fires across the landscape. It starts first on earth, then rises to the heavens.
RAMUS have produced and designed the show. Over one thousand drones (actually 1269 to be precise) become our story tellers as silence descends. There are two fleets of drones and three pilots hidden from view the technology to withstand these conditions meant that everything was built from scratch. The first 400 drones lift from their hidden sleeping spot in the distance and like a ballet, in the second act the next 800 take over.
The story is one told to children as the story of Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) takes hold. There is an invitation to join another inma. A huge devil dog called Kurpany was created to destroy the Mala as they could not join the ceremony.
Luunpa, the Kingfisher Woman, warns them (this is another history lesson to listen to women!) The evil spirit shape-shifts into many forms trees, rocks, and birds, and ultimately, Kurpany kills many of the Mala men, (not the women), and they flee South from Uluru. These women are still living here at Uluru today. The Kingfisher Woman still keeps watch, and the dog’s footprints are embedded in Uluru.
The sky is illuminated over the next 22 minutes, the ground morphs from red flames into blue rivers, round pools, and green forest. Trees become airborne, blue birds fly above us and the devil dog hunts us overhead intertwined with a galaxy light years away and we are immersed in sound.
It’s difficult to describe how you feel when the sky returns to black, your ears adjust to nothing then the murmur of others returning to their souls to reality. What just happened?
Collaboration and Anangu Working Group
The next day, I listen to one of the women from the 10 senior Anangu working group who collaborated with Voyages Indigenous Australia to ensure their stories were brought to life in the right way. She spoke movingly of how when she was a child her grandmother drew, spun yarn, weaved, spoke and sang the stories. Today she is the story teller to her family, but bigger than that, these elders are choosing to share their ancient stories with us and the world. They don’t want to be the generation where this ends.
To us the stories might not make sense. But one elder explained to me… “If I went to your house, you might invite me to your living room, but would you show me your bedroom, the draws in your wardrobe? No.” The right to knowledge is earned over time. Some stories are women’s business, some are mens. Quite frankly some stories are none of our business. They are theirs.
That night she was part of the experience, she looked up and could hear her ancestors talking to her, her grandmother’s voice.
That night we all looked up, we learned, we heard and we have returned forever changed…
Ayers Rock Resort
Sunset Dinner – A three hour experience including gourmet canapes and cocktails performance followed by a selection of hot and cold native inspired dishes paired with premium Australian wines. $385pp.
After Dark – Is the second show of the evening. It is a one hour-long experience including light refreshments followed by the show. $190pp.
Statement: Anangu share the Mala story, from Kaltukatjara to Uluru, through a drone, sound and light show designed and produced by RAMUS.