Australia’s Uluru is so sacred it’s tricky to photograph. This is how Google brought it to Street View.
The sacred nature of the iconic landmark Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, is lost on many tourists — even Australians. That changed this week after Google, working closely with the site’s traditional owners, released interactive imagery of the stunning rock formation and audio of its ancient stories to the world for the first time.
The launch of Google Street View and Story Spheres at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was a result of two years of work and collaboration with the Aangu people, navigating the ancient cultural rules governing the remote site.
That means the images alone are notable, given how cautious the Aangu are about the site being photographed commercially. Tourists are prohibited from capturing certain sacred areas around the rock, due to the belief that its sanctity will diminish if its image is captured.
To the Aangu, who’ve relatively recently reclaimed ownership of the monolith from Australia’s government, Uluru is a place of creation, and the site’s natural features reveal the origins of humanity. Stories and songs about the site, which help express its cultural importance, are part of Google’s interactive Story Spheres experience.
The 360-degree experience allows you to explore certain key trails at Uluru, accompanied with audio stories from the Aangu people — some of which hadn’t been recorded before. (Check it out for yourself here.) It’s a project rooted in the hope of fostering a deeper appreciation of the community that has made these red sands home for 30,000 years.
“In many parts of the world … they make things, they put statues up — it’s a marker of their belief and their culture,” said traditional owner Sammy Wilson, via a translator. “But we have the natural world that holds our belief system.”
Two years ago, Tourism NT — Australia’s Northern Territory tourism board — approached Google about its global Trekker loan program, which allows individuals and organisations to borrow its Street View Trekker backpack to capture a place of cultural, historical or touristic significance.
In the years that followed, Google collaborated with Tourism NT, Parks Australia, the Northern Territory government, and the local Aangu community to build Street View and Story Spheres at Uluru.
For the traditional owners, the project addressed a concern that many of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to the site every year walk away without understanding why it’s so sacred.
Many of the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to Uluru every year walk away without understanding why it’s so sacred.
That’s why in Google’s Story Spheres, you hear Aangu Elder Reggie Uluru singing songs and Wilson telling stories about the site’s creation.
Wander through Kuniya Walk on Story Spheres, for instance, and you’ll hear Wilson explain how his ancestor — the Python Woman — came to form the waterhole, called Kapi Mutitjulu, which greets visitors today.
“Everybody all over the world has their story, they have their culture, and their understanding,” Wilson explained. “I’m hoping if they see this, then it might inspire them to think a little more about Uluru and hopefully they’ll want to come visit here as well.”
These are the culturally important stories Google, and the public, would’ve missed if the company had simply put together a collection of images on Street View.
“We came in with the expectation of doing a regular Street View, in our trekker collection — to have someone just walk through and collect that imagery,” Casey Whitelaw, Google Australia’s director of engineering, explained. “It was only as that engagement with the Aangu community deepened … that we ended up deciding we had to do more than that.”
Uluru’s traditional owners have only recently reclaimed this level of official recognition. In 1873, the explorer William Gosse encountered Uluru and renamed it Ayers Rock after the chief secretary of South Australia.
In the ’50s and ’60s, the site became a vacationing spot, and unregulated motels and campsites littered the rock’s base. Enticed by this tourism, Australia’s government no longer deemed Uluru and Kata Tjuta protected reserves after 1956.
But by the ’80s, the political tide shifted, and the custodianship of the lands were handed back to the Aangu people. They leased Uluru-Kata Tjuta for use as a national park for 99 years, but continue to advise what activities can take place on their land — especially photography. In 1993, both Uluru and Ayers Rock were officially adopted as names for the site.
In line with Tjukurpa law, which underpins how the Aangu live, some locations around the site are considered too sacred to be visited by tourists or photographed, and thus these places aren’t included in the Street View or Story Spheres experience. Additionally, Google said it won’t monetise Story Spheres and Street View at Uluru, and has paid for the time of members of the local community who were involved in the collection of content.
Tourism NT’s Lindsey Dixon performed much of the grunt work of capturing the site for Street View.
For two days, image capture of Uluru started early in the morning, mainly to avoid the tide of tourists whisked through the site daily. Still, Dixon found herself fielding questions about the 20-kilogram (44-pound) Trekker backpack, which she volunteered to carry around to capture the images of Uluru.
“It’s a very international destination, and a lot of people don’t speak English as a second language. So they’d see me and the camera and you can see them pointing, talking to each other,” she said.
“Then they look at you and go ‘Google?‘, ‘Street View?,’ and you’d be like, ‘Yeah!'”
Dixon also captured Street View images from around the Northern Territory, such as Kakadu national park, which will be gradually released online in the future.
“It does get heavy after a full day of carrying it around, but when you’re part of something bigger,” she said, “It’s worth it in the end.”
A deeper meaning
Among Aangu people, knowledge — not material possessions — is an indicator of status. It’s why the Aangu want visitors to understand the site while avoiding disrespectful activities such as climbing Uluru, which is against Tjukurpa law.
Visitors in person or via Google Street View can never completely know the entire story of Uluru, however — some stories can only be shared with initiated men or women. They’re memorised, then carefully passed down in ceremonies from generation to generation.
“It starts when I was a little boy, all the young children start getting told different parts of the story, as they grow up they get more and more,” Wilson explained.
The hope is that learning and understanding even a fraction of Aangu history might help people to respect, and in turn preserve, Indigenous Australian culture.
Google Australia’s managing director, Jason Pellegrino, said Uluru’s addition to Street View was an opportunity for anyone around the world on any device to at least partially understand the deep cultural significance of one of Australia’s most well-known landmarks.
“For people who don’t have the privilege to visit this remote location, to experience the rich cultural heritage of this site,” he said,”it’s an opportunity … to not only look at the physical beauty — but to get an appreciation of Tjukurpa — the stories and song that underpin the cultural heritage of this site.”