How new tech shines a spotlight on the ancient stories of Uluru

It’s golden hour in the Outback and already the western sun is casting long black shadows across the ochre sand.

On the horizon, Uluru broods watchfully as a crowd gathers at a wooden platform overlooking the desert. 

As if competing with the cicadas hiding in the spinifex, the hubbub of conversation rises to a racket of excited chatter as waiters circulate with trays of golden crocodile pies and effervescing cocktails garnished with green ants. 

I’m here for Wintjiri Wiru, meaning ‘beautiful view out to the horizon’ in the local Pitjantjatjara language. It’s a nightly show at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort that sends 1200 drones into the sky, turning the vast flats surrounding Uluru into a kaleidoscope of sound and light. 

We’re promised a dramatic retelling of the Mala story, a bloody tale of conflict between two tribes, featuring shape-shifting demons and goddesses, that melds tradition with cutting-edge technology.

It’s an ancient and sacred morality play belonging to the Indigenous Aṉangu people, on whose lands we’ve gathered this evening. 

Joining me for the pre-show canapes is Bruce Ramus, who designed the show in consultation with the Aṉangu people and Voyages Ayers Rock Resort.

“Light is art now, where it wasn’t before,” said Ramus, adding that light transcends cultures and languages more than other mediums. “Everybody understands light. They don’t need to think about it.” 

Light’s universal language is part of the reason colourful light festivals have sprung up in Macau, Lyon, Berlin and Sydney, which holds VIVID Sydney each year over May and June. 

But it has been a long, illuminating road to reach where Ramus and I are standing now. In 2018, he started working with the Aṉangu people, with the support of Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, to adapt one of their stories. 

His original idea to project images on Uluru, a hallowed monolith, was quickly ruled out, but the Aṉangu were curious to explore the technology’s potential.

Over many months and iterations, Wintjiri Wiru gradually came together, with every musical note, colour tone and drone movement given Aṉangu approval. 

“I took care to faithfully represent the paintings in the caves, the colours, the forms. In one of the earliest drafts we showed a ceremonial poll. This isn’t for the public to see, so we changed that and the Aṉangu were really guiding the process,” Ramus said. 

This isn’t the first time visitors have been drawn – like moths – to light in the desert. Most notable is immersive Field of Light by artist Bruce Munro, comprising 50,000 colour-shifting orbs spread across the landscape. Initially intended as a temporary installation in 2016, growing demand kept bringing it back until it was eventually made permanent.

Uluru Field of Light

The immensely popular Field of Light. Photo: Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

Meanwhile, in late 2023, Munro unveiled Light-Towers at nearby Kings Canyon – 69 glowing towers that change colour in response to music.

Interrupted by an usher, who says it’s time to take our seats, we cross to the far side of the platform where cascading bench seats face Uluru. The wind picks up and we’re left sitting in the darkness looking at the night sky, a black canvas stretching far overhead.

There’s a sudden hush as a glowing white wallaby shyly steps out from a bush and sniffs at the air; the play has begun. Aṉangu voices fill the air, first in their own tongue and then in English, as the earth pulsates with colour. The sky is alive with pinpricks of light shifting as they take the form of fire, water and people. 

With a dramatic sting, the drones quickly rearrange themselves into the blazing form of Kurpany, a ferocious dingo demon conjured to exact a bloody vengeance, and my pulse quickens as he tracks his prey across the stars. 

Uluru drones - Wintjiri Wiru - Kurpany the devil dog

Kurpany appears in the night sky over Uluru. Photo: Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia

With the crowd collectively stunned into silence, it’s fitting that we’re left once again in the dark to ponder the cosmos – the ancient canvas where the Aṉangu crafted constellations into stories that could be handed down from generation to generation. 

And it doesn’t stop here.

Next to join the line-up, from August 1 is Sunrise Journeys, a collaboration between Anangu artists Selina Kulitja, Denise Brady and Valerie Brumby, along with Anangu musician and composer Jeremy Whiskey and visual experience creator Mandylights.

Art, lasers, projections, ambient sound and music join forces to create a deeply mindful experience, as Indigenous iconography – similar to the type seen in dot paintings – ebbs and flows across the land, connecting visitors even more deeply to the spiritual heart of Australia.

Clearly, technology may have evolved, but we’ve been using light to tell stories since time began – and long may it continue.

The writer travelled as a guest of Tourism Australia and Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia. As custodians of the land, Anangu hold the Mala story from Kaltukatjara to Uluru. To share their story, RAMUS designed and produced an artistic platform using drones, light and sound to create an immersive storytelling experience.

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