Uluru and Kata Tjuta were first mapped by Europeans in the 1870s during the expeditionary period made possible by the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line in 1872. William Ernest Powell Giles (better known as Ernest Giles) and William Christie Gosse, in separate expeditions, were the first European explorers to this area.
In 1872, a party led by Ernest Giles set out west from the Overland Telegraph Line looking for a route to the west coast. Whilst in the vicinity of Watarrka (Kings Canyon) he first saw Kata Tjuta and intended to name it Mount Ferdinand after his beneficiary, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller. Giles was forced to turn back before reaching Kata Tjuta after numerous failed attempts to cross a large salt lake that lay across his path. Giles suggested it be named Lake Mueller and described it as 'an infernal lake of mud and brine'. Baron von Mueller, however, insisted that Mount Ferdinand be named Mount Olga and Lake Mueller became Lake Amadeus, after the then reigning King and Queen of a German Province, recognised by Giles as "...two enlightened royal patrons of science".
In 1873, separate parties, led by Giles and William Gosse set out for the Uluru-Kata Tjuta area. This time Giles tried a different route, approaching the region from the Musgrave Ranges in the south. Ironically it was Gosse, also looking for a passage to the west and following in Giles original tracks, who reached the area first. On 19 July 1873 Gosse saw Uluru and named it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia.
Further explorations followed with the aim of establishing the possibilities of the area for pastoralism. It was soon concluded that the area was unsuitable and few Europeans visited over the following decades, apart from small numbers of mineral prospectors, surveyors and scientists.
European contact in an Aboriginal reserve
Between 1918 and 1921 large adjoining areas of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were declared as Aboriginal reserves, as sanctuaries for a nomadic people who had virtually no contact with white people. In 1920 an area, including the land that is now part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, was declared an Aboriginal Reserve (commonly known as the South-Western or Petermann Reserve) by the Commonwealth Government under the Aboriginals Ordinance (Northern Territory).
Despite the declaration of the Reserve small groups of white people continued to visit the area. Some missionaries, Native Welfare Patrol Officers, adventurers, doggers and police travelled through the area with camels, horses and even cars. Lasseter searched for gold and his death in the Petermann Ranges in 1931 is well remembered by older Anangu who had tried to help him when he was sick. During this period of time Anangu became increasingly involved in dealings with doggers who received a bounty from the government for dingo scalps. Transactions with doggers provided Anangu with their first experiences of non-traditional food, implements, clothes and expectations concerning white Australian behaviour.
Although many of the meetings between Anangu and explorers, miners and doggers were far from friendly, it was not until pastoralists, who had been largely defeated by the harsh environment in the late 1800s, attempted to re-establish themselves in areas adjoining the South-Western/Petermann Reserve that patterns of interaction between Anangu and white people became more frequent and more violent. Due to the effects of grazing and droughts, bush food stores were depleted. Competition for these resources created conflict between pastoralists and Anangu. As a result police patrols became more frequent.
One of the distressing incidents that characterised these times occurred at Uluru in 1934. A man (whose children still live at Uluru) was pursued for having escaped custody and was tracked to a cave near Mutitjulu waterhole where he was shot and killed by a policeman. Two other Anangu men escaped and fled. This was a time of increasing fear of police. Many people left the area and travelled further west into the Reserve or south east into safer country. Later, some Anangu moved off the reserves into towns and to pastoral properties. This movement was partly due to droughts in the 1930s and 1950s, and partly to satisfy curiosity regarding white Australians.
In 1940 the South-Western/Petermann Reserve was reduced in size, and split in two, by partially revoking the 1920 declaration to remove an area lying north of Uluru and south of Lake Amadeus, to facilitate access for gold prospecting.