Day 9 and 10 Saturday 3rd and Sunday 4th June, 2017
The story of our “bottom up” journey to the the Top End came to an close on Sunday 4th June when Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir and I flew back to chilly Melbourne.
I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to spend time in the heart of Australia with Aunty Fay Stewart-Muir sharing our project’s story and meeting incredibly strong Aboriginal leaders, library workers and Elders who just get on with what they know they must do, and what is right for their communities and not waiting for the nod from above. Simply by doing and taking action they are advocating for and strengthening their communities, teaching, empowering and leading by example. As some of their photos reveal, their knowledge radiates from their eyes, their spirit and heart.
Aunty Fay and I enjoyed our final 6 hour (460km) road trip, departing Alice Springs at 6am and heading down the Stuart Highway past 53 metre long road trains and 40 km wide cattle stations on the way to the heart of the red centre – Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Along the way we stretched our legs scrambling up red sand dunes to glimpse different views across Desert Country. Here you understand why this area is referred to as ‘Red Desert’, yet it is not a real desert as it is a semi arid zone with so much greenery, soft native grasses and flora that has adapted and now thrives there.
Central Desert Country is biologically diverse, home to emus, bellbirds, wagtails, moles, black kites, dingos, the hare wallaby, frogs, snakes, camels and more lizards than anywhere else on earth! These creatures may not be visible during the day because they build giant termite temples in sand or burrow in caves and shady nooks to escape the heat, then become active at night.
I have always had a soft spot for camels, inspired in part by Robyn Davidson’s memoir of her solo journey ‘Tracks,’ as she chronicled her nine-month journey on camels across the Australian desert. Camels 🐫 in the Red Centre are referred to as ‘desert horses’ or affectionately described as ‘Irritable immigrants.’
Originally, only 1,000 were imported to navigate the vast desert lands of The Top when horses simply wouldn’t cut it; they would have keeled over and died after four days in Australia’s heat. Camels got those early explorers through the country sixteen days without water. They were used to carting railway sleepers and heavy supplies, then when the job was done the camels were often abandoned and the population has now multiplied to over 1.2 million camels roaming around. They are now referred to a “the cane toad of the outback.”
Eventually, our bus wound its way into Uluru-Kata Tjuta and the familiar image of Uluru, burned in our minds from miniature picture-perfect postcards, soon loomed over us like a giant monolith, too large to digest all at once, only available to glimpse in sections. No wonder Uluru is often described as resembling “the pages of a book, standing on its end.”
In 1985, after many long and hard years of negotiation, Uluru-Kata Tjuta was finally handed back to the Anangu peoples who had lived there for over 22,000 years. The site is now ‘jointly managed’ by the Anangu traditional owners and Parks Australia who are “Tjunguringkula waakaripai” (working together) to make decisions and manage the park.
Uluru- Kata Tjuta is now one of a few places around world which has dual heritage listing and gold awards from UNESCO. In 1994 they received a second world listing for Living Culture to ensure that their Aboriginal culture be kept alive and thriving as part of the sites park management and ensuring that Anganu peoples maintain their cultural heritage practices.
Uluru-Kata Tjuta is a peaceful sanctuary except for the 400,000 or so visitors who traverse the site each year. Bus loads of tourists hand over wads of money to fly in or stay at the ‘Sails in the Desert. It would have been better to navigate our own way around the site, to enjoy the luxury of silence free of bus tour commentary. However, I can understand the Anangu not wanting 400,000 people randomly doing as they please in their backyard!
The Anangu people have their own way of understanding how the world came to be. This knowledge is explained through Creation stories that are passed on orally through generations, and help define their rules for living. Non Aboriginal people, often refer to it as Dreamtime, but this is not accurate, as it has nothing to do with ‘dreams’.
The Agangu Creation stories are visibly etched into the landscape of Uluru such as the Story of Lungkata The Lizard Man and the Willy Wagtail Woman. The Tjukurpa Ancestors are known as the Mala (wallaby people). The Ancestors are supernatural beings who resembled animals and people, morphed into one or the other as they journeyed creating all the mountains, valleys, sand dunes and waterways along the way. Uluru-Kata Tjuta is a culturally significant heritage site, because many of creation Ancestors passed by on their journey and their spirit energy was left in these places. Anangu believe some of their Ancestors are still there to this day. For this reason there are many areas of Uluru-Kata Tjuta that are sensitive or ‘Sacred’ areas, for Aboriginal men or women.
During our walk to the Mutitjulu Waterhole we saw the willy wagtail or tinjintir-tinjintirpa, a beautiful name in traditional language which reflects the sound the bird makes. The willy wagtail loves flittering around the waterhole’s edge, and you can feel how the story of the Willy Wagtail woman manifested there. The Anangu people affectionately refer to the wagtail as the ‘gossip bird ‘ “who knows everything about everybody” so hold your secrets tightly when she is about.
Pitjantjatjara and Yankunitjatjara are the two western Desert languages spoken In the Anganu community. Very few speak English as a first language. The desert peoples estimate of Aboriginal languages spoken prior to European Settlement are of 700 diverse dialects. They estimate only 20-50 “healthy” languages are still spoken and used by children today. Languages are often referred to in biological terms, as they are living within people and kept alive within communities. A language becomes endangered or stressed, when a community is under stress. This is particularly evident through colonisation or assimilation practices that forbade families and communities from speaking in their language.
In each community there are Elders or ‘story keepers’ who are designated to orally pass on their stories, language and knowledge to the next generation through ceremony, song, dance and storytelling. Many Elders have lamented that the younger generations are not very interested in the old stories any more, distracted by technology and modern living. Sadly, their culture and languages are slowly dying because the process of cultural transmission from the older generation to the young is disrupted.
I feel very proud that Uluru-Kata Tjuta has been handed back to the traditional Anangu owners and the site is now a UNESCO recognised example of bi-cultural partnership where they are working together with Anangu Elders to capture the traditional stories and adopt traditional practices to care for Country. The sites tour operators and guides go through training to share approved knowledge and stories with visitors. Aboriginal culture is placed at the front of each person’s experience of the site, generating a deeper understanding and respect.
Hopefully, the shift in tourism and park management practices replaces outdated tourism marketing practices that promoted “climbing Uluru”, via a 2.5 metre vertical climb to the top. Bizarrely, many still deliberately ignore the signs that dissuade visitors from climbing Uluru, leaving their calls of nature on the top of the rock, and seeking the ultimate ‘selfie’ for social media that soon goes viral and inspires copy cats trying to conquer the great rock.
At one stage during our walk around Uluru we came across a group with drones in hand ready to capture the moment up on the top, without working up a sweat. We proudly watched our tour guide tell them off, “there are no devices allowed in national parks!”
Would you fly a drone in church?
Scientists have estimated Uluru to be over 300 million years old, they say Uluru is like an iceberg with the same sized rock under the earth. The core of the rock is grey yet through the exposure to air and water it creates that rusty red colour. As the sun begins to lower in the sky Uluru glows brilliant red, creating a prism of light. At this point Fay and I took our final pics from our trip and with a glass of bubbly in hand toasted the end of an amazing trip to the Top End.
Thank you for reading along and sharing this journey with us.🥂