Uluru – the profound rock

The frontier town of Alice Springs has a busy airport – the route from there into town is strewn with hotels of all sizes from the Double Tree Hilton to Toddy’s Bar, a famous casino (Lasseter’s), serviced apartments and a youth hostel. They all boast well-tended lawns and giant, hairy palm-trees – so far, so normal, you might think. Until you see a group of aboriginal people having a siesta in the middle of the town centre on a grassy verge, under the shade of a desert oak. Many walk with no footwear, others with flimsy rubber sandals. The indigenous people of this region are seen more around Alice Springs than anywhere else in Australia. To my particular eye, their soft, wavy hair (which they keep oiled) and dark skin, they could be the forefathers of the Dravidian people of the south of India. Some look better-off than others, driving cars and dressed in modern clothing. Others look dishevelled and tired, at best indifferent to the world around them, transacting business in soft voices in broken English. Two hardened outback Aussie middle-aged guides picked us up in the early hours of the morning for the longest day tour so far – over a thousand kilometres to Uluru and back. They were full of wisecracks and pungent humour (“if you don’t keep hydrated, you will die”, “wear your seat-belts – oh, there aren’t any” and “make sure you shut the door to the toilet on the bus – if we brake suddenly, you’ll be rolling down the aisle with your knickers around your ankles and cause us immense hilarity”) and we were kept entertained on this long road-trip. They regaled us with tales of the Aboriginal people – who still try to live their lives the way they’ve been doing for 30,000 years. Mai is plant food and kooka is meat – the women who do most of the gathering are in charge of mai, while the men go hunting for kooka. In the olden days, they would be gone for three days looking for game – now they get into their Toyota pick-up trucks with their gun and shoot a kangaroo for supper. When we stopped at Ebenezer for a break, the shop’s freezer was stacked with legs of kangaroo meat. On the way, we passed what they teasingly refer to as ‘Fooluru’, which resembles the Uluru but is Mt Connor, a few miles from Alice. We also passed the salt basins created by the inland ocean from a million years ago. The desert is filled with brush and there is a lot of greenery. The roots of the blood-wood tree (whose red resin is used to seal open wounds work exactly like stitches) go down looking for water and in drought conditions provide a good source of hydration for these essentially nomadic people. Aboriginal tribes were driven out of Uluru by the settlers in the 1930s and they didn’t come back for nearly forty years. The indigenous people maintain their land by burning small areas to control overgrowth. When they were gone, the area had more forest-fires. On the dunes nearby are the Katja Tjuda range of hills – that are next to Uluru and where the Impa (male initiation) ceremonies are held. Our guides kept telling us that they’ve only been told the stories the Aboriginal people tell their children. The deeper significance of many things was not for sharing. Half the committee at Uluru (after the transfer of the land back to the original caretakers) is Aboriginal – they keep a check on the sanctity of the site and where people can take photos. But they don’t use it anymore as the resting place it once was where they educated their children. We drove around the 9 km base in the hot sun taking in the enormity of this rock that looked like a living breathing creature – a resting hippopotamus with gentle, swelling bulges and many folds and crevices that tell all sorts of stories, if you use your imagination. The indigenous people believe in the significance of dreams, animals and their moral tales of incurred wrath for any wrongdoings and believe that these are represented in the rich patterns on the sandstone rock. Later in the evening, we went to the viewing point where the guides set up a portable barbecue, pulled out a variety of different salads and poured out sparkling wine for us all to enjoy the sunset against the darkening colours of Uluru. As if on cue, a group of native folk ambled over clutching rolls of canvasses of their paintings and sat on the hot tarmac beside the wheel of the bus and opened out their wares. It felt important to conduct a transaction directly with one of them – I bought a small square canvas of the seven dreaming sisters who are hiding from the evil man who wanted to capture all of them to become his wives. I couldn’t help wondering how this tour would’ve been if we were shown around by the Aboriginal people, instead of the two chirpy Aussie men. Despite all the progress and reparation for the pain caused in the recent past, Uluru feels like a flagrant commercial enterprise couched in convenient liberalspeak.

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