I’m going to need at least two posts to process all that I’ve seen here in the middle of this country, and I’m sure I won’t be able to explain half of what I’ve been thinking and experiencing, but, here goes . . .
It’s after 9 pm on our last night here in Uluru. Sujata and the kids are sprawled out on the ground, deeply ensconced in their bush beds. I’m sitting on a camp chair underneath the coolibah tree, listening to the sounds of the campground and puzzling over what I’ve experienced here in the Outback.
Before I spent the past four days in Central Australia or the Northern Territory, I knew it mostly as the land of Crocodile Dundee and the name of the type of Subaru that I drive.
What a fool I was. In the short time I’ve been here, I’ve learned that, if you let it, Central Australia comes at you in waves: waves of beauty, of history, of confusion and of cultural dissonance.
Here is a map of Australia–we are in the center of the country.
I’m going to start at the end of our time here, at Uluru/Ayer’s Rock–a magical and confounding place 400 km south of Alice Springs, the capital of the Norther Territories. Here’s a photo we took on our first night in Uluru:
As you can see, it’s an imposing, breath-taking place. When we took this photo, we were four of many, many many people who had driven into the park to watch the sun set.
Notice, if you can, the silver line of light around the top of the rock. If Uluru looks big, that’s because it is. At its highest point, Uluru is nearly 900 meters high. When you stand at the base, the sandstone cliffs rise straight up, sort of like an escarpment, except, rather than a plateau at the top, it’s a dome. If you walked around the entire perimeter, you’d almost have walked 10 km.
All of this inspired Atticus to get his guitar and sing “Space Oddity” to the Rock:
Let’s start with the the obvious problem: the place has two names so in that regard, it’s a site of deep-seated political conflict.
Uluru is the aboriginal name for this great rock. Surprisingly, the name itself doesn’t mean anything in particular in the local pitjantjatjara dialect. For millennia, though, this rock and its environs have been the sacred space for the Anangu people, the original inhabitants of this area. There’s still an Anangu presence here, and I’ll get to that in a bit. Just to give you an idea, though, this is the spot of the creation myths of the Anangu—the myths and legends of their origins take place all around this rock and its crevices, water holes, caves and pathways are the sites of many of the legends they’ve been telling each other for thousands of years. That’s significant in that it would be like Christians knowing exactly where the Garden of Eden was located.
Think about that for a moment.
In July of 1873, a surveyor by the name of, William Gosse, sighted the dome, and called it Ayer’s Rock, after the Chief Secretary of Australia, Sir Henry Ayers.
Here’s a photo of a 1976 stamp commemorating Gosse and his ‘discovery’ of Uluru:
Since the late nineteenth century this iconic Australian landmark has lived with a dual name and it is the only UNESCO World Heritage that is contested in that manner. But even in that regard, there has been some confusion. In 1993, there was a dual naming ceremony and the place was officially deemed “Ayer’s Rock/Uluru.” Nine years later, there was another naming ceremony, this time switching the names. Now, it’s officially called “Uluru/Ayer’s Rock.”
You can see this political dispute in the most mundane of public spaces, such as any one of the many gift shops that are set up in the Uluru/Ayer’s Rock town center. All of the t-shirts, coffee mugs or stickers for sale are emblazoned with an image of the rock. Some of them, though, say, “Uluru” and others say, “Ayer’s Rock.” This, to the uninitiated, could be confusing and, to continue the comparisons with the US, it would be like the Grand Canyon having a Native American and a colonial name. I bought a t-shirt in one of the stores, and, I’m sure you won’t be surprised, I chose one that said Uluru.
Australian’s seem to tolerate this contradiction, and I suspect the Anangu find it both amusing and maddening.
This is a good place, then, to talk a bit about the political history of Uluru. Gosse showed up here at the end of the nineteenth century because he was part of a team exploring the construction of a telegraph line. Shortly after that, white settlers started grazing their cattle around Uluru, infuriating the Anangu and precipitating violence between both groups. In the early part of the twentieth century, all the land around here had had been taken over by private, Australian interests. Cattle roamed freely and white Australians hunted and recreated out here. By the 1930s, the Anangu were scattered all across the Northern Territory, mostly in the larger, urban areas. Tourists started showing up in the late 1930s, tour busses the following decade and then in the 1950s, motels started cropping up. I can’t imagine what this was like for the Anangu. For thousands of years, the land was theirs, so much so, that they didn’t even think about it being ‘theirs.” It just was. And then, one day, it’s not theirs anymore and there are thousands of white tourists milling about who know or care nothing about the sacred nature of the site. But, in the 1970s, the Anangu started organizing to get Uluru back. In 1985, it happened—there was a historic and celebrate Handback Ceremony and, gradually, through their own choices as well as some structural procedures put in place by the Australian government, the Anangu people, at least some of them began to trickle back to their original home.
This, for now, is a good place to stop.
The drive we made today from Uluru to Alice Springs is 450 km on a beautiful but desolate two-lane highway, so I’m tired. Here are a few photos from the drive, just to give you a sense of what this country looks like:
I’m going to keep puzzling my way through Central Australia in the next few posts.