Central Australia, Part Two

For the two nights we were at Uluru we camped at the Ayer’s Rock/Uluru resort. It’s winter here, but it’s still warm at night, so we slept in swag beds under the stars. Sujata and the kids found the swag beds comfortable. I found them narrow and cramped, but I managed a few hours rest all the same. The campground is in a mulga woodland of red sand, emu bushes and red river gum trees about 15 km from Uluru itself. It’s sparse and beautiful.

On our first day at Uluru, we woke up, ate Museli and yogurt and drank instant coffee and then drove to Uluru. Our plan was to take a short hike, join a walking tour given by an member of the Anangu tribe and then drive 50 km south to Kata Tjuja, a set of large sandstone dome.

The highlight of the day, for me, was the two-hour walking tour. Our guide was a 30-something Anangu man who called himself George. I was initially struck by George’s presence–he wore National Park issue green fatigues and bunched his hair underneath a black wool cap. His beard, lightly speckled with gray, covered a full, intelligent face. He shuffled more than walked, and his movements as well as his facial expressions, were deliberate and careful. When he began talking, I could hardly hear him, he spoke just a bit above a whisper and his affect seemed both shy and confident at the same time. As the tour wore on, and he warmed up, his voice got stronger and his manners more meditative.

We met George at the trailhead of the Mala trail, a pathway that hugs the the southwest side of Uluru. George showed us ancient cave paintings from the Anaguna and we stood with him in a high, open cave that he described as one of the Ananguna’s ‘kitchens’, a place they called Mala Puta or the pouch of the female wallaby.  Throughout the walk, though, we stared up in wonder at the massive rock that towered above us. George pointed out plum and fig bushes, grabbed some seeds from a wollybark plant and showed us how his ancestors made bread. He also described, in great detail, how they butchered kangaroo for meat.

Early on in the tour, George showed us some cave paintings that were upwards of 10,000 years old. As he was explaining them to us, he paused, and, visibly frustrated he said, “Some of this is just too complicated for western minds.” At this nearly everyone who was a part of the tour—westerner’s all—raised their heads and eyebrows. Too complicated? “You westerners are always asking why, why, why? You go to school for six years and you think you know everything there is to know. In our culture, we learn from our elders, not strangers, and it takes us decades to understand our culture.” At that, a brave middle aged Aussie woman chortled, “Well, some of us westerners respect our elders,” to whichGeorge, in comic derision, replied, “Yeah, some.”

I’m sure that some of the folks on the tour were a bit put off by this exchange. In fact, I saw an Aussie bloke next to me shake his head and mumble, “He’s pretty straightforward, isn’t he.” I, on the other hand, fell in love withGeorge at this point because what he revealed here and then continued to parcel out for the rest of the tour was a kind of charming disdain for us. When someone from the group would ask a question, he’d shoot back a quick reply and roll his eyes and smile at the same time. I had a sense that he pitied us, but that he was having a great time teasing us a bit. In this way, then, I found George wonderful and refreshing. I loved his honesty, his willingness to take risks with us, to make us just a little uncomfortable, to provoke us and to make us think. He was, in short, a great teacher.

Back to the kangaroos.

George mentioned that they never used the hides of kangaroos—they just singed the hair off the animal, threw it on a bush fire and basically let the meat cook while it was still encased in the animal’s carcass.  This surprised me, mostly because it seemed to me like it was wasteful to not use the hide, which could be used for clothing or to make pouches to carry water. I asked George about this—I actually phrased my question this way: “Why did they not use the kangaroo hide?” He seized on my ‘why,’ dropped his chin and looked at me as to say, “Oh, you silly westerner. Always asking why.” And then he said, “My grandfather told me that was forbidden to use the skins of the kangaroo. I never asked why.”

Let me pause here for a second and talk about the Enlightenment for a second. I, like all of you reading this blog, whether you can admit it or not, am a product of the Enlightenment and my entire world view sits solidly on the intellectual and cultural foundations of Enlightenment thinking. In a nutshell, that means that ideas like private property, rational thought and the unencumbered self–Americans call it ‘freedom’–are basically bedrock beliefs, and everything I know or understand is based on those ideas. They are, in short, inviolate and asking why is, in many ways the mark of a thoughtful and meaningful life. That said, I get the dark side of all these things: I love our house, but I also understand that the idea of private property is the basis of much of the greed and environmental degradation in this world. And while I will gleefully invoke the spirit of rationalism to point out Donald Trump’s many irreconcilable and absurd statements, I also realize that too much attention to the rational world, pushes mystery, spirituality and humility to the sidelines. Finally, while I relish in my ‘self’ as unencumbered from traditions that I chafe at, I also realize that the kind of radical freedom we practice in the States is part of the reason our culture is so fragmented and selfish.

George was an exceptional guide because he didn’t just tell me about Anangu customs—how they made bread and butchered animals—he told me about their world view, how they see the world, what and why they believe the things they believe. And, he presented this all in a way that made me wonder about my own world view, how I see the world, the things I miss and, the things I simply cannot see. I’m not sure I entirely believed George, either, when he teased us about out questioning spirits. He was still very much a part of traditional Anangu culture—he told us hosts of stories about his life in this regard—but, at the same time, he was educated and he was very good at code switching so I’m going to guess that he had spent quite a lot of time questioning beliefs and practices on both sides.

In the next post, I’m going to write about the very last thing George talked about, the controversy of climbing Uluru.



3 thoughts on “Central Australia, Part Two

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