We visited Uluru in September 2009, and like everyone else we were awed by its presence. Nothing has changed on that front in a little over a year – seeing Uluru again up close still took our breath away. But the countryside around Uluru has been transformed, and it is now surrounded by wildflowers and wildlife. Its waterholes have been flushed clean and topped up; there are even frogs and tadpoles in Kantyu Gorge, a wonderful sign that its previously polluted waters are healthier now.
We’ve been staying here at Yulara, the tourist resort/village from which you visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, for two weeks now. In that time we’ve experienced wild extremes of weather – some days in the high 30s, as you’d expect in late November, but today there is a cold wind and I’ve been tempted to dig out my beanie. Other days we’ve had overcast weather and scattered showers, raising our hopes of seeing ‘rain on the rock’ and Uluru’s fabled waterfalls, but alas, the showers skirted around Uluru. We were however treated one afternoon to the magical sight of a rainbow. As far as we can tell, the rainbow ended at Mala Puta, one of the most sacred women’s sites at Uluru – the perfect place to find a pot of gold. The Anangu (local people) believe that the rainbow represents the Rainbow Serpent, so for us the sight was affirmation of the power of Uluru, as if we needed that.
During our stay we’ve again completed a couple of base walks around Uluru, a truly Australian pilgrimage, and enjoyed two Ranger-guided walks along the Mala walk. We also completed that walk last year, but if anything this year’s experiences were even more informative about the traditional stories, beliefs and lore – all known as Tjukurpa (pronounced chook-orr-pa)– of Uluru. Each of the Rangers provided slightly different information, contributing, if you like, different pieces to our ever growing jigsaw of knowledge about this amazing place.
And we’ve also just wandered in and spent time sitting quietly at the sacred waterholes of Mutitjulu and Kantju Gorge, watching the wildlife (and tourists) come and go, basking in the peace and presence of Australia’s spiritual heart.
THE MALA WALK
This Ranger-led walk is a relatively recent innovation, and is provided free to all visitors. It reflects the efforts of park management to provide activities other than the contentious ‘rock-climb’, and is a resounding success. I cannot imagine anyone still wanting to climb Uluru after completing this walk, though I am sure there are some whose attitudes and intent are set in concrete. Interestingly, in the nearly two weeks we have been here, the climb has been closed every day, due to high winds, high temperatures, or the threat of rain.
The Mala walk commences at the same point as the rock climb, from there winding its way along the base of Uluru as far as Kantju Gorge. The walk takes around two hours to complete. Along the way, the Ranger guide provides explanations on a whole range of topics, stopping at different points along the trail to describe particular activities, formations or beliefs.
We learnt about bush medicine and food – about plants such as the Bloodwood, Mulga, Bush Fig and Honey Grevillea. The Bloodwood alone is a combination chemist, hardware store and supermarket. Its red sap, from which it takes its western common name, has antiseptic properties when put on cuts, scratches and sores, or can ease digestive problems when dissolved in water. Its nectar rich blossoms are sucked, or immersed in water to provide an energy rich drink – the original staminade. And in a process taking around three days, women would slowly peel back the bark of the tree, remove a shaped section of soft wood directly beneath the bark, then harden and shape it slowly over heat to make a carrying bowl, which could be used to carry water, a child, grains or fruit.
A multi-purpose men’s tool – the Anangu version of the Swiss army knife, was constructed using a combination of Mulga wood, spinifex resin, quartz crystal and kangaroo sinew. The result – a combination spear thrower, knife, fire-maker, carrying bowl and goodness knows what else!
We were interested to learn that Anangu did not use Uluru as a permanent shelter, preferring to live in the surrounding dune country. This was for a variety of reasons. Firstly, Uluru was reserved for mainly ceremonial activities. As anyone who has visited Uluru will tell you, there are many sacred sites around its base. Visitors are prohibited from entering or photographing most of these sites, a large number of which are along Uluru’s northern aspect. The Anangu would come in for ceremony, leaving immediately it was completed.
Secondly, the waterholes at Uluru’s base – particularly Mutitjulu – provided water long after many of those in the surrounding plains had dried up. As a result, the Anangu would leave Uluru’s waterholes until they were absolutely essential water sources. Those waterholes were also essential to the survival of the region’s wildlife – a food source of the Anangu.
Thirdly, because of its sheer size, Uluru affects the wind patterns in its vicinity. The rock of Uluru absorbs more heat during the day than does the surrounding dune country, resulting in the near constant, and often strong, wind thermals whipping around and over the rock. As a result, attempting to shelter near Uluru would have been a mainly uncomfortable experience, and the surrounding dunes more enticing, especially during winter when night-time temperatures drop well below zero.
On the subject of cold winter conditions, I had always wondered why the Anangu didn’t wear kangaroo skins to keep warm. It turns out that, as with everything else here, this was governed by Tjukurpa – and was therefore practical, intelligent and sustainable. The scarcest resource in this area is water, and moisture was preserved wherever possible. When kangaroos were killed, they were cooked in their skins to retain as much moisture (blood and body fluids) as possible. Skinning the animal for clothing would expose the animal’s flesh to the cooking fire and dry out the meat, resulting in an unacceptable loss of moisture. And there were too few kangaroos to waste any moisture in such a way.
The Anangu’s way of life was a totally sustainable one. They lived here for at least 40000 years, in harmony with the environment. None of the ‘great civilisations’, as we consider them – such as the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, or Romans – have lasted more than a few thousand years, at the most. In our wildest dreams it is difficult to imagine our current Western civilization, which we proclaim as the pinnacle of human achievement, lasting another 40000 years. Yet in ignorance, Aboriginal culture is often denigrated as being primitive, or backward. We have much to learn.
The Anangu’s fire-regime protected species, rejuvenated the land and prevented the widespread fire disasters we now witness across Australia. Tjukurpa governed their relationship with everything – plants, animals, water, each other. People were responsible for their every action. We could probably learn a thing or two about right living, and taking responsibility for our actions, from these ancient people.
When the National Parks service assumed responsibility for Uluru and Kata Tjuta in the 1970s, they decided that they knew better than the Anangu how to manage fire in the area; ‘no burning was to take place’. The result – following a massive buildup in fuel, a wildfire devastated the park, destroying 97% of all vegetation, totally wiping out Mala and Ringtail possum populations. Ancient trees in Kantju Gorge were destroyed, a place where the Anangu had never seen fire. Thankfully, following the hand-back of title to the Anangu in 1985, all environmental decisions in the park are again made by them, and the park is recovering.
The Mala (Rufous Hare Wallaby) is central to Tjukurpa at Uluru. The song-line of the Mala travels from the Tanami Desert, to Uluru, down to South Australia then across to Western Australia. The Mala story is intrinsic to understanding Uluru and many of its features along its western side. Consequently, the loss of the Mala from this area must have been heartbreaking for the Anangu. Well, there is some good news on this front. Even though the Mala is extinct from the wilderness of mainland Australia, it was saved on several offshore islands and is also the subject of captive breeding programs around Australia. We can happily report that a feral-proof enclosure near the cultural centre at Uluru is now home to over 100 Malas, with numbers having boomed during our current bumper season. Every time we see a feral rabbit hopping around this area (and there are many) we imagine in their place a Mala or Bilby, and eagerly anticipate the time when this is a reality.
Many of the shelters around Uluru contain rock art, some dated to around 40000 years. Rock art in a number of sacred sites is now off limits, because graffiti and vandalism occurred when these sites were accessible to the public in the 1970s. And other sites which can still be visited – such as Kulpi Mutitjulu – were damaged around that time when obliging tour-drivers threw buckets of water over the art works to bring up their colours, so that their clients could take prettier photographs. As a result, photographs such as those taken by Charles Mountford prior to the arrival of tourism, show much more detail and colour than we see nowadays on the remaining faded and damaged works.
THE ULURU BASE-WALK
Even those who have not visited Uluru have seen it many times. As Australians, the sunset photograph of Uluru is etched into our consciousness from a young age, such that it becomes synonymous with Australia. That smooth, rounded (well oval) shape is Uluru.
But a visit to Uluru, and a walk around its base, reveals a surprising array of shapes and features, mostly on an enormous scale. The Anangu have creation stories for all these formations, some of which they share with us, and others, due to their Tjukupra, known only to initiates.
On the south eastern face we see the enormous figure of Kuniya – the woma python – high up on the face, and further across scars where Kuniya fought and defeated Liru – the poisonous snake. The nearby shelter and art site – Kulpi Mutitjulu – is nestled safely under the coiled shape of Kuniya, her enormous head and eye clear for all to see.
Walk further around the base and one encounters the story of Lungkata – the Blue-Tongue Lizard, who stole and lied. As punishment, Lungkata was burned on a fire – and we can still see an enormous patch of Lungkata’s burnt skin on the side of Uluru as a prominent feature. The story of Lungkata provides a salutary lesson in what happens to those who break Tjukurpa and steal.
Near the Mala walk is a site where the ancestral Itjaritjari (marsupial mole) attempted to dig into the rock-face of Uluru, before she changed her mind and dug underneath, forming a cave and windbreak.
To us, with our western scientific minds, these stories are all interesting and quaint ways to understand the many formations on Uluru, and also serve to instruct in the form of fable. Of course, each of these tales are only given to us in kindergarten form – for they all have higher levels of understanding taught only to initiates. We are like children – and you don’t teach children university courses, until they are ready!
But to the Anangu these stories and creatures are real – these ancestral beings are still there, preserved but alive in the rock. The ancestral water snake, Wanampi, still inhabits the waterholes, ready to grab the unsuspecting or disrespectful visitor. These stories may once have served to protect the health of waterholes, by making Anangu visitors reverential; after all, no-one would swim and generally horse-around in a waterhole if a giant snake-being was lurking nearby. As a result, the water stayed pure and life around the waterhole flourished.
The stories may also reflect ancient race-memory that is now embodied in myth. There is evidence that around 15000-30000 years ago the Aboriginals shared Australia with mega-fauna – giant marsupials the size of hippos, perenties (goannas) 7 metres long, and water constrictors – snakes – of up to 35 metres in length and a 1 metre girth, with the scientific name of Wonambi australis (a variation, I believe, of Wanampi), which would ambush their prey by launching themselves from waterholes. So these stories may have been ancient warnings to beware – danger lurks here!
In the Tjukurpa stories of Uluru and this area, all plants, animals and natural features have equal importance. Everything is part of the whole and has its role to play. Nothing is unimportant, and Anangu saw themselves as a part of that system, with their own roles and responsibilities to preserve and protect, and not somehow as separate and in a position from which to exploit the region.
Uluru is a living, breathing library of human culture and nature, showing a time when humanity knew that it was inseparable from the natural world, and lived accordingly, through observing Tjukurpa. Perhaps that is why Uluru resonates so deeply within all of us.
28 November 2010
Postscript: It looks as though we may be staying on for a few more days, not that we were in any hurry to leave here. A couple of days ago a White-Plumed Honeyeater nestling was blown out of its nest and fluttered/shuffled into our campsite. It was covered in Yulara’s voracious ants and not in a good state. We sprang to its rescue. Anyone who knows Nirbeeja will also know that this little bird, in its desperation, chose our site wisely! Unfortunately, we have been unable to find its nest, so we have been catching insects to feed the little fellow and Nirbeeja has constructed a cosy make-shift nest for it. Needless to say, it is now thriving.
Update 30 Nov: The little Honeyeater was passed to Ranger Tim and his wife, who report that the little fellow is going really well. Tim was also our guide on one of the Mala Walks and he was fantastic. He left us feeling totally inspired.