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You may not be able to climb Uluru, but there are more reasons than ever to visit central Australia, writes Tom Dillane
Standing at the base of Uluru’s immense amber sandstone arches in the centre of Australia is so overwhelming it lulls your trivial thoughts into submission.
The rounded red arkose formation is cut sharply against the dense blue sky, which morphs into an opaque pink as the sun rises and sets.
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The unexpected lush green of the surrounding river red gums and desert bloodwoods is only made possible under the shadow of the monolith, protective against the 40-degree rays.
The reduction to these earthy primary hues has a hypnotising effect.
Uluru’s 348m high face breaks strong gales, and you are left in an eerie stillness under its stature.
Your senses are so consumed by the spectacle that you are silenced into a soothing languor.
Yet in late-2019, the starkest example of our ignorance before Uluru was not of humble wonder at its incomprehensible mass.
It was the vulgar troupe of people scrambling up its slope while they still could, against the wishes of the Anangu Aboriginal people.
In past decades, the traditional owners of the land had educated tourists on the cultural significance of Uluru and successfully lowered the annual numbers of climbers. A polite plea for visitors to “please not climb Uluru” is written on a modest sign at the start of its walking route to the top.
In 2015, about 130 people climbed its chained walkway each day. But in the two months leading up to the final, legal walk on October 26, that number skyrocketed to 1000 a day.
One Nation party leader Pauline Hanson played a comical figurehead to the crowds of people snatching their final opportunity to defy culture in the spirit of entitlement.
“This belongs to all Australians,” Hanson said before a humiliating (failed) attempt to climb Uluru. “I think it’s special.”
With the ban now in effect, there may be some travellers who feel they have lost an adventurous part of any visit to the red centre.
Yet, if you visit central Australia and speak to the Aboriginal people who orchestrate much of the tourist activities that operate there, you will realise there has been no gradual cultural prohibition on tourist access in recent years.
In fact, it is a bittersweet reality for the Aboriginal people that more cultural sustenance is needed to be handed out.
Part of this is, perhaps, an ever so slight increase in trust shown by the Aboriginal people towards the more than 200,000 outsiders who visit sacred sights such as Uluru, the Olgas/Kata Tuju and Kings Canyon each year.
The optimist would say these Aboriginal leaders are dealing out more intimate knowledge of their traditions and the land in proportion to the increasing respect shown by the tourists.
Chris Hill’s Uluru Camel Tours testifies to this.
Melding an outback colonial cattle station with tour guide “cameleers”, the tours operate out of a fully working camel farm and saddlery, and take groups of two dozen or so on 90-minute treks through the Kata Tjuta National Park, with Uluru just a few kilometres in the background.
Our sunset-tour guide was Greg, an Aborigine who had spent several years in the red centre among the Pitjantjatjara Anangu people, but was originally from Rockhampton, Queensland.
While winding through the red dunes in a train of camels tied together, two riders per animal saddled either side of their single hump, Greg spoke to us about the people and the land with true sincerity.
“They’re very loving people the Pitjantjatjara people. English is their fourth or fifth language out here. Now Uluru, that is a very special place to me,” Greg said.
“Not being from here, it’s not my place to say too much about Uluru to you.
“But for Aboriginal people around Australia, that is our temple, that is our church.”
He was open about his own struggles to articulate, as a tour guide, the true significance of the land.
“There was this lady on tour, she was an American guest and asked a very valid question, it sort of threw me,” he said towards the end of the tour.
“She goes, ‘Greg, what does it mean when the Aboriginal people say connection to country, connection to this here?’ It absolutely stumped me.
“And I thought, okay, there’s only one thing I know that I can refer to, to put it into context for people.”
Walking alongside the camel trail, moving up and down the plodding line in the dimming light, Greg spoke in a clear deep Aussie drawl – never straining to a shout.
“Your mother is number one, she had you in her belly for nine months, she felt your heartbeat, you heard hers, she understands, even when you grow up later she’ll have that sixth sense.
“For all Aboriginal people in Australia, that’s the one thing that people misread. We’ve been here for 70,000 years. This here, for all Aboriginal people, this is our mother.
“This country provides for me, gives me shelter, gives me food, water, and if I talk to it, it listens to me. It gives me that sense of belonging, it shows me things I’m looking for.
“And if people disrespect somebody’s mother, if you disrespected my mother I’d give you a clip around the ears. So that’s what it means for all Aboriginal people.”
His unfiltered honesty was striking for such a mainstream tourist attraction, but his words were received with a reverent silence as the long camel line came to a stop in the final kilometre of the tour, before the group relaxed with beer and damper at Old Tom’s Waterhole back at the station.
Greg’s parting message was not a harsh warning to be tentative on the land which the local Pitjantjatjara people hold so sacred.
It was to embrace it.
“All I ask of you is if you’re living in the cities, go bush,” he said.
“Try and hide away from people, go camping, ground yourself, plant your feet in this dirt, listen to your surroundings, listen to all the birds, feel the earth breathing.”
The next day, after a 300km drive northeast from Uluru near Kings Creek Station, a more self-declared “education” was on offer in the Karrke Aboriginal Cultural Experience.
Sinking into the soft sand of the Watarrka National Park you are in the traditional home of the Luritja and Pertame people.
The experience is run by family members Natasha Abbott and Christine Breaden, who grew up here and now guide visitors through a series of tutorials and hands-on experiences.
During the one-hour tour you learn about seasonal bush tucker, edible tree and grass seeds, are instructed in the foundational symbols that make up Aboriginal dot painting, run through a tutorial on Aboriginal weapons, and learn the uses of some bush medicine plants.
Unsurprisingly, the most animated reaction from the group comes from finding, cooking and eventually eating, witchetty grub.
“They can be soft like a marshmallow,” Abbott says, handing the milky yellowish grubs to one of our group. “He doesn’t bite.”
But while the Karrke experience is charmingly low-key, there is a reciprocal nature about it too.
The passing on of these traditions and knowledge to their own younger Aboriginal generations is getting harder and harder. And the primary reason is both universal and banal.
“Sadly, our younger generations have the distractions of modern technology, but that’s in any modern cultural life, and we’ve just got to deal with it but we like to think our cultural tours are an enabler to still maintain and preserve the cultural knowledge of the Luritja and Pertame people,” Abbott says.
“Our kids see us come to work. They’re allowed to be part of this cultural tour for our business. So they’re able to learn and ask questions, no matter that the distractions of technology, games, Xbox and all those other things keep them away.
“But we constantly take them out to the country, to the land, they get to know the places, sites of significance and they actually hunt and gather these important foods that we show visitors on our cultural tour.
“It’s there for our younger kids who are ready to come and learn it and to harness it back again.”
All this is compounded by the fact Aboriginal tradition is purely oral – the Dreamtime told through song, storytelling in the sand, and ceremony.
“Our people never had paper. It was always ritual, a daily practice of ceremony, song, languages and showing off the land.”
Yet it is more and more being written on the memories of those tourists who visit the roughly 500km stretch of desert that spans from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon, to Uluru.
October 2019 marked 34 years since the land title to Uluru was handed back to the local Yankunytjatjara-Pitjantjatjara peoples. And on October 26, the rock itself was, in many ways, handed back to them, free from the trampling of visitors.
In turn, those Yankunytjatjara-Pitjantjatjara peoples are handing back to tourists more of what truly enriches a visit to their Dreamtime desert in the heart of Australia – their culture.
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