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Andy’s Travel Diary

Sunday, 09 Jul 2006

Location: Alice Springs, Australia


Just what was i doing fully clothed, yet shivering, frozen bogeys/snot crisp around my nostrils? Auditioning for a remake of Titanic?

Fortunately no. My acting is not what it once was; ‘becoming’ the priest in the school’s rendition of Jonah-Man Jazz was the high point of my thespian career(despite getting my robe stuck around my head when i was meant to strip off). No, i was sleeping under the stars in the outback. One of the highlights of my trip in Oz.

I was lucky enough to get on the trip that some of my other friends were doing. Early in the morning we set off from Alice (”Alice? Alice? Who the f*ck is Alice?” jokes soon became boring), too early if you ask me. This was my 7th early start in about as many days…travelling was not meant to be this difficult!
Our first sighting of Uluru (i refuse to call it Ayers Rock for reasons that the local aboriginal people own the site) was absolutely magical. Imposing, monolithic and yet quite serene. It sits there, timeless, in the middle of a flat plain; it looks so incongruous. As we got closer we could see the climbers, ‘minger-mob’ as the local indigenous population call them (means small, black ants, which should give you some idea of the scale of this rock). I desperately wanted to climb Uluru,. What an experience! But there was no way i would accomplish this desire. The path people climb is one of great spiritual significance. It has been here for thousands of years; tourists just a few decades.

At the nearby cultural centre and signs around the site were numerous requests not to climb the rock similar to the one on this website.

How could i climb it with any clear conscience, without feeling guilty that i had totally disregarded the wishes and emotions of the traditional and rightful owners of the site?

I kept watching people clamber down the last stretch and jump to the floor with a smile on their faces and patting each other on the back as if insulting another culture and law was something to be congratulated. Not to get on my high horse but i was rather disgusted. Would these same people, many of whom were probably religious, have tolerated similar desecrations of their spiritual places? One of the Jewish guys on our trip brushed aside my comments, but i wondered what his reaction to someone clambering all over the Wailing wall would have been.

Rather than close the path the Anangu place their faith in visitors voluntarily choosing not to climb through education and understanding; two traits seemingly in short supply!

However, most of our tour were respectful to the Anangu’s culture and spirituality and recognised we were guests on local aboriginal land. We therefore partook in the base walk around Uluru. A 9.4 km trek around this huge edifice, admiring its size, its various colours, and its pockmarked, creased surface. But i kep thinking back to the cultural centre. “The tourist comes here with the camera taking pictures all over. What has he got? Another photo to take home, keep part of Uluru. He should get another lens - see straight inside. Wouldn’t see big rock then. He would see that Kaniga (sp?) living right inside there from the beginning. He might throw his camera away then.”

I didn’t! But i did try and conceptualise my surroundings more in keeping with Anangu teachings which centre around ancestral beings, giant lizards, warring factions and evil spirits, all collectively known as Tjukuntja (the creation-time). Dreamtime is now deemed a discredited, offensive term. For many aboriginal people dreamtime, or ‘the dreaming’ evokes ethereal qualities which imply an unreality to these tales/histories).

However, ones own worldview is notoriously hard to step outside of. It’s even harder to enter another one convincingly, especially one so fundamentally different. I’ve read that many aboriginal worldviews (there is not just one) have no concept of past/present/future! So for me Uluru remained a large rock, but i appreciated the Tjukuntja at the same time.

I was very impressed with the park. For decades, aboriginal land entitlement and interests were wholly ignored. Their responsibility to the land was brushed aside when the area was made a national park. The land rights act 1976 (shockingly late! Shameful!) allowed the Anangu to lay claim to the area. The result? Wait for it……unsuccessful. However,eventually (in 1985) the thousands year old relationship with the land was recognised and immediately leased back to the Australian Nature conservation Agency for 99 years. Now the Piranpa (settled Australians) and Anangu work together in a mutually beneficial relationship repairing the damage done to the land under Piranpa control (before the European invasion the Anangu had successfully managed the land for thousands of years!).
The Mutitjula community is home to around 150-180 aboriginal people and living with them are some Piranpa who provide facilities such as sports and day care. Piranpa are also teaching some Anangu how to be park rangers, but this is no one way exchange of information. In return the Anangu are teaching the Pirapa how to manage the land in an effective and healthy way. They have much to teach and generations of knowledge.

It appeared to me this community was a healthy symbiosis i had not encountered anywhere else in Australia. In Cairns there were many ‘Westernized’ Aboriginal people. Although helpful in brushing aside racist assumptions that Aboriginal people cannot become ‘modern’ it would be sad if the future of all aboriginal communities was assimilation into westernized Australian society. However i have met many Australians who desire just that. there appears to be an assumption that westernized aboriginals are somehow ‘good’, healthy and productive while those who cling to their traditional ways of life are backward and irrelevant. Another argument i encountered was that even when aboriginal communities were westernized they “failed to make anything of their lives”. But this argument rests on the arrogant assumption that western civilization is right for them. The problems faced by aboriginal communities are not those of their choosing, they are a product of invasion, ethnic cleansing, land clearances (and bombings - the Pitjanijatjara and Yankuriytjatjara were lucky enough to join a select few indigenous peoples to have nuclear weapons tested on their land. What a gift!), persecution, and a continuing, unashamedly pervasive racism which i encountered all over the country. Other countires have racism, this is not my argument, but you would be hard pressed to find such brazen prejudice in Britain without some retort from the surrounding public. On a bus to Hervey Bay i was asked by an Aussie why i wanted to go to the red centre when it was full of ‘abos’. Another told me to watch out as the place was full of darkies. I heard of one backpacker being shunned because he called Uluru by its rightful name and not Ayers Rock.

Enough. Back to my trip i think. So, that night as we supped on our beers, we watched the sun set over uluru, the rock turning from a dark orange to a dusty red and finally a deep purpleish brown. after that we drive out to a remote spot in the bush and set up camp, lighting ther fire, placing our swags (a traditional aussie sleeping bag) around in a semi circle and began a long winded game of charades. When the beer had dried up we all snuggled down and watched the night sky. I have never seen so many stars. One could see the whole milky way…a vast strip of patchy light across the sky streaked with shooting stars every few minutes. Amazing.

Day two we travelled to the Olgas which are a series of gigantic, bulging, swollen mounds that like uluru seem to rise out of nothing. Between these mounds we trekked a path through the crevices and clambered down dried river beds and up tricky rock formations.

After this we ventured into the outback to collect firewood and hunt for some Witchetee grubs. I didnn’t really fancy eating another white, pappy bug so i sneakily chose a bush that had no signs of grub decay. Alas half an hour later my tree had produced three huge grubs. The rest of the group? None. Typical. that night we camped under the stars again but this time with our bellies rumbling from the peanut butter flavoured grubs in our bellies.

Day 3 - we were taken to another site where we climbed up a steep mountainside. At the top of this set of ranges was a small path between two rocks. Past this was the ‘Lost city’! Oooooooo i hear you cry. On top of this mountain was a flat expanse walled in on all sides and populated by small half-spherical mounds, none higher than 2-3 metres that reminded me of those models made from stacks of thin wooden slats. Through the lost city we reached the ‘Garden of Eden’ which was absolutely stunning (damn you Eve!). It lay at the bottom of a deep, very thin crevice about 15 metres wide but which stretched for a couple of hundred metres. the whole area was full of ancient ferns, palms trees and eucalypts. At the far end was a deep, clear green pool protected on three sides by high walls of orange stone.

A fantastic trip to end my time in Australia. I had a great time on the trip, with Gayle, Alison and Lisa in particular.

From here i flew to Perth where i originally began my Oz adventure. I decided it was time to head to Asia. Due to my awful organisational skills i had to fly first class to Kuala Lumpa as there were no other economy seats left - not all bad, the champagne on tap, the wonderful Manhattans and the delightful gin and tonics did wonders for my fear of flying, as did the real china, silver cutlery and edible plane food. Wonderful.

Asia, are you ready?