Uluru – Sacred Mound of the Aborigines

Uluru – Sacred Mound of the Aborigines

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Uluru is a unique rock formation, bang in the middle of the outback, almost at the centre of the Australian continent, in the desert province of Northern Territory. Along with Kata Tjuta, a similar rock formation some 30 kilometres away, Uluru is sacred to the Anangu people who are the original inhabitants of this vast territory. Once taller than the Andes, Uluru is now reduced to a smooth stub just 348 metres in height. It is nevertheless stunning, whichever angle I view it from. From the sky, it stands out from the rest of the landscape by its sheer ochre sheen and telltale shape. From the ground, the chiaroscuro of light and shade tantalises from afar. When I get up close, the mound changes hues dramatically from moment to moment. It can go all the way from orange to maroon with all the shades in between. The striations wrought by the elements over millennia on its otherwise smooth surface stand out in stark relief, scored and pitted by dark shadows.
Aboriginal art

These patterns, as well as the rest of the outback, have inspired thousands of generations of Aboriginal art. Complex whorls, stunning spirals and cosmic patterns inspired by the star-studded night sky are recurring themes in Aboriginal art, apart from native flora and fauna. Aboriginal art is created through millions of painstaking dots in bright colours ground from native rocks, which makes it unique and pleasing. Art works from Uluru have found pride of place in some of the best known galleries and museums around the world.

Since 1873, Uluru has also been known as Ayers Rock. The Australian surveyor who first chanced upon it had named it after Sir Henry Ayers, then the first secretary to the province of South Australia. Witness to 30,000 years of Aboriginal history in Australia, Uluru, the silent sentinel, has seen it all—the coming of early humans to this faraway land, the crossing of the open ocean in dugout canoes and clumsy catamarans, the trudging through a tenuous land bridge that might have existed aeons ago. Uluru has seen the original settlers’ indomitable spirit and persistence in scratching out a precarious existence on this seemingly barren terrain; it has watched over the evolution of a way of life in which they trod lightly on this rugged land, leaving virtually no footprint; it has also been a mute witness to the more recent tumultuous and transformative history of occupation after Captain Cook landed on the shores of this remote island continent 250 years ago.

«There are many groups of Anangu Aboriginal people in this area, but all of them belong to the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara families which share a common culture and language. Each of these groups is territorial, but had frequent interactions with each other, especially during ceremonial occasions. The Aboriginal people are not tribes as we call similar people elsewhere on the planet. They have no chiefs, only family elders in whom reside a treasure trove of secrets of their ancestry and culture. This precious knowledge is not shared lightly. The younger members of the family have to earn the right to imbibe it in bits and pieces.
Kata Tjuta

While Uluru is better known, Kata Tjuta, a multi-domed rock formation also known as Olgas, is the more sacred of the two sites. The Anangu believe that the spirits of their ancestors reside in these rocks. Kata Tjuta is where the initiation ceremonies of the male members of the family are held, while Uluru is exclusively for the female members. It is to Uluru that the women come to give birth. It is out of bounds to men, although nowadays tourists are allowed to climb Uluru if they so choose, much to the chagrin of the traditional owners of Uluru who consider the mound inviolable. There are signboards entreating tourists not to climb, although they are often ignored.

Despite living in this region for over 30,000 years, the Anangu left no footprint on the land. Among the Aboriginal people, there is no concept of ownership over the land; instead, they believe, they belong to the land. They wore no clothes, hunted and gathered food, but just enough for themselves for the day; there was no concept of squirrelling away anything for the morrow, nor the desire to pass on anything to the next generation, except knowledge and skills. They built no houses and had intimate knowledge of the various plants and animals that inhabited this seemingly inhospitable terrain. The bounty of the bush kept them nourished and thriving. Every adult male, even today, is adept at throwing spears, while every woman knows where the juiciest berries are to be found. Back at the resort, I sign up for a crash course in bush tucker, in which tourists are shown varieties of roots, berries and barks which go to make up the daily diet of the Aboriginal people. Their favourite game is the monitor lizard, which thrives in these harsh landscapes. It has striking patterns, like a tiger, on its bright yellow skin. Intimate knowledge of every plant and animal in this seemingly arid land has been the key to the Aboriginal people’s survival.

The Kata Tjuta National Park, which houses both Uluru and Kata Tjuta, was handed back to its original owners in 1985, but the Australian government, realising the tourism potential of the area, took back the park and the adjoining lands on lease for 99 years from the native owners. After all, 400,000 visitors come to Uluru every year. There do not seem to be too many Aboriginal people working in the tourism industry, though.

While virtually all Aboriginal groups have been mainstreamed to an extent, it is not clear how they feel about the changes that have overtaken them in the past 250 years. Of course, they no longer roam the outback naked and many of them have been converted to Christianity and are, in fact, devout churchgoers. How they preserve and practise their own culture and traditions in the face of tumultuous changes that have overtaken their community remains a deep mystery.

I join a tour of the Aboriginal lands, generally out of bounds for other visitors, to learn a little more about the life of the natives. We are joined by an Uluru family member—he calls himself Bance—who narrates some of the Uluru traditions and customs to a rapt audience. He tells us the story of Paddy Uluru whose valiant struggle was instrumental in claiming this land back from the colonisers. He is critical of the Australian government’s decision to allow climbing on the sacred mounds. According to Bance, all that his people want from the Australian government is to be left alone to lead their native way of life. I am disappointed that we are still not allowed access to any indigenous communities and have to be content with Bance’s narration.

The secret to surviving in the outback is to know the location of the waterholes. However, these had to be protected from wild animals which could foul up the elixir of life. It seems modest, but then the number of Aboriginal people using these waterholes is also small. Bance leads us to a waterhole right in the middle of the arid desert. We have lively avian company this afternoon. A huge flock of zebra finches is already perched on the shrubs surrounding the waterhole, chattering away noisily. A lone cockatoo waits patiently on an adjacent tree. This being the only waterhole for miles around, these birds have no option but to wait for us to leave.

Australia is home to some of the most venomous creatures on the earth, including the taipan snake, sharks and box jellyfish. The outback has its fair share of dangerous species, some exclusive to the region. However, after the advent of the Europeans, many introduced species such as rats, rabbits, camels and toads overran the landscape and destroyed the native mammals and other creatures. Attempts are afoot to reintroduce species of malleefowl, common brushtail possum, rufous hare-wallaby, bilby, burrowing bettong and black-flanked rock-wallaby. The woma python is the stuff of many native legends and can be spotted around the two sacred mounds. The thorny devil, another quintessential outback creature, is also endemic to Uluru.

During our drive through the scrubland, we came across several wild dromedaries, introduced from Afghanistan over 200 years ago. They have since gone feral and roam the outback, daring anyone to approach them. They are as curious as humans, never taking their eyes off our vehicle until we drive out of their sight. Lochie, our guide, tells us they are more dangerous than dingoes and can outrun the fastest among us. A lone emu darts across the mud track we are driving on, and we also sight three bush turkeys. A few wallabies hop about in search of insects. In the evening, the howl of dingoes could be heard in the resort although none was seen.

Uluru has been a tourist attraction since 1936. The 2,834-km-long Stuart Highway, connecting Uluru to Darwin in the north and Alice Springs and thence to Adelaide, originally a mud track, was sealed in the 1980s, bringing in hordes of Grey Nomads, Australia’s own version of baby boomers, now in their sixties and seventies, who throng the outback in their caravans, campervans, trailers, fifth wheelers, motorhomes, and so on. Grey Nomads spend most of the year, sometimes several years, on the road, moving from one campsite to another. Uluru, Alice Springs and Darwin can also be reached by air from Sydney and other Australian cities now.

Tourism has also brought modern trappings to Uluru. You can even ride around the rocks in a souped-up, fancy Harley Davidson or watch exhilarating sunsets while sipping champagne. Camel safaris are popular with the visitors. Yulara, the town where the resorts are located, is exclusively for tourist benefit. And despite its location thousands of miles from any major town or port, the Ayers Rock Resort, which runs all the lodgings in the region, offers every conceivable comfort to the visitor—from air-conditioned rooms to international cuisine, which includes, not surprisingly, several Indian dishes. After all, quite a few of the catering staff are of Indian origin.

  • (Published in Frontline dated Aug 31, 2018)