Creative Non-fiction

Australia Twice Traversed by Pip Newling

newling_2016Pip’s first book was Knockabout Girl: A Memoir (HCA) and her creative nonfiction writing has been published in Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings and the Fish Anthology. She is currently writing about local swimming pools, and has a Doctor of Creative Arts (Creative Writing) from Wollongong University in which she wrote about place, race and community and wrote a memoir of her hometown, Taree in NSW.
Australia Twice Traversed

It’s big. No photo will do it justice, I realise. The way it sits on the horizon as we drive towards it, the way it hurts to crane my neck back to the point when I can see both sky and rock as I stand right next to it. All those postcards you’ve seen of it, they need a scale on them to indicate just how small we are in relation to the rock and its history.

History can’t be ignored out at Uluru. Neither can time. The Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre sits on the southern side of the rock and tells the story of Uluru and Kata Tjuta and of the people at Mutitjulu who are the primary custodians of these places. The centre itself is two mud brick snake-like buildings built to represent two Anangu ancestral beings, the Kuniya, the woma python, a woman, and the Liru, the poisonous snake man, who fought at the rock. The centre tells stories of the animals and plants, the environment and the languages of the area. There is no mention of ‘Ayers Rock’, ‘The Olgas’ or those white men who first climbed the women’s place. The piranpa history is just a blink of the eye when set against the continuity of Anangu culture.

‘Culture,’ says Jimmy our tour guide, ‘is everything to the Anangu. Tjukurpa,’ he explains, ‘is the word they use for law and language, and Country.’ I realise that Tjukurpa is also past, present, future and now. It is the story and the rules, the relationship to and ceremony conducted in the place.

Place seems so significant and obvious to me here; it isn’t hidden by buildings or houses or roads. The tussocky grass and the red sand seem resilient even by the standards of Uluru itself, a rusting monumental dome of sandstone that burns red due to the oxidation of the iron and content in the rock. But there is terrible fragility here. Areas are cordoned off. Tracks are laid and signs posted: ‘Please keep to the path as the area is fragile’. A footprint can last a year in the dry cracked earth.

Earth has many massive rock structures similar to Uluru and there is dispute about the definition and measurement standards of ‘monoliths’ but the rock tops most of the tourist lists of ‘Monoliths to see in the world’. It sits in an ancient landscape, a plain that used to be a sea bed and reaches 348 metres up from the ground. The rock is larger underneath the ground than it is above, with almost 2.5 kilometres of its mass buried below. It is taller than the Eiffel Tower and was formed some 600 million years ago. Anangu believe that their ancestors created it as they travelled across the earth, leaving marks in the landscape and providing them with law and knowledge to live by. It is sacred to the Anangu and deserves to be seen in this way by piranpa.

Piranpa, and I am pleased to have a name for myself other than ‘tourist’, have been misunderstanding and not-seeing the rock since 1873 when the European explorer William Grosse first sighted Uluru. He called it ‘Ayers Rock’ after Sir Henry Ayers, the Chief Secretary of South Australia at the time. The Anangu, who have lived in the area for 10,000 years, call it Uluru and now the rock’s official name is ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’.

‘Ayers Rock’ is a name I thought we had moved away from but I find it consistently. I ask the head of marketing at Voyages Ayers Rock Resort why all of their marketing material still refers to ‘Ayers Rock’ and not ‘Uluru’. She tells me that I have misunderstood, that everything they do calls the rock ‘Uluru’, the park ‘Uluru-Kata Tjuta’ and the resort itself ‘Yulara’. “But even your company name contains the words ‘Ayers Rock’, the website that everyone has to book through is, the airport, the tour company – everything refers to ‘Ayers Rock’. Why – after 30 years?’ There is silence on the end of the phone so I push further and ask, ‘Is there a plan to change it to Uluru? Or perhaps even ‘Yulara’?’ She refers me to her boss and to the public relations person of the Indigenous Land Corporation, the company that, in conjunction with the Anangu community group, Wana Ungkinytja, bought Yulara and the resort and the marketing and tour operating arm in 2010 for $300 million. The ILC acquired the entire Resort, including all hotels and accommodation, associated infrastructure, the airport and workers village, in an arrangement with Wana Ungkunytja. There is now interest in an enquiry into the deal, as it is thought they paid too much. When I ask Jimmy whether the Anangu are angered by the persistent use of the words ‘Ayers Rock’ he says, ‘Not much annoys Anangu but they don’t really understand why we can’t call it Uluru. They wait for us, though. They are good at waiting.’ I wonder why people think that tourists wouldn’t come to a place called ‘Uluru’ and how many dollars those two words ‘Ayers Rock’ are believed to attract.

Attractions and distractions abound at Uluru. Tourism here began to increase dramatically in the 1950s. By the 1970s Anangu and others were worried about the environmental damage and so began the process of forming what we now know as the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Almost half a million tourists pass through the park per year. There are camel tours, motorbike tours, hot air balloon tours, helicopter tours, walking tours, camping tours, photography tours, food tours, kids tours and rock art tours. Traffic jams at sunrise are common as the resort evacuates for the rock, cars, station wagons, 4WD, buses, and campervans snake their way across the desert in the soft gossamer-like pre-dawn light to capture that one perfect photo of the rock as sunlight strikes the sandstone.

Sandstone, oxidising sandstone in particular, contains beautiful swirls of rich colour. In amongst these there are old ochre paintings. ‘See here?’ says Jimmy, ‘We can see the outlines of hands and of Anangu, shapes of people, blown onto the rock.’ We are lined up at the chain link fence looking at the rock art and one of our group leans in closer to examine something.

‘Is that recent?’ asks a man in a rabbit skin hat. I turn to where he is pointing and think that the white sprays of chalk on the rock, not far from the wooden deck we’re standing on, might be graffiti. Jimmy, our guide, is flummoxed and dismayed as he steps through the small crowd. He leans over the barrier to see better.

‘It’s ashes,’ he says. ‘Someone has thrown their loved one’s ashes here.’ We all take a breath in and edge away from the luminous dust. ‘This is such a problem,’ Jimmy says.

‘What’ll happen?’ asks a dumpy woman in a faded sloppy joe.

‘We will sweep it up,’ Jimmy says, ‘and the Anangu will decide what to do with it. The ashes can’t stay. Uluru has never been a burial place. It is fertility. Anangu aren’t even buried here.’ He pauses and looks at the ashes strewn on the ground. ‘The Anangu feel that they owe these ashes respect – despite the lack of respect and understanding offered by the spreading of them. It’s a complex discussion,’ he adds. The chain of dismay and consternation that this act initiates makes me appreciate the interrelationship of Anangu to this place in a more expansive and richer way.

Ways of seeing are altered by story, I realise too. Kata Tjuta is a collection of majestic rounded rocks that sits to the west of Uluru and is known as the men’s university, the place of ‘many heads’, the place boys go to become men. The piranpa refer to the highest peak of the rocks as ‘Mt Olga’, first sighted and mis-named in 1872 by Ernest Giles. Giles called the peak after the German Queen, Olga of Württemberg. Somewhere, I had picked up the notion that Uluru was a male place and that Kata Tjuta was a female place. But Uluru is a female place. The heart of Australia is female – perhaps that is why people still feel they are entitled to climb on her, in this nation where women have always been second-class citizens. This hangover of gender assignment, the wrong-seeing of piranpa, has marked our language and our thinking for generations.

Generations of piranpa have continued to come to Uluru. The Outback Pioneer Bar is friendlier than walking into the 5-star Sails in the Desert Resort or the 4.5-star Desert Gardens Hotel for a drink. I head to the toilet while my boyfriend buys the beers. When I get back to our table he is talking to an elderly piranpa man. He has been to the rock – ‘Ayers Rock, it’s always Ayers Rock to me -– I can never remember the other word for it’ -– many times and first came here in 1960s. It seems appropriate, and also not, that he tell us his outlandish stories (of flying a small plane through the domes of Kata Tjuta –‘I’m not going to call it that’ – of how people would camp anywhere, of the drinking and the drinking and the drinking, and that the hotels were put up at the base of the rock without licenses or money changing hands for the land they were built on), in this bar that celebrates a very male version of the ‘outback’ myth.

‘Myth’ is often used to explain Anangu relationship to their Country but I don’t think it is the same at all. The events and cultures that the classical myths are drawn from happened a long time ago, thousands of years ago. Anangu stories are drawn from creation stories, ways of explaining the world as they find it to themselves and others, but there is something very present, very immediate to their inma.

Inma is still performed at Uluru and Kata Tjuta and other places around the area. Jimmy tells us that at different times sections of the rock are closed off for tourists so ceremony can happen. I think of these ceremonies, rituals of story, song and dance, as expressions of religious belief, of celebration and recognition of ongoing connection to the land and of the Anangu’s acknowledgement of their ancestral spirits. Inma is looking after the land and the people, practically and spiritually.

‘Spiritually’: I wonder about that word. It isn’t that I am unmoved by our holiday to Uluru and the way the expanse of plain, the blue of the sky, the horizon stretching out and on into the distance, all lift my spirits. But I am cautious to say I understand what this word means for anyone other than me and especially not for Anangu people. I eschew formal religion of any sort, trust in science and have faith, absurdly I know, in humanity. This framework though does mean my white middle classness is never really challenged for I live in a bubble of like-minded people, a bubble I have chosen. This is the bind I always find myself in. As a piranpa, a non-Aboriginal, white middle class woman, I can always choose not to think about anyone or anything outside of my circle. I can choose to leave, choose to think only about what is next. There is no pressure on me to reflect or to still the voice inside my head or to cede power by listening.

Listening is a powerful aspect of most Aboriginal cultures, I discover. Story is taught through repetition and mimicry, the students need to listen closely to nuanced lifts and pauses in the teacher’s telling of each story. Language is life for the Anangu, Jimmy tells us. Language contains everything. Language is land. Language is Tjukurpa. Here the languages Pitjantjatjara, Yankunytjatjara and Nangantjatjara are spoken. Also Chinese and Japanese and French, and accented English emanating from Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom. And Australian English: ‘Get down here now, Damian, you little shit! We’re doing that later,’ was one fatherly display of Australian English as he yelled at his son who was already metres above the ground on the Uluru climbing track.

Tracks run around the base of the rock and spread out radiating between the few trees and hillocks in the plain. Feathery paw prints, tiny pad prints, and stencil art in the sand made by the skink that lives out here fan out across the ground. Many of the tracks emanate from Kapi Mutitjulu a waterhole on the south of the rock and the source of water for the Mutitjulu community based at the rock. The waterhole is reliant on runoff from Uluru and there is no water at Mutitjulu itself other than groundwater that also depends on the water from Uluru. ‘Kapi’ is the Pitjanjatjara word for water and is crucial at Uluru. When it rains, water cascades down its sides from the flat top. There are almost nine kilometres of grooved worn rock that act as a catchment area. Kapi Mutitjulu is believed to have an eternal water supply. Anangu women hadn’t known a season without water until the summer just one before last. In that season the flow into Kapi Mutitjulu stopped, the narrow watercourse that bursts through two folding curves of the rock faded from a glinting wet line to a black, rough, dry scar. Jimmy tells us that the water around the rock is tainted now. With tourists still climbing to the top of Uluru, and no toilets or rubbish bins up there, all manner of waste is left on the rock. I don’t tell Jimmy that I have seen photos on the Internet of the deep pools, taken by people who have climbed the rock and then gone swimming in them. The cool, clear water looks inviting but they are swimming in the Anangu’s drinking water. Even if they don’t swim much of the rubbish climbers leave up there makes its way into the pools of water that have been carved into the surface over millions of years. ‘Camera batteries, nappies, human waste, toilet paper, food scraps, plastic wrap. All of it gets left,’ he says. ‘And what that means is that this water is undrinkable, but also, I have to climb up the rock, against Anangu wishes, and clean up after them.’ Consternation and complexity abound here.

Here I wake up in the middle of the night hearing dingoes call as they pace around the edges of the campground. I read the signs warning of their cleverness and their watchfulness and their opportunistic attitude toward food. I don’t expect to see one but as we slow, she turns her head towards our car and sniffs. She trots leisurely across the bitumen a few metres in front of the car. She is thin and pale, her fur a sand-blasted bleached colour, and she is smaller than I thought a wild dingo would be. Canus lupus. Indigenous to this country. It is mid-afternoon and we are driving back from Kata Tjuta. It seems incongruous, a dingo in full sunlight. She looks tired, thirsty and focused. When I ran into Jimmy the ranger at the Kata Tjuta toilet block earlier, I asked him about Azaria Chamberlain. It was the thirtieth anniversary of her death and the news had reported that her father was coming to pay his respects at the place she was taken. Jimmy suggested that in 1984 Azaria’s death was the final straw for the Anangu in their fight to remove tourists from the national park at night. The Anangu wanted to be left alone to look after their Country, at least at night, and they thought the dingoes did too. Our dingo disappears into the scrubby grassland, melting into her landscape.

‘Landscape’ always puts me inside the place I am thinking about. The word ‘view’ places me on a high platform above it. I can imagine the thrill of climbing so high above the ground but I can’t understand why people still do it when it is spelt out so clearly why Anangu don’t want us to climb the rock. They don’t climb the rock except for ceremony and even then, only particular Anangu elders are allowed.

‘Wanyu Ulurunya tatintja wiyangku wantima – please don’t climb Uluru. That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say. And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing.’’

Kunmanara, traditional owner

Anangu want us to discover a deeper understanding of this place, to try to see it the way they do. It’s all about respect.

Respect versus disrespect. It seems quite simple, I think. Manners. It is simply good manners to acknowledge the Anangu wishes for their land. Except, of course, many of the people who come believe that they own Uluru and have rights as significant as Anangu rights. This is the fundamental disconnect of Australia that is made obvious here. Disrespect at Uluru, though, is not a new occurrence. As that pirinipa in the pub told us, ‘Back in the 60s, I piloted for an American man who wanted to make a film about Ayers Rock. We were flying 50 metres above the top of the rock. Terrific footage. And we filmed down around the base too. He sprayed a can of beer on the rock art to bring the colours out before we filmed.’ Jimmy mentioned a fertility cave on our tour of the base but we didn’t see it. It’s off limits to any pirinpa and to Anangu men. It is a fertility cave still used for inma and, as the old white Australian man talks, I realise that the cave with the rock art he is describing, the one where the American sprayed beer on the rock art, is this same fertility cave. He describes the rock art in great detail, images that excited him, confronted him, and that he has remembered all these years later. Drawings he, a man, should never have seen.

Seen on the road leading to the rock are buses, many buses full of Chinese and Japanese and retired piranpa who no longer drive themselves. There are also the smaller buses, the ones with the camping tours favoured by young people, from Alice Springs over three hundred kilometres away. The tourists stream out of their vehicles towards the rock in an ecstatic state, as though seeing the rock, touching it, is a religious experience. And then they climb, ticking off the experience as they would a fairground ride, being tourists.

Tourists often take a rock or some sand with them when they leave the park. This is also against Anangu wishes and Tjukurpa. Later, many of these tourists worry about their stolen rocks and send them back with notes apologising, hoping Anangu can forgive them. The Anangu refer to these rocks as ‘Sorry Rocks’. But because the rocks have been taken out of the area, the rocks can’t be put back into the national park, another dilemma for Anangu and Parks Australia.

‘Australia’ is a name derived from the Latin word for south, ‘Australis’. Matthew Flinders coined the expression ‘Terra Australis’ on his maps of his circumnavigation of the continent and Governor Macquarie shortened the phrase to ‘Australia’ in all his official paperwork. By the late 1820s the ‘name’ was commonplace for the continent. ‘Australian’ was originally a term that referred to the Indigenous people of this place, not the settlers. The switch in nomenclature occurred by the end of the eighteenth century and came about because a word had to be found for those Europeans who could not return ‘home’. Now the word denotes anyone who is a citizen of Australia.

Australians like shortening and inventing nicknames, don’t we. We are quite adept at this, I think. It makes me wonder why we are so resistant to adopting new (to us) names for places. The practice of including both the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal names for places in Australia has been gathering pace since the late 1990s. This dual naming symbolically and locally acknowledges the history of colonisation and dissolution of Aboriginal culture that has occurred in this place. The Anangu name ‘Uluru’ was re-introduced in December 1993 and was initially written as ‘Ayers Rock/Uluru’. The word order was reversed to ‘Uluru/Ayers Rock’ in November 2002. On government road signs throughout the Northern Territory, the Aboriginal word appears first. In Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park only Anangu words appear on road signs. Everywhere outside of the national park, the airport, ‘Ayers Rock Airport’, the website, the guide books, the tea towels, the post cards – the priority is still ‘Ayers Rock’.

‘Ayers Rock’ was handed back to the Anangu on 26th October 1985, just over thirty years ago. Within minutes of receiving their land back, the Anangu signed a 99-year lease for Parks Australia to co-manage the park. Co-management has meant employment and opportunity for Anangu and respect for their cultural knowledge. It has also allowed whitefella law to enforce many of their wishes. Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke is still seen as a betrayer of the Anangu as he promised that the climb of the rock would be closed upon the handback. It wasn’t. It seems ludicrous to me, especially from thirty years on, that the Northern Territory Government opposed the handback because they believed that piranpa wouldn’t come to the rock if it was managed by Aboriginal people:

‘Now we are living together, white people and black people. We are working together, white and black, equal. Everything at Uluru still runs according to our Law. All the rangers wear badges carrying the image of Uluru. That is as it should be.’

Being at Uluru makes me think about my relationship to Aboriginal Australia more broadly too. Even that expression, ‘Aboriginal Australia’ is underpinned with power and implies an otherness. Aboriginal cultures name every little thing in relationship to something else. I am in relationship to you. The rock is in relationship to the water, the birds, the sand hills, to people. The fly is in relationship to the dingo, to the horizon, to the young bloodwood trees. But this naming isn’t like English. An Aboriginal word means different things in different contexts. The singularity with which I approach names, ‘this is this thing and it is always this thing’ is rendered meaningless and naïve.

Naïvely, as many white middle class people do, I have always thought there would be no consequence for my tourism, my travels. I just always thought they were mine. I have been to New York, Los Angeles, Palm Springs, Kabul, Dubai too many times, London not enough times, Brighton, Paris, Creteil, Bordeaux, Amsterdam, Berlin, Bonn, Florence, Genoa and Genova, Bali and Brisbane, Melbourne and Milton. An Aboriginal Elder once told me that I had an obligation, a responsibility to and for every place I had travelled. This took me aback. Responsibility? What kind? How? Will it take up too much of my time, I wondered. At Uluru, Jimmy tells us some stories to show us how the Anangu think about their lives, stories of spirits and dogs and birds. He also asks us not to take photos at a specific place because the site is sacred and only for female Anangu. If a man saw the place, even in a photo, they would get sick and perhaps die. Later, I see an older woman taking a photo of the site. She is standing beside the sign that states, ‘This is a sensitive Site: No Photos’. I point this out to her and she blushes and moves along the track. My boyfriend can’t believe I bothered. ‘But I have to say something now I know,’ I say to him.

‘But if she takes a photo and shows it to a man she knows and he dies, what does it matter? It might be what is deserved, needed,’ he says. It bothers me that I almost agree with him. When I run into Jimmy at Kata Tjuta I ask him about this. ‘Do I now have a responsibility or is that just my goody-two shoes whitefella ego talking – pointing out that “I’m not as racist as you, old lady”?’ He laughs and says, ‘Well, either outcome might be a fair call but I think that once we know some story we have obligation to people and Country. Why come here if you aren’t going to feel obligated to respect Anangu and Tjukurpa?’

Tjukurpa sneaks up on me, this word that has to be said with energy so as to capture the ‘ch’ of the ‘Tj’ at its beginning. It is said with frequency by the park staff, it is on much of the written material handed out at the cultural centre. It is an offering, this word, from the Anangu to assist us in understanding the deep connection they have to their Country and the place. It is offered in good faith and requires reciprocity, I realise. Reciprocity is the basis of all Aboriginal cultures. It is the manifestation of interconnectedness, of mutual benefit, of respect, and can be seen in social practices, in story and in the interrelationship between the past, present and future. I wonder though, how I can reciprocate. What can I offer? What could I possibly give that would be useful, might show my respect and thanks for being allowed onto their Country.

Country, for Anangu is alive and it is story, and language and dance and the air that we breathe here. Is their relationship to the world so different that we will never be able to appreciate theirs and always be limited by ours?

Our tour comes to an end and I ask Jimmy if he knows any of the men’s stories. He turns to look at Kata Tjuta sitting across the plain in the early morning sun and says, ‘Not really. It is old business over there and not so many of the Elders are keen to pass it to someone like me who isn’t Anangu. But I’ve been invited to go with them next time they have ceremony to do.’ I wonder, again, why we know so much about the female business at Uluru, why the men have been able to keep their stories and the women have had to give up some of theirs. I wonder about the dynamics of gender in our world and about relationship, the interdependency of all things, one on the other.

Other stories will be told as they have been for millennia but this, I come to understand, is the one I can be responsible for. This is my offering.