IT LOOKS LIKE MARS

Last week, Rachel and I had some welcome decompression time: two nights in Sydney and five in Yulara, Northern Territory, AKA Uluru!

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(just over) 24 hours in Sydney
…were rainy, but great. We did a few things:

  • Enjoyed our bargainous but (to us) luxurious hotel
  • Went swimming in the glorious indoor heated pool
  • Watched the Olympic closing ceremony
  • Ate delicious, delicious French Toast brunch
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  • Walked to Circular Quay (the one with the opera house)
  • Got the ferry across the quay to Milson’s Point (so exciting! So bargainous!)
  • Went to Wendy Whiteley’s Secret Garden – if you’re ever in Sydney, you must go! It’s got sculptures (I do love a sculpture!) and amazing plants and peaceful picnic spots and unique views of the Harbour Bridge.
  • Drank a very calorific but very necessary hot chocolate
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  • Met up with my friends, Alicia and Leigh, and drank cocktails with a (rotating!) view
  • Met up with another excellent friend-called-Alicia by Sydney Opera House
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  • Were glad of our coats and scarves

Life on Mars
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Having been immersed in all this landscape identity stuff, it was exciting to go to the beating heart (or Red Centre as Australians call it) of the continent and the people – both indigenous and non-indigenous. Unfortunately, Rachel and I immediately developed the Moorambilla cold, but we pushed on through anyway and saw (YET MORE) amazing things…

Uluru, and its rocky friend about 20 minutes down the road, Kata Tjuta, are those sites that you get used to seeing on postcards or TV. In real life, the phrase ‘jaw drop’ is in no way hyperbole. I’ve never seen terrain like it: it’s red (yet, upon closer inspection, filled with colour), it’s dry (yet, upon closer inspection, filled with life), and it’s flat (yet, upon closer inspection- actually, no, apart from the massive rock, it’s pretty flat).

Tjukurrpa
Uluru and Kata Tjuta are are vast, by any standard of natural phenomenon; but when plonked in the midst of such flat planes, it’s very easy to imagine how, to the Anangu, the Aboriginal people who own the land and have lived on it for at least 40,000 years, these places must have felt very significant, bestowed on them by something bigger than them. In fact, looking at them, that’s how I feel.

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However, the Anangu people have a different perspective on the idea of spiritual or religious significance to the ideas of a god or gods found in other parts of the world: Uluru and Kata Tjuta are important because they tell the Anangu’s story (often literally – there are cave paintings all over Uluru).

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Piggy? Is that you?

The ideas of ‘law’, ‘wisdom’, ‘knowledge’ and ‘dreaming’ are synonymous, in one word: Tjukurrpa. For the Anangu, laws don’t have to be written down (in fact, in the cultural information centre near Uluru, I read a quote about how, to Aboriginals, the changeability of Western codified laws is bewildering). Separate Tjukurrpa, for men and women, have been passed down through the generations. Much of this knowledge is sacred: only particular members of the Anangu, of particular ages, are allowed to know about it. People outside the group don’t know much of this information, but lots of it is tied into particular parts of the rocks. There were several sections with signs asking visitors to not take photos because of the sacredness of the particular place.

Based on what I saw in NT, I felt the following was true about the Anangu people:

  • They are highly knowledgeable and skilled in making their desert liveable
  • They have deep respect for their land and place
  • They have deep reverence for the wisdom and experience of older people (I got quite excited by one cave on Uluru which was literally the old people’s cave where they were looked after by younger Anangu!)
  • Their culture is filled with integrity and humility, focused on peace and working for the greater good rather than the individual

That’s why I find some things about this area’s recent cultural existence pretty perplexing:

  1. Until 1985, it was ‘owned’ by the Australian government (named Ayers Rock in 1873 by the person who ‘discovered’ it, after the chief secretary of South Australia)
  2. In 1985, it was ‘handed back’ to the Anangu on condition that they ‘leased’ it to the Northern Territory government for 99 years
  3. Even though there are signs everywhere politely asking visitors not to climb the rock, because of its spiritual significance (and also because of safety concerns), if you really, really want to, after seeing the stunningly beautiful walks you can do around the rock instead, after seeing how important it is to the owners of this magnificent thing to not climb the rock, YOU CAN STILL CLIMB THE ROCK. And I was pretty shocked at how many people were going ahead and doing just that. Isn’t it like when people are asked to cover up when entering cathedrals? You just do it, right?*

*Disclaimer: if there’s anyone with a better/more in-depth understanding of these issues, please fill me in – the above is based on what I saw and read at Uluru!

Walking, walking, walking
We did a lot of it.

  • We walked around Uluru: 10.6km! Just far enough to start wondering if we’d missed the end and started going round again.
  • We walked through Kata Tjuta: this was painful – we got up oh so early to watch the sunrise; then, as we were already on our way there, went straight to do the pretty hardcore (by Anna standards) hike, very much upwards, through rocks and other uneven terrain – all with no cup of tea! It was even more Mars-like than Uluru, albet with amazingly green sections
  • We walked up and around King’s Canyon. It’s a three hour drive from where we were staying in Uluru and you have to be back before sunset (around 6.30) as car rental firms won’t insure you after dark on account of the high probability of roadkill = car write-off = human kill/injury…, so we didn’t have time to do the biggest walk, but the medium-sized walk was QUITE enough. Many, many more exclamations of IT LOOKS LIKE MARS.

A Note on Ayers Rock Resort
If you ever get the opportunity, DEFINITELY GO to see this bit of the world. But be warned: it’s a totally captive market! The whole resort is owned by one company (albeit an Aboriginal one – I really hope all the profits go back to the local community), and they basically charge what they like! We stayed in the hostel, which was fine, but not really hostel-y price. Don’t get fleeced out of any more money than strictly necessary to see the stuff that far surpasses tourist tack!

Starry night
The night before we left Uluru, Rachel (pro photographer extraordinaire) showed me how to take photos of the stars and the Milky Way and it was the best thing ever! This song popped into my head and wouldn’t leave.

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On to Melbourne!

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4 thoughts on “IT LOOKS LIKE MARS

  1. You did ask for comments/corrections, Anna, so I hope it is OK to say this. You start with, “five (nights) in Yulara, Northern Territory, AKA Uluru!”
    Yulara is the name of the resort town. Plans to build it were announced in 1976 and it became operational in 1984.
    One of the reasons for building of the TOWN of Yulara is because of environmental degradation to the area in the Uluru/Katajuta National Park. The town is outside of the national park.
    Uluru is the name of the rock. I agree with you. One cannot be there without being aware of the powerful spirituality of the area. I’m glad you didn’t call it Ayers Rock. All too many Aussies still refer to it as the latter, and as that particular politician was fairly unsavoury, there are many reasons why I hope his name soon drops from history.
    It is only since 2011 that Yulara has been owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation so that was news to me. Our younger son’s godfather was a partner in the Architectural company that designed Yulara. The motel shaped like a crocodile is one of its more famous features.
    Why do people climb Uluru? Well, the first two times I was there, in 1976 and 1977 I had absolutely no idea that the Indigenous people had any thoughts in general one way or the other about climbing Uluru. I was 22 and 23, respectively, and awareness of Indigenous Spirituality was very low on the spectrum of most Australians.
    It is actually a very challenging climb and not knowing any better, but having seen plenty of t-shirts (seriously) in NSW declaring “I’ve climbed Ayers Rock” it was a challenge to which I aspired. As you will have seen, it’s the equivalent of 95 stories, and quite steep at times. Most of the deaths associated with the climb are from heart attacks.
    When we were there in 1996, my husband and two sons climbed it. I didn’t feel as if it was my place to lay my newly acquired sensitivities on them. I just asked my husband why he did climb it. He is certainly much more sensitive to cultural issues than the majority of Australian people and his off the cuff answer was, “Because it was there.”
    Some people have said that climbing it, or being at the top, was the most exhilarating, cherished and memorable experience of their whole Australian trip.
    Undoubtedly, if climbing Uluru was banned (and that may well happen) the tourist income to the region would drop dramatically.
    It sounds as though signage has become more assertive since we were there 20 years ago. Then, it was indicated that the Indigenous people preferred that people didn’t climb, but that was as associated with safety as anything else.
    At a Book Club meeting on Sunday, someone mentioned that if one visits Stonehenge, one can’t even TOUCH the stones. That was their response. I could understand it. They couldn’t.

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    1. This is really interesting! Thank you very much, Patricia! Yes, the resort bumpf, albeit in a way that made them sound good, explained about the resort being moved out of the national park bounds. How/who decides where the boundaries of the national park are, anyway?!

      It’s interesting that it hasn’t historically been such a big issue – do you think that’s because of the way aboriginals were generally treated? Rachel and I both commented that if you do get up there it must be an amazing view/atmosphere, but I was just surprised to see so many people doing it when it was made so clear that it was offensive to the people to whom the place holds the most significance. Do you think if it was banned they might initially lose visitors but as people got used to it, this would even out again?
      I thought stone henge was from a preservation point of view rather than it being sacred in the same way.

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  2. Oh, Anna – the history of the treatment of Indigenous Australians is heartbreaking. I’m not sure where to start.

    It’s probably hard for someone from Europe to understand quite how “new” to Europeans the real Australia is. When our younger son was an exchange student in France, he went to a school that was built originally as a monastery (I think) in the eleventh century. Our home is heritage listed (of which we are quite proud – it wasn’t when we bought it!) and it was built in 1929. Less than a 100 years and its heritage listed.

    Who decides where the boundaries of the National Park are?
    Basically, as with most things at the time in relation to Aboriginal people (not that it will ever matter in this context but your reference to aboriginals (uncapitalised) would be considered racist in 2016) it was State governments but occasionally, as in this case, it was the Federal government. Between 1918 and 1921 large adjoining areas of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory were declared as Aboriginal reserves, as sanctuaries for a nomadic people who had virtually no contact with white people.

    In 1920, part of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park was declared an Aboriginal Reserve (commonly known as the South-Western or Petermann Reserve) by the Australian Government under the Aboriginals Ordinance (NT).

    During the depression in the 1930s, Anangu became involved in dingo scalping with ‘doggers’ who introduced Anangu to European foods and ways. The FIRST tourists visited the Uluru area in 1936.

    From the 1940s the two main reasons for permanent and substantial European settlement in the area were Aboriginal “welfare” (which included, as I’m sure you’ve heard about, the Stolen Generations) policy and the promotion of tourism at Uluru.

    In 1948 the first vehicular track to Uluru was constructed, responding to increasing tourism interest in the region. Tour bus services began in early 1950. So on my first two visits there, it was less than 30 years since a road had even been built there. We stayed in a dinky little motel made out of old Quonset huts – no, more like Nissen huts – anyway, CERTAINLY not the upmarket accommodation.

    I used to attach photos and documents to my WordPress account and I’ve scanned a few things from my 1976 and 1977 visits there but I’ve forgotten how to do it! Frustrating. Indigenous Issues are SO CLOSE TO MY HEART, you’re probably lucky I can’t overwhelm you with stuff.

    I’ll continue the conversation if you like. I know music / education/ children are your main interests so this might all be a bit over the top.

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  3. I have decided to add a couple of additional comments, for some reason, even though it is 8 months later.
    You asked, “Do you think if it was banned they might initially lose visitors but as people got used to it, this would even out again?”
    I don’t know. As I mentioned earlier, in the three times I have visited Uluru, the first two times in 1976 and 1977, there was nothing to indicate that to do so was against the wishes of the traditional owners, and the last time, still over 20 years ago, the signs were more indicative that the traditional owners found it worrisome that people might be hurt or killed.
    30 people have died recently climbing Uluru and if even one person died on Sydney’s fantastic Bridge Climb, I’m sure it would be closed – or at least halted until the entire event had been closely examined and there had been a coroner’s report.
    You may be heartened to know that Parks Australia reports that a lower and lower percentage of the tourists who visit Uluru are choosing to climb it. Perhaps an outright ban may prove unnecessary.
    One authority stated, “If you banned climbing altogether, there is a group who would stop going. But I think the core experience has been shifting away from climbing.”
    I too was shocked at the behaviour of some visitors. As we walked around the base in 1996, we saw a woman, without embarrassment, climb over a boundary rope at one point which had the sign on it, “Please do not proceed past this point as it is particularly sacred” and barge up close to an area, a distance from which there was a sign asking that it not be photographed, so she could get the best camera angle.
    I ask myself now, “Why didn’t I stop her?”
    Partly, it was because it happened even as we watched on with disbelief but the truth is also that my assertiveness varies from day to day and how confident I am feeling at the time. I’m also more likely to be assertive if I’m on my own. Sometimes, my husband gets embarrassed at my outspokenness, even though he will describe himself, at the same time, as a wimp :-).
    ‘A lot of tourists now own the sense that they haven’t climbed it. You’ve been there more recently than me but I am told that whilst the tourist shops still sell T-shirts that say “I climbed Uluru”, they ALSO sell T-shirts that say “I didn’t climb Uluru”.’

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