Last week, Rachel and I had some welcome decompression time: two nights in Sydney and five in Yulara, Northern Territory, AKA Uluru!
(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
- 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
- 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
- Were glad of our coats and scarves
Life on Mars
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).
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.
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).
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:
- 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)
- In 1985, it was ‘handed back’ to the Anangu on condition that they ‘leased’ it to the Northern Territory government for 99 years
- 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!
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.
On to Melbourne!