Saturday, 14 May 2011

I am basically an adult now

(taken with the laptop camera, so a little lo-res)

After  many hundreds of dollars, dozens of hours of training and untold induced heart attacks, the Motor Vehicles Registry has seen fit to issue me with a license to drive a motor vehicle.

God help us all.

To get my license in time to help with the driving for our desert job, I had to go to Yulara, which is a very strange place. Yulara is basically the resort for tourists who want to visit Uluru or for those rare ones with taste who want to see Kata Tjuta (which is a far more interesting rock formation that is not that far away).

That observation about Kata Tjuta (known as the Olgas to whitefellahs) was going to be an aside but I'll spend a little longer on it now. Emma's previous post was about the weirdness about Yulura and the strange choice of perspective of Uluru that means everyone's seen it a million times from that same angle even if they never come here. In addition to that, it's just a large samey sort of rock. I mean, that's not bad. It's nice as far as that goes. But you can't really spend that much time looking at it.

But Kata Tjuta is awesome. It's not just one rock, it's dozens of the things. In the local language it means "many heads" and it absolutely looks like the grisly remains of some Dreamtime titanic decapitation session. Every bit of it, every angle, every structure is unique. I can't show you a picture because the camera in the laptop is too weak to go that distance, but one view is the background of our blog. That gives you some idea.

You can spend hours on it. And, as a side note, the locals have no problems with people climbing on it or swimming in the water holes within it's byzantine tunnels (unlike Uluru which is sacred to locals and they'd really prefer if you didn't crawl all over it).*

And it's just down the road but most tourists prefer Uluru and prefer to crawl all over it. 

Anyway, this is related to my license because today we were meant to leave Yulara. I was going to do the first leg. I put the P-plates on, climbed in the Landcruiser, turned the key and ... nothing. The AANT guy said the alternator is shot and we have to wait until at least Monday and probably Tuesday before we can leave.

A forced stay in a resort doesn't sound like punishment but when everything to do here is aimed at people who would prefer to see a rock they've seen 1000 times before and pay $35 to cook meat on their own Aussie BBQ and you can't go to Kata Tjuta because your car is broken down... well it's not as much fun as it could be.

Which all sounds a little too much like adulthood, huh?

* You can swim at Kata Tjuta but you are warned that giants will try to drown you and eat you, according to "Strict Rules" the book about the Blackfellah/Whitefellah tour by Midnight Oil and Warumpi Band. You can risk death but it doesn't insult the locals, unlike climbing Uluru.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Uluru: view from the other side

I think everyone who lives in Australia, or visits Australia, or possibly knows anything about Australia has quite possibly seen Uluru (some whitefella in the 1800s decided it as his right to name it after some other whitefella called Henry Ayers, but we’ll stick with the name its custodians give it, eh?)

I don’t necessarily mean you’ve visited it, climbed it, bought the t-shirt… but its image is iconic. I’m not sure how it came about that most nature photographers decided on exactly the same spot to snap the rock (or maybe the Traditional Owners decided on it?). Some have ventured beyond, to take different perspectives, but for many people, that one image of the rock – slightly flat on top, almost rectangular shape, sticking out of the earth- is the one that springs to mind.

One day, years ago, thought I’d pinpointed the exact place from where the iconic photos had been shot: just off the road, where the tourist buses lined up to watch the sunset. As soon as it is dark they are quickly shuttled back to the Ayers Rock Resort at Yulara, that anachronistic, slightly freaky multi-million dollar place that the architects claim blends in so naturally with its stunning surroundings.

I’ve always found it … slightly scary. I can’t be at Yulara without feeling culture shocked and like the beauty that is the desert has somehow been wrapped up in glad wrap.

But then, when I’m in Yulara, usually I have come there from the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, from a remote Aboriginal community some will describe as “the Third World within the First”. I guess culture shock is relative.

I have approached Uluru many times over the last 15 years. The Uluru I know is shaped differently to the one on the postcard. Generally, the view I get is the view from the other side; the view the aṉangu have. The view from the side of the rock that isn’t so marketed.

At the base of the rock, the side that Yulara isn’t on, lies the community of Mutitjulu. In the mornings, it is in the shadow of the rock. I remember camping there with a group of school kids who had been selected to “welcome” the Olympic flame when it came to Central Australia.

Mutitjulu isn’t really on the schedule of the people operating the tours of the area. The aṉangu probably aren’t interested in having tourists traipse through their homes taking photos of the “natives”, and the government definitely isn’t all that interested in the world seeing the conditions in which the Aboriginal people, the owners and custodians of that multi-billion dollar tourist attraction, live.

But here’s the thing. Yulara, which is surely just as remote as Mutitjulu (unless remoteness is measured by distance to airports, in which case Muti is maybe forty k’s more remote), and yet there are fresh vegetables there. According to the cops (no need to go into why we suddenly are on speaking terms with the Yulara police station), mail is delivered daily- albeit slightly unreliably.

In keeping with the introduction at the top of this blog (we had to write something there…), I’d suggest that, in Yulara, you can buy everything you need to make a pie. Even one of my yummier, more exotic pies.

It’s been a while since I was at the Muti store, but I’d be pretty happy to bet that you couldn’t, there. Certainly you never used to be able to.

And yes, unlike the Ngaanyatjarra communities, it’s true that the aṉangu of Mutitjulu have the option of driving to the supermarket at Yulara- it’s even bitumen all the way!

But getting back to my culture shock. If I, a whitefella who hangs out in town and country, and has done on various continents, find the place disturbing- how must they feel?

I’d be willing to posit that for each million dollars you pay an architect to design something “natural, unimposing, in keeping with the surroundings”, the more alienated and separated from nature the people staying there are going to feel.

I love staying “in nature”. That’s why I have a swag. I spent a few hundred dollars on it because I wanted a good one that the tropical bugs wouldn’t penetrate.

For reasons related to the Yulara police station but in no way suggesting any illegal activity on anyone’s behalf (Pete may well blog about it someday), we are destined to spend a few nights at Yulara.

As is usually the case, we go there from across the border, in the Ngaanyatjarra Lands, where we are two weeks into a nine-week stint.

For two weeks, living out here in a part of Australia most never see, surrounded by a law, language and culture that is not my own (though so close to my heart), I have been thinking “I should blog. People want to hear about what it’s like out here. And we’re having an adventure- aren’t we?!”

But somehow, the daily desert dramas seem too homely to me, too normal to write about. And it is the pending trip to Yulara, back to “civilisation”, where there’s fresh food and – “hey, you can get drunk at Yulara! Weren’t expecting a drink til July, eh? Bonus!” – that has given me something to write about.

It has been a hard week, there have been some confronting moments. We’re tired. We’re letting ourselves get excited about a few nights in a hotel room worth more per night than my swag. We can go out for dinner, stock up on fresh food… yes, maybe have a drink.

But I know how I’ll feel when I get there, because I always feel it. I will be relieved I am not travelling with aṉangu, as I can imagine how uncomfortable they would feel there, in the cafes that have a dress code, with their culture packaged and on sale all around them.

At the same time, in a weird way, I will feel uncomfortable that I am not with aṉangu. That the people I am leaving “just til Saturday, see you then, palya?” – don’t have access to all the wealth, the bells and whistles and good food and comfy beds, that Yulara represents, and that has come the dispossession, exploitation and commercialisation of them, their land, their culture.

Munta, aṉangu ngaltutjara, ngura ngaltutjara.