Estimated reading time: 4 minutes.
Nestled 450kms southwest of Alice Springs sits a sacred mound. It reaches 348m into the sky, revered for at least 30,000 years by the Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara people (the traditional owners, known collectively in their language as the Anangu) as a meeting place. It sleeps gently across from its sibling Kata Tjuta, undulating further east of the horizon, frozen in a perennial wave. For countless generations, the Anangu used this place as a site for distinguished women’s and men’s business, held in caves carved out of the mound by the creation ancestors. In these discrete cavities, they conducted ancient rituals passed down by elders from generation to generation, imparting the wisdom and law of the land and its peoples. Today, and since the beginning, they call this place Uluru.
Here, the language is largely Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara, dialects of Aboriginal Australia’s largest language group. And the first word is Palya. For the Anangu, the meaning of palya is severalfold, ruled principally by context. Palya is hello, goodbye, thank you, and finish. Palya brings you closer to the land and its people. Its multiplicity of definitions permeates throughout Anangu land, where all things are intertwined, including time and space.
A sacred text
As the sun rises, Uluru glows a deep red, scattered with streaks of bright orange throughout its crevices and unique features. Art covers the walls of designated ancient classrooms, dating back at least 5,000 years. Further back in time, it was the Mala people, the ancient creators who influenced the characteristics of Uluru. Together with these caves, marks, divots, and collections of boulders across distinct parts of the base, stories of the Mala form the foundational laws of the land, the Tjukurpa, the deep and complex text that describes the way of Anangu life. Representing too the era of the Mala, Tjukurpa is the source of Anangu heritage. It explains the intricate relationships of the people, the florae, the faunae, and the land. It is the beginning, the middle, and the end of all time. To be Anangu is to keep and know Tjukurpa in your heart and mind.
Interspersed throughout the surrounding base of Uluru are what the Anangu describe now in modern terms as their natural pharmacies, supermarkets, hardware stores, and weaponries. The trees and plants are the sources of these outlets, the result of a genuinely intimate understanding of the life that fills Anangu Land. The Mulga tree is the grandest testament to this. Revered by the Anangu, it has been their source for everything from shelter, fuel for cooking and warmth, wood for weaponry (the tree has a natural bend perfect for curving boomerangs), and the occasional bush apple, amongst other veritable uses. Various other florae serve as foods, medicine, ornaments, and decorations. Uluru and its surroundings are much more than mere touristic landmarks, or either as it has historically been, en enigmatic emblem of Australia and its outback.
Respecting its cultural significance
Having been stolen from the Anangu during the colonisation era of Australia, Uluru wasn’t returned to its rightful owners until 1985, subsequent unfortunately to unnecessarily arduous negotiations. In 1987, it was first declared a World Heritage site for its geological features, and in 1994, it became the second in the world to be listed also for its cultural landscape, identifying its traditional belief systems as being some of the oldest in the world.
While these honours have enabled Uluru to enjoy a renewed appreciation, there remain far too many who mistake Uluru’s cultural significance by climbing it. Every visitor to Anangu land is considered by its peoples to be a guest. And as guests, it’s abundantly essential to respect and honour the laws and culture of that land, including repeated requests from the Anangu not to climb Uluru. In modern times, over 35 people have died traversing its steep inclines for the sake of conquering a view, with countless others injuring themselves. With each incident on their land, the Anangu feel a great sadness; every endeavour to climb Uluru provokes that. Furthermore, with every climb, visitors scrape away at Uluru’s façade, inhibiting its ability to develop naturally. Uluru is not about the climb. It’s about listening and learning to the stories; paying your respects.
In some consolation, in 2017, the management board of Uluru declared that on 26 October 2019, Uluru would be permanently closed to climbing, ending a regretful era in the mound’s history. Until then, Uluru shall withstand the ignorant onslaught.
My seance with Uluru has been but a handful of days. And yet, in these fleeting moments, I have developed an appreciation for country and the land that rightly reshapes my perception of Australia and its peoples. It really isn’t the same until you actually come here. And I will be back. Until next time, Uluru. Palya.
Photos by Frankey Chung taken on a Google Pixel 2.