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“Przekrój” Magazine brings to the English reader some of the best journalism from across Central and Eastern Europe, in such fields as culture, society, ecology and literature. Stand aside from the haste and fierceness of everyday news and join us now!

Przekrój
Uluru – the sandstone rock formation in Australia that white colonialists named Ayer’s Rock – ...
2020-08-29 09:00:00

The Heart of the Desert
Uluru Rock

Uluru. Photo by Tomek Niewiadomski
The Heart of the Desert
The Heart of the Desert

Unlike Europe, where buildings tell the most interesting stories, in Australia, the rocks, coastlines and trees hold a fascinating history. Here, the culture is magically enchanted in nature.

Read in 4 minutes

Aboriginal Australians have their own creation myth, which anthropologist Charles P. Mountford describes in his book The Dreamtime: Australian Aboriginal Myths (created in collaboration with artist Ainslie Roberts): “In the beginning, before there was any life, the earth was flat and featureless, unbroken by any mountain range, watercourse, or major natural feature. Nor was it inhabited by any living thing. [...] The aborigines believe that their world is flat, and so limited in area that, should they travel to the horizon, which to them is the edge of the universe, they would be in danger of falling into bottomless space. Then, at some time in the long-distant past, which the aborigines poetically refer to as the Dreamtime, giant, semi-human beings, resembling one or other of the creatures in appearance, but behaving like men and women, rose out of the featureless plains, where they had been slumbering for countless ages, and started to wander aimlessly over the countryside. As they wandered, these Dreamtime heroes carried out the same tasks as do the aborigines of today. [...] The same Dreamtime heroes also decreed the laws that govern all aspects of the secular and sacred life of the tribe. [...] Then, mysteriously, this Dreamtime came to an end, and wherever these creators had been active, some mountain range, isolated hill, valley, watercourse, or other natural feature now marks the place.”

Nature, not the human

Australians gave it a simple name: The Rock. That’s what they tend to do, simplify names by simplifying reality. Yet Uluru is a symbol of anything but averageness. The large rock, larger than many islands (348-metres high and 3.6-kilometres long) is situated in the heart of Australia, while its rusty red ridge is well known to the most sophisticated world travellers. Especially at sunset, the famous mountain seems to glow like a blazing fire.

Uluru. Photo by Tomek Niewiadomski
Uluru. Photo by Tomek Niewiadomski

To those from the West, Uluru is better known as Ayers Rock, named in honour of Sir Henry Ayers in 1873 by the colonial surveyor William Gosse. Yet the Aboriginal people named the sandstone rock formation Uluru, and that may have happened a very long time ago, even as far back as 60,000 years. They are, after all, the oldest people in the world (most probably), with a culture unscathed by the influence of white people for the longest time (most certainly). To this day, the beliefs passed along from generation to generation, told in stories, are the strongest adhesive bonding Aboriginal culture. It’s an extremely rich folk mythology, a bible of sorts, in which overarching principles are coherent for all, while the details differ depending on the tribe. In one story, the creation of light – in other words the sunrise – is attributed to a singing frog, while another story gives all the credit to a kookaburra with a raucous laugh. Yet one thing that remains the same for all is the Dreamtime, or the Aboriginal myth of creation. What’s notable here is that nature takes primacy rather than people. That’s why in Aboriginal stories, ordinary people quite often turn into extraordinary animals.

Kuniya kills Liru

On 26th October 2019, after nearly 90 years of mass tourism, Uluru closed itself off from the outside world. This was something that the local Aboriginal community, the descendants of the Anangu tribe, had been fighting for over many years. For them, the place is not only holy, it is also spiritually alive. The mountain has 40 places of worship and 11 paths of cultural and historic significance. As Richard Flanagan, one of the most outstanding Australian writers and the author of Gould’s Book of Fish explains, for Aboriginal Australians climbing the Uluru is like walking over a living organism.

This is how Barbara Tjikatu of the Ananga tribe describes the beginnings of the mountain:

“This is Mututjulu. And here is the story and Tjukurpa of Kuniya, the sand python coming. Kuniya, the sand python, see just over there, she is moving across, descending this way. She left her eggs a short distance away, and came across just over there, coming across, you can see her over there, coming across there. Doing her ritual dance as she comes closer, moving across there. From over there she got earth, from the ground and put in on herself in preparation. She was becoming enraged and challenging for a fight because of what had happened to her nephew and she, Kuniya the sand python, struck the Liru. In this way – see how it is over there, up above.”

Uluru. Photo by Tomek Niewiadomski
Uluru. Photo by Tomek Niewiadomski

Yesterday and today

All of Uluru is like a living museum, marked by history much like the heavily wrinkled face of an old Aboriginal Australian. The main characters in this story are the Mala people, mythical creatures who took on the form of the mala, the now nearly extinct Australian animal species, otherwise known as the rufous hare-wallaby, a macropod looking like a cross between a hare and a kangaroo. According to the Dreamtime story, the Mala people lived in several different places on the rock and around it. In the north-west corner of Uluru, slightly detached from the body of the rock, is a column that Aboriginal Australians called the Kangaroo Tail. According to local beliefs, it is a pole stolen from the Mala camp by a dingo. On the northern wall of Uluru are a series of caves that the first European colonizers called the Skull. This place had a highly symbolic meaning for the Mala people, because that’s where the initiation of young people would take place. The families of the initiated would camp on the right side of the Skull caves. Further on was a spot where the elders who were not participating in the ceremonies would camp. Mala women would be seated on the flatter parts of the rock. Modern-day descendants of the tribe use these places surrounding Uluru to this day to organize their traditional rites of passage, which are filled with fire and dancing, as well as blood.

Uluru. Photo by Tomek Niewiadomski
Uluru. Photo by Tomek Niewiadomski

Situated 35 kilometres west of the Rock is a range of different orange-coloured mountains, much lower than Uluru, but just as mythical and mysterious. These are the Olgas, named by white settlers in honour of Queen Olga of Württemberg, referred to by local Indigenous peoples as ‘many heads’, or Kata Tjuta. It is yet another place from the book of myths; snakes, kangaroos and other local animals built the foundations of history there, a history that Aboriginal Australians talk and sing about to this day.

For many white Australians, the Aboriginal places of natural worship have become just as important as they are for Indigenous peoples. Why? “The history of white Australia is short and begins from the moment the ships with the criminals came here. The beliefs of Aboriginal Australians are tens of thousands of years old and hold the magic and wisdom that we are lacking,” says James, a tour guide in Sydney.

 

Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon

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