Our truck is hurtling down the Northern Territory’s Red Centre Way. It’s a long, hot road and it’s shepherding us some 321km from Kings Canyon – where we spent the night camping and the morning hiking – back into Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. The sky is so blue a fish could mistake it for home. The sun is set to a stubborn 40 degrees. We sweat beneath it. The earth – used to the heat by now - just kind of shrugs it off.
Up front sits our Adventure Tours Australia guide, Justin, a charismatic 26-year-old from Melbourne. One hand on the wheel, the other clasping a fly swatter, he slaps at flies whilst facilitating the hurtling, resembling a character from a Monty Python sketch. I ply him with questions relating to this special chunk of land and everything it represents. “None of my mates back in Melbourne would know diddly-squat about Aboriginals anywhere in Australia,” he yells back at me between swipes. “Aussies need to get out there and learn more about it so we can create a better future for all of us. We owe these people at least that, I think.”
I’m sat in the back of this truck with eight other travellers who’ve come along for the ride. As we plunge down the highway, a red smudge paints itself across the bus windows. It’s a big, ochre world out here. Aretha Franklin’s ‘Respect’ comes on over the radio. I decide it’s a fitting song for this journey.
We spent yesterday exploring a small portion of this big world and beginning our education on the history of country. Justin’s passionate about it. “The future of Aboriginals in Australia relies on more young people trying to understand the culture and the history, too,” he continues after a pause. These are insights he has gleaned after just one year of working in the Red Centre.
Welcome to country
The next day, we’re awakened at 4.30am to make it to Uluru in time for a sunrise walk around the base. It’s the one hike that everyone’s looking forward to the most and our only opportunity to get close to the rock. It’s easy to see the size of Uluru from afar, but only when you’re walking alongside it, I discover, can you truly appreciate its physical and historical scale.
It’s nearing the end of our two-hour walk when an old car rattles up on a dirt road beside us. A hearty “GOOD MORNING!” cuts through the crunch of the tyres on the track. We turn to see an old Aboriginal man and his family waving and smiling at us. We wave and give a “good morning” back. As the family drive off, I notice a member of our group smiling, tears in her eyes. “I felt uncomfortable being here...,” she says. “But that just felt like we’ve been given permission.”
Time for a history lesson: though inhabited by the Anangu people for tens of thousands of years, Uluru and the land surrounding it was ‘discovered’ by explorer William Gosse in 1873. In the years that followed, the area was declared an Aboriginal Reserve and Uluru itself was ‘separated’ from it in 1950 and dubbed Ayers Rock National Park.
The land title sat with the director of Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service (and later, the Northern Territory Government) up until 1985, when the land was handed back to the traditional owners. In the hand back, the Anangu agreed to lease Uluru back to Australian Parks and Wildlife Service for 99 years. This meant the tourism would continue but that the Anangu would receive compensation in the form of a percentage of ticket sales into the park. And now, Uluru is jointly managed by the Anangu and Parks Australia.
Our small group for this trip is made up of Irish, Canadian, Japanese, Chinese and the woman with the feelings, who’s English. Justin is the only Australian. “It’s always a surprise to see an Australian on a trip - especially young Australians,” he says. “But it comes back to the stereotype that Aussies will wait to retire until they see their own country.”
And the stats back it up: a report from Tourism Northern Territory says that on average, only 15% of domestic visitors to Uluru are below the age of 34. Justin concedes that a lot of Australians - young and old - will hire a car and travel out here on their own, but says that without a guide by their side to explain the history, the land and the culture, it’s not the same. “I bet you $100 they don’t take it all in," he says.
History from the heart
Australia often cops flack for not having the history to go toe-to-toe with the more popular young tourist hotspots such as Europe, South America or South East Asia. And if you’re talking specifically about urban architecture, sure, you can have that one. But if you’re talking about human history, well, just go ahead and Google ‘the world's oldest surviving culture’.
One man who’s particularly keen to get more young people into the Red Centre is the Director of Customer Experience and Destination Planning for Parks Australia, Steve Wroe. He believes Uluru is not only the geographic heart of Australia, but the patriotic, spiritual and cultural heart too. “Someone lacking any sense of imagination would dismiss it as ‘a big rock in the desert’, but it has a power you can only understand once you’ve seen it,” he says. “It compels you to appreciate your insignificance.
“And as far as the younger generations are concerned – they should all understand the mistakes that have been made and the subsequent hardships that Indigenous Australians have had to endure. In my experience, a lot of young Aussies are disconcertingly naïve about the topic. It's not necessarily their fault, though, and that can be remedied with a trip to somewhere like Uluru."
Steve and Parks Australia hope to encourage more young people into the Red Centre by providing greater access to the Anangu people as well as more meaningful and sustainable hands-on experiences. “Of course, ‘the rock’ has huge appeal,” he says. “But when it’s placed within the cultural context, that’s when it becomes one of the most amazing sites in the world.”
Just a little respect
We’re gathered back around the truck after our sunrise base walk. I’m eating a piece of orange (for health!) and I will soon eat a piece of fruit cake (for fun!). It’s around 9am and it’s hot. Justin walks over to me and pulls me to one side. A member of the local Anangu people is ready to be interviewed, he says. “Right now?!” I respond.
I’m ill prepared. I have no questions ready and no dictaphone about my person. Luckily I do have my iPhone and the faculties with which to handle the situation –a loose grasp of good judgment and a knack for thinking on my feet - at my disposal, so I grabbed both and followed Justin. A young man approaches and shakes my hand. “My name’s Vance,” he says, whilst looking over my shoulder. We’re about the same age.
Vance and I sit on a curb in the car park and talk. I've been here for two days, but Vance’s ancestors have lived in the area for tens of thousands of years. He likes his job leading the Mala Walk - which sees him sharing the stories of the Anangu people and the history of Uluru – and he likes meeting people from different places. “You can teach one another,” he says. He possesses a very deep, very real wisdom. As if he’s lived a thousand lives and can remember them all.
The opportunity to share the stories of his ancestors with people from all over the world is important to Vance. “Without the stories and the creation time of our ancestors, there wouldn’t be nothing,” he says. “The places we see now, everything that’s here today, the whole land, nothing would be here if it wasn’t for our ancestors.”
Our conversation is interrupted by Justin, who says it’s time for our Mala Walk (which Vance is leading). I give Vance some cigarettes to thank him for his time (and I say thanks, of course). Somehow both nervous and confident when talking in front of our group, Vance takes us past rock shelters in the face of Uluru that were used as classrooms, kitchens and lounge rooms. He shows us ancient rock art. He shares with us what his ancestors believed. They believed they were put here to protect the land, he says. They never sought to mistreat or hurt the land, he says."Sounds pretty good to me," I don't say, because I would have to interrupt Vance to say it, which I don't want to do.
Vance speaks softly, and everyone falls silent when he does. This is a bit like a walk through a museum but the history isn’t enclosed inside a glass box, it’s beneath our feet and in front of our eyes. A gaggle of travellers without a guide tries to tag on to our group and hear the story from Vance himself. I tell them they can only stay if they can beat me in a battle rap. They decline. (That didn't happen).
As our Mala Walk wraps up, and Vance leads us back towards the car park, he’s confronted by an American man holding a camera. “Hey!” says the man. “Hey! Can I get a picture with you and these two guys over here!” He gestures towards another man and his son who are already posing, waiting for Vance to join them, like they're certain this is a totally normal thing to do. We all stop. It’s quiet for a painful moment.
“Eh, I’m leading a tour, mate,” Vance replies as he walks off, not sparing the man with the camera another thought.
I think back to Aretha Franklin and the song I heard on the radio the day before. I decide it’s a fitting song for this journey, and that I agree with Justin when he says the future of Australia depends on more young Australians getting out to places like this.