Monday, November 29, 2010

Day 12: The Red Centre

November 26, 2010

There’s something in me that shies away from major tourist attractions. I easily become dissatisfied, fixated on things I don’t like about tourists and the tourism industry. The experience can turn artificial, milked by the promises of over-inflated advertising. Cynicism creeps in when I see how voraciously the industry preys upon money-laden tourists, creating an exclusion zone for those with little or no money. The highly regulated system is, of course, also there to protect the site, the environment and the locals from the impact of so many visitors. But the price one pays for entering this system is more than just monetary; there’s a loss of innocence, authenticity, and ease in fully engaging with the beauty of the place. Often it’s too high a price for me, in both senses. I prefer the lesser known, seemingly less marvelous places, off the beaten track. They still provide an aesthetic experience, not the least because there’s no one else around.

Despite all this, when I first lay eyes on Uluru, some 50kms away as we approach from the west, a lump develops in my throat. Whether it’s the mythical appeal created by the tourism industry, or the more mystical reverence afforded the site by indigenous people, there is something awe-inspiring about The Rock. When the dusty red road gives way to bitumen at the entrance to the Kata Tjuta Uluru National Park I feel nostalgic about leaving the remote desert. But I also feel relief. It’s a noisy, dirty track to get here from W.A. Paved roads, with their clear white lines and many signs, are so much easier to navigate.

Clouds linger and storms still threaten – a great relief from the heat wave, but without the sun, Uluru looks muted and understated as we approach.

We spend a couple hours walking through the Cultural Centre at the base of Uluru. I’d expected a western-style interpretive centre, geological, botanical, archeological exhibits. But we quickly learned that “Ayer’s Rock”, as it was initially called when it opened as a National Park in the early 20th century, was deeded back to its traditional owners in 1985 and Aboriginal people now manage it – in tandem with the Director of National Parks. The deal brokered between the Federal Government and the Ananga aborigines stipulated that the ‘new owners’ would ‘lease’ the site back to the national park service to be run as a tourist attraction for 99 years. The Cultural Centre was created by Aborigines to tell their side of the story – they’re long history of association with Uluru.

Tjukurpa, which encompasses the religion, law, relationships and moral systems of the Anangu people, is woven throughout the displays. The centre was architecturally designed in consultation with the Aborigines and is decorated with much of their art. A spirit of gentleness, humility and care for the natural world is evident and one feels as though they’re visiting a church as much as a museum. A half-hour video teaches us about the many forms of bush foods traditionally collected by indigenous people of the desert – fruits, seeds, meat – and how they are prepared to become edible. I would like to try some.

But there’s another, less visible side to this story, and I wonder about that as I drink in the rich displays. The skeptic in me can’t sit still. How much of the spiritual, cultural and domestic traditions on display here are still a part of the local indigenous people’s lives?  Uluru is an important sacred site for these people – equivalent to a great cathedral or mosque in other religious traditions. Do they still perform their ceremonies at the specific sacred sites around the base of Uluru – even while 40,000 tourists parade around its circumference annually? Do they still go out collecting and hunting bush tucker? Do their young people still believe in the old dreaming stories – or are they as jaded and disinterested in religion as western secular society? Was all this real or was it merely another con by the tourist industry, feeding a worldwide multi-billion dollar fascination with Ayer’s Rock and indigenous culture?

Maybe it’s a win-win situation: the Aborigines get to tell their story and enhance people’s appreciation of their culture (whether it's still alive and vibrant or a thing of the past); the Director of National Parks enjoys excellent revenues for the state and local governments and top profits for private companies who’ve set up business outside the national park boundaries (with little financial benefit for the local indigenous population).

After spending a couple of hours walking through the centre, we treat ourselves to a café lunch. There’s a 10km walk around the base of the rock, which I’m keen to do, but we decide instead to head into town to set up camp and get our flat tyre fixed. We’ll come back later to do the trek.

We thought Yulara would be another outback town. But there is no town, as we discover when we go searching for a mechanic to fix our flat tyre. There’s only a light industrial area, set up to service the privately owned and operated Yulara Resort (we eventually found an automotive centre run by a sour-faced mechanic who’d hung signs in reception suggesting customers who smiled and behaved politely would get preferential treatment).

To its credit, the resort is aesthetically pleasing, blending well with the natural environment with minimal signage and commercial advertising, and efficiently run. It caters for a broad spectrum of tourists –from campers to a 5-star hotel. The shock of camping in such an organized, regulated, crowded environment is quickly mitigated by the comforts it offers: water and electricity, mobile phone coverage, showers and a shop just down the road. We take full advantage, filling our water containers, cleaning the dusty trailer and car, charging up our many gadgets, checking emails, watching Lost (two episodes!) – and reveling in the first shower in two weeks. Civilization does have its benefits.

Close to sunset, as one does at Uluru, we go to a nearby viewing platform. As we wait and watch for the changing light and colour patterns on the rock, a crowd develops, mostly young Europeans from organized tours. I grow restless and irritated by all the noise and head back to the car while Johan sits it out. The platform is located about 15kms north of Uluru– not the best vantage point for viewing the effects of the sunset on the rock. That and the intermittent cloud obscuring the sun means we don’t get the intense orange and red glow from the rock so often seen in photographs.

Uluru at sunset.

Kata Tjuta to the northwest at sunset.

As I lay in bed late in the night, listening to revelers and their thumping music in the adjacent villa, I feel myself marooned in this island of privilege. This oasis in the desert that serves our excessive needs for comfort, stimulation, distraction. I imagine a circle of Anangu sitting outside this pocket of privileged westerners, wondering why we’re all so busy, laden down with things. Where is our connection with the land? How can we listen to the gentle voices it proffers up when we surround ourselves with such noise?

They must feel sad, excluded, bewildered, grateful that whatever remnants of traditional life and Tjukurpa still exist for them has saved them from the mad disease of western civilization.

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