From the east coast of Sydney to the central desert in the Northern Territory, the Simpson Desert, the centrilian superbasin, the massive grey and somber monolith of Mt Connor, the chain of salt lakes in the Amadeus Basin , the red earth, Uluru, and now, closer, spinifex and desert oaks – I travelled thousands of kilometers around the curve of the earth but was still in Australia. Distances are relative on the pyschogeographic journey – where is your mind?
I’d figured that since I was going to Alice Springs for work I should go and visit Uluru, six hours drive from Alice. Despite the vivid dream earlier that week about the fiery plane crash into the desert town (see previous blog Rocks in my Head), I was taking my chances and flying direct to Uluru from Sydney.
Most of my fellow passengers were over 65. I had no idea that this was retirees destination! Perhaps it was a bucket list thing. I think I expected at least some thrill seeking bungy jumping adventurers. But as one of the guides explained during a tour – bungy jumping and adventure sports didn’t fit the image of Uluru, and was actively discouraged.
In contrast, everyone who works at Yulara, the resort town at Uluru, seems to be under 25.
Yulara, which means ‘howling dingo’ in the local Arunga Pitjantjatara language , is 18 ks from Uluru– and the only place to stay in the area. The town was designed by Phillip Cox architects, who also designed Darling Harbour in Sydney. Yulara has the same distinctive sails for roofs, but unlike Darling Harbour, it is not scheduled for demolition in the near future. There’s one road in, which is the same road out and is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation and operated by a company called Voyages.
Almost all the residents of Yulara are from overseas or other states, and work in the resort – which has various hotels and restaurants, a supermarket, doctor and petrol station. It’s strange, a flotilla of ships in the desert, full of kids who came here after high school or university and haven’t left yet, and blokes who didnt make it to the mining boom further west in WA doing maintenance and plumbing. Everyone I spoke to LOVED working in Yulara.
But why is there a resort here? I heard stories about how in the 70’s you could camp at the base of the rock – but no longer. Yulara was set up by the government after the area around Uluru was becoming unmanageable in around 1973 – all the tourist shacks, shanty hotels , campgrounds and thousands of people flocking there in August, jostling for the best photo wasn’t sustainable or respectful toward the Anangu traditions.
I phoned Bob when I got to Yulara. Bob is the housing officer for Mutitjulu, the Aboriginal community next to Uluru and 18ks from Yulara. Mutitjulu is named for the elbow shaped waterhole at the base of Uluru. The Mutitjulu Anaungu are the traditional owners or caretakers, of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park and manage the park along with Parks Australia. I’d been speaking to Bob by phone recently in relation to the Government project I was working on – when I told him I was coming to see Uluru he kindly offered to give me a tour of the Mutitjulu community. I waited excitedly for his truck outside the hotel, with a homemade banana cake and backback stuffed with childrens books and Geoffry Gurrumul Yunipingu and Jessica Mauboy CDs for the youth centre. And lots of water. Although it wsn’t too hot, its easy to die of dehydration out there.
Bob, known as Bob Fix to the community – has been living just outside of Mutitjulu for 11 years – as the maintenance officer for the community owned housing. Bob is not Anangu, he was born in Melbourne, the third generation of fencers , and came to the desert 20 years ago – a desert change – at first to APY lands in SA with his wife who is a nurse and then later north. Bob collects clocks, when he showed me his modest, orchid filled oasis at the utilities van park where he and the bus drivers live – the clocks made an impressive wall feature, and the view of Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) in the distance was also quite impressive.
Mititjulu has had its share of trouble, like any community. In the past the community has been shamed by adverse national news reports, and on Boxing Day last year, some alcohol went missing from a Yulara pub and turned up in Mutitjulu, there was a violent standoff between 40 community members and police. Everyone’s sorry now. But the Muti mob, about 296 residents, is a strong community – building bridges – with music, with community events, educational and job opportunities. Bob is one of the guys helping the community to rebuild it.
Bob is somewhere between 50 and 60 years old, and like many country blokes I’ve met, is plain speaking and kindly. With long khaki shorts, a collared shirt and a battered old Akubra hat, Bob has a deep concern for the community he works in combined with a grounded sense of the reality. That the community members have accepted him, and come up with a name for him – Bob Fix – is a source of pride. He showed me the old burnt out youth community centre – and told of plans to rebuild by this year. Work also began last year on a community swimming pool, expected to be completed this year.
As we drove around the community he pointed out the houses that were occupied, all of them plain and functional with tin roofs and tall wire fencing around the perimeters. The respite centre , the garage, the cultural centre, the child care centre, the school. There weren’t many people around at this time of day. There were abandoned cars and a sparseness, and the great presence of the rock – which, from this angle, looks completely different to the postcards you see, more like a friendly brown bunyip sitting on its haunches looking out to the desert than a red alien monolith.
I saw 3 ladies sitting around having a chat, and said hi to some kids kicking around near the council office – a sort of temporary shelter until they can build a better one said Bob. We drove around a bit more and stopped to chat to a senior Anangu man in the community who was fixing up a car with a couple of younger blokes. Bob introduced me as the lady from the gov-ment coming to bring the new tv to the community. We both laughed, embarrassed when I tried to shake hands and realised too late he was up to his elbows in car grease.
We visited the colourfully painted home of Suzy* – originally from Sydney but now married to an Anangu man and living in Mutitjulu, interpreting for the local mob. Suzy, with long black hair and an Irish complexion, lived in London and then came to work in Yulara. After 10 years, sick of telling tourists the same thing over and over, Suzy had her bags packed to go back to the city. Instead, she was offered a job translating in the Mutitjulu community and she stayed.
Bob then took me on drive around of the Uluru- Kata Tjuta National Park, insisting that I take photos (where allowed) every step of the way. We went to the Valley of the Winds near Kata Tjuta (Olgas). We went off track and on track to… everywhere. I was going describe the desert as everywhere, but actually its impossible. There is a different desert everywhere you look – the sandy rocky white soil with spinifex, the deep red flat with desert oak, the pinkish sand hills covered in mulga. Bob told stories about the area as we drove, his work, his family, his history.
We saw camels – giant, wild, grey camels who glared at us, ready to run. Bob showed me the old camp site where Azaria went missing, the sandy red Docker River Road to the WA border and his secret camping spot – 50 ks from anywhere – on a slight rise with a ring of rocks for a campfire and the Kata Tjuta domes faraway but close.
We ended the day at the staff pub in Yulara with the other blokes out back. Bob, who hadn’t touched a drop of water all day, sank a couple of schooners pretty quick, as did a two brothers from Penrith, plumbers, with piercing pale blue eyes and shaggy beards, and who like everyone else in Yulara, had come for a year and stayed longer.
That night I went out on an Astronomy tour into desert near Yalra with a young astronomer and his tour assistant who was from Lorne in NSW. We reclined back on banana lounges in a circle in the dark feeling faintly ridiculous – because when you are contemplating galaxies thousands of years old banana lounges seems a bit frivolous. Brent* the astronomer worked in the resort during the day and did this in his spare time he said, becuase he loved it. He knew all the proper scientific numbers of the stars and galaxies. Shirley* was the ‘scopy’ putting coordinates into the electronic box attached to the telescope which would find the star or galaxy we wanted to look at. We looked at Sirius the dog star through the telescopes and at Jupiter and four of its moons. It was pretty special.
Next up – this week- Uluru Tjukurpa story and The Road to Alice Springs.
* Not their real names
What is pyschogeography? What is this blog about? To find out – visit ’What is Continental Drift’ page – here…or look at the home page and check out how much time I’ve been wasting trying to work out all those flash features… : )