Cultural sensitivity warning: This article contains the name of an Aboriginal person who is now deceased.
Loitering in the foyer of my Ayers Rock Resort hotel one afternoon while waiting to be picked up for a tour, I notice a wafer-thin uncle (Aboriginal Elder) quietly sipping a beer in the lobby bar. Wearing a smart collared shirt tucked into blue denim jeans, the soles of his brown leather deck shoes seemingly dipped in neon red dirt, he stands out among the hoards of adventurewear-clad tourists filing up and down the corridor past him, seemingly oblivious to his presence, and I wonder if he might be someone important.
“That’s Cassidy Uluru,” says a staffer in the adjacent gift shop who catches me peering at him. “Look,” she says, pointing to a book with the man’s face on the cover. My embarrassment at having walked straight past one of the oldest surviving traditional owners of Uluru—Australia’s most famous natural icon and a deeply spiritual place for the Anangu, the First Nations people who have been living beside it for more than 20,000 years—without a clue who he was, made me grateful to have signed up for the Patji Tour with local operator SEIT Outback Australia that afternoon. One of a rare few opportunities available to visitors to experience the Uluru family’s history and culture, the tour is conducted on private Aboriginal lands (known to its owners as Patji) that lie beyond the borders of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.
Our first stop is the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre near the base of the 348m monolith (and well worth a visit in its own right), where we pick up our Uluru family guide, Sammy Wilson. The first-born grandson of Paddy Uluru, a key figure in the Aboriginal land rights movement of the 1970s, Sammy chairs Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park’s board of management and runs Uluru Family Tours, a community business that currently offers two Aboriginal-guided tours easily booked through SEIT Outback Australia.
Just a kilometre east of the famous rock, we pass through the Aboriginal community of Mutitjulu, closed to visitors. Despite the lands of Uluru and Kata Tjuta (The Olgas) having been formally ‘returned’ to traditional owners more than 30 years ago, the living standards of Mutitjulu have not improved anywhere near as much as was hoped. Indeed, the dusty village at the site of Uluru’s original tourist centre feels a world away from the slick hotels of Ayers Rock Resort, Uluru’s sole tourism hub, less than 20km away.
Stopping just south of town, Sammy points out two concrete stumps on either side of the red dirt road – all that remains of the original entryway to what Australian explorer William Gosse named Ayers Rock in 1873. As we travel deeper into Anangu country, the landscape seems to grow more and more unforgiving. Making a stop at a natural waterhole, now fenced off to prevent feral camels – which run rampant in the Australian outback – from falling in, it’s easy to understand why it’s sacred to the Anangu – mere survival once depended on these rare water sources. Our next stop is another lesson in outback survival: how to source bush tucker.
“This one,” says Sammy, pointing to an acacia tree that looks no different to the others that surround it (to me, anyway). My SEIT Outback Australia guide Lachlan starts digging around the roots with a shovel as Sammy uses his hands to clear the dislodged dirt. The men are looking for engorged roots, which indicate the presence of maku (witchetty grubs), an essential source of nutrition in a traditional bush tucker diet. After a few false starts, we hit the jackpot – five fat white wriggling worms, Lachlan accidentally snaps one in half with the shovel, its gooey yellow insides oozing into the red dirt. Sammy politely offers it around, happily tossing the writhing grub into his mouth after the members of our small group decline.
We take the rest of our catch to one of several humble tin shacks built to shelter Aboriginal people travelling through the property. As Lachlan fries up the grubs on an open fire, Sammy pulls out a wad of old photos. In a grainy old black and white shot, a primitively dressed Aboriginal family is pictured in the foreground of Uluru. Sammy points out Paddy, who fled his land in the 1930s after his brother was shot after escaping custody. The young child in the foreground, I learn, is his son Cassidy (Sammy’s uncle). My mind bends to think of the old man in my hotel foyer once running around these lands carrying a spear.
“Paddy stayed away for many years, had a family, but he missed his country – he wanted to teach his children about country – so he returned to fight for it,” Sammy says.
Paddy died in 1979, just six years before the national park containing Uluru and Kata Tjuta was handed back to its traditional owners on the condition that the park be leased to the federal government for 99 years to be jointly run with the Anangu, who receive 25% of the park’s AU$25 per person ‘gate fee’. Since the hand-back, Cassidy, and now Sammy, have played central roles in pushing for a better deal for their community: Sammy has repeatedly spoken of Ayers Rock Resort being unfairly favoured over the people who live nearby, and of a lack of support in growing indigenous-owned tourism ventures. While the indigenous workforce at the resort increased from just 1% in 2010 to 35% by mid-2016, only 7% are Anangu. Uluru Family Tours is one of the only small few Aboriginal-owned tourism companies in the region.
Yet as demand for cultural tourism at Uluru increases, so too do opportunities for the Anangu. In recent years, the promotion of Uluru has shifted away from climbing the rock (which, while still officially permitted, conflicts with Anangu traditions and sensibilities) towards more cultural experiences such as the resort’s guest activities (which currently employs 11 Anangu) and SEIT Outback Australia’s Patji Tour, which after launching last year now often sells out. In June this year, Google Street View worked closely with the traditional owners to launch an interactive map of Uluru, which includes stories from the Anangu (including Sammy) who educate viewers on the site’s cultural significance and Tjukurpa (creation law, also known as Dreaming).
The free daily, ranger-led Mala Walk around the base of Uluru that teaches visitors about the significance of Uluru to the Anangu, is, in my opinion, an essential experience for all visitors to the Red Centre. If a new Aboriginal ranger-training program promised to Mutitjulu two years ago comes to fruition, it will provide even more value for both tourists and the Aboriginal community, who are best-placed to share its Tjukurpa with visitors.
After tasting my first maku (which, cooked, tastes remarkably like a fried egg), my tour wraps on a picturesque sand dune offering rare views towards the southern face of the 348m monolith. Watching the sun march towards the horizon in a dazzling palette of warm desert hues from this serene spot is an altogether different experience than viewing the sunset from one of the various public viewing platforms in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. Away from the tour buses, selfie sticks, and school groups, the spiritual significance of the land is almost tangible.
I was privileged to experience many more of Uluru’s fantastic tourism offerings, from a gourmet dinner under the stars, to a sunrise hike around Kata Tjuta. The clear highlight, however, was the opportunity to learn about the history and Tjukurpa of Uluru from a member of the family who has lived in its shadow for tens of thousands of years.