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Uluru, Australia's Aboriginal Heart
In the middle of the Australian continent, a huge sandstone rock rises more than a thousand feet from the flat desert floor. Formerly known as Ayers Rock, this imposing monolith is now called Uluru, the name given to it by the Anangu, the Aboriginal people who live on the land around it and who are its traditional owners.
This book discusses Uluru's role as a sacred site for the Anangu, and tells how the plants and animals found in this natural environment are an integral part of their traditional way of life. It describes the geologic processes that formed the rock's distinctive shape and gave it its brilliant red color, the land and climate of the central Australian desert, and how wildlife has adapted to the extreme conditions.
Designated by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site because of its rich cultural significance and beauty, Uluru is a dramatic symbol of Australia's ancient Aboriginal heritage and its unique landscape.
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Other books by Caroline Arnold about Australia:
The following is my diary report written after my first visit to Uluru and Australia's red center in 1999.
We have just returned from our Easter vacation trip with a week’s worth of clothes covered in fine red dust acquired in Australia’s “Red Center” where we visited Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock), in Uluru and Kata Tjuta National Park, and Alice Springs, the largest town in the heart of Australia’s enormous desert interior and the center of life in the outback. In the desert, daytime temperatures can easily rise to 110 degrees or more and in winter it goes below freezing at night, but we were lucky to have beautiful weather in the seventies. In the morning, though, it was so cold that I had to put on my thermal underwear! As in most deserts, one would think that nothing could live in such a harsh environment, but we saw a surprising variety of plant and animal life, especially near sources of water. Actually, the land around Uluru was green and flowering due to rains several weeks ago. This trip was also our first real exposure to Aboriginal life and we learned how people have lived and survived in this region for 70,000 years. About half of the land in the Northern Territory belongs to the Aboriginal Land Trust, the equivalent of America’s Indian Reservations, and most of Australia’s Aborigines live in this region.
We flew to Uluru on Thursday, arriving about noon at our hotel in the resort village of Yulara. Until the 1970's the only way to visit Uluru (then called Ayers Rock) was to drive there and camp or stay at a small motel, both located right at the base of the rock. (You may have seen a movie called Cry in the Dark starring Meryl Streep. It was based on the true story of a couple camping at the rock whose baby was supposedly stolen by a dingo.) As Uluru became an increasingly popular tourist destination (currently 400,000 people visit each year) it was decided to move all the accommodation facilities outside the park boundary and Yulara was built. About the same time the government was under increasing pressure from the Aborigines, who regard Uluru as a sacred site, to return the national park to them. The Hand Back, as it is called, finally happened in 1985 with the agreement that tourists would continue to be allowed to visit.
We had a great time at Uluru but we didn't climb it. The Aborigines don't really like having people climb it although they don't stop them. Many people do but the more eco-minded tour companies are discouraging it. Not only is it disrespectful for the Aborigines who consider the rock sacred but it is wearing down the rock. In any case, Art doesn't like high places so he was easily convinced that we didn't want to climb. We decided that we'd much more enjoy our walk around the base of the rock. The Aborigines call the people who climb the rock Mingi, which means "ants" and that's exactly what they look like when you see them from a distance.
I had previously seen many photos of Uluru but I was unprepared for the impact it has in real life. It is located about seven miles from the resort and looms nearly 1000 feet above the flat desert floor. I always thought the photos of the brilliant red rock were color enhanced, but the sandstone really is a natural deep red and practically glows at sunrise and sunset, the two high points of every day. On our first evening we went to the official sunset viewing spot and along with hundreds of other tourists, took our photos. The next morning we got up at 5:30 to meet our tour guide for a sunrise breakfast walk around the base of the rock, a distance of about ten kilometers.. This was a small group eco-tour and this time we were nearly alone to enjoy the lighting of the rock at dawn. At the same time we had the double pleasure of seeing the moon set behind the rock. In the course of the walk we were introduced to desert plants, saw lots of birds (including our first sighting of zebra finches in the wild) and heard some of the aboriginal stories associated with the Rock. We had chances to try “bush tucker” (native edible foods) including a tiny red fruit called the bush plum and the so-called bush banana, which is banana shaped but more like eating the inside of a milkweed pod. Our outing the next day was a hike and sunset barbecue at the Kata Tjuta, an equally impressive but less well known rocky outcrop nearby. The Aboriginal name, Kata Tjuta, means stone heads and they do look like giant heads piled on the horizon.
On Sunday morning we flew from Ayers Rock to Alice Springs, a distance of about 300 miles. Although it was Easter, there wasn’t much celebration. We noticed that some people are trying to promote the bilby, a marsupial with long, rabbit-like ears, as an Easter Bunny alternative--eg, the Easter Bilby--but it doesn't seem to be catching on. At the Desert Park in Alice Springs (where we actually saw a bilby in the night exhibit) they had a special exhibit of eggs to celebrate the rebirth of life. They showed all kinds of eggs--birds, reptiles, insects and even mammals (the echidna.) We got nabbed by a ranger on our way in who needed an audience to talk about the eggs but who managed to get sidetracked into telling us about his Aboriginal heritage and how he is part of the emu clan.
In Alice Springs we visited the shops and art galleries in the center of town and were tempted to buy some of the carvings and paintings but the ones we really liked were both too big and too expensive. We then drove north of town about fifteen miles to the Tropic of Capricorn marker (to take a companion photo for our Equator shot from 1971 and the more recent Greenwich Meridian) en route to the Bond Springs Station, a working cattle ranch that was also our bed and breakfast. We had our own small cottage and arranged to have dinner there which we ate on our own verandah as we watched the stars come out. In the morning we went out for a bird walk along a dry creek bed and saw parrots, cockatoos, budgies, zebra finches as well as some kangaroos who seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them. Later in the day we had a tour of the station and got some insight into the challenges of grazing cattle over millions of acres in the outback. I always had a romantic image of cowboys on horseback rounding up the cattle, but on modern stations like this one the cattle are mustered with airplanes, helicopters and motorbikes because it is quicker and more cost effective. That evening we went to a barbecue and were served beef steaks from the station’s own cattle. At both Ayers Rock and Alice Springs we had terrific views of the night sky. For the first time we saw the Magellanic clouds--which Magellan apparently used to figure out where south was.
Our outings in Alice Springs included a tour of the old telegraph station (now a museum) which is at the site of the original Alice Springs. The “spring” is actually a pool in a river bed and was named after the wife of the Superintendent of Telegraphs. The telegraph station, constructed in the 1870's, was the beginning of the town of Alice Springs and the line, which went between Adelaide in the south and Darwin in the north, provided for the first time a direct connection (via an undersea cable between Darwin and Java) between Australia and the rest of the world. We got to talking with the managers of the Telegraph Station Museum and they showed us the three joeys (baby kangaroos) that they were taking care of after their mothers had been killed by cars. One was so small that they kept it tucked into a purse sized cloth pouch. Our other tourist destinations in Alice Springs were to the Desert Park (an exhibit of desert wildlife), the Royal Flying Doctor Service, the School of the Air, and finally a date grove where we had afternoon coffee and date cake before returning to Melbourne.
The Flying Doctor Service was started by a Presbyterian missionary in 1928 as a way of providing health care to people in remote areas. Communication to the center in Alice Springs was by radio and when a call came in a pilot and a doctor would head out hoping that when they got there they would find a suitable place to land. The radio service is also used to give medical advice for immediate treatment while the patient is waiting for the doctor to arrive. When we toured the center in the early afternoon, the log on the wall showed five emergencies had already been dealt with that day. In the 1950's someone had the idea of using the same radio service to provide schooling to children who live on remote cattle stations and that became the School of the Air.
The School of the Air now has its own facility and teaches about 200 children, some of them living as far as 1000 kilometers from Alice Springs. We listened in as a teacher gave a lesson to a six year old student. Kids get group lessons by grade level each morning for an hour and then once a week each child gets an individual lesson. The kids get lesson packets every two weeks in the mail and the work is supervised either by a parent or a governess. We saw samples of work on display at the school headquarters and it was well done. In many ways these kids have all the advantages of individual attention in their home schooling and at the same time they are able to grow up on their cattle stations and be part of that life too. School of the Air goes to grade 7 and after that the kids go to boarding school. Our tour guide on the cattle ranch where we stayed had grown up there and went to School of the Air with his brother and two sisters. (We saw the room that they had used for their lessons.) Although we had driven into the ranch on a dirt road that was in bumpy but reasonable condition, until recently there was no road at all. Getting into town was an ordeal, especially if it rained and the creeks filled with water, so School of the Air was the best option.
It is hard for us to realize how self-sufficient people have to be in the outback. At Bond Springs they have maintained the original homestead buildings as part of the National Trust so you can see how people really lived when they first came to the outback. The first house was one tiny room with dirt floors and a canvas bed. Later a slightly larger house was built. (I had always thought that quilts were a uniquely American craft but when we visited the homestead we saw on the bed a wedding quilt that had been made for the couple by the bride and groom's mothers.) The current family home was built in the 1930's and has at its heart a high ceilinged kitchen with a giant table where we ate breakfast.. Even at Bond Springs, which now seems quite modern, it has only been recently that the station has had telephone service and they still have to produce all their own electricity. Despite the obvious hardships, the people who live in the outback love it and can't imagine why anyone would want to live anywhere else. When we told one of the people working at Bond Springs that our home was in Los Angeles, she seemed sorry that we had to live in a city.
I am reading a book called We of the Never-Never that is a memoir of a woman at a cattle station in the early part of the century. During the rainy season they would be cut off for weeks when rain swollen rivers became impassable and then it would take weeks after it dried for wagons to travel from Darwin. Her solution to the perpetual fly problem was to construct a net that enclosed the entire dining room--table, chairs and all! The book was made into a movie that we saw the last time we were in Australia. (The outback is the Never-Never because once you live there, you never-never want to return to city life.) Art is reading another classic, A Fortunate Life, about a man whose life would seem to be anything but fortunate.
I always take several books to read on vacations and never read any of them partly because I always buy books on the trip (like We of the Never-Never) and start reading them and partly because when I'm on the airplane I find it much more interesting to look out the window than to read. Our flight to Ayers Rock (from Melbourne via Sydney) took us over miles and miles of desolate desert where you could see the patterns of salt deposited across the bottom of enormous dry lake beds. It is hard to imagine that there are times when these lakes actually have water in them.
Our trip was so full of interesting things that I hardly knew where to begin and as it is I have just touched the highlights. At moments the Australian desert reminded us of experiences we’ve had in American deserts such as at Joshua Tree National Monument, in the Mojave or in Borrego Springs, but the scale and distances in Australia are so much grander. There is also the sense with the Aborigines that they are part of a really distant past--in a time long before there was any human life in the Americas. The Red Center is definitely the most foreign place we've visited in Australia and it’s a long way from anywhere. Its like flying from LA to Denver and realizing that there is nothing in between.
Kirkus, October 1, 2003
In this absorbing tour of Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock) and Kata Tjuta, the similar but lesser-known formation nearby, veteran naturalist Arnold not only provides a systematic account of the area's geology and wildlife, she communicates great respect for its profound cultural and religious significance to the aboriginal Anangu clans that live nearby. Towering over a thousand feet above ground, and extending perhaps three miles below, russet Uluru is the largest single rock on Earth--and, as the sharp color photographs here prove, a spectacular sight in all lights. Arnold summarizes some of the Anangu stories associated with its formations, then goes on to a study of its history, and of the diverse community of plants and animals surrounding it, supplying both European and tongue-twisting Anangu names. She closes with a look at environmental conservation efforts in this National Park and World Heritage Site, and a reiteration of its cultural importance. The Anangu's near-constant presence in the text is not reflected in the pictures, which are nearly devoid of human figures*--still, this makes a first-rate introduction to one of the planet's most awe-inspiring natural features.
*Author's note: The book does not depict any Anangu because the photographer was not allowed to take pictures of them. All photos in the book were taken with a permit from Parks Australia and were approved by the Uluru Kata Tjuta Board of Management.
Barbara Bader, The Horn Book November/December, 2003
Uluru, the giant sandstone monolith in the Red Center of Australia, was known as Ayers Rock when I spent the night there thirty years ago, and that is not all that is different: Caroline Arnold's very book exemplifies the Aboriginals' repossession of their sacred site (where, for one small thing, visitors may no longer camp overnight). As in previous Arnold books, the interface between ancient place, living people, and natural history is the crux: we see, high on the rock, the marks of battle "in the ancient time" between Kuniya, the ancestral python, and Liru, "the ancestor of all poisonous snakes"; and, near the base, the cave of Itjaritjari, the giant marsupial mole. Only then comes the geology--the layers of rock, the surface reddened by iron oxide. Native people do not appear in the photographs (presumably by their own wish), and the sense of the desert as a habitat, of the rock as a monument, is all the stronger for the absence of National Geographic-ish features. Close-ups, focusing on the region's specialized plants and animals, mingle with spectacular shots of the terrain; the cover is a knockout, the entire design is descreetly supportive. And to complement the dual-naming throughout--"red kangaroo/mala"--there's a glossary and pronunciation guide. In her concluding author's note, Arnold cites books recommended to her by local officials and confirms that, as one feels from the start, she has endeavored to respect "the wishes of the traditional Aboriginal owners." The resulting book is at once thoughtful and alluring. Index.