Ayers Rock is as central to the Australian psyche as it is to the country. The great monolith, which rises stunningly from arid mulga plain and sand dunes, draws 90,000 tourists a year to the red heart of the continent.
The young hitchike there; families drive thousands of kilometres; buses disgorge retirees wearing name-tags with labels such as ‘Evergreen’. They face a tough 335-metre climb - 16 have suffered fatal heart attacks since 1962. Then they gather on ‘Sunset Strip’ to watch the setting sun change the colour of the rock through pinks, reds, purples and black.
The Rock is a crossroads for tourists from Australia and around the world. It is also the crossroads for important dreaming tracks, the paths taken by Aboriginal hero-ancestors in the turbulent time when they travelled the country making the world and animals and mankind. To them it is Uluru - ‘the place of many heads’.
Since the coming of the white men, the Mutitjulu community has struggled to stay in its traditional home at the base of the Rock. The main authority figure in the 1970s was Paddy Uluru. ‘It is a holy place,’ he told me. ‘But white girls do not know about this. This is men’s business. My fathers and grandfathers entrusted me with this cave, this holy cave. Girls have broken this thing of mine. and I have become very sad.’
Paddy is now dead and buried by friends in the dunes near his beloved rock but pressure on the community has been consistent over recent years. Ever since tourists first started to trickle, then flow to the centre, the authorities who in early correspondence referred to Aborigines as ‘nuisance itinerants’ have tried to move them to distant settlements.
This is a memo sent by the Northern Territory Director of Welfare in 1964: ‘I am becoming increasingly concerned with the behaviour of Aborigines towards tourists along the Alice Springs-Ayers Rock road and I should like to have from you some indication as to whether you could make a patrol officer available to carry out regular patrols ... These people present a bedraggled and neglected appearance to the public and it is difficult to know just how to control their presence in these areas during the tourist season
And, in righteous indignation: ‘The itinerant Aborigines in the area have become quite independent of the Government aid although they will accept it whenever it is offered. It seems that their main object is to carry out rituals that are important to them. And in view of the fact that this Branch is not prepared to maintain them they have maintained themselves by living oil’ the country to some extent, supplementing their other means of subsistence by exploiting the tourist industry ... I am sure that they are not the least bit concerned about the harm they may do to themselves or to this branch so far as the public image is concerned...'
By use of pressure, the withdrawal of maintenance and what seems like outright harassment, the authorities did have a deal of success in centralising the ‘nuisance itinerants’ at missions and at a settlement established in 1968 at Docker River, a couple of hundred kilometres west of Ayers Rock.
But last year the new Federal Labor Government, a declared champion of land rights, announced that the Commonwealth would transfer the title of the 1325 square kilometre Uluru National Park to the traditional Aboriginal owners. There was a near hysterical backlash from sections of the white community. The Chief Minister of the Northern Territory Government, which is virulently anti-land rights, said it was a ‘kick in the teeth’ and could jeopardise Yulara, a $200 million tourist complex being built about 20 kilometres away on the northern boundary of the park. The Federal Opposition spokesman on the Environment complained that Uluru was not just another national park. Ayers Rock had great significance for all Australians, not just Aborigines. It was a symbol of national stability.
In fact, under an agreement still being worked out, the community will lease Uluru back to the Federal Government for 99 years as a national park controlled by a board on which Aborigines will be the majority.
The community is still under some pressure. Their only defences against tourists driving through their camp are signs asking that their privacy be respected.
Cameron Forbes is Foreign Editor of the Melbourne Age.