by Meme McDonald (in consultation with Yankunyjatjarra elder Bob Randall)
My four-year old son was holding my hand when we first saw Uluru. Our campfire needed stoking but in the shivering cold of this desert morning we climbed quickly to the top of a nearby sand ridge. We travelled five hours the day before and on sunset chose our campsite carefully. This moment was not to be missed. We stepped between tussocks of spinifex, adding our footprints to the bird and lizard tracks, a scattering of cloud overhead turning pink then brilliant gold, hurrying us along. The top of the ridge gave way to a view of wide, open country. And Uluru close as a heartbeat, breathtaking in dimension even from kilometres away. We stood stone silent, watching sun fold back the night and ignite this monolith vibrant ochre. Finally, the little voice beside me spoke. ‘Mum, is Uluru the heart of the world?’
The sheer size of Uluru creates a hum resonant with the eons of time that have weathered its skin and made soft sand of boundless flatlands, once ocean beds, in all directions. It is not simply that The Rock - as it is often referred to locally - is big. It is also the vast surrounding space that is not rock. Uluru rises out of the desert surrounded by wavelike sand dunes, rising and falling in steady rhythm. Earth and air, solid rock and open space. And water. Within an expanse of desert, the deep waterholes held in the folds of Uluru are rejuvenating places.
For the first people of this land, the Anangu Aboriginal people, Ancestral Beings in the form of giant snakes, wallabies and kangaroos, for example, and Creator Spirits from the Dreamtime, the Tjukurrpa, are reflected in every feature of the rock and waterholes. As Yankunytjatjara elder and one of the traditional custodians of Uluru, Bob Randall explains in his autobiography, SONGMAN:
‘The Dreamtime, the Tjukurrpa, has nothing to do with dreaming. It is much bigger than that. It is our reality, not something we are dreaming about. It is very real. The Creation period is not something that just existed in the past. To us it is also part of the present and will continue to exist in the future. When I look at a certain rock, it is not just a rock, it is my link to Tjukurrpa and all the stories of Creation that exist in that rock. Within a grain of sand I see me and the universe. In our way of thinking, the thought that we are not an essential part of the universe lessens our belonging, or our being part of what is, what has been, and what will always be. For me, I am part of the whole of Tjukurrpa. It is the same when I hear the song of a bird or find the tracks of an animal. When I tell Tjukurrpa stories or sing the songs, I too am part of the past, present and future of all Creation. Caring for the land by telling the stories, singing the songs and doing the dances and paintings is my responsibility. Separating me from that makes me weak.’ (extract page 18, SONGMAN by Bob Randall, ABC Books 2003)
Uluru is an enormous library – a living, breathing, evolving Story place. The Anangu elders are the librarians. For over 40,000 years people have been drawn here first and foremost because it is a place for watering and food gathering. In a desert, this makes Uluru an important place.
When asked about healing places for Anangu people, Bob explained: ‘The natural feelings of beauty and peace that every living thing feels need to be present for a place to be right for healing. The place is effected by the healer but also by the patient. Wherever the meeting place of healer and patient may be, that place is also effected and added to by the energies of that healer and that patient. In a healing place, the energy of everything there is the natural energy of goodness.
‘Everywhere on earth has the potential to be a healing place,’ he continued. ‘Healing can happen publicly or privately, it can happen walking around or in conversation, here there and everywhere. It is the energy of the patient and the healer together that makes healing happen. Nothing else is really needed. The support of others, of family for instance, can help, can add to the effect, but it is not essential. The healer and the patient, it is between them. Both need the positive energy that healing is going to happen. You can call this faith.’
Bob has a soft voice. We were speaking by skype. When his face appeared on the computer screen it glowed with his years, perhaps eighty-four of them he estimates from records noting when he was taken away from his mother at the age of eight or nine, never to see her again. Bob is part of what is known in Australia as the Stolen Generation. From this age, he was brought up in an orphanage run by Christian missionaries on Croker Island half a continent to the north of his desert homeland. From his experiences there, he has the flare of a horseman with his cowboy hat and a proud history of agility in the muster. His laugh is young and there was much of it as we spoke, our two houses joined together in the early morning light by cyberspace.
‘Of course, the ngangkari, the healer can’t forget the general comforts,’ he added. ‘If it is hot, then you find shade. If it is hard on the ground, you spread a blanket. These kinds of obvious things. Hospitals need to remember this. I often say that they should show comedy programmes when people are in recovery after operations. If they did this, people would soon walk out of there happy to be alive and in love with the world. The greatest healer is joy.
‘It’s the patient who determines the success or failing of the healer, not the healer. Those without the power are neglected. Those with more faith themselves are sought after. The stronger their faith the more successful is their healing. With ngangkaries gender is irrelevant. Both genders can be as strong as each other. But for us, women’s business and men’s business is separate.
‘In our tradition, ngangkaries are born with the gift. It comes with their birthing and it has run in their family perhaps for generations. Family members recognize the qualities of a healer in the child and so they direct that one towards the elder, the ngangkari. For their education, they become apprentices to the healer and follow a particular relationship with that person. The older one, the ngangkari must be responsible to the younger one and the younger one responsible to the older one. This is our system.’
Training of young people is demanding in Anangu culture.
‘When a group of boys are being taken along a Dreaming track through ceremony, at important points of the journey which might be as much as twenty kilometers apart, they will be told the story of that site by the ceremonial elders. At any one of those sites they might be asked about any aspect of the story or song cycle associated with that site. If any one of these boys does not get every detail correct, then the whole group will return to the beginning of the Dreaming track, and start the journey again. We had no books or tape recorders, so our minds were trained in this way to remember everything.’ (extract page 5, SONGMAN by Bob Randall, ABC Books 2003)
Our conversation returned to healing places and the particular qualities of Uluru for Anangu. The Rock is not one place, but many. At each turn in the nine kilometre circumference there is a significant site with its own Stories, protocol and ceremonies to be remembered and continued for the health of the land and its people. There are many places around The Rock that can only be visited by certain people, men or women, or those who have been through particular ceremony. There are places not to be viewed by some even in passing from a car window as these places are ‘secret sacred’, the teachings of which are strictly observed. And there are places to be avoided.
‘Once something bad has happened in a place, the memory of this is carried by that place. This kind of bad energy takes a long time to clear. It can be on an emotional or spiritual level, it doesn’t have to be on the physical level. Unnecessary thought in mind, words or action will leave memory that is retained in that place. A healing place must be a clear place. You stay away from places that have been poisoned. It is the same with buildings and rooms, with any place. In our tradition, secret sacred places have been determined by our ancestors and we follow the way we have been taught. The places to be avoided and the sacred places are secret and have been handed down. It’s not always that we know why. It could be from something that took place in Creation time or it could be from events since then.’
I stayed in Bob’s home tucked in on the easterly side of The Rock. He invited me to walk with him in the early morning. It was my responsibility to be up and ready when he stepped out at five to greet the dawn. There was no talking. For the first while, he held my hand as you would a child’s when the dark is still close, gesturing towards certain animal tracks - goanna, snake, pigeon. Then we climbed to the top of a particular sand hill and stood attentive, a mountain of rock at our backs, an open horizon in every other direction, ready to welcome sun to earth, understood by Yankunytjatjarra to be two sisters. The first ray of light to spear across the horizon began a sequence of gestures, then words of dedication repeated to each direction and acknowledging the place where we stood at the centre.
Turning back home, with the warmth of sun on our backs and Uluru in the splendour of dawn up ahead, Bob looked out across the low scrub to the tourist buses that arrived at the dawn viewing platform several kilometres away. ‘Ceremony time,’ Bob said. I thought he meant the buses and smiled at his good humour. Later he explained that Anangu elders were gathering for important men’s ceremony close by. To my unschooled eyes there had been nothing seen or heard on our walk that revealed their activity, this secret business continuing unseen as it had for generations.
Thousands of people every day from around Australia and across the world come to observe sunrise and sunset at Uluru. What seems remarkable is the quiet. In the presence of Uluru, at the heart of the oldest continent on earth, people become quiet. Beyond culture or tradition, Uluru is an invitation to stand within an expanded universe and be drawn inward. Whether this sacredness is created simply by a marvel of nature, or by the resounding presence of thousands of generations of voices chanting their sacred songs, retelling stories of Creation, dancing in rhythm with the earth and lighting their ceremonial fires with intention, Uluru is a spiritual place, perhaps as ancient and as profound as any on earth.
Meme McDonald is an award winning author. She is also an artistic director of outdoor arts events and a yoga teacher. The arts events Meme directs are connected to the geographic, cultural and community environments in which they are staged and are most often informed by Aboriginal traditions specific to these places. Meme has realized numerous art events across Australia, as well as in Aotearoa/New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and Japan. She has written ten books, six of them with Aboriginal storyteller Boori Monty Pryor. For more information visit www.mememcdonald.com