Just south of Uluru, a new tourism project allows visitors to get a glimpse of traditional Aboriginal life
Aboriginal elder Peter was chewing on the remains of a kangaroo tail. A sun-baked man with matt-black skin, a forked white beard and lean legs, he squatted on the rust-red floor of his desert home, gnawing on the arc of fur and sinew with unabashed relish.
Perched opposite, I waited silently for him to finish, eager to hear his words of wisdom. At 83 he is one of Australia’s oldest Aborigines: a lone guardian of his ancestor’s ancient stories.
Eventually he paused, stared intensely into my eyes and spoke. I leaned forward to hear his words of enlightenment.
“Have you got any good DVDs I can borrow?”
At the risk of sounding ungracious, I had been expecting something a bit more spiritual. The secret to a long and happy life, perhaps. Or at least some explanation of the appeal of witchetty grubs. But, for now, Peter seemed more interested in home entertainment than dreamtime stories.
I met this incredible, surprising man during a four-day trip to the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Aboriginal Reserve – the Pit lands for short – in central Australia. One of the newest indigeno-tourism ventures in the area, Desert Track’s Ngintaka Songline Heritage Trail aims to teach visitors about the traditional Aboriginal communities that live in this vast tract of outback.
Until recently it has been impossible for travellers to visit the Pit lands. As one of the few areas wholly given over to the country’s indigenous people, they are vigorously defended from interfering Westerners.
But as more visitors to Australia take an interest in learning about the country’s indigenous culture, locals are lowering their guard. Conditions of entry are still strict: visitors must obtain permits, should travel with an approved guide and cannot take photographs unless given permission, but otherwise they are welcome.
Before this trip, my perceptions of Aboriginal people were much like those of any other visitor to Australia. A combination of government welfare schemes and access to alcohol has reduced many to a hopeless state. I’d seen them in the cities: wild-eyed and wild-haired men and women, staggering around in shopping malls in a caricature of drunkenness that would put Charlie Chaplin to shame. This, of course, is only a quarter of the story. Out in the desert, most Aborigines are teetotallers still in touch with their traditional culture.
Our journey began with a sunrise tour around Uluru and a visit to the nearby Olgas, an equally impressive rock formation. Aboriginal people are the world’s oldest living culture and have lived in the Pit lands for more than 1,000 generations. These rocks are an integral part of their creation stories; they believe spirits live in them, and say they occasionally hear them stir during the night. Our guide explained how visitors who take stones as souvenirs swiftly send them back, finding themselves strangely prone to bad luck.
As we headed south, I began to feel very lucky. More than 500,000 people visit Uluru each year, but few see a single Aboriginal person. Their experience is limited to tourist shops selling artifacts and dot paintings. Yet here we were, heading straight into their heartlands. It felt daunting, but exciting.
The Pit lands begin, loosely, at Uluru in the Northern Territory and stretch 320km into South Australia. The area measures a staggering 103,000 sq km, yet a mere 2,500 inhabitants live in it – the equivalent of the population of an average British village living across an area slightly smaller than England.
The landscape was strangely beautiful. Pink desert rippled out as far as we could see, its swirling regularity broken only by rings of spinifex grass, patches of bushland or a weary-looking eucalyptus. We passed a couple of mining communities and cattle stations, and saw the occasional kangaroo or camel, but otherwise the landscape was impossibly and inexpressibly empty.
Peter’s place, a dilapidated bungalow built by the Australian government, was our first stop. Living in the desert by himself, he cut a lonely figure. His wife had been admitted to a hospice; his sons were seeking work in town. But Peter had a real contentedness to him. “I like it here. Town too noisy,” he told us. His English was good, but heavily accented. When I asked how he learned it, he said: “From John Wayne films, didn’t I?”
Peter kept us entertained for hours. He took us to see local cave paintings, told us the tale of Ngintaka (a giant perentie lizard man) and showed us an early photo of his grandfather hunting at Uluru with a spear. His stories had an urgency to them; it was as if, without his sons around, this was his only chance to pass them down.
The following day we moved east to Amata, the ‘capital’ of the Pit lands, 80km south of Uluru. It came as a shock. The outskirts were littered with mattresses, machinery and burnt-out cars; the centre was worse. The streets were lined with run-down bungalows and the people looked sad and lethargic. Their clothes were filthy. A group gathered to watch as we filed into a local arts centre. Among them, a teenage boy was burying his head in a tin can. Petrol sniffing is rife among disaffected young Aborigines (it gives an instant and cheap high), but I hadn’t expected to see it being done so openly.
Between 1910 and 1970, an estimated 100,000 children were forcibly removed from their Aboriginal mothers in a disastrous attempt to assimilate the indigenous population into white society, a story documented in the film Rabbit-Proof Fence. The consequences – suicide, ill health, shattered families, poor parenting skills, drug and alcohol dependency – created an on-going trauma. In Amata I was seeing the results first hand; the dark side of Oz, where issues of class, race, power, oppression and betrayal manifested themselves in one filthy hellhole.
The following day we were out in the desert again, learning traditional survival skills. Lee, our Aboriginal guide, showed us how to hunt for water and find food. It was hot, painstaking and unrewarding work, but it taught me how resourceful, artful and tenacious Aboriginal people have to be to survive in this desiccated land.
Lee’s lessons on Aboriginal culture were comprehensive. We visited cave paintings and sacred sites, danced in traditional ceremonies, learned about bush medicine, and were shown how ‘songlines’, the invisible pathways that cross Australia, can help you find food, water and shelter in the desert.
“A song is a map and a direction finder,” Lee explained, pointing to a ‘note’ – a rock that indicated a waterhole nearby. “If you know the song, you know where the water is. If you don’t know the song, you perish.”
It was an ingenious system, a kind of musical Ordnance Survey map.
Each night we camped out under the stars in swags (all-in-one Australian sleeping bags), which took some getting used to. The central Australian desert is home to some of the world’s most murderous creatures, including the woma python, and a host of scorpions and spiders. Each night I checked my sleeping bag for unwanted bed partners; each morning I woke to find a spaghetti junction of tracks around my pillow.
The most remarkable aspect of the trip, however, was learning how different Aboriginal culture is to Western society. Social etiquette, for example, determines that no eye contact is made during conversation, that handshakes are reserved for funerals and that no questions are asked. This made communication very difficult: as a journalist, questions were all I had.
The structure of Aboriginal society seemed different too. There were no chiefs, no councils, no police, no written history and no sense of property – a phenomenon that has prompted observers to refer to Aborigines as a truly communist society.
There were a few small, but revealing moments: when Lee’s friend asked me if I knew the Queen, and when his son asked if England was another country. But on the whole, I found them a deeply inscrutable people: it would take a good deal longer than a four-day trip to become friendly with them.
On our final night, Lee sat down with us by our campfire. I still had many questions to find answers to. How do Aboriginal people feel about white Australians? Will traditional stories continue to be passed down? And, most vexingly, how did Peter come by a DVD player in the middle of the desert?
Just then, Lee’s friend arrived, wielding the tail of a freshly caught kangaroo. Lee took it, sat down, peeled back the fur and chewed with gusto.
The answers, I realised, would have to wait until another time.
Desert Tracks run a four-day, three-night Aboriginal tour (