These last few days have been nothing short of interesting, complex, and profound.
And I’ve only been in the Northern Territory for six days.
I arrived in Uluru Sunday afternoon alone, and it was a surprising 28 degree Celsius. I felt the dryness of my skin and the sharpness of the sun on my face as I stepped on to the tarmac at the airport. I was in the desert.
I got on and off shuttle buses, walked over rocky red sand, sat and looked, and looked, and looked. I stood under a blanket of stars, and saw the clearest vision of the Milky Way ever. I looked through a telescope and saw Jupiter and Saturn and stars dying and stars being born. I watched sunset and sunrise. I went for a camel ride. I met a fellow Singaporean visiting Uluru at the end of her fellowship in Canberra. I talked about performance and theatre in the night sky with an expert in Shakespeare. I listened to stories of the staff of the resort, young and old, all of them like me, only just passing through. The 28-degree day changed, and it was windy and cold, but the sun kept piercing through. I observed. And I stayed quiet, in my mouth, and in my heart. I observed. And I listened. It was all I could do; listen.
I cried when I walked along the base of Uluru.
I was in utter awe and wonder – that I can be in somewhere like Cape Schanck, and feel like I am at the end of the world. And be here in Uluru, and feel like I am at the centre of the earth. Uluru is without a doubt a sacred place. This Land that is Australia is well and truly Life.
It was this profound sense of place – of my place in the world – of a world where stars are billions of years old, where I live amongst Aboriginal Australians who are the oldest living populations, of a world where there is so much more than one could fathom.
And I stand grateful for the privilege to move through the poetry of Country.
As I write this, I am sitting in Sandbox, a new co-working space in Alice Springs run by Jason Quinn. Only opened last week, it’s the first of its kind here. I connect with Jason. I ask, as I do in a lot of my work – what brought you here? What’s kept you here? He shares generously – the stories of his anchors that are family, community, and conviction. I am once again drawn to the possibility of leaving Melbourne as I have left Singapore; where will I next place my anchors?
Since being here, I have also joined Ben and Circus Oz in a workshop out in Aleyaw/Ti Tree, in a local school 193km north of Alice Springs. At the school was a mural on the wall, depicting the various communities living across the desert around the school, most of them the Anmatyerre people. The mural had names in both Indigenous language, as well as the European names they are probably better known for.
I am reminded of my silent anger when all around me in Uluru, older Caucasian tourists continued to call the place Ayers Rock. “Oh it’s been called that for a long time,” they’d continue. Even some of the staff did that in their informative spiels. It’s frustrating enough that the monopoly of a resort benefitting most from this place could not see it important and honourable enough to rebrand itself! The government’s lack of fortitude to only “encourage” tourists not to climb Uluru are just one of the many ways White Australia continues to fail the traditional custodians of the land.
Next to the Quest in Alice Springs is the Institute for Aboriginal Development. It is a centre for education for Aboriginal Australians, a resource centre, and a publishing house. I spent a couple of hours in there, skimming through what is really a lifetime of learning. I learnt about their programs which focuses on bridging Aboriginal Australian youth at risk with their traditional culture and education, while at the same time equipping them with basic skills required in the urban environment. I shared a yarn with a staff member – she was from the Kimberley region but has spent the last 12 years travelling and living across New South Wales. Her last stop was the incredibly urbanised Sydney. We talked about the city. We talked about recognising the restlessness when you’re ready to leave again. We talked about home.
I am reminded of my previous meditations on Singapore, and Brisbane, and cultural amnesia.
It is of utmost importance and immediacy that we respect the fact that Ayers Rock is a name given by a European man – and while it’s been called Ayers Rock for “a really long time,” it has been called Uluru for a far longer time. It may seem like a small gesture, but every time we choose to refer to a place by its traditional name, we are participating in an act of remembering. We are honouring a truth that has withstood a time longer than ourselves, and the world as we know it. We are continuing to give life to a Land, a People, and a Culture that had been so violently destroyed and disregarded.
Australia today cannot afford to forget. Cultural amnesia of this degree will only render us complicit with and continuing in the atrocities of colonialism.
I feel my blood rising up as I write these words. And the irony – the complexities of the effects of colonialism on my home country is not lost on me. Just where do we begin?
Yesterday, Ben and I purchased a painting from a woman on the lawn in town. We had been in to several galleries, even one that was next to a service station on the way to Aleyaw/Ti Tree. We struggled as we searched: are we perpetuating a capitalist industry that inevitably exploits Indigenous art and artists, as we ourselves as artists have been experiencing with the industry that we work within? What is the true value of these works – when we know that these are stories not everyone can tell? How do you put a price on a sacred story? One staff member at a gallery quite matter-of-factly admitted that they are just trying to make a profit.
We walked into the sun, and there were several women with a handful of paintings each – laid out on the lawn. Lynette Corby Nungurrayi was one of those women. And in front of her was a painting of bush roots tree tucker. It was a style that we had been very drawn towards up until then, and when we saw her piece, we just knew we had to do it. She named her price, and it was within our very conservative budget. I sat and talked with her for a while. She showed me her ID when I asked for her name. She asked me where I was from. She told me she had exhibited in Japan before. She broke a stick and told me that was how she painted. We sat in silence waiting for Ben to come back from the ATM.
When I googled her later, I found out just what a sought-after, award-winning artist she is. This painting could not be any more precious.
Ben shared this with me a few nights ago: he had read or heard somewhere that like our body, earth has its own meridian channels as in Traditional Chinese Medicine. And significant sites such as Uluru are the meridian points, and so draws people towards them. It’s an interesting metaphor, and it certainly provides another dimension to the way we think about travel.
Incidentally, the basic premise of these meridian channels is that of balance and flow.
In two days, we head to Darwin. And I suspect along with the adventure ahead, I will continue to be touched by Country, be challenged by its complexity, and be humbled by the profundity of being here in the Northern Territory.
May I also remember that in this Country, I am a but a guest passing through.