Travel Column: Australia Through Aboriginal Eyes

Updated December 10, 2004

"Good morning," says Sammy Wilson. "I'm on my land, so I'm going to be speaking my language." Dark, with a gentle, middle-aged face, Wilson continues in the Yankunytjatjara tongue, his lighter-toned interpreter always at his side. Anangu is the only tour company at Uluru (Ayers Rock) that has Aborigine guides.

To most people, Uluru is one of the world's great stone monoliths, 1,142 feet (348 meters) high, 6 miles (9.7 kilometers) around, the icon of Australia's Red Center. But for the Anangu ("we people"), this rock is the heart of a region where they have lived for over 20,000 years and to which they finally regained title in 1985.

After watching a chill dawn bathe Uluru in ever-changing shades of red and orange, our group follows Wilson along the Liru Track, weaving through clumps of spinifex grass and silvery green bushes to the base of the rock. As we walk, Wilson explains Tjukurpa, "creation law," which underpins the Anangu culture.

It tells how the world was born and defines relationships between people and land. When Anangu look at the vertical face of Uluru, they are looking at Tjukurpa, literally. Where outsiders see rock, Anangu see spear marks, footprints, and ancestral beings turned to stone, such as Lungkata (Blue Tongue Lizard Man) or Kuniya (Python).

Anangu don't climb the rock; that's contrary to Tjukurpa. Instead, guides lead tours on paths their ancestors walked, interpreting cave paintings and explaining foods and medicines—how to make bread from the naked woollybutt grass seed, where to find bush plums, how to treat sore muscles and colds with a native fuschia, irramunga.

They teach bush skills: fire making, spear throwing, and how to make kiti (glue). With a stick, Wilson pounds some gummy spinifex grasses, separates small, gray resin particles from the leaves, and then heats the resin in a fire, producing a black gum used in making tools.

Afterward, an intent little blond girl poses for a photograph holding a wooden spear and crowned with a large bowl balanced Anangu-style on her head. Her mother, on vacation from Sydney with her five children, laments the lack of tours that explain the area's cultural heritage. "This tour," she says, "is one of the few ways in this area to experience Aboriginal culture."

As an Aborigine-owned company that employs local people, builds pride in the culture, and supports an Aboriginal school, Anangu Tours heralds a new, needed trend. Indigenous communities worldwide have long endured visits by outsider-owned tour outfitters that use non-indigenous guides and leave little behind but small change for souvenirs.

Still, Anangu remains the exception, not yet the rule. From the Liru Track we can just make out the line of conventional tourists high on the rock, silhouetted against the sun. Tens of thousands of visitors climb Uluru each year, despite Anangu requests that they refrain. "Do you think they're learning anything about my people, our religion, and the law of the land?" Wilson asks, smiling, and turns his face to the top of the rock. "We don't have any Tjukurpa up there."

For more information, contact Anangu Tours, Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, Northern Territory, Australia; telephone (from U.S.): 011 618 8956 2123; Web site: www.anangutours.com.au.

Editor's note: Anangu Tours won the 2004 World Legacy Award for heritage tourism. A joint effort of National Geographic Traveler and Conservation International, the World Legacy program encourages sustainable tourism.

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