The Red Centre Rocks
I had to pinch myself as I stood here literally in the middle of my adopted homeland. It was a chilly start to the day, just as the sun was peeping over the horizon to transform this monstrous sandstone monolith into a glowing red picture gallery. For here at Uluru (some of you may know it as Ayers Rock), there's no missing nature's incredible etchings on the steep walls above me, each evidence of the ancestral stories of Creation, the Tjukarpa, which we white men (or piranpa) have wrongly referred, until relatively recently, as the Dreamtime.
These Tjukurpa stories, songs, dances and ceremonies have been passed down through at least 30,000 years of continuous inhabitation of this region by the Anangu or Aboriginal people of the Red Centre. I therefore pay respect to the traditional owners of these historic lands, who believe they are descended from the ancestral beings who created Uluru and Kata Tjuta (some 50km westward) at the beginning of time. This belief is a living culture practiced in accordance with Anangu law and passed down continuously over the years from grandparents to grandchildren. It is interesting to note that this Anangu culture predates virtually all the major religions and cultures of humanity, most of which are only a few thousand years old.
Hence Anangu, through direct descent, maintain responsibility for the protection and appropriate management of these lands. The practical management of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (of which Uluru forms only a very small portion) is a joint process between Anangu people and Parks Australia, as befitting of this internationally recognised World Heritage Area, which is one of the few properties in the world to be dual listed for "outstanding natural values and outstanding cultural values". The joint management process ensures that traditional knowledge is combined with western science "in caring for country".
Armed with this background of cultural heritage and environmental awareness and respect, my wife and I, like most visitors to Uluru these days, chose not to climb the rock, but instead to learn more about Tjukarpa and Ananga culture by joining one of the guided tours visiting the various unique and awe inspiring features adorning the perimeter faces and caves of the Uluru megalith. The tour we chose (the Base Walk) covers the entire 10.5km continuous circuit around the perimeter of Uluru.
Our tour guide first explained that the cave and rock formations had a variety of historical through to present practical uses and that we would only be visiting (up close and personal) those areas which the Anangu permit non-Anangu (piranpa) people to go and to photograph.
As an illustrative example of the limitations imposed by Anangu on visitors, it was suggested by our guide that, when we permit visitors to come into our own homes or communal areas, we are happy for them to perhaps visit our kitchen and dining areas, perhaps our mixed work, teaching and even relaxation areas, but we would probably draw the line at most visitors entering our bedrooms and other personal areas where we enjoy activities that we do not wish to share outside our close family. Furthermore, it was suggested that we would most probably take offence at strangers entering such areas and taking photographs of our underwear.
Continuing with our illustrative exemplification, if we consider the Uluru megalith to resemble a cultural sanctuary (similar to a mosque, church or temple), some of us might be offended at visitors clambering and climbing over its walls and roof, particularly when the climb can be very dangerous, resulting in regular accidents, not to mention the pollution created by and/or left behind by climbers on the rock, much of which ends up in the various waterholes around the base which are relied upon by the local wild life.
As a consequence of our cultural awakening and awareness, it was relatively easy to refrain from leaving the path or from taking photographs when our guide indicated so, and when the various signs along the main path indicated that photographs should not be taken at specific locations.
Along our route we visited many caves, including the following:
- Old People's Cave (below). This is where the old people, who were too old to participate in the men's ceremonies, would rest. They would cook kangaroo (malu) and other food their children and grandchildren brought and would tell stories and make sure that the women and children didn't enter the men's ceremonial areas.
- Men's Business Cave (below) where the Mala men conducted their secret business. Here it should be recognised that the women also had their exclusive areas of secret business.
- Teaching Cave (below) is where the Anangu elders taught the boys how to travel through the bush, track and hunt for their food. The rock pictures were painted by generations of grandfathers (not unlike a school blackboard).
- Mutitjulu Cave (below) is a family cave where at night, around the camp fire, the children were taught the same stories which are still handed down to today's children. The paint colours you see came from iron-stained clays (red and yellow ochre) and from burnt desert oak (black from charcoal and white from ash), crushed on a flat stone and mixed with water.
But perhaps the most interesting and captivating cave (certainly for me) was the Kitchen Cave (below), no doubt due in part to the old adage that "The way to a man's heart is through his stomach".
This is where the women would process the various bush foods they collected, along with the meat provided by the male hunters, and teach the girls how to cook, so that they, in turn, could pass this knowledge onto their children. The rock floor of this Kitchen Cave (above) features flat rounded areas, lipped around their perimeter, where seed was pounded with round stones to produce flour for baking flat bread.
On the base walk we were also told some of the stories which the Anangu elders still tell the children about the special places on and around Uluru and about the animals that made them back in Tjukurpa. There are reportedly many Tjukurpa stories, but we non-Anangu (piranpa) are only told the simpler ones as taught to the children, being the Mala Story, the Lungkata Story, and the Kuniya and Liru Story.
The Mala Story
In the beginning, the Mala (rufous hare-wallaby) people came from the north and could see this rock (Uluru). They thought it looked like a good place to stay a while and make inma (ceremony). The Mala men decorated and raised Ngaltawata, the ceremonial pole. The inma had now begun.
The Mala people began to busily prepare for their ceremonies. The women gathered and prepared food for everyone. They stored nyuma (seed cakes) in their caves. The men went out hunting. They made fires and fixed their tools and weapons.
In the middle of preparations, two Wintalka men approached from the west. They invited the Mala people to attend their inma. The Mala people said no, explaining their ceremony had begun and could not be stopped.
The disappointed Wintalka men went back and told their people. Enraged, they created an evil spirit – a huge devil-dog called Kurpany – to destroy the Mala inma.
As Kurpany travelled towards the Mala people he changed into many forms. He was a mamu, a ghost. Luunpa, the kingfisher woman was the first to spot him. She warned the Mala people but they didn’t listen.
Kurpany arrived and attacked and killed some of the men. In great fear and confusion the remaining Mala people fled down into South Australia with Kurpany chasing them. The story continues down south.
These ancestors are still here today. Luunpa still keeps watch, but she is now a large rock. Kurpany’s footprints are imprinted into the rock heading towards the east and south. The men who were killed are still in their cave.
This story teaches that it is important to finish what you start and that you should watch for and listen to warnings of danger.
With a little imagination you can see (photo above) the footprints of Kurpany, along with the imprints of the dead Mala warriors, all permanently imprinted on the north-east face of Uluru.
The Lungkata Story
The western face of Uluru reminds us of Lungkata, a greedy and dishonest blue-tongue lizard who came to Uluru from the north.
As Lungkata travelled towards Uluru, he burned the country and began the practice of traditional management of the land.
At Uluru, Lungkata camped in a cave high on the western face, looking out over where the Cultural Centre is today. He hunted around the southern base of the rock, where he came upon a wounded kalaya (emu), still dragging a spear from another hunt.
Lungkata knew that the wounded bird belonged to other hunters and it would be wrong for someone else to kill it and eat it, yet this was exactly what he did. He then began cutting it up and cooking it.
The two panpanpalala (bellbird hunters) who had wounded the kalaya were not far behind. Seeing the smoke from Lungkata’s fire, they came up to him and asked if he had seen their bird. Hiding the pieces of kalaya behind him, Lungkata lied and told the two hunters that he had seen nothing. Disappointed, they walked off, but when they located the tracks of the kalaya they guessed what had happened.
Meanwhile, Lungkata gathered up what he could carry of the bird and raced westwards to his permanent camp, dropping pieces of meat behind him. You can still see the kalaya’s thigh at Kalaya Tjunta, just north of the Ikari cave near Mutitjulu Waterhole.
The trail Lungkata left was easy to follow, and the two panpanpalala caught up with him. The hunters made a huge bonfire under the slow, fat lizard as he struggled upwards to his camp in a cave up high.
Lungkata, the greedy and dishonest thief, choked on the smoke and was burnt by the flames. He rolled down, leaving strips of his burned flesh stuck to the rocks he touched. As his flesh came off, Lungkata got smaller and smaller, until eventually he became a small solitary stone.
The smoke and ash from the fire still stain the side of Uluru’s steep slopes above Lungkata’s body.
Lungkata reminds us what happens to the greedy and dishonest, and teaches us that climbing Uluru is dangerous.
The cave where Lungkata hid with his ill-gotten gains from the bellbird hunters can be seen high up on the right (photo above). Again with a little imagination, the white staining on the rock face below can be seen to represent his flesh as he tumbled down the red hot rock, and the black staining from the bonfire used by the hunters to smoke him out.
The Kuniya and Liru Story
Wherever you walk around Mutitjulu Waterhole, you are surrounded by the presence of two ancestral beings – Kuniya, the woma python, and Liru, the poisonous snake.
The Kuniya and Liru story occurs on different sides of Uluru, but their deadly battle took place near Mutitjulu Waterhole.
The Kuniya woman came from far away in the east to hatch her children at Uluru. She carried her eggs strung around her neck like a necklace and brought them to rest at Kuniya Piti on Uluru’s north-east corner. There she left the eggs on the ground.
Kuniya camped at Taputji and hunted in the nearby sandhills. As she left and entered her camp, she formed deep grooves in the rock. These grooves are still there.
One day, Kuniya had to draw on all her physical and magical powers to avenge the death of her young nephew, also a Kuniya. He had enraged a group of Liru, or poisonous brown snakes, who travelled from the south-west to take revenge on him.
They saw him resting at the base of Uluru and rushed upon him, hurling their spears. Many spears hit the rock face with such force that they pierced it, leaving a series of round holes that are still obvious. The poor Kuniya, outnumbered, dodged what he could but eventually fell dead.
When news of the young python’s death reached his aunt on the other side of Uluru, she was overcome with grief and anger. She raced along the curves of the rock to Mutitjulu Waterhole, where she confronted one of the Liru warriors, who mocked her grief and rage.
Kuniya began a dance of immense power and magic. As she moved towards the Liru warrior she scooped up sand and rubbed it over her body. Her rage was so great that it spread like a poison, saturating the area at that time.
In a fearsome dance she took up her wana, or digging stick, and struck the head of the Liru. But her anger was now beyond restraint, and she hit him again across the head.
He fell dead, dropping his shield near Mutitjulu Waterhole, where Kuniya herself remains as a sinuous black line on the eastern wall. The blows she struck are two deep cracks on the western wall, and the Liru’s shield, now a large boulder, lies where it fell.
- Parks Australia website
Calling once more upon your already stimulated imagination you can clearly see (photo above) the head of the dead Liru warrior on the left, with his eyes closed and downturned mouth. To the right of his face (at the back of his head) there are two vertical marks, the smaller one (to the right) being where Kuniya first hit him a glancing blow with her wana. The longer strike mark, to the left of the first, is where she delivered the fatal blow. Mutitjulu Waterhole is in shadow on the right of the photo.
Now I have shared these Tjukurpa stories with you, I shall leave you with these parting words from the Anangu:
"Our deep knowledge of the land and the behaviour and distribution of plants and animals comes from Tjukurpa.....................<<..................>>...................
This knowledge is carefully passed on to young people. Some areas of Tjukurpa are only passed on to people who have inherited the right to that knowledge. With knowledge comes responsibility.
We would like to share some of this knowledge with you. In return, we ask that you take some responsibility for looking after this place during your stay."
All photos illustrating this blog were taken by and remain the property of Ken Boddie. The map of Uluru was sourced from the Visitor Guide to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. The Tjukurpa stories were copied verbatim from the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park website.
When not researching the weird or the wonderful, the comical or the cultured, the sinful or the serious, I chase my creative side, the results of which can be seen as selected photographs of my travels on my website at:
The author of the above, Ken Boddie, besides being a sometime poet and occasional writer, is an enthusiastic photographer, rarely leisure-travelling without his Canon, and loves to interact with other like-minded people with diverse interests.
Ken's three day work week (part time commitment) as a consulting engineer allows him to follow his photography interests, and to plan trips to an ever increasing list of countries and places of scenic beauty and cultural diversity.