I need to be truthful. I have climbed Uluru.
It was August 1985. A group of us had travelled some hundreds of kilometres from the Balgo community in the south-east Kimberley to join the celebration when Uluru was handed back to the Anangu, the Pitjantjatjara-speaking people of that place.
We had come in two Toyotas: young men from the adult education cente, some older men and the two women staff of that centre. I had been invited to join the group as one of the designated drivers.
The weather was unseasonally hot. We, and many hundreds of others who had journeyed from all parts of the compass, camped at Uluru’s base.
In 1985 there was no official ban on climbing the ‘Rock’. Nor, as I remember, was there any message or communication that this was not respectful or appropriate.
Was this because there was no ‘voice’ opposing the climb? Or was there a voice that we were yet to hear — a voice not allowed to be heard? Did I and our group miss anything then? Looking back, I think so. Climbing was seen to be acceptable and our group believed it was okay to do so. Climb it we did.
We only took one thing with us. It was a painting of the ancestral Luurnpa (Kingfisher) who, in the tjukurrpa (that ancestral time), had brought the people into the western desert, now their home.
As people danced, sang and celebrated the handover, I realised, for the first time, that this Luurnpa had also travelled from the west to the desert at Uluru. Its journey, captured in a songline, was one of many that were united and celebrated at Uluru.
Before the ceremony we were introduced to the rich and complex culture that is intrinsically Uluru. We were taken by senior men of the ‘law’ to each special place around the Rock. They told us the ancestral story associated with each place and of its local and wider influence to Anangu life.
Not just one story, but many. Each story explained how current Anangu life had come to be and how the various ancestral figures and their lessons for life were now deeply ingrained in their journeys and their final settling in this place.
Here was a unity of the ‘then and now’ and the ‘time before time’ that linked people from so many places. Truly impressive; a tapestry that detailed a richly sacred space.
As we returned home, and as the sun was setting, we stopped to share a Eucharist. We had been on the road for some days and were eager to get home. I wondered how these men, young and older, made sense of what they had experienced in the context of Christian belief.
One of the men offered a reflection. To him, the Luurnpa was like Moses. Both had led and cared for their people. They had showed them how to live in the land. In recognising them, we acknowledge our past and those who have led, taught and shown us how to live.
On this occasion I came to glimpse another way of seeing God’s creation – not something to be simply travelled over, walked across or climbed, but a space to be held in wonder and awe for what had instructed and guided the Anangu and other Aboriginal people for many thousands of years.
Uluru is a very special space for the Anangu, to Aboriginal people generally, and to all people of this country. It is a very particular space that gathers life to itself from many directions, like deep, pulsing veins in a human body.
It points to life that lies within and beneath the land and, if we allow it, to how it can truly connect us with the land. These are mysteries, often hidden, needing to be shown and explained, especially to those of us who have come from other lands.
Uluru invites us to walk more carefully and respectfully upon the land.
Fr Brian F. McCoy SJ, Provincial
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