By Kathleen Kemsley, © 2021
After spending a couple weeks in tropical Queensland along the coast, I escaped the humidity by flying into the red center of Australia. Having spent at least half my life in the American Southwest, I felt instantly at home in the desert of the Outback. The rough frontier towns, reptilian wildlife, and intense blue skies were as familiar to me as my own back yard.
I arrived in Alice Springs in late October, the start of the blazing heat of summer in the big empty in the middle of the island nation. Many things that appear in the desert prove to be a mirage; my first understanding of Alice Springs was that its name was a double mirage. The town was named for Alice Todd, wife the telegraph pioneer Sir Charles Todd; but she never set foot in the red center, having stayed safely ensconced in Adelaide. And the springs? Not springs at all – there are no springs anywhere nearby – only the Todd River, usually a dry arroyo, only flowing once in awhile during the rainy season.
So – No Alice, No Springs. It immediately brought to mind Lake Valley, a backcountry byway in the middle of nowhere in New Mexico. We always called it No Lake, No Valley, named for wishful thinking rather than anything real. Alice Springs marked an arbitrary spot in the endless roll of desert sands where enterprising British explorers in the 1870s ran a telegraph line, connecting Darwin to the southern coast, and bisecting the ancient grounds of the local indigenous people who had lived in the desert for millennia.
Walking around the small dusty settlement of Alice Springs, I saw knots of native residents, called Anangu, clustered in the shade of trees along the tourist plaza. They spoke an unintelligible mumble and grunt of a language and didn’t meet my eyes. I would learn more about them as I traveled in their world – into the wilderness where the legendary monuments of Kata Tjuda and Uluru rose unbidden into the deep blue sky.
I joined a small group for transport to the main attractions of the desert. During the five hour journey on a road straight as a ruler, we made pit stops at a camel ranch and an emu farm. The camels were most definitely not indigenous to central Australia, but once upon a time, someone imported a few from Africa. They promptly escaped, multiplied, and spread out into the empty desert, perfectly suited to this harsh land with little water. Emus. on the other hand, were genuine locals, flightless birds four feet tall, seemingly a little out of step with the modern world, but singularly suited to life in the red center of the country.
We reached Kata Tjuda in the afternoon. Actually domed sandstone protrusions, these “mountains” were named the Olgas by explorer Earnest Giles in 1872 to honor some queen of Russia who, like Alice Todd, had never been to the Australian desert. When the government restored ownership of this area to the aboriginal people in 1985, they reverted to the original name, Kata Tjuda, meaning “many heads.” Legends about the origins and spiritual symbolism of the area were kept alive by the oral tradition of the native Anangu people, but they did not repeat the stories to us foreign tourists. Many secrets were kept quiet in the orange folds of rock towering over the emptiness of the red center.
Before dawn the next morning, I caught a ride to the other famous rock extrusion in the area, Uluru. Again, it had an English name as well as an indigenous name; in this case Ayers Rock was named for the then Chief Secretary of South Australia. Henry Ayers made his fortune in mining, was chairman of the board of the South Australia Bank, and served on the council for the University of Adelaide. True to form for this part of the country, there was no evidence in his biography to indicate he ever actually traveled to the monolith that bore his name.
Uluru rose abruptly out of the flat desert sand. In the pre-dawn chill, the huge rock outcrop bore an air of mystery and of mythology never spoken in English. Obviously, the rock belonged not to us latecomers and interlopers, but to a far more ancient people who had dwelled in its shadow, hunting and gathering free of the influence of any other culture for at least ten thousand years.
In the past century, about one-third of the tourists who visited Uluru climbed to the top of the rock. The locals never climbed Uluru due to its spiritual significance – the route to the top supposedly crossed a sacred traditional route taken by creator-beings, according to the Anangu people’s legends of origin. Australian officials finally capitulated and made climbing the rock illegal, but the deadline for closure of the track to the top was still a few months in the future when I was there. I saw a handful of people head up the steep but well-worn path to the top.
But, respectful of the wishes of the Aboriginal people, I did not climb the rock. Instead I walked all the way around it, a distance of about twelve miles, watching as it emerged from darkness into dawn, glowing orange when the first rays of sun struck it. Tucked within its walls were shrubs, hidden caves, and tiny springs of clear, cold water. Rainfall flow off the top of the dome traced stripes down the sides of the massive rock, pooling at the base in deep ponds that served as natural water sources for a wide variety of creatures.
The water, shade, and vegetation surrounding Uluru attracted a lot of creatures besides just tourists. Resident animals include kangaroos, several species of wallabies, bats, possums, rats, moles, frogs, and 73 species of reptiles including snakes, lizards, and skinks. I saw a few of the smaller reptiles, but many local creatures shied away from intruders, hanging in the shadows or sleeping underground during the day and emerging in the cover of night.
Walking around the rock, by myself, I heard wind whistling through gaps in the solid rock face. Finches, swallows, wrens, and red-capped robins flitted in the brush; the occasional falcon or kestrel soared overhead. It was easy to imagine the Anangu people creeping through dense brush near the rock, plucking grubs, bush tomatoes, nuts, and the occasional lizard for dinner. For thousands of years, they drew maps on the walls of Uluru to direct others to precious water sources. They utilized medicinal plants and practiced birth control, to prevent their society from overwhelming the scarce resources of the desert. Maybe, I mused, these “primitive” people were more advanced in many ways than we seven billion “civilized” people, who have destroyed the natural world, altered the balance of nature, and crowded out so many species to extinction.
I admired the tenacity of the strange-sounding people who had mysteriously arrived in Australia from the shores of distant Africa so long ago and had figured out how to live quietly and with dignity in the shadow of the powerful red rock extrusions in the desert.
Of course, I too was an intruder, an alien visitor to this empty land. But standing at the base of Uluru at dawn, I appreciated the clean, windswept ambiance of the land. It was difficult to capture its grandeur with a camera lens, and even more difficult to put into words the power emanating from the massive red rocks. But I could feel it, no question. And in the moment the sun broke over the horizon, I understood a little of the allure of the place, to the Anangu who had lived in its shadow for so long. They were the rightful owners; they would continue to be good stewards of this singularly beautiful spot.