Australia; the Outback

Uluru is a national and cultural icon in much the same way that Americans revere Yosemite or Yellowstone or Mount Rushmore or Niagara Falls. It is pretty amazing simply as a rock. It is a massive remnant of the ancient Petermann Mountain Range which has been eroding away in central Australia for the past 550,000,000 years. It is a very hard sandstone (arkose) rich in feldspar that has weathered the years pretty well while the surrounding mountains (once the size and breadth of the Himalayas) have turned to sand and dust. The origins of the actual rock go back about 800,000,000 years though the thrusts and uplifts that formed the Petermanns were merely 550,000,000 years ago (or so).
The cultural aspect of Ayers Rock, in the short memory of the white Australians, is built around early explorers and their often ill-fated ventures into central Australia; the Outback. Climbing the rock, camping nearby, and fossicking in the area were what they did with a certain narcissism, callousness, and abandon.
The deep cultural history of Uluru and this remote region is essential to Aboriginal life and culture of the Aboriginal people of the central part of the country.

I have never known how to write about the Australian Aboriginal peoples. They are a wonder and a mystery. They are still remote within themselves and distant from the European culture that has spread through this island continent. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, two things need to be understood or at least recognized; first, these people are ancient and second, they are not really a single “people” or nation. How that works is something like this; they arrived from the Sri Lankan coast some 60,000 years ago – well before Chinese cultures blossomed and more than 55,000 years before Greece and Rome. It is beyond imagination. The second aspect concerns the adaptations the people needed and the land that required adaptation – Australia has an ecological richness along its coast but not so much in the great Red Center; the desert after desert that encompass the interior of the country.

In order to survive in the center the people divided into small groups and eventually created more than 260 languages from the 500 small nations that eventually existed. When the Europeans arrived the aboriginal people were not anything like a unified nation or even a group of tiny nations with alliances. There were hundreds of small groups; twenty-five people or less. Any larger group couldn’t have survived on these barren lands. Each member needed a couple square miles a day to hunt and forage on. They needed space and no competition. They moved constantly. They competed for space and water. It was unlike anything we can imagine today. The coastal peoples were more settled and had resources upon which they could depend.

Uluru offers many aspects as you circumnavigate it. The shapes and lines are all explained in the Dream Time aboriginal cultural stories. These stories are ancient and basic to the earth’s formation and thus are to deep to be shared with the younger European culture. Thus much of what we know is superficial and likely similar to the first stories that children are told about their aboriginal heritage. The songs and odes that speak to the truth of creation and life are kept within the adult aboriginal group. Even within the adults it is unlikely that “men’s business” and “women’s business” overlap. Here at Uluru there are still places scared to each gender’s business and activities. Understanding Uluru from the perspective of the Anangu people is a bit like trying to understand the Wailing Wall, the Shroud of Turin, Mecca, or other deeply held religious beliefs. The Dream Time stories held by the local Australians are both religious and cultural. They explain everything.

I cannot explain the Outback from an Aboriginal point of view. Perhaps no one can – remember much of its history is very ancient and the deep meaning hasn’t been told to us. There are many books written on the subject and some of the newer books are not deeply biased and present a pretty level look at the inner workings of these people. Most of the books written about the exploration of Australia, especially those about the harsh interior, will speak of these resident peoples but most early accounts should be looked at with a bit of skepticism as the lack of understanding was great in the early 20th century. I do recommend looking into the discovery and settlement of Australia both to get a sense of the European culture that sent the “First Fleet” south to this supposed empty land and a sense of those who were already there and watched the ships arrive. The interaction with the native people, the wildlife, the environment provide perplexing and often contradictory studies in bravery, planning, thoughtfulness, sensitivity, along with a heavy dose of stupidity.

Just a few miles away from Uluru is the second great geologic landmark of the area; Kata Tjuta. This is also a remnant of the Petermann Range; but instead of being formed by compressed sandstone it seems to be the remains of a giant mud flow (pool, basin, sea) that formed as the Petermanns eroded. These rocks are deeply conglomerate. As you walk through them you can easily see that you are on a dried hardened mud pudding with millions of smaller rounded “raisins” mixed in. The new road to Kata Tjuta is sinuous and certainly not point-to-point. This new road was laid out with the advice and desires of the Anangu people in mind. It avoids sacred ground and ritual sites. It represents an understanding of the cultural importance of this area in a way that is a recent addition to the thinking of the governmental powers that be. Like Uluru Kata Tjuta is still used and revered by the Aboriginal peoples.
This is a dislodged chunk from the wall of a Kata Tjuta canyon. It is obviously conglomerate and is by no means eccentric. The whole of the great “heads” and associated canyons are made of conglomerate rock. This feature was named The Olgas by Ernest Giles one of Australia’s most vigorous early explorers. As was the tradition it was named for a monarch or a benefactor; in this case it was Queen Olga of Württemberg, the daughter of Tsar Nicholas 1.

I can’t resist on more reference to ancient times – – – As we know here in the Northern Hemisphere there was an Ice Age that covered much of Canada and the Northern US with billions of tons of ice; frozen fresh water. This also happened in Russia and Europe. There was some ice that occurred in the southern hemisphere as well. There was a lot of ice; a whole lot.

There was so much ice in the ice sheets up on land or frozen in the sea that the oceans and seas were deprived of runoff from rivers and the ocean surface dropped and dropped as the glaciation grew and grew. The ocean today is about 400′ higher than it was in Ice Age times – that is only 10-40 thousand years ago. Do you see where we are going?

The aboriginal peoples were the only culture in existence at that time that persists into modern times. The stories told by aboriginal people from the coast (not those of Uluru and the arid Great Red Center) speak repeatedly of the times when barriers, reefs, islands, marshes, and rivers were flooded or expanded and the time when land disappeared under the expanding ocean. There are stories of lost seasonal camping sites and flooded fishing areas. A detailed explanation of these stories and the relationship of the stories to a rising ocean as the glaciers melted back is very interesting. These people lived through the ups and downs of an Ice Age effected ocean – how very cool; how interesting, how revealing.

These four post cards from more than 100 years ago depict the countryside being developed by the Europeans. As the two lower cards depict they wanted a countryside with running water, vegetation, and cattle. The upper left card shows a group of aboriginal people watching a camel train passing by. Camels were widely used in Australia and still roam wild through the outback.
The Red Kangaroo is the largest of the many types of forward-hopping big foots (genus Macropodia) found in Australia. There are kangaroos, wallabys, wallaroos, pademelons, betongs, and potoroos. The three or four largest are called kangaroo from the word “gangurru” taken from the Guuga Yimithirr people. The Red Kangaroo can weigh as much as 200 pounds and cover about 20-25 feet with each hop, once it gets rolling.
The Echidna is one of the two egg-laying mammals found in Australia. These spiny creatures are also found in New Guinea and on many of the islands around Australia. They reached these islands during those periods of low ocean level and have since been kind of marooned out there as sea level rose and these lands became islands. the other egg-layer is the Duck-billed Platypus, an even more astoundingly odd mammals. Claws, poison glands, a flattened bill, and the egg laying confounded early European taxonomists who couldn’t decide what kind of animal the platypus was.
This last image shows a common bird of Australia – the Galah. A pink and gray cockatoo that occurs widely and is quite a pleasant part of the country’s wildlife. This is a bird who’s population seems to be increasing as suburbs and settlements expand. Like many Australian names (more and more each year as cultures blend and aboriginal names are invoked) the name Galah comes from an aboriginal name. In this case the heritage name is “gilaa” a word from the Yuwaalaraay language. Galah is not pronounced like gala as we say it. It has a softer pronunciation more like “ha – lah” with the emphasis on the last syllable. Ga – lah.
Australia is rich in parrots cockatoos, rosellas, corellas, lorikeets, and budgies. There are 40 true parrots and 14 cockatoos species in Australia.

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