The Red Centre

A pedestrian bridge led over the sandy riverbed of the Todd River, leading to the town centre. I had heard that cars parked on the riverbank were vulnerable to being broken into, as the river had become a popular spot for the local homeless to congregate. In previous years so many had camped out in small ‘humpys’ that it had become a veritable shantytown, but there had clearly been a clean-up campaign, as I couldn’t see anyone in the shelter of the straggling trees that dotted the riverbed. The Rough Guide mentioned Todd Mall as being one of Alice Springs’ ‘must-do’ attractions, and we navigated our way towards it by iphone. Outside the Thirsty Camel pub a few drinkers stood about in small groups, and opposite, on a low wall, sat a few Aborigines. They had the air of people waiting for something. Todd Mall itself was virtually closed, despite it being five o’clock in the afternoon; Aborigine children ran around barefoot, shouting with laughter, the adults slowly padding after them. A group of police stood around their van, scanning the passers-by, on the lookout for trouble. More police took the details of a group of young Aborigine men standing nearby. This was a scene that was to repeat itself often – three times that hour alone I saw police talking to young Aborigine lads. One got the impression that the town changed significantly after dark. Passing a small patch of greenery we saw several Aborigine women sitting together in small groups on the other side of the road, chatting. One of them saw me smoking and made a miming gesture, asking for a cigarette, without much hope of success.

It reminded me very much of Marble Arch in London, which in recent years has become a popular hangout with Roma beggars. I remember the shock and outrage in the British papers at the sight of women in headscarves with children begging in the streets. It was a similar feeling in Alice – with a similar theme: all the beggars were of one distinctive ethnicity – Aborigine. And it caused an uncomfortable racial dimension to their obvious dispossession. They sloped about, rifled through bins for cigarette butts, wandered barefoot through the shopping malls looking shellshocked, and seemed utterly lost. They were all dusty, I noticed. Perhaps it was due to long journeys from outlying settlements in utes, but so many seemed to be covered with a thin film of powdery red dust, like the bloom upon a plum. Outside a bottle shop a lone white policeman sat disconsolately. An Aborigine woman carrying a baby approached him, asking something – from her gestures it was clear she wanted to go in. “I can’t let you in there,” he said, wearily but sympathetically. “You know it’ll just lead to trouble.” She wandered off, looking for someone else to appeal to, her eyes briefly sliding over mine before dismissing me as a hopeless prospect.

I had heard, of course, about the dispossession, the catalogue of social ills that befell many Aborigines, but it was still a shock to be confronted with it. Mentally I conjured up an apologist, a fictional Aborigine spokesperson, saying: “Of course it’s shocking, but these people are the ones drawn into the towns, just like any homeless. Out in the settlements it’s quite different.” But in my heart I knew it was not. Some were better, some worse, but everywhere there was this sense of an historical trauma. I’ve seen it before, in different forms, in other parts of the world; the sense that there’s been a calamity that people are still reeling from the aftershock of, moving slow and dazed through a world they don’t understand and have no agency in, seeking solace in the oblivion of drugs or alcohol. I’m sure there are all manner of laudable initiatives and worthy projects, some of them more successful than others. I’m sure there are successful Aboriginal businesses, individuals, associations. And yet, to an outsider flying in with no agenda other than to record what they see, these are the first, and most visible, impressions of Alice Springs. In fact crime has risen dramatically in the town in recent years – according to the Northern Territory Justice Department’s quarterly report, cases of assault have risen 87% since 2004; sexual assaults rose by 97%. Break-ins rose 185%. The police commissioner cites most crimes as being due to drunkenness and vagrancy. And some people have had enough – increasing numbers are moving away from the town citing fear of crime.

On a small hill overlooking the town stood a gleaming white monument – the ANZAC memorial. Plaques around the base commemorated Australia’s war dead, – ’1914-18’,  ‘1939-1945’, the most recent plaque reading ‘Afghanistan: 2001-‘ with the end date left blank. A small crowd had gathered to watch the sun set behind the distant hills, and on the far side of the site a huge moon rose, shimmering in the warm air as the city exhaled the heat of the day. Some people had brought deckchairs, and there was a man with a TV camera. Apparently there was going to be an eclipse. As the moon rose we headed down the hill and stopped at an Indian restaurant for dinner, before heading back across the small park outside the hostel. Two Aborigine women were coming the other way, with a slow, swaying gait. As we drew near the older one – she had a shock of white hair – said: “Look at the moon!” Her friend glanced at it and giggled nervously. “The moon is going!”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s the eclipse.”

They walked on, periodically turning to look upwards. I felt relieved they hadn’t asked for money, and then immediately guilty at the thought. I had fallen into the same trap that I’d seen other white Australians do in Alice Springs: when an Aborigine had drawn near they would unconsciously tighten their grip on their bag, or look down and cross the street. Every time an Aborigine asked for money, or a cigarette, or anything at all, it just reinforced the whole stereotype, and they became further stigmatised and still further dispossessed, regarded with suspicion, the mild tension subsiding only once they had passed by. In such insidious ways racism grows, in the fear and the suspicion, in the spaces between people, taking root in the fertile ground of mutual distrust and incomprehension.

Nevertheless, Alice Springs traded heavily on its Aboriginal connections. Todd Mall was lined with galleries full of Aboriginal art, souvenir shops sold T-shirts with the Aborigine flag on them (black rectangle horizontal above a red, surmounted by a yellow circle, representing the people ((black)), the land ((red)), and the yellow sun). There is apparently a co-operative in the town to showcase the work of Aborigine artists, although it has been criticised for elitism, only selecting well-known artists to the exclusion of others. In Yulara there was a cafe which advertised itself as a training initiative for young Aborigines – we went, and the food and coffee were excellent, although the customer service was as authentic as only a bored young person with a Saturday job who really doesn’t want to be there can manage. On entering a YHA hostel you’ll often see a plaque next to the entrance saying: “This hostel is built on land traditionally belonging to the Arrerntje people”, for example. On the SBS nightly national news the credits close with the statement: “This programme was filmed in studios on land belonging to the Cammeragyal people.” There’s an acknowledgement, at least, an attempt at recognition of an historical iniquity, without ever quite knowing what to do about it or how to redress it. Various politicians over the years have squirmed and engaged in tortuous wordplay to avoid having to “apologise” for assorted historical crimes – apologising before the media being the modern-day equivalent of the medieval penance. Initiatives are launched, projects begun, all with the best of intentions, and yet the only option available to most Aboriginal people seems to be to integrate into a predominantly white, 21st century capitalist economy which many want no part of. The week I arrived, Canberra journalist Jeremy Geia announced that he was leaving Australia while remaining on the continent; he returned his passport, driving licence and medicare card, reverted to his tribal name and went back to live in the traditional lands of the Yidindji people, in the north of Queensland, revoking any allegiance to the Commonwealth of Australia.

On the map of central Australia, three things stand out in proximity to each other: Alice Springs, Kings Canyon, and Uluru (formerly known as Ayers Rock). Barely an inch apart on a large-scale map, their proximity is relative in Australian terms – it is a four-and-a-half hour drive from Alice Springs to Uluru. In part this is due to there being no direct road; it’s necessary to drive back down the Stuart Highway some way before turning off to Uluru. Kings Canyon lies on a branch road off the main one to Uluru, but there was a more direct route known as Ernest Giles Road a short way south of Alice. This was described as unsealed, with 4WD advised but not essential. Many unsealed roads in Australia have large billboards at the entrance with a sliding status to indicate its condition: “Open”, “Closed”, or “4WD only”. Ernest Giles Road was labelled “open”, and given that we had an all-wheel drive SUV with good clearance, we decided to save ourselves several hours by taking it. In fact the road was very good – gravel, mostly, with occasional stretches of rough pebbles and a few patches of soft sand which caused the steering to slew a little. I was a bit concerned about our tyres, as they were a make I’d never heard of – called Nixon Terror Max or something – but in the event they held up well. Some of the stones, however, would have made a nice bang; you had to constantly scan a few yards ahead to watch for fist-sized rocks shaped like little pyramids with a sharp top. Driving along in the heat of the sun, your whole concentration preoccupied with scanning the surface ahead, reminded me of the many thousands of kilometres I drove on dirt roads in Africa. This was a veritable highway in comparison. Despite some rough patches where the whole car shook over the corrugations, we made good progress, the red sand of the road stretching away into the distance beneath a deep blue sky. By mid-afternoon we saw the sign for Kings Creek Station, where we had booked a safari cabin, and we pulled up outside, next to a huge tour bus and a couple of other 4WDs.

As soon as we got out we were surrounded by flies. They weren’t in huge numbers – just enough to be annoying. We made our way across the parking lot giving occasional waves. A group of elderly French tourists stood out on the verandah wearing head nets, like a bee-keepers convention. The safari cabins were basically large tents on a wooden base, with a couple of camp beds. There was the inevitable fluorescent strip light, and a fan, which was essential – the temperature was in the mid-30s, and inside the tent it was sweltering. Outside there was a breeze but this advantage was offset by the flies. We tried various combinations, sitting inside, then out, kitted out in our own head nets. Relief only came with sundown, when, as if from a signal, all the flies disappeared. In the early cool of dawn the next morning there was a brief interlude between mosquitoes going off duty from the night shift and the first rays of sunshine which brought the first fly of the day.

Our ambition that day was to walk round the rim of Kings Canyon – advertised as a three-and-a-half hour hike. It was necessary to leave early as the walk closed at 9am due to the heat. Numerous warning signs stood at the entrance about the dangers of heatstroke, the importance of carrying enough water and so on. We had two 800ml bottles of water and a litre-and-a-half of diluted cranberry juice, which we figured was enough. The only really tough bit of the hike was the first 15 minutes or so, when you basically climbed up the side of the canyon from ground level. With sweat running down my nose and my throat parched already I wondered whether I was really in a fit state to do it – I still had a stinking cold, but hoped that walking in what was basically a glorified oven might burn it off. The terrain levelled out on top and we found ourselves in a surreal landscape of deep red rock formations which led to a series of viewpoints overlooking the canyon. The landscape stretched away for miles, sage green and ochre, tinged with a shimmering, hazy blue in the distance where it merged with the sky. At around mid-way on the walk a wooden staircase descended into the canyon, which was cool in the shade of gum trees overlooking a small pool of water – an oasis in this desiccated landscape. A signpost had a quote from an Arrerntje Aborigine elder, saying: “This is a sacred place. Refresh yourself by splashing water on your face if you wish, but please do not swim.” Birdsong trickled down through the green shade of the trees and it certainly felt like a sanctuary of sorts, away from the harsh glare of the sun and the waves of heat off the red rock.

To the south-west of Kings Canyon, a couple of hours’ drive away, lies the main tourist attraction of Central Australia – the red centre of the Red Centre, as it were. Ayers Rock, now referred to by its Aboriginal name of Uluru, is a long way from anywhere, but acts like a giant magnet, drawing quarter of a million visitors a year to this remote and harsh landscape. Now that there are direct flights into nearby Yulara airport, Alice Springs has lost its unique position as the gateway to Uluru, and the tourist trade in the town has taken a knock due to rising crime. Yulara itself is basically a gigantic resort, with a series of hotels around a small town square which contains the essential facilities – post office, IGA supermarket and a couple of cafes; it feels a little like a provincial university campus. Apart from the campsite, the only budget accommodation in the resort was the Outback Pioneer Lodge, which had a range of rooms available. It was a curious sort of place – a hostel-style kitchen for the backpacking crowd, but also a couple of restaurants on site. The bar area blasted out rock music and there was a babble of conversation from assorted drinkers congregating around it. It was an amusingly ironic contrast with the hotel’s own glossy brochure, which had a quote from an Aborigine elder on it about the importance of Uluru to his people: “The most important thing about this place is the silence.” There wasn’t much silence in evidence in the Outback Pioneer Lodge. Toward late afternoon the place emptied, and a convoy of vehicles set out from the assorted hotels to Uluru itself for the sunset. Special parking lots have been designed with angled spaces so that you can sit in your car with a view of the rock. Most people, however, stood at the low fence which lies a couple of kilometres from the rock itself, and waited with an air of expectation. Gradually, as the sun dipped toward the horizon behind us, Uluru began to change: at first brownish in colour it began to glow inwardly with a reddish hue, different patterns and textures emerging down the raked sides that hadn’t previously been visible. Burnt umber, ochre, laterite red – it went through several shades, changing minute by minute. Finally, as the sun disappeared completely, the fire went out, and it darkened to a deep chestnut brown as the surrounding landscape became monochrome and the first stars emerged in the sky.

Is it worth it? This five day drive, the heat, the flies, in order to watch the sun set at Uluru? Absolutely it’s worth it. Even without understanding any of the cultural context you can grasp why such a site would be considered sacred, purely in aesthetic terms. This monolith that dominates the flat, surrounding bushland exerts a presence that is unique, no matter how iconic the imagery, or how familiar its outline. It is one of the natural wonders of the world, as well as being a spiritual centre in much the same way that a great cathedral, mosque or temple is. Even the tourists crowding into the viewpoints cannot diminish that presence.

Despite being politely requested not to by the local Aborigine community, due to its sacred status, many people still climb the rock. It is left to one’s conscience whether to do so, which to me seems an admirable way of doing it – no official prohibition, just a type of person who decides to put their personal wish to ‘conquer’ the rock above the feelings of a group of local people who have worshipped the site for thousands of years and consider walking on it to be an act of desecration. Sections of the rock are more sacred than others, and in some areas photography is prohibited as they are still used for secret rituals by the Arrerntje. These rituals – stages of initiation into the tribe, really – are so secret that men have no idea of the content of women’s ceremonies, and vice versa. To have a lot of outsiders blundering about in the area, walking upon the rock’s surface and taking photos would be little better than an act of cultural vandalism, given the circumstances. Nothing illustrates better the gulf of understanding between two cultures – one, custodians of the land, making a polite request not to scale something sacred to them; the other, knowing this full well, selfishly disregarding those wishes in attempting to conquer, to challenge themselves physically, to overcome what is essentially just a big lump of rock, “because it’s there”.IMG_6401.JPG