Uluru Revisited

A chance phone call from the regional mananger of ABC  Alice Springs Radio 783, Stewart Brash, has stirred my memories of attending the handover of Uluru back to the traditional owners in 1985. Stewart traced me after finding  on the internet some photographs I had taken at the event, thirty years ago. To commemorate the occasion, Stewart is collating some photographs for the station’s Facebook website, and a shot I took of a banner being dragged across the sky by a light plane on the day, proclaiming “Ayer’s Rock For All Australians” caught his eye.


The intrusion of that plane, at the moment of high excitement as the ceremony peaked, was intended to register the offence which some took at the hand-over, although some interpreted the message as a positive one.

A day before the ceremony I was having a beer in a pub in rural Mount Barker in the Adelaide Hills, when I saw an announcement on the television news about the handover. I immediately determined to get there, though both time and money were short. There were no direct commercial flights, busses or a train which could get me there on time it seemed, but somehow I stumbled across the possibility of scoring a ‘standby’ seat on a Fokker Friendship, departing Adelaide for Yulara Resort the next morning, a Saturday. With my backpack, a sleeping bag and a camera, and the payment of $70, I found myself flying low and slow over the mesmerising desert country on the way to Uluru.

Every trace of past rainfall and water-course was etched in patterns on the landscape, and the shadows of fluffy white clouds showed dark and sharp below against the vibrant coloured panorama. I wanted to shake my fellow passengers from their idle chatter and newspapers and to share the experience, but it seemed I was the only one captured by the magic.

Hours later, we tilted around Uluru and touched down on the tarmac of Connellan Airport. I stepped from the plane and into the warmest of sun, the brightest of colours, and an incredibly strong feeling of belonging.

I have posted on this blog previously my observations of the handback, so I won’t repeat them here, except to say that I got in a good position to take photographs, and was deeply moved by the occasion. After  couple of days exploring the rock and Katajuta, I managed to get a ride into the Alice, board the Ghan, and trundle back to Adelaide. I caught a cab to Glen Osmond, stuck out a thumb, and was picked up by an old school mate, who dropped me at my home in the hills.

Five years later, after spending two years as the arts organiser at the Yuelamu Community in the Tanami desert, I was back at Yulara, selling artworks from the community at the Sheridan Hotel as they explored the potential for a new gallery in a closed down bar. I spent a lot of time at Yulara over the next few years, during which time I visited either the rock or Katajuta on a daily basis. About this time I got hold of a copy of Ayers Rock, by Charles Mountforda seminal study of the creation myths of Uluru when knowledge of the stories was still very strong. This book confirmed what I had learnt during my time as an arts organiser; that every physical feature of the countryside was shaped by the adventures of the dreamtime ancestors, and that certain ‘skin’ groups had the ceremonial responsibilities for delegated sections of the land. Uluru, as revealed by Mountford, has a story for virtually every physical feature; rocks, caves, groups of trees, water stains and rock-holes, gashes in the surface, and the birds, plants and animals who frequent the region. One vivid tale tells of the evil spirit dingo, Kulpunya, sent by a tribe offended by a lapse in ceremonial protocol to slaughter the hare-wallaby people of Uluru. (Shades of the Chamberlains?)

I would explore a section of the rock on each visit, often sitting in a cave and contemplating the same view ancient eyes had taken in over millennia. It is sobering to realise that this whole great land mass was, a little more than 200 years ago, stitched together by song, dance, and ceremony.


Today the great monolith towers 350 metres above the surrounding desert oaks and sand dunes, while the Minga (ants) from the Yulara Resort to the north visit in their thousands, forming a line of tiny specks as they journey to the top. The Anangu watch from their third world settlement in the south-eastern shadow of Uluru, and observe the 21st century intrusion of their land. Their observation, from frowning brows, is analogeous to the view Uluru has. The stories are locked into the land, and the Minga an insignificent distraction; but the keepers of the ceremony are fewer in number, as the stories fade into infinity.

The culture is precious, and its preservation, paramount.

The Trial of Lindy Chamberlain

This essay was written in the 1980’s, after Lindy Chamberlain had been jailed for the murder of her infant daughter, Azaria, who had been taken by a dingo at Uluru (Ayers Rock). It seeks to expose the ridiculous logic which conspired to put an innocent mother in jail.
“Wadda you guys reckon about this Chamberlain case?” asked Parklands Pete, wiping a grubby sleeve across his mouth and passing the bottle of cheap plonk on.“Guilty as hell!” roared Troppo, snatching the bottle, gulping greedily, and repeating, “Guilty as hell!”“Not guilty!” growled their other companion, Dynamite Dave, “Indisputedly innocent! Gissa drink!”“Tell yez wot,” said Pete, who’d always fancied himself high court judge material, “We’ll have us a trial right now – Troppo for the proshecushon, Dynamite Dave for the defense, and meself on the bench.” (He had already served for many years on the bench, but only for sleeping).

The trial began immediately, with Troppo lurching fiercely into the prosecution case.

“Yore ‘oner,” he began, “This leery loony Lindy has guilt written all all over the newspapers, and in a number of important public opinion polls to boot. If that aint democracy an the free press in action, then what the helliz?” He paused – rather dramatically he thought. “Let me trackback on the facts, as the tracker said to the Ranger. The aforesaid previously mentioned began her evil incursion into infanticide during the day preceding the crime, when she cleverly pretended to be nursing a doll, which she was pretending to be a substitute for the departed Azaria, who she had not actually killed yet. This diabolical diversion was later to police the force into changing their whole story.”

Troppo paused for refreshment, and marvelled at how smoothly and precisely the facts were dancing off his tongue.

“Later that night Mz Chamberlain left the camp fire, obstrepiously to open a can of baked beans, and moments later this archangel of armageddon stood alone in a dark hole of despair; her arms held a can of baked beans wrapped in a disposable matinee jacket – and the can opener was never seen again! 

“Frenzic scientists were later able to prove that the vomit on the missing can opener was compatible with not being vomit at all – but missing blood – and on the basis of probabilities, this missing blood could well be foetal, providing one got the right person to conduct the test.”

“In the ensuing confusion, her husband Michael was able to substitute fake dingo tracks for those of Lindy, who at the time was eating the beans, substituting the baby, and burying the matinee jacket in the camera bag.”

Troppo’s tidal wave of testimony crashed on to its final conclusion.

“I implore yore ‘oner, to consider the facts, to digest the facts, and to belch out incomprehensible justice in the manner to which we are accustomed!” 

Flushed with euphoria and plonk, Troppo raised his arms to the God of vengeance, and fell arse-over-head.

“Yore ‘oner,” began Dynamite Dave for the defense, “This preposterous prosecution pursues punctilliously, percillious profanities! The truth has been booted about like a leperous dingo with aids! We demand, we expect, and we are confident of an unequivical aquittal! The defence rests!” 

And in saying so, he collapsed on the grass and began snoring.

“That,” said Parklands Pete, shaking his head sadly, “is just what the Chamberlain’s defense said, nearly four years ago.” 

Uluru Handover Ceremony, 1985

This is the second account in the Desert Star, of my attendance at the 1985 handover (or should that be hand-back) of Uluru to its traditional owners. The accounts were written at different times, the previous version being written closer to the actual event. There seemed to be no point in having this version sitting in my computer unread. There is a link to the photographs I took on the day.
October 27th, 1885.
In 1985, a decision was made by the Hawke Labor Government to return Uluru, previously known as Ayers Rock, to the traditional owners, the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people. I was fortunate enough to be there on that day.Stepping onto the tarmac at Yulara airport was an entry into another dimension. Bathed in the warmth of the October sun, there was immediate comfort, an affinity with the colour and clarity of light, and an inexplicable feeling of having been there before. We were bussed into Yulara village, the multimillion dollar resort still under construction to serve the tourist industry, and assembled at the Sheraton hotel. (Little did I know that just five years later I would be selling magnificent Aboriginal artworks from this same hotel).From the Sheraton a large ensemble of people gathered, and eventually a much larger bus cruised the forty kilometres out to Uluru, which dominated the landscape from Yulara, and grew in stature and power as we approached.The return of Uluru to the traditional owners was to take place at the Mutitjulu community, nestled in the bush on the far side of the rock from Yulara, and the original site of the early tourism development before the Yulara resort was mooted. This was also the site of a couple of infamous incidents – one being the crazed truck driver who drove his semi-trailer through the bar of the Outback Hotel after an altercation with some drinkers, killing several people around the pool table. The other was the disappearance from the camp ground of the baby Azaria Chamberlain in the jaws of a dingo, and the consequent controversy. At the time of my arrival at Yulara, Lindy Chamberlain was serving the second year of her life term in a Darwin prison, and in the Northern Territory at that time, life meant life. After three years, she was released amid much controversy and a after a number of enquiries, she was totally exonerated.

There were black faces from all over Australia to celebrate this historic occasion, as well as many white supporters of the Pitjantjatjara and Yunkinjitjara people, who still held the ancient stories of Uluru in their hearts and minds. The Federal Labor Government under Prime Minister Bob Hawke had initiated the return of Uluru in the spirit of natural justice and land rights, much to the disgust of the conservative Northern Territory Government, who not only boycotted the ceremony, but withdrew the Northern Territory Conservation officers from their long established relationship with the Uluru/Katatjuta National Park, a decision they would regret in due course.

Because of the short-sighted attitude of the NT Government, the ceremony on that day would entail the official hand-over to the traditional owners by the Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephens, to be followed by the signing of a ninety-nine year lease agreement to the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the Federal Body which would take over the management of the park, with traditional owners maintaining a majority management role on the Park Board. There was other opposition to the ceremony within the Australian community, mainly from those ignorant of Aboriginal relationship to land, but also from opportunistic racists.

The gathering of people on the red earth that day, with the Rock providing a magnificent backdrop to the official table, had no thoughts of opposition to the anticipation and excitement which was building up as the official party’s arrival drew near. I noted a space to the left of the table, which would enable a close view of the ceremony for photography , and settled there, bathed in warmth, comfort, and a great sense of the occasion. Oblivious of the import of the day, some camp dogs settled in the shade of the table, and slept soundly.

Looking back on the photographs I took that day, it is clear that the majority of the crowd were looking at the ceremonial table, on a rise, with Uluru behind, with the sun almost directly in their eyes – unfortunate for them, but great for the photographic record I was able to take. The official party entered the area from my left as I looked down, crossed to their seats at the right hand side of the table, and in a state of great excitement, the ceremony began. The main protagonists were the Governor General, the Federal Minister for Aboriginal Affairs Clive Holding, Environment minister Barry Cohen, and the chair of the Pitjantjatjara Council, Yami Lester, who was blinded as a young man in the era of nuclear bomb testing at Emu fields. Yami, in spite of his blindness, had taken advantage of his time in Adelaide when his blindness struck, to get a good education, and it was as an eloquent speaker of English and Pitjantjatjara that he was to play the role of interpreter for the benefit of the many bush people in attendance.

The ceremony was conducted with great dignity and gravitas. In reference to opposition to the hand-over, Yami joked that ‘some people seem to think that the Rock will not be here tomorrow, that it might be towed away…..’


Sir Ninian spoke with eloquence, pausing for Yami to interpret. He spoke of Uluru being ‘not only the physical heart of the country, but the spiritual heart…..’ The ceremony proceeded, with great excitement building, until with an overwhelming sense of euphoria, the framed, glass-encased certificate of ownership was passed to the traditional owners, who held both it, and a small child, above their heads to the delight of the crowd.

At the height of these celebrations, a light plane flew directly overhead, trailing a giant sign which read, ‘AYERS ROCK FOR ALL AUSTRALIANS.’ It was a well timed but futile gesture, which underlined the presence of many in the population adverse to any recognition of Aboriginal rights to their land and culture. For precious moments the Pitjantjatjara were the sole, unencumbered owners to their land. Their signatures on the lease agreement which followed, many of which were simple crosses, set in place what has proved to be an extremely successful formula for the management of the park. 

There ought to be no illusions however, about the standard of living within the Mutitjulu Community, which, despite a certain amount of financial benefit from park income, has not substantially changed the poverty stricken, petrol sniffing, and violence-ridden settlement. It is the starkest of contrasts to the multimillion dollar swimming-pooled, air-conditioned, restaurant-dotted luxury on the other side, all generated by the tourist industry, privately owned, outside the park, and with not a black employee in sight. 

The afternoon concluded with some traditional dance, and a barbeque. We were bussed back to Yulara Village, and my initial introduction to the red centre had begun in spectacular style.