Etched clearly into the landscape, like the veins of the bloodstream, are the dry waterways, displaying clearly the arterial system which brings life to the desert. The largest of the trees grow obviously along the deeper water courses, with a corresponding fall off in foliage where the courses are shallower.
Although lacking other prominent features, the desert has been shaped by a devine hand, the subtleties overlooked by my news-paper-perusing fellow travellers. The page I’m gazing at is infinite, and the blending of reds, yellows, blues and greens are spread with meticulous balance.
Even the cloud cover seems spread with a view to the maintenance of balance. The razor edged shadows below are evenly spaced, and the merest wisp is sharply defined. The clouds, between the viewer and the ground, are balls of cotton, all floating at the same level, and supported by nothing at all.
This harmonious landscape, as always, is defiled by the hand of man. Chiselled across the whole magnificent work are the twin scalpel lines of the Stuart Highway, and the railway track along which the Ghan makes its lonely journey. Bulldozed tracks appear constantly, beginning and ending nowhere in pursuit of riches beneath the surface.
At Cooper Pedy, the frenzy of the search for opal is revealed by bomb-blasted craters and the gouging of machinery; pockmarks on the face of the country exposing virginal whiteness beneath.
The paradox is completed with the knowledge that, tiny though the airborne projectile carrying us to the red centre may be, it too is intruding into the very air through which it passes; and leaving in its wake the shattering reminder to the desert, that not even its silence is inviolate.
The Mutitjulu Community, previously a part of the tourist industry at Ayer’s Rock, but now inhabited by the semi-permanent Aboriginals who will be the title holders after the ceremony which is about to take place. View photos
Caroline, just two weeks out of London is with me, having flown up from Adelaide on the same Fokker aircraft that morning, and I can’t help but experience the occasion through her eyes, as well as my own.
There is a crowd of perhaps 3,000 people, mostly Aboriginals, many of whom have travelled from interstate for the ceremony. There are also churchmen, police, media, politicians, and white supporters of the native population.
We have managed to find a good position at the left of the official table, which is on a red-earth mound, with Uluru the backdrop behind us. Caroline is surprised that the Aboriginals show no resentment at our proximity to the stage. Dozens of media representatives are gathered at the front of the crowd, to the chagrin of some. Camp dogs snooze peacefully in the shade of the official table.
I point out Yami Lester, Aboriginal spokesperson and activist, and tell Caroline that his blindness was allegedly caused by British atomic bomb tests in the fifties. The excitement is growing by the minute, with Yami periodically addressing the crowd over the sound system.
“Would the people at the back come forward and fill the empty spaces?” and as the wishes are complied with, “Keep that area to the left there clear for the official party.”
A roped off area to our left as we face the crowd marks the passageway the official party will be using.
Then, “The Governor-General will be here in ten minutes.”
The scene is set. A sea of black faces, the red earth, and the red black and yellow Aboriginal colours on headbands, t-shirts and flags. Waiting for the representatives of white man’s society to ‘give back’ what had been theirs for 40,000 years.
“The Governor General has arrived,” says Yami, and excitement sweeps through the crowd. A flurry of activity from the crowd near the entrance, and a ‘parting of the waves’ as the official party enters the arena.
Clive Holding, the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, and the Governor General, Sir Ninian Stephens, look cool and comfortable in their light suits as they make their way to the table. They are accompanied by the Minister of the Environment and Heritage, Barry Cohen, and the GG’s aide de camp in his military uniform. We are in a great position for photography as the national anthem is played.
Yami welcomes the guests with poise, dignity and humour. He comments that he understands that it is Sir Ninian’s first visit to Uluru, and that “………it is just as well that he is able to make it today, as some people think that the Aboriginal people are going to tow it away after the ceremony.”
Sir Ninian then stands to speak, with the humility and dignity befitting the occasion. He refers to Uluru as being “……not only at the centre of Australia, but at its very heart.” As he speaks he pauses, so that Yami can translate his words into the Pitjantjatjara language for the bush people.
Finally, the moment has come. The large framed and glass encased certificate of title is handed to Nipper Winmatti, with a handshake from Sir Ninian. The excitement is electric as the title is lifted triumphantly into the air, and a small boy is lifted alongside it. This is a moment to savour. The boy and the title represent hope for the future, and redress for the intolerance and bigotry of the past.
The photographers and film crews are shooting furiously, and the excitement is at a crescendo, when the mood is rudely shattered. A light plane, circling the ceremony and trailing behind it a banner, snarls its message. “AYERS ROCK FOR ALL AUSTRALIANS.”
After a few minutes the plane departs. The crowd’s mood is till buoyant as the traditional owners sign the 99 year lease back to the Australian National Parks and Wildlife Service, a joint management arrangement which sees the traditional owners with a majority on the board.
For me, however, the roar of a plane has for the second time that day shattered the fragile magic of Australia’s heart.