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.

Uluru Handover

I recently came across these short esays written soon after the hand over of Uluru in 1985. An interesting contrast to the version I wrote recently read here in my Aboriginal Culture blog category.
Flying To The Red Heart
Flying low in a Fokker over desert country , fairly featureless but for the shaping of the terrain by that scarcest of ingredients; water.

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 Ceremony

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.