I felt a surge of magnetism from the rock as soon as I pulled into the national park in my dust-encrusted van. I’d just taken her five hours off-roading on a wild corrugated adventure in search of the ‘painted desert’. Every nook, cranny and tin of chickpeas was now covered in a pale orange powder.
As I drew closer to the bright orange monolith, I was greeted by flutters of golden butterflies and splaying spinifex grass. I felt the weight of spirits and secrets and silence. Thirty million years of history bound up in one rock. I packed a banana and some Vita Wheat crackers and set off on the Mala walk in the beating 11am sun.
A sign told me that Yankunytjatjara and Pitjantjatjara are the languages most commonly spoken by the Anangu of the Western Desert areas, forming the largest language group of Aboriginal Australia
I decided not to join the group of thirty or so people taking the free guided tour with a white ranger. Being white myself, it didn’t seem right to learn about such an important Aboriginal cultural site from a member of the colonising race.
A bit further along, I came across an Aboriginal man deep in conversation with a girl who looked about my age. I thought I was watching from a safe distance, but he seemed to sense my presence.
He beckoned to me, and I walked up to greet them.
“Call me Uncle, bub,” he offered.
His bright blue t-shirt stood out against the orange rock and his black skin. He was holding a cafe-style triple choc muffin in his left hand,
Uncle put his muffin-holding arm around the girl and beckoned for me to follow. We had only exchanged a few sentences when he grabbed my cheek between the forefingers and thumb of his right hand.
“Oh boy, have I got of lot of work to do with you.”
He suggested I join him and his young friend on a personal tour to learn more about the Anangu.
Soon we arrived in the ‘kitchen’ of Uluru. This was a place, he explained, where Anangu women used surfaces of the rock to grind seeds that were then kneaded into dough to make nyuma or seed cakes: a staple of the central desert diet along with foraged plants and hunted meat. Uncle pointed out where the stone had been worn down in sections to illustrate the physical evidence of this place as a site of cooking.
“You can imagine all your mob in here, right?” he began, “crowding around the food, kids trying to nab taste tests of whatever the women are cooking up. The rangers tend to focus too much on the geology. But it’s the stories that matter. It’s the stories that make this place come alive.”
Right on cue, the white ranger led his pack into the ‘kitchen cave’.
Families with kids wearing helmets and sucking on camelback water bladders from tiny backpacks clambered over the rocks. A girl with blonde curls directed whines of hunger at her parents.
“Feel free to sit anywhere kids,” said the ranger. “We are going to be here for a while.”
He motioned to the rock surfaces that Uncle had just finished telling us were so sacred with their years of memories. Any chance of bringing those rocks to life was instantly flattened by 20 tiny bums and their tired parents.
Later in the afternoon, the three of us kept walking until we arrived at Mutitjulu Waterhole – a wonderful series of undulating ochre-coloured rocks with a modest pond at the bottom: the usual amount of water for the dry season, we learned.
Uncle told a story to the small crowd that had started to gather.
“Aboriginal kids – poor as anything they were – used to come here to throw gold coins. Wishing into the water. They were poor so these gold coins they found were worth a lot! Tourists observed and followed. At the end of the day, the kids would swim to the bottom with armfuls of gold!”
After the crowd had dispersed, Uncle set down his Woolies bag containing Glucogel jelly beans and the now half-eaten chocolate muffin (“Bloody crumbs everywhere,” he laughed). He fished his iPad out of the Woolies bag.
“What’s your star sign?” he asked me and the other girl. She was a Gemini in traditional astrology, so I followed the page across to determine her star sign in Aboriginal astronomy.
“You even look a bit like a sugar glider!” Uncle jumped in a little too eager.
“No, Rachel is a sugar glider. I’m an emu. Do I really look like an emu?”
“It’s not about the physical appearance,” he told me.
He put the iPad away and turned to me. “Never look a blackfella in the eye or he’ll see straight into your soul.” I couldn’t tell if he was serious or joking.
“You are always searching,” he continued. “You’re very inquisitive – always asking questions – but you need to stop and listen. I see you’re grounded, but you have too many options. You want to do everything. You’re on a journey, trying to find your purpose.”
I knew that astrology readings thrived on vagueness, but this one was spot on.
For the past week, I had been consuming at least four podcasts a day – on psychology, philosophy and psychedelics. He was right about me always searching. I was ready for guidance. For wisdom. Maybe he knew the type of traveller I was – young, confident and on my own – who thought she knew better than the crowds and could do things in her own way.
I felt lucky to have stumbled into this situation, but when I told Uncle this he replied that it wasn’t luck that had brought us together. We were meant to meet in the way that we did.
“I could teach you a lot in a couple of months. Everything I say, you’re already halfway there. It would be such a breeze working with you.”
Exactly what we were going to be working on I wasn’t sure. I started to picture my life there in Uluru. Living under the stars, learning more about elders and traditions and spiritual practices. About the oldest culture in the world.
A few hours later, I joined Uncle and two 18-year-old girls – white family friends of his up from Melbourne – to watch the sun set over Uluru. We slogged a bag with two half-full bottles of Jameson, a large bottle of coke and two UDLs up the ochre dunes.
Uncle had conversed with me earlier about having a ceremony to enter a space where I would leave my past beliefs, philosophies and ideas about the world behind and fully take on those of the Anangu to “heal my spiritual DNA”. I could choose the domain of my healing: in relationships, work or home. He told the three of us we would each need to do a separate ceremony, as all of our journeys would be different.
We said farewell to our past selves with a clink of our mugs and a tune in Pitjantjara that we repeated back to Uncle after he taught us the words. Fresh out of year 12, there was no holding back for the two girls. They downed their UDLs with no hesitation in leaving their past behind forever.
I glanced up to see the last morsels of pink and orange hanging onto the clouds above Uluru. Desert sunsets had always felt to me as if they would last forever, but this one was fading fast.
After a few more drinks, Uncle – who the 18-year-olds were now calling ‘Miss Nellie’ – whipped out his trusty iPad to show me a folder full of photos in which he was donning heels, shorty-shorts and feather boas. He leaned away from the girls and asked if I was over 21 before telling me, “These next ones are a bit naughty.”
Cue: a photo of Miss Nellie and another woman in matching sparkly black g-bangers.
Later that night, back in Uncle’s modest one-and-a-half-room flat, we ate the curried egg wraps that he generously shared with us. The curried egg reminded me of my beloved grandfather, the only other person I knew who mixed Keen’s curry powder with boiled egg. It felt unreal and somewhat disturbing to have the comfort of my granddad’s food in this faraway setting with a stranger I’d only just met. Wise elder, drag queen, lover of muffins and Glucogel jelly beans. Who was he?
The girls reappeared in their matching, cow-patterned PJs to take up residence on the couch and check their Tik Tok feed.
I sensed my cue to leave. As I stepped out of the warmly lit flat, I wondered how I got into this situation. I realised that this is what people meant when they said that you couldn’t expect anything. I pulled myself up into my battered van and drove off.
The next morning, after a night in the Ayer’s Rock overflow campground, I drove the four of us – as well as my 29-year-old Italian travel mate Mirko – in Uncle’s Captiva to Kata-Tjuta at first light. As we walked up the dunes, Uncle with his arm around me and the sky in constant flux, I realised my decision had been made.
Although tempted, and, in truth, somewhat confused, I would not stay with Uncle to “heal my spiritual DNA”. Tomorrow I would pack up and get back to my nomadic life on the road.