Here’s some advice for anyone hoping to capture the contradictions of Australian outback tourism within a single snapshot: Bring your camera to the base of Uluru—the massive orange-red monolith smack in the center of the Australian continent—and aim the lower half of your viewfinder at the large sign near the hiking trailhead. This sign, which was erected by the local Pitjantjatjara people, solemnly requests that you don’t climb up the face of a rock that they consider sacred. Aim your camera at a certain angle, however, and the top half of your viewfinder will capture the knots of tourists who’ve decided to climb the rock anyway (aided by a safety chain designated by the Australian National Park Service for that very purpose).
The Pitjantjatjara euphemism for tourists in their homeland is minga tjuta—”ants”—and from this angle you can see why: Looking up from the base of Uluru, the tidy lines of people inching up the climbing trail look like insects on a mound.
I, too, have come to central Australia as a minga tjuta, though I’m not here to scale the slopes of Uluru. Rather, I have resolved to spend the next week looking for a meaningful experience of Australian aboriginal culture. My guide for today, a Pitjantjatjara man named Wally Jacob, is late—so I’ve been killing time by taking photos of central Australia’s iconic sandstone landmark and the dusty, red desert that surrounds it.
I’ve always prided myself on traveling independently in unfamiliar cultures, but joining a guided tour of aboriginal Uluru is something of a necessity: Indigenous people in this part of Australia are famously averse to the notion of random backpackers wandering onto tribal land without a formal welcome, and anthropologists have noted that Aborigines generally prefer busloads of superficial tourists (who buy a lot of souvenirs and are quickly gone) to more earnest seekers, who unwittingly traipse through ceremonial lands, make themselves at home, and ask a lot of intrusive questions. This cultural distaste for drop-in visitors goes back to the earliest interactions with Europeans in Australia. The first aboriginal phrase recorded by 18th-century British convict-settlers was warra-warra (“go away”), and Capt. James Cook noted in his 1770 expedition journal that, in spite of his attempts to interact with indigenous Australians, “all they seemed to want was for us to be gone.”
Since it has become unrealistic for outsiders to “be gone” from this Australian landscape, local Aborigines have used organized tours as a way of retaining control over how visitors see their ancestral homeland. Besides competition from nonaboriginal tours—including camel treks and helicopter flyovers—local control is certainly not all-encompassing: Because of functional compromises in regaining legal ownership of Uluru from the Australian government in the 1980s, climbing the rock was never formally outlawed. And, given that 250,000 or so tourists ascend the sacred site each year in defiance of Pitjantjatjara wishes, it’s safe to assume that many visitors are more interested in the scenic pleasures of the monolith than the aboriginal culture that surrounds it. During the tourist high season, the nearby hotel complex swells to become the fourth-most-populous settlement in Australia’s Northern Territory—and more people pass by Uluru in a single week than Pitjantjatjara people of previous generations saw in a lifetime.
When Wally arrives—dressed in flip-flop sandals, dirty brown pants, and a crisp blue oxford shirt that reads “Anangu Tours”—he barely notices the crowds of tourists. Instead, he grins and points to a spot 20 feet away from us. “Ngintaka,” he says.
I look to Keiran Lusk, the tall, salt-and-pepper bearded Australian who serves as Wally’s interpreter. “Perentie lizard,” he says. A couple of seconds pass before I see the wrinkly, long-necked reptile—a 4-foot-long creature that has probably been sitting there since I first arrived. “No worries,” Keiran confides. “I didn’t see him, either.”
Now that the ngintaka has been spotted, a knot of tourists gathers. Several cameras flash at once, and the lizard flees. Wally shrugs, tugs a brown Billabong ball cap onto his head, and leads us down the hiking trail.
As we skirt the base of Uluru, I chat indirectly with the gray-haired Pitjantjatjara guide, asking my questions via Keiran. Wally tells me that he was born in the bush 53 years ago, then taken by his mother to a Lutheran mission, where he was given his European name. He tells me that he’s tired today, because he was busy collecting spear-wood the night before. He tells me about his efforts to teach old traditions to Pitjantjatjara teenagers, who often prefer video games or hip-hop music to spear-hunting and bushcraft. These young people, he says with a weary giggle, are like tourists: It’s hard to hold their attention for very long.
Keiran adds details and clarifications as he translates for Wally. “Modern improvements have had mixed results in aboriginal Australia,” he says. “The younger generation is living on TV and junk food. They’re losing a part of themselves because they’ve lost their connection to the land. Some of them are dying before their parents because of alcoholism or diabetes.”
As he says this, Keiran keeps an eye on people in other tour groups, and he casually steps into the line of sight whenever someone tries to take Wally’s picture. When I ask him why he does this, Keiran tells me it’s not just an issue of respect, but also business integrity. “Tourists love to have aboriginals in their pictures of Uluru. It makes the photos seem more authentic. But if we let every random person take Wally’s picture, people would lose an incentive for taking our tours. Plus, we’d never get anything done.”
Wally leads us to a cave at the base of Uluru that is associated with the mala tjukurpa, or “hare wallaby dreaming,” which describes an event in Pitjantjatjara prehistory. Such mythic stories of “dreamtime”—epic tales wherein snakes walk, wallabies throw spears, and mulga seeds seek revenge—are central to aboriginal religious and ethical beliefs, describing in detail the creation of the world and humankind’s role in it. Celebrated in classic travel books like Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines, these dreamtime stories are one of the most intriguing aspects of indigenous Australian culture.
The stories are also one of the most misunderstood aspects of indigenous culture. One hundred years ago, for example, European anthropologists believed that a central dreamtime story for the Pitjantjatjara involved the pungkalungu—giant, flesh-eating ogres who exacted revenge for misdeeds. As it turned out, pungkalungu stories were merely informal Pitjantjatjara folk tales—a local variation of the bogeyman, used to scare naughty children.
” ‘Dreamtime’ is an imperfect translation,” Keiran tells me. “Tjukurpa, as the Pitjantjatjara understand it, is no dream. There’s no good equivalent word in English; it’s a kind of traditional law, which describes history, geography, and morality. Researchers estimate humans have lived near Uluru for 22,000 years, but the Pitjantjatjara believe that they have always been here, that tjukurpa is part of an ongoing condition, not a mythic past. This oral tradition is accumulated through years of ceremonial initiation and life experience, and it’s one of the most technically and legally complex religious systems in the world.”
Keiran goes on to relate the dreamtime story of mythic hare-wallabies who visited Uluru and unwittingly found themselves in a feud with the mulga-seed men, the wintalka. The vengeful wintalka created a dog monster to destroy the ceremonial camp of the hare-wallaby men, and signs of the struggle are evident in the lumps and notches of Uluru’s furrowed red slopes.
As stories go, the mala tjukurpa isn’t particularly spellbinding, but Keiran tells me the purpose of tjukurpa is not to entertain but to teach lessons about respecting ceremonial rules or finding food. “Besides,” he says, “you’re only getting a small fragment of the story, which itself is connected with other stories. To fully understand the tjukurpa, you’d have to live close to the land for many years. Even then, tradition dictates what you can and cannot know. Wally may be a male elder, but that doesn’t mean he has access to female stories and ceremonies.”
I notice Wally has wandered off and is now rolling a cigarette under a tree near the Kantju Gorge water hole. “Piiwi,” he says, as Keiran and I approach him. He points up at the tree, but it’s several moments before I spot a pair of owllike tawny frogmouths—mother and hatchling—perched on a branch. Their coloring is so similar to the tree bark that I can just barely make them out. “She’s moved,” Wally says to Keiran. “She used to live in a different place. I’ve never seen her here before. And I never knew she’d had babies.”
As Wally puffs on his cigarette and grins up at the piiwi, I realize that his very strength as a tour guide is that he doesn’t really give a crap about tourists. Instead of trying to deliver standardized cultural information, the Pitjantjatjara elder is merely offering me the chance to tag along as he enjoys a stroll in his homeland. And, while a morning tour of Uluru can hardly do aboriginal heritage justice, Wally’s keen eye for the land hints at a richer cultural story. His story is, in fact, the tale of the oldest continuous culture in the world—stretching well into the Pleistocene Age, when people lived with no permanent possessions, no food preservation, and no distinction between labor and leisure. It’s a tale of the first continent in human history to be settled by sea travel, 60,000 years ago—and the intimate knowledge of climate, animal habits, plant cycles, and insect life necessary to subsist in a harsh land.
It’s also a story that gets muddled by the noise of the modern world—though modernity seems to be popularizing Pitjantjatjara culture as much as it compromises it. Indeed, even though resort restaurants, camel treks, and tour buses would seem to diminish the aboriginal presence here, the constant stream of visitors creates an inevitable market of fascination in the local culture. Among the hundreds of historically distinctive indigenous societies within Australia, mass tourism has transformed the Pitjantjatjara into an antipodean equivalent of the Navajo—a culture that is celebrated and romanticized by the same public consciousness that threatens to dilute it.
When our morning trek concludes, Keiran mentions that I can buy into a more in-depth Pitjantjatjara tour tomorrow, where I’ll be able to dine on witchety grubs, identify bush fruits, and learn how to throw a spear.
I decline—not because I don’t want to do these things, but because of that old tourist irony: To get a proper taste of aboriginal culture, I feel I need to find a landscape that isn’t so overrun by other tourists.
Bidding my Uluru guides farewell, I fire up my rental car and head east on the Lasseter Highway.