Tuesday, September 14, 2004


I have been standing
in the huge centre of a bean-shaped world
when the sun came up

I once wrote a story about numbers that featured a cameo by Ayer's Rock (now known as Uluru) playing a negative one, and the line above was in the story. Now it's true. I spent a couple of days with Uluru this week, and although I have been fascinated by this enormous rock for a long time, it turned out to be even more awe-inspiring than I anticipated. This is for several reasons. First of all, it is simply so large. It confuses the mind, because on the one hand it is a rock, but when you get there you realize it is also a mountain. On the postcards it looks large, certainly, and yet its smooth rounded shape gives one the impression of a hill, a stone. Up close, walking around its 10-km perimeter, one is surprised again and again by gorges, cliffs, waterfalls, and caves, all over the surface of a single gargantuan rock which from a distance looks so monolithic. And the part that one can see is just its tip, as the rock extends likely more than 5 km underground. I must have taken over a hundred photos of it while walking around, and while watching the sun rise and paint it glowing red, and then watching the sun set and colour it orange. In addition to being large, it is strange and surprising: it juts out of a nearly flat semi-desert that stretches for hundreds of miles in every direction and right to its red slopes. The path around the base is perfectly flat and it seems almost as if the rock had been planted there. I walked around it rather than over it because the Anangu, the traditional residents of the land, don't like people climbing it. They never climb it themselves except at the start of certain very significant traditional ceremonies, and then only the wise old (male) initiates do. (Some tourists do climb it, though; it's officially allowed but frowned upon. I'm working on a story about the issue of to-climb-or-not-to-climb.) That is one indication of the other very awe-inspiring thing about Uluru: that it is a central and very spiritually significant part of one of the world's most enduring cultures. We visited a wave-form cave where ceremonies initiating aboriginal boys into manhood had been held for thousands of years. (They no longer are.) Every feature of the rock, every cave and shape and marking, has a history and is a character in the Anangu dream-time (creation) stories. This slope is the scene of battle, that cleft is where a spear hit, this boulder is the egg of a python-woman. And there are places on the rock which are sacred ceremonial sites and closed to the public. The uninitiated can walk past them, but are asked not to go near them or touch them or take photos or even draw pictures. Kata Tjuta (formerly known as the Olgas), which is another group of geologically bizarre enormous monoliths about 50 km west of Uluru, is also of great religious import for the Anangu and is cloaked in even more secrecy. It's a men's sacred site, apparently, which means that Anangu women are not supposed to even go there, and the significance of the place and the stories associated with it can not be revealed to outsiders. So the tour guide did not have much to tell us. But the rocks said a lot on their own.

I don't know what to make of all this.

I spent three days getting from Adelaide to Alice Springs and four days seeing the sights around Alice. I saw camels living in the wild. I camped out in a swag under the stars. Then I took a train - The Ghan - and tonight I arrived in Darwin, in Australia's Top End. I'll be here for three and half days and then I'll fly east again, to Sydney. I'll be performing there on the 21st, at "Bardfly", thanks to Mr. Tug Dumbly. This morning, in Katherine, I went kayaking in a crocodile-infested river (They were the fresh-water variety, "mostly harmless". The locals refer to them as "freshies.") I was by myself and it was beautiful and quiet and I had a staring contest with a wallaby (that's a pointy-faced marsupial like a small kangaroo) who was drinking on the shore. We watched one another for fifteen minutes. And then for dinner tonight, I tested the limits of my recent dietary resolution that I would eat two-legged creatures (chicken, turkey, ostrich), but would continue to exempt four-legged ones (cows, pigs, cats) from my eating habits, by having a kangaroo steak. They have those two front paws, it's true, but they use them more like hands than feet. By this logic, of course, I suppose humans are fair game too. No wonder that wallaby stared at me for so long. He was wondering what I was capable of.


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