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July 22
Saturday
Uluru

“The Naked Days, or Night of Lattea”

Today is an Uluru day. We all piled into the wagon and drove the few miles to Uluru National Park. We bought three-day park passes and entered an area that looked just as dry and scrubby as that we’d just come from. The only access was by a two-lane highway rimmed with red dirt. The earth here is made of an iron oxide that practically glows, and the wetter-than-usual weather has kept greenery alive against the red backdrop. There are a surprising number of trees here for a desert, and the low shrubs are showing off a variety of colored flowers.

Pulling into the Cultural Center’s parking lot I saw that Frank Lloyd Wright’s got nothing on aboriginal architects. The Center was so integrated into the landscape that it was hard to even see. Red sand paths through low bushes showed us the way to a collection of low buildings with fluid walls and no visibly straight lines. The roofs were thatched grass held in rounded shape by discrete applications of chicken wire.

Smooth red brick blended into the landscape and framed native murals, which depicted the myths played out on the Rock. The great snake goddess who came here to avenge her nephew. The monster sent to kill a whole tribe. The waterhole guarded by a spirit with the power of life or death. All these things have left their mark on the Rock’s surface, and are recorded so that the natives remember Proper Way, or Tjukuru tribal law (I think that’s how it’s spelled). Do what the law says and all will be well. Step out of line and there’s no telling what might happen. Nothing good.

The afternoon perked up with the arrival of an aboriginal tour guide named Millie and her Anglo mouthpiece Megan. We joined the 3:15 tour starting at the Cultural Center and heard tell of the legends surrounding Uluru and how the locals lived before White Fella came to town. Megan, a white Aussie in her 30s, translated what Millie had to tell us about the lives of the spirits and the natives who remember them. Everything Megan said began with “Millie says that.” For a good while I thought that Millie was just for show and that I was witnessing a classic example of cultural appropriation. By the end of the tour, though, it seemed clear that Megan, while knowing her stories pretty well, was often prompted and corrected by Millie. Millie didn’t say much, but she was definitely listening.

The tour left from the Cultural Center and moved on to the Water Hole just next to Uluru. We were shown cave paintings that Millie explained as parts of The Law’s stories. The drawings, like those we saw in Kakadu, were the 10,000 year-old equivalent of a school blackboard. Elders would paint the walls and tell stories to educate children in the Proper Way. That was the way tribal custom and behavior was passed on, Millie said, in the “naked days” before the white man came.

Uluru2

Megan also produced a number of film canisters containing edible or medicinal plants used by aborigines. We all sat in a circle and everyone but Maureen tasted the offerings, at least until Dad found a chunk of glass in his bush plum. Where the hell did that come from? I kept looking and smelling, but didn’t taste after that. At the end of the tour Millie decided she liked our group and let us pose with her for photos.

We left the Center near sunset and had the perfect opportunity to stop at the Sunset Viewing Site just off the road. Of course, everyone else had the same idea. The sunset wasn’t much more spectacular than the one last night from the hill behind the hotel, but we were a lot closer. The Rock didn’t care if we could see purple and red highlights on its flanks, it knew there’d be other times, other sunsets.

Half an hour later, convinced by a quick visit to the other fancy restaurant that our first choice was the best, we sat down to a nice dinner. Bryan had oven-fired pizza, Maureen linguini with shrimp, Dad the creamy duck and gnocchi, and I had salmon with risotto and a huge Mediterranean salad. Two days of chicken nuggets and fries had pushed me to the edge and I wanted greenery bad. The cool green cucumber in my salad went beautifully with the Kalamata olives. We also tried the Clancy wine, a red blend of cabernet, merlot, shiraz and who knows what else. It was a big hit.

For dessert I invented the “lattea,” a cup of tea with hot foamed milk. (Ok, it’s a tea latte, but tell me lattea isn’t a better name:) It took some explaining but the waitress managed to translate my request into a steaming hot cup of delightfully restorative beverage. The perfect end to a fascinating day.

Red paint on sandstone
Through heat
and rain, through gods
and dreams
Waiting.

Uluru

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