Here's the third, final part of an essay written after the rescue of three climbers who were trapped on Uluru last year, shared in celebration of the decision by Traditional Owners [Anangu] and National Parks Australia to close the climb on the Rock.
As we stood on the road near the Mala Walk, the incomprehensible mass of Uluru looming dark grey as the bright moon rose, Claudia and I watched the rescuers painstakingly inch towards the three young men trapped on the Rock.
Although we’ve lived in and around Central Australia only about six years — and we’re not from here — we feel protective of Uluru’s strange conglomeration of environments and stories. How much more strongly the Traditional Owners must feel. But that night in the darkness, we worried for the climbers.
As it approached 10 o’clock that night, a wild wind blew up. Claudia left her camera’s eye open for longer periods and it saw things we couldn't. In the darkness we heard the loud clatter of falling rocks as eroded scree fell away under the rescuers’ feet. Sometimes there were shouts from our colleagues below.
Suddenly a crash like a detonation and an explosion of glass! A rock fell down Uluru and hit the roof of one of the rescue vehicles with the force of a cannon ball. There was a moment of terror.
Fortunately no one was hurt. The team on the ground near the Rock retreated into the Kitchen Cave. From the road a hundred metres distant we breathed deeply and willed everyone safety. We watched the rescuers headlamps bob, pause, creep.
After ages the first rescuer reached the young men below. In the strange way that sound carries over distances around the Rock, we heard him call to his team-mate above, “You’re going the wrong way, go back!” The rescuer above replied, “I can’t understand you -- too much wind!” It was frightening, the difficulty of it all. The lives of two dozen humans were in the grip of this strange, brutal and enchanting cliff.
For us and many people, Uluru is not just a rock. On our first trip together to Uluru in 2007, newlywed Claudia and I had a painful, enlightening experience.
At that time, I was slowly learning a little from Pitjantjatjara traditional healers called ngangkari. Claudia, from the Black Forest in Europe, had lived with me less than a year.
A brilliant landscape photographer, Claudia loves the variety of landscapes and environments in Australia. At Uluru though, there are places where photography is forbidden (like the Mala Pouch, below where the young men were trapped). These places are clearly marked out of respect for the Traditional Owners. Claudia obeyed signs scrupulously. But one day she took a photograph (of something not sign-posted), which gave us a new respect for the Rock.
Claudia recalled: “It was a picture of a dead or dying tree near Uluru. The tree had something strange in a hollow on a branch. I thought I’d have a closer look at it back home on the computer, you know, magnify it to find out what it was. When I did look, back in New South Wales months later, I saw something silvery-black, like crossed paws hanging out of the end of the branch.”
“Paws?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “It looked very strange. Immediately, I got a blinding headache. I went away from the computer and told you, darling, to delete it. I couldn’t look at it again.”
“I remember that.”
“Next night, lying in bed, I felt something on the top of my head.” Claudia continued, “A claw scratching on my skull! I was terrified! And I was paralysed. After a while you woke up. You said you’d never seen anyone you love so scared. The worst of it was, I could feel it had the intention to kill me, this thing on and in my head.
"You were learning from the ngangkari then. You tried to help me. But you were unable to remove it from me.”
I remembered that strange night. At wit’s end, I had wondered if she was afflicted by a mamu. A mamu is an Anangu monster. The ngangkari were teaching me how they behaved like disease-causing pathogens. Sometimes they say mamu are like germs , blowing in with the dust, sometimes they have consciousness. There is a spooky personification of a mamu in this movie. Or sometimes they look like animals or imps in artworks from the region. I have seen scary mamu dance. And I have seen ngangkari catch mamu and throw them away, out of a person's body.
“I had to ask one of my teachers for help,” I recalled.
Claudia nodded. “I didn't sleep for days! That really will make a person crazy. You asked our ngangkari friend, Mr. Peter. He tried to help the way they do, flying around in the night. I finally felt better.”
I raised one scientific eyebrow, “Flying around in the night?”
Claudia laughed. “You know they do.”
“When did you get properly better?” I asked.
“About eight months later,” my wife mused. “We met our ngangkari friends again at the Indigenous doctors conference. Mr Peter and Mr Tjilari treated me again to remove the 'things' that were still left in my head and neck. They had a long and earnest discussion. They decided it was the devil Dingo, which is very dangerous and can easily kill people. Apparently he lurks around Uluru.”
I thought about that Devil Dingo, part of the Anangu Creation Story of Uluru. Even to say his name, Kurpany, makes Anangu friends anxious. 'Ssh! Don't say it,' they'll say, as if saying his name might get that evil spirit's attention. (There is a Queensland version of the violent Devil Dingo story in this old video from the 70's.)
I looked at Claudia's wide dark eyes, “A dramatic experience of Aboriginal reality, wasn’t it?”
Claudia looked thoughtful. “I came from Europe. I couldn’t help thinking 'What if?' I mean, I had symptoms like a stroke but it wasn’t a stroke. If you’d taken me to hospital that night, doctors might have done a CT and an MRI without finding a problem. And at some point they would have probably sent me to a closed mental unit where I might have just died.”
Despite this shocking experience, Claudia shares my great love for the Rock. We have both been enriched by the experience of seeing and feeling this place in its myriad textures and moods. But being around Uluru in the night can be dangerous. More prosaically, we both had to be up in the morning for work, so we left after 11pm, with the rescuers still working.
Next morning, Claudia emailed me photos. Between patients, I opened them up. One nurse was still in bed, having brought the young men back, safe if very cold, around 4am. Claudia’s photos were colourful and majestic. They showed the textures of Uluru in the various electric lights. The camera collected every speck of light, collating them. Studying the photos, another nurse and I mapped the rescue team’s path. My colleagues at the base had sheltered in the Kitchen Cave to avoid falling rocks. They saw nothing of the descent from there.
Claudia’s camera was able to see more than any of us. The photos drew a picture of that night.
“Do you remember when those three young men were stuck on the Rock?” I asked Claudia recently.
“Yes!” she said. “When we left I could feel disaster looming. I didn’t want to witness it. I heard later that four of the six rescuers on the Rock just finished training a week earlier. And actually all of them were volunteers! Fucking volunteers!
"I’m not knocking volunteers,” she continued. “Especially here, many do fantastic jobs.
"But imagine being in an unfamiliar area on a steep rock with a crumbling surface, with strong winds on a pitch-black night! Who sent these people out then?”
“Maybe they were all worried that a big storm would come in and they wouldn’t be able to get to them the next day,” I countered.
But Claudia had another theory. “Maybe they were frightened that those dicks were stupid -- that they wouldn’t stay there, that they would try to climb further along the Rock and kill themselves. Or maybe there was some office-chair-farting ‘coordinator’ hundreds of kilometres away, who wanted to ‘organise’ a rescue at a ‘prestigious’ place for his or her own glory. They risked so many lives!
"To the volunteers that night, I’d say: Thank you for refusing to die out there that night because considering the circumstances this was a bloody close call.”
“Is that all you want to say?”
“That’s enough for now,” said Claudia.
In Tjukurpa, on that part of Uluru, Kurpany's approach was spotted by the Kingfisher woman. Her warning was ignored and the Devil Dog Mamu chased and killed many of the Mala people, now honoured on the Mala Walk.
Now, in a different time, young men climbed in places they had no comprehension or knowledge of, endangering themselves and others. How do we learn to listen to the Kingfisher and the other beings of the Rock? When will visitors understand that as well as awe and beauty, Uluru counsels caution and respect?
There is no one Uluru creation story. It is a place created and maintained by many spirit beings. Many people of good will are listening and learning here. With respect and patience, the learning experiences will be gentler and more profound. Don't climb the Rock. And don't startle the mamu.