50,000 STARS: ULURU TREK
Big Uluru Trek
Puli Kunpunka (‘sacred ground’). Pukulpa anangu pitjanyi. Nyinanyi ngura waltjangka ‘Proud people come, livin in a promised land’. Taken from the book Solid Rock – Puli Kunpunka by Shane Howard, Ruby James, Trevor Adamson and the children from Mutitjulu, Kaltukatjara and Imanpa (One Day Hill, 2010).
22 August 2016
Gear check and briefing at the Yulara camp grounds the afternoon prior to the trek start. Information provided by National Parks on sensitive sites on Uluru with regards to photography. Any images of Uluru to be published need to be cleared by National Parks to respect the cultural significance of specific parts of Uluru. We bought a book while at the Cultural Centre called Uluru Stories (Tanami Press) which explains some of the stories and the related significance of sites on Uluru and surrounds.
Day 1: 18.1 kilometres (23 August)
Welcome to country at Uluru Cultural Centre at Mutitjulu, with Uluru directly behind, after picking up the trekkers at various accommodation locations between the Yulara camp grounds and Voyages Resort.
Travelled by bus from Yulara to the Northern Territory – South Australian border fence. The sign to enter the Northern Territory boldly states in part “no alcohol, no pornography”, left over from the intervention. Local Elder Uncle Reg Uluru and other community members met the trek group for lunch. Input from the Elders was crucial to the trek’s success, and future treks. A heartfelt thank you and tip of the hat to Uncle Reg and other community members and we were off. An unexpected storm was closing in. The trekkers set off at 1:10pm with dark storm clouds and wind coming up behind. Hail hit. Community members waved and passed by in 4WDS along the red dirt road. They recalled they couldn’t remember having seen hail – and some said they had to recall if they had a name for ‘hail’. Camp one was at Aparina Creek. Support vehicles stayed with the group while crew went ahead to set up camp and a fire. The fire, crew and traditional custodians welcomed trekkers as they arrived wet and bedraggled at camp. Some had not packed their wet weather gear that day. The forecast had changed suddenly. Four portoloos were in place at camp with the ethos of leaving no trace. Tents had been erected by the crew. Some were volunteers (from past treks with Big Run) along for the experience – they worked hard and remained cheerful for the entire week. A chef and catering team prepared the night’s meal. A community nurse and GP were also part of the crew. The camaraderie and commitment to the trek and Big Run Events was evident early on.
Elders Uncle Tony and Aunties from the nearby community joined the group around the fire where socks and boots dried. Maruku Arts staff supported the artists and elders to attend over the five days. That night they drove 40 kilometres home. Staff from Maruku Arts returned after the drive and slept in swags by the fire.
Maruku Arts is a collective representing over 800 artists across the Territory and South Australia from Ngaanyatjarra, Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara language groups. Started in 1984 by the parents of artist Rene (‘Renie’) Kulitja, Maruku is a not for profit art corporation and receives no government funding. Maruku aims to ethically represent artists and ensure a livelihood for the remote communities in which they live. As the Maruku website explains, the name means “belonging to black”. Maruku is owned and operated by Anangu (indigenous people from the Western and Central Deserts of Australia). Non-indigenous staff assist and interpret as needed. Observing the relationship between artists and these support staff was part of the story of this experience. This trek is not just about the walk, the personal challenge, the landscape. It very quickly became about the people.
After dinner Uncle Tony started to share traditional stories. The Aunties shared the stories through words and dance by the camp fire. It was a spontaneous sharing of culture and an ancient history. On this occasion younger man Cedric danced the emu dance, perhaps his debut, guided by Uncle Tony and the Aunties. Usually Uncle Tony dances the emu. The emu has great significance in the local people’s stories and laws. Several ancient stories were told that night including that of the Seven Sisters Dreaming. Looking up at the stars you can find the seven sisters. The Aunties surprised us by emerging out of the darkness in body paint and gave us another sacred story through dance. Uncle Tony bid us farewell and asked that we keep ourselves safe so we could return to our families. One Auntie advised that there were camel tracks in the creek and to be wary if up at night. A few of the young men from the community stayed in camp that night and the Auntie warned them too (‘the camels don’t know you are here’). Trekkers heard and felt dingos in camp that night. Those sleeping in the open under the stars of the Seven Sisters kept their swags and selves close to the fire.
Day 2: 30.4 kilometres (24 August) – Rene’s country and sharing stories
A big day. A big breakfast. 30.4 kilometre walk from Aparina Creek with a lunch stop set up halfway at Kulpitjata. The trek follows red dirt roads used by the local community. In places the road is hard, firm dirt, easy to walk. In other sections sandy and soft. The trail was flat and while a level of fitness was required, it also suited those new to treks due to the absence of steep hills to climb to progress. The Musgrave Ranges run parallel to the border for 210 kilometres and we viewed these as we walked the track. See www.bigulurtrek.com.au for location details or download the map via PDF maps.
The desert has experienced exceptionally good rainfall this season, resulting in an abundance of greenery and wildflowers. The landscape changed often, and surprisingly. Budgies, galahs and kites (hawks) were sighted regularly. Fauna included: honey grevillea, desert cassia (punty bush), erodium (related to the geranium), blue crowfoot flower, small leaf swainsona, daisies, spinifex and trees such as she oak.
The camp site for day two was a beautiful setting on the family lands of artist Rene Kulitja. Rene’s father set up a place for the family to stay many years ago, and they return regularly. Clive Scollay (General Manager of Maruku Arts since 2006), staff Natalie and Geraldine attended with artists Rene and Judy, and Charmaine, Rene’s second youngest daughter. Rene stated she has wanted to share this place with others, as did her parents who first camped near Uluru in the 1980s, and made contact with tourists - and planted the seed of setting up Maruku Arts.
Without realising it many are familiar with Rene’s work, Yananyi Dreaming, seen on a QANTAS plane which flew for 15 years until it was decommissioned in 2015. Rene’s family’s country included rock art located in a hill just before the camp and a spring in the hills past the camp, which Clive explained has been accessed, like many places, by wild camels. The presence of the camels in large, unregulated numbers has impacted upon native animals that can’t freely access the water. During the trek we didn’t sight any kangaroo or emu. We did see tracks regularly for camels and dingoes. Crew members encountered a large herd of over 100 camels when delivering water to the camps prior to the trek.
Rene and Judy are artists who do dot painting. They also sing joyfully. The group enjoyed a few songs, and joined in on a song with movement which the women taught them – in Pitjantjatjara. Rene and Judy belong to a Pitjantjatjara choir. The 33 choir members went to Italy as part of the Biennale and displayed their art.
The artists spent two weeks in Germany in a studio with Geraldine (who is a German artist working for Maruku Arts) and other artists. Their visit to Europe coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Hermannsburg mission (near Alice Springs). The choir sang ancient hymns in the German cathedrals in the Pitjantjatjara language. In Australia the choir recently sang with the Soweto choir. Both women have held the role of Chairperson of Maruku Arts in recent years.
Rene and Clive talked about ‘Tjukurpa’ which while often referred to as ‘the Dreaming’ is actually the law and stories of the ancestors which guides people on how to relate to each other, the land, the birds and the animals. Through the trek the artists and local people have found another potential avenue for highlighting their culture, language and relationship with the land – and sharing some of this with others.
David King, a Gundungurra man from the Blue Mountains NSW, worked with Charmaine (Rene’s daughter) to cook their gift of kangaroo tails in the coals of the camp fire. David and the trek team dug out the space for the fire first and then built it up and prepared the coals. David listened and respectfully followed the women’s directions and guidance. He was ready for ‘next time’. David said he too was finding his way in this Country also so new to him. David’s role in the trek was to meet with the artists and traditional custodians to assist in establishing a working relationship between them and the Big Uluru Trek organisers – and trek participants. David worked with the traditional custodians to ensure that all the participants did, respected the culture and the land. David’s participation, openness and ability to engage others assisted the trek group to have a dialogue with the Anangu, and his warm invitation each night drew people in. During the trek David shared his own journey and interest in being involved in the trek, along with explaining the significance of particular cultural factors. David’s participation came via his connection to Lucas Trihey (Trek Director), also from the Blue Mountains. David had only arrived to Uluru the Saturday prior to the trek and he started making connections, firstly visiting Uncle Reg Uluru, then other community members and Elders at Mutitjulu. Then more community members and Elders during the trek.
Another part of the night was where Judy prepared a liniment made from a herb (Emu Bush or narrow leaf fuchsia bush) traditionally mixed with beeswax (and now supplemented with olive oil) which is then heated over the fire. Judy explained this liniment is used for aches, pains and cuts. Judy and Geraldine prepared small glass pots of the balm for the trekkers. Known as Irmangka Irmangka, it is available commercially as a bush balm.
Day 3: 25.4 kilometres (25 August) Rock Art
The morning started early for some who took Rene’s advice to climb a hill opposite the camp where a good view of Uluru off in the distance could be sighted. Rene also gave permission for the group to visit caves and a rocky ridge which contained rock art, and a small catchment of water.
This was a real gift, a privilege, and cemented again the significance of the trek not just being about walking, but it being about a timeless history, people and relationships. Things don’t happen in a hurry, and the trek had to be fluid and flexible in terms of the Elders advising each day what was possible with regards to additional experiences the trek group could have, or places they could access off track.
After packing up the tents and having another good breakfast, the group drove down to see the rock art. Rene had asked that we visit only the caves and not go over the hill to an area which is ceremonial. The group was also asked not to post or publish their photographs of the rock art on social media, but instead to share with their friends and family. The crew and volunteers also visited the site to share the experience. The area was accessed via a small rise and then opened up to a series of overhanging rocks with sheltered areas and deeper caves, accessed by crawling into them. Paintings were on the walls and ceilings. We tried together to interpret their meaning. Howe long have these people lived here? It felt like forever.
Returning to the camp site, after signing out, trekkers set off, at their own pace. The trek doesn’t have guides or require that the group stay together. Rather each day trekkers can walk alone, together, or a combination of both.
A briefing is provided the evening before. Signing in and out at key points is important. Trek crew act as sweepers throughout the day, checking that individuals and groups are managing - and assisting if needed. A bus is available for those who for whatever reason, choose to shorten their walk on any particular day. Kim was a friendly and entertaining driver who came to the aid of those with blisters requiring treatment from the medical team consisting of Nurse Matt (who works in a local community health centre) and Dr Lauren.
I walked alone for at least an hour that day. I kept thinking ‘I am in the middle of the desert’. I sighted various bird, kites, and fascinating ant mounds, built close to the ground, in the shape of a huge doughnut, with tiny leaves dusted over the top like hundreds and thousands on a cake.
Michael Dillon (documentary film maker) and his wife Robyn Leeder were part of the trek as photographers, producing the book The Big Uluru Trek – An Adventure in Australia’s Spirit Heart. They produced a book on the Burke and Wills Trek in 2015. Michael walked, photographing trekkers and the landscape, stopping to talk, share information – and questions.
That night artists Joanne Cooley and Gloria visited camp. Joanne’s parents Billy and Lulu Cooley are well known for their wood work or ‘punu’. Billy Cooley, the current Chair of Maruku Arts is famous for the carved wooden snakes with burnings marked onto their surface. Lulu and Billy make traditional bowls and scoops (made from river gum roots or mulga), also featuring the burnt symbols. Gloria, Judy and Joanne demonstrated making music sticks, and invited trekkers to join in. Another shared meal and a night by the fire followed.
Day 4: 19.3 kilometres Uluru and artists (26 August)
The walk was beautiful. I walked with a small group and we stopped at various points to look at the ant mounds, plants - and sat and talked about our experience. In parts we could see Uluru imposing in the distance. Approaching camp the view of Uluru was stunning. We heard the welcoming sound of the generator before having a visual of the camp. Our chef and catering team were hard at work preparing our next dinner. Three meals per day are provided, including a lunch stop with medical staff present. Some trekkers chose to pack a lunch and keep going.
That afternoon Joanne Cooley and the Maruku Arts staff arrived, this time accompanied by Valerie Brumby. Joanne brought a bowl made by mother Lulu Cooley, made from tree roots. Valerie Brumby is an artist and school teacher. Valerie led a workshop on storytelling and drawing – and how to interpret the now famous indigenous paintings so loved and sought after in the art world. Sitting on the ground, Valerie drew in the sand and had the group guess the symbols she was drawing. Kangaroo tracks, python (punya), campsite/fire represented by a circle, U for the group.
Valerie provided a symbol sheet which noted the responsibilities for the protection of the stories and laws (Tjukurpa or Jukurrpa) and the imparting of knowledge. We then created our own paintings, telling the story of our trek, using the symbols. My attempt consisted of tjala (ants), iwara (traveling sign), ngura (campsite), sun/star (tjintu/kililpi) and heavy rain (kapingku puyini). Valerie and Maruku Arts explained the purpose of sharing the symbols is so we (non-indigenous) can understand the art and the stories they are telling - not so we can commercially produce art using these indigenous symbols. Being able to now read and understand a painting is quite powerful.
I read about the development of the indigenous art movement in Australia, finding that “Tali” means ‘sand dunes’ in Pitjantjatjara (and is the symbol of Maruku Arts). The desert, the land, the country being cared for is ever present in the art and stories shared.
Dot painting evolved from elders telling stories and drawing in the sand as part of the visual explanation. Since the 1970s art that was previously done in the sand, on rock, on the body and on ceremonial articles is now available to the wider community via paint on canvas, and wood carving.
The dotting (sometimes referred to as ‘over dotting’) is an adaptation and protection of the sacred knowledge of Tjukurpa, used to hide or obscure the symbols which lay beneath. Or it can represent the landscape.
Story telling is adapted dependent upon the audience. That which is imparted to initiated elders is of a much higher and sacred level than to the uninitiated.
[An example the public is familiar with is the later works of Johnny Warangkula where important stories are shrouded by a complex dotting technique]. We climbed a small hill to watch the sun and colours move across Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Uluru to the right of our camp and stunning Kata Tjuta to the left. Valerie joined us to watch the colours as we sat and stood to the south of Uluru.
As the sun set during dinner, Uluru was our backdrop. We washed up our plates and cutlery as per the camp protocol. And enjoyed another night of sitting by the fire and having a yarn, swapping stories, sharing where we are from, what we have experienced this week.
Day 5: 10 kilometres (27 August) Final walk
Sunrise – Uluru and Kata Tjuta. Again we walked up the hill to breathe in and absorb the stunning scene. Coming to this place is a reminder of how ancient this land and people are, and how “Australia” is so young.
Our last breakfast together. And a gift from the crew – we didn’t have to pack up our tents. The 10 kilometres from camp crossing into the Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park was a leisurely final walk. It was difficult to believe it was nearly over. It was a time to slow down again.
Allie Connolly is someone who loves to walk. And loves to converse. We walked with Allie that day, slowing her down a little. Which she advised was a different experience for her – to arrive in the ‘last pack’ to the destination. Allie participated in Big Run’s Burke and Wills Trek in 2015 and was already booked for her next walking tour two weeks after the Big Uluru Trek. Allie had good advice and tips on walking, avoiding fatigue (and blisters) and enthused by the benefits of walking. Allie has walked the Nullarbor, with her husband in a support vehicle and her son on a motorbike.
Other trek participants included professional walking tour guides from Tasmania, and a number of people who have trekked all over the world, including the Camino in Spain. Caro, a blogger, recorded our progress through the trek. Small family groups or friends were also part of the group.
We approached Uluru, arriving from the south. Finally we were at the rock, noting the sensitive sites and reading of the cultural significance. Each mark holds a story. The water hole was full and the next day it rained, and those who were there saw the rain streaming down the rock.
Event organiser Greg Donovan arranged a special invitation from Maruku Arts to visit their warehouse at Mutitjulu, located in the old pub in the former camp grounds.
Staff live in the old police quarters. We had the opportunity to see and purchase new art just sourced from recent trip. I bought a beautiful small bowl, sometimes used as a scoop traditionally for water or berries, made by Billy and Lulu Cooley.
The trek and the walk with the artists through their country was over. That night the group met again at a celebration dinner at the Voyages Sails resort. Robyn and Michael provided a preview of their photographs (see details below of the book now available).
Filmmaker Daniel provided a moving first edit of a promotional short of the trek. We saw ourselves in the film, in the desert. It was both amazing and humbling to review the experience in visuals.
Michael’s and Robyn’s photography and Daniel’s film captured the spirit of the trek, and its intention. The music and the footage conveyed the emotional aspect of the trek, and highlighted the cultural significance of such an experience. It will be interesting and important to hear the reaction and feedback from the artists and traditional custodians, of their experience of the trek.
At the end of the night artist Joanne Cooley and Greg Donovan were still in deep conversation at Sails.
Hopefully planning the next Big Uluru Trek. Thank you Big Run, Maruku Arts and the traditional custodians of the land on which we walked, talked and lived for five unforgettable days.
About the Organisers and Crew
Greg and Raylene Donovan are the founders of Big Run Events. Greg is the founder of the Born to Run Foundation and they incorporate fundraising for a cure for type one diabetes into many of their events. Straight after the Big Uluru Trek they were off to Birdsville for the annual races. Lucas Trihey is the Trek Director.
Lucas completed the first documented unsupported trek across the Simpson Desert in 2006 – walking 400 kilometres over 17 days carrying all his own supplies. Lucas is skilled in mountaineering, leading expeditions, course mapping, logistics along with safety and risk management. From 200208 Lucas published and edited Outdoor Australia, Adventure Gear Guide and Adventure Journal.
Big Red Events also runs
• ANZAC Day Challenge • Big Red Run – Birdsville (250 kilometres) • Birdsville Big Red Bash • Sydney Trail Series • Burke and Wills in 2015 (330 kilometres x 11 days) Follow Big Run Events on Facebook and websites www.bigrunevents.com.au and www.bigulurutrek.com.au
Robyn Leeder and Michael Dillon: The Big Uluru Trek – An Adventure in Australia’s Spirit Heart. See blurb website to order for $110 (Australian dollars).
Trek starts on the Tuesday. Arrive Sunday or earlier in order to walk at Kata Tjuta (‘the Olgas’) and do the compulsory trek gear check on Monday. Accommodation options include the Voyages Resort. Crew stayed at the camping grounds. Invest in a good quality sleeping bag as temperatures at night/early morning in the desert can drop to zero or lower in July-august-september. Cost: $2,975