Baked in history and full of Indigenous mystery, PAUL HANSFORD embraces the Northern Territory and its Aboriginal spirit.

Sometimes a rock isn’t just a rock. To many of the hundreds of thousands of tourists who flock to[Uluru] each year, walking up its steep face and sipping champagne while watching the sunset, the rock is just another beautiful tourist attraction in a country full of beautiful tourist attractions.

“Get my picture in front of the big red rock, Hank, so people can see I really went to Australia.”

But to the local Anangu people, Uluru is much more than just a photo opportunity to prove you went bush in your travels. Its cultural and religious standing cannot be overstated and to see it as just another stop on a grand tour is not only insulting to the Aboriginal people, but shows ignorance as a traveller.

To visit the[Red Centre] without understanding what makes it significant to the Indigenous people is like going to the Sistine Chapel without knowing who Michelangelo was, or visiting the Colosseum in Rome and thinking it was a set for Gladiator.

At Uluru, the best place to learn about the significance of the area is in the informative visitors’ centre. Here you will find detailed explanations of Tjurkurpa, the foundation of Anangu life. The word refers not only to the creation period where ancestral beings created the world, but also to the law for relationships between people, plants, animals and the land. Learning about Tjurkurpa gives the visitor a better insight into why Uluru is such an important place to the Anangu.

Land Before Time

The[indigenous people] believe in Dreamtime, where powerful ancestors in the form of people, plants and animals roamed over a featureless earth and created all the natural wonders we can see. Everything in the Northern Territory was created by these ancestors and should be treated with the reverence they deserve. For example, the Anangu ask visitors to respect their wish for you not to walk up Uluru.

Some of the areas of Uluru are used to perform rituals – Inma – and photography is strictly prohibited. To use a European example, to walk on the rock would be like rollerblading through St Paul’s Cathedral during a service – so make sure you are at least informed before taking the decision to walk up it.

A base walk around Uluru – a mighty 9.4km – is even more fulfilling than a trek to the top. The standard tourist photos of Uluru don’t do the rock justice when you get up close – the massive cracks, fissures and pock marks are amazing to behold, and if you set off in the late afternoon you can marvel as the surface of the rock changes colour before your eyes.

Bush Bashing

A mere 50km from Uluru is[Kata-Tjuta (The Olgas)], a place arguably more significant to the local people than Uluru. Our tour guide couldn’t tell us much about the 36-domed rocky outcrop because he didn’t know. All he could say was that it was a place of great significance, where many of the most important Anangu ceremonies took place. One school of thought is that Uluru is made accessible to stop greater interest in the more culturally significant Kata-Tjuta.

But visiting the big sites of the Red Centre isn’t the only way to experience some Aboriginal culture. Just being out in the bush is enough to give you a taster. Take the smell, for example.

As well as a way of controlling bush fires, the burning of the land is a technique used by the Aboriginals called “fire stick farming”. Setting alight pre-assigned areas not only makes the bush more fertile when it grows back, but it also forces the animals to flee from the fire, where hunters wait on the edges ready to bash them when they appear.

One of the biggest myths is the area is just an arid bowl of nothingness, with tumbleweeds blowing in the wind and the odd red rock pointing out of the ground. Nothing could be further from the truth. The greenery in the area is striking and a closer look reveals that each and every bush and plant has a use to the Aboriginal people. Did you know the fine powder you get from rubbing a ghost gum acts as a sun block? That the dried sap from a bloodwood tree, when mixed with water, acts as a powerful antiseptic on cuts? Or that Mulga wood is highly toxic and is used for spearing roos and wallabies, with the poison slowly making its way into the bloodstream until the animal collapses? Now I wasn’t about to go out hunting wallabies with a bit of wood after being armed with this new knowledge, but it was interesting to realise there was more to the bush than met the eye.

And for a culinary experience like no other, try some barbecued kangaroo tail. Stopping off in the Hermannsburg community, our guide popped into the local supermarket and came out with a frozen, baseball bat-lengthed furry tail wrapped in plastic. “It’s for the barbie tonight,” was his only reply to our “What the fuck are you going to do with that?” line of questioning. That night the tail was placed on the fire for about half an hour, left to cool on a shrub, before being stripped of its fur. It was then passed along the line of travellers who were invited to tuck in. It tasted extremely fatty, with very little meat.

Art Attack

If gristly bushtucker isn’t your thing – and quite frankly I don’t blame you – another cultural “must” is to see some Aboriginal rock art. There are many sites in the NT which boast ancient art but the best are in[Kakadu National Park].

Ubirr is home to fantastic depictions of barramundi, wallabies, ancient ancestors and contact art – pictures of the first white men to visit the area. These men were drawn without any hands in the initial sketches, as this was how the Aboriginals saw the first explorers – they’d never seen anyone with pockets before. Our guide explained the process of painting was the most important aspect to the artists, not the end product. Elders would teach and get their meaning across as the painting was being done. The finished painting was not seen as important and would often be painted over.

For a true Aboriginal experience, head to Arnhem Land, which is still owned and run by Indigenous people. Access is limited and you need a permit to enter but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular scenery and amazing wildlife. This is Aussie wilderness at its best.

The experience: Adventure Tours Australia, Ph: 1300 654 604.
The accommodation: Melanka Backpackers, Freephone: 1800 815 066; Melaleuca Lodge, Freephone: 1800 623 543.