Change of Heart: The Grounding Experience of Uluru

For a new generation of visitors, the bucket-list destination Uluru is both a pilgrimage and a homecoming.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

UluruMutitjulu Waterhole, which rarely dries up, can be seen on the Kuniya walk. Photography by Lucy E Cousins.

‘How can we have reconciliation when one side has no voice? The voice is the bedrock upon which we must build.’

These were the words of Anthony Albanese, then the Labor leader, back in 2019 at the Garma Festival in Arnhem Land. Two years and nine months later, he would begin his victory speech on election night by reaffirming his commitment to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, before appointing Linda Burney the Minister for Indigenous Australians, the first Indigenous woman to hold the post, in the days after taking office.

While reconciliation is an obvious concern for the Prime Minister, he has also been deftly responding to a growing movement in Australia — one that seeks a more inclusive government, in which First Nations people are involved in decisions and which fosters respect while protecting the country’s history through education, tourism and culture. 

“There has been almost a reawakening in the nation, looking at who we are and what our cultural fabric is,” says Rhoda Roberts, “and a realisation that we have something that’s so unique, which is our First Peoples. We are the oldest living, adapting culture.” Roberts, a Bundjalung woman, is a journalist, actor, writer, arts adviser and artistic director. Among her numerous accomplishments, she is a former head of First Nations programming for the Sydney Opera House and an arts ambassador for the Gallery of Central Australia (GoCA). She coined the term “Welcome to Country”, now a fixture in the cultural lexicon, and was awarded the Order of Australia in 2016. “There has been a resurgence from our own people relearning a lot of the culture,” she says, “and over the last three or four years, I have seen this groundswell of Australians really honestly wanting to know more about Aboriginal culture and history.”

And the movement is spreading fast. In the 2020 Australian Reconciliation Barometer (a regular survey measuring attitudes towards reconciliation), 83 per cent of respondents said they think it’s important for Indigenous histories and cultures to be taught in schools, and 79 per cent agree that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are important to Australia’s national identity. Similarly, the 2021 Australian Constitutional Values Survey found that almost 62 per cent of Australians believe there should be a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to Parliament, as called for in the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the 2022 Children’s Voice Survey found that almost a third of parents would like their children to learn a First Nations language at school.

Of the 10-kilometre base walk around Uluru, the Mala walk is the most popular section. Photography by Lucy E Cousins.
Uluru, as seen from the viewing platform at the art installation “Field of Light: Uluru” by Bruce Munro. Photography by Lucy E Cousins.

Roberts believes that the fog of the pandemic and two years of lockdowns and border closures have given Australians a chance to be introspective: to “take a breath” and reflect on who we are and who we want to be. The noted demographer and social commentator Mark McCrindle agrees. “One of the big shifts we’ve seen brought on by the pandemic is this overall slowing down or dialling down the sophistication of life and dialling up the meaningful and relational side,” he says. “As a nation, we are discovering our own backyard and we are feeling a sense of pride and a sense of not only recognition, but respect for our Indigenous culture and heritage.”

One result of this change in focus has been a surge in domestic tourism to destinations such as Uluru and the Red Centre, with Australians wanting to connect with the country’s Indigenous, geographical and cultural landscape. The sharp rise in visitor numbers has encouraged Qantas to launch a Sydney-Uluru service four times a week in addition to its existing Jetstar flights, and Voyages Ayers Rock Resort has reopened to high capacity in order to meet the demand.

For Freddy Hill, a guide at the resort who is from the Yirandhali Nation (Hughenden) in Queensland, arriving in the Red Centre gave him a sense of “grounding”. “For us Indigenous people, Uluru felt like a very sacred place, but when I came here it didn’t feel as sacred, in a sense — I felt more at home,” he says. “For me, Central Australia is not a place, it’s a feeling.” Hill says he loves seeing Australian and international visitors experience the same emotions he did upon encountering the power of the land and culture. “Uluru is in the heart of Australia and, to me, this is the real Australia,” he says. “You feel the red sand between the toes, the trees, the nothingness … and nothingness is pretty amazing.”

And while Australian visitors tend to know more about Indigenous history than international tourists, Hill says they are still amazed at the breadth and variety of the local culture. “When people visit [Uluru], they think of Australia as one in the sense of its whole Indigenous culture, but they don’t realise there are so many different cultures throughout Australia,” he says.

The artists Jillary Lynch and June Smith at GoCA. Photography by Lucy E Cousins.

The popular tour operator AAT Kings partners with the region’s Mutitjulu community to give visitors a chance to immerse themselves in the local culture with the help of Indigenous guides who impart their wisdom and experiences. Sara Skipworth, an AAT Kings driver guide, says meeting and learning from local guides is always a highlight for travellers. “There are many local Indigenous guides who are happy to come and share their knowledge and cultural stories, and over time they’ll teach others to come and share their stories,” she says. “And visitors are often surprised to learn that these local guides speak their native language as their first language and also learn other dialects of the area, so they speak English as their third, fourth or even fifth language.”

Spending time with an Indigenous guide is a chance to not only hear firsthand about the history and culture of a place but also, Roberts stresses, a way to gain a deeper understanding of what has been missing from the representation of Indigenous people in Australia. “When you are face to face, sitting down, meeting an Aboriginal, hearing the different experiences of their lives, you’re not just learning about culture, you are seeing something that visibly hasn’t been seen in the nation,” she says. “Aboriginal love has never really been shown — not just our love for each other, but the love we have for kids. The love we have for Country. There’s all these different loves we have and no-one has ever really experienced them or seen them.”

However, she says, you don’t need to travel to the heart of Australia to connect with the traditional owners of the land you live on. “Sure, you’ll want to go to Uluru, that’s like a pilgrimage. It’s part of knowledge seeking, and you’ll be so much more at home in this country when you do. But I would love Australians to start local — see what’s on offer in their local community — to get a taste and a feel for it.”

Works by the Tjanpi Desert Weavers at GoCA’s store. Photography by Lucy E Cousins.

As we navigate this meeting of two worlds in our own communities, it is also time to begin a country-wide dialogue. Roberts believes that, as a nation, we have been “given the keys” to move forward together and that the focus should be on communication. “I know some of that truth-telling needs to be told, as uncomfortable as it is, but I think, too, for our own people, we need to talk about how we’ve survived and our resilience,” she says. “We need to have those dialogues.”

Hill agrees and believes that the onus is on individuals to start the process. He thinks the recent change of government and the promise of real, binding change for Indigenous Australians is just “one step” in the journey. “At the end of the day, it’s also up to the individual person [to create change], because we’re all different,” he says. “For example, I can go out and tell a group of visitors all this information, but they’ll take what they want from my words and then it’s up to them to learn even more.

“Education is the most important thing — it breaks down ignorance,” he continues. “And ignorance isn’t a bad thing, it just means you don’t know better. But after visiting Uluru, people tend to be more open-minded, and that’s what I love.”

As we move forward as individuals and as a nation, the road will no doubt be filled with speed bumps, but Roberts argues that they can be navigated with knowledge and collaboration. “I think it’s all about communication and really not being offended by different points of view,” she says. “We all know the boats came and they’re not leaving, so we need to move beyond that discourse and look at what it is we have as a nation that no-one else has. So, it’s now about progress. The question is, where does that progress take us from here?”

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our eighth edition, Page 22 of T Australia with the headline: “Change of Heart”