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Notes on the Geography of Australia: Uluru/Ayers Rock: Photo 10

world pictures Australia: Uluru/Ayers Rock

Up close, the cetological analogy loses its force. This is probably a good place to point out that the white stuff in the caves is the deadly poison known to the Aborigines as arangulta or arukwita. Really? Well, sort of really.

Time to meet William Edward "Bill" Harney, who in 1958 was appointed "keeper" of the rock--the first ranger. He later wrote that before he arrived an old Aborigine he knew said, "When you get to my country you will know nothing. What about I come out there to tell you the story?" (See Harney, To Ayers Rock..., p. 31.)

And so began Harney's education. He writes elsewhere: "Two old men of the Uluritdjas were brought to join me on my first sojourn at the 'rock'. They had been born and initiated there over fifty years before. As we wandered along the base of the mountain, they decided to tell me its story. I would say nothing, for asking too many questions would upset their thinking. After a time, we would pause at a certain place in front or below a rock, the sight of which symbol refreshed their memories and soon they would begin chanting in a low voice which slowly increased in volume as they remembered it." (See Harney, The Significance of Ayers Rock..., p. 1.)

Harney retired in 1961 and died later that year. He had already published "The Dome of Uluru" in Walkabout (1957), and two other works appeared posthumously: To Ayers Rock and Beyond (1963) and The Significance of Ayers Rock for Aborigines (1968).

All seems settled until you bump into T.G.H. Strehlow (1908-1978), a linguistics professor. Strehlow's parents were Lutheran missionaries in the Outback, and their son grew up with an Aboriginal language as his mother tongue. Later, in the 1960s, he would write that public interest in Aboriginal mythology was "likely to lead to the wholesale production of worthless mythological accounts written by the uninformed for the ignorant. For one of the most frustrating characteristics of Aboriginal religion is the veil of deep secrecy behind which the most important parts of the sacred beliefs and ritual have always been hidden to guard them from uninitiated persons and from strangers. The few trusted white 'outsiders' who have been granted glimpses of this sacred world have invariably been put under a solemn obligation to divulge only a minimal amount of their religious information."

Strehlow continues: "Ultra-inquisitive intruders are commonly fobbed off with untrue stories.. as can be readily seen in the large amount of fictitious rubbish that is already being retailed by tourist guides (and others) to an unsuspecting and gullible public."

Referring specifically to Harney, Strehlow wrote: "Bill Harney did not know any of the Centralian languages. He had come to Central Australia only halfway through World War II and his best Aboriginal contacts were with the Top End folk." So were Harney's guides telling him the truth or "rubbish"? To complicate things, Strehlow himself has his critics. So! Is the white stuff poison?

See Strehlow's "Mythology of the Centralian Aborigine," in The Inland Review, June/August, 1969.

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