a  magazine  of  travel  and  discovery
by George Oxford Miller  

Stanley Douglas, an aboriginal Australian, leads us into a shallow cave in the side of a rocky hill. His frame house sits in the distance surrounded by thousands of acres of scrubby acacia bushes and red sand. Ayers Rock is a speck on the horizon. He sits and the three of us gather around in the dim light. 

Fanciful red and yellow patterns cover the ceiling and wall behind him like starry constellations. He points to the concentric circles, scribbled tracks of emus and kangaroos, wavy lines, and swirls and continues the story he's been telling us. "During dreamtime Wala Nuro chased the Seven Sisters across Australia from north to south. As they fled, they created everything we see today."

We can hardly make out some of the cave paintings, others look new and cover faded images. Stanley's family have been the custodians of the cave and the dreamtime story, or songline, it represents since before Europeans arrived. Each generation adds its own interpretations, so the cave will always be a work in progress. 

"Wala Nuro wanted to marry the youngest sister, but he was too ugly and conniving so they ran away," Stanley tells us. He has already shown us cracks in the rocks and boulders that represent earlier episodes in the eternal chase. "That boulder out there is Wala Nuro. The sisters hid in the cave but he found them. They escaped out a tunnel in the back."

Before European contact, the Aborigines didn't have the concept of land ownership as we know it today. They owned a single chapter in a songline that described a specific area of land. The songline and the land are inseparable, they define the world view, ethics, and cultural laws. A rough analogy would be as though each family in Israel owned a chapter of the Bible and the land and lessons it described. 

Stanley leads us out of the cave and higher up the slope of the tortoise-shell-shaped outcrop. He stoops down and backs into a small opening. "The sisters sneaked out of the cave through this hole and flew away toward those mountains on the horizon," he tells us. "This is where our story ends. It continues with the next family over there."

Realizing that tourism represents dollars, Stanley and his family approached Odyssey Tours at Ayres Rock Resorts and offered to share his songline with visitors. Our small groups traveled two hours over a red dirt two-track to reach his house at Cave Hill. He and his grown niece, Rosetta, met us and we shared sandwiches before starting. Rosetta walks barefooted and Stanley wears sockless work boots, I suspect for our benefit. Both have million-dollar smiles. 

We start with an introduction to some of the common plants and their uses. Rosetta points out a witchitty bush that has large witchitty grubs, a delectable desert hors d'oeuvre, living in the woody roots. Then Stanley shows us how to use two flat rocks to grind seeds into flour, and how to chip spear points from flint nodules. Rock fragments from past generations cover the ground.

"My grandfather was a nomad," he tells us. "Before we moved to the cattle station, he carried me everywhere on his shoulders."

"A car makes that a lot easier," I say.  

"Oh yes, now we have everything we need," Rosetta says as a matter of fact.

I look at her bare feet and Stanley's felt shirt with the sleeves ripped out and a tear across the front and their small house located 200 miles on rutted roads from the closest store, and I marvel at their self reliance.
Uluru reflects the unseen side of the Red Centre.

Australia's heart beats with a spirit photos can't capture.

The next morning I strike out at dawn from my hotel to hike the 10 km loop around Ayers Rock, now generally known by the Anangu name, Uluru, or Shadowy Place. The Anangu resumed ownership of their most important cultural and spiritual icon in 1985 and leased it back to the government as a park. Uluru is so scared that many of the formations along its precipitous slopes are still used ceremonially and off-limits for even photography. 

It doesn't take me long to discover the magic of the massive sandstone monolith and the source of its name. Cloud shadows dance across the rock and change its face from minute to minute. Every time I focus my camera, the light shifts and the rock morphs into something else. 

At one point, a mottled ridge looks like a serpent. It slithers away as shadows slide over it and turns into a lizard with rough scales. More animals show themselves as I shift my viewpoint along the trail. Many cultures believe animals give power to objects that resemble them. If so, Uluru is a bestiary of spirit animals.

I rendezvous with our group at 5:30 in the afternoon for a sunset walk to a small canyon sliced into the west side of the rock. Our hotel sets up a table along the path with hors d'oeuvres, though not the witchitty type, and champagne. The sun breaks through broken clouds and paints the rock with the rosy hues of sunset. The reddish crystals of oxidized iron in the sandstone flash from orange to neon red as the sun peeks in and out of the clouds. Finally, with a last stroke of the brush, the rock glows violet-maroon as night settles across the desert. The palette of nature exceeds any spectrum the human mind can ever imagine.

On my last morning in the Red Centre of Australia, I rise an hour before dawn for a sunrise camel ride. It sounds a little touristy but Australia has a long history with camels. From 1840 until the 1920s, camel caravans provided the only transportation across the desert. When trains arrived, 18,000 camels found themselves liberated in the Outback. Now, North Australia boasts the largest number of free-ranging camels in the world. We saw several small herds on our way to Cave Hill. 

Now, I'm staring eye to eye with Nelson, a retired race camel. He blinks his chocolate-drop eyes with Maybelline lashes and I understand the love affair Australians have with their camels. We mount up under a starless sky and head across the dunes with only moon shadows to guide our way. Gradually, the sky lightens and the bushes and rocks take shape. Uluru looms in the distance like a dark aberration. 

Somehow our guide times the ride to perfection. We crest a dune and line up our camels single file moments before the sun crests the horizon and spotlights Uluru. The "shadowy rock" bursts to life with a splash of crimson. After catching my breath from the majesty of the spectacle, I focus my camera and catch the sun and 
the rock in the same frame. But sitting on the back of a camel in the heart of the Red Centre, I realize that pictures capture only the physical dimension of the scene. It takes a songline to capture the spirit of this magnificent landscape.

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Through the Red Centre