Hear the Voices of Traditional Land Owners: Up the Guts of Australia

Up since the break of dawn, all day we’d been rolling on washboard roads. Yet it was hard to complain. We’d just spent a few days hiking around Ikara/Flinders Ranges National Park and it felt good to be headin’ north again. As the sun dropped toward the horizon I stopped for a bit of a feed. Dan rolled up beside me and we began to look for somewhere to camp. It was dead flat aside from the occasional patch of scrub. You could’ve pitched in anywhere but for some reason, it still felt good to choose a spot. It was then, with bikes stationary and no wind to speak of, that we were struck by the immense silence of our surroundings. This was our first proper encounter with the vastness of the Australian desert. The endless horizon. We had made it to the edge of the outback, and thousands of kilometers of dusty track lay in wait.

When the British landed in Australia they described it as terra nullius, a Latin term meaning “nobody’s land”. This wasn’t in response to them encountering a vast desert landscape, the coastal fringes of this continent are pretty bloody green. It was a means of justifying its acquisition. To claim ownership without a treaty or payment. If you can convince yourself something doesn’t belong to anyone it’s easier to steal it. This was the first step in Australia’s long history of cultural denial, the origins of a system that disregards Indigenous people’s prior occupation and connection to the land.

In late 2017, Dan and I were camped out and got to chatting about a bike trip he’d planned. A couple of years on the road to Europe he reckoned. I figured if I could save some coin over the next few months I would be able to join for the first leg: across Australia. At this stage, I had toured a few times overseas – through the US, Canada, and NZ – but I hadn’t seen all that much of my own country. I was keen as. After a few more chats about potential routes, we figured there was only one way to go: straight up the guts. Melbourne to Darwin through the Red Centre. Central Australia is a place long held at the core of Australian cultural identity; ‘The Outback’. To experience those desert landscapes by bike seemed like a pretty wild opportunity.

We headed off May 2018, riding across to Adelaide then up the Mawson Trail to Ikara. The Mawson, while beautiful, was a bit mundane and we often found ourselves off-route chasing sketchier lookin’ tracks. After Ikara, we decided to swing out through Arkaroola to shake things up. All of a sudden the roads got rougher and things a bit more interesting. Next was the Oodnadatta track and a detour trip out to Kati Thanda/Lake Eyre. As we rode further north you could feel the landscape opening up.

Every day we were struck by the increasing expanse. As resupply points stretched out to the hundreds of kilometres the logistics of outback bicycle travel came into its own. I mean, there were some treats along the way, like kangaroo stew or quandong pie, but more often than not it was the taste of bore water and petrol-station groceries that sated out appetites. For a good few weeks, Weet-Bix, Cup-a-Soups and Barbecue Shapes became the staples of our malnourished desert diet.

Unfortunately, as we settled into the routine of touring life, we realised our styles of travel were kinda incompatible. I was keen to move quickly on my (relatively) lightly loaded Dreamer; definitely the hare to Dan’s Trolloff tortoise. We would often split for hours, only to catch up at camp. After spending a couple of nights with a family friend on Country in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yakuntjajara (APY) lands, we decided it would be best to split. We were both confident going it solo and didn’t want to push the friendship to breaking point. As we crossed into the Northern Territory I decided I’d head west to Uluru. Dan wasn’t interested. “No point heading there while idiots are still climbing it,” he reasoned.

“That’s a really important sacred thing that you are climbing… You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. And maybe that makes you a bit sad. But anyway, that’s what we have to say. We are obliged by Tjukurpa to say.”

“And all the tourists will brighten up and say, ‘Oh I see. This is the right way. This is the thing that’s right. This is the proper way: no climbing’.”

— Kunmanara, traditional owner 

I was still curious enough. I turned onto Mulga Park Road, a back route to Uluru, and settled in. It felt nice to be traveling alone, I reveled in the long dusty days on sandy desert tracks.

I arrived at Uluru in early July. School holidays, peak travel season. I was immediately struck by two things. First was the sheer beauty of it. There was a magic I hadn’t felt since arriving at the north rim of the Grand Canyon a few years earlier. I was in awe. A strong sense of disappointment quickly followed.

As I stood aside, hoards of parents took their kids up the rock, walking straight past a sign that clearly explained the environmental damage and cultural insensitivity that accompanied an ascent of the monolith. I found it hard to reconcile these people’s motivations. I just couldn’t make sense of their actions.

I spent three days in Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. During the day I would cruise the tarmac from crowded walk to crowded walk, taking it in as much as I could. In the evenings I would push off to camp alone among the Mulga. It was a beautifully contrasting experience.

After leaving Uluru I continued North, meeting up with Dan in Mparntwe/Alice Springs. We exchanged some stories from our few week’s parts. He’d fallen in love with the desert landscapes and had decided to park it for a while. As always I was keen to keep moving. We said a proper goodbye and I continued north, solo.

The next couple of months I crossed the Tanami and Kimberly en route to Darwin. During this time I visited a heap more sacred sites and aboriginal communities. I was continuously reminded of the immense beauty of this country and at the same time felt inundated with the inequality and racism at the core of Australian society. It’s not always plain to see but I feel that it’s deeply ingrained in our psyche; often casual but always damaging. I lost count of the times I was asked if I’d had any trouble with “the locals”.

As always, long days on the bike provided the perfect opportunity to process such ideas. The further I went, the more I began to consider the connection between identity and landscape. The idea of belonging to a place. I had always considered myself to be a proud ‘Australian’ but I was beginning to wonder what that actually meant. I know I come from the colonial side of Australian history. My mother’s family is of the Anglo-mongrel mold and my old man’s a first-gen Dutch immigrant. My connection to this country is that of a handful of generations. It’s hard to imagine the same thing built up over many millennia. Some 65,000 years of unbroken culture and care for the country. I’m definitely not proud of the attempted destruction of that.

When I got back to Melbourne I continued to reflect on my time in Central Australia. Uluru has long been considered the cultural and spiritual heart of this country, and it had a newfound prevalence in current media. The 1985 Uluru hand back was considered a symbolic highpoint for land rights in this country. Now, over 30 years later, Uluru’s joint management body has finally managed to pass new rules regarding people’s engagement. Effective October 26, this year, all climbing is to be stopped. While the public reaction to this decision has been mixed I reckon it’s a ripper outcome.

To visit these places is an opportunity to engage with culture as much as the landscape. To understand how the two are deeply connected through traditional law, story, and spirituality. It’s a chance to listen. To hear the voices of traditional owners and share in their deep knowledge of place and country.