What the Rock handback bash wasn't told


p2290-Hewitt-Service-stnBy guest writer DAVID HEWITT
VIPs jetted into Yulara two weeks ago to mark the 30th anniversary of the handback of Uluru – Kata Tjuta National Park to the traditional owners.
Celebrations were held at Talinguru Nyakunytjaku (the sunrise viewing area) on Sunday and Mutitjulu Community, Monday morning.
Both functions were addressed by politicians, Aboriginal leaders and representatives of traditional owners, but a wonderful opportunity to inspire future leaders and encourage full time work by Anangu (a name used by the local Pitjantjatjara people to describe themselves) was missed.
Politician after politician apologized for the white fellows’ past performance and promised more money and resources to assist the people to “move ahead”: Additional housing, an adult education centre and funds for a Mutitjulu ranger group.
Aboriginal Senator Nova Peris compared what she considered were poor living conditions in the community to the “luxurious” accommodation for visitors at Yulara. One wonders where the politicians were staying on Sunday night?
Sadly there was no mention of the need to improve school attendance, reduce the impact of alcohol, promote good foods and regular excercise to counteract diabetes, or encourage young people to take up many of the jobs on offer in the park and at Yulara.
A team of 15 men from Docker River 43 years ago built the first store and service station at Uluru, then called Ayers Rock, of course. They called it Ininti Store after the Ininti bean tree, Erythrina Vespertilio, growing at the base of the Rock.
The store was at the old campground, only 100 metres from where the celebratory speeches were taking place.
The men worked six days a week for four months, with the help of three tradesmen.
A remarkable achievement, and years later Norman Tjalkaliri said: “We did all that work with pick and shovel” – including digging a one kilometre long trench for a septic tank effluent pipeline.
Their families were foundation members when the Mutitjulu Community was established.
The Docker River people made and erected 65 signs for road distances and features between Uluru and Warburton and for a memorial at Lasseter’s Cave in the Petermann Ranges.p2290-Hewitt-Diesel
Only one of the men involved in these projects is still around, but their efforts could well be an inspiration for young Anangu today.
There was sadly no mention in the handback celebrations of Aboriginal and white fellows who have played a part over many years in preserving traditional knowledge.
p2290-Hewitt-TigerNorman Tjalkaliri’s father Tiger (pictured with John Pfitzner at Areyonga) was one of the first Aboriginal guides at the Rock.
He and his brother, Peter Bulla, deserve thanks today as two of the leading traditional owners during the 1980s negotiations. They were great ambassadors for many years for their people.
Tiger was a companion of early visitors including Arthur Groom, author of I saw a Strange Land, and writers from Walkabout Magazine.
Lou Borgelt filmed him splashing in depressions filled with water on top of the Rock. In later years Tiger entertained many visitors with traditional songs and stories and was proud to pose for photos in his guide’s uniform.
Support for traditional owners was around long before the 1985 handback. It probably started with Charles Mountford in the 1940s. Then there was the work of early head rangers, Bill Harney, Bob Gregory and Derek Roff.
Rev. Bill Edwards encouraged the first discussions with government in 1971 and interpreted for many later meetings. Parks Australia staff have done some fine work since 1985 and the current manager was presented with a Public Service Medal at Yulara on Monday evening.
Anangu moved to Mutitjulu from surrounding communities and cattle stations.
At Ernabella, where the clinic was a mud brick building, nurses had been caring for the health of the people for more than 50 years, often through epidemics and in very trying conditions.
Six of the old ladies at Mutitjulu last week were young mothers when the first nurse started at Docker River in 1970.
For four years her clinic was a three metre by three metre Kingstrand hut.
There was no power in the community and drugs were kept in a small gas fridge. The early remote nurses and the wives of station managers provided a remarkable level of medical attention.
At the celebration Aboriginal activist Vincent Forrester referred to “third world” conditions in his community that was very fortunate to see a multi million dollar aged care facility opened this year.
The Central Land Council publication Community News mentions the cost of the new pool at $1.1m.
Mutitjulu also has a great school and a childcare centre that offers two meals a day for pre-school kids and their carers.
Central Australian Aboriginal Congress provides an excellent health service – hardly third world conditions.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten told the gathering: “Our eyes are open now, we see your rights”.
These rights have been known and encouraged for many years. Mr Shorten should have reminded us of the responsibilities that come with these rights.
p2290-Hewitt-signsRight beside where the speeches were taking place is a community centre, designed by an Alice Springs architect, computers, printers and scanners in a heap in the middle of the floor.
Someone had recently erected a wire netting fence covered with hessian around the building.
See also: 30 years owning Rock but running pool still a hurdle.
[The author and his wife, Margaret, worked and lived in the Ayers Rock region and at communities in adjoining areas of South Australia and Western Australia as nurse and builder and essential services worker between 1964 and 1975 then again from 1998 to 2012].


  1. I worked for the Commonwealth department of works in Alice Springs. I went in the mid 1970s to Docker River Generators. Both had packed up with faulty injectors (Water in the Diesel). Myself, an electrician and a fitter did the trip in a 4WD truck. We went to Giles weather station and the Rock to do some work also.
    Murray in Christchurch, New Zealand.

  2. People should go to “third-world” countries and spend a week there to really understand what it means, before comparing some of the communities here.
    I would say it is an insult to all the third-world communities because even the big towns in those countries lack the facilities that exist in the remote communities of the NT.
    In fact, most regional towns in other parts of Australia don’t have similar infrastructure and medical facilities like our remote communities despite having twice or five times the population and being three hours drive from the capital city. There are a number of towns in the wheatbelt region of WA that are more than two hours drive from Perth and they don’t have a single clinic!

  3. Thanks for your contributions to this discussion, David Hewitt. You bring knowledge of important historic and cultural detail to this debate.
    You are right to lament the apparent lack of clarity, about certain fundamental issues, by some of the events’ official speakers.
    Although the occasion of a great land rights victory’s anniversary demands a focus on celebration, it remains true, as you point out, that some speakers appeared to raise a distorted version of current challenges, if the published accounts are to be relied upon.
    The fundamental matters which you mention (the need for improved school attendance, less substance abuse, better diets, more exercise, willingness to take up available jobs) are, as you imply, mostly not completely dependent on funding for their achievement; rather they mainly depend on the decisions, actions and determination of Mutitjulu residents themselves, and probably some male leaders and family heads in particular.
    Some of them, at least, must make greater efforts to ensure their kids get proper meals, a decent sleep, and are out of bed in time for school or work.
    Nonetheless, given the lack of job readiness amongst many of the unemployed, the development of a regional “rangers” group is a very sensible move; and, where houses are overcrowded, this needs to be remedied, in the interest of enabling a decent sleep and less infectious disease transfers for the school kids and workers.
    A new adult education centre does not sound like a bad idea either, but it does beg the question, as you point out, about why the existing training centre has been allowed to be wasted, and whether the same fate is likely to await a new facility.

  4. You and Margaret hold some wonderful history and herstory, David.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and perspectives and thanks to you both for all that you have done in and around Central Australia.
    As a community, we are blessed by your presence and contributions to the fabric we collectively weave. Looking forward to some more contributions over time.

  5. I’m not so sure that “rights and responsibilities” can be equally applied to all remote Indigenous communities, so I hope it doesn’t become a mantra. In many cases, rights are only a recent and costly achievement.
    Without making excuses, there are, as Bob Durnan points out, many people who are not work-ready, due to a lack of education, cultural-awareness (non-Indigenous), health and substance abuse, most prominently alcohol dependency.
    That said, I have seen other Indigenous organisations where resources are idle: a room-full of computer terminals begging.
    In my opinion, it’s of no value to make a Third World call where that sort of opportunity exists.
    In the present Federal Government focus on trying to find an equitable pathway for taxation to allow start-up companies to respond to a post-resources construction phase economy, it would make sense to focus efforts on utilising those resources by training people, either from a local source or interstate to collaborate with savvy leaders in this emerging industry.
    I learnt computer skills at TAFE in Tennant, sitting in a room full of computers by myself and asking the administrator for help when stuck. I think I have given back more than what it cost to learn those skills.
    We have to keep thinking outside of the square as much as we look within it. When starting up, it often takes someone to point out where opportunity exists and how to move into it.
    This remains true across all cultures and people in all situations.

  6. Thank you David for your pointed analysis and fascinating first-hand account of pre-Yulara Uluru.
    And thank you, Alice Springs News Online, for publishing David’s story.

  7. After all the money spent last week on the celebrations, we must be a laughing stock to now spend more money where so-called locals were meant to earn by handing over the Rock originally.

  8. For interesting comprehensive coverage of the celebration re 30 years on, see Eleanor Gilbert on Vimeo-Uluru Handback.
    Fait accompli.

  9. @ Bob Duran: As a politician Alison Anderson, once said and I quote “The indigenous must get out of the lazy, dishonest, habit of screaming racist at whites who speak the uncomfortable truths” end of quote.
    How many more years do they need to become educated, another 200?
    Why don’t they spend some of their royalty monies on their housing and living conditions, and learn to pick up their own rubbish would be a start.

  10. I don’t know the answer to your questions, Fred (Fred the Philistine, Posted November 8, 2015 at 11:10 am). Maybe some of them are waiting for you to teach them?

  11. A lovely story. Thank you Dave and Margaret, a lovely couple who provided a cups of tea and friendly ear, on many occasions when I worked as a Remote Nurse in Warakurna in 2008.
    I was to discover later that Margaret was also outback nurse and midwife for many years until she called it a day.
    She set up Docker River clinic and worked there as a midwife and RAN while Dave, an electrician by trade, worked nearby. An amazig couple.


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