One in spirit with the Red Rock
22 June 2021
FICTION - The Old Man was anxious to see his newly born twin sons and Delisa as well as his sons Charles and Felix and their families in Brisbane before travelling to Perth to see his daughter Ruth and her husband Mitchel.
He realised how fortunate he had been that the rebellion triggered by the Old Dairy Farm saga had ended peacefully. Anything could have happened to him if it got out of control. He could have been killed or badly hurt.
He could have lost everything, a lifetime’s work - his law firm, his charity, his mansion, his savings, his friends. But he had prevented the uprising by stepping in to represent the Old Dairy Farm settlers in an historical court case in the Supreme court.
The decision was pending but the media was speculating a win and referred to him as the Rabinhat (Robin Hood) of PNG.
‘Hi, Rabinhat, welcome to Australia,” Charles and Felix called as he emerged from Immigration at Brisbane Airport.
The Old Man noticed how tall and strong they were. He had not seen them since Rosemary’s funeral.
His grandson, Charles Akali Wakane Jr, was about a year old. He was just walking.
His sons had prepared a small mumu in the backyard to welcome him. Before they ate, The Old Man said he would name his twin boys after Simon and Fredric, the two men who assisted him quell the uprising.
He explained everything that happened. And the impending court decision. They were very proud of him. Their children would be proud too when they read about it in the history books.
Delisa and the twins were not yet able to go on the long road trip in the big four-wheel drive he had planned to Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
He would travel with Betty, Felix and their son Kombeakali across the Nullarbor Plain to Perth. Then, on the way back east, they would travel by the Great Central Road to Uluru, that great ancient rock in central Australia. Betty’s own people – the Yunkunytjatara people – were co-custodians with the Pitjantjatjara people.
It took a fortnight to complete the long drive across the Australian continent, including two days in Adelaide. In Perth, Ruth and Mitchel gave them a tour of the city and other attractions they knew would interest them.
They spent a week in Perth and then set off on the long, long drive back to Brisbane – a journey that would take them to Uluru, Betty’s country.
As the vehicle swallowed up the kilometres, The Old Man talked about his experiences in the western city. Someone he’d met had told him Perth was filled with South African and Indian immigrants. Mitchel told him that wasn’t true, in fact they made up about four percent. “Lot’s more English and New Zealanders,” he said.
The Old Man chuckled. “What’s that about?” Felix asked.
But The Old Man was deep in thought. This Australia. So many immigrants. And his grandson Kombeakali was Jewish, Polish, Papua New Guinean and Indigenous Australian. Multiracial marriage was now common. Would the world someday develop into one mixed race?
His other grandson, Charles Akali Wakane Jr, spoke in such fast English he could hardly be understood. The young bloke hardly knew any Tok Pisin and no Tokples, the local Engan language. Perhaps he would have to come home to learn the culture.
The English language would move him forward in the world. And Tok Pisin would be useful in Papua New Guinea. He should probably learn about his Engan heritage. Perhaps when he was older.
But it looked to The Old Man that his grandchildren would never go home to get acquainted with traditional culture. They would never sleep in the hausman to receive wisdom from elders. Anyway, it seemed the hausman would soon disappear.
But still he felt he was failing his children. As an elder of his tribe, he was not playing his part to teach them the skills and wisdom. They would learn this only if people started recording it in books. The hausman would be replaced by classroom teaching. Now, education was important.
But even if the culture seemed to be forgotten the people had to own their land as their ancestors had done for generations. By taking on the Old Dairy Farm settlement land court battle, he was trying to secure the land for the people.
Papua New Guinea was once connected to Australia. It was known as Sahul. Until ten thousand years ago, when sea levels rose, people could walk to Australia through the area now known as Cape York. Then the climate warmed and that was it. It’s happening again, he thought.
“Betty, yu amamas long go bek na lukim ol pipol bilong yu o nogat?”
Betty looked at The Old Man inquisitively. “Daddy, what are you saying?” The Old Man knew she didn’t understand Tok Pisin.
“Are you happy to go back to see your people?”
“Yes, I’m happy to go back after many years. I’ve stayed in contact by phone, but it’s not the same,” she said.
Betty’s people lived near the great rock monolith, Uluru. The ancient rock was formed by ancestral beings during the Dreaming and was a resting place for spirits.
It was so sacred there were certain parts that could not be photographed or even touched.
They could not just walk in to the sacred place. There were rules to observe and permission to seek.
After a week on the road, stopping at some strange places every night, Felix was the first to spot Uluru when it was little more than a red smear on the horizon. As they got closer it seemed to loom over them.
Before heading for the settlement where Betty’s parents lived, they booked into the Desert Gardens Hotel. They cleaned up and rested while Betty rang her people.
“Come on up. We’ve been expecting you,” said her mother.
When they did, the whole community stood there waiting. They all shook hands, hugged and exchanged greetings. Young Kombeakali was passed from one minyma (woman) to another. They were his grandmothers, aunts and cousins. Some of the wati (man) took the boy in their arms too.
Some of the minyma including her mother held Betty in their arms and wept. They hadn’t seen her for such a long time. Everybody was emotional and happy. Betty’s parents were in their seventies but strong and healthy.
The Old Man noticed that these people were gentle. He’d seen a movie about Australian Aborigines many years ago at primary school. They were hunters and gatherers and moved around a lot. They possessed few items. They were not materialistic.
The Old Man soon learned that the Anangu (people) did not pay bride price for their wives. Girls were not sources of wealth as in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Traditionally among the Yunkunytjatara and Pitjantjatjara it was the old men who had the choice of the woman.
A man had to have gone through all stages of initiation before he could marry. Girls were promised to old men from an early age. From an Engan standpoint, Felix and Betty had married in the Western way. The Old Man and his relatives did not pay bride price for Betty.
These good people had prepared some food and refreshments for them. As everybody ate, Betty’s people put on a cultural dance which involved the inma (corroboree). Both men and women participated.
Betty sat close to The Old Man. She told him the dance they were performing was a favourite inma of her people performed for the Seven Sister's myth - minyma tjuta (women many).
One of her uncles who blew the long pipe like wood did not seem to run out of breath to produce the deep haunting sound which seemed to come from another world. The people kept dancing and entertained their guests till sun set.
This was the moment Betty’s people had been waiting for. They asked The Old man, Felix and Betty to go to a lookout. From there, they could all see the sun set on Uluru. They wanted their guests to see the Uluru change colour from red back to orange again when the sun floated over the rock into the distant horizon. It was so spectacular.
The history of the Anangu was handed down in stories, rock paintings and in dances like the ones just performed. The dreaming is history. Uluru is part of the dreaming. It was formed when the world was featureless. It was formed together with the mountains, valleys, the stars and moon. And the sun just seen passing over the sacred rock as it had done for millennia.
The Old Man thanked the people for their generous welcome. He then produced some highlands caps and bilums. He gave them to Betty to distribute to her people. She gave the bilums to the minyma and kungka girls or unmarried woman. And the caps to some of the wati (man).
The Old Man saw that Betty’s people were deeply cultural. They had performed their dances with precision. And shown them the sunset over their sacred rock, something they did every day. He felt the people seemed happy but in the next few days, when he learned about their colonial history, it was disturbing.
They were the original landowners, the ‘First Nations of Australia’. but more than half of these people still lived in settlements around the country.
He knew that these Indigenous people were like Papua New Guineans. They were the original landowners until outsiders came to their shores in the 1700s. They came and divided these southern lands into different regions claimed by the Dutch, British and the Germans. The people were helpless. Their bows and arrows, spears and shields were no match for guns.
Since the Dutch left West New Guinea and the Indonesians took over what they called Papua, a guerrilla war of attrition has raged. The Old Man personally knew many of the West Irian people who fled across the border. Some of them live in the settlements in Port Moresby.
They had told him harrowing stories of how Indonesian soldiers killed thousands of Melanesians and resettled people from overcrowded Java on their land. But there was never land that was vacant in West Papua or anywhere else in Melanesia. Every stream, mountain, marsh, grassland, hillock and rudge was owned by somebody.
And the Indigenous people of Australia, the First Nations people, continued to live in the shadows of the colonisers – the whitefellas - and, later, immigrants of all colours who kept pouring into the country. The First Nations, deprived of land, respect, often their customs and even their children, lost control and were despised because of it.
They had been treated badly as a people from the start and were demoralised. They had suffered humiliation, disease and contempt. The colonisers had hunted them like animals and raped their women and girls. They had died in their thousands, whole tribes gone, customs vanished, languages lost. It was genocide and it had been indescribably tragic.
Tears flowed down The Old Man’s checks when he learned the early settlers had compared these warm and hospitable Indigenous people to kangaroos, dingoes and emus. They were not counted as people until well into the 20th century. Their land was seized to benefit what now were often called “the invaders”. Then policies were put in place to keep dispossessed the people who had been in this land for 60,000 years. Even today, despite their own glorious efforts, they are not even recognised in the national Constitution. How sad!
The colonisers had not understood that the Indigenous people had a civilisation and cultures that were based on living with the natural environment. Acts such as killing animals for food or building a shelter were steeped in ritual and spirituality. They knew this big land and cared for it well. Food, fresh water and shelter were abundant. The land and their spiritualism provided everything the needed and they in turn cared for their land.
For millennia, Australia’s Indigenous people and the Melanesian people of West Papua and Papua New Guinea – the people of Sahul – knew land was their life and they knew how to venerate it. Then came the whitefellas who cared not what they thought.
Ah, reflected The Old Man, Papua New Guineans were lucky indeed. Australia granted us an independence they had their own First Peoples. How very cruel was that. At these thoughts, he fell to his knees and wept.
He wept for his Melanesian brothers and sisters fighting for freedom in West Papua; he wept for the Australian Indigenous people who had lost their land to colonisers; and he wept for his kin, all the Papua New Guineans who had lost their land because of greedy and corrupt leaders. Even government officials who were pledged to work for the people involved in stealing land and giving it to foreigners. This was beyond insanity.
The leaders did not care that those generations that followed would be dispossessed. This could well happen quickly the way things were going at present. Leaders living for the moment and not for their people. Leaders controlled like toys by the wealthy and the ruthless. And if one day there was a successful revolution, those so-called leaders would flee to where they had stored most of their wealth, to continue to live in luxury while the ordinary people destroyed each other.
The Old Man remembered what had happened in Bougainville, where the people had first thrown out the exploiters, their soldiers and their helpers; but then had started fighting and killing each other. He did not want that to happen again in Papua New Guinea, a beautiful land of a thousand tribes with its wealth of resources – gold, copper, silver, fish, timber, coffee, tea, copra, cocoa, vanilla – that the people should share.
In that desert-land hotel, still on his knees, The Old Man gripped the bedframe and made a solemn promise in a firm voice.
“I will continue to fight the battle I have started. I will continue to represent my people. My people must own their land and its resources.”
Alex and Betty, sitting in an adjacent room quietly chatting, thought The Old Man was talking in his sleep. Outside his door, a passing guest strolling home from the bar thought it was a lonely drunk talking to himself. But across 400 metres of desert grassland, Uluru, the Great Red Rock heard his voice and relayed it across the plains.
At around four the next morning, The Old Man took his torch and, with Felix, Betty and Kombeakali, in that still of that hour when nothing else moved, headed for the base of Uluru. Its dark shape loomed bigger and it seemed to move to greet them, scarcely visible in the darkness. They would walk around it before resuming their journey back to Brisbane that afternoon.
It felt creepy to recall that as a small boy in the village The Old Man had been forbidden to go close to such sacred sites. Elders had told him not to go close because spirits lived there. This giant rock was one such frightening place. It was revered by Betty’s people and, in barring indiscriminate climbing and defacement, had been returned to the sacred place it was.
He hesitated a moment before touching the ancient stone as he had originally planned to do. People may have perished after disrespecting it. There were many sacred sites in Papua New Guinea, sites he respected, sites where pigs had been offered to dead ancestral spirits.
Soon the sun rose in the east in all its splendour. The Old Man asked Felix and Betty to hold one of his hands as he stretched the other forward, edging closer to Uluru as if it might be a sleeping wild beast that might suddenly awake.
Then he felt his fingertips touch the rock. He held them there for a few minutes. His wish was fulfilled. He had connected with the past. He had touched the heart of Betty’s people. They were now one and the same in spirit.
The Old Man knew that too many such sites in Papua New Guinea had been destroyed because of greed and ignorance and pristine trees that took centuries to grow were harvested in the name of foreign exchange.
Who was benefiting from this devastation?
His next engagement would address this issue. He would attend to this matter when he appeared on behalf of Papua New Guineans and their precious land in the Supreme Court when he arrived in Port Moresby next week.
He was hopeful that the Court’s decision would be in the people’s favour, and that he could join them on the steps of the court in celebration.
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