This is excerpt from the chapter From Uluru to Wollongong and back by Darwin and Palermo-based journalist and artist Chips Mackinolty in “Take Power Like This Old Man Here” edited by Alexis Wright and published in 1998 by the Central Land Council.
There was always a sense, living at Mutitjulu during 1985, of heightened expectation, but also of unreality. As the year advanced, the Hawke promise of land at Uluru-Kata Tjuta being returned to its traditional owners seemed to fade and reappear as national political attention focussed on the interminable and frustrating negotiations that preceded the date of the handback ceremony.
Anangu, the Central Land Council and representatives from the Pitjantjatjara Council were in endless meetings with the Commonwealth and Territory government, and the projected date of the handback seemed to change with the regularity of the tourist bus arrivals at the Ininti Store at Uluru. This was a time at the Rock of radio telephones, no faxes, radio or TV, and newspapers arrived a day late, so the machinations of national and Territory politics seemed distant and remote as preparations were made for Manta, or Land, Day.
An early memory is being woken just after sunrise to help try and chase a Mike Willesee television crew which, typical of the exploitative cynicism of parts of the media at the time, had just carried out a dawn raid on the Mutitjulu camp. You know the line: ‘Can you trust the people who choose to live in conditions like this to manage Australia’s greatest icon?’ As it turned out, we drove all over the park trying to find them, but they’d disappeared. God knows what would have happened if we had succeeded in cornering Mike Munro and tried to demand the video-tape be returned.
Another memory is of being on the fringe of the last meeting the then Northern Territory Conservation minister, Steve Hatton, had with traditional owners in his last attempt to persuade them to accept Territory rather than Commonwealth control of Uluru. A picture of Hatton, poor bugger, looking distinctly uncomfortable, as Tony Tjamiwa told him ‘We are all agreed that there are two major problems at Uluru: tourists and feral cats. You look after the tourists, and we’ll look after the feral cats—we eat them!’
But my strongest memory of the time is not of Uluru iteself, but of time spent in, of all places, Wollonging.
Community advisor Ross Johnston, an unlikely devotee of the fine art market, had come up with the idea of producing limited edition signed prints commemorating the handback, along with T-shirts and explanatory brochures. It would make a few bob for the community, as well as providing an enduring record of the historic event. So resources were obtained to fund the venture and Bossy Brumby and myself were packed off to the Redback Graphics studio on the New South Wales south coast to work with Redback’s Michael Callaghan in designing and producing the limited edition.
The Redback studio was as far from Uluru as imaginable. Situated in an old beachside kiosk building, you looked directly out at the pacific Ocean breaking on a north Wollongong beach. And it was cold. Not the cold of the desert, but that of winter winds and rains coming up from southern oceans.
For Bossy Brumby, once the designs and words were finalised—’Nyuntu Anangu maruku ngurangka ngaranyi‘, ‘You are on Aboriginal land’—the time at Redback was pretty boring. He certainly hadn’t volunteered to be factory fodder, printing and racking prints, posters and T-shirts. So he explored the streets and parks of Wollongong, disappearing for hours at a time, often in the company of a bloke called Sav: a cheery punk seeing the sights of the the Steel City with a man of the desert.
One night Bossy discovered one of Wollongong’s roughest pubs: working class and a serious hangout for junkies, punks and bikies. He had also gone back to a junkie’s flat for a few drinks after closing time. hardly a safe haven for a green chum from the bush.
Talking about over breakfast the next morning he said he’d had a great time. They were good people, he said, and wanted to know all about Uluru and Anangu. They were happy, he said, to learn about land rights and what the return of Uluru-Kata Tjuta meant to his people. Here said it was much better than Alice Springs where, even if he could get entry to a pub, he was treated with contempt by staff and patrons alike. ‘And not only that, but they looked after all my money for me. I left it there, so i can pick it up later.’
Michael and I looked at each other, expecting the worst. He’d gone, as it turned out, cashed up with his entire travel and expense money for the trip—$700—and had come back from the pub with less than $20 in his pocket. It seemed a tough way for bossy to learn that his companions of the night before may not have been as innocent as his quest for knowledge of Aboriginal land rights as they seemed.
There was not much optimism at pub opening time that morning, but the barmaid from the night before was on deck. Seeing Bossy, she cheerfully went to the till and produced the Mutitjulu envelop with $680 intact. He’d barely needed to buy a round all night.
As they watched TV on the night the Governor-General and Anangu traditional owners held aloft a framed limited edition print on 28 October 1985, it is doubtful that the patrons and staff of the pub knew they had played a part in preparing for the ceremony for the return of Uluru.
Wollongong, and in no small way the junkies, punks, bikies—and barmaids—of that town, had made an unsung contribution to the success of the Uluru handback. They had proved to one Anangu man that Australians of good will can be found in the most unexpected places.
Take power like this old man here : an anthology of writings celebrating twenty years of land rights in Central Australia, 1977-1997 / edited by Alexis Wright for the Central Land Council.