Uluru (Ayers Rock), Central Australia
The great deserts of central Australia, the Gibson and the Simpson, were shrouded in darkness.
It was nearing midnight, and the moon was a thin sliver of white. Mars was a distant red speck in the northern sky.
A large group of Aboriginals had gathered at the southern end of Uluru.
They were chanting and singing and dancing a rhythmic ritual of epic song cycles. An inma.
Hundreds of resonating voices, keeping melodic time with the deep whirring music of the didgeridoos holding the steady tempo of their song.
Several fires cast a warm orange glow that could be seen from as far away as the Olga Mountains to the west.
Every so often a plume of brilliant red sparklets would fly up into the darkness, as the near naked dancers stamped their feet on burning twigs and embers at the fires edge.
Not far from the ceremony, a ranger’s utility was traveling along the Lasseter Highway in the direction of the great rock.
Inside the vehicle, Park Ranger Ross Hannagan looked curiously out the windscreen at the commotion ahead.
He slowed the utility to a crawl and pulled off the main road onto the Yulara side road which led to the great rock.
Hannagan had been driving all day between local Aboriginal tribal encampments. There had been talk of mysterious noises coming from Uluru. The more tribespeople he spoke to, the more the buzz of excitement increased.
Now, he was grateful for a reason to stop and stretch his legs.
Hannagan was forty eight years old, slim build but carrying a slight paunch from years of driving the desert roads. His hair was dark, but thinning. He wore his National Park Ranger uniform with immense pride.
He turned his vehicle into an unlit gravel car park a hundred yards from the crowd and got out.
Hannagan had seen many Aboriginal dance exhibitions previously, but something told him this one was more serious.
It was a large scale corroboree, a bewildering display of symbolistic dance and song that made his heart race with the sheer energy its performers were exuding.
He approached the awesome scene to get a better view.
Dense thickets of bloodwood and wattle clustered in gullies at the base of the rock.
Hannagan sidestepped a clump of mallee roots and found himself below a small shelter of desert oaks twenty yards from the ceremony.
He looked at his watch. It was a quarter past midnight.
He was already several hours into overtime and tired as hell, but the opportunity of witnessing something like this was too hard to pass up.
Home would have to wait a bit longer.
Suddenly Hannagan heard a twig snap behind him. He turned quickly.
A tall Aboriginal, a wiry Pitjantjatjara man called Jirabilindi, had sidled up alongside Hannagan from out of nowhere.
The Aboriginal smiled broadly at Hannagan.
Hannagan knew instantly the snapping of the twig wasn’t an accident. He knew the desert people well. He had seen them sneak up on wild animals and capture them before they knew what was happening. They were master trackers and hunters.
Jirabilindi stood with Hannagan looking straight ahead at the people near the rock.
Eerie shadows, fifty feet tall, danced on the southern face of Uluru.
“Tonight is the night Dreamtime ends,” said Jirabilindi.
Hannagan looked up at him. “What do you mean?”
Jirabilindi pointed at the rock.
As if on cue, several plumes of sparks fired up out of a dozen large fires. The gigantic monolith was bathed in firelight against the night.
Hannagan looked up.
Its sheer presence was palpable. A massive stone, a thousand feet tall, six miles around. It was believed the visible part of the rock was only the tip, and it extended several miles further down below the desert floor like a giant regolithic iceberg in a sea of sand, concealing secrets only a select few of the most revered tribes elders would dare even talk about.
Jirabilindi continued. “Dreamtime is aboriginal life story. It begin thousands of years ago. Here, at Uluru.” He lowered his arm and looked down at Hannagan.
“Uluru where Aboriginal people begin. Aboriginal people born here long time ago. Uluru sing and Aboriginal people come from rock.”
Uluru sing and people come.
How can a rock sing, thought Hannagan.
Jirabilindi began walking towards the chanting throng.
Hannagan followed, staying close to the dark skinned man as they weaved through the sea of bodies.
They reached the rock face, and were joined by another, much older Aboriginal man. He was from the central Australian Aranda people, the natives of Alice Springs and the surrounding national parks. His name was Jardarra. Hannagan had heard of him.
Jardarra and Jirabilindi greeted each other with a firm grip of their forearms.
The old man had a shock of long white hair trailing over his shoulders. His face was leathery, wrinkled and pock-marked, and created a strange contrast to his piercing light blue eyes. He gave Hannagan a steely glare. His head shook uncontrollably as he spoke.
“Kulila, kulila. Bardarr Gindo?”
Hannagan looked quizzically at Jirabilindi.
“Listen, do you hear?” the tall man translated.
“Bunggul. Purtanga.” Singing. From the rock.
Jirabilindi leaned in towards the rock, put his ear up against the stony face. His eyes widened.
Hannagan saw his amazed expression and did likewise.
“Barrdarr Gindo?” the old man repeated excitedly.
Hannagan stared at him intently. “Yes, I do hear,” he said with a confirming nod of the head.
This seemed to delight Jardarra, who beamed a big smile back at Hannagan.
The old man straightened up and slapped the rock like a salesman patting a car he was about to sell. “Bunggul Djinawa,” he said proudly. Singing inside.
Hannagan listened to the wall again.
There was indeed a sound coming from inside the rock. It wasn’t singing, but even over the raucous cacophony of the inma and the didgeridoo music it was unmistakable.
A throbbing beat, like a drum, at steady intervals was definitely emanating from somewhere inside Ayers Rock.
And there was something else.
Hannagan heard a distinctive ping sound laid over the top of the thudding beat. Just once, short and sharp.
He looked up at the two Aboriginal men in astonishment.
Jirabilindi pulled back from the wall. His face grew ashen. His eyes reflected a sudden sadness which was entirely evident.
In a subdued voice he said, “Uluru sing. Tonight Dreamtime end.”