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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

Solace in a Box of Rocks

Superstitious or enlightened, tourists are returning pilfered pieces of Australia's Uluru, or Ayers Rock, a sacred place to the Aborigines.

March 25, 2004|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

ULURU, Australia — Nearly every weekday, rocks sent from around the world arrive here at the headquarters of the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park.

Some are the size of gravel. One weighed in at 75 pounds. But they all have one thing in common: They were taken from a sacred mountain by travelers later weighed down by remorse.

Most of these stones are pieces of Uluru, the huge red formation in the middle of the Australian Outback that is widely known as Ayers Rock. In what amounts to a geological diaspora, tourists have been taking pieces of the rock for decades even though Uluru's Aboriginal owners, the Anangu, consider the site holy.

Some return their souvenirs out of the fear that they are cursed and can cause such calamities as cancer, car accidents, death and divorce.

Others send their mementos back after gaining a new appreciation for Aboriginal culture. Taking a rock from Uluru, they realize, is like pinching a hymnbook from a church.

"Please put these rocks and sand back where it belongs," wrote an apologetic, if ungrammatical, scientist living in Australia who returned two rocks and a container of soil last month. "I have collected (STOLEN!) it during my last trip and I feel sad about it. Sometimes even scientists are ignoramus. Sorry for that."

Or as another put it in a brief note accompanying the rock he mailed back: "Please return to Uluru -- six years bad luck is enough."

Park officials aren't sure what they will do with the dozens of boxes of "sorry rocks" that have piled up in the park office over the last few years, but they welcome the growing sensitivity to Aboriginal customs sparked by public debate over the mistreatment of Australia's indigenous people.

Anangu community leaders also appreciate the return of the rocks and hope that the public will come to respect other traditions of their people -- including using the monolith's traditional name, Uluru, and refusing to climb it.

"A lot of people want a piece of the place because they know how great it is," said Graeme Calma, chairman of the Anangu community at Uluru and deputy chairman of the park's governing board. "But they haven't realized the true significance or the power of Uluru."

The giant red rock is an awesome sight. Rising 1,140 feet from the desert floor, its sides are nearly vertical. In the shifting light of the Outback, it can change from a reddish-orange hue to a deep red. For some, visiting it is a mystical experience.

Surrounded by the desert sand and enveloped by the dry heat, Uluru lies almost directly in the center of the continent. A solid piece of sandstone more than 2 miles long and 1 1/2 miles wide, it gets its unusual color from the rusting of iron in the otherwise gray rock.

When there is rain, waterfalls cascade down the sides, forming waterholes that have long been a source of life for animals and people. At the base are caves where Aboriginal artists have painted for thousands of years. In the curves and crevices of the rock, the Anangu see giant snake trails and bloodstains -- marks they say were left by the creation beings, the half-animal, half-human ancestors who they believe created the world.

Archeologists say the earliest people arrived on the continent by land bridge and boat 60,000 years ago and have lived near Uluru for at least 22,000 years. Over time, they developed a rich oral tradition in which their religion, history, law and way of life were passed from one generation to the next through stories based on physical features of the landscape, such as Uluru, that are sacred. The locations are linked by paths, sometimes called "songlines," that also are hallowed.

The founding of a British penal colony in Australia in 1788 marked the beginning of the destruction of Aboriginal culture. The settlers hunted down Aborigines and took their land, much the way Native Americans were slaughtered in the United States.

Today, Aborigines live in slums across Australia. Cut off from their traditions and left with few opportunities, some young men seek escape by drinking alcohol and sniffing gasoline. Last month a riot erupted in one of Sydney's poorest districts after residents blamed police for the death of a 17-year-old Aboriginal boy. Rioters set fire to a train station and injured 40 police officers in street battles.

A mile from Uluru, 200 Anangu live in the dilapidated community of Mutitjulu. Many residents have built fences to keep out desperate gas sniffers, who vandalize neighbors' property in search of fuel.

Prime Minister John Howard has refused repeated requests that the government apologize for historic abuses of the Aboriginal people, but some Australians have been moved by the debate to express their own regret.

"Please return these rocks home as a symbol of one white man's attempt to make amends for my people's past," wrote a man who sent back two rocks from Uluru he had kept for 12 years. "Even if our leader is not sorry for what we have taken from you, I am."

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