Each night I plant my feet in the red sand dunes of this lookout. I feel the rhythm of the centre of Australia rise through my chest as I wait. Ready to watch waves of colour roll across this sky. The sun turns kaleidoscopes across Uluru as gold drops behind Kata Tjuṯa. I shift focus back to the red rock to watch the colours that lift from the horizon in bands. Always the same canvas that closes the day away like a giant eyelid. I imagine troops in the thousands. Old and young, women and men. Stretched out across this land, ready to bring darkness.
Each night I plant my feet in red sand dunes. I feel the rhythm of the centre of Australia rise through my chest.Click To Tweet
I see them lined along the horizon beyond the base of Uluru. The thick canvas of dusk stretched out behind. Thousands of men, two paces apart, with a pinch of the dusted pink edge held in a fist watching the last of the yellow dip away. One Foreman for every hundred of them. Support workers lined like an army up front. The time ticks over and the call sounds. The Foremen shout, “HEAVE”. The men take their first step into the sky. Heads down, canvas firmly grasped, they respond in unison, “HO,” with the next step. A call and response that sounds through the desert marking each movement toward night.
Pink rises and begins to cover the day time blue. Its thick stripe unfolding to reveal the edge of soft purple that darkens to Indigo. Hours of work later, the call and response unwavering, the blue comes again. Darker this time, closer to midnight. High in the sky, beyond the ceiling of Kata Tjuṯa, they roll and tie the colours that have passed. Ready to be pulled back for dawn tomorrow. Most nights are like this. Cloudless skies unfolding in comforting consistency.
Nightfall in Outback Australia
On rare occasions the word TEAR runs up the line. Hands are raised to indicate the location as the canvas comes to a halt. The Foremen inspect and rub their chins. It must have been snagged on a shard of sun at the Roll Back. A clean tear burned right through. Too big for the distraction of shooting stars. A rainbow won’t quite cut it. The Earth Folk would see an open seam in their sky. A storm is needed, a big one. They call for the Seamstresses and send out the Stormers.
The Seamstresses bustle to the canvas in teams of six. Each group carries a giant needle between them like a log. They inspect the tear, break up the work and get to pinning. The Stormers throw themselves over the edge of the sky. Feet held by lines of men wrapped around waists. A fall is death tumbled in to the desert, though they’ve not lost a man yet. They blast cloud under the canvas from bellows held by leather strips to their waists. Throw lightening from lit torches. They shout out cheers as the bolts rage across the sky knowing their work will create wonder in the morning. Water will spill in falls over the curves of Uluru. The younger men who’ve never seen it will get out telescopes to watch. The older ones will pat them on the back as they walk by, knowing well what it is to see that for the first time.
For now they take care not to singe the ropes being thrown over. The Climbers begin their descent. A line of ants scrambling down to fan across the desert floor. Pulling up spinifex and spider’s web. The filaments spun to thick yarn as it moves through hands. Skilled at weaving while hanging from ropes. Rows of it passed upward until it reaches the eye of each needle.
The line men pull the canvas tight bearing its weight, it will be a long night. Drummers begin their beat, their steady chant echoes across the desert as thunder. “A stitch in time saves nine, a stitch in time saves nine”. Over and over. Seamstress sew to the rhythm. When the work is complete they inspect the patched together canvas. Thousands of years of repair at the hands of their ancestors – mothers, grandmothers, great grandmothers. The trade passed from one generation to the next. A mash of creases, kinks and fine needlework that the Earth Folk call the Milky Way.
Meetings have been held at about replacing it for three hundred years. Hours of debate and debacle among the higher ups. How do you switch out a sky? The Earth Folk will notice their Milky Way missing. You can’t just throw something away that holds thousands of years of history. Who will paint the new one? Where do you store something that big? There’s no museum can hold it. And so it stays, a story of hands and feet working diligently since the beginning of time.
The Seamstresses cart their needles back to the head of the line and throw them up to signal work complete. The call HEAVE goes out and the men move upward again. Ropes are drawn in and the Stormers pulled back to safety. Climbers counted and accounted for.
The changing colours of an Uluru sky
On most nights, like this, it is a quiet procession of Heave and Ho. The dark coming across in even transitions of colour. I watch while the red sand glides between my toes and imagine that the first bright stars over Uluru are campfires being lit after their work is complete.
I watch while the red sand glides between my toes and imagine the first bright stars over Uluru are campfiresClick To Tweet
I see them gathered in circles, sharing war stories. Talking about the time that John tripped over a rock at the top of Kata Tjuṯa and sent twenty men either side spilling like dominoes. Leaving a jagged edge of light seeping into the night. The Earth Folk reporting UFO sightings for months. Their scientists with marks on their heads from all the scratching. Foremen called in for meeting after meeting. Finally the decision made to lift the line by two hundred metres. Sending the desert sky to greater heights. None of the line men pleased with Johnny, having to walk higher in the sky on summer nights where the heat concentrates like suffocation. That was four generations ago, none of these men saw it though they tell it like they did. The story passed down, a lesson for the young ones coming up to take care with their step.
I see them breaking open bottles of whiskey. Drinking to a job well done while Old Tom hangs the moon. Or, sometimes, soaked through from thunder and ice, drying out britches over the heat, warming their bones chilled by a stormy desert night. Camel stew simmering on blackened pots across the fires. Hard sinewy meat, they’ve all night to wait for it to soften. Whiling away the hours, waiting for the call to attention that signals Roll Back. The moment before dawn when they again take their places in the line. Ready to push it back and reveal the day.
This is how I see the desert sun rise and set. With flecks of magic in my eyes.
Note: This is an expansion of a post I wrote on Instagram that took off in my mind and kept me up for two nights lost in imaginings. The original post is here.