Pure delight: Players compete at a football carnival at the Mutitjulu ground near Uluru. Photo: Ruby O'Brien
MUTITJULU football ground has one of the best backdrops, if not the best backdrop, in Australia - the corrugated red monolith known as Uluru or Ayers Rock which towers above the ground like an ancient grandstand that has been watching for thousands of years.
Last week, as part of the Other Side of the Rock concert, a football carnival was played at Mutitjulu in temperatures that wavered between 38 and 40 degrees, the day of 40-degree heat also having a wind that felt like it was coming from a fan-forced oven. Just watching was draining.
The face of Uluru above the Mutitjulu ground cannot be photographed in whole since one end of it embodies stories used in ceremonies for the initiated. Before the first match, sorry business was done for two young men who died recently - while nothing was said publicly I was told both were cases of suicide. One was a member of the Mutitjulu Cats. So the team and relatives stood in a line down the middle of the oval. Then, as the old women wept and wailed, one of the visiting teams, Ernabella, passed down the line, eyes downcast, gripping every hand in turn.
The carnival was in part a celebration of Solid Rock, the Goanna band hit written 30 years ago by Shane Howard (also recognised was John Williamson's Raining on the Rock). Shane was asked to lead the whitefellers down the mourning line in the local manner, eyes down, gripping each person's hand in turn, sharing the grief. White roses were taped to the goalposts at each end.
The playing surface was coarse red sand. The locals say they play on Uluru - the rock is just the part that hasn't eroded yet. I walked the playing field before the match and picked up a sharp-edged stone and a piece of wire. In the noonday heat, the oval's freshly painted white markings stood out brilliantly against the red surface.
What is the biggest difference between desert footy and the AFL? Contested possessions, or the rarity of them. The desert game is not without collisions and, when delivered, bumps are fully meant, but the emphasis of the game is the opposite of AFL.
The proliferation of fitness experts at AFL clubs has made players faster and stronger. As a result, AFL footy is becoming a wrestle. Desert footy is the game in pure form. Essentially, it's about making space and artful use of the ball. Far fewer play in bare feet than when I first saw it in the 1980s. The odd one still plays in socks to protect his feet from the hot sand.
Chasing is not the absolute virtue it is in the AFL. Players do chase but playing in this heat demands economy of effort. (In 2006, when I came here, I was told ''young fellers do the running''.) I stood on the edge of the Mutitjulu huddle at quarter-time to listen to the coach but was not entirely sure who that was, the old man who spoke first or the player who followed. I only recognised two words - ''free kick'' - but there was no doubt the Cats were bringing an emotional edge to the game.
A whitefeller who organises a footy competition in the nearby resort town of Yulara said to me, ''There's a ton of talent out here but you don't see any AFL scouts''. One young defender playing for Docker River would set the MCG alight, being not only inclined to the spectacular but also brave and capable.
On one side of the ground was a cement slab with a tin roof. Beneath it sat an old man with a long white beard and a microphone in his lap, delivering a laconic commentary in his language that deserved to be recorded. Other spectators sat in the shade of the skinny desert oaks which grow one inch per year and can be hundreds of years old. By the last game of the day, the sun had begun to lower itself on the opposite side of the rock, haloing it like a painting of a medieval saint. Because the rock is so big it stayed that way for what seemed like hours, the last of the sunset being a thin streak of red and yellow stretching across the horizon in both directions.
The decision to open Mutitjulu to a whitefeller songman involved three years of talking and the old women of the community played a big part in the negotiations. The concert began with five of them, their pendulous breasts painted brightly, chanting one of their ancient songs and shuffle-dancing in the red dust. One of the acts that followed, by Anangu man Trevor Anderson, is a must for next year's Dreamtime at the G - Waltzing Matilda in Pitjantjatjara.
I stood backstage. In a swirl of dust beyond the last row of heads, in the outer reach of the stage lights, a group of 20 or more kids continued playing footy. It was just that - non-stop play. The game is about winning the ball, how long you can evade pursuers and maintain possession and, then the skill and cleverness with which you finally dispose of it. There are no goals. They are a European idea. This is Aboriginal football.
With the concert thumping away behind me, I walked out on to the oval to catch the absolute last of the sunset and encountered the spirit of the game in Mutitjulu, a small boy kicking a footy in the dark with a tall whitefeller. Every time the kid got the ball he accelerated off, then kicked back over his shoulder. As long as the whitefeller kept kicking the footy to him, he was going to keep playing.
Martin Flanagan travelled to the Other Side of the Rock concert as a guest of NT Tourism. Another account of the concert by Martin Flanagan can be read in his Saturday Reflection in the Opinion pages.