Long ago, on a hot February day in the Australian Outback, a young man called Pindan led a group of tourists on a camel trek. Pindan hoped to convey the soul of this place, to teach the visitors of the great gifts of the Anangu people. The group had just toured ancient cave paintings and was headed toward Uluru or Ayers Rock, the sandstone rock formation at the southern edge of the Northern Territory.
"Uluru is sacred to the Anangu," Pindan explained. "As we ride, I shall tell you tales of the Dreamtime. There is one rule. You must not ride out of my sight."
Pindan looked carefully into everyone's eyes as he said this. This land was vast and spectacular, but to these strangers every part of it might look the same as every other part. The riders could easily get lost.
Three girls especially worried Pindan, but he was grateful for the serious gray-haired fellow called Walter. Walter was intelligent and eager to hear Pindan's stories, but he, too, seemed wary of these girls.
The girls were from California, and the first thing Pindan noticed was how differently they dressed from the other travelers. They wore expensive trousers and stylish boots, while the others wore practical khakis and canvas shoes. Dressing up to ride a camel across this land made no sense, but then, little about these girls made sense. They had packed large backpacks, though the group was camping and needed little. They laughed too loudly; they spoke out of turn; they boasted.
"We can't ride this slowly," one of the girls complained. "We're experts -- not like these people," she pointed a painted fingernail at the other tourists. The other two girls flipped their long hair, like haughty horses swishing their tails.
Pindan could see that Walter was interested in his stories and in the vast landscape, and that he did not like the girls. As they rode and Pindan talked, Walter listened closely, and this pleased Pindan, so he turned his attention from the girls and continued his tales.
"The world was a featureless place until creatures, plants and people were created and began to travel across the land. As they were created and destroyed, they formed the landscape. Our land is still inhabited by the spirits of those ancestral beings."
Someone asked Pindan to tell stories about Ayers Rock.
"There are many stories," Pindan said, and he began with this one:
"Some say that two boys were playing in the mud after a rainstorm," Pindan said. "This was during Dreamtime, and when the boys finished their game, they traveled south toward Mount Conner. But they began to fight. They fought all the way toward the table-topped mountain, and their bodies are preserved there as boulders."
At this, the three girls burst out laughing. "Boulders can't be boys!" one of them guffawed. Tears of sadness formed in Pindan's eyes; Walter was so angry, he felt his hands beginning to form into fists.
Walter knew a lot about this land. He knew the Anangu people considered themselves direct descendants of those who roamed the land 40,000 years ago, in the time known as Dreamtime. This was a sacred place, which these girls would never understand.
They rode on, and the day began to cool off as the sun approached the horizon. In the Outback, night fell suddenly -- one moment it was day and the next it would be pitch-dark night.
Pindan went on with his stories, but suddenly someone called, "Where are the girls?" and Walter looked up just in time to see a speck in the distance that might have been one of them on her camel. Then she was gone.
The sun began to set and darkness made its rapid descent.
"They're lost!" someone cried.
Pindan quickly led the group to a campsite. "No one must leave this place," he said. "Build a fire, pitch your tents, and I will search for the girls." He nodded at Walter, and Walter nodded back, silently agreeing to be the caretaker while Pindan was gone.
Pindan rode away, and when Walter no longer heard the camel's hooves galloping across the land, he gathered the others around the fire. He could feel the spirits of the Anangu -- their power, their warmth, their understanding of this world.
Walter thought of the story Pindan had told of two tribes of ancestral spirits invited to a feast at Uluru and of a great battle that led to the deaths of the leaders of both tribes. The very earth had risen up in grief and had become Uluru.
Pindan had also told them that some believed that anyone who took a rock from the formation would suffer great misfortune.
Walter was certain the girls had taken a rock from Uluru. For a moment he thought that now they would be lost forever.
He heard someone whisper, "What if Pindan doesn't find them? What will we do?"
Walter knew he could easily turn the others against the girls. He just had to tell them they had stolen a rock from Uluru. He opened his mouth, and then he thought of the Aboriginals, born under the shadow of Uluru. Their stories were the core of life, the subject of art, the tie to the ancestors. In their language, belief was knowledge, and knowledge was belief. There were no separate words for these things.
Walter closed his eyes. He knew if he believed the girls were gone, they would be gone, forever.
He listened for the sound of laughter, wind, of camels' hooves tapping the earth.
And then he spoke. "They will be saved," he said.
A few minutes later he heard the sound of hooves and Pindan appeared on his camel, leading the girls back to the camp. He looked at the others. "They've been saved because Pindan believed they would be," he said.
And this was true.