Evil spirits

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 August, 2005, 12:00am

It symbolises the harsh grandeur of the Outback and attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, but the great red rock of Uluru hides a dirty secret, which Australia's tourism promoters would rather the world did not see.

Just a few hundred metres from the giant monolith southwest of Alice Springs lies an impoverished desert settlement, in which Aborigines are slowly poisoning themselves to death by sniffing petrol. They inhale the fumes in order to get high, but the habit slowly melts the nerve endings in their brains, eventually crippling them and confining them to wheelchairs.

So desperate are some young Aboriginal girls for petrol that they are selling themselves for sex, community leaders say. Other addicts have been horribly burned after the petrol they were sniffing caught fire. The crisis is playing out in the tiny community of Mutitjulu, which lies in bushland barely 300 metres from the fluted red flanks of Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock. It is part of an epidemic of petrol-sniffing among desert Aborigines which has claimed at least 60 lives in the past seven years. Social workers believe the number of sniffers has tripled since the late 1990s.

Mutitjulu's Aborigines belong to the Anangu tribe and are the traditional custodians of Uluru, charged with keeping alive its mythical 'dreamtime' stories. But 130 years after the rock was first stumbled upon by British explorers, they live in poverty and despair.

The scale of the problem was uncovered last week by a coroner's inquest into the petrol-sniffing deaths of three Aboriginal males, the youngest aged 14. The inquiry was told that of the settlement's 400 inhabitants, at least 40 were regular sniffers who spent their days wandering the camp, cans of petrol pressed to their faces.

'I just like to stay at home and sniff so that I'm oblivious to everything,' said addict Stephen Uluru. 'I have a son and daughter, but I don't have contact with them, I just stay here and sniff.'

As the traditional owners of Uluru, the Aborigines of Mutitjulu receive about one-fifth of the millions of dollars spent each year by tourists. But the inquest was told that most of the money has been wasted on alcohol, illegal drugs and cars, which are abandoned as soon as they break down. Canberra has tried to tackle the epidemic by giving remote communities a new type of petrol, developed by BP, which does not offer a high.

The leader of the opposition Greens Party, Bob Brown, called the sniffing epidemic 'a horror show; a disgrace to Australia'. Mr Brown said: 'If this was happening in Sydney or Melbourne, there would be a political meltdown,' adding the government must increase subsidies for the new fuel to make it available across central Australia.