Ken Duncan runs his palm flush down the rippling trunk of a ghost gum. He turns to the group before him and holds up his hand. “See this powder?” he asks, showing them an ivory chalk on his fingers. “It’s a natural sunscreen.” Duncan rubs the powder onto his forearm. “The tree’s so white it needs protection. The Aboriginals, if they needed sunscreen, they used this off the tree.” The onlookers – Christian pilgrims on a tour – murmur in appreciation at the display of bush nous. “Now let’s get everyone over there,” Duncan says, “so we can get a photo of you all.”
The 50-odd people in broad-brimmed hats traipse willingly to the water’s edge. We’re at Ormiston Gorge, west of Alice Springs in the MacDonnell Ranges/Tjoritja. Duncan, one of Australia’s best-known landscape photographers and an ardent Christian, is in a big mood. Tonight will bring the culmination of more than a decade’s work by him and many others: the official launch of a 20-metre high, brightly lit Christian cross on top of a remote mountain not far from here. It’s arguably one of the most improbable developments ever to get off the ground in outback Australia.
Duncan, 68, spearheaded the multimillion-dollar project, working with Christians from the Aboriginal community of Haasts Bluff/Ikuntji. Tonight, on Good Friday, lights on the cross will be turned on for the first time. The pilgrims, hailing from various denominations across Australia, have come to witness the event.
Duncan sets up his camera and assembles the group for a photo, jumping into the frame at the last moment. “Say Jeees-us!” a woman from the group instructs brightly.
The Haasts Bluff Aboriginal community lies 225 kilometres by road west of Alice Springs, near a rocky outcrop of the same name. Since the 1990s, Duncan has travelled here regularly from his home on the New South Wales Central Coast to perform charity work and run youth workshops. He says an Ikuntji elder, the late Nebo Jugadai, first mentioned the idea of the cross to him two decades ago. As the story goes, for years locals had experienced visions of a cross on the nearby mountain. Some saw angels climbing up and down between heaven and earth. In 2009, Duncan says, a group of elders decided the cross must be built. They asked him to help.
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s great. A couple of four-by-twos, a couple of bags of cement and away you go. It’s your land – do it.’ I didn’t understand why they would need my help,” Duncan says. But he agreed to pitch in anyway.
The scope of the project grew. What was initially a timber post and crossbar became a $2 million steel monolith and a boardwalk to the summit. Duncan sent letters to 640 churches across Australia asking for financial contributions. Just three responded – one of them his own. So, Duncan raised the money from private donors. He gathered a team of administrators and volunteers, builders and engineers. Together with the Aboriginal community, they navigated Covid and the bureaucracy. They persevered despite opposition. They prayed, and prayed.
“God’s just been so amazing in how he’s provided the right people at the right time,” Duncan tells the pilgrims, many of whom donated time and money to the cause. “He probably figured the impact of [the cross] is so big, he needs to make it a bit easier for us, you know?”
The idea for the monument – dubbed the “Forgiveness Cross” – may have sprung from the Aboriginal community, but it wouldn’t have happened without Duncan. He’s white, well-connected and a prolific artist: his back catalogue spans more than 200,000 photographs – mostly resplendent landscape panoramas – reputedly owned by royalty, movie stars, spiritual leaders and political figures. Duncan’s customers include former prime minister Scott Morrison, who visited his gallery during the 2019 federal election campaign and bought a print of an eagle in flight. (Morrison later described the image as a message from God and said it spurred him to electoral victory.) Duncan counts actor Mel Gibson as a close friend. At Haasts Bluff, kids call Duncan the “famous photo man”.
The cross project has detractors. Some doubt Duncan’s version of how the project originated and refer to it as “Ken’s Cross”. Critics include Paul Traeger, a long-time Lutheran Church worker in the region. Speaking to The Australian newspaper in 2016, Traeger said: “The burden of proof is on him [Duncan] to show that the idea of the giant cross wasn’t just implanted by him on the Aboriginal people. Ken is probably the hardest person to say ‘no’ to that I’ve ever met.”
Duncan vehemently denies he’s some kind of religious overlord. At Ormiston Gorge, he tells the pilgrims of taking Ikuntji elders to the top of the mountain to see the finished cross. “They were in tears,” Duncan says. “They said, ‘Ken, we’ve had so many promises made to us by governments and bureaucracies, and none of them have ever come to pass. But this is our vision – and here it is in front of us.’” Duncan believes the cross is the start of a Christian revival, starting at the heart of Australia and spreading across the continent. “There’s no doubt about it. [The cross] is lifting up the name of Jesus over the nation.”
It’s getting on for midday; the sun is high. The gilt-edged waterhole beckons the pilgrims to its depths. Before the group disperses for a swim, Duncan tells them to take an open mind and heart to tonight’s launch. There, he says, they must all “put aside what we think God should be and just allow ourselves to be blown by the wind. Be ready for anything.”
In the beginning, an emu travelled the land. He was tall and strong, the most important of all the emus. He walked alone from the east then stopped to rest. Other emus joined him. They celebrated and laid eggs. One day, the emu rose; it was time to leave. According to Ikuntji people, those who walk around the mountain and its cross are following the emu’s tracks. The mountain itself, bulbous and bare, is the body of the bird. Its long neck reaches across the spinifex plains; the red quartzite outcrop known as Haasts Bluff is the great bird’s head.
This region was first visited by Europeans in 1872. Pastoralists arrived soon after, stocking the land with cattle and seizing scarce water supplies. By 1903, every centimetre of what’s now known as the Northern Territory was leased to non-Indigenous people. Aboriginal people were forced off their land – often with prodigious violence – and into stations, reserves and Christian missions. Their traditional ways of life were upended. About 160 kilometres north of Haasts Bluff is the site of the 1928 Coniston massacre, where Aboriginal people were slaughtered by white police and civilians. The official death toll was 31, but the real number may have been as many as 200.
Haasts Bluff was established in the early 1940s as a rations depot and Indigenous reserve. Today it has a population of about 120 people who variously speak Luritja, Western Arrernte, Pintupi and Warlpiri. The vast majority of residents identify as Christian. It has the basic hallmarks of a town: a school, a grocery store and a small church made of corrugated iron. The Ikuntji Artists centre produces internationally renowned textiles and paintings. There is no permanent police or medical service; both are provided from Papunya, a 45-minute drive away. People come and go via a rough dirt road; after rain, its orange puddles can swallow a car.
In 2017, the ABC reported claims that Indigenous people at Haasts Bluff were paying rent for substandard homes not fit for humans. Residents complained about overcrowding, leaking roofs and failing electricity. Raw sewage was overflowing and potentially causing illness. One woman reported sharing her two-bedroom home with 12 people, including the local pastor, who slept on a bed fashioned from tyres and timber crates.
At the site of the cross’s launch, Ikuntji elder Douglas Multa is standing under a white plastic gazebo. The cross rises on the mountain behind him, like a dagger thrust into a crouching beast. Multa is telling the emu story to the pilgrims, his hands sweeping as he traces the bird’s parade across the land. “From here he travelled west, past the WA border,” Multa says. The emu Dreaming ends where we stand.
Multa is one of several elders who implored Duncan to help make the cross a reality. The mountain the cross stands on is called Kurrkalnga Puli in the local Luritja language. It has several non-Indigenous names, but is usually referred to as Memory Mountain, after a stone memorial built at its base that recognises a group of Indigenous Lutheran missionaries who travelled to the area in 1923 to introduce the gospel. By coincidence – or perhaps God’s timing – the cross launch comes 100 years since Christianity arrived.
Standing beside Multa is his aunt, former Northern Territory cabinet minister Alison Anderson. Once a Labor member, before joining the Country Liberals and then Palmer United, she says the cross offers her people a better future. “Because without this there’s no economic opportunities in these communities,” she says. “So, if the spiritual part of it can draw more people to the cross, then the community benefits from it – [selling] artwork, employment, all that kind of stuff.”
Anderson tells the group of pilgrims – mostly white people from Sydney and surrounds – that while they “live two, three, four to a house … we live 20”. “If you’ve got 20 hands turning the tap on, of course you’re going to have corrosion. If you’ve got 20 bums sitting on the toilet, you’re gonna have blockages. That’s what happens.” Anderson says the community was promised new homes years ago, but the territory government hasn’t yet delivered. She got out of politics “for the simple reason I could not make change for my people”.
The cross may be built, but amenities at Haasts Bluff remain, for the most part, rudimentary. Plans are afoot for a kiosk, toilets, glamping facilities and horseriding tours at the mountain’s base, but all that’s a long way off – as are the hordes of tourists the community is counting on. Duncan describes the cross as God’s project – if that’s true, God must meet some serious deliverables before the Ikuntji community realises its dream of financial independence.
The pilgrims are sweltering under the gazebo. Anderson wraps up the talk and points to a group of Indigenous women stoking coals nearby. “The ladies over there are gonna be cooking kangaroo tail,” Anderson says. “Everyone can go taste it.”
Some people I speak to, who are not from Haasts Bluff, suggest the $2 million spent on the cross project would have been better directed to raising living standards for the community’s Indigenous people. But Scott McConnell, a former Labor turned independent member for the region in the NT parliament, rejects that view. He’s not Christian or Indigenous, and thinks the supposed economic benefits to flow from the cross are overstated. But he says it’s the job of governments to enable Indigenous communities to live on Country.
“The Commonwealth of Australia should support those people living on their ancestral land, practising their lore, language and culture,” he tells me over coffee in Alice Springs before the cross’s launch. Just because governments were failing to meet their responsibilities, McConnell says, “I don’t think it’s right for us to criticise Christians for spending money on a cross”.
McConnell, a former resident of Haasts Bluff, says some Indigenous people in the community don’t support the project. That view is echoed by Paul Traeger, a Lutheran church support worker who speaks Pintupi-Luritja and has worked in the region for 22 years. He refers to a purported cultural tendency known as “gratuitous concurrence”, by which some Aboriginal people may, for cultural or social reasons, agree with propositions they don’t actually support or understand.
“Certainly, there would be a number of people in Haasts Bluff who would not want to be associated closely with the cross,” Traeger tells me, adding there had been “fights in the community over this”. But in any case, he says, “the cross is there now and we have to live with the reality of that”.
Both McConnell and Traeger say dissenters aren’t willing to speak out. Whether or not that’s the case, Indigenous people I spoke to at Haasts Bluff universally welcomed the cross project. Isiah Larry, 24, who is employed as a visitor guide, said it was “a big story for us”.
“It’s something special and new, and it’s going to change [things] for the next generation,” Larry says. “More talking and more stories and more confidence for the community, because around the world more people will be coming and [from] around Australia.”
Keiran Multa, 35, is Douglas Multa’s son. He retells the story about the emu’s body in the land and, laughing, includes an extra detail: “The cross is in his bum.” Multa junior is married with children and says he can “look after the family really good” thanks to his ongoing job on the project. “I can save up,” he says. “Last year I took my family to Adelaide for Christmas and New Year’s and drove back with a new car.”
Back at the base of Memory Mountain, the sun tacks west along the emu’s path. Evening is approaching; the cross blackens into stark silhouette against a lavender sky. Soon it will be lit for the first time.
Many of the pilgrims sought refuge from the day’s heat in the shade cast by the tour bus. Now, they venture out, taking a seat in plastic chairs in front of a small stage. The space is filling up. Indigenous people from Haasts Bluff and nearby communities arrive in herds of four-wheel drives, horns beeping jubilantly. They’re joined by caravaners, grey nomads and people who’ve driven out from Alice Springs – both the Christian and the merely curious. Rugs are laid between tufts of spinifex. Kids find each other in the throng; someone brought a ball. They congregate beneath floodlights, a whirl of shrieks and limbs and rumpled hair, kicking up puffs of dust as the sun ebbs.
Dark engulfs the desert. The night’s emcee, television stalwart Ray Martin, takes the stage. His suave news-anchor voice brings a certain panache to the otherwise casual proceedings. Martin is a friend of Ken Duncan’s and volunteered on the board that oversaw the cross project. “Everyone told us it was impossible, but have a look at what’s behind us now,” he tells the crowd.
Speeches ensue, including one by NT Chief Minister Natasha Fyles. Duncan takes the stage to rattle off a long list of thank yous. Finally, it’s time. “Now,” Duncan says to the expectant crowd. “Would anyone like to see the cross lit up?” People whistle and cheer. Douglas Multa, standing beside Duncan, takes the microphone. After a climactic pause he exclaims: “Let there be light!” Eyes strain towards the cross; a switch is flicked. White light floods the cross from the base to the tip then spreads in a perfect fan across the expanse of black. We stand in stunned silence. Christian or not, it’s an arresting sight. A woman calls out “Yeah, Jesus!” and people in the crowd begin to cry and embrace. The mountain has dissolved into the night. All that’s left is the cross, floating lucent in the sky like a miracle.
Before Mel Gibson visited Memory Mountain in March 2016, the elders issued strict instructions to the community: “Just leave this man alone. Treat him like family.” The Hollywood heavyweight had just finished directing the war drama Hacksaw Ridge. Duncan says Gibson visited Haasts Bluff with his girlfriend to “get away and experience some peace … Mel came in, he was into it. He ate witchetty grubs, he ate kangaroo tail like it was corn on the cob.” The two men climbed the mountain and sat where the cross would one day stand. “As we sat there, a huge eagle just started soaring above us,” Duncan says. “We’re going, ‘Man, check that out!’”
Duncan and Gibson are firm friends. Duncan attended the Los Angeles wedding of Gibson’s daughter and was the official photographer on the set of Gibson’s 2004 biblical blockbuster The Passion of the Christ. The men met as youths through their girlfriends at the time. “We lost the girls, but we stayed friends,” Duncan tells me.
Gibson’s presence in Central Australia raised eyebrows. He’s an ultra-orthodox Catholic known for his controversial views on the Vatican, among others. Was he bankrolling the cross at Memory Mountain? Would it be the set for a Passion of the Christ sequel? Duncan scoffs at such suggestions and denies Gibson was officially involved in the project. A helmet and sword from the Passion of the Christ film set were reportedly offered to the first two people to donate more than $100,000 to the cause; they were displayed in a case signed by Gibson. But Duncan says he personally owned the memorabilia. Gibson didn’t attend the cross launch; Duncan says it would have been a distraction and “he’ll come later”.
Duncan is clearly tired of suggestions the cross is another colonial project foisted upon Indigenous people by powerful white men. He says the Central Land Council, which represents 15 Aboriginal language groups, undertook years of Indigenous consultation before the project proceeded and “no one will ever be able to say that this was a white man’s vision”. Ikuntji elders themselves say the cross was their idea. In any case, success has many fathers – including, if you’re a believer, the heavenly one. But Christianity’s influence on First Nations peoples has been dark at times. For some, that colonial legacy has never been properly dealt with.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, many Indigenous people were forced onto missions to be converted to Christianity. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies says the missions were “designed to erase peoples’ cultural identity … basic human rights were ignored and many abuses took place”. Christianity arrived in Central Australia in 1877 when the Lutheran Church established the Hermannsburg Mission west of Alice Springs. Haasts Bluff later became a mission outpost.
Hermannsburg harboured Aboriginal people during the period of violent frontier clashes between Indigenous people and pastoralists. But whitewashing occurred. Indigenous children were separated from their parents, so they could more easily be “civilised” and converted to Christianity. According to one account, men carrying out traditional ceremonies were branded “children of the devil”. Hermannsburg continued until 1982, when the church finally gave up its lease and returned the land to its rightful Aboriginal owners.
Across Australia, Indigenous people, their cultures and spiritualities survived despite the disruption and trauma of the mission era. At Haasts Bluff, a young Ikuntji man told me Christianity and traditional belief systems can coexist. “God created songlines and Dreaming as well,” he says. “It doesn’t matter – we can be Christian and we can still have our Dreaming stories.”
Duncan, however, warns about the potential dangers of mixing belief systems. He tells of being “initiated by elders” as a young man living in the Kimberley. Of the Dreamtime, he says, “there’s good things in it. But there’s bad.”
At Memory Mountain, stories abound of strange spiritual happenings: dark forces seeking to wrest Aboriginal souls back from Christianity. I was told of “black magic”, “demonic portals” and “witchdoctors” performing evil business. One person intimately involved in the cross project told me of finding a rock, wrapped in string and hanging from a half-built boardwalk on Memory Mountain; it was considered a curse and cut off immediately. Another day, talismanic objects were left hanging from trees along the road leading to the mountain.
Duncan says that, whether people believe it or not, the spiritual realm exists – and it’s a battle between “good and evil”. He assures the pilgrims: “We are in spiritual warfare … but don’t worry, because our God is a lot bigger.” The cross, he says, is “part of breaking the stronghold. It’s like God has put a battle standard at the heart of the nation and said, ‘Enough. Game on.’”
It’s the evening of Easter Saturday. People have gathered at the base of Memory Mountain for another special event: a sermon by a high-profile American evangelist known as the Machine Gun Preacher. Miracles are expected.
If you believe his publicity, the preacher – whose real name is Sam Childers – is a former criminal who found God, travelled to Africa and began conducting armed raids to rescue orphans from Sudan’s civil war. Now he owns five orphanages, a security firm and a motorbike shop. His story was turned into a 2011 film starring Scottish actor Gerard Butler. Childers, who was on a speaking tour of Australia, heard about the cross and wanted to see it for himself. He offered to deliver a sermon and waive his usual appearance fee.
Childers stands in front of the stage in a black shirt and jeans, his long silver hair pulled into a ponytail. After a bit of banter he gets straight to it. He cites a line from the Book of Proverbs: Where there is no vision, the people perish.
“See the problem with us, we’ve lost the vision,” Childers yells into the microphone in a Pennsylvanian drawl. He recounts a few didactic lessons from his own life story. “I wanna tell y’all, from the youngest to the oldest, you can be whatever you wanna be.”
Over half an hour Childers paces back and forth, delivering a stream of parable and moral instruction. Then it’s time to pray. He calls for people to come to the stage: “Anybody that needs a healing from God, needs to be delivered from disease, if you need to be healed of cancer, need to be delivered of anxiety, c’mon.” About 30 people, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, amble to the stage. Childers asks for any pastors present to lend a hand.
Some miracle-seekers face the illuminated cross with raised palms. Others sway, their eyes closed. Childers is speaking feverishly now. “Father, in the name of your son Jesus we come to you today broken. We come to you today lost. Father, we come to you today hurting. Father, you showed yourself on that mountain and we are askin’ right now that you begin to heal your people. Father, we know a revival is about to come across this land, and it’s gonna begin here tonight.”
Pastors lay hands on foreheads as Childers continues his ecstatic entreaties to the heavens. A woman, overcome, crumples to the ground. On stage, a band breaks into the opening strains of “Amazing Grace” and the voices of the lost and the broken rise up from the night.
The MacDonnell Ranges/Tjoritja rise and fall in sinewy folds for more than 600 kilometres, an unlikely uplift in the middle of the flattest continent on Earth. The range reaches its zenith just east of Haasts Bluff at Mount Zeil, the Northern Territory’s highest peak.
Among its peers, Memory Mountain is a small but not unspectacular landform: a gently rising cone topped with a ball of quartzite into which the cross was sunk. On Easter Sunday, I join a group of pilgrims climbing the mountain for the first time. It’s late afternoon when we start out, threading upwards through swirls of green scrub. As we ascend, the landscape opens up: vast plains bordered by the twisted rope of the range, the whole scene lathered in rosy light.
Soon, the cross looms into view. It’s a commanding sight: all symmetry and steel, imbued with countless tangled truths, old and new. The pilgrims pose for photos at the base.
A few days earlier, I’d asked Douglas Multa why Ikuntji elders called the project the Forgiveness Cross. The damage wrought by colonialism is manifold here, but Multa says the cross is a symbol of togetherness. “What the white people did in the past, with this cross here we forgive them for what they’ve done to our country,” he says. “We’ve just got to go forward, and be united as one.”
The last dazzle of sun slips away. The pilgrims descend in the dark and return to the base of the mountain for the final night of festivities.
On stage, an Indigenous singing group is performing Christian worship songs. Duncan advises the pilgrims on how to experience the show, known as a “singalong”. “Just lay back and look at the stars. Let it wash over you. Don’t analyse it, don’t intellectualise it. If you’ve got questions for God, just throw them up, see what happens.”
Pastor Amos Egan, a Walpiri-Luritja man from Papunya, is leading the group in heartfelt song. He later says the cross celebrations have been a welcome relief from the hardships Indigenous communities grapple with.
“If you stay here long enough, you’ll see what’s happening,” Egan tells me. “The families go through a rough time because you get grog and drugs and all that, and just division in the family. This weekend, everybody just gets their mind off it, you know? The kids are jumping around happy. It reminds people … we should be all together as a family, as God’s family.”
As we chat, Egan spots Ray Martin wandering through the crowd and gasps at the celebrity in our midst. We approach Martin to say hello. Egan shakes his hand, open-mouthed in disbelief. “Ray, I’m lost for words,” he says. “Years ago, growing up, I used to turn the TV on and I’d see this fella talking on The Midday Show. And now I’m here, like, face to face with this bloke. Wow.”
It’s a big weekend for dreams coming to life. Martin is polite and deferential. He pats Egan’s arm reassuringly. The men chat, and the subject turns to the cross, which Martin concedes he thought would never happen. “When the lights went on the other night, I thought they’ll go off and the cross will disappear,” Martin says. “It was almost too good to be true.”
I offer to take a photo of the two men. Egan races off to get his phone and arrives back, puffing. They stand side by side and I hold up Egan’s phone to capture the moment. The men are in shadow, but they step forward together, leaning into the light. Above, the cross is hovering and luminous, inviting the angels to descend. The mountain range is just a black contour now – a cursive scrawled along the horizon.
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