Monday, January 4, 2010

Red Centre part two: Sure it's big, but does that mean you have to climb it?

No trip to the Red Centre is really complete unless you go to Uluru. In fact, for most of the 400,000 or so visitors who head there each year, Uluru IS the Red Centre: other wonderful sites, like Kings Canyon, Kata Tjuta, and even the town of Alice Springs itself, are merely added value.

Outside Australia Uluru is better known as Ayers Rock, a name it was given in 1873 in honour of the chief secretary of South Australia, Sir Henry Ayers. The Pitjanjara people have always called it Uluru, though, and increasingly Australians refer to it by the much, much older name. The airport there, however, is still known as Ayers Rock.

Whatever you call it, Uluru is one of the most photographed sights in Australia, which is perhaps unfortunate for there is simply no way to capture its immensity or its beauty on camera. You can take a photo of the Sydney Opera House, or a kangaroo (to name the two other most photographed sights in Australia), and get a sense of what they are like. A photo of Uluru, though, shows you just a big rock in a flat plane. It doesn't convey the stunning grandeur of this massive monolith, a stone 350 metres high and 4 kms long that is the only thing higher than a bus for 30 kms in any direction. It is unearthly, unexpected, stunning. It's a place where anything could happen, where a rainbow serpent could sing the world into existence, or a UFO could fly out of a secret cavern.  From the moment you see Uluru rising out of the red, red sand, you immediately understand why the Anangu people regard it as a sacred place.

And that is part of the problem for visitors. Ever since the first tourists started arriving at Uluru in the late 1930s, we have wanted to climb it. That's partly because climbing things is our way of experiencing them -- go to the top, see the view from there, and you've got a better sense of what the thing is like. The local aboriginal people climb it too, but for ceremonial reasons. When there was a corroborree taking place, or a funeral, or some other important event, the young men would climb to the top of Uluru and place a marker there. That way, anyone approaching would know there was a ceremony happening and could consider whether or not to interrupt or join in, or just wait for the ceremony to end. There were other reasons for climbing Uluru too, and I don't really understand all of them, but they all seem to have to do with ceremonial functions.

In recent years, the official spokespeople for the Anangu people have been asking visitors not to climb the rock. I had assumed it was because the rock is somehow sacred, but when we got there I was surprised to learn this wasn't entirely accurate. We studied several signs and information postings regarding climbing, and all of them emphasized safety rather than spirituality: the Anangu, they said, feel responsible for the safety of visitors, and are greatly saddened when people are hurt climbing Uluru.

Over the years there's been a lot of sadness there: at least 35 people have died on the rock, and many more injured. It's a steep climb, and if you lose your grip there's nothing to grab on to. People have died trying to retrieve a hat that has been blown off, or have themselves been blown onto a slippery section. Rain is very rare there, but when it comes it gushes off the rock in sheets that would easily wash you to your death. It's not a climb to be undertaken lightly.

So we debated, like most other visitors. Ana wanted to stay off, to respect the wishes of the Anangu -- a view taken by most European visitors. Isaiah and Charlotte were all for climbing, saying it's part of the adventure and experience, a view taken by most Japanese tourists. In the end, Sharon and I sided with the majority of Australians and reasoned that if people weren't to climb it, then climbing it would be banned and there wouldn't be a ruddy great chain to hang on to as you go up the steepest sections. And so Ana found a shaded spot to sit while we filled our water bottles and started to climb.

It wasn't long before we could see why people have died on this climb. It is very, very steep, and without the chain (which was added in the 1960s) there is no way I would have considered trying it. Even with it, Charlotte soon found the going too much. She and Sharon made it quite a ways up the steepest section, then decided to stop and rest for a while before going back down. Isaiah and I soldiered on.

For nearly two hours we trekked upward. At the top of the chained section, the rock levels off a bit. Then it becomes a more leisurely walk across a rolling rock surface, following a trail that is painted on the rock. There are still sections where you need to climb, but nothing too onerous, even for Isaiah with his broken wrist in a cast.

But the scenery we encountered as we climbed was stunning. The higher we went, the more we could see how isolated Uluru really is. Kata Tjuta, or The Olgas, is about 30 kms west, and in that desert light looks to be about half that far away. In every other direction, there's virtually nothing but featureless plain as far as you can see. But every now and then, as we reached a new elevation, we could see another distant monolith -- Mount Woodward 80 kms to the south, Mount Connor 90 kms to the east, and several others. We saw hawks circling below us, and watched the sun draw out the purple hues in the shrubbery far below us as it rose higher in the sky..

As for the rock itself, it's an amazing thing to climb on. Made of sandstone, it seems to be covered in scale-like plates which ring when you strike them as if they are hollow. It makes the whole mountain feel like a set piece constructed by Disney, and adds to the feeling that a dinosaur might walk over the ridge, or perhaps the whole mountain will swing open and the Batcar come roaring out. Then again, maybe it was the 35 degree heat.

Eventually we reached the summit, marked by a brass plaque and -- much to my disgust -- a very out-of-place inukshuk that someone had built. It gave me great pleasure to photograph Isaiah kicking it over!

Three hours after we started climbing, Isaiah and I were back down on the flat land. It was an amazing climb, truly a highlight of the year. I'm delighted that I didn't sadden the Ananagu by dying, and I'm equally glad I didn't heed their suggestion by staying on the ground. In the official gift shop, run by the Aborigines, you can buy stickers that say I Didn't Climb Uluru. We bought one of those for Ana. But when we got to Alice Springs a few days later, we picked up a pin for Isaiah: I Climbed Ayers Rock.

Photos are here.