Sunset at Uluru. The rock’s western face shifts shades in a fast shuffle till the sun falls below the landline. Burnt orange to red to rust to purple and blue. The rock seems to bow, as if the final note of a long, hot song has faded. The evening sky comes, holding bands of indigo, pink and grey. Then from the very centre of the immense sandstone rises a single point of light. The planet Jupiter. A counterpoint to the three quarter moon beaming on Uluru’s corrugations.
When asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest, George Mallory – who died in the attempt in 1924 – is said to have uttered, “Because it’s there.” In our time at Uluru by far the most common thing people said when asked why they were climbing it was “because it’s allowed.”
Deciding not to climb Uluru
We didn’t climb Uluru. We went because it’s there, and although climbing’s allowed for now, we chose not to ascend to honour the wishes of the traditional owners, the Aṉangu people. This is not intended to give me moral bragging rights at a dinner party. I was tempted to climb. I came to the rock thinking if it’s allowed, then the objection can’t be too great. But my experiences at the rock changed my mind.
Though climbing is open for now, the Aṉangu go out of their way to explain why people shouldn’t. The route taken is a sacred path taken by initiated men for thousands of years and the entirety of the rock is sacred ground. You are asked not to climb out of respect. At the same time, you are presented with plenty of alternatives, like a base walk around the rock, a guided tour with a ranger and multiple viewing points for sunrise and sunset.
Respecting the people and their land
What I understand now is that it’s very generous for the Aṉangu to give the choice of climb or not for so long, providing information then leaving it to your judgement. It speaks volumes that a ban largely driven by safety concerns is what it’s going to take to get tourists to stop clambering over a 250 million year old geological wonder that’s also one of the most sacred sites in Australia.
Let me put it this way – if someone asked you to take off your shoes when entering their home, you would, right?
There are many ways to experience Uluru
Climbing is not the only way to see the rock. But that’s one the main reasons people from all over Australia and the world come to the arid centre of Australia. Scaling three hundred and fifty feet up a sharply rising wall of rust coloured sandstone is challenging and appealing. Standing at the base, who wouldn’t feel the call of climbing something so big?
It’s a very human thing to want to touch and climb and conquer. And tens of thousands of people climbed Uluru over the years, including 37 tourists so far who’ve fallen to their deaths, careening down the slopes with nothing to grab onto to stop their plunge. They are commemorated with plaques drilled into the rock near the beginning of the climbing trail. But for most who shuffle past these memorials, such misfortune only adds to the mystique of climbing the rock.
Climbing the rock back in the day
A retiree from New South Wales we met on the road to the rock, Geraldine, shared her memories of climbing Uluru back in 1964. “It was just me and my friend and a few others, including a camera crew from National Geographic,” she said. “Not many came here back then. We’re not able to climb it today but I spoke to my friend the other day and told her we were out here again. We had a great chat remembering the climb, it was pretty wild.”
How Uluru has changed
Since Geraldine climbed Uluru the rock has become an immense tourist attraction. There’s everything from a caravan park to a resort to stay in with restaurants, a bar and an airport in Yulara, the town that services the area. We stayed in the overflow area of the caravan park during our time there, which was jam-packed with vans and trucks and trailers every night.
Most people we spoke to in passing at Uluru said they had climbed the rock, or were planning to. If the full car park at the start of the Mala trail – the area the climb began – was any indication, most people visiting Uluru were climbing it. The line of people going to and from the summit was almost unbroken, and friends who are regular visitors told us that’s the busiest they’ve ever seen it.
The desire to climb Uluru
Sharing a sunset at Kata Tjuta – another ancient, immense and sacred rock formation near Uluru – we spoke to a family who had come from Sydney for a quick family holiday. They had climbed the rock with their two young children, and the father told us of a trip he’d done as a toddler with his parents and siblings. “I don’t remember but there are photos of us climbing,” he said. “It’s pretty special to be able to share it with these guys.”
Getting to the summit
Climbing Uluru is a positive thing for many people. It’s a summit to conquer and an experience to share. I didn’t get the impression that anyone was trying to be offensive to the local indigenous people. But there are multiple signs in the park and at the start of walk asking people not to climb and explaining why. Watching them ascend and descend, I couldn’t shake the feeling that if you know better, you should act better. Especially when there’s a good alternative.
The local Aṉangu people
Walking in Uluru’s shadow, we set off on a walk guided by a park ranger named Alsie, an indigenous man from Queensland who’d come to the rock to help preserve it and create a new way for people to experience it – by walking around and understanding.
This is the way the local Aṉangu people would prefer tourists ticked Uluru off their bucket lists. By the end of October walking around should be the only way people can experience Uluru, unless you take a scenic flight in a helicopter, light plane or hot air balloon.
“Right now we close the walk if there are twenty-five knots or more of wind and if there’s 100% chance of rain within the next three hours,” Alsie said to our group. We were far down below the climbers, who looked like tiny figurines. “It’s considered very disrespectful. Uluru is full of places where there are sacred places for men and women’s business, and we ask not to take photos in certain places. You just use your eyes and ears. That’s what this place is for. To connect with.”
The guided Mala walk
Alsie lead us along a path that wound through groves of Kata Tjuta wattle and bloodwood trees, whose sap can be used as a kind of bandage. He showed us caves where young men would be taught traditional skills and stories and a kitchen cave where women and young children prepared food. Each had a ceiling blackened from generations of fires and intricate rock art painted to the walls.
“In the old days tour guides would come and throw water on the paint to make it visible for black and white photography,” Alsie said, pointing to a faded set of artworks. “Thing is they are designed to be seen at certain times of day when the sun is at the right angle. So they are very fragile and we leave them alone now.”
Climbing is allowed – until October 2019
Uluru is there. Climbing is allowed for now. I completely understand the appeal. After all, one of my annual pilgrimages is to the Western Australian Maritime Museum where I like to sneak a touch of the famous winged keel of Australia II, the yacht that won the America’s Cup in 1983 and is now festooned in “do not touch signs.”
But as historically significant as that boat is, it’s not a religious symbol or a sacred place. Personally, I couldn’t justify climbing Uluru, especially after having been informed of why I shouldn’t and seeing what makes it so important.
But was going around Uluru on a trail a better experience than climbing? I took a half hour walk alone and looked up at soaring walls of sandstone carved by wind and rain over a terrifying gulf of time, more than 250 million years. Walking in the cold shadow of something whose existence seems to transcend life and death and beckon infinity sent chills up my spine and set my heart racing. Sure, you could get that perspective if you scaled the heights.
But I’m happy to miss out.