Stories of the outback: the climb

Over the next few days, I will be sharing stories of the Australian outback, as observed during my trip through Central and South Australia.

Created over 600 million years ago, Uluru – Ayres Rock is one of Australia’s most recognisable desert landmarks.

Uluru is a chameleon. The rise and setting of the sun move it along the colour spectrum, from rustic orange to a breathtaking flaming red. Look up close, under its red coat – courtesy of the iron blown from Western Australia – you will find a grey interior. Look from afar, it shimmers between lavender and spanish onion.

Though only 348m high, at least 2.5km of its bulk is underground (some even say 6 km). While it sits 863m above sea level, much like the rest of Central Australia, it was once submerged under an inland sea. Within Uluru, there are a number of waterholes, making Uluru an oasis that nourishes over 20 animal species and the River Red gums that frame its base.

The traditional Aboriginal owners – the Anangu – have lived in and around Uluru for over 10,000 years. In line with tradition, different parts of Uluru were used by the women (including girls and young unitiated boys) and the men (initiated). In the women’s cave, you can see rocks smoothed from grinding seeds into a flour to make a nyuma (flat bread). Another cave’s ceiling has been blackened from endless camp fires, while another yet bears rock art of emus and kangaroos carved by children who watched the men hunt.

To the Anangu, Uluru was not just shelter. It is one of a series of sacred sites that tell the stories of ancestors who lived in the Tjukurpa, stories that traverse borders, binding each and every corner of Australia together. Uluru’s pockmarks, folds, valleys and caves tell stories of great battles, including the Battle between Kuniya and Liru and the escape of the Mala people from Kurpany.

It is because of these stories – particularly that of the Mala people – that the Anangu people request that visitors not climb Uluru.

Climbing Uluru is associated with the traditional route that the Mala men took on their arrival at Uluru in the creation time. It has great spiritual significance.

Yet still, over 200 people climb Uluru each day, aided by a chain that was installed by Peter Severin (owner of the nearby Curtin Springs Station who was desperate for income) in 1963-64, before the area became a national park.

Many have journeyed hundreds of thousands of kms to climb, unaware of the cultural significance (travel brochures don’t like to mention it) and unwilling to miss the opportunity once they do.

While the motto is ‘leave footprints, take photos’, just like Mt Everest, human excrement, toilet paper, sanitary items, and other rubbish accumulates, funnelled by rain to the waterholes below.

It’s not just the environmental factors that make the climb controversial. Uluru is very steep, and the weather is extremely hot and often windy. Over 30 people have died and countless others have been rescued – often needing specialised abseiling equipment and at great cost. Many wear inappropriate clothing on the hike, suffering from heatstroke and exhaustion.Others are just plain stupid. I myself saw people taking very small children up on the climb, and was told by my tour guide the story of a Scottish man who took his son with him, both wearing thongs. By the time they finished the climb,his thongs had melted, his feet were burnt, and he had had to carry his son the whole way back down.

Personally, I chose not to climb because I don’t need to put myself ahead of 60,000+ years of culture to be profoundly struck by the beauty and majesty that is Uluru.

Liked this? Check out the rest of this series:

Stories of the outback: The Ghan
Stories of the outback: Hermannsburg

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