Up, down or all over

As a ban looms, Kerry van der Jagt and her friends battle with the dilemma of whether to climb Uluru.

There’s no question about the beauty of Uluru. The Rock, formerly known as Ayers, is one mighty monolith.

Standing 348 metres above its surrounds, this 400-million-year-old loaf-shaped object is easily one of the most recognisable on Earth.The question is whether I should climb it.

I’m in the desert enjoying the Sounds of Silence dinner with friends, juggling champagne, canapes and cameras and taking enough photographs to cover a small war. Four couples celebrating one friend’s birthday.One of those milestone ‘‘big-0’’ birthdays that somehow prompt people to drag their buddies halfway across the country to watch a sunset in honour of their birth.

But a shadow hangs over the Rock and it’s not a rain cloud. In the week leading up to our trip, a new draf tmanagement plan recommending a ban on climbing Uluru was released by the director of national parks. It’s not in place yet, but it could be soon.

The earth is deep orange, splashed with green spinifex and juvenile desert oaks.The

champagne flows, the Rock glows and the sound of a didgeridoo fills the air. After debating whether the didge player is actually a German backpacker, what happened to baby Azaria and how that bloody big rock got there, the question of climbing comes up.The arguments go a little something like this:

Little Miss Culturally Aware:‘‘The traditional owners have asked us not to because of its spiritual significance.’’

Little Miss Nervous: ‘‘More than 30 people have died climbing it –and not just from tripping over their shoelaces, but often from heart attacks.’’

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Little Miss Too Big For Her Green Boots: ‘‘Human footsteps are eroding the surface and idiots peeing on the top are polluting the waterholes.’’

Two of our group brush these arguments away like insignificant blowflies.Mr Everest,

‘‘because it’s there”,and his partner in crime Mr Patriotic because ‘‘it’s a national icon and a rite of passage’’, are already planning their assault on the summit the next morning.

As Miss Easily Swayed(and by now Miss Slightly Drunk), I’m ready to toss my principles to the dingoes and scamper up the Rock at first light with the boys.

But with daylight comes a change of heart.

Actually, it’s the sign at the start of the climbing track that slows me down.It reads: ‘‘Please don’t climb Uluru. We, the Anangu traditional owners of Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, have a responsibility to teach and safeguard visitors to our land. The climb is dangerous and too many people have died while attempting to climb Uluru.We feel sadness when a person dies or is hurt on our land. We worry about you and worry about your family.’’

The Anangu also ask visitors not to climb Uluru because of its spiritual significance as the traditional route of the ancestral Malamenon their arrival at Uluru. ‘‘That’s areally important, sacred thing that you are climbing,’’ continues the sign. ‘‘You shouldn’t climb. It’s not the thing to do.’’

From the trail head it is a short walk to another section of the Rock,where a wall of plaques honours the names of those who have lost their lives while climbing. I tilt my camera at a sharp angle and snap a photograph of the plaques and the people hauling themselves up the safety chain above it. I decide to stick to my original plan of not climbing.

Each year100,000 people (about one-third of all visitors to the park)do climb the Rock.

Clearly, climbing it is a big deal and a huge drawcard for tourists, although the draft

management plan cites a Recent survey claiming that 98 per cent of visitors would not be deterred from visiting the area if they were not allowed to climb Uluru.

In 1985, the federal government handed Uluru back to the Anangu people.TheAnangu then leased the land (Uluruand nearby Kata- Tjuta) back to the Commonwealth for 99 years, to be run jointly by the Government and the traditional owners. One of the conditions was that people should still be allowed to climb Uluru if they wanted.

From our group of eight, six decide to tackle the 9.4-kilometrewalk around the base instead.

It starts off well enough. The first section, known as the Mala Walk, leads us past caves, rock-art sites and Kantju Gorge, a sacred waterhole and ancient hunting ground. I briefly join a free park ranger-guided tour and learn about the story of the Malamenand Tjukurpa, the complex body of law and beliefs of the Anangu people.

At intervals, I stop to press my hands and cheek against the Rock. It is more scratchy and dippy than I had thought. And cool. Its power is intoxicating.

From here the path takes us well away from the Rock a and I begin to feel disconnected and frustrated. I want to get closer to it, to feel it and to breathe it, but a sign warns that all visitors must stay on the marked path. Another sign says photographs are not permitted because we are passing a sacred site. We pass plenty of these signs on the way around.

‘‘I understand the traditional owners’ connection to the land,’’ the Birthday Girl says.

‘‘But what about my need to connect with the land?’’ Restricted to then arrow path and with her camera packed away, her culturally aware halo is slipping, and so is mine.

When it comes to cameras, I’m with Australian landscape photographer Ken Duncan, who said to me recently: ‘‘No person should own copyright on creation.’’ Ken loves the local indigenous people and has worked with them for many years. ‘‘Just don’t lock us out,’’ he asks. ‘‘Please allow us to have our own beliefs and experiences, too.’’ And there lies the rub. I’ve visited the Uluru- Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre, been on many indigenous tours and refrained from climbing the Rock but I still can’t solve the riddles in my head.

Many kilometres later, the path brings us back alongside the Rock and we arrive at the Mutitjulu waterhole, home of Wanampi, the ancestral water snake. The smooth ochre walls with their black-water stains are reflected perfectly in the pond below. It is a mystical place and, once again, I feel welcome and connected to the land.

Finally, we meet up with our two intrepid climbers, my and the birthday girl’s husband.

Their faces are bursting with the sheer joy of the climb (and possibly the exertion) and they can’t stop babbling about it: the amazing view across the flat landscape, the size, the steepness, the delirious fat guy at the top. I would never take that experience a way from them. They admit safety is an issue, but it can be improved with adequate preparation and perhaps a safety line.

From our group, two chose to climb it and loved the experience; some didn’t climb because they respected the traditional owners’ request not to; others stayed on the ground because they were either afraid of heights or didn’t think they were fit enough to make it. But, we all had the choice and that’s what matters. A better question is: should our right to make that choice be taken away? I don’t think so.

10 things to do other than climb the Rock

1 Enjoy a free Malawalk, guided by a park ranger. Departing 10am from May to September.

2 Visit the Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre.

3 Don’t miss the Sounds of Silence dinner in the desert.

4 Pack a picnic lunch and listen to the wind, trees, birds and animals.

5 Hike the challenging Valley of the Winds at nearby Kata Tjuta.

6 For a full touring experience, buy an Uluru Eco-Pass from Discovery Ecotours.

7 Join an Anangu tour with a local indigenous guide and interpreter.

8 Catch a camel train, go for a Harley- Davidson or quad-bike ride or take a scenic flight.

9 Do a dot painting workshop.

10 Simply kick back with a drink and enjoy the desert and its sunsets.

The writer was a guest of Voyages Hotels and Resorts.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Qantas flies regularly from Sydney to Uluru and Alice Springs. Phone 13 13 13, see qantas.com.au.

WHERE TO STAY

Voyages Hotels and Resorts has five hotels in Yulara to suit a range of budgets: Sails in the Desert Hotel (5 1?2-star), Desert Gardens Hotel (4 1?2-star), Emu Walk Apartments (four star), Lost Camel Hotel (3 1?2-star), Outback Pioneer and YHA Lodge (three star), and the Ayers Rock Resort camping ground. Phone 1300 134 044, see ayersrockresort.com.au.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Since the release of the draft management plan in July, members of the public have two months to make a comment before the draft is revised and presented to federal Environment Minister Peter Garrett, and the Parliament of Australia later this year.

See environment.gov.au/parks/uluru.

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