Northern Territory: Between a rock and...

By Greg Dixon

Greg Dixon ponders whether to climb - or not to climb - the sacred rock called Uluru.

Uluru, in Australia's Northern Territory, is a mysterious place - the secrets of its sacred sites are privy to few. Photo / Tourism Australia
Uluru, in Australia's Northern Territory, is a mysterious place - the secrets of its sacred sites are privy to few. Photo / Tourism Australia

If you want to know the truth, well, I wanted to do it for the usual reason.

As I pulled on my boots, filled my water bladder, zipped up my jacket, and walked out on the balcony of my warm, well-heeled hotel room, I was again forced to consider whether it was good enough to do it simply because it was there.

Out there in the far-from-warm predawn dark, I could just make out, from my perfectly positioned balcony, the large problem I had been wrestling with all week. There it lay, a deeper black in the wider blackness, a dilemma shaped like an enormous, fat petrified slug.

I smoked a ciggie, sipped a cuppa and considered the question which I would have to answer in an hour or two: should I climb Uluru - Ayers Rock to the first European surveyor to see it - or should I not?

Kev had certainly said it was okay.

The month before I arrived in Australia's Northern Territory then-Prime Minister Rudd ruled out a climbing ban for Uluru.

There was a question of public safety, he told a radio interviewer - some 35 people have died climbing the Rock and many more have been injured - "[but] I think it would be very sad if we got to a stage though where Australians and frankly our guests from abroad weren't able to enjoy that experience ...to climb it."

Kev, true to form, seemed to be blowing with public opinion - though in the face of the rather more permanent fact that Uluru, home to the Aboriginal Anangu people for at least 10,000 years, is a sacred place and they continue to ask, with commendable politeness, that we all stay the hell off it.

A traditional owner, Kunmanara, has said of scaling Uluru "That's a really important sacred thing you are climbing ... You shouldn't climb. It's not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything. This is the thing that's right. This is the proper way: no climbing."

But was I going to listen to Kunmanara or to Kev? Was it not good enough simply to enjoy the experience of walking around the base of the most famous rock in Australia - and quite possibly the world - or to complete the experience did I have to climb it too?

As I got aboard the Discovery Eco Tours mini-bus with two ancient Californians dressed for mountain climbing and a gaggle of chirping Italians dressed for shopping, I figured I'd just have to wait and see.

The card read "NZ Herald - Greg Dixon ... approved photographer". It was laminated. A laminated joke, more like. It was also, along with pages and pages of instructions, maps and dire warnings, tucked into an envelope handed to me at the gates of Uluru.

To become an approved photographer - that is a media photographer - I'd had to fill out three different forms for three different agencies. A fee of A$60 (NZ$78) had to be paid. I had to carry my laminated joke with me at all times while in proximity to Uluru.

It is clear, then, that a great deal of bureaucracy - not to mention a great many bureaucrats - attend the management of Uluru, a 51-49 per cent joint arrangement between the Anangu and the Government. As an approved photographer taking pictures for this story, I was deemed to be taking them for commercial purposes (the commercial purpose, paradoxically, being to promote Uluru as a tourist destination and keep people like those bureaucrats in work). But the humble tourist snapper must also beware.

Among the facts and figures our DET guide Jason imparted on the shortish drive from our hotels to the start of our 14.4km walk around the Rock was a further dire warning: photographing any of the Rock's half a dozen sacred sites was illegal and would incur, if caught by a park ranger, a A$5500 fine.

If that didn't go down too well - though who knows whether the Italians understood - our simple supplied breakfast of cereal, muffin, juice and a muesli bar did when we stopped about 20 minutes into the walk.

Jason made for a softly voluble walking mate. With the Californians limping along in sight behind us, and the Italians sometimes nowhere to be seen - had they found a shop? - he quietly told me of the flora and fauna and of Anangu myths, of giant serpents, lizard women and wars that had scarred the Rock, all stories from the Tjukurpa, the Anangu's collective oral wisdom, history and guide to themselves and their land.

Many of the traditions, stories or customs associated with the sacred sites are unknown - or at least Jason wasn't telling - but the small insights he offered into the Rock's mythical history enlivened the flat, easy trot around its base.

The Rock is a more laconic walking companion. Always on my right, it was a brilliant orange-red against the rising sun and appears even at a close distance - no doubt thanks to millennia of rains - so smooth it seems to have been popped from some giant jelly mould.

In parts, it looks as a giant fortress, its ramparts scarred by the catapults of besieging armies. In others, it seems like an ever rising, unyielding sand hill, sometimes with small tree-circled water holes hard against it, always with a breeze whispering among his crevices.

The sun shapes its moods, changing its colours, shifting shadows, playing with perspectives and endlessly transforming it. In tourist brochures and in the Australian mind, it is an icon. Up close, it is beautiful.

And so to the Rock's hard place. As we moved around its most southern promontory and headed north toward the main car park and the only dunny block, I could feel myself approaching the heart of a week's worry.

It is at its most western point that Uluru is climbed. It is the least steep access to Uluru's 348m top, though since the mid-1960s a chain handhold, attached to metal poles driven into the rock, has helped climbers pull themselves up the first stage. It's a place of heart attacks and lost footing.

As I drew near and sighted the chain rail, I could see only one or two climbers coming or going, though scores of walkers were milling around the metal car park and a couple of large signs.

Should I or shouldn't I? Shouldn't I or should I?

I wandered over toward the crowd and the big sign but even before I reached it I noticed an Asian joker with his family fiddling about with their backpacks by a much smaller one of white-painted wood with red letters.

"Climb closed due to strong winds at summit," it said. What a goddamn relief, I thought.

Kata Tijuta: more rocky wonders

A glass of wine at sunset is a very fine thing. So as I stood holding that glass of wine - Australian bubbles as it happened - while the sun slowly set, I was, naturally, happy indeed. The fact that I also had a view of the Uluru's strangely lesser known cousins, the Kata Tijuta rock formation, only made the end of this particular day even finer.

A 110km round trip from Yulara, the resort town that serves as base for a visit to the Uluru-Kata Tijuta National Park, the domes of Kata Tijuta are much less famous but arguably much more visually interesting than the Rock itself.

Seen from the air, Kata Tijuta looks something like a series of flat rocks of decreasing size laid one upon the other, or perhaps a busy chain of Pacific isles. From the road, however, you can see why the local Anangu call it a Pitjantjatjarar meaning "many heads". There are, we were told on the four-hour Discovery Ecotours trip, 36 burnt orange, steep-sided domes making up this distinctive, ancient sedimentary formation. However there are only two shortish public walks around it; Kata Tijuta is said to be even more sacred to the Anangu than Uluru.

Discovery's Kata Tijuta and Dunes tour involves a bit of sitting in a minibus - which meant a quiz contest to while away the time on the journey back - but offers three different views of the domes.

First from the "dunes" are to the south of Kata Tijuta, which gave me a chance to see them end to end, before a short bus ride to the start of the Walpa Gorge walk, which snakes between two domes. At just an hour (or 2.6km) return, it's not taxing. But with the sheer, flat, ochre-hued sides of the domes rising beside you, it's a unique, and somehow moving, experience.

Back in the carpark, we trotted quickly to the sunset viewing areas to the west of the formation. The setting sun was already moving toward the horizon, turning Kata Tijutas from bright orange to deep red. And the bubbles were about to be served.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies every day to Sydney.

Qantas offers daily flights between Sydney and Ayers Rock.

Getting around: Wayoutback Desert Safaris is on the web at wayoutback.com.au.

World Expeditions operates several expeditions into Outback Australia.

Further information: For more on the Northern Territory see tourismnt.com.au.

Greg Dixon visited Uluru with help from Northern Territory Tourism, World Expeditions, Air NZ and Qantas.

- NZ Herald

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