Thursday, 24 August 1995


Excited, we were up and away, entering Uluru-KataTjuta NP, some 8 kms away, at 7:40 am and were confronting Ayres Rock at a personal distance by 8:00 am. Even at this early hour, the south western face which has the famous chain shooting skyward, was alive with people which seemed to turn to slow moving ants further toward the top. Some groups were on their way down, some seated at various stages of either the ascent or descent and many, many more were on their way up.

Our plan of attack was to circle the rock with a base walk which would cover 9 kms and visit the many significant aboriginal sites identified.

We watched the steady flow of humanity along the chain for some minutes, before heading away on the Mala Walk to the north. We all watched with different feelings. For some, it was keen anticipation and excitement. However, for me, it was a growing sense of unease at what I had seen. As we walked, I ruminated on the severity of the incline up the rock and the exposed nature of it. Surely, this would be the most dangerous thing we had ever taken the children on. It is a place renowned for winds changes resulting in strong gusts which can remove the feet from beneath your legs. On such a slope, that could be disastrous. I began to seriously doubt my own capacity to complete such an arduous climb, but even more, worry about the descent that would follow it. With tired legs and one child who suffered occasional vertigo, this could be very nerve racking.

Our base walk proceeded and we visited unexpected oases of green vegetation below waterfalls which only operate after rain. Such was the volume of rain which fell during these times, vegetation was established here and suwived the infrequency of the water supply.

There were amazing caves which held great significance to the Anangu - aboriginal people - of the area and often these and other shelters we walked through and in, had decorated walls of native rock art.

The Anangu say the large rocks that are Uluru and Kata Tjuta came into being during the Tjukurpa, or time of creation, when giant creatures who were their ancestors, roamed the land and fought battles. The main creator were Mala (The Rufous Hare Wallaby), Kuniya (the Woma Python) and Liru (the poisonous snake). These creator beings travelled all over the Central Australian area, building up mountains and gouging out rivers so that humans who came after them could live. Many of the Rock's markings are the result of fights and activities of these creator beings.

Start of the Mala base walk
The paintings here were nowhere as clear as those at Kakadu, but they were of a different type. There are, however, two special areas at the base of Uluru which are fenced off to non-aboriginals and are registered sacred sites. I imagine, ceremonial art work would be present here, but it is rightly being protected from view because of its significance.

One area, especially moving for us, came in the last hour of our circumnavigation, at Mutitiulu Waterhole. This is the only permanent water hole about the Rock and as such, is visited by a host of animals and birds. It was in this place Kuniya fought a fierce battle with the Liru. Marks on the rock tell the story of what happened. There was a eerie quietness to this place. It felt special.

As we completed our circuit, five plaques were spotted, fixed to the rock near the commencement of the climb. Chris, Sam and I inspected them and found them to be memorial plaques to people who died in attempting to climb Uluru. One named a 63 years old who had died at the top of the rock and then the inscription went on to tell us climbing the rock had been a life long ambition (which had eventually killed him, it would seem !). In the past thirty years, twenty five people have died on Uluru and the Rangers average a rescue every two weeks.

At the base of the rock, near the start of the climb, a warning to all potential climbers was posted and a request from the Anangu for people to find a alternate activity to do, rather than climb. This further fuelled my unease and by now I had decided we should not attempt it. However, this view was not shared by Sue. She believed she was fit enough to climb it and intended doing so the following morning. Our drive to the Visitor's Centre could be best be described as hostile, with my opinion of the reasons not to climb being refuted by Sue's desire to complete the task. Not on speaking terms, we went our separate ways into the Visitor's Centre and the decision whether or not to climb took on an entirely different and substantial perspective.

Here were the words of the Anangu, urging people not to climb and the reasons why. First and foremost, the climb is of specific culhiral and religious significance to them. Only initiated men are
allowed to complete the climb and then only to "plant the pole" prior to certain ceremonies. Anangu do not otherwise climb the rock. Secondly, they were saddened every time someone was hurt in attempting the climb and believed they were to blame. The walls screamed at us not to profane their beliefs and law I lore by climbing Uluru.

Having seen this and believing what we did, following our experiences at Kakadu, we could not climb. As disappointed at not making the ascent as she was, Sue had no hesitation once she read their words and the reasons, in detail. To do otherwise would be to dishonour Anangu. This did not alter the basic disagreement between Sue and I as to her level of fitness, but we ultimately had to agree to disagree on that topic.

We returned to camp for a late lunch and then to Yulara for groceries and the removal of my stitch. This minor surgical procedure was conducted by a member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service, so I really felt part of the outback, now.

I purchased an outstanding book by Stanley Breeden, which showed Uluru-KataTjuta NP in the context of the people and the significance of the whole place. It was an excellent buy and a compendium for the book we bought about Kakadu and its people.

Back to camp to store the shopping and consume two litres of ice cream and final acquiescence to the children's request to go swimming. The water was freezing cold, but at least their mother had delivered on an earlier promise.

Still shivering, the crew took the trip back to the NP to view The Rock for the remaining hour before sunset.

Video tape machines were buzzing, clicking and beeping and shutter releases snapping open at afrenzied rate as the big rock underwent several changes of hue before the sun finished with her for another day. Unlike Standley Chasm, the changes of colour were more dramatic because of the greater speed with which they happened. Early in the pre-sunset time, the details of the face of the rock were clear and the colour a chocolate brown. As the angle of the sun's rays decreased as it lowered to the horizon, the colour deepened through blood red, to orange, to purple. Finally, a glowing dark silhouette was all we could discern.

Like many aspects of Kakadu. this was an event we had read about, been told about and anticipated throughout the entire build up to our trip - ten years in all! Cynicism had cautioned Sue and me against disappointment but again, it was unwarranted. In fact, the experience was greater than we expected.

Our return to camp in the early evening was a happy one, uplifted as it was by the beauty we had seen and knowing our decision not to climb was the right one.

Chris cooked the evening meal on the bbq and we sat about under the stars, reflecting on our satisfying day. For the adults, the realisation that we had planted a memory that would always bind the five us - a shared experience which tied us inextricably together - was a powerful reminder of the importance of our role.

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