I feel as if I am part of an entourage waiting for the awakening of the Sun King. Except that here at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park (aka Ayers Rock), cameras, tripods, binoculars and phones are contemporary evidence that the real sun is rising. And this event is not reserved for the privileged few.
The “magical sunrise” over the giant rock is famous. Less famous is the controversy about whether to climb the rock, or not. On one side, the Anangu Aboriginals want the climb to be forbidden for both cultural and safety reasons. On the other side, Australia’s Federal Environment Minister and the Northern Territory’s Tourism Minister disagree on the issue. I am going to find out how I feel about it.
Meeting Uluru in the Red Centre
The Australian Red Centre is the driest inhabited desert on Earth. Aborigines have survived here for 10,000 years. Looking out over the barren expanse brings to mind the first non-Aboriginal explorer of this remote area: Ernest Giles. In 1872, Giles claimed discovery of the 36 boulders the Aborigines called Kata Tjuta, and named them Mount Olga. The following year, he came upon the giant rock, but William Gosse had been there first. As was often the case with new frontiers, Gosse renamed this Aboriginal landmark Ayers Rock, after Sir Henry Ayers, Chief Secretary of South Australia. Later, self-determination gave back to the Anangu people what belonged to them: the name Uluru.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You will never forget the sunrise on Uluru.
- It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Anangu Tours were recognized for sustainable tourism in the World Legacy Awards from Conservation International and National Geographic Traveler Magazine.
- For visitors interested in geology and Aboriginal traditions, and for travellers and tourists.
On the flight from Sydney, my curiosity peaked as the aircraft descended toward Uluru. I couldn’t have missed the peculiar monolith: It rose from the Earth like a huge submarine would from the ocean, except that it seemed to head toward the large boulders of Kata Tjuta. From its 348 meter-high flat top and its three kilometer-long base, Uluru dominates the surrounding desert. Geologists estimate that the huge slab might go five kilometers below ground. They are less precise about its age: some time between a 550 million years transition from the mountain range that it once was, to the flat-topped rock it is now. Sediments, erosion, immersion, wind and rain left their marks on the land for geologists to interpret.
Uluru: A UNESCO World Heritage and Aboriginal Sacred Site
Around 5:30 AM on the following morning, I am part of a tour group waiting to see the sunrise on Uluru. My silhouette blends with the shadowy forms of other early risers. Perhaps it’s due to the darkness or the chilling air, but we all implicitly whisper until a faint sun ray appears.
And we let a harmonious “oh-ah” escape from our mouths.
Then, silence: The top of the rocky island lights up. As the sun rises, it wraps the dark purple sandstone into glowing hues of ochre. In a fleeting moment, the base seems to ignite, and the surrounding desert bursts into life. Captivated, I stare at the rock: It is officially day time and Uluru, the spiritual ancestor of the Anangu people, stands gloriously.
The experience resonates in awareness that Nature, indeed, is the universal place of worship. Uluru and Kata Tjuta are not the only impressive features in the area, but their geophysical particularities and spiritual ties to Aborigines, earned them the World Heritage designation.
To Climb or Not to Climb Uluru
From the bus on the return trip from the sunrise view site, I notice how the rock apparently smooth when viewed from afar is actually poked with large holes, parted with crevasses, and that much of its surface is erosion-ribbed. And then I see them: Like a colony of giant ants, climbers ascend, or descend the 1.6-kilometer trail in a steady flow along a rope stretched on the incline.
Some of us had planned to join the climbers, until our guide shares a message from the Anangu Aborigines: “The real thing is listening to everything and understanding everything,” he had said.
It is Aboriginal Law not to climb sacred sites. The Anangu people ask us to think about that. They are also concerned about our safety. Whatever they think of our climb on their sacred site, it is also the Anangu mission to keep visitors safe. Here, that is not so easy: In recent years more than 30 people have died from heart failure, exhaustion, heat, or falls during their attempt to climb to the summit.
As I walk close to the opening into the cordoned area, I notice that some climbers wear hiking shoes and hats, and carry backpacks, while others are outfitted for a mere walk in the park.
On first impression, the climb does not appear challenging, but those returning – some successful, some not — share their experience. The path is steep. The top seems closer than it is. The heat is a factor. The terrain is tricky. Coarse sandstone grains and small rocks (called “arkose”) cause back-sliding after each step forward. As I look around, I am intrigued by plaques affixed on boulders. They are memorials showing that tragedy can strike at any age: A climber aged 63 died here; so did a young boy on a school trip. And many others.
In the end, none of us makes the climb. What the Anangu people said comes back to my mind: listening and understanding. Sometimes, it is as meaningful to refrain and take a mental step-back. Some argue that Uluru is a natural site that cannot be compared to a church, a mosque or a temple. I say that Anangu people were never builders. And I am only a guest here.
- Ayers Rock Resort is a three-hour-flight from Sydney. Accommodations range from five-star hotels to campgrounds.
- Transportation: Rental cars, Harley Davidson motorbikes, bicycles, 4WD vehicles, and camels.
- Sightseeing tours are available from the Information Centre at Ayers Rock Resort, or online before you go.
- Note that the Anangu Tours now operate under Uluru Aboriginal Tours, and contract to tour operators such as AAT Kings.
- This tour is somewhat accessible to travelers with physical disabilities: A travel partner must be able to fully collapse a wheelchair and stow it in the luggage compartment under the bus (no bus lift). The traveler might need additional help to get up the few steps to the coach (drivers/guides may not help, for liability reasons).
- This is a trip compatible with families with elementary school-aged children.