I feel as if I am part of an entourage waiting for the awakening of the Sun King. Except that here at Ayers Rock, also known as Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, cameras, tripods, binoculars and phones are contemporary evidence that the real sun is rising, and the 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 it 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
Australia’s Red Centre is the driest inhabited desert on earth. Aborigines have survived here for 10,000 years. Looking out over the barren expanse makes me wonder about Australian explorer Ernest Giles, the first non-Aboriginal to come to this remote area. 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, calling it Ayers Rock after Sir Henry Ayers, Chief Secretary ofSouth Australia. Later, self-determination gave back to the Anangu people what belonged to them: the name Uluru.
In Your Bucket Because…
- The sunrise on Uluru is something you won’t forget.
- 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.
Arriving by plane, my curiosity peaked as the aircraft descended toward the great Uluru. Finally discernable, the monolith emerged from the sand like a huge submarine emerging from the earth and heading toward the boulders of Kata Tjuta, still commonly called “The Olgas.” 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 when talking about its age: The numbers are blurred along the transition from the mountain range that it once was, to the flat-topped rock it is now, a span of 550 million years during which sediments, erosion, immersion, wind and rain left their marks on the land for geologists to interpret.
Uluru: UNESCO World Heritage and Aboriginal Sacred Site
Now I am part of a tour group waiting to see the sunrise on Uluru. My silhouette mingles among the shadowy forms of other early risers. Perhaps it is the darkness or the chilling air, but like everybody else I implicitly whisper, until a faint sun ray appears and, in awe, we let a harmonious “oh-ah” escape from our open 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 designation as World Heritage sites.
To Climb or Not to Climb Uluru
As the bus gets closer to the rock on the return trip from the sunrise, I notice how the rock, apparently smooth when viewed from afar, is actually poked with large holes and 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 and 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, but as we leave the bus, our guide shares a message from the Anangu Aborigines: “The real thing is listening to everything and understanding everything,” he says.
It is Aboriginal Law not to climb sacred sites. The Anangu 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 a duty of Anangu hospitality 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 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, and the “arkose”(coarse sandstone grains and small rocks) is slippery and caused back-sliding after each step forward. As I look around, I am intrigued by plaques screwed 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 make 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 say that Uluru is a natural site so it that cannot be compared to a church, a mosque or a temple. I tend to think 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.
- This is a trip compatible with families with school-aged children.
Copyright 2012, Marie Claude Arnott. All rights reserved.