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Uluru and Kata Tjuta

Written on: Monday August 25th, 2008

A journal entry from: Around The World Without A Plane

We set off after just one evening in Alice Springs in order to head further south and see the ultimate natural Australian icon, Ayres Rock or Uluru as it's referred to by Anangu Aboriginal people who are the traditional owners of this area, and then get back to Alice Springs in time for the weekend and the annual Henley-on-Todd Regatta.  The stretch of road between Alice and Uluru really does let you know you're in the outback. Every direction you look is just an endless expanse of deep red sand littered with sharp strands of spinifex grass. Towards the end of our afternoon drive through this unforgiving land we climbed up over a ridge at the end of another seemingly endless straight stretch of road and got our first sight at what at the time we believed to be Uluru. I was behind the wheel and pulled us over to the side of the road where we could walk up one of the dunes and have our first of many photo opportunities of Uluru. It was a great view no doubt, rising up ceremoniously from the flat land around it, sitting there proudly glimmering in the late afternoon sun. Once satisfied we got back in the car and continued on towards the giant rock. After about 40 more minutes of following the monotonous road it dawned on me that we must have travelled a long way past our destination. At first I thought that the road was going to double back and around looping us to the other side of the rock we'd recently been taking photos of, but it simply never happened. By this time it had began to enter my mind that the rock we'd been so impressed with almost an hour earlier might actually not be Uluru after all. Rounding a corner and climbing another hill and my doubts were set straight. There without a shadow of a doubt was the mightiest monolith in the world, one of the newly named 7 Wonders of the World, Uluru. Along with the awe of seeing this phenomenal, magnificent sight came also the feeling of embarrassment at the realisation of our mistaken identity. The first rock we had seen was Mount Connor, a not completely dissimilar monolith, but nonetheless nowhere near the same size, scale and shock factor as Uluru. Quick to comfort our bruised egos we reassured each other that we couldn't be the only people to have made the same mistake. Despite the blushes we'd arrived bang on schedule and arrived in front of the sacred stone just before sunset to see what most people come here to witness, the changing colours and shades of the rock as the sun drops below the horizon. Imagine the most enormous sponge cake you can, and then put it in the middle of a vast red desert and that's Uluru. It doesn't sound all that inspiring from that description but I assure you it is and was well worth our lengthy journey to get here. As the sun begins to recede dark sinister shadows appear on Uluru created by its creases and dents all around it, but as the sun drops further the picture before you transforms in to a Tango-Man type orange colour, fiercely illuminated, and deepening in colour through a dark red to a brown hue as the sun continues its downward motion. While Loz, Coco and myself pitched up our foldable chairs, sat back and peacefully enjoyed the free show others (and there were many) took pleasure from it in other ways. There appears to be some ridiculous ritual of people turning up, making as much noise as possible and pouring cheap champagne for one another as they pose like numpties in front of the spectacle that they're missing behind them. Meanwhile, everybody else nearby tuts and tries to shut out these buffoons from ruining their own experience. Or perhaps they were the ones doing it right and all this travelling malarkey is thrusting me in to becoming an old age pensioner at a rapid rate. Either way they I thought they looked like tossers.  We stayed where everybody stays unless they're rich enough to own their own helicopter, at the Yulara Resort which is the only sign of life for quite some miles, other than the odd big red kangaroo standing staring you down in the middle of the road. Not content with seeing just the sunset, our small democratic group somehow voted on getting up before the crack of dawn and driving in to the National Park to observe if the sun's effects on the colour of Uluru's hard skin worked the same way from the other side. Now I distinctly recall asking Coco that morning if he wanted me to drive us in knowing that Coco doesn't like to drive when its dark, and rightly so as generally speaking this is the sort of time that prospective road-kill flirts with any oncoming headlights it sees getting brighter by the second. Even so, due to the fact that I absentmindedly keep driving at excessive speeds and that of course it isn't my car Coco took responsibility voicing that he would prefer to drive. Now if it hadn't been for those money-grabbing capitalists he wouldn't have needed to have stopped at the entry booth to show our tickets. We instead would have continued at a pleasant speed keeping our eyes peeled for the two bright ball-bearings shining back at us then safely bouncing away in to the twilight. But as it happened we smashed straight in to the back of the car in front of us. As normally happens with a 2mph impact between two cars, a universe-creating bang is heard and both drivers jumped out of their cars. Thankfully the speed that Coco did roll in to the car in front was so slow that there was barely a scratch on either vehicle and both them and us were able to go on and enjoy the rest of our day. I'm just grateful that Coco hit them and it wasn't me! The sunrise wasn't as enthralling as the sunset in my opinion. Instead of being really warm and then suddenly feeling the temperature drop as the sun departs, in the morning we began freezing cold and stayed freezing cold even as the sun came up. It didn't stop Coco and I kitting up though for a basketball photo-shoot at what must be one of the most scenic places I've ever played. We followed this up with probably the most scenic breakfast I've ever eaten before I then toyed with and debated the subject that had been beating at my mind since I had left Darwin: should I or should I not climb Uluru? Here are the facts then, Uluru is considered a highly spiritual and sacred place by the Anangu people. The steep route that leads up the side of the 348 metre rock is the path taken by the ancestral Mala men on their arrival at the rock and being quite a vertiginous climb it has been said that this tribe of Aborigines don't want you to climb it in case you fall and putting it bluntly, die. Now this seemed like a painless, face-slappingly obvious solution to the problem to me: Why don't the Australian government who manage Uluru in conjunction with a panel of Anangu simply forbid the public to climb it? On the information sheets that you receive when you enter the park the first two pages deal with exactly this issue and ask you not to climb Uluru telling you why they don't want you to. As you walk through the Visitor Centre you are again frequently requested to respect the wishes of the Anangu and not climb it, even the Lonely Planet is in on the act. Yet the Visitor Centre and the Yulara resort advertise whether the climb is open and the park rangers have drilled in a series of poles threaded through by tightly wound steel cable all the way up the side of the it, guided by a dotted white line which looks like it has been put on by one of those line marker people at Wimbledon. I was surprised when I got to the top (so yes I did eventually decide to climb it) to find that there wasn't a kiosk selling Vodaphone top-up credit, Anzac biscuits and little kangaroo key-rings. I spoke to one of the managing directors of the centre to help me with my decision and to ask my genius question. Her response was that the Australian government kept the climb open and even aided those wishing to climb it because they were worried that if they closed off the climb permanently people wouldn't come here and thus revenue would be lost. Once again capital gains come before the wishes of the local people and the sustainability and protection of a natural treasure. Shame as the Aussies are generally a lot better at the preservation of their wildlife and landscape than a lot of other countries I've visited. After making my way through the visitor centre first thing in the morning I'd almost made up my mind not to do the climb, only for Loz who along with Coco was firmly against climbing it to inform me that I wouldn't have to make the decision after all as it had been closed because of strong winds. Easy, no longer did I have to spend the day tossing up the pros and cons of summiting it. Instead the three of us set off on the 10km base walk around the perimeter of Uluru enabling us to get a real close-up perspective of the incredible sandstone structure, with its creases worn down by water occasionally flowing down from the top and its honey-comb sides making it look like a giant Crunchie bar made especially to appease the Gods chocoholic tendencies. The walk took us most of the morning, the sun wore us down but our respects had been paid. Back at the visitor centre, before we left and headed out to Kata Tjuta, a series of huge boulders about 40km from Uluru that have been formed in a similar way to Uluru, I simply couldn't help myself and had to check the status of the climb one last time. Since learning that the decision to climb it or not was out of my hands I'd felt quite disappointed knowing that I was going to leave here not having climbed it. What was worse was that I hadn't had the option not to climb it myself. It was inevitable then that the climb was now open, and remembering how I had felt at not being able to climb it I firmly made up my mind to ascend it that afternoon. Coco and Loz were still firmly against climbing it but I thank them for appreciating that I did want to climb it and they agreed to wait for me while I did. We arrived in the car park at the base point for the walk expecting to see maybe one or two people attempting the ascent, but instead came face to face with an absolute carnival of people marauding like an army of tiny ants up one side of it. As I made the climb, almost jogging up the side of it to get to the top as quickly as possible conscious that Loz and Coco would be waiting for me, it was interesting to listen to other people's perspectives on the sacred ascent. I spoke to two groups of people who had both come to Uluru as part of a tour package. One of the group's tour guide had thoroughly encouraged the whole of her group to make the pilgrimage, while the other group's guide had over the course of an hours lunch given his best sales pitch he possibly could of to discourage his group from attempting it. I beat down my conscious with the argument that I walked around the base of the mighty monument and was now further showing my respects to it by standing atop of it. Passing several people on the way up I remember thinking that they should have thought a lot more seriously about the climb before they tackled it. Many were simply too unfit to attempt it and were sitting on the side unable to climb any further, but too scared to turn around and come back down, some bordered on the ludicrous dragging their barely able to walk children by the hand behind them and one man who climbed it barefoot with his newly born baby strapped to his back was certifiably insane, I myself had underestimated the length and toughness of the climb, neglecting to take any water with me and believing that the end finished just above the first ridge, but like many a mountain, once reaching the first false summit you realise you still have quite a way to go. When I did eventually reach the highest point, the panoramic views were well worth the effort, especially the silhouette of Kata Tjuta on the western horizon and Uluru's impersonator, Mount Connor off to the east. We visited Kata Tjuta, or the Olgas as they're called by most Australians that same afternoon and the following morning for sunrise, was equally as impressive as Uluru. The site is made up of a cluster of gigantic boulders that seem as if they have been lazily abandoned by the same Gods who left their nibbled on Crunchie bar down the road. A lot less busy than Uluru for the most part, especially early the following morning, we had the place to ourselves  wandering through the Valley of the Winds, sharing our tranquil and inspiring visit with only the blissful songs of the multitude of birds swooping above our heads and perching on nearby trees. I've known many people that have come to Australia and foregone to visit here, either because of the length of the journey to get here or that they merely don't get excited by the thought of seeing a big rock in the desert, but it's way more than that. There is an evident energy to this place and the feeling you get when you cast your eyes on it for the first time is quite unexplainable. A visit to Australia just wouldn't be complete without coming here. Reading that last paragraph back the Australian tourist board should be head-hunting me quick smartly.